It was a burnt-out and exhausted Bob Dylan who climbed onto his motorcycle on July 29, 1966. A few days out of a grueling nine-month tour that took him all over the world, he probably wasn’t at the top of his game when his rear wheel locked and he flew over the handlebars and onto the pavement.
It was an inconvenient time to get laid up with injuries: his manager Albert Grossman had booked appearances and recording sessions well into the next year. In retrospect, the enforced hiatus may very well have saved Bob Dylan’s life. As he said in a 1984 interview, “When I had that motorcycle accident, I woke up and caught my senses. I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that.” His injuries, in reality, weren’t all that serious, but it gave Dylan pause, time to reflect and consider the insane trajectory that he’d been on for that past few years. He canceled his upcoming tour, holed up at his Woodstock property, spent time with his children, learned to paint and continued to make informal music with members of The Band in the Big Pink house down the road. Personally, it must have been one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable chapters in Bob Dylan’s life, but it also marked the beginning of a shift in his music that continues to baffle many of his listeners and fans even today.
When John Wesley Harding came out in 1968 to mark the end of Dylan’s recording hiatus, it was warmly received. The simple acoustic sounds it embraced were a world away from the anarchic music that accompanied Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. At that time, psychedelic music was at the peak of its popularity with artists like Jimi Hendrix and Cream on the top of the charts. Songs like “As I Went Out One Morning” and “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” still retained the surrealistic lyrical edge of some of Dylan’s earlier songs, but the music that accompanied them was ruggedly melodic and prefigured the Americana movement by several decades. Dylan did not tour to support John Wesley Harding or Nashville Skyline, his next album that was released in 1969. Like its predecessor, the songs on Nashville Skyline reflected the concerns of a simpler, gentler world than his fans were accustomed to. There were no protest songs or stream-of-consciousness rants, just beautifully rendered songs about love, loss and redemption that could have been recorded by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, who sang with Dylan on the new version of “Girl From North Country” that opened the album. For many people, the album seemed “light,” and there was much debate about the country tenor that substituted for the Dexedrine nicotine rasp of the past. In interviews, he spoke of family life and quitting smoking as he answered questions with thoughtful sincerity. Where had Bob Dylan gone?
In retrospect, Dylan was simply ahead of the curve. When you listen to them today, the songs on Nashville Skyline seem to reflect a natural simplicity that many people in the late ‘60s were searching for. All of the drugs, politics and intensity that were flying around at the time had begun to take their toll, and many people were looking for a way to dial back, drop out and reassess what to do with their lives.
It’s always dangerous to make assumptions or assign meaning to another person’ life, but it’s still easy to imagine that after working so hard without a break for a half decade, Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been that eager to pick up the reins of his career and carry on as if nothing had happened. As a young man with a family, the obligations of his career must have seemed terribly out of synch with the bucolic lifestyle and easy relationships he was enjoying at Woodstock. For a man who loved music but hated fame and the music industry, his next step to take must have been a difficult thing to ponder.
On the surface, Dylan’s solution seemed to be the release of Self-Portrait, an album that was almost universally hated when it came out. A collection of covers and live selections from the 1969 Isle of Wight appearance, it was a baffling two-record set that did nothing to capitalize or showcase Dylan’s strengths as a performer. Why would the greatest songwriter of the age record overproduced versions of other people’s material? Dylan has offered several explanations over the years, the most popular being that he recorded a “bad” record on purpose to scare away some of the freaky fans who stalked him wherever he went and regularly showed up at his family home. While there may be a grain of truth in this explanation—Dylan has always recorded what he wants to without worrying about his listeners’ reactions—it doesn’t really hold a lot of water.
The release of two CDs of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions, entitled Another Self Portrait, tells another story. The box set profiles demos and early versions of songs that eventually wound up on Self Portrait to show listeners how differently the album would have come off if Dylan’s early vision had been adhered to. The greatest impression these newly unearthed songs create is of an artist rediscovering the ease and joy that brought him to music in the first place. The songs sound exactly like what they are—a young man sitting down with his guitar and informally singing some of his favorite tunes with friends. The rough and ready recordings of songs like “Copper Kettle,” “Bring Me A Little Water” and “Pretty Saro” come off perfectly. “Days of ‘49” finally sounds as weary and regretful as we always knew it did under the gloss. It’s hard to pick favorites amongst the 35 songs that have been generously crammed onto two discs, but the simple demos of “Belle Isle” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” come very close to the top of the list.
Beatles fans will enjoy the opportunity to hear selections from Bob Dylan’s unreleased recording sessions with George Harrison from 1970. Predictably, there’s a new version of “If Not For You” with added horns, but the off-the-cuff guitar rave-up “Working On A Guru,” which understandably was never released, is still a lot of fun to listen to. George Harrison’s loose and limber guitar leads and backup vocals on that song and “Time Passes Slowly” show a far more relaxed side of his style than he ever experimented with on any of his solo work.
Demos and alternate versions of songs from New Morning, the album of original songs that followed Self-Portrait, round out the two-disc set. Of the eight songs from these sessions, the stripped-down “If Dogs Run Free” and the demo of “Went To See The Gypsy” are the most interesting—though the amped-up “Time Passes Slowly” with monster organ solos from Al Kooper is pretty awesome for its blare and audacity.
For diehard fans and Dylan completists, there’s also a deluxe version of Another Self-Portrait that contains two extra discs. The first CD is a remastered pressing of the original Self-Portrait album that serves as a fine reference point for the other songs in this collection. The cleaned-up version sounds a lot better than the original digital release from several years ago, but doesn’t really add anything essential to the story for those who are already familiar with it.
The second bonus disc, Bob Dylan Live at the Isle of Wight in 1969, is another matter entirely. Everyone familiar with Dylan’s biography knows that the Isle of Wight concert Dylan and the Band played in the summer of 1969—instead of appearing at the Woodstock festival—represented his first full live show since he was sidelined by that motorcycle accident in 1966. Dylan had made a few tentative appearances, most notably at the Woody Guthrie memorial a year before in New York City, but the Isle of Wight concert was a perfect way of “testing the waters” far from home to see if he felt like jumping in the saddle and going on tour again. Initial reviews of the show weren’t all that good. People complained of the Nashville Skyline affectations in his voice, the laid-back presentation and the pedestrian arrangements some of his most famous songs were treated to. It’s uncertain what Dylan himself thought of the show, but it would be five more years before he embarked on a tour again as he did with The Band in 1974.
With the distance of time, it’s difficult to understand the exceptions people had with the performance. The Isle of Wight concert is one of the most bootlegged shows of all time, but for those of us—myself included—who have never really had the energy to seek out clandestine recordings, the opportunity to hear a clean stereo recording of Dylan’s performance comes as nothing short of a revelation. It really does provide a missing link in Dylan’s history as an entertainer and features gorgeous versions of several songs from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline that he had never sung in concert before.
As much as I love the woozy bump and grind that The Band gives to reworked versions of “One Too Many Mornings,” “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” it’s the solo section of the Dylan concert that is the most moving. His version of the old English ballad “Wild Mountain Thyme” is too aching, yearning and perfect for words. If it were any more tender, it would rip me apart. I can’t say how many years it had been since I listened to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but hearing Dylan sing it at The Isle Of Wight is like experiencing it again for the first time. I had forgotten how perfectly realized a song it has always been. You can almost taste the joy in Dylan’s voice as he goes back through his catalog to sing “Ramona” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” for the first time in four years. His voice resonates with such purity that you can almost feel the endless nights of craziness, sleeplessness and loss of perspective that permeated these songs on his 1966 tour being wiped away. I’m a pretty crusty old guy, but hearing these songs brought tears to my eyes and hurt the back of my throat. I was completely sideswiped by the sanity, happiness and balance that breathes so effortlessly out of this music.
So much has been written about this “lost” period in Bob Dylan’s music, and how he’d forsaken his muse and direction in favor of family life. Listening to Another Self-Portrait, especially the Isle of Wight disc, reminded me of how a human life is so very many things, with work and public profile only occupying the tip of the iceberg. Lots of artists present their fans with idealized versions of their lives—and over the years Dylan has been no exception. But, the little window we’re given here into a phase of Dylan’s journey shows us a man who is happy in his skin, happy enough to step out of his safety zone to test the waters of performance again. I don’t think it’s stretching things too much to say that listening to The Isle of Wight concert is like witnessing someone’s moment of redemption.
There’s just so much love—not a word often used to describe Dylan’s voice—in his singing and joy in the band’s performance that you can almost hear him thinking “shit, did I really write that? It’s good.” For whatever reason, Bob Dylan never hit the road again until 1974 when it didn’t sound like nearly as much fun, and he’s rarely been off it ever since.
Another Self Portrait is absolutely essential listening for Bob Dylan fans. It may contain the best music you’ll hear all year.