Dylan's Metal Machine Music

Can the record that prompted academia's favorite rock critic, Greil Marcus, to turn red with indignation and utter "What is this shit?", a rather rhetorical question I find myself asking every time I hear the latest from such perennial groan inducers as Radiohead, Modest Mouse, and Bright Eyes, really be that bad? After all hasn't Mr. Marcus himself spent the last 30 odd years since Self Portrait's release boring us all to tears with such weighty tomes as Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes and Lipstick Traces etc. Any of which could be cited as Exhibit A in a case against Greil as any kind of authority on what's Biff Bang Pow, happening right now!

And if album covers are any indication of quality, and there is such a school of thought, I've always found that sloppy starving artist painting on the front of the Self Portrait album strangely compelling. But with so much else out there to listen to this was not enough to make me break down and buy a record so viciously and universally panned upon release. Yet as fate would have it circumstances conspired to bring it effortlessly to my doorstep anyway.

My interest in the record was renewed when Texas' own (yes, we're proud) Wes Anderson used the song 'Wig-Wam' in his film The Royal Tenenbaums. For 'Wig-Wam' upon further investigation turned out to be culled from none other than the widely reviled Self Portrait. It was a weird and charming song in which Dylan hummed and hollered wordlessly along to a sweet melancholy melody carried by brass. Nothing there for Greil to really get down and sink his eager theoretical jaws into I guess. Still I hesitated on seeking out a copy of the album, after all that's just one nice song on a hefty two record set. But I knew that the gods had taken things into their own hands when while perusing a large stack of albums in cared to me by my friend Chris who had pulled up stakes to Taiwan, I came across a promo copy of Self Portrait. Here it was, in my hands, the stereo just a few feet away.

The moment had arrived; there were no more reasons for hesitation, no more time for beating around the bush, no more room for excuses. The record had come to me. I was cornered. It was time to get down to brass tax and give this piece of "shit" a listen. I won't deny being more than a little excited, just how bad would this album be? Or would it stand up on its own as a misunderstood and enjoyable work, would it become my own little discovery? Would I be able to discern the beauty that Greil could not root out of it? Would I be able to answer his question, rhetorical or not, as to what exactly this shit was or is? Enough questions.

Dropping the needle down on side one we're greeted by sickeningly sweet female voices singing over and over "all the tired horses in the sun, how am I supposed to get any riding done". These lines are repeated like a mantra for round about three minutes, with guitar and strings slowly entering and building underneath the thick blanket of voices. It's rather irritating at first, then it becomes kind of fascinating and finally completely hypnotizing. Dylan doesn't sing on this the first song on his Self Portrait album, though he is credited as composer and that might be him strumming along on the guitar.

As the record progresses Dylan indulges in plenty of covers, many of which appear to be sincere tributes to other musicians who have influenced him, for instance the Everly Brother's "Let it Be Me" and old standards like "Blue Moon". A song that his hero Elvis rendered a haunting version of in his early Sun career. Other choices are harder to figure, Dylan covering Gordon Lightfoot? I know, I know, it sounds dubious and although his intentions aren't explicit, his reading of "The Early Morning Rain" is fairly straight and its actually one of my favorite tracks on the record. In contrast Dylan's take of Paul Simon's the Boxer is quite clearly a send up featuring intentionally sloppy double tracked vocals that undermines the faux weighty overbearingness of the original. The results are amusing. The version of "Take Me as I Am" straddles both extremes, ironic and sincere, surely Dylan recognized the song as a beautiful tune but was also aware of the not so subtle subtext addressing his more dogmatic and demanding fans.

There is some fine original material here as well, several of which, say Living the Blues, Minstrel Boy or Belle Isle, wouldn't have sounded out of place on more well received Dylan albums like John Wesley Harding or Nashville Skyline. The performances on the 24 tracks range from extremely ragged to highly polished. The story goes that Dylan recorded the songs very quickly and the tapes were then shipped off for Nashville session men to build around Bob's skeleton structures. This was indicative to some of Dylan's lack of enthusiasm and care for the project, but when you think about it, his best material never does sound labored over and its hard to imagine any of his catalogue being improved by such effort.

Female voices and strings grace many of the tracks, such as "I've Forgotten More than You'll Ever Know" and "Copper Kettle". This was part of what was offensive to the ears of the counter culture intelligentsia but the arrangements sound just fine to anyone with more than a passing interest in the music that was coming out of Nashville at the time. Bob himself is in fine voice throughout, utilizing his deeper and smoother tenor that he first debuted on Nashville Skyline. The record really is enjoyable; hell it's downright pleasant and funny to boot. I'd rather listen to it than his more critically acclaimed records like John Wesley Harding, which is one that I always tried to like but never really could get to. A good rule of thumb is that if you find yourself trying to like something for whatever reason its probably not for you.

Here's my soundbite; Self Portrait is Bob Dylan's Metal Machine Music. Of course that's a flawed analogy, but bear with me here damn it, I'm trying to give you a window from which to appreciate this record. Consider the context. The record was released in 1970 as the counter culture was starting to flounder, splintering into alienated factions. And Dylan despite his frequent attempts to dodge the ball had continued to labor under the dual expectations of poet and prophet of the counterculture. So everybody's waiting for ol' Bobby to pick up the ball and run with it, give us some direction Dad, everything's going to shit and we're all confused. Imagine the outrage of him coming back with a two album set consisting of pop covers (hell even a Simon and Garfunkel tune), a couple of originals and half ass live stuff from the Isle of Wight Festival. To add insult to injury he has the nerve to call the whole mess Self Portrait!!! In actuality the title itself is probably more sincere and truthful than most of his disillusioned followers would have liked to believe.

Dylan has in retrospect said that Self Portrait was crap and intended as a giant fuck you to all those that thought they could look to him for answers, all those that were trying to corner him into the responsibility of leadership. And it WAS seen as a shirking of his supposed role as a leader and as the ultimate betrayal of his most devout fans (again see Greil Marcus's infamous review), at least those that look to pop stars for direction. This may be all he intended, who knows, with a fan base like that you might be tempted to try and make em go away too. Dylan also might have been trying to get out of his contractual obligation to his record company. Both scenarios reminiscent of Lou's flippant release of the Metal Machine album.

Whatever his real intentions, the release of a two record set that so completely denied the expectations of his fans was a truly perverse act. An act of perversity which approaches the level of Reed at the height of his first taste of real commercial success releasing a two album set of noise and tape manipulations. O.K. perhaps a little more subtle a fuck you than that, but still, you got to love heroes that tear themselves down for you. And Dylan sounds like he's enjoying the process. And you can too. There's plenty more here to discover. The live stuff for instance, isn't really half-assed at all. It's loose and reworked to fit more with the mellower voiced Dylan of the late 60's early 70's. Sure he forgets the words to Like a Rolling Stone in places but the renditions still sound spirited. And there's plenty of just plain weirdness too, like the crazy and awkward modulations of In Search of Little Sadie and the bootleggers instructions in Copper Kettle.

The motivation for the album can't be decisively pinned down, maybe some combination of all the reasons we've discussed, and plenty of others unknown. An attempt at commercial suicide, a fuck you to those that wanted to put him in a box or push roles on him, an attempt to fulfill or end contract, and or a genuine reflection of Bob Dylan relaxing and singing some songs that he enjoyed. We'll never know for sure, after all you can't trust anything from the mouth of a man so contrary and prone to contradiction. But therein lies his and more specifically this record's appeal. A la Metal Machine Music the mystery as to the artist's true intentions is a large part of the allure, it makes for compelling listening. After all "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all".

© William Crain 2002