Let’s pretend that the music Bob Dylan recorded circa 1970 had resulted in a series of different albums than the ones we got. In the real world, those recordings are smeared all over the place: Self-Portrait, New Morning, Dylan, Greatest Hits Vol. 2, vault releases, and bootlegs. The point of this curation is not to include everything, but to finally give persuasive form to a period that remains blurry (based on commercial releases) and that is often derided as a low point. I consider it a high point, even at its weirdest points. This is my case, via four imaginary albums.
Volume 3: The Boxer
“Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”
“What is this crap?” a famous critic famously asked, after being exposed to “Self Portrait.”
This third volume of my 1970 reconfiguration is a journey to the center of the crap. I’ve piled it up until there’s a whole statement’s worth of it. It’s delightful. It coheres. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not a joke.
And it’s not crap at all, of course. Dylan’s not singing as Mr. Nashville, or taking on any fixed poses. He’s taking all of this seriously and covering a lot of ground. He’s putting quarters into his private jukebox. Next up, “Mr. Bojangles.”
If he’d named these songs in an interview as what he was listening to, we’d find it fascinating, but his playing of them, and the way he played many of them, are often ridiculed: covers of contemporary songs, lightweight originals that sound like those contemporary songs, weird oldies, non-adversarial-Dylan approaches to interpreting it all, backup singers all over the place.
Yes, it is Dylan’s easy listening album from 1970, and aren’t you glad you can finally listen to it all the way through?
- The Boxer (SP)
- Early Mornin’ Rain (SP)
- If Not for You (NM)
- Can’t Help Falling in Love (D)
- Gotta Travel On (SP)
- Woogie Boogie (SP)
- Bring Me a Little Water (ASP)
- Spanish is the Loving Tongue (b-side)
- Mr. Bojangles (D)
- Lily of the West/Flora (D)
- Mary Ann (D)
- Winterlude (NM)
- Big Yellow Taxi (D)
- As many before me have said, this b-side version of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” is one of Dylan’s greatest performances. The fact that I would dare to place it in the midst of this other stuff reflects my confidence that I can serve you four stacks of 1970 Dylan, and make you like every song in each one of them… including three versions of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” a lyric and melody that Dylan obsessively explored in this period, beginning with The Basement Tapes. It’s a song about the borderlands between acceptance and regret, choice and fate, true love and inadequate love. It makes perfect sense that Dylan kept circling around it in this period, and that he also dug out and seriously recorded his old song “Tomorrow is a Long Time” and wrote “Watching the River Flow.” They’re all versions of the same separation narrative, questioning whether the narrator has irretrievably lost something, or is just too weak to pursue it.
- Dylan can’t be credited or blamed for some of the overdubbed arrangements here, but unfortunately the material originally released on the album “Dylan” (1973) seems to be so hated that the compilers of the archive box “Another Self Portrait,” didn’t consider including any of it in a purer form. For all I know, some of them began as amazing solo performances, later to be encrusted by others.
- I haven’t included anything from the widely-bootlegged June 1, 1970 screw-around recording session on my four compilations. It’s one of those Dylan documents best left to be enjoyed in isolation, IMO, like the ’66 hotel tapes, ’69 Dylan/Cash sessions, and ‘78 Rundown sessions. Lots of fun to be had, but no knockout performances of anything. However, one of the high points of the 6/1/70 recording is a rendition of “Matchbox,” which reveals exactly where “Woogie Boogie” came from.