i sit around and watch things wither, retrace my steps like the laziest river.
Bob Dylan: Self Portrait
Released: June 8, 1970
"What is this shit?"
– Greil Marcus, “Self Portrait No. 25”, Rolling Stone
Greil Marcus’s review of Self Portrait is one of those legendary pieces of music writing that becomes just as essential as the music itself. Marcus examines the album song by song, cutting frequently to miniature commentaries and real and imagined scenes: a DJ plays it to his listeners and shares in their disappointment, a bemused teenager is introduced to Dylan through the album, Abbie Hoffman prepares to meet the singer and Marcus asks if the Dylan who made Self Portrait is a guy anyone would want to meet. The infamous opening line quoted above suggests a venomous takedown, but Marcus is far more nuanced. He searches for any explanation for the album’s failures: Self Portrait is a bitter response to the constant stream of illegal Dylan bootlegs, or the inevitable results of a music industry increasingly driven by the need for “product”, or a symptom or reaction against navel-gazing auteurism. What comes across most clearly is just how much Dylan matters. To expend so many words (7,000 of them) and so much energy on an album like Self Portrait was natural. This was a betrayal, and someone had to explain it.
By the end of the 60s Bob Dylan was arguably the most important songwriter in the western world. He was the ‘voice of a generation’, influencing everyone from Sam Cooke to The Beatles to David Bowie, and generations to come. In the eyes of those who followed his career he owed them his best. The bloated double album he released in 1970 was the first major misstep in what had so far been an astonishing run, the end of the unquestioned goodwill given to him for so long by critics and fans. He would not truly earn back their love till 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, and never again would people believe in him quite the way they did before.
Self Portrait begins promisingly with the original composition “All the Tired Horses”, a slightly saccharine but delightfully scene-painting combination of expansive strings and female backing singers (Dylan’s vocal is conspicuously absent) reciting a kind of cowboy mantra that doubles slyly as an author’s lament: “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” From that point, the record descends song by song into an interminable slog, a collection of odds and ends, mostly covers, traditional songs and live cuts. While Dylan had always drawn on the past to give color and depth to his own sentiments, his selection of covers seems generally meaningless here, his decisions baffling. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” is languidly strummed and sighed as if it’s being recorded at gunpoint. A shambling, sloppy cover of “The Boxer” is so bad it seems like a jab at Paul Simon. Dylan plays a strange, haunted version of “Blue Moon”, made famous by Elvis Presley, sung in a deep voice, backed by a choir of ghostly female singers. The recording achieves a kind of weird beauty in its amateurishness, but one gets the sense that that wasn’t the intent. Self Portrait is a terribly recorded, lifelessly played album. Dylan’s voice carries none of the energy it once did, his band frequently out of sync.
The handful of new, original songs mostly shine, if a little dimly, though like “All the Tired Horses”, Dylan himself is mostly absent in voice or lyric. Of the two instrumentals, “Wigwam” is superior to the standard, dancey blues exercise “Woogie Boogie”. The album’s only single, “Wigwam” is a strikingly warm little song made up of a wordless, drunken la-la vocal melody and a ridiculous, mariachi band horn section. It has a goofy, friendly nostalgia to it that’s uncommon in a Dylan song. It’s one of the few moments when Self Portrait touches the gentle western theme suggested by “All the Tired Horses” without feeling insincere or unenthused. Despite the occasional moment of brilliance, the album begins to feel like a deliberate attempt to collect the most inessential material Dylan had, performed with utter disinterest. The second side closes with a muddy, poorly recorded rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” (from his ‘69 set at the Isle of Wight Festival, the source of several other similarly muddy live tracks). The basic, subpar performance of Dylan’s greatest triumph comes across confusingly like a joke.
What are we to make of all this? Musically, the album is difficult even to review. More than anything, it’s just painfully boring. The critics of 1970 had the same issue, many of them ignoring the music itself and trying instead to suss out some kind of significance or intent, with little success. Why did Dylan even make this album?
The truth was that Self Portrait was a joke, just as the most cynical listeners had suspected, an antagonistic move from an artist who was tired of the throne the world had built for him. Bob Dylan had been quietly trying to erase himself since the peak of his fame in the mid-60’s. His motorcycle accident in 1966 had shaken him and made him realize just how unhappy he was with being Bob Dylan. In the coming years, as the American counterculture reached its zenith, he found young hippies knocking at his doors in Woodstock late at night to take drugs with him, and activists urging him to finally step into the leadership role they were sure he wanted. But Dylan was no revolutionary leader, no psychedelic prophet, no ‘voice of a generation’. He’d never even wanted to be. He found himself in an unimaginable position, wanting to create art and write songs the way he always had but knowing that his own identity no longer belonged to him, that the world would pin to him their hopes and dreams, hold him to unreasonable expectations, pick apart everything he said for guidance.
He responded by trying to remove himself from the picture, first with the heavily acoustic, traditional John Wesley Harding. Though a stark reaction against the colorful psychedelia saturating the rest of the music world at the time, the album was still acclaimed by critics and purchased in droves by fans. Dylan tried again two years later with Nashville Skyline, a full blown country album featuring a jarring new singing style and simple, apolitical songs. The soft new croon was so far from the dusty, cutting voice of his old records that he sounded like an entirely different person, but still the album sold, and the critics praised him. No matter how hard he tried, Dylan couldn’t escape himself. He could change even his unmistakeable voice, but his name was still on the spine, his face still beamed out from the cover and the songs were still good.
So, he made a bad record. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984: “I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else.” With this admission, Self Portrait suddenly reveals itself as a dark joke, from the strange song selection to the off-putting cover (Dylan claims it was painted in “about five minutes”) to the bizarre title. But this album wasn’t simply a joke, it was a lashing out at the people who’d idolized Dylan. Finally, after years of investigation and analysis, the mystifying, elusive Bob Dylan shows us all who he really is: a bitter, ugly, talentless man, taking other people’s ideas and singing other people’s songs. Who could love him?
It didn’t work, just like the two albums before it. While Self Portrait was greeted with jeers, it was also greeted with great thought and analysis, as Greil Marcus’s review demonstrates. Dylan was trying to demythologize himself, but the myth of Bob Dylan had become something he couldn’t control. A stylistic departure may be surprising but it is quickly absorbed, evaluated and neatly placed within the legendary context of Dylan’s career. Even a bad album, an album as lazy and insulting as Self Portrait deserves deep analysis, it must become part of the narrative of Dylan’s life and career, a narrative that at that point no longer belonged to him.
Greil Marcus reaches a kind of conclusion in his review that music culture had become overly immersed in the concept of the auteur, that great art is a reflection of the artist and must be evaluated in that context. Dylan was supposed to be greater than that, bigger than that, an artist concerned with the world and not the self. Marcus was urging listeners to see Self Portrait for what it was and not deem it significant or fascinating just because of what it may or may not say about Dylan himself. The irony of course is that he’d just spent thousands of words doing just that. And now, so have I (in significantly less words). I don’t think we can help it. It’s true, if this album had been made by a total unknown it would have been ignored, or never released in the first place, but this isn’t some unknown musician, this is Bob Dylan.
Those who write about art are a lot like historians, they craft stories out of a web of lives, events and works, and the more important the subject, the more important the story. Dylan was important, his cultural and artistic footprint was bigger and deeper than perhaps any artist in the 60s. His life was immediately, relentlessly narrativized, and he became whatever people wanted him to be, needed him to be. The burden was too much to bear, and Self Portrait was a kind of nasty, bridge-burning resignation letter to the world. Instead of accepting it, the world simply wrote it into the script.
Just four months after Self Portrait, another Dylan album appeared. This one was called New Morning, as if the album that preceded it had just been a long, bad dream. It was a return to the country style of Nashville Skyline, this time even warmer and more inviting, complete with another handsome cover shot. Dylan, an actor in his own life’s story, returned to his role.
Last year, after pretending for a very long time like Self Portrait never even happened, Bob Dylan released the tenth edition of his “bootleg” series, a multi-disc set titled Another Self Portrait. Along with outtakes from Nashville Skyline and New Morning, the collection features some revealingly pleasant, bare recordings from Self Portrait, without the original overdubs. Greil Marcus wrote the liner notes. Talking to Uncut last year, he gushed about his reaction to the stripped version of “Little Sadie” that appears on Another Self Portrait: “It becomes terribly gripping and scary. I don’t know why removing a few instruments from the mix does that, but it does.” So, reevaluated forty years later, Self Portrait suddenly looks almost like a lost classic, full of hidden value and meaning. Time passes, and the story of Bob Dylan gets rewritten again.
Limp Bizkit: Significant Other
Released: June 22, 1999
In 1999, American looked to be in a very good place: the economy was booming, eight years from the last recession; uninvolved in any major military conflicts, the Middle East and its many troubles were unsettling but distant; the entertainment industry saw unprecedented gains and record-breaking sales. Sounds ideal compared to 2014, but the youth culture of 1999 was telling a very different story. A typical block of videos on MTV might have seen the bright pop of Britney Spears or Ricky Martin seated comfortably alongside the likes of Marilyn Manson, and at the hugely ironic Woodstock ‘99, groups like Insane Clown Posse, Godsmack and Rage Against the Machine performed for a crowd of 200,000 angry, dehydrated teenagers, not long before they tore the place apart and nearly burned it down in an orgy of destruction of violence. The youth of America were angry, for some reason, and so was Limp Bizkit.
Limp Bizkit formed in 1994 when Fred Durst of Jacksonville, Florida brought together a bassist, a guitarist and a jazz drummer with the intent of forming a rap/rock band. Wanting a name that would repel people (“A lot of people pick up the disc and go, ‘Limp Bizkit. Oh, they must suck.’ Those are the people that we don’t even want listening to our music.”) Durst passed over names like Split Dickslit and Bitch Piglet, eventually settling on Limp Bizkit. After touring with Korn and adding turntablist DJ Lethal, they scored a record deal. Their debut Three Dollar Bill, Yall was given a lukewarm reception by critics and listeners but a series of marketing stunts and the single release of the George Michael cover “Faith” propelled the band to national attention. Aesthetically, Limp Bizkit were a study in contrasts: vocal homophobes covering a George Michael song, supposed anti-authoritarians indulging in every form of crass self-promotion available to them. Durst was always seen in a backwards baseball cap and baggy jeans while guitarist Wes Borland wore makeup and black contact lenses on stage. Musically, they were an odd but increasingly common mix of punk, metal and hip-hop, vanguards of a genre that would come to be known as ‘nu-metal’.
Nu-metal is a somewhat nebulous term, but it can be most generally characterized as metal with an increased focus on rhythm, leaning towards hip-hop and funk and downplaying the technical flourishes of most subgenres. Limp Bizkit tourmates Korn are often acknowledged as the band that brought nu-metal into mainstream popularity, and the late 90’s saw a flurry of imitations from both new bands and established acts. Limp Bizkit, newly famous, sought to set themselves apart from this herd with their second album, 1999’s Significant Other.
Significant Other opens with a voice announcing, “You wanted the worst, you got the worst,” echoing the amusingly circular logic behind their name: if you don’t like Limp Bizkit, they don’t want you to like them. Opener “Just Like This” is a scatterbrained collection of boasts and calls to riot in the name of music, set to a chugging riff and accompanied by Fred Durst’s repeated hype-man shouts of “get up!”, and “Limp Bizkit’s in the house, y’all!” Despite his showmanship and hucksterism, it’s immediate from the first few minutes of the album that Fred Durst is the weak link in Limp Bizkit. Ignoring any preconceived distaste for them, the band has a lot of energy and talent, from the tight rhythm section to the bluntly effective power chord guitars. Even DJ Lethal’s slightly superfluous scratching and beat interludes are not unwelcome. But Durst comes off as perpetually dopey, whether he’s singing in a nasal whine, a grating rasp or a gravelly bellow, it’s never convincing or appealing. His rapping is even worse, as flowless and embarrassing at times as his white MC ancestor, Vanilla Ice. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the single “N 2 Gether Now”, when he’s paired with Method Man and a classic, sample-heavy Wu-Tang style beat, courtesy of Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. Though he steps up his game slightly, Meth still raps circles around him, and the fact that someone other than Durst spends so much time on the mic (you almost forget you’re listing to Limp Bizkit) makes it one of the best tracks on the album.
The infamous hit “Nookie” sees Durst stumbling over a set of ridiculous rhymes about a manipulative girlfriend: “I can’t believe / That I could be deceived / By my so-called girl (but in reality) / Had a hidden agenda / She put my tender / Heart in a blender / And still I surrendered.” No one could make lyrics that bad (or an Eve 6 reference) work, but Durst rhymes with the competence of a middle-aged white mom suddenly passed the mic at a rap battle. Constant overdubbed interjections of “huh” and “hey” almost drive the song into parody. Again, the music shines just a little brighter, with bass heavy verses and a shredding chorus. The misogyny of “Nookie” becomes a recurring theme on the album. “Nobody Like You”, one of a few muddled break-up songs, paints a picture of a one-sidedly destructive relationship: “I’m convinced that you fucked me / Real good, you did / But I won’t let her go / I’ve got my reasons / And I’m not leavin’ / So I wait on you to die.” Durst is perpetually the victim of evil, hurtful women. The narrator of the whining, slut-shaming “No Sex” is disgusted by his own carnal obsessions, but ultimately it’s all the fault of some horrible temptress: “Should have left my pants on this time / But instead you had to let me dive right in / How can you respect yourself? / You couldn’t respect yourself.” Durst claimed that he’d matured since writing the heavily criticized lyrics of Three Dollar Bill, Yall, but he’d also been through a messy breakup, and his resentfulness frequently shines through.
Significant Other is an angry album. In fact, you could say it’s the prevailing theme of the whole record, and most of Limp Bizkit’s music. On “I’m Broke”, Fred is angry at all the moochers trying to borrow his newly earned rock star riches (“Bums are the type of shit that’s in a diaper / Don’t make me have to call a sniper / And wipe your brains off my windshield wiper / You dirty bug”). “Trust?” is a headbanging blanket attack on all manner of liars and “clowns”, ending with the nihilistic statement “I don’t trust nobody / ‘Cause nobody trusts me / Never gonna trust anybody / And that’s the way it’s gonna be.” There are occasional glimmers of positivity, heard on “9 Teen 90 Nine” and the obnoxious city shoutout party track “Show Me What You Got”, but they come off as mostly hollow and perfunctory.
Rage was arguably the most common theme among all nu-metal acts, but where bands like Korn seemed to represent a certain kind of depressed teenage outsider (In his guest appearance, Jonathan Davis sings “I’m convinced that you hate me / That you like to see me cry,” and it’s like someone reading a weepy diary entry aloud in the middle of a high school locker room), Limp Bizkit exude nothing but the worst and most poorly guided frustrations of the young white male: a vague hatred of authority, an invented feeling of persecution, an intense anger towards women. But there were of course real reasons to be dissatisfied with life at the end of the 20th Century, despite how rosy things might have looked. It was also an age of corporate greed and school shootings, and Radiohead and other more critically respected acts of the time saw the modern world as a plastic prison of capitalist slavery and urban loneliness, a source of constant anxiety and alienation. Maybe it was this alienation and millennial terror that was seeping into the souls of young Americans and driving them to embrace the misdirected fury of bands like Limp Bizkit. Or maybe young people are just confused and unsatisfied, no matter what the time period.
In many ways, the purest and most enjoyable song on Significant Other is “Break Stuff”, a surging metal riff blast that delightfully captures the banality of aimless teenage aggression, laced with empty threats of wanton destruction and chainsaw evisceration. It was during Limp Bizkit’s performance of “Break Stuff” at Woodstock ‘99 that violence first broke out amidst the crowd, including destruction of the stage and a number of reports of sexual assault. Fred Durst was later criticized for encouraging the violence, telling the audience to unleash their negative energy. In this moment, you can see the philosophy Limp Bizkit had been preaching all along in action: anger is healthy, violence is cathartic. The consequences behind that philosophy went woefully unexamined and the violence linked to it is inexcusable, but it’s not hard to see why it appealed to millions of young people. “I feel like shit,” Fred Durst moans during the tensely pounding bridge of “Break Stuff”. “We’ve all felt like shit / And been treated like shit.” You can’t argue with that sentiment.