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Exoteric and Esoteric Readings of Jann Wenner

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Dylan once explained why he made Self-Portrait a double album:

To me, it was a joke. It wouldn’t have held up as a single album — then it really would’ve been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!

So this week he’s releasing a bunch of outtakes and demos from the Self-Portrait sessions (and, to be fair, from the sessions for Nashville Skyline and New Morning, two pretty good although certainly not top-tier records.) In a classic of its long-debased review section, Rolling Stone seems to be taking Dylan’s advice. Very meta!

This two-CD set of previously unissued demos, alternate takes, scrapped arrangements and discarded songs from more than 40 years ago is one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released.

Right — this collection of Self-Portrait outtakes, which seems overwhelmingly likely to be a below-median “Bootleg Series” album, is one of his very greatest records. Right up there in importance with Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Let’s check back in a year on that one!

Some of the reviews of Wenner’s buddies (whether by him or his designated lackey) are so over-the-top I have to wonder if they’re an intentional signal to the readers to ignore them. I mean, give a Mick Jagger solo album 3 1/5 stars with text suggesting that it’s surprisingly non-terrible and some poor reader might take a flier. But give one five stars while praising Lenny Kravitz and Rob Thomas as among his greatest collaborators and you’re not going to convince anyone to buy the record, you’re just going to convince people to permanently ignore your reviews section. I wonder if Wenner trying to do his cronies a solid without fooling anyone into actually purchasing the recordings.

I actually wouldn’t mind hearing the new Dylan bootleg thing; even Self-Portrait, while certainly not among the first 25 Dylan albums you should hear or anything, has some odd fascinations. (The parody of “The Boxer” nearly justifies the record in itself, and I like a couple of the covers a lot, particularly “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”) The highlights on NPR are nothing thrilling or revelatory like the amazing Blood on the Tracks demos or “Blind Willie McTell” on Volumes 1-3 but not without interest either. But try to tell me that it’s one of Dylan’s “most important, coherent and fulfilling” records and I’m tempted to forget the whole thing, as I suspect Fricke will have six months from now.

The comparison with Greil Marcus’s classic review of the original is obligatory.

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  • politicalfootball

    If Peter Travers, the Rolling Stone movie critic, is the main critic cited in ads and trailers, that’s a pretty good sign that the movie isn’t otherwise getting good reviews.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      Travers: my god. *Every* new Tom Cruise release is a “relevation” of Cruise’s “starshine” or “rebel” talent, according to Travers’ lead review. When said flick comes out on DVD or whatever, the capsule review is usually “this movie isn’t very good”

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        “revelation”. I guess if I can’t spell any better than that maybe I shouldn’t be a critic

      • joe from Lowell

        “Revelation” sounds like one of those words that appears in movie reviews that sounds like it’s a compliment, but isn’t.

        Like “explosive,” or “highly stylized.”

      • Hogan

        Reminds me of the Onion article about Norah Jones releasing her third debut album.

  • c u n d gulag

    My favorite music review, was when Dave Marsh, then of RS (I think, at the time – or, maybe Cream), reviewed David Bowie’s album “Aladdin Sane.”

    In it, to paraphrase, he wrote something like, “I’d get on my knees and blow David Bowie, just to hear ‘Jean Genie’ one more time.”

    Don’t hold back, Dave. Tell us how you really feel about that song!

    • I knew Bowie was special, but I didn’t realize he sings out of his penis.

    • manwith7talents

      I guess he didn’t realize that with modern recording technology, you can listen to the same song over and over again. No blowjobs necessary!

    • Warren Terra

      More evidence that audiophiles are sexual deviants.

  • john

    David Fricke is terrible. He is now the johnny on the spot commenting on the underground bands of the 1980’s he couldn’t be bothered to write about in real time. He just represents the CW of the music industry, he seems not really to regard albums as anything other than an event, the music itself is always irrelevant.

    • john

      A good example “But the music is consistently alive and astonishingly modern. The honky-tonk walk “Alberta #3″ could have been cut for last year’s Tempest.” Dylan’s last few albums have been unapologetically “old timey” and decidedly not modern. So what is his point? Its almost like he expected to have to write the liner notes, wasn’t asked and used them for the review.

    • postmodulator

      That’s not true. Fricke was a huge booster of Husker Du at a time when nobody cared.

      He’s not the greatest rock writer I’ve ever read, but I think he occasionally says something insightful.

      • john

        I was not a dedicated reader of RS, but I was a massive Husker Du fan. It took them 6 months to review Zen Arcade and that was the first record of theirs they reviewed. Fricke started writing about them when the majors came sniffing around, they’d been great for 3 years at that point.

  • joe from Lowell

    Speaking of Rolling Stone reviews and Blood on the Tracks:

    Rating: Mixed (?)
    “And though the music and lyrics may echo his greatest work, that’s all they do. The long songs, particularly, suffer from flat, tangled imagery, and the music, with all its hints at the old glory, is often incompetently performed. I suppose it’s all a matter of what you’re willing to settle for.” (Dave Marsh, 3/13/75 Review)

    Rolling Stone’s 500 Worst Reviews

    Hey, but at least they gave Pet Sounds 3 stars. A solid album, but no “She’s the Boss.”

    • Scott Lemieux

      Wow. I liked Marsh’s Who bio but as a reviewer he really pulled a lot of rocks.

      • joe from Lowell

        Depeche Mode, Violator (1990), Rating: 2.5 Stars

        Nirvana, Nevermind (1991), Rating: 3 Stars

        The Rolling Stones, Flashpoint (1991) Rating: 4 Stars

        • I mean, certainly the cultural impact of Flashpoint was much greater than Nevermind!

          • Jewish Steel

            Who could ever forget the Summer Of Flashpoint? Those songs are etched on my soul.

          • Since when are music (or any sort of critical) reviews about “cultural impact”?

            Revolution 9 had a cultural impact. It also should get zero stars from any serious reviewer.

            (“Nevermind” getting 3 stars is about right, actually. It has a lot of filler on it.)

            • Jewish Steel

              Since when are music (or any sort of critical) reviews about “cultural impact”?

              Competent reviewing includes understanding whatever genre the music in question occupies, the history of the genre and the contemporary zeitgeist. So, to answer your question, all of it.

              • Actually, reviews are a service to readers, not a ego-trip for the authors.

                So understanding history and context is fine, TO THE EXTENT IT WILL HELP YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT READERS WOULD WANT TO LISTEN TO OR VIEW.

                But the actual review is supposed to be about whether the product is GOOD, not whether it is important. A reviewer is providing an guide for consumers. The reviewer’s own opinion of the work’s importance is basically irrelevant, if it is not listenable / viewable.

                You can look up what Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert said about film criticism and they make this distinction quite clear.

                • joe from Lowell

                  And certainly, alternative music fans of the early 1990s wouldn’t be interested in how an album fits into history or context.

                  They just didn’t worry about that kind of thing.

                • Jewish Steel

                  @Dilan: That is the lowest order of consumer-guide style reviewing. What I want to know from a review is WHAT is it? And what I need to know from a reviewer is WHY do you like or not like it. Whether it is good or not is a judgement I reserve solely to myself.

                  @Joe:

                  And certainly, alternative music fans of the early 1990s wouldn’t be interested in how an album fits into history or context.

                  Seeing that your early 90s Grunge music is a mashup of 70s sludge + punk rock ethos, anyone listening ignorant of “history or context” was missing everything that was interesting, fun and clever about it.

                • Hogan

                  The readership of the Chicago Sun-Times is different from the readership of Rolling Stone, and might have different needs and expectations.

                • Jewish Steel

                  @Hogan: Yes! Too true. Although as the cost and ease of seeing a film, what with the quality and low cost of the home theater, approaches that of the song, the consumer guide style reviewer becomes obsolescent. There is not much risked paying 3.99 for a film and never having to change out of your pajamas.

                • I don’t think there’s ANY readers of music reviews who don’t need to know whether they should spend the money to buy the record.

                  Indeed, if there weren’t people making those decisions, nobody would have ever published music reviews. Instead, criticism would be something done years later by academics who can assess historical value.

                  Fundamentally, a critic who is trying to do the academic’s job doesn’t understand why the newspaper or magazine hired him or her, or has too much of an ego to know that he or she is a critic and not a scholar.

                • Jewish Steel

                  It’s a real problem, isn’t it? Scholars always buttin’ in, being knowledgeable and shit.

                • Jewish:

                  Scholars are smart enough (or have their egos in check enough) that it is impossible to assess the historical value of something when it comes out. You do history years later.

                  Which gets back to the point of a reviewer– NOT to do that sort of scholarship, but simply to tell the readers whether it’s a good listen or a good view.

                • Hogan

                  Which gets back to the point of a reviewer– NOT to do that sort of scholarship, but simply to tell the readers whether it’s a good listen or a good view.

                  And yet some people keep seeking out those bad wrong reviews in places like Rolling Stone. What the hell is wrong with those people? Why can’t they be like Dilan?

                • Jewish Steel

                  Dilan, even if you have no interest in art, I urge you to read some of Peter Schjeldahl’s reviews from the New Yorker. Or better still get a hold of his book The Hydrogen Jukebox. It might open your eyes to the possibilities of contemporary criticism.

                • Hogan:

                  The “quasi-academic” critics have never actually been that popular. Popular critics are almost always people like Siskel and Ebert who tell you whether you should buy something.

                • Jewish:

                  I would urge you to consider that all attempts to do history before some time passes are wild guesses. Try reading journalists’ historical analyses of current events and you see the same problem.

                  If all the people who did this sort of thing died tomorrow, we would still have excellent historical analysis when the time came. And we would still have actual competent, non egotistical critics to tell us what movie to go see.

                • Jewish Steel

                  Works of art, movies, music, paintings (even middlebrow stuff like television) do not exist in isolation. They bathe in a sea of politics, philosophy and their own respective pasts. You can’t write a symphony without acknowledging Beethoven somehow (even by ignoring him). You can’t write a fugue without referring to Bach. I am sure it is the same in other disciplines.

                  So to ask of someone to suspend their judgement and not speculate on what it all means, where a certain work’s place might be, is to go against human nature. That is what a critic is doing whether they acknowledge it or not. Who cares if they guess wrong? Is wrongness and rightness really such a big deal? Honestly, you can’t convince me there is any relevance to being right in this context.

              • Jewish Steel

                E.g., Show Me The Way and Just Like Heaven are fun songs if you don’t know from whence they came, but slyly hilarious if you get the history and context.

        • joe from Lowell

          Björk, Debut (1993), Rating: 1.5 Stars

          Madonna, Erotica (1992), Rating: 4 Stars

          Bjork needs to show a little skin, amirite?

          • sparks

            Plumage, I would have thought.

            • joe from Lowell

              Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

          • Bill Murray

            was Bjork ever described as juicily plump? or whatever it was Paglia said about Madonna

        • That Violator review apparently bemoans that Depeche Mode never again would make a song as good as “Just Can’t Get Enough”.

          Also, the phrase “Doorsy depression” is used, because apparently in 1990 the Doors are still the go-to for dark, moody music. I guess?

          • Johnny Sack

            Is that the album that Enjoy the Silence is on? Good god that takes me back. In high school right before alt exploded into the mainstream. There were great hardcore and other underground type stuff for years if you were paying attention, but god damn alt just exploded in the early 90s. I’m long over my nirvana phase but dog bless Cobain for evangelizing his favorite bands. Never would have gotten into the Melvins or Meat Puppets without him. And I still listen to the latter.

            • Johnny Sack

              Er I guess those last two sentences don’t really logically proceed from the first two. I can’t believe I didn’t notice the great underground stuff I still listen to around in the 80s. That’s a blur except maybe prince and xtc

          • joe from Lowell

            Siouxsie and the Banshees
            Kaleidoscope (1980)
            Rating: 2 Stars
            “Siouxsie wears great clothes and knows how to use makeup well. Her musical ability, at least as evidenced by her recorded work, is minimal. Neither danceable nor lyrically interesting, these albums are uniformly ghoulish, self-indulgent and monotonous.” (Debbie Geller, 1983 RS Record Guide)

            When Mr. Mojo Risin’ did it, it wasn’t “ghoulish, self-indulgent and monotonous.” Especially self-indulgent.

          • Bill Murray

            It’s as if Ian Curtis killed himself in vain

        • john

          3 stars is about right for Nevermind.

          • joe from Lowell

            Nevermind sounds ordinary now because so much that came after it is derivative of it.

            • Hogan

              “I don’t know why people think Hamlet is so great. It’s just a bunch of famous quotations strung together.”

    • Jeezus, those are awful. Dave Marsh might be lamer than Chuck Closterman.

      • joe from Lowell

        Violent Femmes

        Violent Femmes (1983)

        Rating: 3 Stars
        “The debut album gets over mostly on that loose ensemble feel; strumming and haranguing, Gano works up a convincing (if not compelling) neurotic fury on three-chord throbbers like “Add It Up.” Like most Lou Reed disciples, however, he tends to sound unpleasantly nasal on the inevitable, talky mid-tempo melodramas.” (Mark Coleman, 1992 RS Album Guide)

        If only Gordon Gano sounded like Tom Jones, that album could have been pretty good.

        • Yikes, you found the one I kind of agree with- I can’t get past Gordon’s voice. Not Tom Jones, but Paul Westerberg maybe?

          Even if you find their mid 70’s Un-PC jokes abrasive, this was the one that drove me nuts:

          The Dictators
          Go Girl Crazy! (1975)

          Rating: No Stars
          “A new low – rock songs about wrestling and contempt, not just for the music and the audience, but even for themselves. Witlessly performed.” (Dave Marsh, 1979 RS Record Guide)

    • djw

      Holy crap, there’s some insane reviews in there. John Prine’s debut was marred by “corrosive cynicism?” WTF?

      • Scott Lemieux

        John Prine’s debut was marred by “corrosive cynicism?” WTF?

        That…is truly amazing. Tastes differ, but describing John Prine as “cynical” is just flat-out incompetence.

    • strategichamlet

      I actually have kind of a soft spot for Monster, but this is brutal and hilarious:

      Monster (1994)

      Rating: 4.5 Stars
      “Not so long ago, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke asked the late Kurt Cobain whom he admired among “established” rock bands. Cobain unhesitatingly named R.E.M., using the occasion to send the band members a virtual mash note for remaining true to their muse and to themselves and for refusing to be swayed by the shifting winds of fashion and commerciality…But now all this is in the past and not just because of Cobain’s sad demise. It’s too bad he didn’t live to hear Monster.” (Robert Palmer, 10/6/94 Review)

      R.E.M. is a band that “refuses to be swayed by fashion or commerciality” – what an ironic way to begin a review of this album. And I’d say of all the reasons Kurt Cobain’s suicide was tragic, his not getting to hear Monster is pretty far down on the list.

      Anthony DeCurtis interviewed Peter Buck around this time “in the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan” over “a glass of wine or two.” The topic of discussion? An “artist’s perspective” on rock criticism.

      Peter Buck: “The criticism you could make about American criticism is that established favorites get more latitude in making not-good records. I don’t think that’s happened to us yet, because we don’t have any bad records. But certainly there are plenty of artists who make records that nobody really cares that much about, but because they’re who they are, they’ll get 4 stars and a big treatment and a big article about their personal lives.”

      Reading this actually made me a little sad.

      • Robbert

        Buck is right on the money there, but it certainly isn’t confined just to American criticism.

      • Waingro

        At the point of “Monster” Buck was correct that R.E.M. really hadn’t made any obvious clunkers. But seeing their post-Bill Berry albums get 4/4.5 stars does sadly confirm his point. It was pretty funny seeing U2’s last POS album get 4 stars.

        • Robbert

          Yeah, exactly. I’ve also noticed the “atonement review”; when an album by a relatively obscure artist gets a poor review or is missed altogether but subsequently becomes an unexpected breakthrough hit, then the weaker follow-up gets the rating the previous one should have had.

    • wichita lineman

      You know what? That link convinced me that Dave Marsh is the worst rock critic of all time. I suspected it before, but that confirms it.

    • Decrease Mather

      Among the first 10 or so listings, I see negative reviews of albums by ABBA, Kiss and Gilbert O’Sullivan. And this is supposed to be evidence that something’s wrong at Rolling Stone? For not liking these clowns?

      • One of these is not like the other. And I have no idea who Gilbert O’Sullivan is, so I’m taking it on your word that he’s a clown too.

      • joe from Lowell

        Read the intro: they’re not just reviews that missed the mark, but also poorly-written reviews.

        And you probably want to look at more than ten of the 500.

    • Halloween Jack

      I’d long ago written off RS as being less correct about music reviews than the legendary blind squirrel, but some of those are still flabbergasting.

    • Chilly

      I can’t find any record of it online, but RS’s gave the Replacements’ “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” a half-heartedly positive review, and I swear to god it contained a quote along the lines of “Will the Replacements be around in a few years? Who cares?” Prescient!

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    I actually read another fairly positive review of the Self-Portrait outtakes album (along with some Self-Portrait revisionism). Not that anything justifies calling the new one one of Dylan’s best…

    • Scott Lemieux

      I dunno, not quite as over-the-top but still seems pretty Slatepitchy.

  • Jewish Steel

    It’s a lot easier to just let the press agent write the review.

  • Raenelle

    I’d rate almost any of Dylan above most everything else–except his Christian shit. Dylan’s Christian phase proves to me the power of Christianity to rot and corrupt anything.

    • Let’s not forget the power of the late 70s and early 80s to rot and corrupt anything as well.

      • Icarus Wright

        Greatest Double Album EVAR …except for maybe Double Platinum.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Infidels is awesome, granting that it’s more Likudnik than Christian.

        • Manju

          I may be the neighborhood bully for pointing this out, but you are now on record as saying that awesome right-wing art exists.

    • fka AWS

      I’m not totally agreeing to this, because some of his christian shit was actually listenable.

    • Manju

      The Christian shit is the real self-portrait (ie, actually very good).

      Behold!

      http://www.itemvn.com/album/Bob-Dylan-Slow-Train-Coming-1979/96FD99BB7F

  • You might be misreading the hype. The SP bootlegs are supposed to be better described as the stripped-down recordings before all the “orchestration” was added. As Marcus notes, there are some great ideas in SP–they’re just hard to find amidst the music and, occasionally, the vocals.

    If this is closer to the Witmark Sessions, with a few tracks doing what Bootleg 1-3 did for “If You See Her, Say Hello”* or, especially, “Every Grain of Sand,” it will be worth the trouble.

    Whether or not the Rolling Stone of “They gave Mick Jagger’s new album five stars, even though there aren’t any songs on it” can tell. Even a dead horse appears asleep once in a while if you stop beating on it.

    *All right, so the demo of “If You See Her…” is mostly justified because it finally made clear that it wasn’t an error in Pete Hamill’s album notes for BotT; it was a conscious lyric change as the song became denser, Since the songs on SP didn’t become denser, the earlier takes will certainly be an improvement.

    (Not coincidentally, this is why most of the recent Van Morrison albums have sucked so badly–lush orchestrations around folk songs are generally a bad idea, since it makes the music and lyrics appositive instead of complementary.)

    • Scott Lemieux

      Again, I’m not saying these recordings won’t be worth hearing. I’m saying that when you try to argue that they represent some of Dylan’s “most important” you’re embarrassing yourself.

  • DocAmazing

    Oh, for the days when critics were critics:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2011/08/monheit-dead

  • Decrease Mather

    Did they really give Jagger three and one-fifth stars? What kind of scale are they using?

    • Robbert

      Guess they got jealous of Pitchork reviewers being able to rate an album 7.3785 and they weren’t.

    • wichita lineman

      No, Jann Wenner himself gave a 2001 Mick Jagger solo album five stars. Out of five. In 2001.

      • Scott Lemieux

        And that particular Mick Jagger solo album made She’s The Boss sound like Let it Bleed.

  • sparks

    The 1/5 star is for appropriating black music badly. If he had done it well, he would have gotten 3/5.

    • sparks

      Ahem, that was in reply to D. Mather above.

  • Richard

    I’ve listened to the new Self Portrait record. Its a great album, Some of the reviews may be over the top but who cares – its the music that counts and this set is great.

    • Scott Lemieux

      OK. I really wish there was a way of also getting the remastered original without shelling out $80 for the extra super deluxe package, though.

      • Richard

        I agree. the extra $80 for two discs is pretty outrageous.

      • pete

        The pricing is confusing; iTunes appears to have all I really want (53 songs, including the Isle of Wight [I was there!] but not the remastered original album; roll on Tuesday) for $28, and that deal does not seem to be available at Amazon. So it’s somewhat less of an incentive to steal that the $100 pricing of the third (and excellent) Tell Tale Signs disc, which I have always assumed was some kind of test-marketing gimmick.

        • Richard

          I was only looking at the CD packages, not the downloads. Amazon has the two CD outtakes set for $19. The deluxe package has the remastered original album, the Isle of Wight concert and a fancy book but the price is $95. I would like to get the concert and the remastered SP but not for $80.

          • pete

            Oh, I agree. But then the concert for $9 (more) is a good deal, assuming that you’re OK with the quality. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that someone is playing market-testing games; that’s pretty annoying. (They doubtless assume that the bootleg/pirate market will reduce economic inequities but still.)

            I’ll pay $4 for the Stones old live gigs; $10 for the brand-new Hyde Park one (surprisingly good). I’ll pay $28 for the three-CD-equivalent version of ASP. But, yeah, $80 for remastered old stuff and print I don’t want is just not worth it.

            • Richard

              Yeah, the concert for nine bucks more is a good deal but I’m already committed to getting the new set on cd. If I could pay nine bucks for just a download of the concert, I would do it but that’s not an option.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Amazon also has the 2CDs + Isle of Wight for 28 bucks. I’d pay 35 if they tossed in a remastered original; I’m not sure why that isn’t an option.

          Of course, if a reader wanted to buy me the super extra deluxe package…

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    In certain ways I’ve never been able to respect Wenner – RS has done some good work in regard to covering climate change, politics in general, but the music end is pretty much built on the fact he sucked around John Lennon, got him to say some fairy nasty shit about Paul McCartney, and then used their dirty laundry to build a platform for selling ‘flavor of the month’ like an intellectual version of Hit Parader

  • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

    In all fairness to Goddess in the Doorway, it does have 3 decent songs, although I’ve forgotten which ones they are.

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