Sunday, May 21, 2023

Self-Portrait II: Unreleased Recordings, 1985-1987

Self-Portrait II: Unreleased Recordings, 1985-1987

Trust Yourself - Live - Farm Aid 1985
Important Words - Outtake - Down in the Groove
Got Love If You Want It - Outtake - Down in the Groove
Sidewalks Fences and Walls - Outtake - Down in the Groove
A Couple More Years - Outtake - Hearts of Fire
I Shall Be Released - Live - Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration 1986
To Fall In Love With You - Outtake - Hearts of Fire
Just When I Needed You Most - Outtake - Down in the Groove
The Usual - Outtake - Hearts of Fire
Thank God - Live - Chabad Telethon 1986
Treasure Of Love - Unreleased - 1987 Studio Session
Across The Borderline - Live - Farm Aid 1986
Had A Dream About You Baby - Outtake - Hearts of Fire
Soon - Live - George Gershwin Celebration 1987
Maggie’s Farm - Live - Farm Aid 1985

Bonus Tracks

Old Five and Dimers - Outtake - Hearts of Fire
When The Ship Comes In - Live - Live Aid 1985
Lucky Old Sun - Rehearsal - Farm Aid 1985

 Lossless Version | MP3 Version

Bob Dylan was not at his best in the mid 1980s - he’s told us himself in Chronicles, Volume 1, but it’s certainly evident from the albums released during this era (Real Live, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove are particularly challenging listens). A decay had set in after Shot of Love in spite of the handful of great songs written for and either published or left off of Infidels and Empire Burlesque. There are still luminous performances from this time frame, but they became rarer and were more often associated with older songs or covers of others’ work. The writing well had more or less run dry by 1985.

With that in mind, I see this collection as something of a sequel to 1970’s Self-Portrait. That album had been produced during another relatively quiet period where the artist had been abandoned by his muse, and similarly featured a combination of covers, rearranged live songs played at a special event, and a small number of original compositions. The results are less successful here, but still worth a listen.

Two bookends, “Trust Yourself” and “Maggie’s Farm,” are drawn from Bob Dylan’s impressive Farm Aid 1985 performance and suggest an alternative to what we got on the official albums from this time. The singer is equally committed to a new song and one written twenty years earlier but updated with a rockabilly arrangement not dissimilar to the 50s covers that were prominent on the following year’s tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Rehearsals for this event, along with audience recordings of other songs not captured in the radio broadcast from which these two recordings are sourced, were considered for the CD but ultimately omitted due to poor sound quality. While the 1986 Farm Aid is essentially just a televised excerpt from one of that year’s co-headlining shows with Tom Petty, I couldn’t help including Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline” since it’s such an excellent capture of a good performance.

Other live recordings here include a fascinating rewrite of “I Shall Be Released” from 1986’s Stevie Wonder-organized Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert and a one-off rendition of Fred Rose’s “Thank God.” Though “Thank God” was recorded at a soundcheck prior to the singer’s concert at Mountain View on August 5, 1986, it was broadcast a month later during a televised anti-drug event organized by The Lubavitchers Chabad Telethon; Dylan would later contribute harmonica to a live performance of “Hava Nagila” at the organization’s 1989 telethon alongside actor Harry Dean Stanton! The final live track is a solo acoustic rendition of “Soon,” which was played at 1987’s George Gershwin Tribute Celebration. It must have seemed like an odd choice of material at the time, as the performer was then best-known for his contributions to the folk and rock genres, but modern audiences now know that Bob Dylan was exploring the American Songbook in rehearsals as early as the Infidels sessions and would eventually produce three albums of this material during the 2010s.

We also have a variety of songs recorded during the meandering studio sessions that produced Down in the Groove. Some of the covers are more effective than others, as “Sidewalk, Fences, and Walls” recalls the would-be soul voice Dylan had adopted two years earlier on Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” and would rarely revisit in the decades ahead. “Important Words” and “Just When I Needed You Most” are stranger picks - the former echoes the standards Dylan would occasionally pull out on-stage during the early years of the Never-Ending Tour, while the latter resembles the pop songs that Dylan played with better results during his 1980 and 1981 concerts - but I think the arrangements are sympathetic enough to merit inclusion here. James Moore’s “Got Love If You Want It” has a particularly interesting history, as it was originally released on a promotional cassette version of Down in the Groove before being cut from the final LP’s tracklist. “Treasure of Love,” which was recorded at the home of Ted Perlman prior to Dylan’s appearance on the aforementioned Gershwin event, may or may not have been planned for Down in the Groove; it’s a baffling cover that’s not remotely in the singer’s traditional style, but serves as a fun, listenable novelty if nothing else.

Our final group of studio outtakes are drawn from sessions that produced the soundtrack to 1986’s Hearts of Fire. Though the film is an unmitigated disaster - Bob Dylan is not leading man material - the studio sessions are much more successful. Among the covers, John Hiatt’s “The Usual” is a great rocker in spite of some unpleasantly misogynist lyrics and Shel Silverstein’s “A Couple More Years” sounds very different from the big band arrangement it received on Dylan’s 1980 Musical Retrospective Tour; the background noise is a result of this capture being pulled directly from the film, where the song is performed in a barnyard setting. “Had A Dream About You Baby” is a rare original composition from this era, but it’s more of a rough set of lyrics thrown together over a pretty slick blues riff. “To Fall In Love With You” is even less complete, consisting of half-finished lines strung together between an evolving chorus in the style of 1967’s “I’m Not There”, but it’s so beautiful that it makes you wish they had tried it a few more times. In the end, it’s a reminder that Bob Dylan was facing a deficit of lyrical inspiration in the mid-1980s. We’re lucky that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that better times were only a couple years away.

- CS

Note: The bonus tracks here include content that I didn’t think was good enough to make it onto the CD but was still interesting. Hearts of Fire outtake “Old Five and Dimers” originally appeared on Thousand Highway’s delisted Ashes and Dust compilation, but I found that it grated upon relistening; your mileage may vary. “When The Ship Comes In” is noteworthy for being the only time that the song was played live since 1964, but its dubious quality reflects the broader lack of passion on display at Dylan’s Live Aid 1985 appearance. Finally, this rehearsal of “Lucky Old Sun” ahead of the 1985 Farm Aid show is full of vim and vigor but marred by a fairly poor recording. Give them a listen if you enjoy the main collection and are left wanting more!