Bob Dylan’s selfie, prettier than you remember.

Bob Dylan

Being a Self Portrait apologist is an uphill battle. And I understand why – after a run of challenging, zeitgeist-capturing songwriting like no other, Bob Dylan titled his first album of the 1970s in a way that promised new depths of introspection, yet the music he put on there delivered on none of it. A collection of Americana covers, live tracks and roughshod instrumentals with nary a T.S. Eliot reference to be found, Self Portrait was (and remains) his least self-conscious work. To a passionate fan at the time, this album must have sounded like the kind of odds and sods phone-in job artists release to fulfill label obligations.

Lucky for me, I was negative eight when Self Portrait pissed everybody off, including Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus (who delivered perhaps the most famous line in album review history – “What is this shit?”). Listening to it in a vacuum, knowing that it doesn’t have to inspire the hopes and dreams of a generation, I became charmed by its ironic self-remove, by how a man who was once perceived as a lightning rod of revolution in our country was defining himself with cowboy songs. It left me open to appreciate the record’s loose, nostalgic atmosphere, and gave me the freedom to obsess over the handful of all-time great Dylan songs nestled inside of it (e.g. “It Hurts Me Too,” “Wigwam”).

Regardless, to express this charm out loud to another Dylan fan has been a form of pop culture suicide to rival my Coldplay love. Self Portrait‘s suckiness has been a foregone conclusion ever since that Marcus review; it took Blood On The Tracks to convince people that the man’s genius hadn’t mysteriously evaporated, retroactively stocking the ’70s albums that came before it into the “transitional period” bargain bins of our minds. “But, it’s fun!” I’d say. “He’s not taking himself so seriously!” Opinions that don’t exactly hold up against decades of despair.

Another Self PortraitBut I don’t really have to argue so much anymore. Because the latest entry into Columbia/Legacy’s transcendent Dylan Bootleg Series gives us a studio feed into the 1969-1971 sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning (as well as a pair of Nashville Skyline outtakes). And like so many Bootleg Series releases before it, Another Self Portrait is much more than some artifact for Dylan completists – it’s a carefully curated and sequenced work, meant to be listened to front to back like a new Bob Dylan release. It weaves unreleased songs, alternate takes, overdub-stripped versions of album tracks, and a few live cuts into a gorgeously insightful whole, revealing how Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning were all different chapters of the same story – a hyperbolically beloved artist turning to the sounds and ideas of old Americana for succor. If you had to pluck a “single” from the previously unreleased stuff, it would probably be “Pretty Saro” – Dylan delivers the 18th century English folk ballad with a close-miked, lullaby tone that would’ve fit snugly on any of his records from the time. Second place goes to “These Hands,” a working man’s prayer of a 1950s country song that Dylan sings with heartbreaking tenderness. These moments of intimacy and full-throated nostalgia put the listener in the right mindset to hear Self Portrait, and this set drives the point home by stripping the strings and horn sections out of songs like “Little Sadie,” “All The Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” and “Days of ’49,” revealing the earnestness and warmth of the performances underneath. I think I’ll always prefer the original productions – especially the drunken Spanish horns of “Wigwam” – but the quieter versions do make Another Self Portrait sound more like one seamless session. (FYI: I still prefer Phil Spector’s schmaltzy-ass overdubs on Let It Be to that Let It Be … Naked experiment, so perhaps I’m just a big old sap.)

By giving context to a record that disappointed so many, Another Self Portrait gives us precious access to a Bob Dylan that was tired of the swirling stream-of-consciousness poetry slams, a Bob Dylan who just wanted to sing pretty songs he loved and jam on some blues vamps. I’m tempted to say it’s an amazing feat – to force a re-assessment of something long-reviled. But honestly, all it’s done is release this great music in an impeccable package. The most important thing that’s been stripped from the original Self Portrait? Unfair expectations.

“Deadly Women” is a bad show. So why does it kill me every time?

DW 3

A new study by a German forensic scientist claims that female murderers are “more creative” than their male counterparts – and that they pretty much have to be, because they usually kill people close to them, and those people are often men who are physically stronger. One would think that this theory would be fodder for a great documentary-style TV show, one that transports us to a different, disturbingly clever world each week. But Deadly Womenwhile being a true crime program about female killers, is most definitely not the show I just described. It’s lazy, formulaic and depressingly exploitative, and does its best to blunt the impact of its endlessly interesting subject matter. So why oh why do I love it so much? Here is my attempt to explain, in list form.

1. It’s camp gold.

Deadly Women

Take re-enactments that make Rescue 911 look like Shakespeare (and are often in period settings, like the screen cap I’ve so lovingly shared here). Combine them with talking head commentary that would seem obvious to a fifth grader. Add clunky, melodramatic writing of highest order – e.g. “Nicki Reynolds saw her mother as an obstacle, on the road … to murder.” Top it off with a penchant for graphic throat-slitting that’s bound to make you wince at least once an episode. And you’ve got a viewing experience like no other – a hysterically queasy formula for a brand new genre of entertainment. We’ll call it “True Crime-edy.”

2. The lengthening shadow of Robert Stack


One source of my DW fandom is the debt it – and the entire Investigation Discovery network, for that matter – owes to Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll never forget when that show went from being a fun way to get spooked on a school night to something genuinely terrifying. It was an episode that took a break from all the hauntings and alien abductions to focus on a real-life murderer who had never been caught. During the reenactment, the show revealed the killer by having a woman glance in her medicine cabinet mirror to find the psychopath standing behind her. It’s a clichéd trick, but it worked on me like a charm. I immediately looked outside the sliding glass door in our living room, half-expecting to see the frothing maniac standing there, knife in hand. Because this wasn’t just a TV show. This was a true story. And even the husky lullabye of Mr. Stack’s voiceover couldn’t soothe my jangled nerves.

Twenty years later, I think I’m still looking for something to terrify me in a similarly cozy way – and although DW cuts every conceivable corner while turning gruesome true stories into cornball melodramas, it still has the potential to freak me out in spite of itself. It’s a watered-down cocktail at best, but I keep bellying up to the bar.

3. Bad actresses staring at the camera

Every episode of DW is structured exactly the same – three stories loosely grouped under an amazing title, opening with an over-the-top voiceover segment that teases the carnage to come. At the end of this intro, when the title is announced (in a truly horrifying font), one of the reenactment actresses is asked to stare maniacally at the camera for an uncomfortably long period of time. It’s a ridiculous moment that also acts as a threat – “What are you grinning at, shithead?” the deadly woman seems to ask, as those snarky comments dry up in your throat. I’m gonna write captions to some of these classic stares, yet I admit, I’m kinda scared to …

DW Stare 1

When my Harold proposed to me, it was everything I’d dreamed of and more. We were on a sailboat at twilight; the ring was classically beautiful, not too ostentatious; the wine left a hint of pear on my tongue; the moonlight formed a silver border around his raven hair. “A million times yes!” I exclaimed. “I adore you, Harold Murder!!!” … I should’ve seen this coming.

DW Stare 2

You could say I’m a big fan of keeping secrets. But let’s keep it a secret how much I love secrets, because it’s those very secrets that make being secretive so fun! That being said, I’ll tell anybody who wants to listen about my secret to happiness – wearing my best blazer and standing by a lake on a foggy morn in 1987.

DW Stare 4

Even though his salad days were decades in the rearview, Nikki Sixx took the stage more determined than ever.

4. Candice DeLong

Candice DeLong

DW has some exceptionally bad reenactments – but that’s pretty much par for the course for a show like this. It’s when the show gives the spotlight to its commentators that it really hits its sweet spot. Most prominent, and thoroughly fabulous, of all is Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler with a storied resume that includes hunting down the Unabomber in 1995. On paper, DeLong is perfect for this gig – the expert who can get into the heads of these violent protagonists, both from a criminologist’s and a woman’s perspective. But on camera, her commentary is profoundly uninsightful, yet delivered so smugly, you have to wonder if it’s some kind of performance art stunt. My wife and I have had long discussions on how this could be – Is DeLong just nervous? Is the DW editor a disgruntled ex who wants to make her look as bad as possible? Did she experience some kind of trauma in the field that makes her afraid to say anything beyond the most Perd Hapley-esque observations? DeLong is surely much smarter in real life than she appears to be on DW. But whatever the reason, statements like the following are a crucial component of good True Crime-edy (the italics properly reflect DeLong’s delivery):

Candice on women who marry men for money and then kill them:
“They use sex, and seduction, to get the wedding ring of the person that has the money.”
(“Fortune Hunters,” Season 4)

Candice on a woman who kept asphyxiating her babies:
“She was actually one of the worst people that could ever raise children.”
(“Bad Medicine,” Season 2)

Candice on a police officer who was also a sadistic killer:
“Antoinette Frank was the last person any police department should have ever hired.”
(“Born Bad,” Season 3)

Candace on a serial killer who poisoned her entire family:
“She enjoyed wielding the power of life or death, over another person.”
(“Hearts of Stone,” Season 5)

Candace on some more mothers who kill their children:
“It’s very hard to understand why someone would kill their children. They’re not thinking clearly.”
(“The Sacred Bond,” Season 4)

Candice DeLong Gun

Deadly Women is currently in the middle of its seventh season on the Investigation Discovery network; seasons 2-5 are streaming on Netflix.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (55-51)

And we continue our methodical countdown of some guy’s 100 favorite albums of the 1990s. For no particular reason, either! This next batch of five rounds out #100-51, and it includes a record that’s depressing as all hell, one that confronts sadness and decay in a sweet, kinda triumphant way, and one that’s by Soul Coughing, proving that this is a list about the ’90s. So read away! Or if you like, check out the whole list so far. I’ll be back in a month or so to crack into the top 50! (“Hooray,” you say to yourself flatly, not even pretending to hide your sarcasm.)

Harvest Moon55. Neil Young – Harvest Moon (1992)

In the ’90s, we started to get a good idea of how the legendary artists of the ’60s and ’70s were going to deal with aging. Paul McCartney would dye his hair and keep on writing love songs. Stevie Wonder would pretty much retire. Bob Dylan would shroud himself in mortality and end up resuscitating his muse. But no artist stepped into middle age as organically as Neil Young did on Harvest Moon – an album of gentle country songs about life passing by, made to be listened to on a big front porch in the twilight. The then 47-year-old certainly doesn’t ignore the darkness, singing about the aching desperation of divorce, a waitress haunted by regrets, and a man contemplating suicide in a minivan. But his gently quavering voice, sympathetic turns of phrase, and clear-eyed belief in true love (especially on the title track) tip the scales from depressing to life-affirming. Then there’s “Old King,” a jaunty bluegrass eulogy to a hound dog that’s about as much fun as anybody could have contemplating death. If you could prescribe treatment for the human condition, Harvest Moon would be FDA-approved.

Electro-Shock Blues54. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)

Moving on, from one ruminative, regret-laden work to what is arguably the Grand Poobah of ruminative, regret-laden 1990s albums. After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, Mark Oliver Everett – the one-man phenomenon behind Eels – made a record that wallows in raw cynicism and deep, lying-on-the-bathroom-floor sadness (at its lowest, quietest moments, you can almost smell the porcelain). Lyrically, Elecro-Shock Blues is an open vein (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), and it would be light years from this list if those often-brutal sentiments weren’t balanced out by the production, which was eclectic enough to make a fan out of Tom Waits. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads, there’s the lurching rhythms and crackling found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time Everett rewards us on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World” by admitting to a new appreciation for being alive, we’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.

In A Priest-Driven Ambulance53. The Flaming Lips – In A Priest-Driven Ambulance (1990)

Unlike most of the epic rock music released in the ’90s, The Flaming Lips’ magnum opus – 1999’s The Soft Bulletin – was a gorgeously un-ironic embrace of hope and belief. But it was also the natural endgame of a creative impulse that was first exhibited nine years earlier, on the band’s fourth album. In A Priest-Driven Ambulance finds Lips songwriter Wayne Coyne deep in a Christ obsession, his analytical and spiritual sides clashing, adding an exotic tension to the ragged helium of his voice. “While I’m still myself/Your blankets covered me,” Coyne sings on the triumphant psych-folk opening “Shine On Sweet Jesus,” swooning at the beauty of belief. But over the spare chords and insistent crickets of “There You Are,” there’s the sickening chill of doubt –  “It makes you think that God was fucked up when he made this town.” By decade’s end, The Flaming Lips stood firmly on the side of belief in something more. Without stunning metaphysical wrestling matches like this album, that level of peace wouldn’t have been achievable.

Ruby Vroom52. Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom (1994)

Like countless hypersensitive, white suburban teenagers in the 1990s, I was magnetically drawn to albums like The Chronic and Enter the 36 Chambers – raw, confident, impeccably produced works of art that possessed an egomaniacal energy I could leech off of. But I was just as crazy about bands like Barenaked Ladies and Primus, whose strident dorkiness spoke to the chicken-armed X-Files fanboy in me. So when I first heard Ruby Vroom’s opening song, “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” it was like hearing those two factions of my CD collection – and those two idealized versions of myself – gelling, and it kicked more ass than it had any right to. Few bass lines have ever burrowed as deep in the pocket as Sebastian Steinberg’s does here – the groove produced by Steinberg and drummer Yuval Dabay transcends the standard definition of rhythm, inciting a primal, emotional reaction that would make Elaine Benes feel like Gregory Hines. And when M. Doughty tells you that “Saskatoon is in the room” in his flat, nasal voice, you realize that post-ironic nerdy nonsense can play in the same sandbox as supreme-sonic-super-badness. That the silly shit you think is funny might not be the polar opposite of funky. That it’s not 100% ridiculous to dream that you could, one day, bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus.

Homogenic51. Bjork – Homogenic (1997)

Electronic music is fertile ground as a metaphor for sadness. Whether it’s Kanye West undergoing therapy-by-AutoTune on 808s & Heartbreak, David Bowie nailing what a “sense of doubt” sounds like during his Berlin period, or Portishead’s entire catalog, synthesized notes do a bang-up job representing a lack of emotional warmth. Which makes Bjork’s Homogenic a special album beyond the immediate bounty of its lush, philharmonic-tronica production. After the breathtaking genre whirlwinds of Debut and Post, Homogenic finds the artist working in one sonic cul-de-sac for the first time. The production makes you think twice about the originality of 21st century Radiohead – ghostly drum loops and synth patches give way to stunning string arrangements. It’s dizzyingly dour music that would make the perfect accompaniment to songs about winter, or war, or whatever kind of “sour time” you want to moan on about. But instead, Bjork uses them to sing about love as a connection that transcends the physical, that’s as inevitable as the tide, that surrounds us all whether we know it or not. Even when her music’s at its tamest, her impulses are anything but.

Catching Up With King: The Gunslinger

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black


If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining