Ballad in Plain D – A Song of Anger and Regret

I saw a photo of Suze Rotolo and I looked her up, and, as I thought, she was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend back in the 1960s, famously appearing at his side on the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In the photos, the famous couple looked cute and happy, and I wondered what had happened.Freewheelin bob dylan

As I read about their relationship, personal things that should only have been between the two of them – an abortion in 1963, which the relationship struggled with thereafter, Dylan’s affair with Joan Baez, and the Rotolo family’s increasing resentment of Dylan – I read that, after their subsequent break-up, he wrote the song, Ballad in Plain D (from Another Side of Bob Dylan). He regrets writing that song, he said in an interview in 1985. ‘I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I’ve written, maybe I could have left that alone.’ [1]

I sat and listened to Ballad in Plain D on my lunch break at work, looking out the window at Oxford Street, Liverpool, the spires of the Metropolitan cathedral behind the Georgian terraces. It’s a very familiar song to me, beginning, ‘I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze,’ which provides the melody (in plain d). The melody is also a familiar English folk type, known as “The Forsaken Lover”.[2]

It begins:

I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze

With the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn

I courted her proudly but now she is gone

Gone as the season she’s taken

The opening explores Dylan’s natural Romantic poetry of the classic ‘I once loved,’ and ‘now she is gone.’ I just find this opening as a singular poem in itself. Beginning from a memory of her and understanding that she now is in the past.another side of bob dylan

But the song in its entirety, what made Dylan regret writing it, is quite negative, full of anger and resentment from the conflict between him and Rotolo. Although, the anger is mostly aimed towards Suze’s sister, Carla, Suze stays almost idealised on a pedestal as the beautiful girl he once knew, while, as the critic Andy Gill wrote, ‘viciously characterizing Carla as a pretentious, social-climbing parasite.’[3] (‘For her parasite sister, I had no respect’). This is where he’s laying the blame, on Carla, while at the same time idealising Suze. It’s quite a sad, vicious account of a personal scene, like looking in a window of a domestic argument.

But I think the next part of the song is probably one of the most important points. It’s where Dylan himself makes his somewhat atonement:

Myself, for what I did, I cannot be excused

The changes I was going through can’t even be used

For the lies that I told her in hopes not to lose

The could-be dream-lover of my lifetime

The personal is not always selfish. Sometimes it just is. Whatever ‘changes’ he was going through, he says, are not any form of excuse for how he treated her. Telling lies in his desperation to save the relationship. The ‘dream-lover of my lifetime.’ Not ‘a lifetime,’ ‘my lifetime.’ I think we’ve all had that feeling, which stays from schooldays to adulthood, the Romanticised partner. The beautiful woman or man. The one person for which we’d do anything in order to stay together for longer, if not forever. Selfish, yes, but tragic too, also yes. But I have no idea what went on behind those closed doors, what was said, you just get the feeling no one was happy about this inevitability.

Another line interests me in this song:

‘Till the tombstones of damage read me no questions but, “Please
What’s wrong and what’s exactly the matter?”

The ‘tombstones of damage’ is a classic Dylanesque metaphor. A tombstone or a grave, i.e., something that has long-since died, representing the ruin they created between themselves. And then the subsequent question, which I believe is Dylan pleading with Rotolo, indicating the confusion that neither of them can put their finger on what has happened. One minute the relationship is full of love and innocence, and then there’s venom and anger and no one can understand where it came from. ‘What exactly is the matter?’ What exactly? He’s trying to pin down what’s the matter with her, while exposing his problem of wanting to know one exact reason, which would imply not listening to her. A clash of heads. Two star-crossed lovers, etc.

Ballad in Plain D, according to Gill, is a ‘self-pitying, one-sided account of the final traumatic night of Dylan’s long-standing romance with Suze Rotolo.’ It seems strange, though, charged with enough emotional electricity to power a city, and yet not as satisfying (again, according to Gill) as his other songs. This song stands out from the others in Dylan’s inability to handle such personal material. Of course, he’s written many personal songs, even more so the incredible poetic forms of his abstract philosophical thoughts of society, but I think this one song reflects a moment of pain which hurt him a great deal that his lyricism wavered. It’s almost as though he couldn’t do it. I assume this song was one of his greatest challenges, even if he was regretful in writing it.

Susan ‘Suze’ Elizabeth Rotolo (20th November 1943 – 25th February 2011) was an American artist from New York City. Her parents were both members of the American Communist Party, which influenced Rotolo to work as a political activist in the office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the anti-nuclear group, SANE. Around this the time she was working as a political activist, her sister (who was working as an assistant to folk singer, Alan Lomax) introduced her to Bob Dylan at a Riverside Church folk concert in New York, July 1961.

On page 265 of Chronicles, vol.1, Dylan wrote about her, saying:

Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard… Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a kind of voluptuousness—a Rodin sculpture come to life.[4]

As Dylan’s fame grew, so did the stress of being in a relationship with one of the most famous singer/songwriters in the world at the time. After the argument and break-up, Suze went to Italy to study art. Although, she is credited with having inspired some of his best love songs. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Tomorrow Is a Long Time, One Too Many Mornings, and Boots of Spanish Leather. Her political views influenced his songwriting themes, and she introduced him to the works of Arthur Rimbaud, who heavily influenced his songwriting style.

She said:

“People say I was an influence on him, but we influenced each other. His interests were filtered through me and my interests, like the books I had, were filtered through him … It was always sincere on his part. The guy saw things. He had an incredible ability to see and sponge—there was a genius in that. The ability to create out of everything that’s flying around. To synthesize it. To put it in words and music.”[5]

I’ve written fiction and poetry as the result of a relationship coming to an end, feeling guilty for the bitterness in the words after the dust had settled. But I suppose that’s what art is about. Getting inside the head of another human. Seeing and understanding that person’s emotions and experiences whether good or bad. Although, I couldn’t reach that beautiful preciseness that Dylan could write.

Ballad in Plain D sounds like listening in on a couple’s argument. Or like listening to Dylan ranting about what had happened. It’s one-sided and angry and sad, but it’s thick with emotion. In an interview with Victoria Balfour, Rotolo says:

“People have asked how I felt about those songs that were bitter, like ‘Ballad in Plain D’, since I inspired some of those too, yet I never felt hurt by them. I understood what he was doing. It was the end of something and we both were hurt and bitter. His art was his outlet, his exorcism. It was healthy. That was the way he wrote out his life; the loving songs, the cynical songs, the political songs, they are all part of the way he saw his world and lived his life.”[6]

I could end this with a quote about the end of the song, with his metaphorical question: ‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?’ Can we ever be free of this pain, are we ever fully released from it? But that’s just misery talking. It will pass.

The penultimate verse is the most poignant, the most sad. It’s almost like a deep breath after all the yelling and anger. But it’s hopeful and sweet. He wishes her well, and he still knows how precious she is, even after all that.

The wind knocks my window, the room it is wet

The words to say I’m sorry, I haven’t found yet

I think of her often and hope whoever she’s met

Will be fully aware of how precious she is.

[1] Flannagan, Bill. Written In My Soul. Omnibus Press. (1990)

[2] Heylin, Clinton. Revolution In The Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Volume One: 1957-73. Constable. (2009)

[3] Gill, Andy. Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages. Carlton. (1998)

[4] Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, vol. 1. Simon & Schuster. (2004)

[5] Woliver, Hoot! A 25-Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene

[6] Thomson, Elizabeth. The Dylan Companion. Papermac. (1991).

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