Bob Dylan can be as bitchy as a seventh grade girl who is crushing on a cute boy, writes his name on her notebook, surrounds it with hearts and flowers but then the cute boy goes and kisses her BFF and HOW COULD SHE DO THAT, THE SLUT! Woe unto any who slights Dylan, because the crabby bastard has been known to eviscerate people in song. I am not complaining about this as some of my favorite songs (Positively 4th Street, Like A Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind) are exercises in score settling. Also, I am the type of guy who thinks that if you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, you should
not say anything at all come sit down next to me.
Ballad in Plain D from Another Side of Bob Dylan is just such a song, about the end of his relationship with Suze Rotolo, and it pulls no punches.* He has never played it live, and has supposedly said he never should have released it, and I can see why. The lyrics are brutal. There are two sisters, and he loves the younger one with “the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn.” So far, so good, but the older sister and the mother are not happy with this relationship with “Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day.”
The older sister is focused on:
For her parasite sister, I had no respect
Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect
Countless visions of the other she’d reflect
As a crutch for her scenes and her society
Jesus, Bob, don’t hold anything back.
As the relationship sours, he blames himself in part:
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
But the blames remains with the older sister who manipulates his lover:
Beneath a bare lightbulb the plaster did pound
Her sister and I in a screaming battleground
And she in between, the victim of sound
Soon shattered as a child ’neath her shadows
The relationship is over, and echoing the closing scene of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, the singer is asked “How good, how good does it feel to be free?” Like the Borstal Boy, he knows he is not free, and responds “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
*I am taking the lyrics at face value here. I know there is some debate about the nature of Dylan’s relationship with Suze Rotolo and the true cause of their breakup, but exploring that is beyond the scope of this blog.