Bob Dylan is one of the most mythologised musicians in the history of recorded music. Fifty years of curmudgeonly interviews, magazine features, and fan-scrawlings have done little to shed light on the man himself. In fact, more often than not, writing about Dylan tends to make it even harder to locate the man behind the music. As such, autobiographical glimpses into his life are a rare and valuable thing. Unfortunately, Dylan rarely wrote about his own life with any clarity. Apart from ‘Sara’, a tender ballad for his then-wife, and ‘Day Of The Locusts’, which tells the story of Dylan picking up an honorary degree from Princeton University, there’s only one other track we have to go off, and apparently, Dylan would have much rather never have written it in the first place.
Featured on 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, ‘Ballad in Plain D’ is one of the most autobiographical tracks in Dylan’s catalogue. Indeed, it was so autobiographical that the singer-songwriter came to regret writing it down. Speaking about the track with Bill Flanagan in 1985, Dylan said: “Oh! Yeah. That one… That one I look back and I say, ‘I must have been a real schmuck to write that.’ I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I’ve written, maybe I could have left that alone.”
So why was Dylan so ashamed of ‘Ballad in Plain D?’ Well, his regrets are most likely down to the fact that the track was written about Suze Rotolo – that’s the Suze Rotolo who appears on the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In that photo, she grips Dylan’s arm, laughing into the winter wind. Their relationship began in the summer of 1961 after they met at a folk concert at New York Church. “Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” Dylan wrote of their first meeting. “She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden-haired, full-blood Italian … We started talking and my heart started to spin … She was just my type.”
As Bob’s girlfriend for several years, Rotolo became an essential part of the Bob Dylan mythos, inspiring countless songs from his early folk period, including ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, One Too Many Mornings’, and Tomorrow Is A Long Time’. In most of those tracks, Rotolo’s identity – and, more importantly, that of her sister Carla – isn’t made clear. In ‘Ballad in Plain D’ however, Dylan talks about Suze and Carla directly, criticising the “parasitic sister” while lavishing his former girlfriend with a stream of compliments. Things start fairly ambiguously. In the opening verse, Dylan paints a portrait of Suze as a girl with “bronze” skin, who has the “the innocence of a lamb” and is as “gentle like a fawn”. Clearly, at this point, Suze was still faultless in Dylan’s eyes. The same can’t be said of her family, who he goes on to accuse of interfering in the relationship and treating Suze as a “scapegoat”.
Still, the person who comes off worst of all is Dylan himself. In the fifth verse he admits: “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”. In the end, Dylan seems to the tragic irony in his split from Rotolo. As his friends attempt to convince him of how good it is to be free from romantic responsibility, he offers the cryptic reply: “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?” Answer: a resounding, tear-drenched no.