Bob Dylan lives and dies by the sword. From going electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 to his born-again Christian stage, Dylan has always gone against the grain and stuck by his bold decisions. Yet, there is one song that he deeply regrets writing and once admitted, “I must have been a real schmuck to write that.”
Over the course of 39 studio albums, Dylan has evolved from a Greenwich Village troubadour into a million and one different personas — each perfect for its setting. Dylan’s hits far outweigh his occasional misses, which is why he’s revered as arguably the greatest living artist. But the Nobel prize winner is human and makes mistakes. A perennial risk-taker, he’s sometimes found himself cursing his courage.
Never afraid to take direct aim at another artist or fire shots at society at large, his honest songwriting can sometimes be too close to the bone. With Dylan failing to leave anything off the table when crafting his tunes and forgetting that it’s real people he’s writing about. One song, in particular, sees Dylan overstep the mark.
Defenders of ‘Ballad In Plain D’ from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan are a rarity, and even Dylan himself wishes the track never saw the light of day. The track is a one-sided autobiographical version of events surrounding a domestic argument which, in truth, doesn’t reflect too well on the singer-songwriter.
Throughout the eight and a half minute number, Dylan chronicles his relationship with Suze Rotolo. ‘Ballad In Plain D’ covers their initial honeymoon period, his infidelities, a brutally scathing attack on her sister, who he labels a ‘parasite’, and concludes by detailing a nasty fight that took place on the night they split up.
He apologetically sings, “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.” This goodwill is undone later in the song when he unleashes an attack on her sister, Carla. He viciously croons: “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.”
Even for Dylan, these lyrics overstepped the mark, and in 1985, he opened up about the regret he held about airing his dirty laundry in public. Speaking to Bill Flanagan, Dylan said: “Oh yeah, that one! I look back and 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.”
He added: “I wouldn’t really exploit a relationship with somebody. Whereas in ‘Ballad in Plain D’ I did. Not knowing that I did it. At that time, my audience was very small. It overtook my mind so I wrote it. Maybe I shouldn’t have used that.”
When Dylan released ‘Ballad In Plain D’ his career was very much in its infancy, and he didn’t understand just how far these cruel words would travel or how long they’d linger in the air for. Some six decades later and Dylan still seemingly regrets putting pen to paper.
He spent three years of his life with Rotolo, and for their relationship to be immortalised in such a bitter way paints the songwriter in a dreadful light. Although Dylan can cope with him looking like the villain, his regret stems from dragging innocent people’s names through the mud he had helped create.