Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #46: Ballad in Plain D

Those of you that have read this blog from the beginning (you lucky ducks!) know that I have taken a jab or two at "Ballad in Plain D", a song that I have never cared for from the moment I heard it. I'm sure I'm not alone in this sense; to be honest, it's not a good song at all. It goes on for eight (eight!) solid minutes, full of acidic vitriol and mawkish sentimentality, and not even in an interesting way ("Idiot Wind", for example, has its share of vitriol and is also quite lengthy, but never ceases to be interesting and remains a highlight of Blood on the Tracks). You get the feeling that Dylan used his song writing power basically to insult Suze Rotolo's sister, possibly unfairly, and pay fawning tribute to Suze herself. Even the last line, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway?", isn't so much mysterious or thought-provoking as it is something of a head-scratcher; it's hard not to hear it and tilt your head like the RCA dog. It's the kind of thing somebody says at the end of a poetry slam in the hopes of getting extra snaps of applause from the audience.

So, yes, I have nothing good to say about the song; it's a millstone tied around Another Side's neck that keeps the album from reaching another level. Need I remind you the songs left on the wayside for this album? Bob could've sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" blackout drunk, forgetting the chords and lyrics, and stumbling around the studio so that the microphone only picks up every 3rd line, and it would've been a better choice than this song. That seems harsh, I know, but admit it: the humor that would be gleaned from hearing a loaded Bob try to get through the "deep beneath the waves" verse would make its inclusion worth it. There is virtually nothing that makes "Ballad in Plain D" worth inclusion, unless you want to hear Bob setting a page of his diary to music without any particular worry about who would possibly find it the least bit entertaining to listen to.

All the same, the song's out there and will be out there forever, and it's still iuteresting to consider why it was included and what it means in the canon of Bob's work. From the standpoint of 1964, we have a document of how Dylan perceived his breakup with Suze, with all the biases and emotional outpourings you would expect from a man who considers himself unfairly jilted (even when he says he's not to blame, there's a sense that he still feels wronged by that evil harpie controlling her sweet little sister). Even more so than "I Don't Believe You", which still could have been a fictional tale, "Ballad in Plain D" hides its emotions in plain sight, so that it's almost a dead certainty that Dylan is singing about himself, even if you didn't know that in advance. And, I suppose, there is a fascination from listening to that kind of hurt, so potent that even Dylan's semi-literary wranglings doesn't begin to hide it, and feeling almost voyeuristic in peeking into Dylan's innermost thoughts, albeit his innermost thoughts pressed onto vinyl for public consumption. It's a trainwreck fascination, but fascination nonetheless.

And then there's the modern perspective on "Ballad in Plain D", when we have Bob's entire career to consider. "Ballad in Plain D", when you get down to it, is the sound of a man mature beyond his years reacting to something in a very immature way. Think about this - Dylan's not even 25 years old yet, and yet he has had incredible pressure placed upon his head, coupled with the fact that he has grown immeasurably from a creative standpoint in only a few years, to the point where he has to be considered one of the best in the world at that time, even in his young age. This is a man wiser than the 23 years he'd lived when he recorded Another Side, a man that has lived more lifetime between 1962 to 1964 than many of us could ever dream of living in all our years, who has demonstrated a power over his vocabulary, over the ideas in his head, and over the metier of songwriting that is absolutely astonishing. And here he is, using that incredible talent and ability to string words together, and he's writing something akin to an emo tune, like he's Dashboard Confessional or something. It's actually a little endearing, when you stop to think about it - even the strongest and most mature of us can be rattled by something like lost love, and that lost love had led Dylan to (metaphorically) flip his wig. I guess he was still just a 23-year old after all, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

With all of that said, I still don't think "Ballad in Plain D" has any place on that album; for an album so full of ideas, brilliant notions and concepts, and remarkable language, to stick on an overlong English 425 workshop piece does it absolutely no favors. Then again, with the frame of mind Dylan must have been in to write and record that song in the first place, it seems apparent that the song was making it on no matter what. And it's too late to tell him "no, think about it, you're making a mistake", although I'd bet that he wouldn't have listened anyway. So we have "Ballad in Plain D" forever, and we have a song that exists more as a curiosity and a marker in Dylan's career than anything that exists on artistic merit. Given Dylan's career, that's perfectly okay. If you want to see Dylan as brilliant musician, as shaper of ideas, as lyricist without peer, you have plenty of songs to choose from. If you want to see Dylan the man, growing up and maturing, you could do worse than give this song a listen. Just don't be surprised if that first listen is also your last.

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16 comments:

Justin Shapiro said...

This is the only song through Nashville Skyline that I dislike. It's got nothing for me, had nothing before. Cheers on turning an interesting post out of it. The whole thing is just rather unappealing. I'm not a big believer in the "Dylan doesn't play Song X in concert so that proves he agrees with me that it's poor in retrospect" deductive unreasoning, but in this case, I believe Dylan actually did disavow this song in an interview some years later.

That the title is so straightforward -- it's "Plain D," up front about no metaphor or allegory, "like reading other people's mail" as one of the biographers put it -- is kind of charming. And for all the people who want to misguidedly reduce songs like "Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" to 1:1 biographical translations, maybe it's of some comfort to them to have this one as a freebie with no rosetta stone necessary. Still, I prefer D's unplain works. Even "Sara" is still dealing in abstracts, and is postfaced by that quote about "was it the real Sara or the Sara in the dream? I still don't know." This is definitely not the Suze and Carla from the dream.

LostChords said...

Bob Dylan in an Interview with Bill Flanagan in 1985 (for Flanagan's book "Written In My Soul") about "Ballad In Plain D":


"[...]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 one alone [...] There are certain subjects that don't interest me to exploit. And I wouldn't really exploit a relationship with somebody. Whereas in 'Ballad In Plain D', I did. Not knowing that I did it. And at that time my audience was very small. It overtook my mind so I wrote it. Maybe I shouldn't have used that"

rob! said...

love this blog!

yeah, "Plain D" is the one of the few songs in the entire Dylan songbook I just can't stand...and I even love "Had A Dream About You, Baby."

as noted in the comments above, its one of few songs Bob himself has disowned. pretty remarkable.

Pete Shanks said...

My guess is that Dylan seduced himself with the last verse:

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me,
"How good, how good does it feel to be free?"
And I answer them most mysteriously,
"Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"

I used to like that a lot. Now I like the idea but the execution just seems amateurish. And there goes the last remaining justification for the song. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Other than Blowin' In The Wind (i was 6 or 7 when I first sang it in school!), Ballad in Plain D was the first Dylan song that really hit me. I was listening to the radio one afternoon back in '71 and this song came on and I was hooked in right away by the sound and texture of his voice and the song went on and on and on and I'm thinkin' who the f**k is this . . . then this beautiful harmonica solo (twice, between another verse, i think) and after the song ended the announcer thankfully gave the song title and artist. I went out and bought that record the next day and i love his music as much (if not more) today than then.

Brian Fairbanks said...

There are definitely some highlights in that song, including the harmonica work. It doesn't hold up to It Ain't Me, Babe, which follows, but you just know that if it had been left to the vaults, it would be one of those songs everyone would say, "Why wasn't this on an album?"

Cody said...

I'm one of the few people out there who actually likes this song, but I do see why most don't. It feels a little strange listening to such an honest bad relationship story, but I think the music and most of the lyrics are nice nonetheless.

Tony said...

Wow, I had no idea that this would get this much feedback, and that this would be so polarizing. It's totally appreciated, of course.

Brian, you brought up a very interesting point - I wonder if the general opinion about this song would be different if it was an outtake instead of an album release. And you know what? I think you're right.

Justin, once again you've schooled me good - I never even considered what the "D" in "Plain D" would've stood for.

lostchords, thanks for posting that quote. I wonder if there are any other songs Dylan's been that adamant about disowning.

rob, thanks for the compliment, I do appreciate it.

I am glad that there are people that enjoy the song and are willing to say so. And I'm glad that people can disagree without resorting to name-calling. :D

Dmitri Karamazov said...

It's one song that I would call "insanely great".

To anyone who dislikes or even hates the song, I ask, haven't you ever had your heart ripped out by someone you love?

That's what this number is all about, in all its way too-personal glory.

Marie said...

I've always thought this an interesting song simply because it is one that got out by (Dylan's admitted) mistake.

The problem with taking a white board approach to Dylan's songs - comparing one to another, analysing verses/words - is that songs should capture the spirit of the time. True, it may not always stand up to analysis but that's how it was when the songwriter wrote it. The listeners then get to decide if it stays or goes in the memory.

For all its imperfections this one has stayed with many who are prepared to listen, warts and all.

Thanks. Interesting discussion.

P O G said...

In her recent book (I have lend it out right now, can't look it up exactly) Suze speaks on several occasions with no sympathy at all about how Carla tried to control Suze's life. Suze makes clear she would have been better off without Carla's behaviour. There is no clear comment on the song but the chapter in which she describes (I think) the 'pushing out of the apartment'-episode is called "Ballad".

Anonymous said...

"Ballad in Plain D" paints such a vivid picture of this brutal break-up scene it makes me seriously emotional every time I listen to it. "All is gone, all is gone, admit it, take flight. I gagged twice, doubled, tears blinding my sight. My mind it was mangled, I ran into the night." I can visualize this scene, I can literally see in my mind this screaming fight taking place and it makes me as emotional as I would have been if I were there... It makes me so sad. It's powerful to me, and that is why I like it.

Anonymous said...

Never reading this again.

Tony said...

Re: the last comment...

Okay, leaving aside the fact that I said some mean things about this song, THIS was the breaking point for you and my blog? I'm still surprised by the strong feelings this song has elicited, but still, Ballad in Plain D? Did you READ the stuff I had to say about The Times They Are A-Changin'?

I will say that I'm disappointed you won't be reading and would hope that you'd give me another chance. But you're probably not going to read this, so it's a moot point.

reid said...

In all honesty and respect. I would like to see someone, anyone write a song so true to heart and as bold as this song.
I agree, first time I heard it, I thought it was terrible. But then again, first time I listened to Bob I thought nothing of him.
But the simple fact he put this on the album is as Bob Dylan as any other facet of his career.
To each his own, but I find nothing better than listening to this song on a drive at night, you get lost in all the words, somewhat similar to the feelings he had at the time I'm sure. And at the end, you feel just as confused as he does when all is said and done.
Again, nothing against anyone, but I find it's 'out of placeness' to be fitting.

Great blog by the way, just discovered it.

Brian Ferguson said...

what reid said.