Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ballad in Plain D: Dylan’s weakest song #8

Thanks to Matthew Zuckerman:

It's only an opinion, but when one's own choice of weakest Dylan song is shared by the man himself and Martin Carthy -- arguably the best judge of song in the country -- it is probably at least worth repeating.

“Here's an extract (quoted from memory since I'm redecorating my house and all the books are in storage -- it's reprinted in the first Isis collection) from an interview I did with Carthy a few years ago for Isis:


Carthy: He's only written one rotten song...

MZ: Let me guess... Ballad in Plain D.

MC: Right. It's a dreadful song.

MZ: He thinks so himself and singled it out in an interview with Bill

MC: So I gather. He wanted to get revenge. "I'm gonna get you?" he said to himself, and he missed by a fucking mile. But one dog out of 500 is pretty good.


Some have affection for this song, due I imagine to the delicate tune and sensitive performance, but just look at the callow writing, the kind usually associated with teenage angst and poems scrawled in school notebooks:

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.

That's bad enough -- from the cod-mature "Myself for what I did" to the muddy excuse to jaw-clenchingly bad "could-be dream-lover of my lifetime" -- but it is nothing to the excruciating following two verses:

With unknown consciousness, I possessed in my grip
A magnificent mantelpiece, though its heart being chipped,
Noticing not that I'd already slipped
To a sin of love's false security.

From silhouetted anger to manufactured peace,
Answers of emptiness, voice vacancies,
Till the tombstones of damage read me no questions but, "Please,
What's wrong and what's exactly the matter?"

Around the same time, Dylan was kicking the English language into a
fantastically flexible instrument (wild cathedral evening, for example -- what an amazing leap to use cathedral as an adjective), but his own post-adolescent rage blinded him to its beauty in this case.

Even the penultimate verse, which reaches for the recognition of shared pain that he achieves at the end of Idiot Wind is scuppered by such wooden language as "fully aware" -- not to mention the risible "room it is wet". Close the window, you drip.

Having said all that, it is an enchanting tune, a fine performance, and a pretty good first line.

All lyrics quoted are used for the purpose of criticism or review.
Ballad In Plain D, by Bob Dylan, Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros Inc; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music.