Suze Rotolo, arm in arm with Bob Dylan on the cover of his second album
by Driver 67
How honest can you be as a songwriter when you’re in personal confessional mode?
People you might write about are still alive. Do you give it to them with both barrels, as Bob Dylan did in Ballad In Plain D? It’s about Suze Rotolo, whom he doubtless loved – ‘I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze’; and her mother and sister, whom he clearly didn’t – ‘Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day’. He particularly despised the sister: ‘For her parasite sister, I had no respect, bound by her boredom, her pride to protect’.
This train of thought was spurred as I was listening to Frieda Hughes talking about how frank and direct she now feels able to be in her poetry.
Her mother, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide. Her father Ted Hughes lived the rest of his life in the shadow of (unjust) blame for Plath’s death. In 2009, her brother Nicholas hanged himself. When Frieda was nine, her step-mother murdered her four-year-old daughter and killed herself.
Many people would crumple under the weight of such tragedy. Frieda sounded – on Radio 4’s Midweek (still available on iPlayer) – a delightful woman, easy to laughter, forthright on the most personal questions and apparently without pretention.
She acknowledges that until her brother died (Ted had died in 1998) she had been well-served by allegory. “With my first book, with my father alive, my aunt alive, and not wanting to offend people, but wanting to express things that bothered me, allegory was my best friend.”
Her new work – Alternative Values – is ‘more personal’, by which she means more obviously identifiable with the subjects she both paints and writes about.
This is the dilemma of all writers. We’re not all as brave as Dylan. On his second solo album, Ram, Paul McCartney was pretty subtle in Too Many People (‘Too many people going underground; too many people preaching practices’). But John Lennon knew it was aimed at him. He hit back with the not-so-subtle How Do You Sleep? (‘The only thing you done was Yesterday’).
We all know now that Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love was deeply personal, but did we at the time? I don’t remember. But Google Blood On The Tracks for a contemporary review and you come up with Jon Landau’s 2,200 word put down, with nary a mention of Dylan’s marriage. It’s become common knowledge in the intervening period that the album was about the breakup with Sara, mother of four of his children.
Except – according to the man himself – it wasn’t. “I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. Stupid and misleading jerks these interpreters sometimes are. I don’t write confessional songs.”
Whoops. Then he remembers that he did, once. Ballad In Plain D. “It was a mistake to record that, and I regret it. I look back and I say ‘I must have been a real schmuck to write that’.”
The pop star who lives in my house gets to have her cake and eat it. A big emotional influence on her life is also her artistic touchstone. She uses both allegory and less subtle straight-shooting. I wouldn’t want to be her target, I’ll tell you that much. But you don’t need to know any of that. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, been lied to, been cheated on, been made false promises, then she’s talking to you and for you.
Maybe that’s the answer. If Dylan felt like ‘a schmuck’ for writing, let alone recording and releasing Ballad In Plain D, and if Frieda Hughes felt the need to wait till she was free of the responsibility of living subjects to be more directly truthful about her life, perhaps we should all take a leaf out of that book.
But then we wouldn’t have had Rumours, which was about Fleetwood Mac’s real life internal affairs, breakups and fallouts. Wasn’t it? *
*Of course it was!