Beacon and Black Hole: Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan and Two Songs of Parting
ARTICLE BY Neil Corcoran, University of Liverpool
Abstract: This article examines Suze Rotolo’s account in her autobiography of her early life and relationship with Dylan. It takes note of her provocative suggestion that some of his songs were self-interested, one-sided accounts designed to take their place in an ongoing dialogue with both Rotolo herself and those close to her. The article looks closely at “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Ballad in Plain D” to determine how “interested” the songs are and how fully they constitute examples of Dylan’s complex revisions of traditional ballad form. It makes an evaluative judgement about their merits, proposing that Dylan’s true strengths as writer and singer were never likely to reside in any “confessional” form but always to take their place as essentially “modernist” modes of dramatized obliquity; and it takes stock of variant performances.
Keywords: Rotolo, ballad, confessional, modernist, performance.
Bob Dylan’s one-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo published her autobiography, A Freewheelin’ Time, in 2008, three years before her death; and, although generally admired, it wasn’t really given its due in the reviews. Although it doesn’t quite equal them in quality, it’s one of those books, like Joe LeSueur’s Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara and Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street, in which the writer’s close but secondary status in relation to a figure of genius provides a revelatory foil to the object on display. The book strongly suggests why Dylan would have been fascinated by Rotolo, beyond her unconventional, warm beauty, which he celebrates in his own quasi-autobiography, Chronicles (2004). As much is obvious from the famous cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), where photographer Don Hunstein shows the pair huddled against the winter on Jones Street in New York City. From an Italian-American communist background in New York, Rotolo describes her escape, while still a teenager, from an alcoholic widowed mother and a coercive sister. Living alone in Greenwich Village at the age of seventeen, she meets Dylan, then twenty, in the summer of 1961. They stayed together for three years, more or less, those of his earliest, intensely productive creativity and first fame.
Rotolo is fascinating for her background and her ambivalent break with it, and she describes in some depth the range of her political interests and affiliations. These include a trip to Cuba reported in the national press (and, we have learned recently in Truthout, scrutinized in the file kept on her by the FBI). But the book focuses, as its title implies, on her relationship with Dylan and its context in the cultural life of the Village, in which she was a keen participant. She writes spiritedly, her style taking a particular edge from her acerbic detailing of what seems the reflex misogyny of the time. Her feminism is at first instinctive, and then principled, as she educates herself in the ways in which women were conditioned by men in the bohemian New York of the 1960s; her self-education is the real theme of her book. She regrets her lack of formal tertiary education, a consequence of the unavailability of funding. We must speculate on what her attitude might have been toward the middle-class Dylan’s own casual abandonment of opportunity when, still in his freshman year, he quit the University of Minnesota for the streets and folk clubs of New York City.
Recalling the difficulties of her life with Dylan, Rotolo is reticent and unspecific, and the book offers few opportunities to the prurient; but she still makes it plain that she was lied to and manipulated, sometimes with the connivance of male friends or hangers-on. She remains resilient, however, rather than vengeful, and she testifies to her continued admiration for Dylan’s genius and staying power. Citing Kurosawa’s Rashomon, she acknowledges the relativity of truth and therefore the partiality of her own position; this self-critical misgiving is one of the reasons her book does in the main ring true.
Even so, it seems there’s another story inscribed between the lines of the one Rotolo tells. It surfaces when she describes her creativity in theater, clothes design, painting and book-making in the 1960s and thereafter. Although we don’t doubt her talents, we might wonder whether their relative lack of recognition would have made it especially difficult for her to experience the dynamo of immediately celebrated creativity that Dylan was almost as soon as he started off in New York. It surfaces, too, when she says that she once changed her name to “Justine” after the eponymous heroine of the first volume of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet; then, she discovers in the title and subject of a Picasso collage, Glass and Bottle of Suze, which names a French liqueur, the replacement for what she considered the dull birth name “Susan.” Although Rotolo doesn’t say so, both of these instances parallel Dylan’s own change from his native “Zimmerman” which, to her humiliation, Rotolo discovers only accidentally. And the occluded narrative surfaces when she insists on the political and cultural benefits she brought him:
Growing up in a politically conscious home during the Cold War and under McCarthyism, I had struggled through the issues of Communism, socialism, and the American way. I threw those interests out to Bob. I was exposed to a lot more than a kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, was, especially with my upbringing amid books and music and interesting, albeit difficult, people. And I was also from New York City. No contest there. (Freewheelin’ Time 137)
Well, maybe not; but the metropolitan condescension suggests there was a contest somewhere. “You sound like a hillbilly, we want folksingers here,” this passage seems to say, as Dylan’s Greenwich Village nightclub owner berates the singer in “Talkin’ New York,” Dylan’s sardonic account of his early days in the city. It’s not self-evident that growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota automatically cuts one off from books and music and interesting, albeit difficult people. The impact of New York City—and of Rotolo herself—on Dylan is undeniable; but still, Robert Zimmerman was able to pluck a great deal from the Minnesotan air—literally, since much of it came to him from the numerous local radio stations which he could tune in to on the Midwestern airwaves. The resentment implies that Rotolo was discontented with her secondary status. Rotolo displays an unrelaxed, even prickly edginess, and her account of emotional and psychological damage places the blame, in at least one respect, on Dylan’s art as well as his behavior.
The core of A Freewheelin’ Time is Rotolo’s account of her protracted split with Dylan and her consequent nervous breakdown. On her first attempt to leave him, in June 1962, she went to Perugia and stayed several months studying art history, funded by her mother’s new partner in what was, she believed, a mutual attempt to extricate her from Dylan’s grasp. She tells us that she watched Dylan watching her as her ship left New York and, tantalizingly, that elements of his letters to her contained what later became song lyrics. As soon as she got to Perugia she read—twice—Francoise Gilot’s recently published Life with Picasso:
I expected to learn about Picasso, an artist I loved, but instead the book turned into something entirely different. It made me think about Bob. . . . I felt I was reading a book of revelations, lessons, warnings. Even though Picasso was a much older man than Bob and had experienced a lot more, their personalities were so similar it was astounding. . . . Picasso did as he pleased, not worrying about the consequences for the people around him or the effect his actions had on them. He took no responsibility, clarified nothing, came to no decisions and did nothing that would have made it possible or easier for the various women he was involved with to leave him and get on with their lives. He was a magnet, and the force field surrounding him was so strong it was not easy to pull away. . . . His art was the main function of his life. At the end of his arm was a brush. (Freewheelin’ Time 181-82)
At the end of Dylan’s arm, we must assume, was a pen or a typewriter—and, no doubt, a guitar, that more sociable and erotically advantageous instrument of creativity. Dylan bewildered Rotolo, she says, by being “a beacon, a lighthouse [and] also a black hole.” Having said so much, she need hardly say more, but she does say one other thing. She says that some of the songs he wrote and performed at the time were vehicles of recrimination, soliciting sympathy as the rejected lover while evading culpability. This made life extremely difficult for her when she did return to the Village and, for a while, to Dylan. Dylan’s art at this time, she claims, is directed to a coterie and interested. It doesn’t just make a lover’s complaint; it pursues a campaign.
There’s something she doesn’t say, though, or says so late into her book that it’s easy to miss unless you already know it. In Perugia she met the man she was to marry some years later, Enzo Bartoccioli. Rotolo doesn’t name him, and her married life forms no part of her book, but we know that Dylan knew about him because one of the “poems” in the version of the sequence “Some Other Kinds of Songs,” which forms the liner notes to the American issue of Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), reprinted as late as 1973 in his collection Writings and Drawings, tells us so in terms so vehement as to make its past-habitual tense suspect:
i used t’ hate enzo
i used t’ hate him
so much that i could’ve killed him …
my beloved one met him
in a far-off land
an’ she stayed longer there
because of him (Writings and Drawings 146)
The anger, in lines that have none of the poetry of the songs, is matched by envy—”I wanted t’ be like him so much / that I ached”—and both make Dylan appear vulnerable. His knowledge of Bartoccioli doesn’t excuse his interested use of his own work, but it does cast it in a different light. Jealousy is not an equable emotion; and being the agent of it in others, as Dylan undoubtedly was, is no prophylactic against being the victim of it oneself.
This is all of interest, but particularly so because “Boots of Spanish Leather” on The Times They Are A-Changin’, released in 1963, and the fascinating but flawed “Ballad in Plain D” on the album which succeeded it a year later, Another Side of Bob Dylan, both derive from the prolonged ending of the relationship. Both are contemporary variations on traditional ballad form, which has been sustaining for Dylan across his career; both reveal things about the ways experience becomes song in Dylan; and they contrast in their registers of interest as well as in their degrees of success, while also reminding us how many of Dylan’s most complex songs about personal relationships are songs of parting, of the pathos of the hapless and the unavailing.
The first-person narrative of “Ballad in Plain D” recounts the course of a relationship now gone irretrievably wrong—largely because of the jealous interference of the lover’s mother and elder “parasite” sister. The singer’s considerable venom is directed especially against the sister whose motive appears to be her own emotional insufficiency. The song climaxes, once the “tombstones of damage” have been raised in the graveyard of the affair, with a vicious shouting match between narrator and sister “beneath a bare lightbulb”—a harsh light surely figurative as well as literal, as what appears to be a Greenwich Village apartment becomes also a form of hell on earth. After this episode, the narrator runs into the night “leaving all of love’s ashes behind [him].” The extreme emotional intensity of the song then culminates in two final verses of contemplation and valediction.
These circumstances directly reflect the biographical details Rotolo offers in A Freewheelin’ Time. Even so, the song is indebted to an Anglo-Scots ballad dating probably to the late seventeenth century. Dylan’s first line (“I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze”) and the song’s narrative structure echo those of the ballad sometimes known as “The False Bride.” Written in the person of a jilted lover, the song appeared in the 1960s repertoires of both Ewan McColl and Pete Seeger, which is almost certainly how Dylan first heard it:
I once loved a lass and I loved her so well
I hated all others that spoke of her ill
And now she’s rewarded me well for my love
She’s gone to be wed to another.
Dylan transposes his own experience into the ballad’s terms. He’s the one spoken of “ill”—not by “all others” or by the “lass,” but by her mother and sister. The vitriol directed against them is accompanied, though, by self-reproach and what seems like—and in Dylan’s superb rendition sounds like—genuinely heartfelt lament for the loss. Dylan doesn’t often do apology, but he gets close here when he sings, “The words to say I’m sorry, I haven’t found yet.” If he hasn’t yet found the words, he’s at least found the words to say he hasn’t yet found the words, which acknowledges both guilt and the obligation to avoid cliché.
The song’s regret, sorrow and tenderness are piercing, but in other respects its linguistic and emotional registers are insecure. With the original ballad no doubt haunting his ear, Dylan attempts to meld archaic and contemporary usage, but elevated expressions like “I courted her proudly” consort oddly with the vernacular of the sister’s shrill “’Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!’” The opening analogies for the lover—”With the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn”—are infantilizing: two cute baby animals make one analogizing line into a condescending menagerie. Some metaphors, notably that of the sixth verse (“With unseen consciousness, I possessed in my grip / A magnificent mantelpiece, though its heart being chipped”), are inept, even juvenile; and so is a certain melodramatic heightening of the situation—as when the lovers are perceived as “the king and the queen,” who “tumble all down into pieces,” as parts of a chess set: but the metaphor isn’t sustained sufficiently to carry much expressive weight. And when the singer regards the lover as “the constant scrapegoat,” we wonder whether Dylan misread the word “scapegoat” when he came across it in his bible—although the more generous among us may credit him with a neologistically punning acknowledgment that Rotolo had been scraped or scarred by the experience, as she certainly had. (The various editions of Dylan’s published lyrics, however, consistently print “scapegoat” until the Simon and Schuster Ricks-Nemrow-Nemrow collection, The Lyrics (2014), prints what we hear on the record. This edition is the source for my quotations from Dylan’s lyrics in this essay.)
“The False Bride” includes a hauntingly enigmatic verse:
The men of yon forest they askit of me
How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?
I askit them back with a tear in my ee
How many ships sail through the forest?
At the end of “Ballad in Plain D,” in a coda following a harmonica break, Dylan transforms this verse in an attempt to resolve the song’s unsettled emotions by removing them to another, ineffable plane:
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?”
Dylan sings this wonderfully, his vocal timbre a kind of weary sigh, as the affair being consigned to the past is also being consigned to the permanence of memory—and of writing and performance. His melancholy almost redeems the non-contemporary “unto me” (which echoes usages in the King James Bible) for an elevating rhetorical pointing, and the rhymes of the first three lines are themselves further pointed by the additional internal rhyme in the final line. This makes the song’s final syllable, “way,” a sadly echoing pararhyme, a diminishment, complementing the falling cadence of the melody. However, although this transformation of the original ballad is ingenious, Dylan’s verse seems, as the original does not, portentous. Claiming to have “friends” in the prison, even if only a figurative gesture, is coyly ingratiating, given Dylan’s first audience at the time, the liberal-left of the East Coast folksong community; and the rhetorical question is more self-approving than cryptic. The conundrum, advertising its mystery, diminishes the genuinely potent mystery of the original and is in fact less mysterious than vacuous, because it can be easily explained. That is: birds suffer the limitations of the sky just as prisoners suffer the limitations of their cells; but strawberries do not grow in the sea, nor do ships sail through the forest (except in so far as they are made from the wood that grows there).
Despite Dylan’s persuasive performance, the traditional ballad is now, for this writer, at least for the time being, a form exhausted beyond effectiveness, exploding in self-contradiction. Such exacerbations as “Ballad in Plain D” exhibits demand an alternative kind of expression, and they were about to get it from this songwriter—no longer by balladic narrative recollection but by the abruptness and turmoil of immediate second-person address and the street vernacular heard only from the despised sister in “Ballad in Plain D” but now articulate on the singer’s own tongue, where it carries taunt and recrimination: “You got a lot o’ nerve to say you are my friend” in “Positively Fourth Street”; “Hey, please crawl out your window” in “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”; “How does it feel?” in “Like a Rolling Stone.” This confrontational and abrasive art propels Dylan’s realism towards the distortions of the surreal, the phantasmagorical, the electric and the chemical. “The changes I was going through can’t even be used,” he sings in “Ballad in Plain D”—meaning, in one sense, to make songs, to further the art. But paradoxically, this very song is of such use. It seems a necessary failure, a felix culpa, a station on the road to an unpredictably radical development. And when Dylan does return to ballad form, he makes it new all over again by converting it to different purposes: to the allegories and parables of John Wesley Harding (1967), for instance, or to the fictive collages of Tempest (2012).
The value of “Ballad in Plain D” lies, then, in its marking a major stage in Dylan’s development. Although flawed, it’s captivating too in that it’s one of the very few songs in which Dylan writes in confessional mode. The title self-reflexively encodes this confession if it intimates that the song gives us “plain Dylan” as well as, or rather than, merely declaring key or chording. Dylan’s life is in his songs, in several senses, but usually deflected into fiction, mythology, persona, mask—all the diversionary ploys of the modernist moment. “A poem is a naked person” say the liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home (1965): but no, it’s not, and certainly not in this poet, even as he makes the claim. The ill-handled confessionalism of “Ballad in Plain D” strongly suggests how right was Dylan’s instinct to abjure creative confessionalism subsequently. It was prompted, I suspect, by the interest, by both the angry or malign urge to blame and the benign urge to make a plea and a kind of reparation. But Dylan shows an awareness of his own failure, which he appears to regard as ethical as well as aesthetic, in the fascinating, extensive interview with Cameron Crowe published as part of his first major retrospective collection, Biograph, in 1985. He wishes he hadn’t written or recorded the song, he tells Crowe, without actually identifying it by name, but “it overtook my mind.” This implies both his passivity before his own perturbations and his failure in self-critical alertness, while also suggesting that this material had an obsessive hold over him. If he never in fact got around to saying sorry to Rotolo—and nowhere in A Freewheelin’ Time does she tell us that he did—then this comment may be read as a form of belated public apology.
But if “Boots of Spanish Leather” was also one of the songs Dylan attempted to use as an instrument of blame, the song itself refuses instrumentality by being so securely located in and enabled by the ballad tradition and its impersonality. The song’s re-creative intensity permanently casts it clear of the contingencies of its origins. Its narrative opens as a dialogue in which a lover departing on a voyage to Spain—not Italy, and so a first step away from biography—attempts to cajole the one left behind into accepting the offer of a promised gift by insinuating that the absence will be longer than the other anticipates. The reluctance to accept the gift derives from the knowledge that to do so will be to admit the end of the relationship. Only when a letter is eventually received implying that the return may in fact never happen at all does capitulation come, in the shape of the specific request for the boots of the song’s title. The verse which reports the letter’s receipt is the only one in which the song moves out of the present and into the past tense; and the final three verses of the song are then “spoken” by the abandoned one alone. As dialogue segues into monologue, “Boots of Spanish Leather” witnesses the psychology of disabused acceptance and recovery, the emotions attendant on admitting to the status of the less deceived.
The song shares a partly archaic language with “Ballad in Plain D,” but now the archaisms are expressively coherent. The phrasing “my own true love” in the opening line (“Oh, I’m sailing away my own true love”) is tenderly formal, inheriting a long tradition of address in English ballad and folksong, and the faltering relationship exhibited by the song is carried partly by the way the phrase reduces to the less archaic “my love” in the penultimate verse, where the second speaker’s change of mind and heart occurs (“If you, my love, must think that-a-way. . .”). The locution “something fine / Made of silver or of golden” in the third verse, to suggest the nature of the proffered gift, is a form of archaic-sounding coinage, since you can’t really say “of golden” in English. Dylan’s metrical need of the extra syllable and his invention of a brilliant slant-rhyme or assonance for “Barcelona,” which is where the gift might be sent from, presumably generate the phrase; but it seems enchantingly opulent, the extra syllable making the gold appear even richer and more generous (more “golden”) as a potential gift, and therefore formulated to induce the longing this speaker wishes to create in the addressee. Dylan’s voice caresses the words as it leaps up in delight from the first to the second syllable of “golden” and then languorously draws out the syllables of “Bar-ce-lona” (for which the rhyme isn’t really just the word “golden” but the whole glorious phrase, “or of golden,” in which the word “or” puts “ore” within aural reach too, silver ore becoming gold). The language of stars and diamonds compared adversely to the lover’s kisses in the fourth verse derives ultimately from a long tradition of amour courtois in medieval French and in the early Italian and English Elizabethan sonnet. And the final verse’s “take heed, take heed of the western wind” combines Elizabethan diction (Friar Laurence says, “take heed, take heed” to Romeo), medieval English lyric (“Western wind, when wilt thou blow / The small rain down can rain?” which Dylan transposes in his early song, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”), and a cadence from the ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” the tale of a shipwreck (“Make haste, make haste, my merry men all / Our good ship sails the morn”).
How deeply versed in any of these sources Dylan actually was is undiscoverable, but his absorptive and transformative capacity, his unerring instinct for exactly what was required, is breathtaking, as it often is subsequently in his work too, but perhaps never again with such intense, magpie command as at this early stage. He inhabits the traditions he shapes anew, bringing folk materials into sophisticated contemporary form and relevance without any hint of pastiche, just as Lorca does in his appropriations and reinventions of Spanish folk materials in his “gypsy ballads” of the 1920s. Whereas “Ballad in Plain D” too interestedly derives from experience, leading Dylan to miscalculate how a ballad can express a contemporary narrative and psychology, “Boots of Spanish Leather” writes experience into traditional form by a process of osmosis and diffusion, because Dylan is thinking intensively about what a ballad actually is. His eye, and ear, are on that, not on himself. So “Boots of Spanish Leather” seems almost to aspire to the anonymity of traditional balladry—making it, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “of present use.” The song may have depended for its inception on its author’s original experience of his lover’s escape to Italy, but it revels in the eventfulness of songwriting itself. It makes writing into a new experience and a new event—”event” in the sense both of happening and of outcome.
There’s one thing, though, that “Boots of Spanish Leather” doesn’t do that traditional Anglo-Scottish ballad usually does: it doesn’t use masculine rhyme in the abcb (or abab) pattern, and, indeed, only the sixth and ninth verses of the song carry full rhymes, but feminine ones— “sorrow” with “tomorrow” and “weather” with “leather.” Apart from these, the closing words of lines which would usually carry masculine rhymes are scarcely rhymes at all, but they are all feminine in cadence, moving from a stressed to an unstressed syllable—“morning” / “landing”; “ownin’” / “ocean”; “golden” / “Barcelona”; “ocean” / “ownin’”; “askin’” / “passin’”; “a-sailin’” / “a-feelin’”; “roamin’” / “goin’”—which we might describe as variously assonating, resonating, interweaving and repeating.
Not all traditional ballads employ masculine rhyme though. One exception is the widely collected and performed “Barbara Allen,” in which the eponymous heroine’s name prompts rhymes such as “failin’,” “drinkin’,” and “dealin’.” It’s also a song about an abandoned lover; and, although it doesn’t maintain a dialogue between a male and a female voice like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” it includes one. Dylan probably heard it in the clubs and would have known recorded versions by Jean Ritchie and Joan Baez. His adopted name “Dylan” also makes a feminine rhyme with “Allen,” as he might well have noticed, and his original forenames were Robert Allen, the latter spelled exactly as the surname of “Barbara” is, as he could hardly have failed to notice. Whether prompted by such coincidences or not, he was singing a lengthy, non-standard version in the clubs in 1962. In A Freewheelin’ Time Rotolo says that the recording of this, now available on Live at the Gaslight 1962 (2005), “tears at the heartstrings” (Freewheelin’ Time 183), and few will disagree. That the song has continued to haunt Dylan is clear from Tempest, where it figures once more as an element in one of the collage songs, “Scarlet Town,” for which it also supplies the title.
“Barbara Allen” can’t really be regarded as a “source” for “Boots of Spanish Leather,” but it is a resource. It acts as a watermark in the paper Dylan’s song is written on. In both, the palpable effect of the feminine rhymes is a sense of dissonant non-relation, an at-variance; and the feminine cadence sounds like a falling-off or a falling-away. In “Boots of Spanish Leather” this is subtly and appropriately expressive. It formally enacts the disentanglement which is the song’s emotional pivot, as the second speaker in the dialogue realizes that the lover really is leaving, that the offer of the gift has become suspiciously importunate, and that it might as well, therefore, be accepted. Those full rhymes—“sorrow” / “tomorrow” and “weather” / “leather”—set the seal on that recognition.
The feminine rhymes are appropriate too in a song about relations between the sexes, which opens in a kind of gender confusion. On first hearing, we assume that the male singer, engaged in the traditionally male activity of leaving a lover, is voicing a male character when he sings the opening verse—particularly since this singer is Bob Dylan, who has already portrayed himself in that role with self-justification and misgiving in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But, as we learn only in the seventh verse of this nine-verse song, with its change from first- and second-person to third-person (“Oh but I got a letter on a lonesome day, / It was from her ship a-sailin’”), the apparently callous letter of dismissal comes from “her.” Therefore the “I”—that is, of the song’s second, not its first, speaker—becomes indisputably male, at least in the heterosexual dispensation. Even so, it could be that the remarkable word “unspoiled” in the second verse, as he asks her “Just to carry yourself back to me unspoiled / From across that lonesome ocean,” is a sure signal of the speaker’s masculinity. The OED gives as an obsolete sense of “spoil,” “to ravish or violate (a woman)” and cites a 1694 translation of Rabelais: “He has spoiled me. I am undone.” By strange coincidence, “Ballad in Plain D” has “she was easily undone / By the jealousy of others around her”; and in A Freewheelin’ Time Rotolo, perhaps echoing Dylan, says that she was “undone” by the breakdown she suffered in the wake of both an abortion and the end of the relationship (Freewheelin’ Time 280).
To my knowledge, Dylan sings as a woman in only two other collected songs: the traditional “House of the Rising Sun” on Bob Dylan (1962), voiced for an apparently captive New Orleans prostitute, and “North Country Blues” on The Times They Are A-Changin’, voiced for a single mother suffering near-destitution as the iron-ore mines which have traditionally sustained her community are shut down. Plaintiveness and censure inhere in the Dylan voice in these songs of female complaint. In the former, what begins as controlled self-containment mounts to outraged intensity as Dylan shouts the later verses against a pounding guitar figure, making it seem that the only thing that can survive such damage is a howl of abject self-affirmation. In the latter, the voice, stark against a spare guitar accompaniment, appears to be inflected with Dylan’s uncondescending, even appreciative, deployment of a North Country accent (most obviously, “mah sklin” for “my schooling,” but also “whatched,” “whun” and “whaited” for “watched,” “one” and “waited”), bringing deprivation and barely manageable responsibility alive as locally vocalized personality.
The only song of Dylan’s to be written in both male and female voices, though, “Boots of Spanish Leather,” redeploys attributes traditionally thought “female” to the male voice, a redeployment prompted or enabled in large part by the song’s withholding of gender categorization until so late in its course. This withholding attaches particularly to the tone in which the final request for the boots is made (“And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, / Spanish boots of Spanish leather”). Is this jaunty defiance, sorrowful acceptance, or opportunistic demand? (That the requested gift should be Spanish boots may also derive from traditional ballad: from the one Dylan calls “Blackjack Davey” on Good As I Been to You (1992), in which the eponymous hero asks the “pretty little miss,” preparatory to riding off with her, to “Pull off, pull off them high-heeled shoes / Made of Spanish leather.”)
When he sang “Boots of Spanish Leather” as a demo for his music publishing company shortly after writing it—the version available on The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (2010)—Dylan introduced it to someone in the studio by saying, “This imposes a real problem. ‘Imposes,’ is that the right word? Or supposes a real problem.” “Real problem” seems to point to the actual circumstances from which the song’s beautiful and aching fiction derives; and the song may both impose and suppose this problem. But its plot just poses one, which may be the word Dylan was actually seeking. What is the problem though? Is it to do with scruple? To ask for the gift or not to ask? To recognize when exactly the moment has come to ask? What kind of gift to ask for? When Dylan sang it in concert at the Town Hall, New York in April 1963, he introduced it oddly: “This is eh . . . [a long pause] . . . I used to be quite romantic and eh . . . [another long pause] . . . this song’s called ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and eh . . . [a further pause while Dylan eases into the guitar figure which opens the song].” (This performance, but without the introduction, can be heard on Bob Dylan Live 1962-1966 (2018); the version with the introduction is available online). Clearly, he was about to say something further, three times, but refused himself permission, possibly even remembering that you should probably not say in a concert hall what you might permit yourself to say in the greater intimacy of a club. This suggests a still smarting emotional investment in the song and implies that the circumstances behind it are his reason for being no longer “romantic.”
But if “Boots of Spanish Leather” quells this form of romanticism in its writer, it’s the notable expression of a sentiment endemic to Romanticism itself. The song is deeply imbued with yearning. It’s this yearning that makes the tone in which the gift is finally requested not just ambivalent but beguilingly so. On the Witmark demo Dylan sings the word “there’s” in the phrase “And yes there’s something you can send back to me” almost, but not quite, as though he’s stretching it more emphatically into “there is”: “Yes, there is something you can send back to me,” which sounds more self-assertive than the recorded version. And in the New York concert the lines which name the gift are: “And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, / Send me boots of Spanish leather,” where the imperative also sounds more forceful than the recorded version. It’s replaced there by the word “Spanish,” so that the word now figures twice in the five-word line that ends the song, as an adjective identifying both national origin and material of manufacture: “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.”
I feel about this variation as T. S. Eliot does about some phrases in Shakespeare, such as Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” after her mistress’s death in Antony and Cleopatra. “I could not myself put into words,” he says, “the difference I feel between the passage if these two words were omitted and with them. But I know there is a difference, and that only Shakespeare could have made it.” I’m not sure that I can myself put into words the difference I feel between these versions of the song’s final lines, but I know there is a difference, and that only Bob Dylan could have made it. As close as I can put it into words, the difference has to do with the quality of its yearning, which the repetition underwrites. It’s an unnecessary repetition, since what are Spanish boots likely to be made of, after all, but Spanish leather? It’s surplus, as the abandoned lover is too as he exits the song alone; but it also makes the boots seem more lavishly alluring, perhaps even in a fetishistic way—matching, it may be, the attempted allure of the lover’s “of golden” earlier in the song. It’s as surplus as the interruptive breath Dylan takes when he sings the second “Spanish” on the album: “Spanish boots of Spa- / -nish leather.” He doesn’t do this on the Witmark demo, and it’s not as though he needs the air. It’s therefore an elected performance, if one spontaneously elected before the studio microphone. It sounds wholly untheatrical, nevertheless it is dramatically expressive. It’s a catch in the breath, as reality is finally accepted, but it’s something else too. It’s as if Dylan is stepping further inside himself, withdrawing into a private elsewhere which the song has opened for him—“with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath,” as Allen Ginsberg says of him more generally in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005). This melancholy space of interiority, or self-recollection, seems tacitly to criticize the various forms of masculine performance which might otherwise have inhered in the request. The Bob Dylan who opens the song in the voice and person of a woman, now in the voice and person of a man, subdues customary forms of masculine bitterness and recrimination to something more poignant, absorbed, and self-estranged.
Even so, there’s a hint in the specificity of the request that it’s not spontaneous but has been long meditated. Made neither of silver nor of golden, the proposed gift has less pecuniary value than the one offered, which perhaps criticizes her insinuation that value might lie, for him, in financial worth. So at least the shadow of a subtly resistant irony passes across these lines. He cannot choose her, since she refuses to choose him, but he can still choose something for himself; and what he chooses is designed specifically to get him back on his feet again, and to let her know it. Dylan’s expressive singing of the song’s final line in fact makes for two protracted pauses: in the middle of the word “Spanish,” but also after the word “of.” These delay the final full clinching rhyme of “leather” with “weather,” compelling us to wait for it. Given the ambiguities of the verse, this wait seems neither defiant nor self-assertive, but it does make the closure, of both the song and the affair, appear, in a phrase Dylan uses more than once elsewhere in his work, a “final end.”
There are several moments in A Freewheelin’ Time when you feel that, for Rotolo, things were never finally settled with Bob Dylan, despite the spirited and independent resilience on display in her fine book. She even tells us that there are certain early Dylan songs that she can’t listen to because they bring so much back to her. This is hardly surprising. Living the fleeting life that becomes the basis of permanent art, especially such popular and well-known art, exacts a heavy price if you are the one written about rather than the one writing, however well you cope with the end of the affair. But, given its performance of unsettled masculinity, it may be that “Boots of Spanish Leather” was one early Dylan song that Suze Rotolo was in fact able to continue listening to, whatever else it was liable to bring back home.
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Eliot, T.S. “John Dryden – II. Dryden the Dramatist,” Listener, 22 April 1931, 681.
Leonard, Aaron J. “FBI Tracking of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo Foreshadowed Future Abuses,” Truthout, September 1, 2019
Le Sueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
Rotolo, Suze. A Freewheelin’ Time (Broadway Books, 2008).
Van Ronk, Dave (with Elijah Wald). The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (Da Capo Press, 2005)