Suze Rotolo was just 17 when she fell in love with Bob Dylan, who
found her 'the most erotic thing' he'd ever seen. Through the
photograph on his Freewheelin' album cover, they came to embody the
ideal of the carefree 60s couple. Finally, she is telling her story.
Richard Williams met her in New York's East Village
Richard Williams The Guardian,
Saturday August 16 2008
In a Greenwich Village bookstore, a window is filled with a poster
that replays a familiar image. A boy and girl are walking down a
snow-covered street, arm in arm, lost in some private paradise. He is
hunched against the cold. Their heads are together. She is laughing.
The photograph was taken 45 years ago, a stone's throw from where the
shop stands. It went around the world, touching countless young
lives. And now it has come back home.
Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo had been together for 18 months when the
photographer Don Hunstein captured them for the cover of The
Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. This album, Dylan's second, was the one that
lifted him out of the tight little folk scene and broadcast his
talent to a generation of eager young listeners. It was the one with
"Blowin' in the Wind", "Masters of War", "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"
and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", songs of social conscience,
political awareness and a precocious sensitivity to the nuances and
contradictions of love. The cover image, its intimacy and informality
so far removed from the airbrushed self-presentation of most
performers, was the perfect calling card.
Sitting in a cafe in New York's East Village, where she now lives,
Rotolo laughs at the pitfalls of memory. She and the photographer,
she says, recently disagreed on exactly where they were on that cold
February day in 1963. A few shots had been taken in the West 4th
Street apartment she shared with Dylan. Then they all went outside,
into the snow. Dylan, conscious of being in the process of creating
an image for himself, pulled on a thin suede jerkin and shivered.
Rotolo chose a thick sweater and a favourite loden-green winter coat,
more suited to the conditions. Wrapped around each other, they walked
through the slush towards the camera. Hunstein says they were on
Cornelia Street. Rotolo is convinced it was Jones Street, one block
closer to the apartment. "So that's just going to have to remain a
mystery for all those Dylanologists," she says, with a note of
Other mysteries are laid bare, and a few quietly preserved, in her
new book, A Freewheelin' Time, subtitled A Memoir of Greenwich
Village in the Sixties. Of all the unwritten books on Dylan, the most
thoroughly documented musician of his era, this is perhaps the one
most desired by his fans. As he has readily acknowledged, Rotolo
played a vital role in his evolution; she was also the inspiration,
or so it has always been assumed, for many of his most important
early songs. Now a slender, elegant 64-year-old artist, she talks of
finally overcoming her lifelong shyness and discretion to give us her
commentary on that remarkable time.
For many years she kept up her defences against those anxious for
revelations about her former boyfriend, but an interview she
contributed to No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's much-praised
biographical film on Dylan, helped her to overcome the fear, in a
phrase she frequently employs, of "feeding the beast". She liked the
way the film depicted the broader context: the people, the places,
the politics. The first volume of Chronicles, Dylan's own
autobiography, was another turn of the key that unlocked her
memories. Then she met a Random House editor who suggested that she
might write a book along the lines of Joyce Johnson's Minor
Characters, an evocation of the author's life as Jack Kerouac's
girlfriend in an earlier New York bohemia. It happened to be among
"My reflex action was to say, 'Thank you very much, but no.' It had
been so many years that I'd shut the door. But the way he presented
it was, what was it like as a young girl to come from the family I
came from and end up in the Village and be in this place and observe
it through my own eyes? That was something to think about. Then my
son said, 'People have been writing a version of you for years. It's
time you told the real one.' It suddenly made sense."
The book is full of quick, deft sketches of key characters and others
more peripheral. There is space for stories that have little or
nothing to do with Dylan, such as Rotolo's extraordinary trip to Cuba
with a group of students in 1964, breaking the US travel embargo and
incurring the government's wrath. Inevitably, however, the narrative
is driven by the story of their love affair, from its beginning in
1961 to its end three years later.
She first saw him performing in a Village club in the spring of 1961.
At the time she was working for Core, the Congress of Racial
Equality, and already had many friends within the interlinked scenes
of folk music and the civil rights movement. They came face to face a
few weeks later, during an all-day session broadcast live from the
Riverside Church, high up on the West Side, to raise funds for a
radio station. Dylan took the stage mid-afternoon and drew laughter -
much of it from women, as a bootleg recording attests - for his
protracted comic fumblings with a recalcitrant harmonica holder.
"When he started out as a performer he was playful, a combination of
Woody Guthrie and Harpo Marx, with a good dose of himself as a
binding ingredient," Rotolo remembers. "He used that playfulness to
draw the audience in. With the passing of time, the technique was no
longer required. The audience was with him the minute he stepped on
stage. A sense of humour, however, was always his strong suit."
Later that night they went on to a party together. "Right from the
start I couldn't take my eyes off her," Dylan wrote in Chronicles.
"She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. She was fair skinned
and golden haired, full-blood Italian . . . We started talking and my
head started to spin . . . She was just my type."
She was also only 17, to his 21. She had already left the family
home, but subterfuges were necessary until she turned 18 that
November and they could legally live together in the two-room flat he
had found for $60 a month on the top floor of 161 West 4th Street. It
was only then, when they returned home after a night's drinking and
his wallet fell out of his pocket, that she saw his draft card and
discovered that his real name was not Dylan but Zimmerman: an early
warning of his penchant for self-mythologising.
She took him to art galleries, and introduced him to her favourite
poets and playwrights. Through her he discovered Picasso and Cézanne,
the French symbolist poets ("Situations have ended sad /
Relationships have all been bad / Mine've been like Verlaine's and
Rimbaud," he wrote years later), Brecht and the politics of dissent,
all of which he could stir together with the cultural influences he
had brought with him from Minnesota - Kerouac, Guthrie, Robert
Johnson. He looked on as she sketched constantly, and picked up the habit.
Her parents, the children of Italian immigrants, were active
communists with a strong artistic bent. "I was always an artist," she
says. "I came from a family where art was important." Her father
supplied occasional illustrations to the New York Times, but
preferred to pursue a vocation as a union organiser until his death
from a heart attack when Suze was 14. Her mother worked for a
communist newspaper; her older sister, Carla, was an assistant to
Alan Lomax, the celebrated musicologist.
At that stage Dylan didn't even have a recording contract, and her
book describes the mounting exhilaration as he took his first steps
to fame. In the summer of 1962, however, she decided to accept an
invitation from her mother and her new stepfather to accompany them
on a trip to Europe, and to revive an earlier plan for her to study
art in Perugia. Her friends were divided. Dylan said it was up to
her, but he'd much rather she stayed. He waved from the docks as her
ship pulled out, before going back to the apartment to write the
first of many airmail letters. "Everybody is waiting for the cooler
weather," he wrote after she had settled into her student existence,
"and I am just waiting for you."
While in Umbria she read Françoise Gilot's Life with Picasso and felt
a shock of recognition. "I felt I was reading a book of revelations,
lessons, warnings," she writes. "Even though Picasso was a much older
man than Bob and had experienced a lot more, their personalities were
so similar that it was astounding." Her doubts about living in the
shadow of such a man contributed to her decision to extend her stay
from four to six months; on her return, she discovered that she had
incurred the disapproval of Dylan's inner circle for leaving him so bereft.
Nevertheless, they resumed their relationship, and she moved back
into the apartment while working at a variety of jobs that included
designing folk-club posters, working for small theatre companies and
waitressing. She invited him to a rehearsal of George Tabori's Brecht
on Brecht at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, and in one of the most
vivid passages of Chronicles he describes how hearing the performance
of Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny" provoked a fundamental change in his
approach to songwriting. Rotolo, too, remembers the moment. "He sat
still and quiet. Didn't even jiggle his leg."
Nowadays she doesn't care to listen to the songs of parting and loss
he wrote while she was away - "Don't Think Twice", "One Too Many
Mornings", "Tomorrow is a Long Time" - even though, like their
composer, she firmly resists literal interpretations. "People ask,
'Was this song written for you?' Well, I could say this and that. I
could make a list. But if you really listen to those songs, they're
somewhat like fiction - he's written something coming from his life,
but he sets it in a fiction, maybe using another character's voice.
"I can recognise things. It's like looking at a diary. It brings it
all back. And what's hard is that you remember being unsure of how
life was going to go - his, mine, anybody's. So, from the perspective
of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of
them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and the struggle that youth
is, or may be."
There was certainly plenty of pain. She describes the strains imposed
by her mother's and sister's dislike of Dylan, by his gathering
celebrity and by her need to assert the right to an independent
existence. Her background made it easy for her to cope with his
creative needs ("I could see that he was an artist at work"), but in
those days there was little vocabulary to cope with the world's
insistence that the girlfriend should sit quietly in the background.
"I was a young girl of my time. I was shy and timid, and I would be
envious of men who could go to a cafe and sit and draw and read or
write songs or do whatever they could do. If a girl did that it would
mean that she was alone, she wasn't with somebody, she was an easy
woman. It would take a lot of courage to do it, and when you did it,
you took a chance."
In one of her book's many memorable phrases, she describes Dylan as
"a beacon and a black hole". "He had this intensity about him, and
you got sucked in," she says. "I certainly felt that, as his
girlfriend, I disappeared and became a nonentity. Even if he didn't
see me that way, that's what happened. That was always a struggle.
"There are people who say that he was not a good guy - he was
manipulative, he was this, that and the other. I tend to see it as,
you are what you are. He could be a shit, like anybody else. But a
lot of it had to do with being given permission to say and do
whatever you wanted, because nobody was in a position to tell you no.
Everybody's yessing you, and everybody wants a piece of you. So what
do you do?"
A particularly large piece was claimed by Joan Baez, who arrived on
the Dylan scene in the summer of 1963. Already a star, she performed
his songs and began inviting him on stage to sing with her. He stayed
at her home in California and soon the rumours got back to New York.
When Baez joined Dylan on his own tour, however, she found him
unwilling to return the favour. They had served each other's
purposes, but the casualty was Rotolo.
"It's a very long time ago," she says, "and there are no residual
hurt feelings. I think she's an example of a woman who really knew
what she wanted and how to get it, and to everybody else, the hell
with you. Which men could do easily. She went out and got what she
wanted, and then he in turn did it for her and then he didn't. That
was him going after what he wanted, with no baggage. He never looked
back. He just kept going."
The book's unvarnished description of their slow break-up - "He
avoided responsibility . . . I was difficult and unreasonable" -
makes a poignant contrast with the famous image of the carefree
lovers. A climactic row was followed by the discovery of her
pregnancy, an illegal abortion, a brief reunion and her breakdown.
"It was the hardest thing to write about. I was young and vulnerable
and insecure. There were pressures from all around and I couldn't
find my place any more. I didn't feel I had anybody I could turn to.
That makes you really fall apart. And that's how I felt."
She escaped to Italy for a while, and in 1970 married Enzo
Bartoliocci, whom she had met during her student days in Perugia. Now
her husband is a film editor at the UN; their son, Luca, was born 28
years ago and is a luthier: "Only four people in New York know what
that means. He makes guitars."
Inevitably, after such a hurtful parting, she and Dylan lost contact
for a while. But when many of her possessions - including the
loden-green coat and his old Gibson guitar - were lost in a fire in
her apartment a few years later, he helped her out. In occasional
touch, they remain respectful of each other and of their shared
history. When she describes the episodic, overlapping structure of
her book, and the effort to recall long-spent emotions, she could
almost be him, talking about a song. "It isn't factual," she says,
"but it's true. So it doesn't go from page to page. But the emotion
that I managed to find is true."