Wednesday 7 December 2016

Dylan's muse -- and his social conscience

Published 05/03/2011 | 05:00

Suze Rotolo was Bob Dylan's first muse, the inspiration for some of his greatest love songs and a key figure in his political radicalisation. Forever immortalised on the cover of Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, walking arm in arm through the snow-covered streets of New York during the winter of 1962-63, Rotolo was as significant an influence on the early Dylan as Woody Guthrie and a seminal figure in his political education.

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It was not until after they became lovers in the summer of 1961 that his writing began to address issues such as the civil rights movement and the threat of nuclear war.

In his memoir, Chronicles Vol 1, Dylan also credited her with interesting him in art and introducing him to writers such as the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who heavily influenced his later writing style.

"Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian Nights," he wrote in a warm and generous portrait in the book. "She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a particular kind of voluptuousness -- a Rodin sculpture come to life."

By early 1962 the two were living together in Greenwich Village, much to the disapproval of Rotolo's family, and they talked of marriage. While Rotolo was away in Italy during the second half of 1962, their separation provoked a trio of the most beautiful love songs Dylan ever wrote -- 'Don't Think Twice It's All Right', 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and 'Tomorrow is a Long Time'.

The pair were reunited in New York in early 1963, and Rotolo was with him on the famous March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream" speech and Dylan sang 'Blowin' in the Wind'.

But their relationship failed to survive Dylan's flagrant affair with Joan Baez, the hostility of Rotolo's family and an aborted pregnancy. The couple broke up in 1964, and Dylan recounted the circumstances in detail in the song 'Ballad in Plain D', taking a sideswipe at Rotolo's family in the process. More than 20 years later, he apologised, admitting: "I must have been a real schmuck to write that. . . It was a mistake to record it and I regret it."

Rotolo, by contrast, retained total dignity and for many decades refused to give interviews or discuss her relationship with Dylan. She eventually appeared, with his approval, in Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home in 2005, and three years later published a well-received memoir, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.

Susan Elizabeth Rotolo was born in Queens, New York, in 1943. Her Italian-American parents were members of the Communist Party during the McCarthyite era. Her father died when she was 14, and the two teenage girls threw themselves into political activism and the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene.

Dylan later recalled that he and Rotolo were introduced by Carla, who was working for the folklorist Alan Lomax. According to Dylan, it was more or less love at first sight. She was "the most erotic thing I'd ever seen", he wrote and the two were soon in a relationship.

Rotolo at the time was a non-stop political activist, working for Core (the Congress for Racial Equality) and the anti-nuclear group Sane and picketing Woolworths stores in New York because the lunch counters in their stores in the South were segregated.

She sharpened Dylan's political awareness and introduced him to a bohemian world of radical theatre, art and intellectualism.

She also told him the tragic tale of a black teenage boy, killed in a brutal Mississippi racist murder.

Dylan was so struck by the injustice that he rewrote the story as 'The Death of Emmett Till'; it was the first of what he called his "finger-pointing" songs and, in effect, the start of the 1960s protest song movement.

Rotolo nicknamed Dylan "Pig" or "Raz" (his birth initials). Her mother Mary and sister Carla, with somewhat less affection, referred to him as "The Twerp" and cast aspersions on his personal hygiene. When, at the age of 18, Rotolo moved out of the family home and into Dylan's 4th Street apartment, they were appalled. Even his growing success and the release in 1963 of his second album, featuring the iconic image of Bob and Suze on the cover, failed to mollify them.

Convinced that Suze was throwing her life away on a worthless hustler, her mother hatched a plan to spirit her away from Dylan, taking her to Italy in June 1962 for a summer study course at the University of Perugia.

Rotolo was at first reluctant but later said that she had agreed to go in order not to lose her identity in Dylan's growing stardom. She "didn't want to be a string on his guitar", as she put it.

Back in New York, a lovelorn Dylan poured his hurt and longing into his songs and, when Rotolo did not return in September 1962, as planned, he took a trip of his own to Europe in December, first to London and then to Rome.

They missed each other because Rotolo was on her way back to America and were eventually reunited in New York in January 1963. However, in August 1963 she moved out of Dylan's apartment and went to live with her sister Carla, who told her that Dylan was manipulative, selfish and emotionally immature. The final break came early in 1964, and Dylan angrily blamed Carla, denouncing her as a "parasite".

More than 40 years later, Rotolo wrote in her memoir: "I could no longer cope with all the pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed. I was unable to find solo ground. I was on quicksand and very vulnerable."

She continued her political activism throughout her life, continued to live in Greenwich Village and worked as an artist, book illustrator and teacher.

She is survived by her husband, Enzo Bartoccioli, whom she met in Perugia and married in 1970, and one son. She died of cancer on February 24, 2011, aged 67.

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