R.I.P. Suze Rotolo 1943-2011
A muse can inspire an artist to generate some of the greatest art work known to man. For Bob Dylan, one of his girlfriends, Suze Rotolo was the first of many muses that inspired his writing and vision. Rotolo died last Thursday, February 24 after a long bout with lung cancer. She was 67.
In Rotolo's 2009 memoir A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixtiesshe documents her upbringing by Leftist parents in Queens and her many friends in the Folk scene including Dave Van Ronk. The memoir includes details about her relationship with Dylan. During their time together she introduced Dylan to the politics behind the folk songs he sang in the coffeehouses, art and the world around him.
The two met in July 1961 at a folk concert at Riverside Church in New York City. Dylan had only been in the city for 6 months. Dylan was 20 and Rotolo was just 17. Dylan described first meeting Rotolo backstage in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One:
Right from the start I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden-haired, full-blooded Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid's arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard.
Rotolo worked for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) office in New York and introduced Dylan to the Civil Rights Movement. This influence obviously inspired Dylan to write the classic inequality songs of protest such as "Oxford Town", "The Death of Emmett Till", "Only A Pawn In Their Game" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
During 1962, Rotolo moved with her mother overseas to Italy to study which left Dylan alone with his words and his guitar. The two wrote love letters back and forth and Dylan likely composed some of his best early work about Rotolo including "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time."
Rotolo returned to New York in late 1962, but did not see Dylan until mid-January 1963 when he returned from an overseas trip of his own. Shortly after their reunion Columbia Records sent staff photographer Don Hunstein to shoot the cover of Dylan's next album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Hunstein and Columbia publicist Billy James arrived the couple's apartment at 161 West Fourth Street and took some pictures inside of Dylan. The two asked Rotolo to join Dylan in some of the photos and eventually moved the photo shoot outside to the street. A photo of Dylan and Rotolo taken during the outside portion of the shoot graced the iconic album cover of with Rotolo holding Dylan's arm walking down a snow packed Jones street in New York City. Years later in her memoir Rotolo reminisced, "We walked the length of Jones Street facing West Fourth with Bleecker Street at our backs. The snow on the streets was slushy and filthy from the traffic. To keep warm we started horsing around. Don kept clicking away. In some outtakes it's obvious that we were freezing; certainly Bob was, in that thin jacket. But image was all. As for me, I was never asked to sign a release or paid anything. It never dawned on me to ask."
However, by May 27, 1963 when Columbia released the album Dylan had moved on slightly staying two weeks with Joan Baez at her family's house in Carmel, CA that month. Dylan's star started to rise rapidly after the album and Rotolo felt distanced from her boyfriend. By August 1963, Rotolo had moved out of the West Fourth Street apartment and into an apartment on Avenue B with her sister, Carla. However, for a time things were better now that they weren't living together. The couple spent Christmas 1963 together and spent much of 1964 together as well.
Nevertheless, Rotolo recounts in the memoir how her mother never accepted Dylan and how her sister and Dylan fought for her interest. Shortly after she moved in with her sister, Rotolo found out she was pregnant. She wrote, "Terrified, I didn't know how to handle the situation. Bobby and I were going through a tumultous time as it was; this was a complication we had not anticipated. I did not want to have a child. I was feeling confined, and a child would be even more of a confinement." After much consternation, she had an abortion; an illegal act at the time.
After a months of buildup the couple had a fight near the end of their relationship. Dylan wrote "Ballad In Plain D" after a emotions came to the boiling point and later included the song on his album Another Side Of Bob Dylanreleased by Columbia on August 8, 1964. He wrote,
Through young summer’s breeze, I stole her away From her mother and sister, though close did they stay Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day With strings of guilt they tried hard to guide us
Of the two sisters, I loved the young With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one The constant scapegoat, she was easily undone By the jealousy of others around her
For her parasite sister, I had no respect Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect Countless visions of the other she’d reflect As a crutch for her scenes and her society
Dylan later regretted the song and stated in a 1985 interview that, "It wasn't very good." Continuing he said. "It was a mistake to record it and I regret it." The two stayed friends after their breakup and Rotolo even attended recording sessions for Highway 61 Revisited during 1965. However, she and Dylan were clearly moving in different directions.
Rotolo eventually married film editor Enzo Bartoccioli in 1970 whom she met on her trip to Italy in 1962. The two had a son together named Luca who reported her death. An artist, Rotolo lived her life in New York and worked as a teacher, a painter and a book illustrator. Reluctant to give up her own persona to merely be a participant in the life of a famous musician, Rotolo moved on. Although she will always be a footnote in music history, she proved she was her own person. An enviable epitaph for a strong woman.