For Dylan fans, she is immortalized on the album jacket of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. She's pictured snuggling on Dylan's arm, the two of them strolling carefree down the middle of Jones Street in Greenwich Village, with a VW micro bus in the background. This dust jacket photograph is an iconic artifact of Dylan during this period. The album is widely considered to be Dylan's first masterpiece, a testament of his maturing political conscience and a clarion call to the civil rights movement.
But, what of his muse? Who was Suze Rotolo?
Bob Dylan met Suze Rotolo, just seventeen years old, at a folk concert in July 1961. Rotolo was the daughter of Italian immigrant parents from the working-class borough of Queen's. Her parents were active in working-class politics -- "old left" Communists from the McCarthy era. She was an aspiring artist, who sought inspiration and fellowship in the bohemian environs of Manhattan's Greenwich Village. By all appearances, she knew exactly who she was; Bob by contrast had left behind who he was in Hibbing, but knew exactly who he wanted to be.
Dylan and Rotolo dated, at first casually and then more seriously, through the summer and fall of 1961. Dylan continued to play coffee houses and folk festivals. He would spend frequent evenings at Suze's apartment talking, playing records and reading poetry. Recently, in an interview with the International Herald Tribune, Rotolo reminisced: "We created this private world ... We were searching for poetry, and we saw that in each other. We were so ultrasensitive, both of us. That's why it was a good relationship." Meanwhile, his debut album for Columbia had disappointing sales, and he was almost dropped from the label. Yet, he appeared undaunted, perhaps because he was in the throws of a blossoming romance. In the spring of 1962, Bob and Suze rented an apartment together on West 4th street near Washington Square.
Like her parents, Suze was drawn to left wing political activism, and she was particularly animated about the civil rights movement and issues of racial equality generally. As Robert Santelli notes: "Much of what Dylan knew about the struggle for equality and justice came from the words of Woody Guthrie songs. But with the influence of Rotolo ... Dylan began to see how he could use topical songs to express emotions behind the issues on everyone's minds." She even introduced him to the works of Bertold Brecht. However, doting on her musician boyfriend and being regarded by others as "Bob's girl" would prove to be a bit cloying for Suze. She needed a bit of space and distance, and in the summer of 1962 she took an extended trip to Italy (without Bob).
The period of separation from Rotolo seems to have been particularly productive and creative for Dylan. He literally threw himself into his work, both to remember and to forget. In a matter of months, he had completed the songs that he would record for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. These included "Blowin' in the Wind," "Girl From the North Country," "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Masters of War," "With God On Our Side," and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."
In late 1962, Dylan took his first trip to England to play some dates in London pubs. From there, he travelled to Rome to meet up with his manager. He'd like to have looked up Suze while in Rome but, unbeknownst to him, she had returned to the States just a few days earlier. In January 1963, Dylan returned to New York to finish Freewheelin'. Also, after a seven month absence, Bob and Suze got back together.
Meanwhile, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released to enthusiastic reviews. It quickly launched Dylan into the echelon of folk music royalty. Dylan began performing at Joan Baez concerts, which allowed him to reach a much wider audience, and established his credentials as an "up and coming" artist. In July, 1963, Dylan performed with Baez at the Newport Folk Festival, and scored a podium pass at the March on Washington in August. Rumours began to circulate that Baez and Dylan had become a romantic item.
Suze and Bob tried to ignore the rumours, but fractures were beginning to develop in their relationship. In September, Suze moved out of the West 4th Street apartment and went to live with her sister Carla. But soon thereafter, so did Bob -- which, as you can well imagine, created more tensions. In early 1964, Bob went on the road for six weeks, and phone home infrequently. Bob and Suze ended their relationship in March 1964.
Suze Rotolo appeared in the Martin Scorcese film No Direction Home (2006), which chronicles the early years of Dylan's career. And just recently, she has published a book entitled A Freewheelin' Time, recounting the early '60s in Greenwich Village and her relationship with Bob Dylan. Rotolo's book was briefly excerpted by the New York Times here.
Photo Credits: Suze Rotolo/Experience Music Project via Robert Santelli, The Bob Dylan Scrapbook: 1956-1966.
Finally, a retrospective: