Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s girlfriend in the early-Sixties, who walked arm-in-arm with the songwriter on the iconic cover of The Freehweelin’ Bob Dylan, died February 24th after a long illness. She was 67. Rotolo was the muse behind many of Dylan’s early love songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” She was just 17 when they began dating in 1961, shortly after Dylan arrived in New York City. “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told,” he wrote in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.”
In Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One, he describes meeting Rotolo backstage at a concert. “Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” Dylan wrote. “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.”
By early 1962, Dylan and Rotolo were living together in a tiny apartment on West 4th Street. Suze came from a staunchly left-wing New York family, and played a huge role in Dylan’s political awakening. When they began dating Dylan was largely apolitical and his set consisted mostly of decades-old folk songs. Rotolo took him to CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) meetings and taught him much about the civil rights movement. “A lot of what I gave him was a look at how the other half lived — left wing things that he didn’t know,” Rotolo told writer David Hajdu in his book Positively 4th Street. “He knew about Woody [Guthrie] and Pete Seeger, but I was working for CORE and went on youth marches for civil rights, and all that was new to him.”
Rotolo told Dylan about the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, inspiring Dylan to write his early protest classic “The Death of Emmett Till.” “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” Dylan said at the time. “How many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to [Suze] and asked, ‘Is this right? Because I knew her mother was associated with unions, and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked the songs out with her. She would like all the songs.”
In the summer of 1962 Rotolo took a long trip to Italy, leaving Dylan alone and heartbroken in New York. During this period he penned “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” — all bittersweet love songs about Rotolo. She returned in January of 1963, and weeks later Columbia records send photographer Don Hunstein to shoot the cover of The Freehweelin’ Bob Dylan. The young couple walked up and down Jones Street for a few minutes while Hunstein snapped shots. “Bob stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and leaned into me,” Rotolo wrote in her 2009 book A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. “We walked the length of Jones Street facing West Fourth with Bleecker Street at our backs. 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.”
Dylan’s growing fame put enormous strain on their relationship, and she moved into her sister Carla’s apartment in August of 1963. “I could no longer cope with all the pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed,” she wrote in her memoir. “I was unable to find solo ground — I was on quicksand and very vulnerable.” A particularly nasty fight with Suze and her sister Carla was chronicled in Dylan’s 1964 song “Ballad in Plain D.” “For her parasite sister, I had no respect,” Dylan wrote in one of the angriest songs he ever wrote. “Bound by her boredom, her pride had to protect.” In a 1985 interview Dylan said releasing the song was wrong. “It wasn’t very good,” he said. “It was a mistake to record it and I regret it.”
By late 1963, Rotolo could no longer ignore the rumors that Joan Baez and Bob Dylan’s relationship had become more than professional. They split up for good, though remained friends for a short period afterwards. During Rotolo’s trip to Italy in 1962, Rotolo met film editor Enzo Bartoccioli. They married in 1970 and had a son named Luca. She lived in downtown New York her entire life, and worked as a teacher, a painter and a book illustrator.
For years Rotolo refused to discuss Dylan in interviews, but she agreed to be interviewed in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home. In 2009 she wrote a memoir entitled A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.