Another side of Bob Dylan
The One That Got Away
by Paul Wilner
The headline on the first version of the obituary, posted on the New York Times’ website, read: “Suze Rotolo, Muse and Girlfriend to Bob Dylan, Dies at 67.’’ The print edition changed it to “Suze Rotolo, a Face, With Bob Dylan, of ’60s Music, Is Dead at 67.’’ Not much better.
Freewheelin’ Bob DylanRotolo’s bright smile — looking directly at the camera on the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as the blissful couple braved the Greenwich Village winter on Jones Street – signaled an iconic moment that countless others wanted to share, hoping to capture the joy it embodied. And she inspired Dylan, introducing him to Brecht and Rimbaud, but she was more than a muse, or a face. She was something of a pre-feminist pioneer: one of the few brought into the circle of trust of celebrity and rising stardom who decided to walk away from it.
Dylan couldn’t believe she would leave him for a long-planned trip to Perugia. He wrote sardonically: “Well, the ocean took my baby/My baby stole my heart from me/Yes, the ocean took my baby/My baby took my heart from me/She packed it all up in a suitcase/Lord, she took it away to Italy.’’
Good for her.
As Rotolo later states in her fond but dispassionate 2008 memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the ’70s, she didn’t want to be “just this string on his guitar … just this chick.’’
In the land of rock stars — with notable exceptions such as Pattie Boyd, the inspiration for “Layla,’’ who dumped George Harrison for Eric Clapton — it’s the guys who do the dumping.
However painful the split with Rotolo may have been for the hobo from Hibbing, he certainly got a good return on his investment, paying her back with some of the greatest break-up songs of all time, from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’’ to “One Too Many Mornings’’ to “Boots of Spanish Leather.’’
He put his troubles out all over West 4th Street, too – and not positively. When Rotolo returned from her European adventure and tried to reconcile, Dylan’s friends would derisively sing “Don’t Think Twice’’ when she walked into the club. Johnny Cash, recovering from a breakup of his own and fancying himself a Dylan protector, would barely acknowledge her.
In the book Rock Star Wives, Rotolo tells interviewer Victoria Balfour: “When I came back from Italy, I was surrounded by these people I didn’t even know intruding into my personal life. There were people who were actually angry that I had abandoned him at the ‘most important time of his life.’ I was ‘the woman who deserted him.’”
Although Dylan had already embarked on an affair with Joan Baez, whom he would treat shabbily, he couldn’t shake the memory of Rotolo and a purer time – and perhaps a purer version of himself that it symbolized.
“Ballad of Plain D,’’ which blames Rotolo’s sister and mother for interfering and which Dylan later called “a mistake to record,’’ is suffused with lyrical regret.
“I once loved a girl/her skin it was bronze,’’ he croons. “With the innocence of a lamb /She was gentle like a faun/I courted her proudly but now she is gone/Gone as the season she’s taken.’’
Serves him right.
Like every red-blooded Jewish-American neurotic of my generation, I’m a hardcore Dylan freak, but it’s past time to admit that the poet who denounced the masters of war is himself a master of misogyny. From Blonde on Blonde to Blood on the Tracks, it’s obvious the dude has issues, as they say, with women.
Even if you call a track like “Idiot Wind’’ (written about his ex-wife, Sara, not Rotolo) a way for the musician to grapple with his dualistic nature, its sheer venom is startling: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth/Blowing down the backroads headin’ south/Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.’’ Talk about airing your dirty linen – and household arguments – in public. The lyrics are compelling – like watching a traffic accident – but for sheer effrontery, Dylan makes macho men like Sinatra, who was at least singing other people’s words, seem as sensitive as Jackson Browne.
For her part, Rotolo seemed to show good sense in choosing a life well out of the spotlight.
“All this indulgence of the ’60s, ay-yi-yi, get over it,” she told Anthony DeCurtis of the New York Times in an interview promoting her book. “Everything occurs again, just differently. There will always be creative people who feel that they’re different and create a community of some kind. Whether it’s a physical neighborhood or an Internet neighborhood, in Bushwick or in Greenwich Village, it’s not over.”
She married, happily, a man she first met in Italy during her sabbatical, and established a career as a book artist. On her own website and on PaperWorks.net, which features examples of her work, she mentions once being Dylan’s girlfriend, but stakes out her own territory: “I think of my works as reliquaries – repositories for the ideas, obsessions, personal stories, and philosophy of life, that I have acquired over time.”
She and her famous lover stayed in touch over the years, and she made a rare appearance in Martin Scorsese’s hagiographic documentary, No Direction Home but Suze Rotolo was never content to be anybody’s “chick.’’ Unlike Baez, who for all her public declarations of independence has always seemed to be still among the walking wounded, the girl from Greenwich Village got away free and clear. Don’t think twice, she’s all right.
This piece was originally published in the online magazine obit-mag.com.
Paul Wilner is a frequent Obit contributor who specializes in the arts and popular culture.