Suze Rotolo has waited a long time to tell her side of the Bob Dylan story. "My instinct was to protect my privacy, and consequently his." Despite her reticence, she has become a central figure in the Dylan legend, and for good reason. Rotolo was "Bob Dylan's girlfriend" from 1961 – when she was 17 and he 20 – until the relationship came to an end, after much procrastination on both sides, in early 1964. She was the young woman walking arm in arm with Dylan down a snowy Greenwich Village Street on the cover of Freewheelin', Dylan's breakthrough second album: unadorned, casual and cool.
During his period with Rotolo, Dylan found his voice as a song-writer. In its short span he created "Masters of War", "Blowin in the Wind", "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall", "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", "Hattie Carroll" and many more, including the mournful "Boots of Spanish Leather", Dylan's response to Rotolo's leaving him (temporarily) to study in Perugia. During this time Dylan shot from Village folkie to national celebrity and commodity – a trauma from which he never fully recovered, as is clear from his own memoir, Chronicles, Volume One.
Rotolo was the daughter of working-class Italian Communists who gave her a sharpened political awareness along with an appreciation of art and music. Thanks to McCarthyism, the family led a pariah-like existence in Queens, New York. Within this separate world she discovered another hidden world, reading the ex-Stalinist anthology, The God That Failed, and learning about anti-Stalinist anarchist Carlo Tresca. Her father's death when she was 14 disrupted her childhood. She left Queens for the Village and the folk scene, where she met Dylan. Though not a musician, she seems to have had an amazing ear, revelling in the distinctive voices swirling through the Village hubbub.
The core of Rotolo's book, like Dylan's Chronicles, is a fond recreation of those precious years. Dylan's treatment is densely atmospheric and poetically rich, but Rotolo's is more reliable. It's a shame that at times her book reads a like thumbnail catalogue of contributors to the scene. She's generous, but sometimes banal. She is credited with introducing Dylan to Brecht, modernist painting, Surrealism, French Symbolism and avant-garde theatre. She was the more politically aware and active (and remains so). Rotolo has now fleshed out this picture.
She bridled at the girlfriend's role; she did not want to be "a string on Dylan's guitar". Even among the Village avant-garde, women were expected to applaud from the sidelines. Rotolo refers briefly to Dylan's "manipulativeness", but even after all these years, she's telling no tales. There are no intimate glimpses and no recriminations. She's still protecting her memories as she stresses Dylan's, and her own, ordinariness in extraordinary times.
Mike Marqusee is the author of 'Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s' (Seven Stories Press)Reuse content