Monday, March 7, 2011

Suze Rotolo

The photograph stared out at me over time for decades. A young woman on a wintry Greenwich Village street, wrapped in a green coat, looking cool and self-possessed on the arm of a youthful Bob Dylan.

It’s the album cover for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the great man’s second album and the one that for him would make all the difference.

Suze Rotolo, a teenage Village hipster before any of us knew what that term meant, was the smiling, attractive woman with Dylan, trundling down Jones Street in the snow, captured forever in a photograph by Don Hunstein. The photo was taken in Feb. 1963, which is the sort of thing you know if Bob Dylan is a big deal to you.

The album was a revelation, even for a high school kid. Among 13 tracks are 11 original songs including “Girl from the North Country,” “Hard Rain,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Masters of War,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

"Freewheelin'" broke Dylan from the pack, changing the face of American music, and the politics, and the culture. And changing the perspective of millions of high school and college kids who felt the breeze of the 1960s. There was, as Van Morrison said, no "moon and June" in this stuff. Dylan had taken reality into the mainstream

To me, beyond the music, the album cover looked like freedom and adventure. It was 1964 and my aunt Moo gave me the album, me a high school kid from western New York State. Looking at the photo, so hip and urban and so removed from my small town life (ironically, for me, the life that Dylan himself had just left behind in Minnesota), I felt the way some must have felt about Paris in the 1920s.

That sounds pretentious, perhaps, though it isn't meant to be. And it should be noted that Suze Rotolo was very attractive, in a way that 14-year-old boys from western New York were unaccustomed to seeing.

Dylan and Rotolo were together, in the fashion of the time, from 1961 to 1964, sharing an apartment on West Fourth St. She was the child of immigrants, born in Queens, a “red-diaper” baby whose parents were communists and activists. She was marching and protesting by the time she was 15.

Dylan told his biographer, ”Suze was into the equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked the songs with her.”

In 1962 she left New York for eight months to study art in Italy. A furious Dylan wrote her angry letters, lashed out at her family and, being Dylan at 23, wrote a series of tremendous broken heart songs, including “One Too Many Mornings,” “Love Is Just a Four Letter Word” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”

None are better than “Boots of Spanish Leather,” perhaps the most remarkable of his love songs, a perfect short story and a conversation, an elegant, sad and resigned evocation of every serious romance ending or gone wrong, or both.

The irony is that the album photo shoot came after Rotolo returned from Italy. It was complicated. On his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” he attacked Rotolo, her mother and her “parasite” sister Carla in “Ballad in Plain D.” It is perhaps the most bitter and mean-spirited of his songs.

In an interview in the mid-1980s, Dylan, among the least apologetic of men, said, “It was a mistake to record it and I regret it.”

For her part, Rotolo for decades said virtually nothing in public about her time with Dylan, an experience she once described as “the elephant in the room of my life.”

She gave an interview to director Martin Scorsese for his fine 2005 film “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.” And another to NPR in 2009, the year she published a highly praised memoir.

I confess I never read it. But in the book, “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties,” she described the photo shoot, with a sly dig at the old boy friend:

“The snow on the streets was slushy and filthy from the traffic. Don (Hunstein) kept clicking away … in some of the outtakes it’s obvious that by then we were freezing; certainly Bob was, in that thin jacket. But image was all.”

Suze Rotolo, who said she was more than “a string on his guitar” and lived her life that way, stayed in Greenwich Village. She was married for 40 years to film editor Enzo Bartoccioli. They had a son named Luca. According to the obits, she taught at the Parsons School of Design and maintained her interest in politics, her community and the arts.

She died Feb. 25, 2011 of lung cancer at 67 in her New York loft, with her son and husband at her side. By all accounts she had a full and accomplished life. I hope so. I have a picture.


  1. Ah, Steve Daley. A perfect evocation. Of her - and you. Thanks.

  2. Just exquisite. Brought tears to my eyes.
    Thank you.