Suze Rotolo: 1943-2011

Unless you’re a really hardcore Bob Dylan fan you likely don’t know her name. But you’ve probably seen her face. Suze Rotolo (pronounced “Susie”) is the one walking with Bob Dylan on the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan’s break-out second studio album. (His first barely sold any copies at all.)

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But it wasn’t just a picture. And she wasn’t just some random person. Dylan and Rotolo were a couple from 1961 (about four months after he arrived in New York City) to 1964. In other words, for almost all of Dylan’s formative folk period. As such, she’s believed to be the inspiration of many of these key songs.Dylan himself writes about the relationship in his 2004 memoirs Chronicles, Volume One, here describing meeting her for the first time …

Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood 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.

When the two met Dylan was 20 and Rotolo was 17. But she worked for CORE, which was then one of America’s premier Civil Rights organizations, not the corrupt husk it later become. So in addition to the personal influence, her political influence on the early Dylan work seems to have been very great.

One of my favorite stories, which is I think from her memoir, has the notoriously secretive and mythifying Dylan coming home very drunk one night to their apartment in Greenwich Village. To this point, though they’d been living together for six months, she didn’t know that his given name wasn’t Bob Dylan or I think even where he was from. But in his stupor Dylan’s wallet spills open and she finds a draft registration card identifying him as Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota. When he first showed up in New York City Dylan was making up all sorts of crazy stories about where he’d come from. Orphan, runaway, that he’d lived in various states where he hadn’t, that he’d come across the country in a boxcar. The truth was a good deal more prosaic.

Rotolo went on to a career as a visual artist and taught at Parsons in New York City.

The relationship seems to have ended over stresses tied to Dylan’s growing fame. Three years ago, she wrote her own memoir A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. Of the end of the relationship she writes, “Bob was charismatic: he was a beacon, a lighthouse, he was also a black hole. He required committed backup and protection I was unable to provide consistently, probably because I needed them myself.”

She died of lung cancer Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 67.

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