Susie Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s lover in the early sixties, died last month, and NPR recently played an excerpt from a 2008 interview with her. I was very moved by the interview, and felt that it gave me a startling and fresh perspective on an important part of Dylan’s early work—his love (and hate) songs, and perhaps the role that women play in his songs in general.
Rotolo is known primarily as the woman walking with Dylan on the famous album cover photo for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” But in the interview she shows us how much more than that she was. She was someone who loved and understood Dylan better than he did himself, someone who never lived her life as “Bob Dylan’s Girlfriend,” but rather as a free and independent person, someone who was cruelly and publicly punished for causing Dylan heartbreak, and yet someone capable of remembering and retelling it all with warmth, humor, compassion, and, incredibly, in a tone free of resentment.
Growing as the daughter of New York left wing intellectuals, Rotolo was exposed to so much of what would make up Dylan’s world: left politics, the civil rights movement, the struggle for authenticity in a twisted commercial culture, poetry, art and music of all kinds. She enthusiastically recalls exposing him to these things, and the joys of immersion in them amidst the excitement of young love. For example, as she was helping stage a production of one of Brecht’s plays she introduced Dylan to Brecht’s work and Weill’s, which had a large impact on him. It’s easy to attribute a lot of Dylan’s politics in the early sixties to her. It’s probably not an accident that her departure from his life occurred as he left the political arena for the more interior, surrealist songs post 1964. In a voice full of warmth and kindness she described the thirst for life and the curiosity that she and Dylan shared. And later, as she explained why and how she left him (twice), there was no animosity or resentment or critique.
Rotolo left for a trip to Italy in 1962, something she had always wanted to do. Thrilled with meeting international students with the same artistic ambitions and interests, she stayed eight months because she “was out in the bright fresh air . . . It was just thrilling.” She contrasted this with the increasingly suffocating atmosphere of living in the folk music culture in Greenwich Village. She didn’t talk about what was wrong with Dylan that made her leave, but rather how she know what was important for her to do with her life, and that this wasn’t it.
The breakup with her caused him to write some of his most appealing early songs, such as “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all Right”. When she left for the trip to Italy, he wrote these songs and sung them around the village and out into the world. When Rotolo returned from her trip, she was astounded and deeply wounded by how public the personal story of their relationship had become, and she felt that all the musicians and all their social circle seemed to have blamed her for being cruel and hurting Dylan. She would go into a club and the performers would sing those songs, pointedly, at her, and even sing all kinds of other ‘she-did-him-wrong’ songs to punish her.
But Rotolo had not left Dylan in order to hurt him, nor did she see it as the end of their relationship. She left him because she had wanted to go to Italy for a long time, and the opportunity presented itself, and she didn’t think of herself as Bob Dylan’s girlfriend, someone obligated to assist the great man’s famous career, but as herself, someone who knew what she wanted. When she came back, they resumed their relationship, but she saw now again that this isn’t what she had wanted—he was now in a world circumscribed by the structures of fame, a man who apparently thought he could have a girl in each of several cities, and she was reduced to just being ‘this chick’, that he could come back to after adventures on the road. As she says about his girl-in-every-port privilege, “Men could do that”. So she walked away from it. And judging from her tone in the interview, she never regretted doing this, nor did she waste her precious time resenting him.
What startles one is the contrast between her graciousness in describing these events and what he expressed toward her, and about her, in his music. Whose feelings, whose life, really matters? That of the super-rock star, or the soon to be unknown private woman? The artifice and extraordinary conceit of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” makes this clear.
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” feels like a remarkably perfect folk love song (lyrics here). When I heard Eric Clapton sing it on the 30th Anniversary Bob Dylan Celebration Video, I was struck by how traditional it sounded—after listening to it for over thirty years, hearing so many covers (notably by Joan Baez), the song doesn’t sound like something written in modern times—more like something you expect to find John Hurt or Muddy Waters doing. A song that’s always been there, part of the canon, if you will. It’s perfectly constructed, the rhymes and chords and emotive qualities of Dylan’s voice melding perfectly in a sad song of lost love. Yet when placed in the context of Rotolo/Dylan story, one can see it as a perfect mirror image—an inversion—of genuine love and genuine longing, rather as a way of showing off one’s sensitivity and plaintively expressing how hurt one is, yet blaming that hurt on someone else. This is an early Dylan masterpiece of a genre he perfected, if not created: one of blaming his unhappiness on a woman’s failings, while parading his superior sensibility, honesty, and intellect.
What follows is a rough, unkind, yet I think accurate prose version of what Dylan tells his ex-lover in this song.
He tells her that there’s no point in thinking about what went wrong, since she should have known by now—some lack of caring, or selfishness, or insensibility has caused her to not see where she went wrong, so there’s no point talking about it. Contradictorily, he later says “We never did too much talking anyway.” He’s forced to leave, he says, and it’s because of her—but that’s ok (we are asked to believe), I’ll just talk about it this way, singing and telling you and the world of how badly you hurt me.
Even though I gave you my heart, that apparently wasn’t enough, you wanted my soul, you wanted to own me, to give you some part of myself that no one can turn over to someone else. Even as Dylan asserts this, he is simultaneously demanding from her exactly what he is denying her—he wants her soul and her destiny under his thumb, she had no right to leave, because he needed her, on his terms, here.
He tells her that she’s been less than kind to him (the clear meaning of “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind/you could have done better but I don’t mind”) and that she’s wasted his precious time (it’s hard not to imagine that Dylan thinks her time less precious than his), but that she needn’t think about, it’s all right. And so the message of this song is exactly backwards to what happened between them (and also backwards from how the song is usually understood). In this song, Dylan is the true and hurt one, not the possessive and egotistical one. But as Rotolo said about the life Dylan was leading when she got back from Italy: “I saw it as a small, cloistered, specialized world, that I just didn’t belong in it.”
And so she left it for a private life, one that remained politically and artistically active, one that remained true to the values they had shared. Now and in the future, there will be many thousands of references to Bob Dylan for every reference to Suze Rotolo. But I suspect, that at end of their days, she was able to look back on a life of virtue and decency, something that I think will be impossible for him.