Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Muse: Suze Rotolo.

I was inspired to start reading Suze Rotolo's bio and do this muse post after listening to this amazing NPR piece on Rotolo and her effect on Bob Dylan's career and aesthetics.

They met when she was seventeen and he was twenty and stayed together a total of four years.  She certainly captured imaginations in that simple cover photo for his album Free Wheelin' (1963).  Rotolo says of the iconic snapshot: "It was freezing out.  He wore a very thin jacket, because image was all. Our apartment was always cold, so I had a sweater on, plus I borrowed one of his big, bulky sweaters. On top of that I put a coat. So I felt like an Italian sausage."

Suze first met Dylan at a folk festival.  She was a seventeen year old Italian-American girl from Queens, secretly raised by working class communist parents--- a secret she kept from everyone, including Dylan, until much later.  At the time she and Dylan first met, Suze was a sharp, cultured young woman who was a political activist for the Congress of Racial Equality.  Suze's style was a revelation to Bob, who just arrived in New York from a bucolic upbringing in the upper-midwest.  Born into a family heavily involved in left-wing politics, she was raised with a different education from most: one that included travel, avant garde theatre and poetry but without much money. She was raised to be intellectually, politically, and artistically active by a family that Dylan was keen to understand.   Friends noted the change in Dylan when they became a couple, "You could see the influence she had on him," said Sylvia Tyson of Ian & Sylvia. "This is a girl who was marching to integrate local schools when she was 15."  Suze's influence moved Dylan to shift focus from traditional sounding Dust Bowl folk songs to topical lyrics discussing social problems of the era.   He also credits her with turning him on to the poetry of Arthur Rimbauld who influenced his lyrical style of writing. 

In his bio, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan writes of Suze: 
"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... Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a kind of voluptuousness - a Rodin sculpture come to life."
She said of Dylan: 
"He was funny, engaging, intense, and he was persistent....These words completely describe who he was throughout the time we were together; only the order of the words would shift depending on the mood or circumstance.... [he] made me think of Harpo Marx, impish and approachable, but there was something about him that broadcast an intensity that was not to be taken lightly.""

[From the LA Times:] "The Dylan she knew could withdraw emotionally on a moment's notice or crack up friends with outrageous humor. He'd scribble lyrics to new songs on napkins in cheesy diners. Like a sponge, he absorbed new influences, sometimes not sure if he'd written a song or borrowed it from someone else. Without warning he could be cruel, affectionate or deeply enigmatic."

Suze was a worldly girl-- an activist by age 14, living with little parental guidance since age 15, roaming the Village with friends by night.  She opened a world to Bob he had never seen before.  He became increasingly interested in politics, inequalities, and she taught him a great deal about the civil rights movement and important social issues of the day.  Her influence inevitably, seeped into his song writing, and was the catalyst that helped Dylan shape the topical song writing style that became the signature of his early career and influenced a host of other musicians from the Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel.  Rotolo however, always publicly emphasised the mutual sharing she and Dylan did-- it was a relationship where they both learned from one another,  "People say I was an influence on him, but we influenced each other. His interests were filtered through me and my interests, like the books I had, were filtered through him... It was always sincere on his part. The guy saw things. He had an incredible ability to see and sponge—there was a genius in that. The ability to create out of everything that's flying around. To synthesize it. To put it in words and music."

From 1962, when they moved in together they began sharing a their lives despite the little secrets they kept.  She says she never even knew his real name, Robert Zimmerman, until one day his ID card fell out of his wallet and she caught a glimpse of his name.  She tells NPR that he was very protective of his identity-- frequently told false stories-- and didn't want anyone to know about his last name, background, family, etc.  He moved to New York and had created a story, he remained illusive when anyone attempted to find out his origins-- even casual questions about where he was from or what his family was like.  At the same time, she had her own secrets to keep about her family's political involvement, which was a much more necessary, dangerous secret to keep at the time.    Her mother and sister were very skeptical of Dylan whose bohemian charm to tell tall tales and evade honest questioning wore thin on their nerves and made them quite suspicious of his character.  
However privacy and secrets may have played a role in their break-up, what had the truly damaging effect was Dylan's growing fame and career pressures. As their relationship progressed but he refused to reveal even mundane details about himself, Suze's trust in him was eroding.  On top of this, Dylan's celebrity "made it harder for her to walk around for a few years because of that album cover," said John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful. "He looked like the ramblin' guy, and she was the perfect girl. Suddenly you were looking for a rumpled leather jacket just like his, and girls were wearing those high boots."  As Dylan's fame grew, Rotolo found the relationship increasingly stressful. She wrote: "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....I could no longer cope with all the pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed. I was unable to find solid ground. I was on quicksand and very vulnerable"

"I've always had trouble talking or reminiscing about the 1960s because of my place close to Dylan, he mover and shaper of the culture of that era.  That kind of adulation and scrutiny he recieved made that conversation awkward for me.  He became an elephant in the room of my life.  I am private by nature, and my instinct was to protect my privacy, and consequently his. As Bob Dylan's fame grew so far out of bounds, I felt I had secrets to keep.  Though I kept my silence, I didn't relish being the custodian of such things.  Time passes and the weight of secrets dissipates.  Articles are written and biographies are churned out that trigger memories only because they are often far from the reality I knew.  They tend to be lackluster yet fascinating in their fantasy.  I acknowledge that memory is a fickle beast.  Fragment of stories stride in and out; some leave traces, while others do not.  Secrets remain.  Their traces go deep, and with all due respect I keep them with my own. "

Rock historians believe Rotolo inspired a flock of Dylan tunes, including "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time."  A  number of songs that she inspired were love songs written during the period she left Dylan to travel to Italy, spending six months studying at a university and he set his pining to music.  She notes in the NPR interview that while no song is so literal in being completely about her, so many songs have snippets of things she said or have a general mood or tone reminding her of their time together.  From the LA Times: "I can only imagine what it must have been like to stand in her shoes," said blues singer Maria Muldaur, who lived in the Village in this period. "Suze was her own person, who loved this guy very much. Suddenly people were stepping over her, pushing her aside to talk to him. It must have been an overwhelming experience."

Toward the end of their relationship, as Suze revealed for the first time in her bio, she became pregnant with Dylan's child and had an abortion, Dylan's fame pressures were seeping in to the relationship and the Rotolo family remained dismissive of the couple,  but the real nail in the coffin must have been his affair with Joan Baez.  Dylan explains his take on the break up in his 1964 song "Ballad in Plain D" where he discusses the negative reaction he got from Rotolo's family when they announced they would live together and how they remained dismissive of him up until their break-up. [According to Wikipedia:] "Twenty years later, he apologised for the song, saying: "I must have been a real schmuck to write that. I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone."  The song puts a lot of blame on a sister character in the lyrics, who likely represents Rotolo's sister Carla, with whom she was very close, and who soon became very cynical toward Dylan.

"I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze.
With the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn.
I courted her proudly but now she is gone,
Gone as the season she's taken.

Through young summer's breeze, I stole her away
From her mother and sister, though close did they stay.
Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day,
With strings of guilt they tried hard to guide us.

Of the two sisters, I loved the young.
With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one.
The constant scapegoat, she was easily undone
By the jealousy of others around her.

For her parasite sister, I had no respect,
Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect.
Countless visions of the other she'd reflect
As a crutch for her scenes and her society.

Myself, for what I did, I cannot be excused,
The changes I was going through can't even be used,
For the lies that I told her in hopes not to lose
The could-be dream-lover of my lifetime.

With unknown consciousness, I possessed in my grip
A magnificent mantelpiece, though its heart being chipped,
Noticing not that I'd already slipped
To a sin of love's false security.

From silhouetted anger to manufactured peace,
Answers of emptiness, voice vacancies,
Till the tombstones of damage read me no questions but, "Please,
What's wrong and what's exactly the matter?"

And so it did happen like it could have been foreseen,
The timeless explosion of fantasy's dream.
At the peak of the night, the king and the queen
Tumbled all down into pieces.

"The tragic figure!" her sister did shout,
"Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!"
And I in my armor, turning about
And nailing her to the ruins of her pettiness.

Beneath a bare light bulb the plaster did pound
Her sister and I in a screaming battleground.
And she in between, the victim of sound,
Soon shattered as a child 'neath her shadows.

All is gone, all is gone, admit it, take flight.
I gagged twice, doubled, tears blinding my sight.
My mind it was mangled, I ran into the night
Leaving all of love's ashes behind me.

The wind knocks my window, the room it is wet.
The words to say I'm sorry, I haven't found yet.
I think of her often and hope whoever she's met
Will be fully aware of how precious she is.

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me,
"How good, how good does it feel to be free?"
And I answer them most mysteriously,
"Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"

"We loved each other very much and when it ended it was mutual heartbreak," Suze writes in her memoir. "He avoided responsibility. I didn't make it easy for him, either. . . . I knew I was not suited for his life."  After the two broke up, Rotolo broke the law by travelling to Cuba and remained politically involved.  In 1967 she married film editor Enzo Bartoccioli and later had a son.  Aside from her autobiography, Scorese's No Direction Home, and scattered other interviews, Suze refrained from speaking about her time with Dylan.  

She died of lung cancer in her apartment in Manhattan February 25, 2011 with her husband and son by her side.


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