Suze Rotolo, 1943-2011

Bob Dylan's muse and the memory of young love.

I was properly introduced to Bob Dylan when I was about 12. One of my brothers came back from university in an anguished, relationship-induced state. In the adult ranks of the family, emotional cud was chewed for hours on end (and washed down with coffee). I hovered on the fringes of these fraught conversations, not quite understanding what was going on, but ominously aware of one simple truth -- that if my brother and his girlfriend split up, there would be no more carefree shopping trips and no more introductions to basic make-up application.

Then my father, having had enough of talking, deferred to Bob Dylan as a source of emotional enlightenment. He put "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" on the CD player and demanded hushed appreciation of these particular lines: "I ain't saying you treated me unkind/You could've done better but I don't mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/But don't think twice, it's alright."

At the time I didn't really notice anything momentous, I just enjoyed the tune. But now I think I can recognise that Dylan is saying something very simple and stark that cuts through the psychological mess of a faltering relationship. Life is too short to spend (too long) navel-gazing -- in the interests of self-preservation, you have to "keep on keeping on", as he said, wisely, at a later date. Taking his own advice, Dylan is still touring and still maintaining his own personal brand of gravelly enigma. He will turn 70 in May. But a song he wrote almost 50 years ago somewhere in Greenwich Village applied, acutely, to a romantic drama that played out in Stoke-on-Trent, via Norwich, in 2001.

Being mesmerised by Dylan himself, I haven't often thought about the woman who inspired some of these great early songs, even though she's pictured on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Suze Rotolo, who died on 24 February of lung cancer, aged 67, met Dylan at an all-day folk concert in a New York church in 1961. She was 19 and working for the Congress of Racial Equality. In his book Chronicles, Dylan writes about this first encounter: "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 ... We started talking and my heart started to spin ... She was just my type." So began their three-year relationship. A native New Yorker, Rotolo was already familiar with the Greenwich Village folk movement when Dylan arrived on the scene from Minnesota. She spent months in Italy studying art and introduced Dylan to the works of Cézanne and Kandinsky, Brecht and Artaud.

But the role of artist's muse made her uncomfortable. Rather than contributing to the much-documented Dylan legend, she kept silent on the subject for 40 years. It was only after she was interviewed in Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home that she wrote her memoir A Freewheelin' Time, in which she is candid about the relationship. "Bob was charismatic: he was a beacon, a lighthouse," she wrote. "He was also a black hole. He required committed backup and protection I was unable to provide consistently, probably because I needed them myself."

Despite Dylan's repeated marriage proposals, he was now starting up a new, and public, liaison with Joan Baez. In 1964, Rotolo and Dylan finally broke up. In 1970 she married Enzo Bartoliocci, whom she met as a student in Italy. Bartoliocci became a filmmaker for the UN and she enjoyed a career as an artist, exhibiting in many New York galleries.

Of Dylan's infidelities, Rotolo said: "He could be a shit, like anybody else." Though Dylan's self-mythologising is a part of his enduring greatness, it is refreshing for a voice to puncture, just slightly, the notion that the exalted musician is set above norms of good behaviour.

Often, the muse who inspires is also obscured. Some of W B Yeats's finest poems were born out of his unrequited love for the fiery revolutionary Maud Gonne (although he eventually opted for the next best thing and tried proposing to her daughter instead). In "No Second Troy", Gonne is invoked as a modern Helen, whose ultimate beauty is also her flaw. She has "...beauty like a tightened bow, a kind/That is not natural in an age like this/
Being high and solitary and most stern".

Out of the recalcitrant reality, the poet shapes an image of Gonne that he can manage and fix. In Broken Dreams he states: "You are more beautiful than any one,/And yet your body had a flaw:/Your small hands were not beautiful."

A muse like Gonne is trapped in history, an idea caught in the vacillation between poetic devotion and denigration. But today, the muse can more easily step out of the artwork to speak for themselves, as Rotolo has done. Of the Freewheelin' songs she says:

I can recognise things. It's like looking at a diary. It brings it all back. And what's hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go - his, mine, anybody's. So, from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be.

Despite the fact that their affair went sour, the immortalized image of Rotolo and Dylan seems about as perfect a picture of young love as there can be. On "Love Sick", from Time Out of Mind,a croakier and wrinkled Dylan sings: "I see lovers in the meadow...I watch them 'til they're gone and they leave me hanging on." For all the profound insights about love and age that Dylan gives the listener on album after album, there remains a longing to return to, or to reimagine, that time of youth.

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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