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.

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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