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.