The girl in the green coat
IN A GREENWICH VILLAGE bookstore, a window is filled with a poster that replays a familiar image. A boy and girl are walking down a snow-covered street, arm in arm, lost in some private paradise. He is hunched against the cold. Their heads are together. She is laughing. The photograph was taken 45 years ago, a stone's throw from where the shop stands. It went around the world, touching countless young lives. And now it has come back home.
Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo had been together for 18 months when the photographer Don Hunstein captured them for the cover of The Freewheelin'Bob Dylan. This album, Dylan's second, was the one that lifted him out of the tight little folk scene and broadcast his talent to a generation of eager young listeners. It was the one with Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Falland Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, songs of social conscience, political awareness and a precocious sensitivity to the nuances and contradictions of love. The cover image, its intimacy and informality so far removed from the airbrushed self-presentation of most performers, was the perfect calling card.
Sitting in a cafe in New York's East Village, where she now lives, Rotolo laughs at the pitfalls of memory. She and the photographer, she says, recently disagreed on exactly where they were on that cold February day in 1963. A few shots had been taken in the West Fourth Street apartment she shared with Dylan. Then they all went outside, into the snow. Dylan, conscious of being in the process of creating an image for himself, pulled on a thin suede jerkin and shivered. Rotolo chose a thick sweater and a favourite loden-green winter coat, more suited to the conditions. Wrapped around each other, they walked through the slush towards the camera. Hunstein says they were on Cornelia Street. Rotolo is convinced it was Jones Street, one block closer to the apartment. "So that's just going to have to remain a mystery for all those Dylanologists," she says, with a note of mischievous delight.
Other mysteries are laid bare, and a few quietly preserved, in her new book, A Freewheelin' Time, subtitled A Memoir of Greenwich Villagein the Sixties. Of all the unwritten books on Dylan, the most thoroughly documented musician of his era, this is perhaps the one most desired by his fans. As he has readily acknowledged, Rotolo played a vital role in his evolution; she was also the inspiration, or so it has always been assumed, for many of his most important early songs. Now a slender, elegant 64-year-old artist, she talks of finally overcoming her lifelong shyness and discretion to give us her commentary on that remarkable time.
For many years she kept up her defences against those anxious for revelations about her former boyfriend, but an interview she contributed to No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's much-praised biographical film on Dylan, helped her to overcome the fear, in a phrase she frequently employs, of "feeding the beast". She liked the way the film depicted the broader context: the people, the places, the politics. The first volume of Chronicles, Dylan's own autobiography, was another turn of the key that unlocked her memories. Then she met a Random House editor who suggested that she might write a book along the lines of Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters, an evocation of the author's life as Jack Kerouac's girlfriend in an earlier New York bohemia. It happened to be among Rotolo's favourites.
"My reflex action was to say, 'Thank you very much, but no.' It had been so many years that I'd shut the door. But the way he presented it was, what was it like as a young girl to come from the family I came from and end up in the Village and be in this place and observe it through my own eyes? That was something to think about. Then my son said, 'People have been writing a version of you for years. It's time you told the real one.' It suddenly made sense." The book is full of quick, deft sketches of key characters and others more peripheral. There is space for stories that have little or nothing to do with Dylan, such as Rotolo's extraordinary trip to Cuba with a group of students in 1964, breaking the US travel embargo and incurring the government's wrath. Inevitably, however, the narrative is driven by the story of their love affair, from its beginning in 1961 to its end three years later.
She first saw him performing in a Village club in the spring of 1961. At the time she was working for the Congress of Racial Equality, and already had many friends within the interlinked scenes of folk music and the civil rights movement. They came face-to-face a few weeks later, during an all-day session broadcast live from the Riverside Church, high up on the West Side, to raise funds for a radio station. Dylan took the stage mid-afternoon and drew laughter - much of it from women, as a bootleg recording attests - for his protracted comic fumblings with a recalcitrant harmonica holder.
"When he started out as a performer he was playful, a combination of Woody Guthrie and Harpo Marx, with a good dose of himself as a binding ingredient," Rotolo remembers. "He used that playfulness to draw the audience in. With the passing of time, the technique was no longer required. The audience was with him the minute he stepped on stage. A sense of humour, however, was always his strong suit." Later that night they went on to a party together. "Right from the start I couldn't take my eyes off her," Dylan wrote in Chronicles. "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 head started to spin . . . She was just my type." She was also only 17, to his 21. She had already left the family home, but subterfuge was necessary until she turned 18 that November and they could legally live together in the two-room flat he had found for $60 a month on the top floor of 161 West Fourth Street. It was only then, when they returned home after a night's drinking and his wallet fell out of his pocket, that she saw his draft card and discovered that his real name was not Dylan but Zimmerman: an early warning of his penchant for self-mythologising.
ROTOLO TOOK HIM to art galleries and introduced him to her favourite poets and playwrights. Through her he discovered Picasso and Cézanne, the French symbolist poets ("Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine've been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud," he wrote years later), Brecht and the politics of dissent, all of which he could stir together with the cultural influences he had brought with him from Minnesota - Kerouac, Guthrie, Robert Johnson. He looked on as she sketched constantly, and picked up the habit.
Her parents, the children of Italian immigrants, were active communists with a strong artistic bent. "I was always an artist," she says. "I came from a family where art was important." Her father supplied occasional illustrations to the New York Times, but preferred to pursue a vocation as a union organiser until his death from a heart attack when Suze was 14. Her mother worked for a communist newspaper; her older sister, Carla, was an assistant to Alan Lomax, the celebrated musicologist.
At that stage Dylan didn't even have a recording contract, and her book describes the mounting exhilaration as he took his first steps to fame. In the summer of 1962, however, she decided to accept an invitation from her mother and her new stepfather to accompany them on a trip to Europe, and to revive an earlier plan for her to study art in Perugia. Her friends were divided. Dylan said it was up to her, but he'd much rather she stayed. He waved from the docks as her ship pulled out, before going back to the apartment to write the first of many airmail letters.
"Everybody is waiting for the cooler weather," he wrote after she had settled into her student existence, "and I am just waiting for you." While in Umbria she read Françoise Gilot's Life with Picassoand felt a shock of recognition. "I felt I was reading a book of revelations, lessons, warnings," she writes. "Even though Picasso was a much older man than Bob and had experienced a lot more, their personalities were so similar that it was astounding." Her doubts about living in the shadow of such a man contributed to her decision to extend her stay from four to six months; on her return, she discovered that she had incurred the disapproval of Dylan's inner circle for leaving him so bereft.
Nevertheless, they resumed their relationship, and she moved back into the apartment while working at a variety of jobs that included designing folk club posters, working for small theatre companies and waitressing.
She invited him to a rehearsal of George Tabori's Brecht on Brechtat the Sheridan Square Playhouse, and in one of the most vivid passages of Chronicles he describes how hearing the performance of Kurt Weill's Pirate Jenny provoked a fundamental change in his approach to songwriting.
Rotolo, too, remembers the moment. "He sat still and quiet. Didn't even jiggle his leg." Nowadays she doesn't care to listen to the songs of parting and loss he wrote while she was away - Don't Think Twice, One Too Many Mornings, Tomorrow is a Long Time- even though, like their composer, she firmly resists literal interpretations. "People ask, 'Was this song written for you?' Well, I could say this and that. I could make a list. But if you really listen to those songs, they're somewhat like fiction - he's written something coming from his life, but he sets it in a fiction, maybe using another character's voice.
"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 the struggle that youth is, or may be."
THERE WAS CERTAINLY plenty of pain. She describes the strains imposed by her mother's and sister's dislike of Dylan, by his gathering celebrity and by her need to assert the right to an independent existence. Her background made it easy for her to cope with his creative needs ("I could see that he was an artist at work"), but in those days there was little vocabulary to cope with the world's insistence that the girlfriend should sit quietly in the background.
"I was a young girl of my time. I was shy and timid, and I would be envious of men who could go to a cafe and sit and draw and read or write songs or do whatever they could do. If a girl did that it would mean that she was alone, she wasn't with somebody, she was an easy woman. It would take a lot of courage to do it, and when you did it, you took a chance." In one of her book's many memorable phrases, she describes Dylan as "a beacon and a black hole".
"He had this intensity about him, and you got sucked in," she says. "I certainly felt that, as his girlfriend, I disappeared and became a nonentity. Even if he didn't see me that way, that's what happened. That was always a struggle.
"There are people who say that he was not a good guy - he was manipulative, he was this, that and the other. I tend to see it as, you are what you are. He could be a shit, like anybody else. But a lot of it had to do with being given permission to say and do whatever you wanted, because nobody was in a position to tell you no. Everybody's yessing you, and everybody wants a piece of you. So what do you do?"
A particularly large piece was claimed by Joan Baez, who arrived on the Dylan scene in the summer of 1963. Already a star, she performed his songs and began inviting him on stage to sing with her. He stayed at her home in California and soon the rumours got back to New York. When Baez joined Dylan on his own tour, however, she found him unwilling to return the favour. They had served each other's purposes, but the casualty was Rotolo.
"It's a very long time ago," she says, "and there are no residual hurt feelings. I think she's an example of a woman who really knew what she wanted and how to get it, and to everybody else, the hell with you.
"Which men could do easily. She went out and got what she wanted, and then he in turn did it for her and then he didn't. That was him going after what he wanted, with no baggage. He never looked back. He just kept going." The book's unvarnished description of their slow break-up - "He avoided responsibility . . . I was difficult and unreasonable" - makes a poignant contrast with the famous image of the carefree lovers. A climactic row was followed by the discovery of her pregnancy, an illegal abortion, a brief reunion and her breakdown. "It was the hardest thing to write about. I was young and vulnerable and insecure. There were pressures from all around and I couldn't find my place any more. I didn't feel I had anybody I could turn to. That makes you really fall apart. And that's how I felt."
She escaped to Italy for a while, and in 1970 married Enzo Bartoliocci, whom she had met during her student days in Perugia. Now her husband is a film editor at the UN; their son, Luca, was born 28 years ago and is a luthier: "Only four people in New York know what that means. He makes guitars." Inevitably, after such a hurtful parting, she and Dylan lost contact for a while. But when many of her possessions - including the loden-green coat and his old Gibson guitar - were lost in a fire in her apartment a few years later, he helped her out. In occasional touch, they remain respectful of each other and of their shared history. When she describes the episodic, overlapping structure of her book, and the effort to recall long-spent emotions, she could almost be him, talking about a song.
"It isn't factual," she says, "but it's true. So it doesn't go from page to page. But the emotion that I managed to find is true."
A Freewheelin' Time is published by Aurum Press, £16.99
Suze Rotolo was 'the most erotic thing' Bob Dylan had ever seen. She was on his arm for three years, on the cover of his Freewheelin' album, and at the heart of the now-mythical Greenwich Village 1960s folk scene. She speaks to Richard Williams