Suze Rotolo died February 24, 2011. See obituaries here and here.


A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo



ISBN: 0767926870

ISBN-13: 9780767926874

Format: Hardcover, 240pp

Publisher: Broadway Books

Pub. Date: May 2008

May 11, 2008

Memoirs of a Girl From the East Country (O.K., Queens)


IT is one of the most evocative images of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. An attractive young couple are walking down the middle of a snow-covered street. His head is down and tilted toward her. He’s wearing an artfully half-buttoned brown suede jacket, but his hands are stuffed in his jeans’ pockets against the cold. She is smiling, huddling against him. Shot in February 1963, the photo would come to epitomize the romantic youth culture of the time — its freedom and fragility, its rootlessness and sense of purpose.

The couple is Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo, then his girlfriend, and the photograph graced the cover of Mr. Dylan’s groundbreaking second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (Columbia), which came out three months later. “Freewheelin’ ” — which includes songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War” — established Mr. Dylan, who had just turned 22, as the spokesman of his generation.

Last month, more than 45 years after that photograph made her a nationally known figure, Ms. Rotolo, now 64, stood on the spot on Jones Street where it was taken and eyed the reporter accompanying her warily. “I don’t do re-enactments,” she said, laughing.

After rarely discussing her relationship with Mr. Dylan since they broke up in 1964, Ms. Rotolo has looked back, mostly with affection. Her book “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” comes out this week, and a similar photo from the “Freewheelin’ ” session serves as its cover.

Looking elegant in a lightweight black coat, a long gray skirt and black boots, Ms. Rotolo, who is now a visual artist, recalled the original photo shoot. “We were facing this way,” she said on Jones Street, as she pointed north toward Fourth Street. “I figured they’d choose one of Bob by himself, so it was astounding, really surprising.”

With her long light-brown hair, Ms. Rotolo became a model to emulate for young women and an object of desire for men at the time. She does not recall it that way, however. “It was freezing out,” she said. “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. Every time I look at that picture, I think I look fat.”

In “A Freewheelin’ Time” Ms. Rotolo walks a delicate line between not wanting to exploit her relationship with Mr. Dylan but needing to address people’s understandable curiosity about it. “Feeding the beast” is how Ms. Rotolo describes the futility of trying to gratify the endless hunger of Dylan fanatics. “When you know that someone is human, to make them godlike is disconcerting,” she said. “I’m not a rapacious Dylan junkie.”

When the couple first met in July 1961 at a folk concert at Riverside Church at which Mr. Dylan performed, they were just two of countless young people who had made their way to Greenwich Village to reinvent themselves. He had left his native Minnesota to pursue his dream of following the path blazed by his idol Woody Guthrie. Ms. Rotolo meanwhile had grown up in Queens, the daughter of working-class Italian Communists during the height of the McCarthy era. Well read, artistically inclined and intellectually adventurous, she yearned for an environment in which her interests did not seem weird, let alone dangerous, for a 17-year-old girl. In the 20-year-old Mr. Dylan she encountered a “kindred spirit,” she said.

They lived together in a small apartment on West Fourth Street and fed each other’s ravenous hunger for meaning. “We created this private world,” Ms. Rotolo recalled over lunch in an Italian restaurant on Waverly Place. “We were searching for poetry, and we saw that in each other. We were so ultrasensitive, both of us. That’s why it was a good relationship, but also why it was difficult.”

Mr. Dylan has been a gnomic figure for so long that it’s sometimes hard to recollect the Chaplinesque aspect that characterized him in his youth. His boundless enthusiasm proved a delight for the more reserved Ms. Rotolo. For his part Mr. Dylan soaked up her passion for the likes of William Blake, Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Rimbaud; he inscribed a paperback edition of Byron’s poems to her “Lord Byron Dylan.” Equally important, her political activism, particularly in the civil rights movement, spurred his thinking and writing about those issues.

“She’ll tell you how many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her: ‘Is this right?’ ” Mr. Dylan told his friend and eventual biographer Robert Shelton. “Because I knew her father and mother were associated with unions and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was.”

Their romance, then, began on the basis of an equality that became impossible to sustain. She would soon feel overwhelmed by the obsessive attention the world focused on Mr. Dylan. Having made the symbolic journey across the East River to discover herself and what she might become, she felt lost once again, reduced to being Mr. Dylan’s chick and urged even by her most well-intentioned friends to accommodate her life in every way to his genius.

In approaching Ms. Rotolo about doing the book, Gerry Howard, an editor at Broadway Books, mentioned “Minor Characters,” a memoir by Joyce Johnson, who had been Jack Kerouac’s lover at a similar stage in his career. “I’m a great fan of ‘Minor Characters,’ and I thought Suze stood in exact relation to Dylan as Joyce Johnson did to Kerouac,” Mr. Howard said. “They were present at liftoff and then had to live in the backwash of all that.”

It turned out that Ms. Rotolo too was a fan of “Minor Characters,” which is something of a pre-feminist classic, and saw her story in similar terms. In part for that reason she chose to write the book herself rather than with a collaborator. (Disclosure: I share a book agent with Ms. Rotolo.)

For his part Mr. Dylan was no less disoriented by his rising success than Ms. Rotolo was, and he resented Ms. Rotolo’s need for distance. A nearly six-month trip she took to Europe with her mother in 1962, for example, left him distraught. The pained letters he sent her (“Yes maybe I wish maybe you didn’t cut your hair — it’s so good ... it’ll grow back tho huh?”) reveal a vulnerable side of Mr. Dylan that has rarely been seen.

In the grip of his own struggle, he turned to other women for support, most notably Joan Baez, who, having become a star herself when she was barely 20, could help him negotiate this strange new terrain. Their romantic involvement, which included Ms. Baez’s frequent requests that he perform with her, also significantly expanded his audience, a fact not lost on Mr. Dylan.

“He needed somebody who could guide him,” Ms. Rotolo said. “I could not be the person he needed at that time. I needed that myself. I was still finding out who I was. I had no sense of mission or dead-on ambition, whereas he did. It’s a male-female thing, and it’s also of the time. I knew I was an artist, but I loved poetry, I loved theater, I loved too many things. Whereas he knew what he wanted and he went for it.”

When Ms. Rotolo became pregnant, she and Mr. Dylan agreed that she would have an abortion, which was illegal (and often dangerous) at the time. That further strained their relationship.

“The alliance between Suze and me didn’t turn out exactly to be a holiday in the woods,” Mr. Dylan wryly concludes in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One.” (Mr. Dylan declined to be interviewed for this article.) But he describes their first meeting in more glowing terms: “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.”

He often wrote about their love affair, most prominently in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings,” and most caustically in “Ballad in Plain D,” in which he castigates her mother and older sister, who did not approve of him. In his liner notes to “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” (1964), Mr. Dylan wrote, “ah but Sue/she knows me well/perhaps too well/an is above all/the true fortune teller of my soul.”

On a perfect spring afternoon Ms. Rotolo agreed to stroll through Greenwich Village and reminisce about some of the sites she writes about in “A Freewheelin’ Time.” After the stop on Jones Street, she walked toward Fourth Street, where the drones of a man playing a sitar floated from the Music Inn, a crowded instrument store that looked unchanged from the ’60s. “Musicians would just come and play at Allan Block’s,” she said, referring to the famed sandal store and folkie hangout that had been next door, “the way they would at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. If they didn’t have an instrument, they could go to the Music Inn and borrow one.”

A few doors east stood 161 West Fourth Street, where she lived with Mr. Dylan in a two-room walk-up for $60 a month. “Well, some things have changed,” she notes, as she eyes the “exotic novelties” shop that has replaced Bruno’s Spaghetti Store on the ground floor. Their apartment “was in the rear,” she said, “and we looked out on this little garden. There was a pizza place somewhere, so there was always a smell of stale sauce.”

Further west on Sheridan Square she pointed out the newspaper stand on a small island in Seventh Avenue where she and Mr. Dylan awaited the early edition of The New York Times that included Mr. Shelton’s review, now legendary, of Mr. Dylan’s performance at Gerde’s Folk City. The rave, which ran on Sept. 29, 1961, led to Mr. Dylan’s record contract with Columbia Records.

Ms. Rotolo still lives nearby, in the East Village, where she bought a loft, she said, “when they were giving them away.” She has been married many years, and her son, Luca, is a musician and guitar maker who also lives in the city. She has been an illustrator and a painter, and now calls herself a “book artist,” work she described in an e-mail message as reinterpreting “the book as an art object” and combining “drawing, painting, collage, and found objects.” “Reliquaries,” an exhibition of her work, will be on display through mid-July at the Medialia Gallery in Manhattan.

At the Italian restaurant Ms. Rotolo explained how “No Direction Home,” the 2005 documentary that Martin Scorsese directed about Mr. Dylan, inspired her to tell her own story. She is in occasional, if infrequent, touch with Mr. Dylan, and is extremely respectful of his privacy. That he would sanction Mr. Scorsese’s film, in which she appears, and publish his own memoir made her feel more secure about coming forward.

“The feeling I had was, sure, it’s about Dylan, he’s the focal point, but it was my life,” she said about “No Direction Home.” “This is what we all lived through, and what an exciting and pivotal time it was. I came to grips with the fact that this is important, and I should stop being so private.”

Still, she is not nostalgic. “All this indulgence of the ’60s, ay-yi-yi, get over it,” she said. Every era and place hold magic for people willing to live intently in them, she believes. “Everything occurs again, just differently,” she said. “There will always be creative people who feel that they’re different and create a community of some kind. Whether it’s a physical neighborhood or an Internet neighborhood, in Bushwick or in Greenwich Village, it’s not over."


'A Freewheelin' Life' by Suze Rotolo

A memoir of life at Bob Dylan's side, in the crucible of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, before and during the flood of fame. 

By Kristina Lindgren

May 15, 2008

They were cherub-cheeked kids when each landed in Greenwich Village in early 1961, drawn like moths to the flames of art, music, theater and ideas that burned so brightly in every cranny of the Big Apple's most bohemian quarter.

She was 17. He was 20. An iconic image of the lovers, huddled, red-nosed against the winter cold, walking a slushy New York street, would herald a new generation, unimpressed by Madison Avenue -- and the arrival of a major new talent -- when it appeared on the seminal album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" in May 1963.

By then, Suze Rotolo and Dylan had broken up and gotten back together again. She'd introduced him to Picasso, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Rimbaud, Brendan Behan, commedia dell'arte and Modernist artist Red Grooms. And he -- already infused with the lyrics and rhythms of generations of balladry, blues and social commentary -- had stormed the citadel of the great American Folk Revival movement.

Now, nearly half a century later, long after Dylan smashed through countless musical and artistic boundaries and generated a cottage industry of writers trying to seal his legend, to capture his white heat, the intensely private artist who was by his side at the beginning is telling her story.

"He became an elephant in the room of my life," Rotolo, now 64, writes in "A Freewheelin' Time," her "reliquary" of an "amazing . . . eventful time of protest and rebellion."

But this memoir is more -- and in some ways less -- than a full accounting of life with the man she calls "the mover and shaper of the culture of that era." It is a vivid insider's portrait of Greenwich Village, ground zero at the cusp of a new era, a place "people like me went -- people who knew in their souls that they didn't belong where they came from."

Rotolo, a self-described "red-diaper baby" raised by cultured union activist parents, came by subway from Queens. She was eager to leave her widowed mother with her drinking problems, and to make a new life in art.

She painted theater sets, waitressed and tended the office for the Congress of Racial Equality, already a veteran of youth marches on Washington in 1958 and '59. By night, she haunted the clubs where Dave Van Ronk, Victoria Spivey, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee passed the hat.

Rotolo first saw the "raspy"-voiced Dylan playing harmonica with another singer at "the Italian bar and restaurant cum music venue" Gerde's Folk City. It was spring 1961. He'd arrived a few months earlier, by car from Minnesota, on a quest to find Woody Guthrie during "the coldest winter in 17 years" (he wrote in "Talkin' New York").

Rotolo and Dylan met officially on a hot July day at a marathon music festival at a church in Upper Manhattan to launch a radio station. In his book, "Chronicles," he says her sister introduced them. She says only, "Whenever I looked around, Bobby was nearby. . . . 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." By the time the musicians were packing their gear, "Bob and I were pretty much glued to each other."

Rotolo was there when New York Times critic Robert Shelton put Dylan on the musical map on Sept. 29, 1961, when Columbia Records signed him and when he stayed up all hours writing some of the era's best songs. And when she left for Italy in June 1962, pressured by her mother, who disliked Dylan intensely, she was the subject of some of his sweetest and most bitter songs ("Boots of Spanish Leather," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right").

Much of this has appeared elsewhere, but Rotolo corrects the record and offers other angles on the prismatic artist that is Dylan. We see his October 1962 letter to her showing his horror over the Cuban missile crisis -- "the maniacs were really going to do it this time" -- and how it was the seedbed of the now familiar anthem "Masters of War."

Like others in the Village, Rotolo doubted Dylan's stories of his origins, but she was deeply hurt to discover he was really Robert Allen Zimmerman when his draft card spilled from his wallet in their 4th Street walk-up. "I called him Raz now and then, taken from his initials, just to annoy him."

It is that sort of deception by the love of her young life, and the liaisons with Joan Baez and numerous other women he tried to keep secret, that helped drive them apart as his fame soared.

In that pre-feminist era, Rotolo also had stirrings of a desire to live her own life. "I couldn't handle being 'one step closer to God.' I was being pecked at because of my proximity to the end of the rainbow. Expected to focus entirely on his needs, I was invisible -- downgraded from chick and guitar string, no less. . . . I felt lost, confused, and betrayed."

Rotolo discovered she was pregnant, but rejected Dylan's pleas to marry. (She says they both decided on an abortion. He eventually married and divorced two women, both of whom were pregnant before they exchanged vows.)

After the final breakup -- famously told in "Ballad in Plain D" and "One Too Many Mornings" -- she wrote in a 1964 notebook entry, displaying a characteristic generosity in her despair: "I believe in his genius . . . [but he] doesn't necessarily do the right thing. But where is it written that this must be so in order to do great work in the world?"

Rotolo, mother of a 28-year-old son with her Italian-born husband, has few regrets. She also holds things back. "Their traces go deep, and with all due respect I keep them with my own," she writes, in one of many phrases in the book borrowed from Dylan's songs, past and present -- potent evidence that his music remains part of the soundtrack of her life.





Tangled up in Dylan


Suze Rotolo, the musician's first muse, has written an entertaining memoir about their love affair that is also a remarkable portrait of living and making art in the 1960s.

By Stephanie Zacharek


Apr. 26, 2008 | Face it: The art -- or is it more of a science? -- of dissecting Bob Dylan is a man's game. Most of the Dylan scholars (both the smart and the lame ones), the rock critics who have collectively spent several lifetimes wrestling with his lyrics, the civilian gasbags who hold forth at dinner parties whenever his name is even mentioned, are men. I used to have an officemate who, whenever he wanted to take a break from doing actual work (which was shockingly often), would march into my office singing some random Dylan lyric and challenge me to name which song it came from. I know women who love Dylan's music as much as anyone else does, but I've never met one who felt the need to be a walking, talking sack of trivia.

So whether she knows it or not -- and I suspect she does -- Suze Rotolo has taken something of a risk in writing a memoir of the time she spent in the early '60s as the girlfriend of the Great Man. There are going to be people out there who think she's just cashing in on her role as a handmaiden to genius. But "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties" is only partly about Dylan. Rotolo has written a perceptive, entertaining and often touching book about a remarkable era in recent American cultural history, about a way of living, of making art, that couldn't have happened at any other time or in any other place.

This is about as far from a juicy tell-all as a memoir can get: Rotolo does share some private details of the story of her romance with Dylan -- the two met in 1961, when Rotolo was 17 and Dylan was 20, and were a couple for some four years -- but her approach is so sensitive, discreet and affectionate that she never comes off as opportunistic. This is an honest book about a great love affair, set against the folk music revival of the early 1960s, but its sense of time and place is so vivid that it's also another kind of love story: one about a very special pocket of New York, in the days when impoverished artists, and not just supermodels, could afford to live there.

Rotolo was born in Queens, N.Y., in 1943, the daughter of politically active communists. Her father died suddenly, in 1958, and partly as a way of escaping her rather difficult mother, Rotolo established her independence early on, first taking day trips into the city with friends -- specifically, Washington Square Park, a gathering place for anyone interested in music, poetry and politics -- and eventually moving out altogether. She then lived with her aunt and cousin in Harlem and eventually found an apartment-sitting arrangement on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. As teenagers Suze and her older sister, Carla, would listen to a country radio station out of Wheeling, W.Va., where they would hear Les Paul and Mary Ford, Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers on the Grand Ole Opry. Later, after moving to the Village, Rotolo would haunt the cheap record shops, buying up blues and jazz albums as well as Harry Smith's collected recordings of traditional folk music. As a young woman with an interest in painting and drawing -- she would later work as a set designer on off-Broadway productions -- she'd decorate the plain white sleeves of these records with her own cover art.

Although Rotolo had heard Dylan perform at a small West Village club, she first met him at an all-day folk festival in July 1961, held at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan: "Whenever I looked around, Bobby was nearby. I thought he was oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way. His jeans were as rumpled as his shirt and even in the hot weather he had on the black corduroy cap he always wore. 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."

Dylan was, she says, "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 mood or circumstance." Rotolo and Dylan immediately became inseparable, and not long after their meeting she moved into the small walk-up Dylan found on West Fourth Street. The headiest parts of the book detail their time there and the friends they made in the glory days of the folk music revival, among them singer-songwriter duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson and folk legend Dave Van Ronk and his wife, Terri Thal, a leggy, lanky, unconventional beauty who, on hot days, would greet guests at the couple's West Village flat dressed only in a white bra and panties.

Rotolo writes about Dylan's sudden and rapid ascension, but she doesn't underplay her own story, which is engaging in itself: When her mother and stepfather offered her the opportunity to go to school in Italy for six months, she made the wrenching decision to leave her boyfriend behind. (Rotolo includes quotes from some of Dylan's letters to her, which are deeply moving both for their unapologetic silliness and their unvarnished lovesickness.) She also details, conscientiously and without bitterness, some of the issues that led to the couple's eventual breakup. Rotolo, an artist herself, was completely clued in to the sexism of the folk scene (a feature of '60s counterculture in general). She began to shrink from the idea of being a musician's "chick" or, worse, his "old lady." She writes only glancingly of Dylan's romance with Joan Baez, which began when she and Dylan were still a couple: The episode was obviously painful for her, but she doesn't treat it as a major feature of her story. It's possible for women as well as men to be chivalrous, as Rotolo proves.

"A Freewheelin' Time" doesn't begin and end with Dylan: Rotolo also talks about her life after Bob, including an illegal trip she made to Cuba in 1963, as a way of protesting the State Department's travel ban to that country. (Rotolo, raised in a fervently communist household, was sympathetic to communist ideas only to a point; her ongoing questioning of those ideas is a recurring feature of her memoir.) And as the book's title says outright, Rotolo knows that the story of Bob Dylan is inseparable from that of a specific New York neighborhood. In one of the loveliest passages she describes the genesis of the famous photograph that graces the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," an image whose visual and emotional simplicity made it revolutionary, for album-cover art, at the time.

Rotolo describes how Columbia Records sent a photographer to the couple's apartment on West Fourth Street. For the occasion, Rotolo writes, "Bob chose his rumpled clothes carefully." When it was time to go outside for more pictures, he wore a suede jacket, even though it was an extremely cold day. Rotolo wrapped herself in a green coat, which she belted tightly for more warmth. "I felt like an Italian sausage," she writes.

The cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" shows an almost unbearably young-looking couple striding toward the camera -- toward the future -- through a corridor of parked cars and tallish buildings laced with fire escapes. There's slush in the street; this is New York in midwinter, after all. The guy in the picture, a skinny, nervous-looking kid, his head topped with a tall pile of curly hair, is instantly recognizable. But the girl, attractive and thoughtful looking, with a wide-open smile, holds the camera's gaze just as intently. Dylan fans, thanks to their stockpile of important trivia, have always known that this woman's name is Suze Rotolo. Now we know more than just her name.




September 7, 2008

’61 Revisited




A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

By Suze Rotolo

Illustrated. 371 pp. Broadway Books. $22.95


Dating a voice-of-a-generation rock star probably sounds like fun, but ex-girlfriend memoirs are generally filled with put-downs. Rock stars cheat, they fabricate, they flex their egos and they steal your grooming products. Or worse: for Suze Rotolo, dating a young Bob Dylan even contributed to a “crackup” she describes in “A Free­wheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.”

One night in the early 1960s, when Dylan came home drunk, she writes, he accidentally dropped the contents of his wallet on the floor. Rotolo, then a teenager, picked up his draft card and was shaken. His last name wasn’t Dylan; it was Zimmerman. And even though they were essentially living together in a tiny walk-up on West Fourth Street, he hadn’t told her the truth, too committed to maintaining his mysterious persona. (He wasn’t an abandoned child who had lived with a traveling circus, either.)

“The fact that he was evasive and secretive with me eventually created a rift,” Rotolo writes. Still, the couple considered themselves soul mates of a sort, bonded by a love of culture and scrappy clubs like Gerde’s Folk City and the Bitter End.

Rotolo is best known as the honey-haired beauty strolling with Dylan on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the 1963 album that cemented his reputation and brought us “Blowin’ in the Wind.” She dated him on and off for four tumultuous years, as his career exploded and his personality darkened. Given how intensely private Dylan is, a relationship memoir promises plenty of revelations. But the draft-card incident is one of few striking anecdotes in the book, which is much less successful at expanding Dylan­ology than at vividly recounting what it was like to be a well-connected girl in the Village as a heady new youth movement flourished.

Rotolo met Dylan in the summer of 1961, when he was just another singer at an all-day folk concert at Riverside Church in Manhattan. She was a 17-year-old in a dress with thigh-high slits, and Dylan, 20, thought “she was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen,” as he wrote in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One.” Rotolo considered him “oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way.”

She was a Queens-bred red-diaper baby, a melancholy but adventurous civil rights activist who loved poetry, theater and modern art. Her dad was an Italian-born artist and union man; her mother worked for a Communist newspaper. “I was exposed to a lot more than a kid from Hibbing, Minn.,” she says of her beau, who was broadening his horizons with her as fast as he could. (“She reminded me of a libertine heroine,” Dylan remembered in ­“Chronicles.”)

Many young women at the time might have clung to a rising-star boyfriend at any cost, but Rotolo left town in 1962 and studied art in Italy. Dylan wrote her stylish, lovelorn letters, many of which are excerpted in the book. “It’s just that I’m hating time,” he wrote. “I’m trying to push it by — I’m trying to stab it — stomp on it — throw it on the ground and kick it — bend it and twist it with gritting teeth and burning eyes — I hate it I love you.” He said he was writing songs about her, like “Bob Dylan’s Blues” and “Down the ­Highway.”

When Rotolo returned to New York, she felt a chilly reception on the folk scene because she “was not there for Dylan when he needed me most.” She had moved to the Village to define herself, but now she was expected to be a helpmeet, a muse and a gatekeeper. The more famous Dylan became, the more uncomfortable she felt: she didn’t want to be limited to a role as her “boyfriend’s ‘chick,’ a string on his guitar.”

“A Freewheelin’ Time” makes an obvious nod to Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters,” a memoir about a romance with Jack Kerouac and the male-dominated Beat scene. Rotolo presents a similar scenario, a pre-­feminist time when “women and girls were permitted to sit at the table, where they would be served without any hesitation, but they were not to ask for any more.” It’s exhilarating to watch Rotolo, shy as she was, push the boundaries; in 1964, she made an illegal trip to Cuba, where she met Fidel Castro and Che ­Guevara.

She attributes her messy breakup with Dylan, in part, to her inability to give an ambitious but increasingly beleaguered superstar the “committed backup and protection” he needed, “probably because I needed them myself.” (Dylan is more elliptical: “The alliance between Suze and me didn’t turn out exactly to be a holiday in the woods,” he said in “Chronicles.” “She took one turn in the road and I took ­another.”)

Yet despite her struggle for self-­empowerment, she didn’t immediately dump Dylan for his affair with Joan Baez, who, according to other writers, made a dig at her from the stage at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival while she stood stunned in the crowd. Instead, the women seem to have more or less shared Dylan (apparently it’s even tough for beautiful pop stars to date pop stars), although Rotolo spends curiously little time on this part of her story. According to “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” by Howard Sounes, she may have tried to kill herself when she heard that Dylan would be touring with her rival; she does not mention this, even to correct the record. Likewise, she writes unspecifically about the ­breakup-influenced songs on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964), like the bitter “Ballad in Plain D,” which slams her mom and sister. “People would speculate and make judgments, and that became an intrusion,” she says.

Rotolo warns in the preface that she’s a private person too, and she must have cringed countless times as Dylan biographers picked apart her first serious relationship, generally portraying her as docile and mistreated. Even 40 years later, she seems uncomfortable delving into her time with Dylan. Perhaps an inherent contradiction is the problem: she’s writing about her unwillingness to be defined by her relationship to a famous man, in a book with Dylan on the cover. She compensates with many chapters on her artsy career endeavors and family life, but apart from a moving account of her adolescence after her father suddenly died, they read like a disconnected list of what she did.

But it’s quite a list — there are encounters with everyone from Phil Ochs to Bill Cosby to George Harrison, who asks her to bring some chicks over to his hotel, as if a Beatle needed help meeting girls. ­Toward the end of her memoir, Rotolo has a bleak meeting with her ex at the Kettle of Fish. “Know you cannot need anyone or anything and don’t believe,” he advises her. It poignantly underscores the way fame can destroy a piece of anyone it touches, especially the ones who wanted it most.

Sia Michel is the pop music editor of The Times.



Suze Rotolo's revealing look at young Bob Dylan


The singer-songwriter's ex-girlfriend ends years of silence in 'A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.'


By Josh Getlin

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 2, 2008

NEW YORK -- It was one of the most iconic record album covers ever released, and Suze Rotolo was part of it: On a snowy day in 1963, she snuggled with Bob Dylan as the two walked down a Greenwich Village street. "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" went on to become one of his best-known records, but the long-haired girl on his arm was always a mystery.

Now, Rotolo has broken years of silence to tell the story of what it was like to fall in love with Bob Dylan at 17, to introduce him to civil rights politics and modern poetry, and to finally break up with him when the pressures of his stardom became too great. Her new book, "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties," offers a revealing glimpse of the young artist, whom she calls with understatement "an elephant in the room of my life."

"People will always identify Suze as the girl on the album cover, and she's lived with this since 1963, but that's not the reason to read her book," said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor and historian in residence at Dylan's official website. "She evokes a time and place out of which a good deal of contemporary American culture sprang. It was a time of great freedom, when people were figuring out what they want to be, but freedom is scary."

During their turbulent, four-year relationship, Rotolo deeply loved Dylan, who was 20 when they met. She was there when classic songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" were new. She looked on with pride, then fear, as celebrity transformed him and other women pursued him. The author finally decided it was time for her to leave and become her own person. But not before an abortion and emotional breakdown shattered her.

"We loved each other very much and when it ended it was mutual heartbreak," she 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."

"What I really like is that she doesn't go off on an ego trip or point fingers," said Izzy Young, a paterfamilias of the early Greenwich Village folk scene. "Most of the accounts of this time are by guys talking about their career. Suze's book talks about feelings and emotions."

Emotions of the times

Among the hundreds of books about Dylan and his career, Rotolo's memoir ranks as big news. But if devotees are expecting yet another portrait of genius, they'll be disappointed. "A Freewheelin' Time" is one of the first histories of the folk music years written from a woman's perspective, and it goes beyond gossip to ask a pointed question: How did it feel? Rotolo writes that the era mattered because "we all had something to say, not something to sell."

Their love affair blossomed in the hothouse of Greenwich Village, where a folk music revival spurred on the civil rights movement and led to the birth of modern rock culture. On any given night, tiny basement clubs were packed with talent including Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul & Mary, Eric Andersen, Ian & Sylvia, Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins, plus such rising young comedians as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.

Rotolo recalls this era with dazzling anecdotes. But unlike most of the artists who traipse through her pages, she hasn't abandoned the neighborhood. The author, now a 64-year-old artist, still lives there with her husband, a film editor, only a few blocks from the grungy walk-up she once shared with Dylan and the street where the "Freewheelin' " cover was shot.

Given her history and long silence, few would have been surprised if she wrote a tart, tell-all memoir. Yet Rotolo is generous: "He was funny, engaging, intense, and he was persistent," she writes, describing her initial impressions of Dylan, whom she ran into at a folk music festival in 1961. "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."

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.

He also became a hugely influential figure in the Village, and Rotolo was along for the ride. Dylan's celebrity "made it harder for her to walk around for a few years because of that album cover," said John Sebastian, an acquaintance who went on to form 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."

Dylan had blown into town from the Midwest, telling tall tales of how he'd run away from home to join a carnival. But Rotolo's past didn't need embellishment. She was a red diaper baby whose parents were communists. Steeped in left-wing politics, she got involved with the burgeoning civil rights movement and eventually traveled to Cuba in 1964, defying the State Department. A culturally sophisticated person, she read modern poetry, studied art and drawing, and immersed herself in Bertolt Brecht and other avant-garde playwrights.

When they became a couple, Rotolo introduced Dylan to these worlds. Close friends noticed the change: "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."

'Her own person'

She was unwilling, however, to be the seventh string on Dylan's guitar.

Although some have idealized the folk era, Rotolo was rebelling against pervasive male chauvinism in the Village before she even had the words to describe it: "I am private by nature, and my instinct was to protect my privacy, and consequently his," she writes. Yet this proved impossible, as Dylan's star soared. "We got on really well, though neither one of us had any skin growing over our nerve endings. We were both over sensitive and needed shelter from the storm."

Her reference to one of Dylan's most famous songs is no accident. Elsewhere, she recalls "roosters crowing at the break of dawn" in the South Village; when the big breakup finally came, "he saw right from his side, and I saw right from mine." Some 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." "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."

But will it connect with younger readers today, who have only dim recollections -- if any -- of the Great Folk Scare? Although aging boomers who read the book may be sorely tempted to pull out their old Phil Ochs recordings, others may simply scratch their heads.

Today the neighborhood looks different. Hordes of tourists jam the sidewalks at night and skyrocketing real estate prices drove out the last starving artists long ago. But the idea of what the place once meant, and the continuing need for it, may still be alive.

"As I read the book, I wondered, 'Gee, if my granddaughter picked it up, would it speak to her?' " asked John Cohen, a friend of Rotolo's who formed the New Lost City Ramblers. "I think it would, because she'd ask herself: Is there a Greenwich Village somewhere for me?"

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

'A Freewheelin' Time' by Suze Rotolo


Life With Dylan in the Village of the 1960s


Sunday, May 25, 2008


By Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Suze Rotolo was in the thick of things during the "freewheelin' " 1960s in Greenwich Village, where she loved and lived with Bob Dylan. That tumultuous relationship gave her a front-row seat to the folk revolution as well as Dylan's rebellious electric breakaway from the crowd that had embraced him as "the Next One. The Prophet."

The author acknowledges that memory is unreliable and promises the reader the truth rather than the facts, although she provides many of these with corroborating newspaper clips.

If the unfurling of events seems a a bit foggy at times, well, no wonder. Rotolo was just 17 when she and Dylan became a couple, just as the decade was getting under way.

The Village at the time was ruled by the disciples of Woody Guthrie and the Beats, with a "we are family" attitude among the folkies of the day. Folk singer Dave Van Ronk was adamant that Rotolo shouldn't move in with Dylan, not yet 20 himself, until after she turned 18 (they waited until the day after her birthday).

The couple lived in a cramped upstairs flat on West Fourth Street while Rotolo worked as a waitress or tinkered with illustrating, and later, with making scenery for off-off Broadway productions.

Life revolved around clubs that welcomed folkies or, like the artists' salons of Paris, apartments owned by Village elders like Van Ronk and his wife, Terri Thal.

The bygone clubs -- Gerde's, The Bitter End, The Village Gate, The Gaslight -- were places where Woody Allen or Bill Cosby could try a routine one night, Phil Ochs or Tiny Tim could make an appearance the next, then make way for Ramblin' Jack Elliott and his heir apparent, Bob Dylan.

Rotolo notes, "The learning process for artists of all stripes usually follows the path of imitate, assimilate, then innovate."

It was Dylan's ability to do the latter that set him apart and sent him soaring.

It wasn't all fun and folks songs. From the beginning, there were secrets in the relationship between Suze and her Bobby. It wasn't until the press began poking around that Dylan's real name (Zimmerman) and Minnesota roots became well known.

Dylan is a constant presence, but the story is Rotolo's, from her childhood as a "red-diaper baby" (her parents belonged to the American Communist Party) to her acceptance into the Village scene. Dylan adored her, no doubt, from the many lyrics dedicated to her and his love letters, excerpts of which she shares in the book.

Rotolo creates a time capsule of the '60s within the boundaries of Greenwich Village, flinching when she ventures too far from home.

Sometimes, she's just a teenager in love.

Rotolo appears on the cover of Dylan's second album, from which this book takes its title and cover image. Her struggle to find her way out from Dylan's shadow gives the "freewheelin' " title an ironic twist.

In August 1963, Rotolo moved out on her own. Dylan's career was taking off and she was trying to break away from being the singer's "chick" -- or worse, "old lady." Her sister's advice: She would be "better off without that lyin' cheatin' manipulatin' bastard."

This is the first time readers hear of infidelities, though there are hints earlier -- a buzz about his appearance with Joan Baez at the Newport Music Festival, for instance.

Rotolo takes her time revealing that life with the singer was less than ideal. Take this notebook entry from the time of the breakup:

"I believe in his genius, he is an extraordinary writer but I don't think of him as an honorable person. He doesn't necessarily do the right thing."

The change in tone is jarring, but her hurt is palpable, an intense first love and loss brought back to the surface.

It wasn't a clean break; they would continue to see each other, but his entourage was changing, and the negative reaction within the Village folk community when he took his music electric was changing him. "Bob was thin and tight and hostile. He had succumbed to demons," Rotolo feared.

Andy Warhol makes a quick appearance in a scene from a party in Union Square, outside the borders of the map of the Village that precedes the memoir. Rotolo also takes readers along on a perilous journey to Cuba and to her mother's house in Hoboken, where she describes "hiding out" and listening to ... the Beatles.

The times had changed, and Rotolo had moved on.


September 7, 2008

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in The Sixties by Suze Rotolo


Robert Sandall


A Freewheelin' Time by Suze Rotolo
Aurum £16.99 pp383


Susan, or Suze, Rotolo was Bob Dylan's first serious girlfriend, and unlike many other characters from his pre-iconic phase she has, up until now, revealed little about their four-year relationship. Rotolo is best known as the woman hugging his arm on the front of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. A touchingly intimate, romantic image, it remains one of the first and last of its kind. Less than a year after that shot was taken in January 1963, he changed style: later photographs typically showed him as an enigmatic loner, hidden behind dark glasses, the epitome of an aloof cool that has pretty much defined rock stars ever since.

This was not the Bob Dylan that Rotolo first met in July 1961 at a Sunday folk marathon in Manhattan. She was 17, a New York born-and-bred Italian-American. Three years older and an out-of-towner from the Midwestern sticks, he was a fringe member of the lively folk scene based in a handful of tiny clubs around Greenwich Village. In his rumpled shirt, jeans and black corduroy hat, Dylan struck Rotolo as a bit of a hick, “oddly old-time looking, charming in a straggly way”. His impishness reminded her of Harpo Marx, but she warmed to an “intensity that was not to be taken lightly”.

Within a year, the pair were living together in a tiny rented apartment in West 4th Street, the first fruits of Dylan's new contract with Columbia Records. For an unmarried couple this was, by the standards of the day, an unconventional arrangement. At a record company conference in Puerto Rico they had to be booked into a hotel as Mr and Mrs Dylan, “because that was the only way we could have a room together”.

Rotolo dislikes the way she has been described as Dylan's muse - she specifically denies having inspired any of his songs - but she is well aware that she accelerated his entrée into New York's downtown bohemian culture. “I was exposed to a lot more than a kid from Hibbing, Minnesota.” A so-called “red diaper baby”, whose parents were both committed socialists, Rotolo fostered his interest in civil rights and the anti-nuclear movement. She took him to see Picasso's great anti-war painting, Guernica, introduced him to the poetry of Rimbaud and, through her work as a theatre designer, the plays of Bertolt Brecht. She noted his distrust of the avant-garde set, particularly Andy Warhol, and was amused by his reaction to Alain Resnais's cult art film Last Year in Marienbad, which Dylan waggishly suggested should have been retitled Marienbad Insane Asylum.

Annoyingly for her, boho New York had yet to embrace feminism, and Rotolo soon found herself being treated as a musician's “chick” - which “made me feel as if I weren't a whole being”. She didn't mind being phoned up by Pete Seeger, “who wanted to tell me how special Bob was and how I was an important part of that,” after Dylan's breakthrough concert at Carnegie Hall. But she took great exception when the veteran folk archivist Alan Lomax praised her for putting her genius boyfriend first, “unselfishly tending to his needs and desires . . . I was offended. I chafed at the notion of devoting my young self to serving somebody”.

Especially a somebody as tricksy as Bob Dylan. She admired his brazen creative thieving, and amusingly recounts him turning up at a folk club one night announcing, “Hey, you gotta listen to this song I just wrote! Or at least I think I wrote it, but maybe I heard it somewhere.” But what Rotolo grew to distrust in her funny but evasive boyfriend was “his facility for not telling the truth” about himself.

She was dismayed one night to discover that his surname was not Dylan after all, but Zimmerman, and took to calling him Raz “because I knew it annoyed him”. More troubling was his persistent, clandestine womanising, which surfaced after the Newport folk festival of 1963, when Dylan publicly took up with his co-star Joan Baez. He was, Rotolo concluded, “a lying shit of a guy with women, an adept juggler really”.

But, even after she moved out of West 4th Street and went to live with her sister, the love affair persisted. On his infrequent visits Dylan would, she says, beg her to marry him, and although she doubted his sincerity - “I do not think of him as an honourable person,” she wrote in her diary in 1964 - she became pregnant by him. The subsequent abortion brought things to an end. In the last conversation she reports between them, the by now ineffably famous and probably drug-fuelled Dylan has darkened, telling her, “You cannot need anyone, or anything...all is meaningless.” Her last words on the man whose life “has always been a presence...alongside my own” are bleak: “How painful it was to know him.”

While A Freewheelin' Time will inevitably be picked over by geeky Dylanologists - with whom Rotolo has had a few public spats recently - this is more her story than it is his. And she has not had it easy. The most moving passages here describe her troubled, impoverished adolescence, scarred by the death of her father in her early teens and her volatile mother's battle with alcoholism. She was facially disfigured and nearly died in a serious car accident at 14, and suffered an apparent arson attack by a deranged actor acquaintance that destroyed her New York apartment in 1966.

Hearteningly, she remains totally unembittered throughout the book, never losing sight of the idealistic, creative energy that infused New York in the early 1960s. There is no better guide to the people, the places, the movers and shakers that turned Greenwich Village into one of the launch pads of rock's counter-culture - and made one of its luckier and more talented inhabitants into a superstar whose songs can still hypnotise across the generations. “We were a passionate lot,” Rotolo concludes, in her refreshingly straightforward way. “And cool and hip as we might have been, or thought ourselves to be...we had something to say, not something to sell.”




The Guardian

Saturday August 16 2008


Tomorrow is a long time


Richard Williams


Suze Rotolo was just 17 when she fell in love with Bob Dylan, who found her 'the most erotic thing' he'd ever seen. Through the photograph on his Freewheelin' album cover, they came to embody the ideal of the carefree 60s couple. Finally, she is telling her story. Richard Williams met her in New York's East Village


A Freewheelin' Time : A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

by Suze Rotolo

Aurum press


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 Fall" and "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 4th 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 Village in 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 Core, 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 subterfuges were 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 4th 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.

She 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 Picasso and 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 Brecht at 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."