Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Bohemian romance – singer/songwriter Bob Dylan and artist/activist Suze Rotolo in February 1063, photographed by Don Husten. The pair would be immortalized forever on the cover to Dylan’s groundbreaking album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”

Out of all the album cover ever created, this one just may be my very favorite.

It’s a winter morning in New York City.  Jones St in Greenwich Village, not far from West 4th Street.  The street is lined by snow covered vehicles, including a VW minibus parked on the right side of the road.  Amongst the ominous buildings, under a canopy of fire escapes, a young man and woman walk through the middle of the road.  He is wearing a slight jacket, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched up to stay warm.  She wears a heavy green coat, and clings to his arm with her head on her shoulder.  He looks at his feet, while her smile is so bright that it replaces the sun that has been blocked out of the dreary sky by the gray smog.  They are good looking, vibrant and in love.  It’s the ultimate image of Bohemian romance, and one of the greatest photographs ever taken from the heyday of the Greenwich Village folk scene.  The man and the woman are Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo, and the image has become etched in the hearts and minds of music fans forever as the cover to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”

When they met in the summer of 1962, Suze was 19 and Bob was 20 and newly arrived in New York. A lifelong New Yorker and a regular in the Greenwich Village art and activist scene, Suze would become both Bob Dylan’s muse and tour guide.

I think why this stands out as being my most favorite album cover of all time is due to it being a unique snapshot of a moment in time.  Too perfect for a home photograph, it still has a natural feel to it, which was uniquely different from what album covers were supposed to look like when it first hit record shops in 1963.  The photo, taken by CBS staff photographer Don Hunsten, is genuinely real, in the moment and full of spontaneous emotion.  It looks more like something out of a Life Magazine pictorial than something taken in a photo studio.  Meanwhile, Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo are attractive, but they are not glamorous.  They look like real kids or someone in your own neighborhood.  But most of all there is a romance to it.  They are young, blissful, intellectual and in love.  Having just reunited after a period filled with growth and self discovery, the photo is a moment in time where the flames of passion were burning brightly, taken not far from the apartment that they shared during a time of great excitement for young artists in New York City. Still today generations of pseudo intellectuals, aspiring musicians and street poets have looked at this album cover as a timeless symbol of modern urban romance.  It’s a photo so timeless that, except for the vintage cars in the street, it could have been taken in any era.  As a young man I wanted to be as cool as the young Bob Dylan, and I wanted to meet a girl as lovely as Suze Rotolo.  The image was a simple, but beautiful, romantic fantasy.

In his autobiography, Dylan described his first impression of Suze Rotolo as “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.”

Released in May 1963, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” launched Bob Dylan to fame, being his first commercially and critically successful album and put him on a journey to being one of 20th Century’s most celebrated songwriters, recording artists and word smiths.  A living legend and cultural superstar, much has been written about Bob Dylan.  The man needs no introduction.  But who was Suze Rotolo, the attractive titian haired woman on his arm?  Immortalized forever on this infamous album cover, Suze didn’t perform on the album, but her influence Is deep within it.  As an artist and activist, Suze Rotolo was also Bob Dylan’s reluctant muse whom he continues to credit as being one of the biggest influences in forging his creative path during his journey to fame, and being his gateway into the culture and politics that would shape his songwriting.  Suze Rotolo was a powerful influence and educated voice behind one of the most legendary musical minds in recording history, and the ideas she introduced to him would go on to inspire generations of fans and thinkers through Bob Dylan’s music.

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo with Suze’s older sister Carla. Extremely close, the pair were both regulars on the Greenwich Village arts and music scene, and it was Carla who introduced Suze to Bob Dylan, which she would later regret.

Suze Rotolo was a lifelong New Yorker, born in 1943 into a political and creative family, paving her way for a lifetime of art and activism.  Her father was an illustrator and union organizer, her mother a writer and editor, and both were open members of the American Communist Party who worked for the New York Communist newspaper “L’Unita.”  Living in Queens, she and her older sister Carla were brought up listening to folk, blues and opera music, being taught alternative political values, and given access to a world of art, poetry, and literature.  When Suze was a teenager, her father died of a sudden heart attack.  Her mother, in her grief, turned to alcohol, and Suze and Carla found solace together in the cultural revolution that was happening in Greenwich Village.  Beatniks, experimental art and theatre and, of course, folk and jazz was happening there, and the two girls quickly found their footing within the culture, assimilating seamlessly amongst the new crop of young people that were forming the new intelligentsia. 

When she graduated high school in 1960, Suze had taken a job working full time at the Congress of Racial Equality offices and was an active volunteer for an anti-nuclear group, while Carla was working as an assistant to famous folklorist Alan Lomax.  Both were living outside of their mother Mary’s home, and on their own. Together the two girls followed in their parents’ footsteps, becoming active members of the activist culture, and fixtures at folk shows and music festivals.

Meeting at an all day folk concert at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in June 1962, Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo quickly moved in with one another in a small flat on Jones St close to West 45th St, where the famous photo of them used for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” cover was taken.

Suze was 17 when she met Bob Dylan for the first time at an all-day folk concert at the Riverside Church in Manhattan in the summer of 1961.  Although she had seen him perform weeks earlier at the legendary music venue Gerdie’s Folk City,, on this occasion she was introduced to him by Carla and the attraction between the two was immediate.  Years later, in his biography “Chronicles, Volume 1,” Bob described their meeting vividly with poetic fever: 

“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. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard… She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a kind of voluptuousness—a Rodin sculpture come to life.

Still an unknown musician at the time that they met, Bob Dylan, then 20, was relatively new to New York City and the whole Greenwich Village scene.  Only months before he had dropped out of college in Minneapolis, Minnesota and had traveled to New York to meet his idol, Woody Guthrie.  With a head full of ideas and a passion for music, Bob had been playing the folk scene in New York, and had gained a reputation as a harmonica player which led to early recording sessions with Harry Belafonte and Carolyn Hester.  But Bob was on his way up, and was making friends and attracting attention. Although an intelligent individual, Bob was still green to New York City and had little experience in the realm of politics and culture.  Now that he had fallen in with Suze Rotolo, that was about to change. The timing was perfect because weeks after meeting Suze, Bob was discovered by legendary Columbia producer John Hammond, who discovered jazz and blues legends such as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Pete Seger, and was signed to do his first lp,

Although intelligent and talented, Bob Dylan was still new to New York City when he met Suze Rotolo. In the first year of their relationship Suze would school him on politics and activism, and introduce him to alternative art and culture, which would shape the political and social views that he incorporated into his songs on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and future albums.

After getting paid by Columbia, Bob and Suze found an apartment together in Greenwich Village.  Suze was still working with the Civil Rights Commission, but stayed creative as a visual artist and was working as a set designer for local theatre groups.  With the city as their playground, her influence on Bob, creatively, intellectually and politically, was immense.  She introduced Bob to social and political issues, and schooled him on civil rights, labor disputes and anti-war politics.  Bob began to put these elements into his new batch of songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Death of Emmet Till,” which he’d lovingly hand over to Suze for approval, asking her “Did I get it right?”  Meanwhile, the pair would go to alternative theatre, art galleries and Suze turned Bob on to writers such as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.  Suze became Bob’s tour guide through the Avant-guard art scene, and Bob drank it all in, adopting the culture he was exposed to and instilling it into his writing.  At night the two became a noticeable fixture on the folk circuit where they hung out with both rising and established acts such as John Lee Hooker, Ian and Sylvia, Jose Feleciano and Peter, Paul and Mary.  Meanwhile, Bob’s self-titled album came out in March 1962.  Primarily made up of folk standards and a pair of songs Bob had written prior to coming to New York, the album failed to gain much attention nationally.  But Bob’s new batch of songs, with Suze Rotolo’s influence stamped all over them, was gaining the attention, and respect, of the heavy hitters in the New York folk scene.

But while Bob and Suze were an attractive couple, not everyone was happy with their relationship.  Suze’s sister and mother didn’t approve of the relationship.  They found Bob to be crude, vague and deceitful. They didn’t like his tall tales, and Mary, newly remarried to a university professor, was somewhat embarrassed of Suze’s freewheelin’ life with Bob and that she was living with him without being married. Furthermore, as his reputation as a singer-songwriter began to take flight, they felt that Suze was starting to live in Bob’s shadow.  Bob did not seek our Mary’s approval, and would often be dismissive with her. In an attempt to put some distance between the couple, in the summer of 1962 Mary offered to take Suze to study art in Perugia, Italy for six months.  Suze jumped at the opportunity, much to Bob’s dismay. 

One of the post cards written to Suze Rotolo by Bob Dylan during her trip to study art in Italy. Many of his letters to her would turn into songs, most famously “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

While Suze studied in Italy, she also found that she enjoyed her independence and began to realize how she had somehat lost herself playing the part of Bob’s “chick.”.  Meanwhile, Bob was moody and depressed in New York, and would write long winded wordy letters and short poignient post cards to Suze longing for her to come back.  Many of these letters were turned into songs, including “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” “One To Many Mornings,” “Boots and Spanish Leather” and, most famously “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”  But Suze missed Bob and the life she left behind, and with growing animosity towards her mother for separating the two of them, Suze returned to New York in time for Christmas 1962. Little did she or Bob realize, things were about to change real fast.

While Suze was in Italy, Bob busied himself with his second album which would become “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and the songs were in post production. Constraining all the songs he had written since meeting Suze – the political songs, the protest songs and the songs aching for her return – the album was different than other folk albums of the time. It was distinctly modern, and focused more on the issues of the present than the traditions of the past. Bob was more rag tagged and rough around the edges than The Kingston Trio or The Brothers Four, but he was smart, cutting edge and was about to change the face of folk music forever with this album. When photographer John Hunston took the photo of Bob and Suze that February morning in 1963 it would be one of the final moments of animosity for Bob Dylan. The moment “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was released in May, Bob was suddenly very famous, and becoming the voice of a new generation.

Upon returning to New York, Suze came home to find Bob Dylan’s fame was on its way up. She also came home to find out that Bob had had an affair with Joan Baez, which shook the foundations of their relationship.

While he was an unlikely candidate to be Columbia Records newest rising star, Bob Dylan soon moved out of the coffee houses and into the concert halls, and although Suze kept pace with him by his side, his rise to fame began to make their life together harder, and the cracks started to appear. Suze began to become suspicious of people she met believing that their real intentions was to get close to Bob. She also valued her privacy, shielding her life from others, and felt overwhelmed by the public attention. Meanwhile, she found that Bob was becoming more secretive than usual, and was no longer comfortable with his tendency to be vague.

But Bob had at least one secret he couldn’t keep. Striking up a friendship with already established folk superstar Joan Baez, the pair began collaborating together and Bob was a popular supporting act for Joan’s shows. The creative spark between the two was obvious to everyone who watched them, and soon rumors that the pair were lovers spread amongst not only audiences, but members of Bob and Suze’s circle. Eventually Bob admitted to Suze that not long after their appearance at the Newport Folk Festival he and Joan did have an affair. Suze pushed the betrayal aside and she and Bob tried to continue, but the cracks in the foundation of their relationship was turning into sharp shards.

Jones St and West 4th Street today.

Complicating matters, Suze was becoming more uncomfortable with her role as the complacent girlfriend standing in Bob’s ever growing shadow. In a time where feminism was not yet a movement, Suze did not like the stereotype of the musicians “chick,” nor the way women were treated in the music scene. While in Italy, Suze had become fascinated by Pablo Picasso’s mistress Marie Therese Walter, and with her relationship shaken by her taste of independence and Bob’s infidelity and growing fame, she looked at Walter’s story as a cautionary tale to what her life might be if she stayed with Bob.  Suze was starting to question her future and didn’t want to be thought of as Bob Dylan’s “chick” or “muse.”  She wanted to stand on her own feet as an artist and individual.

Becoming fascinated by Pablo Picasso’s mistress Marie Therese Walter, Suze feared the same fate of living in Bob Dylan’s shadow, and wanted to be seen as an individual and artist in her own right instead of just a “muse.”

Although Bob was continuously asking Suze to marry him, she needed more space and moved out of their apartment and in with Carla and, seeking more distance to figure out her feelings, became a part of a group of students who made headlines when they traveled to Cuba despite  the US travel ban, and were met by Che Guevara.  Not long after her return from Cuba, Suze discovered she was pregnant with Bob’s child. The pregnancy shook both her and Bob up, and together they agreed that this was not what they wanted and Suze got an illegal abortion..  By this point it was 1964, and the life that Bob and Suze once knew was no longer so freewheelin’. Bob was adapting to stardom, but Suze was ready to be travelin’ on.  But did Bob think it was alright?  No he did not.  Bob’s once nonchalant attitude to the prospect of their ultimate breakup in the lyrics of “Don’t Think Twice” were about to become null and void in potentially the worst song of his career, “Ballad in Plain D,”

Bob Dylan – Another Side fo Bob Dylan (1964)

For anyone who ever criticizes Taylor Swift for writing trashy break up songs about former lovers, they should take a close look at Dylan’s “Ballad in Plain D” to see just how truly badly it can be done.  Compared to “Ballad in Plain D,”  Taylor’s most misguided songs seem like musical gemstones compared to this smug and half baked rambling narrative.  His commentary about the end of his relationship with Suze, “Ballad in Plain D” is petty, arrogant, demeaning and lacks focus or cohesion.  In the song, Dylan paints Suze to be a gentle and meek ingénue who is easily manipulated by her evil and jealous sister, and Bob is set out to battle Carla for the ownership of Suze’s soul but loses.  It’s some seriously misogynistic shit, and grossly one sided, making Bob look bitter and pathetic.  To make matters worst, instead of just working out his emotions through writing the song and the shelving it where it belonged, Bob foolishly recorded it on his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan.“  The song obviously  did not sit well with the Rotolo family. But, as Suze would tell in her biography, she felt that Bob and Carla were both “Type A” personalities, and by this time she just wanted to get away from them both. But, while she often clashed with her older sister, the bonds they shared were strong, and it marked the end of Bob and Suze’s relationship. The audacity of the song did not go unrealized by Bob.  In a 1985 interview, when asked if there was a song, he ever regreted writing, Bob said of “Ballad in Plain D,” “Maybe I could have left that one alone.”

Suze Rotolo in 2008, the year she released her book “A Freewheelin’ Life.” She passed away of lung cancer in 2011.

Looking to put greater distance between her and Bob, Suze journeyed back to Italy for an extended stay to continue her art studies and rekindled a friendship with a young filmmaker named Enzo Bartoliocci.  The pair began a long courtship and were married in 1970.  Eventually returning to New York, the couple set themselves up in the East Village where Enzo worked as a documentary filmmaker for the United Nations, and Suze continued creating art, became a mother and continued her activities in politics and activism. 

Over the years Suze and Bob’s paths crossed occasionally, and they remained on decent terms.  Always a private person, for most of her life Suze kept quiet publicly about her relationship with Bob.  But eventually, as Bob began to write his memoires and become the subject of documentaries and scholarly studies, he began to give Suze widespread credit for being a major influence in forming his ideas, politics, and earliest works.  Suze, in return, granted occasional interviews about her life with Bob, which led to her authoring her book, “A Freewheelin’ Time,” in 2008 which featured the famous photo of her and Bob Dylan, arm and arm on Jones St, on the front cover.  An entertaining and insightful read, “A Freewheelin’ Time” is a smart and engaging memoire of one woman’s unique perspective as the ultimate insider on the Greenwich City arts scene during it’s most exciting era. It also offers a first hand perspective of one of 20th Century’s most respected artists rise to prominence. A few years after the book was published, Suze was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died on February 25, 2011 at age 67.

Behind all artists there stands powerful influences, and no doubt Suze Rotolo was one of the people who set Bob Dylan on his way to becoming a writer that would influence multiple generations of listeners.  She was an intelligent and fiercely independent woman who stood inside Dylan’ inner circle, but eventually sought refuge outside of his rapid moving fame.  But, for music fans everywhere, she has forever been immortalized as the girl on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” with her huge smile and radiant urban beauty.  But when people listen to the album, hopefully they remember that Suze Rotolo’s influence oozes out of every lyric that Dylan sings.  That influence is her lasting legacy.

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