NEW YORK (Reuters) - It’s not easy living with having been the muse and lover of any great artist, let alone someone with demigod status like Bob Dylan.
But that’s the baggage that Suze Rotolo, who lived with Dylan in the 1960s and was a major influence in his early work, has been carrying for nearly half a century.
Now she has broken her silence with a book, “A Freewheelin’ Time - A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Doubleday.
“He’s the elephant in the room of my life,” said Rotolo, now 64, as she discussed her book and her life over iced tea in a restaurant near the Greenwich Village loft where she lives with her family.
“I’m glad I came out,” said Rotolo, a soft spoken woman with an easy smile who works as a visual artist.
She unwittingly became an icon of the Sixties in 1963 when Columbia records chose a picture of her walking arm-in-arm with Dylan on a snowy Greenwich Village street for the cover of his groundbreaking second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
A nearly identical picture from the same publicity shoot graces the cover of her nearly 400-page memoir.
It tells the story of a shy young Italian-American girl from Queens who moved across the East River to Greenwich Village to find herself, and got caught up in the whirlwind of the early sixties folk music scene and civil rights movement.
“It felt good to tell these stories, to tell stories that my son can read and so people of other generations can know what that period was like. What I wanted to show is that we were all human, young, had fun and produced something.”
She met Dylan, who had moved to New York from Minnesota, at a concert in 1961 when she was 17 and he was 20. The two fell in love and became inseparable in the years when he underwent a transformation from folk singer to spokesman for a generation.
The book describes the creative crucible that Greenwich Village was at the time, with its music clubs and cafes serving as magnets for artists, musicians and poets seeking to breathe in a heady new air after the socially suffocating 1950s.
Rotolo and Dylan lived together in a two-room walk-up on West 4th Street and their love story and break-up inspired songs such as “Tomorrow Is a Long time,” “One Too Many Mornings,” “Don’t think Twice, It’s Alright,” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
The four-year relationship was at once tender and turbulent.
She was raised as a free thinker by working-class communist parents who suffered during the McCarthy era. He soaked up her political activism and social awareness, which found expression in some of Dylan’s early anti-war and anti-racism songs.
But the young Rotolo was no groupie or chick hanging on Dylan’s every word. She refused to be an appendage, or, as she puts it, “the seventh string on his guitar.”
As he became more famous by the day their relationship was tested. She left for six months in Italy — a separation that also figures in some of his early songs.
More strain befell the relationship when she became pregnant and they both agreed that she would have an abortion, which was both illegal and dangerous at the time.
Rotolo knew Dylan needed nurturing but she chafed at losing her own identity as he spiralled to fame and took on the status of an oracle who, as she put it, risked burning out in his own flame.
“I didn’t see the glory in it,” she said, shaking her head slowly to make a point. “I saw what it was like, sitting there and having everybody come to this guy. He was the honey pot. And I was supposed to sit there and smile? I just couldn’t do it.”
“Every little thing he said was bisected, dissected and looked at as a mysterious message from the gods. It was really difficult. I didn’t want that kind of light to shine on me because no matter what I would say or do would provoke this kind of reverence and I just found that very awkward,” she said.
Towards the end of their time together, Dylan began an affair with folk singer Joan Baez. Rotolo was devastated by his cheating, which she said left her lost with no-one to trust.
A very private person herself, she still respects Dylan’s privacy and the memoir is not by any means a “tell all” book.
“I could have been nasty,” she joked during the interview. “I could have evened scores. But why would I do that at my age?”
Rotolo’s memoir is not just about her relationship with Dylan. It is an entertaining roadmap of how Greenwich Village was in the early 1960s, written by a privileged participant-observer.
Legendary Village clubs and bars like Gerde’s Folk City, the Gaslight and the Kettle of Fish are as much a part of the book, as are singers like Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, Tiny Tim, Peter, Paul and Mary, and artists such as Andy Warhol.
Village streets with names like Bleecker, Cornelia, West Fourth and Mercer are incarnated, almost becoming characters in their own right that moulded a tightly-knit community of artists and musicians.
Set in the backdrop of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination and the start of the Vietnam war, Rotolo writes of a generation on the cusp of change and rebellion.
It includes personal photos, parts of letters she and Dylan exchanged and her own notebook entries and illustrations from the period.
Rotolo does not look back in anger. She does not look back with nostalgia. She just looks back in a sometimes bittersweet way with the conviction, as she puts it, that life goes on for those who live in the present.
“I saw myself as part of this big important story. It’s not as if we were all acolytes around this god. We were all in the mix together and he became something. He was in the mix together in this circus and then he became the ringmaster,” she said.