Bob Dylan's Muse: Suze Rotolo, 1943-2011

I just heard the very sad news that Suze Rotolo has passed away; she was Bob Dylan's girlfriend and muse in the early to mid 1960's.  Rotolo is the girl huddled next to Dylan on the iconic cover to his second album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan;" and he wrote one of my favorite Dylan songs, "Boots of Spanish Leather" about their relationship.

Rotolo, of course was much more than Dylan's ex-girlfriend; she was an activist, an artist, a wife and mother, and later in life revealed herself to be a talented writer, with her wonderful book "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties" (in which she referred to Dylan as "the elephant in the room of my life.")  Every Dylan fan should get this book, which is filled with Rotolo's evocative memories and insightful perspective on an extraordinary period in music and in American history.

Rotolo had long avoided the public eye, and only hesitantly emerged into the "Dylan world" with the opening of the museum exhibition "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966," organized by the Experience Music Project in Seattle.  Rotolo loaned the exhibition some of her Dylan memorabilia, including books Dylan had inscribed to her, and at the invitation of curator Jasen Emmons, attended the opening in November 2004 (unfortunately I was out of the country for the opening and never got to meet her, but as a consultant to the exhibit, we corresponded by email a bit.)

In 2006, perhaps as a result of seeing how much interest there was in Dylan memorabilia, Rotolo consigned some of her extraordinary items to Christies, which auctioned them that December.   Her collection included rare photographs, cards and books Dylan inscribed to her, as well as some extremely rare records.   For hardcore collectors like myself, this was an amazing opportunity to bid on truly unique and meaningful items.  And of course, in a world filled with Dylan forgeries, these were things with rock solid provenance, directly from the source.

The pieces I wanted most were two early blues and jazz compilation albums, purchased by Dylan on his first trip to England in November, 1962.  On the back of these, Dylan made notations such as "Made for and about Bob Dylan," "Drinked up and let out by Bob Dylan" and "Read Thoroughly and with full throttle by Bob Dylan" (after the liner notes.)

To me, these were talismanic objects, filled with the music we now know inspired Dylan so much.  When I asked Rotolo by email why Dylan had written on his albums, she told me that it was similar to making notes in the margins of books for him.  Later I realized at the point he annotated these, he had only been going by the name Bob Dylan for perhaps a year and a half--in fact, he had only legally changed his name in August, 1962--three months before buying these.  It's almost as if he was seeing how his new name fit alongside those of these legendary artists.

Happily, I was the high bidder for both of these, and they now reside in a place of honor in my collection.  So for those who want to see what the real thing looks like--genuine, beyond the shadow of a doubt Dylan handwriting and signatures from the early 60's--here are scans of both albums, from Bob Dylan's record collection, circa 1962 One of the more unusual areas of my record and memorabilia collecting is hunting down records owned by artists that inspire me (there's more about this in my earlier posts on Jimi Hendrix's record collection.) Both of these albums, and the Hendrix albums I own are what collectors call "well played"--far from mint condition; obviously frequently played by their original owners.

These were records they listened to, loved, and in many cases were inspired by; some of the building blocks of their artistry.  Part of their musical mojo.  So thanks to Suze Rotolo, we have a bit more insight into what Bob was listening to at a most formative time.

Below is one more great item Rotolo auctioned--a postcard Dylan wrote to her from Rome, where he was vacationing in 1963.  As you can see, it's addressed to the apartment they shared on (positively) 4th Street.  He mentions that bella regatza (actually bella regazza, or beautiful girls) are everywhere, then invokes Rotolo's Italian heritage, ending with "Gotta go, gotta meeting with the Pope about all the colored people coming over here--Amore, Bob."

Suze will surely be missed by those who knew her and by Dylan fans the world over--but she'll live on in photographs, the songs she inspired, and the people she touched through her art and writing.


Hendrix/Mothers/Animals--Now THAT Would Have Been a Show !

Here's an amazing letter from Michael Jeffery, manager of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Animals to the great Tom Wilson, at that time an A&R man at The Animals' label, MGM Records, proposing a possible Eric Burdon & The Animals/Mothers of Invention/Jimi Hendrix Experience concert at Carnegie Hall !

Can you imagine--Hendrix, at the peak of his game, between "Are You Experienced" and "Axis Bold as Love;" Zappa and the Mothers likewise, between "Absolutely Free" and "We're Only In It For The Money;" and Burdon & The Animals between "Winds of Change" and "The Twain Must Meet."  Jeffery mentions adding Hendrix to the bill as a "way to make the show a real sell-out attraction."  No kidding !

Michael Jeffery co-managed Hendrix with Chas Chandler, the former Animals bassist and Hendrix's producer.  Jeffery was a controversial figure, rumored to have been an operative for the MI-5, the British secret counter-intelligence and security service.  There has long been talk that Hendrix was about to fire Jeffery just prior to his death, and rumors he was somehow involved in Hendrix's demise.  Jeffrey himself died in a plane crash in 1973.

Tom Wilson is one of the unsung greats of the music business; he produced artists running the gamit from John Coltrane and Sun Ra to Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground.  Wilson, while a staff producer at Columbia Records, oversaw some of Dylan's greatest recordings, including the albums "The Times They Are a-Changin'," "Another Side of Bob Dylan," and "Bringin' It All Back Home," as well as "Like A Rolling Stone."  He also produced Simon & Garfunkel's debut album, "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" and after it wasn't a hit, was inspired to put electric instruments on their song "The Sounds of Silence."  The original, acoustic version of the song had failed to garner any attention, and so Wilson, inspired by The Byrds electric version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" overdubbed electric instruments, without Simon & Garfunkel's knowledge.  They may not have initially appreciated this, but the song went to #1 and launched their career.  Wilson is also famous for signing the Velvet Underground, Mothers of Invention. and Blues Project to Verve Records, all of whom he produced.  

I love finding documents like this, which evoke a magic time in the music business, and in this case, reveal an unknown (and amazing) bit of information.  I'll be posting more of these in the coming months.