The Magazine

Village Vanguard

Bob Dylan and the origins of folk-rock.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Her view of the Communist left was rather naïve. Like Dylan's, her bent was art, music, theater, and painting. Yet she saw herself as part of a family of like-minded people of the left who intended to change the world for the better and institute what she calls Karl Marx's good ideas. Fear of McCarthyism and what might happen to her and her friends' Communist parents was always in the background, giving her what she calls "an outsider status inflicted on us by the Cold War and our parents' political beliefs."

Yet she was inquisitive enough to seek out and read The God That Failed, which she calls the story of six ex-Communist writers' "agonizing journey .  .  . an examination of the Cold War and Stalinism by these important thinkers," a book that "made an impact." She knew the stories told were accurate. Yet Rotolo felt, at the same time, that she "was betraying the elders" and so she read it in secret! To acknowledge that the book contained difficult truths, she writes, was impossible: After all, The God That Failed was praised by anti-Communists, and "you were either on one side or the other."

Rotolo's strength is that while she knew that even to "raise questions about the Soviet Union and Stalin" might lead to being denounced as "a traitor and opportunist," she stood her own ground. A "big Question Mark suddenly appeared over my head," she writes, and she "began to doubt." Her quest even led her to find out about the verboten Italian anarchist and anti-Communist Carlo Tresca, whose "illicit .  .  . outlaw" status "made him infinitely attractive."

The heart of the book, as one would expect, is her life with Bob Dylan. The affair began in July 1961 and lasted, with a great deal of turmoil and drama, until 1964, by which time Dylan's fame and fortune had grown. His intensity and dark moods made her feel so trapped, she writes, that "I thought I would suffocate." Walking down East 7th Street with him one night, she simply told him that she had to go, and "turned and walked away without looking back."

Dylan, she wrote in a diary entry that year, was "an extraordinary writer but I don't think of him as an honorable person." But where, she asked herself, "is it written that this must be so in order to do great work in the world?"

In between the years with Dylan she went to Italy in search of the education she missed. In Florence she soaked in the great Italian artists. Then it was on to the medieval town of Perugia, in Italy's center, where she enrolled in art school. Here she had time to think, reflect, and develop as an artist in her own right. She would, however, receive a stream of cards and letters from Dylan, who wanted her to return to him.

While in Italy, she read Françoise Gilot's scathing book about Pablo Picasso, expecting to learn about the great painter whom she admired. Instead, she found it a book of "revelations, lessons, warnings." She found the similarities between Picasso and Dylan disturbing and read the book twice. Picasso, like Dylan, "took no responsibility .  .  . came to no decisions and did nothing that would have made it possible or easier for the various women he was involved with to leave him and get on with their lives."

She would have to make the painful separation.

Dylan loved and missed her, but his prime concern was his art. In her book she is very forgiving and shows great respect for him as an artist, despite their difficult relationship. All artists, she writes, move through the path of "imitate, assimilate, then innovate." Dylan may have started out echoing Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliott but "worked hard to learn his craft, to make his art his own."

Hearing his early songs, the press soon dubbed him a "protest singer." He had come to some issues because, as she writes, "I threw those interests out to Bob." He may have started singing traditional folk music and blues, but soon began writing his personal interior monologues in a form that captivated the world and transformed American music. Rotolo read Arthur Rimbaud, and soon Dylan did, too. He did not betray anyone when he "went electric" in 1965, she writes: He wrote about what was on his mind, and did not want to do what others wanted, even if it meant "alienating his public, fans, friends, and lovers."