Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right and Girl From the North Country 1963, and It Ain’t Me Babe and All I Really Want To Do 1964, and Like A Rolling Stone 1965, and I Want You and Just Like A Woman, and Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands 1966, and Tangled Up In Blue and Love Minus Zero, No Limit and Abandoned Love 1974, and Sara 1975.- all written and recorded by Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman, 1941) moved from Hibbing Minnesota to New York City in 1961, and was soon surrounded by the people and places that would inspire his music, and create a body of work that would see him become the only songwriter/poet in history to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Women and their relationships with Dylan have inspired many of his songs, before and after his arrival in the Big Apple – Echo Helstrom, Bonnie Beecher, Suze Rotolo, Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick, Sara Lownds, Carolyn Dennis, and probably Ruth Tyrangiel, Susan Ross, Ellen Bernstein, Clydie King, Darlene Springs and others. He was certainly married twice, to Lownds and Dennis, and has acknowledged parentage of five children. Dylan is secretive and closeted publicly from tabloid inquiry and media intrusion, his second marriage to one of his backing singers, Carolyn Dennis in 1986 five months after the birth of their daughter Desiree, was a well-kept secret for fifteen years. L-R – Bob Dylan with Suze Rotolo, Sara Lownds and Carolyn Dennis
Following his arrival in NYC in 1961 and for the next three years Dylan, was in a very close relationship with Suze Rotolo, who was seventeen when they fell in love, he described her as “erotic”, her Italian-American parents were radical communists, so young Suze was politically and socially aware, and liberal-minded, and she would appear with Dylan on the iconic cover of his album Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), arm-in-arm huddled against the winter cold of New York’s West Village.
It was generally agreed that she was the inspiration for the Dylan classic Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, but the motivation for the song is steeped in ambiguity, even Dylan’s own sleeve notes were less than illuminating “It isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” The general consensus was that Dylan was either commenting on Rotolo’s expressed preference to live in Italy indefinitely, or that Dylan was encouraging Suze to have an abortion after becoming pregnant to him. Dylan had adapted a melody from Paul Clayton’s song Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone), and critics agreed that seldom had the contradictory emotions of a thwarted lover been so well expressed, in a song that transcended the autobiographical origins of Dylan’s angst.
When the couple parted in 1964 Dylan said farewell to Suze Rotolo in the song All I Really Want to Do a track on his Another Side of Bob Dylan album, where Dylan implored Suze to remain a friend, as he assured her that his intentions didn’t include a longer-term close relationship “I ain’t lookin’ to make you fry/See you fly or watch you die/And I don’t want to drag you down/Chain you down or be your clown/All I really want to do, is baby be friends with you.” Another song on this album, Ballad In Plain D, was also inspired by Dylan’s breakup with Rotolo, which was emotionally bruising, and where Dylan took aim at Suze’s sister Carla, who he regarded as an intrusive and unwanted influence, “For her parasite sister, I had no respect/ Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect.” Below – A rather forlorn and cheerless couple below – Bob and Francois Hardy.
Dylan would dedicate the poem At the Seine’s Edge to French singer Francois Hardy with whom he was briefly infatuated, following a concert tour in Europe in the mid-60’s.
The album Highway ’61 Revisited was released in 1965 and the standout track was Like A Rolling Stone, which Rolling Stone Magazine ranked as “the greatest song of all time” in 2004. It was revolutionary in the way it combined electric guitar riffs, with organ chords, and Dylan’s unique vocals, delivered with a snarling, vengeful, malevolence, that eschewed traditional themes of popular music such as romance or cloying sentiment and instead expressed resentment, and a yearning for revenge. Below Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick.
The song was likely inspired by one-time debutante Edie Sedgwick, the “Miss Lonely” in the lyrics, who was torn between Andy Warhol’s Factory clique and her relationship with Dylan, who accused Warhol of mistreating her “Ain’t it hard when you discover that/He really wasn’t where it’s at/After he took from you everything he could steal”, after giving Sedgwick her fifteen minutes of fame as a starlet in his movies, then discarding her.
Joan Baez (above with BD) was a leading counter-culture figure, and icon of the 60’s protest movement, and the reigning Queen of Folk when she met Dylan in 1961. She supported him in his early attempts to establish a career, they sang duets together, and he appeared with her at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. She became increasingly in awe of his song writing, and ability to instill his lyrics with a cogent political and social consciousness-raising fervor; she believed that he would become “The Spokesman of A Generation”, that would achieve great and lasting change, and it was generally felt that they would marry. But by 1965 Dylan’s ardor had cooled, and he would reject any suggestions of a messianic-like future for himself, and publicly spurned Baez in the song It Ain’t Me Babe. The lyrics describe a man who leaves a woman because he was not prepared to be the kind of invincible hero and all-encompassing provider she wanted.” It ain’t me you’re looking for babe,” Dylan sang with finality.
He was looking for a supportive partner, one who would bring a reassuring domesticity and unquestioning support to his life and work, surprisingly it was former Playboy Bunny and model, Sara Lownds (Shirley Marlin Noznisky). She was the daughter of a Polish Jewish immigrant family, and Sara and Bob would be married in 1965, she was 26 and Dylan was 24. They lived in Woodstock (New York) and had four children – Jesse, Anna, Samuel, and Jakob, and Dylan adopted Sara’s child Maria, from her first marriage. Below – L-R Sara the Bunny, Cover photo from Blonde on Blonde, BD and Sara.
In 1966 Dylan released the album Blonde on Blonde which featured Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, described as virtually a wedding song for Sara, with her surname inspiring the word Lowlands in the song title – “I can still hear the sound of Methodist bells/I had taken the cure and had just gotten through staying up for days in the Cheslsea Hotel/ Writing “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for You.” Proud parents below with Jesse, Anna and Samuel.
Written by Dylan in New York’s Chelsea Hotel and the CBS Studios in Nashville over about 8 eight hours, it was recorded three months after their wedding, and at 11 minutes, occupied the whole of side four of Blonde on Blonde, it was a beautiful romantic hymn to his wife and muse, about whom he asked many questions but provided no answers “With your childhood flames on your midnight rug/And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs/And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs/Who among them do you think could resist you?”
Blonde on Blonde also featured the ballad Just Like A Woman, which was an exploration of female wiles and feminine vulnerability by Dylan, and was also widely rumored to be about Edie Sedgwick, the aforementioned member of Andy Warhol’s Factory retinue, and the following lyrics were certainly apposite to Edie, “Nobody has to guess that baby can’t be blessed/’Til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest/With her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls”. Edie, who appeared on the sleeve photos of Blonde on Blonde, would sadly die of a drug overdose in 1971. Dylan was criticised for using the line “she breaks just like a little girl” in this song which some felt was disparaging and misogynistic towards women, but Dylan had a history of using putdowns and vengeful sentiments in his songs, regardless of the gender of his targets. Below L-R – Echo Helstrom, Bonnie Beecher, Suze Rotolo.
The Girl From the North Country featured on the Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan album released in 1963, clearly Dylan was still in a relationship with Suze Rotolo but it is generally acknowledged that the inspiration for this song pre-dated Dylan’s relocation from Hibbing, Minnesota to NYC, and was either Echo Helstrom, an early girlfriend from his home town, or Bonnie Beecher, a girlfriend of Dylan during his time at the University of Minnesota- “Well if you’re travellin’ in the north country fair/Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline/Remember me to one who lives there/She once was a true love of mine”. Dylan had visited the UK for the first time in 1962 and was introduced to many traditional English ballads, including Scarborough Fair, from which Dylan liberally lifted the tune and part of the lyrics quoted above.
By the time Dylan released his15th studio album, Blood on the Tracks in 1974, he was a regular user of marijuana, and was experimenting with amphetamines and hallucinogens, he became estranged from his wife Sara, and they would soon separate, but the ultimate divorce would be an emotionally-bruising period for husband and wife. The schism in their relationship would begin to play out in Dylan’s song writing, despite his vehement denials to the contrary, that his songs were not confessional or autobiographical in any way. Tangled Up In Blue was such a song, and although the narrative is oblique, it deals with changes in his life, as his marriage begins to fall apart, and he desperately tries to escape his past “And every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burnin’ coal/ Pourin’ off of every page/Like it was written in my soul/From me to you/Tangled up in blue”.
There seems little doubt that Blood on the Tracks was one of Dylan’s most autobiographical albums on many levels – musical, spiritual, and poetic – as well as a confessional journey, his son Jakob described listening to it as “hearing about his parents.” Love Minus Zero, No Limit, was also seemingly inspired by Sara, where Dylan expresses his admiration for her Zen-like equanimity, as unlike most of the women Dylan knew, she wasn’t out to impress him or interrogate his lyrics, and he compared her to fire and ice, and vividly captured this dichotomy in the line “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all”.
Abandoned Love was Dylan’s plea to share another night with Sara, before they finally broke up “One more time at midnight, near the wall/Take off your heavy makeup and your shawl/Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit/Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.” Dylan’s album Desire features the song Sara, arguably Dylan’s most public display of affection for his wife Sara, he does not cloak the lyrics in impenetrable metaphors, but directly addresses a real person, his then-estranged wife and mother of his children, he is feeling the pain of their breakup and the disruption of their family- “Sara, Sara/Wherever we travel we’re never apart/Sara, oh Sara/Beautiful lady, so dear to my heart”. Below L-R Sally Kirkland, Dana Gillespie, Ellen Bernstein.
Bob and Sara ultimately divorced in 1977, amid accusations that he was abusing alcohol and drugs, and being unfaithful to Sara with actress Sally Kirkland, English singer and actor Dana Gillespie, as well as CBS executive Ellen Bernstein who was said to be the subject of the song You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go – “ Purple clover, Queen Anne lace/Crimson hair across your face/You can make me cry, but you don’t know/Can’t remember what I was thinking of/You might be spoiling me too much love/You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go” Below L-R – Mary Alice Artes, Ruth Tyrangiel, and Dylan’s backing singers, Carolyn Dennis is bottom right.
Throughout the 1970’s Dylan was in multiple relationships with actresses Mary Alice Artes and Ruth Tyrangiel, and his backing singers Carol Woods, Clydie King, Helen Springs and Carolyn Dennis whom he would marry in 1986. Several of these women were rumoured to have borne children to Dylan, Dennis certainly did, and at least one other, Ruth Tyrangiel’s ten- year relationship with Dylan, was deemed substantial enough to satisfy a de facto common law wife relationship, and she became eligible for a financial settlement. In the future Dylan would essentially adopt a “neither confirm nor deny” position regarding speculation about his private life, except on those rare occasions when he communicated with his live audiences between songs, and took the opportunity to deliver a rant about some perceived journalistic sleight, inaccuracy, or media injustice. Below Bob and Sara with family, Jesse, Anna, Samuel and Jakob.