Bob Dylan is in very little need of introduction, so I’ll save myself a couple of minutes and assume you know who I’m talking about. Dylan is an extraordinary man, cut from very ordinary stone. His path to becoming the ‘rolling stone’ drifter with a guitar on his back playing smokey gigs in small folk venues across Minnesota and later, New York, was not a situation forced upon him by circumstance. Rather, Dylan was born into a well-off family with no major life stressors; it was a comfortable upbringing for him, but when he looked to spread his wings, he felt uncomfortable and bored with the surroundings of abject mediocrity and looked to fly away.
Born in 1941 to the name Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, he was part of a large Jewish family. When he was six years old, his immediate family relocated to a nearby mining town called Hibbing, to be closer to his uncles, with whom his father, Abraham, ran a furniture shop after contracting polio. Dylan often felt a degree of separation from his Jewish heritage; this was intensified when he began to mix with non-Jewish school friends throughout his adolescent years. It was during these years he fell in love with rock and roll. Having learned the piano as his first instrument from a young age, he decided he would form a band so he could emulate his biggest heroes of the rock and roll world, such as Little Richard and Elvis Presley. His motivation for these early projects was likely multifaceted, but one of them for sure was his yearning for female attention.
Bob’s classmates would recall that he was a baby-faced class clown and while not always the most outgoing in the class, he never lacked any confidence to approach a girl and make a fool of himself for a bit of attention.
John Bucklen, a close friend of Bob’s said of his early taste in girls: “As far as girls were concerned, Bob always seemed to have a thing for girls who were top-heavy … I was going through my old high-school yearbook recently, and they were all fat and big-breasted … He was going with these girls while he was with Echo [Helstrom], and it sort of tore her up a bit. She used to call me up and start crying.”
It’s evident that young Bobby was a ladies’ man from day one, ever ensnared by the tempt of female magnetism. In return, it seems the ladies were fond of Dylan, especially older, more mature, women who would often speak of having a feeling of motherhood in the relationship. Women came and went throughout Dylan’s career bringing both love and pain – two essential colours on the palette of any respected artist, welcome or not.
Bonnie Beecher was one of Dylan’s earliest flames. They met in college where both attended infrequently due to having their hearts set on careers outside of academia. Beecher was an undoubted influence on Dylan’s music, constantly networking for him to arrange gigs in cafes and bars across Minneapolis. It is generally understood that ‘Girl From the North Country’ was written about Beecher. However, some sources hint that it was instead an ode to Dylan’s high-school sweetheart, Echo Casey, who was brought into his orbit during the days of The Golden Chords, Bob’s first band.
Perhaps the most influential of Dylan’s female companions was Suze Rotolo, who famously featured on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, clinging adoringly to his arm, immortalising an otherwise moribund relationship. Bob met Suze in New York in 1961 backstage at a folk concert in Manhattan. In a memoir many years later, Dylan recalled: “She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden-haired, full-blooded Italian. 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”. Rotolo had an affluent upbringing in New York, soaked long in music, film, and art which added to the appeal for the already drooling Dylan.
This love was short-lived, but it was strong, and it ultimately shaped a lot of Dylan’s early work. In 1962, Rotolo left the country for Italy to study, leaving behind a Dylan in a whirlwind of pain that triggered a change in his songwriting to bless us with some of his most memorable, melancholic love songs including: ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’, and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. Rotolo returned to New York in early 1963 and she resumed her relationship with Dylan despite her insecurities over having her personal life becoming so public in Dylan’s writing. This was short-lived, though, as tensions grew between the two after Rotolo’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion in the summer of ‘63. Dylan had also started spending a lot more of his time with budding folk musician Joan Baez, who had played a large part in his early career encouraging his push to stardom. Undoubtedly the relationship was at its end; ‘Ballad in Plain D’ was Dylan’s final public commentary on his split from Rotolo in 1964.
Dylan married Sara Lownds, his first wife, in 1965 triggering a new chapter in his life, and of course, his songwriting, with the release of his masterpiece Blonde on Blonde the same year. The whole fourth side of the double album was occupied by ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, an eleven-minute ballad written about Lownds. Sadly, the marriage was not to last, but Dylan’s ability to process his challenges and passions in life through music endured. The impact of Dylan’s romances over the years had an incalculable impact on his songwriting and gave many of his most adored songs their character and emotional edge. A Nobel Prize for Literature doesn’t lie, and perhaps on top of his unparalleled songwriting, Dylan might just have a few long lost loves to thank.