At Dylan's side, and in his shadow
A FREEWHEELIN' TIME: A MEMOIR OF GREENWICH VILLAGE IN THE SIXTIES. By Suze Rotolo. Broadway Books. 371 pages. $22.95.
Look again at the record cover that came to define an era, a city, and a singer. Taken 45 years ago, the picture is of two kids walking through the snow down a New York City street. Most will focus on the curly-haired Bob Dylan, scrunched up inside his thin jacket, hands in pockets, pondering perhaps the slop beneath his shoes.
But look again at the girl beside him, bundled in a large warm coat, tall sturdy boots impervious to the snow. She's looking directly into the camera, head leaning slightly on his shoulder, arms entwined in his. There's a small smile on her face as if she understands the silliness of staging such a shot.
For years, this iconic photograph on "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" (it is very similar to the one on the book cover) pretty much summed up all we knew about Suze Rotolo, the girl whom Bob Dylan dearly loved and for whom he wrote some of his most moving and beautiful songs. We knew they were together during his first year in New York, and then she disappeared, first to Europe for eight months (see "Boots of Spanish Leather") and then finally for good (see "Don't Think Twice with its painful assessment, "I once loved a woman, a child I'm told/I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul").
But after having agreed to a brief appearance in No Direction Home, filmmaker Martin Scorsese's recent Dylan bio, the girl who kept her secrets all these years has finally looked back herself. Today Rotolo, a visual artist, still lives in Greenwich Village, not far from the Fourth Street apartment she shared with Dylan.
But A Freewheelin' Time, A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties is no tell-all, breathless revelation of what the "real" Bob and Suze were like. Instead she offers a quiet, pensive reflection on the time when Dylan "became an elephant in the room of my life." Anyone hoping for an in-depth analysis of the songs Dylan wrote for or about her (or even a list), or for a sociological examination of the Village in the 1960s will also be disappointed. As Rotolo says in the opening pages, "Secrets remain. Their traces go deep, and with all respect I keep them with my own. The only claim I make for writing a memoir of that time is that it may not be factual, but it is true."
Toward the end of 1961, Suze Rotolo met Bob Dylan, newly arrived in New York from Minnesota - although his actual origins and name were not part of the stories he spun about his childhood. She was 17; he was 20. "We got on really well," she writes, "although neither one of us had any skin growing over our nerve endings. We were both overly sensitive and needed shelter from the storm." She was quiet, withdrawn; he was nervous, wary. Within days, they were inseparable.
Born in Queens, Rotolo had come to Greenwich Village to escape an increasingly unhappy home where her mother struggled to hold together a family shattered by Suze's father's sudden death three years earlier. Her parents were American Communists, her father an Italian immigrant who did factory work and became a union organizer. Her mother's family stretched from New York back to Italy. Suze and her older sister, Carla, faced a 1950s childhood where their parents' political affiliation was no secret. "Outsider status was inevitable," she says, remembering acquaintances who tried to bring her back to the Catholic God or who chose to ignore the child of Red parents. "I found solace in books and poetry," she notes, as well as "the culture I lived within, being around interesting adults from different backgrounds, all kinds of music, and all those books."
It was this rich and diverse intellectual background that Dylan would take and use again and again as songs and words and ideas tumbled out of him onto paper and into harmonica and guitar. Rotolo would introduce him to Berthold Brecht, Arthur Rimbaud, left-wing politics, and the civil rights movement via her job at the New York office of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. As his skills at performing and writing grew at breakneck speed, Rotolo struggled to pursue a theater design career while the demands of being Dylan's girlfriend threatened to overwhelm and remake her very self.
So she left. In June, 1962, Rotolo, her mother and stepfather sailed to Italy, where Suze would spend months alone, studying art. Dylan wrote her, funny, passionate, love-sick letters. But away from New York, she came to realize that "in the case of Bob's rising fame, I would be a gatekeeper - one step closer to an idol. My significance would be based on his greater significance. That idea did not entice I saw no way to reconcile the larger world I was discovering in Italy and what would be required of me if I went back to New York. So I stayed on in Italy; I tried to explain why to Bob."
But she did come back. And the famous record cover picture was taken. And as Bobby exploded into Dylan, Suze moved out of the tiny apartment and into her own life. Still they couldn't separate, coming together and backing away until the final, catastrophic break. "He saw right from his side," she writes, echoing a song he maybe wrote for her, "and I saw right from mine, and we wore each other down for it. We talked a lot but told little. Soon I saw what looked like a way out far off to the side. I made for it. That is how it was. Quite a herd goes with fame."
There was a breakdown, only briefly mentioned, and then a life to be led on her own terms. In 1964, the 21-year-old Rotolo and a group of students, including soon-to-be Yippie Jerry Rubin, traveled a circuitous route through Europe to Cuba, testing the 1963 ban on all American travel to the island. She would spend two months there, meeting Che and Fidel, returning home, finally, to herself.
A Freewheeling Time does offer fascinating tidbits about people like Dave Von Ronk, Ian and Sylvia, and Izzy Young (and the briefest of mentions of Joan Baez), places like Gerde's Folk City, the Gaslight, Bleeker Street and the Village itself, and a time long past. It is an elegy to a young girl and the boy she loved, the people who shaped her, and her own determination not to be turned into someone she didn't want to be. She writes with a hard-earned calm of the chaos and turmoil that came to surround Dylan with a clarity that comes from having been at the center of it.
Left unsaid is that he managed to do it, finally, without her. A Freewheelin' Life leaves the bulk of Rotolo's life undocumented, including her successful career as an artist, her marriage, and her son. But then she knows too well what people long to know more about. "Over the years," she writes, "I downplayed or ran away from my role in Dylan's life. I offered superficial information when pressed. The real story is that I think his songs say it all. The songs are translations of moods and sensations he experienced . . . Our time together fed his work. I know I influenced him. We marked each other's lives profoundly."
In Chronicles, Dylan's 2004 cockeyed look into his own life, he doesn't get around to the Village years and Suze until almost the end of the book. "Right from the start," he writes, "I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blooded Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves." Anthony DeCurtis wrote recently in the New York Times, that Rotolo "is in occasional, if infrequent, touch with Mr. Dylan."
Readers of A Freewheelin' Time will not be surprised.