Suze Rotolo, scene stealer

It’s no secret to anyone that becoming famous is a deranging process, but until I read Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, I hadn’t really thought about whether it would be equally if not more deranging to know somebody who’s becoming famous — or, even worse, to be in love with someone undergoing that transformation.

It was Rotolo’s good fortune and bad luck to become Bob Dylan’s girlfriend shortly after he arrived in Greenwich Village and shortly before the wildfire success of his 1963 second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, transformed him into the leading light of the folk music revival. “Good fortune” because Rotolo, like Dylan, had been drawn to the Village by its mystique as an enclave for poets, artists and nonconformists — he had to travel all the way from Minnesota, while she hopped the subway from Queens — and she got to participate in a hugely significant cultural moment. In fact, when she huddled with Dylan for the Freewheelin’ cover shoot– he 20 years old, she a mere 17 — Suze Rotolo became an icon of that cultural moment.

“Bad luck” because the strains that eventually ended their relationship produced harsh songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Though Dylan was courtly and generous about their relationship in his recent memoir Chronicles: Volume One, I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to be on the cutting end of so many songs. We’ve all gotten nasty breakup letters from our exes, but how many of us have had to hear those breakup letters sung on the radio by Peter, Paul and Mary?

For all his womanizing ways, Dylan has managed the difficult feat of staying on civil and even affectionate terms with many (if not all) of his exes. Nevertheless, it is a testament to Rotolo’s largeness of heart and spirit that she can write about her days with His Bobness without falling into spitefulness or fannish hagiography:

Bob was driven — focused on his path. He could see how things were so very clearly that it could be scary to be around him. He was his own person from the beginning. There lies his honesty. Artists we admire aren’t necessarily exemplary human beings just because they are exceptional in their chosen fields. Their art is the work offered for public consumption, and nothing else.

We loved each other very much, and when it ended it was mutual heartbreak. His way was to do as he wished and let things sort themselves out without making decisions that might hurt. Yet that hurt more. He avoided responsibility. I didn’t make it easy for him, either. My mounting confusions and insecurities made me mistrust everything he said. I was difficult and unreasonable. He tried to reach me, but I was too far gone to hear him. I made him crazy.

To write so dispassionately about one’s early passion, and yet do it in a way that honors that passion, is no mean feat, and Rotolo manages it beautifully.

A Freewheelin’ Time is not the place to go for big revelations about His Bobness. Anyone who knows enough about Dylan to want this book will already be familiar with the outlines of the story. A Freewheelin’ Time is, however, the book to read for shadings and nuances. Here is where you get hints of how Rotolo’s political leanings — she was a “red diaper” baby, with politically committed parents — helped steer Dylan’s move into protest music. Here you will get glimpses of this most guarded of celebrities in moments of vulnerability; here you see this most formidable of hipsters getting his act together while he was, in many ways, still just a gauche kid from the Midwest.

The book is charming rather than commanding, observant rather than penetrating, but in her artless way Rotolo gets her points across, sometimes with unexpected subtlety. A long description of her travels through Italy, with forlorn love letters from Dylan littering her path, initially feels like padding, albeit highly readable padding — Rotolo clearly had a whale of a time. Yet once back in New York, Rotolo found herself getting frost from many of Bob’s friends and admirers, who thought it selfish of her to spend time having fun in Italy — i.e., living her life — while Dylan moped. The contrast between Rotolo’s widening horizons and the small-mindedness of some of the Villagers speaks for itself.

While A Freewheelin’ Time is of immediate interest to Bobcats, I think it will linger alongside Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage as part of the story of the rise and fall of America’s bohemian capital. Rotolo came at the tail end of the heyday of Greenwich Village, and to her great credit she doesn’t blink when describing its dark corners. She delivers short, precise sketches of the key players, like Dave Van Ronk, whose arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” was appropriated by Dylan for his debut record, causing a rift that took considerable effort to repair. In particular, she does the service of reminding us what it was like to be a beautiful young woman, and therefore a fantasy object, in a society where it was considered the woman’s problem if she didn’t like getting her butt pinched in public, or wanted to sit alone in a coffee shop without becoming a magnet for every Lothario in the immediate area. Because for all the energy the Villagers applied to the task of breaking free of the conformity of white bread society, the boho life was every bit as much a man’s world:

For a time, the Five Spot was up and running on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue. It was a small and smoky club. One night on our way someplace else, Bob and I stopped in to see Charlie Mingus play with his quartet. That night, the piano player was white and female. The band was in full swing when Mingus, still playing his bass, started to comment aloud to the pianist as she played. His voice got louder and more insistent as he critiqued her abilities.

Go ahead bitch, show me what you can’t do; white lady wanna play jazz: He was vicious and he didn’t let up. I watched, mortified for her. But she continued playing like a pro, her face betraying nothing but concentration. She hit those keys, swung those notes as if her life depended on it. Mingus tormented her to the very end of the set and then said no more. In the sparsely crowded club, people stared into their drinks, pretending nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After some applause, Bobby and I left in silence. It took a while to get a grip on what we’d just witnessed.

Even when the words were meant to be complimentary, the effect could be quite different. Rotolo describes a meeting with folklorist Alan Lomax:

He believed I was exceptional because, in so many words, I stood by the poet, the genius. I unselfishly tended to his needs and desires. I put him first. I was a rare girl for these times.

I was offended and found nothing complimentary in that description. I didn’t see myself as subservient to my boyfriend or anyone else — nor was this what I aspired to be. I seriously doubt Bob saw me that way, either. We live within our own time and at that time, prefeminism, not may gave a thought to equality between men and women . . . I hated being thought of as so-and-so’s chick: I did not want to be a string on Bob Dylan’s guitar.

Rotolo lingered on the scene after it started to come apart, after Dylan went off to conquer the world and the tourists started to siphon off the energy, when Greenwich Village became a museum for itself and the people Dylan left behind started to fray around the edges, look for another act, or — as was the tragic case with Phil Ochs — lose themselves completely. Though she is blunt and unsentimental about the era’s excesses, Rotolo is equally firm about its value, and how most of the changes wrought by the Sixties were not simply necessary, but laudable. At a time when deploring the Sixties is almost mandatory, Rotolo’s perspective is welcome and refreshing.

Rotolo decided early on that she was not going to be simply a footnote to somebody else’s story, and she went off to make her own way in the world. Unlike some other people whose lives entwined with Dylan’s — Howard Alk, for example, or Bob Neuwirth — Suze Rotolo remained the heroine of her own story, which is the reason her story is very much worth reading. The Greenwich Village scene took a good chunk of her life; in A Freewheelin’ Time, she steals it back.

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6 thoughts on “Suze Rotolo, scene stealer

  1. Fred Kiesche says:

    Have you read “Chip” Delany’s autobiography (“The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village”)? Especially the bit where some unknown named Dylan storms out of a Greenwich Village establishment because he would be sharing the spotlight with another singer (named Delany)?

  2. Steven Hart says:

    I don’t know that one. Sounds like a natural for this company, though.

  3. Marty Katz says:

    I’m about half way thru this book. I find it a fascinating glimpse of a time and music that has meant so much to me for so long. Having walked many of the streets and visited some of the places, it is bringing up many memories of my own youth.

  4. [...] Who was that girl on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”? Steven Hart is reading her memoir. [...]

  5. microdot says:

    I realize that the focus of everyones interest is Dylan, but also, in the book, Suze Rotolo speaks of the politics of the time and her account of braving and challenging the travel embargo on Cuba in the early 60’s is just one of the many facets of this seemingly shy, but formidable woman.

  6. Bill Wright says:

    Does anyone have any idea who the pianist is In Suze Rotolo,s anectdote with Charles Mingus (or who she might have been?)

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