Face it: The art -- or is it more of a science? -- of dissecting Bob Dylan
is a man's game. Most of the Dylan scholars (both the smart and the lame ones), the rock critics who have collectively spent several lifetimes wrestling with his lyrics, the civilian gasbags who hold forth at dinner parties whenever his name is even mentioned, are men. I used to have an officemate who, whenever he wanted to take a break from doing actual work (which was shockingly often), would march into my office singing some random Dylan lyric and challenge me to name which song it came from. I know women who love Dylan's music
as much as anyone else does, but I've never met one who felt the need to be a walking, talking sack of trivia.
So whether she knows it or not -- and I suspect she does -- Suze Rotolo has taken something of a risk in writing a memoir of the time she spent in the early '60s as the girlfriend of the Great Man. There are going to be people out there who think she's just cashing in on her role as a handmaiden to genius. But "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties"
is only partly about Dylan. Rotolo has written a perceptive, entertaining and often touching book about a remarkable era in recent American cultural history, about a way of living, of making art, that couldn't have happened at any other time or in any other place.
This is about as far from a juicy tell-all as a memoir can get: Rotolo does share some private details of the story of her romance with Dylan -- the two met in 1961, when Rotolo was 17 and Dylan was 20, and were a couple for some four years -- but her approach is so sensitive, discreet and affectionate that she never comes off as opportunistic. This is an honest book about a great love affair, set against the folk music
revival of the early 1960s, but its sense of time and place is so vivid that it's also another kind of love story: one about a very special pocket of New York, in the days when impoverished artists, and not just supermodels, could afford to live there.
Rotolo writes about Dylan's sudden and rapid ascension, but she doesn't underplay her own story, which is engaging in itself: When her mother and stepfather offered her the opportunity to go to school in Italy for six months, she made the wrenching decision to leave her boyfriend behind. (Rotolo includes quotes from some of Dylan's letters to her, which are deeply moving both for their unapologetic silliness and their unvarnished lovesickness.) She also details, conscientiously and without bitterness, some of the issues that led to the couple's eventual breakup. Rotolo, an artist herself, was completely clued in to the sexism of the folk scene (a feature of '60s counterculture in general). She began to shrink from the idea of being a musician's "chick" or, worse, his "old lady." She writes only glancingly of Dylan's romance with Joan Baez, which began when she and Dylan were still a couple: The episode was obviously painful for her, but she doesn't treat it as a major feature of her story. It's possible for women as well as men to be chivalrous, as Rotolo proves.
"A Freewheelin' Time" doesn't begin and end with Dylan: Rotolo also talks about her life after Bob, including an illegal trip she made to Cuba in 1963, as a way of protesting the State Department's travel ban to that country. (Rotolo, raised in a fervently communist household, was sympathetic to communist ideas only to a point; her ongoing questioning of those ideas is a recurring feature of her memoir.) And as the book's title says outright, Rotolo knows that the story of Bob Dylan is inseparable from that of a specific New York neighborhood. In one of the loveliest passages she describes the genesis of the famous photograph that graces the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," an image whose visual and emotional simplicity made it revolutionary, for album-cover art, at the time.
Rotolo describes how Columbia Records sent a photographer to the couple's apartment on West Fourth Street. For the occasion, Rotolo writes, "Bob chose his rumpled clothes carefully." When it was time to go outside for more pictures, he wore a suede jacket, even though it was an extremely cold day. Rotolo wrapped herself in a green coat, which she belted tightly for more warmth. "I felt like an Italian sausage," she writes.
The cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" shows an almost unbearably young-looking couple striding toward the camera -- toward the future -- through a corridor of parked cars and tallish buildings laced with fire escapes. There's slush in the street; this is New York in midwinter, after all. The guy in the picture, a skinny, nervous-looking kid, his head topped with a tall pile of curly hair, is instantly recognizable. But the girl, attractive and thoughtful looking, with a wide-open smile, holds the camera's gaze just as intently. Dylan fans, thanks to their stockpile of important trivia, have always known that this woman's name is Suze Rotolo. Now we know more than just her name. -- Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com
"One of the most recognizable album-cover images of the 1960s shows a young man, underdressed for the winter in a light suede jacket, leaning into a young woman. Rotolo was that young woman, and in this uneven, overlong, still fascinating memoir, she tells the story behind that photo and her love for Bob Dylan. Rotolo met Dylan in 1961; she was 17, he 20. While Dylan is the bedrock of her memoir—without him, would there be a book?—he isn’t the whole story. Rotolo discusses her own background (Italian heritage, Communist parents, inability to fit in growing up in Queens, the craziness and sexism of the era), but the dominant setting is the Greenwich Village folk scene. In informal, conversational style, Rotolo recalls those who made that scene, many of them famous but none more so than the complicated Dylan. Given his formidable presence, Rotolo’s adamant refusal to be more than “a string on his guitar” in the book is admirable. The moments when she comes most alive in its pages are the most compelling."—
June Sawyers, Booklist
“Suze Rotolo and I must have crossed each others' paths countless times on those downtown New York streets during the post-Beat years when the area was a Mecca for the young and the quirky and the gifted. This was a magic era. Now the last of its funky monuments are being leveled by condo-ization, but its spirit persists strongly in Suze Rotolo. What a wonderful kid she must have been—brave, openhearted, keenly observant and preternaturally wise, able to rise to the challenge of loving a genius like Bob Dylan and knowing when to let go. I'm glad I finally got to meet her in these pages.”
—Joyce Johnson, author of Minor Characters
“Suze Rotolo digs hard and deep. Then she strolls, frets, and paints a gorgeous picture of a singular place and a time that was simpler but all tangled up. Best of all, she’s a natural writer who puts the beguiling voice, skeptical brow, shining eyes, and conductor’s hands I know right before you on the printed page. What’s her secret?” —Sean Wilentz
"A welcome, page-turning perspective conspicuously absent from the plethora of books on Dylan and the folk era of the 1960s: that of a woman witnessing it all from its cultural and political epicenter." —Todd Haynes, screenwriter and director of I’m Not There
“There have been a lot of books written about Greenwich Village in the sixties,and I've probably read all of them. What makes Suze's story so special is that she grew up in this neighborhood and she still lives here. She knows these crooked streets intimately, and they know her.” —Steve Earle