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Book review: A Freewheelin’ Time

Review of A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Vilage in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo
The Independent

24 October, 2008

Suze Rotolo has waited a long time to tell her side of the Bob Dylan story. “My instinct was to protect my privacy, and consequently his.” Despite her reticence, over the decades she’s become a central figure in the Dylan legend, and for good reason.

Rotolo was “Bob Dylan’s girlfriend” from 1961 – when she was seventeen and he was 20 – until the relationship came to an end, after much procrastination on both sides, in early 1964. Famously she was the young woman walking arm in arm with Dylan down a snowy Greenwich Village Street on the cover of Freewheelin’, Dylan’s breakthrough second album: unadorned, casual and cool.

During his period with Rotolo, Dylan found his voice as a song-writer. In this brief span he created Masters of War, Blowin in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, Don’t Think Twice, Hattie Carroll, With God on Our Side, Only a Pawn in Their Game, When the Ship Comes In, and many more, including the mournful Boots of Spanish Leather, Dylan’s response to Rotolo’s leaving him (temporarily) to study in Perugia. During this time Dylan shot from obscure Village folkie to nationally-known celebrity and commodity – a trauma from which he never fully recovered, as is clear from his own memoir, Chronicles, Volume One.

Rotolo was the daughter of working class Italian Communists who gave her a sharpened political awareness along with an appreciation of art and music. Thanks to McCarthyism the family led a pariah-like existence in Queens, New York. Within this hidden, separate world she discovered another hidden (or forbidden) world, reading the famous ex-Stalinist anthology, The God That Failed, and learning about anti-Stalinist anarchist Carlo Tresca.

Her father’s illness and death when she was 14 disrupted her childhood and her education. Eventually, she left Queens for the Village and the folk scene, where she met Dylan. Though not a musician herself, she seems to have had an amazing ear, revelling in the many distinctive voices swirling through the Village hubbub.

The core of Rotolo’s book, like Dylan’s Chronicles, is a fond recreation of those precious early 60s years in the Village. Dylan’s treatment is densely atmospheric and poetically rich, but Rotolo’s is more reliable. It’s a shame that at times her book reads a like thumbnail catalogue of contributors to the Village scene. She’s generous, but sometimes banal.

Dylanologists will pick over the details, but Rotolo sheds little new light on the artist. She is usually credited with introducing Dylan to Brecht, modernist painting, Surrealism and Dada, French Symbolist poetry, and avant garde theatre. She was certainly the more politically aware and active of the two (and remains so). In her modest way, Rotolo has now fleshed out this picture.

She bridled at the girlfriend’s role; she did not want to be “a string on Dylan’s guitar”. In those pre-feminist days, she found it hard to articulate her frustrations. Even among the Village avant-garde, women were welcome as adornments but expected to watch and applaud from the sidelines.

Rotolo refers briefly to D’s “manipulativeness” and dishonesty, but even after all these years, she’s telling no tales. There are no intimate glimpses and no recriminations. She’s still protecting her memories and her time with Dylan. She stresses Dylan’s and her own ordinariness in extraordinary times.