Life With Dylan in the Village of the 1960sSunday, May 25, 2008
By Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Suze Rotolo was in the thick of things during the "freewheelin' " 1960s in Greenwich Village, where she loved and lived with Bob Dylan. That tumultuous relationship gave her a front-row seat to the folk revolution as well as Dylan's rebellious electric breakaway from the crowd that had embraced him as "the Next One. The Prophet."
The author acknowledges that memory is unreliable and promises the reader the truth rather than the facts, although she provides many of these with corroborating newspaper clips.
If the unfurling of events seems a bit foggy at times, well, no wonder. Rotolo was just 17 when she and Dylan became a couple, just as the decade was getting under way.
The Village at the time was ruled by the disciples of Woody Guthrie and the Beats, with a "we are family" attitude among the folkies of the day. Folk singer Dave Van Ronk was adamant that Rotolo shouldn't move in with Dylan, not yet 20 himself, until after she turned 18 (they waited until the day after her birthday).
The couple lived in a cramped upstairs flat on West Fourth Street while Rotolo worked as a waitress or tinkered with illustrating, and later, with making scenery for off-off Broadway productions.
Life revolved around clubs that welcomed folkies or, like the artists' salons of Paris, apartments owned by Village elders like Van Ronk and his wife, Terri Thal.
The bygone clubs -- Gerde's, The Bitter End, The Village Gate, The Gaslight -- were places where Woody Allen or Bill Cosby could try a routine one night, Phil Ochs or Tiny Tim could make an appearance the next, then make way for Ramblin' Jack Elliott and his heir apparent, Bob Dylan.
Rotolo notes, "The learning process for artists of all stripes usually follows the path of imitate, assimilate, then innovate."
It was Dylan's ability to do the latter that set him apart and sent him soaring.
It wasn't all fun and folks songs. From the beginning, there were secrets in the relationship between Suze and her Bobby. It wasn't until the press began poking around that Dylan's real name (Zimmerman) and Minnesota roots became well known.
Dylan is a constant presence, but the story is Rotolo's, from her childhood as a "red-diaper baby" (her parents belonged to the American Communist Party) to her acceptance into the Village scene. Dylan adored her, no doubt, from the many lyrics dedicated to her and his love letters, excerpts of which she shares in the book.
Rotolo creates a time capsule of the '60s within the boundaries of Greenwich Village, flinching when she ventures too far from home.
Sometimes, she's just a teenager in love.
Rotolo appears on the cover of Dylan's second album, from which this book takes its title and cover image. Her struggle to find her way out from Dylan's shadow gives the "freewheelin' " title an ironic twist.
In August 1963, Rotolo moved out on her own. Dylan's career was taking off and she was trying to break away from being the singer's "chick" -- or worse, "old lady." Her sister's advice: She would be "better off without that lyin' cheatin' manipulatin' bastard."
This is the first time readers hear of infidelities, though there are hints earlier -- a buzz about his appearance with Joan Baez at the Newport Music Festival, for instance.
Rotolo takes her time revealing that life with the singer was less than ideal. Take this notebook entry from the time of the breakup:
"I believe in his genius, he is an extraordinary writer but I don't think of him as an honorable person. He doesn't necessarily do the right thing."
The change in tone is jarring, but her hurt is palpable, an intense first love and loss brought back to the surface.
It wasn't a clean break; they would continue to see each other, but his entourage was changing, and the negative reaction within the Village folk community when he took his music electric was changing him. "Bob was thin and tight and hostile. He had succumbed to demons," Rotolo feared.
Andy Warhol makes a quick appearance in a scene from a party in Union Square, outside the borders of the map of the Village that precedes the memoir. Rotolo also takes readers along on a perilous journey to Cuba and to her mother's house in Hoboken, where she describes "hiding out" and listening to ... the Beatles.
The times had changed, and Rotolo had moved on.