Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan

Suze Rotolo

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Sunday May 11, 2008
New York Times Book Review Section

IT is one of the most evocative images of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. An attractive young couple are walking down the middle of a snow-covered street. His head is down and tilted toward her. He’s wearing an artfully half-buttoned brown suede jacket, but his hands are stuffed in his jeans’ pockets against the cold. She is smiling, huddling against him. Shot in February 1963, the photo would come to epitomize the romantic youth culture of the time — its freedom and fragility, its rootlessness and sense of purpose.

The couple is Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo, then his girlfriend, and the photograph graced the cover of Mr. Dylan’s groundbreaking second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (Columbia), which came out three months later. “Freewheelin’ ” — which includes songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War” — established Mr. Dylan, who had just turned 22, as the spokesman of his generation.

Last month, more than 45 years after that photograph made her a nationally known figure, Ms. Rotolo, now 64, stood on the spot on Jones Street where it was taken and eyed the reporter accompanying her warily. “I don’t do re-enactments,” she said, laughing.

After rarely discussing her relationship with Mr. Dylan since they broke up in 1964, Ms. Rotolo has looked back, mostly with affection. Her book “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” comes out this week, and a similar photo from the “Freewheelin’ ” session serves as its cover.

Looking elegant in a lightweight black coat, a long gray skirt and black boots, Ms. Rotolo, who is now a visual artist, recalled the original photo shoot. “We were facing this way,” she said on Jones Street, as she pointed north toward Fourth Street. “I figured they’d choose one of Bob by himself, so it was astounding, really surprising.”

With her long light-brown hair, Ms. Rotolo became a model to emulate for young women and an object of desire for men at the time. She does not recall it that way, however. “It was freezing out,” she said. “He wore a very thin jacket, because image was all. Our apartment was always cold, so I had a sweater on, plus I borrowed one of his big, bulky sweaters. On top of that I put a coat. So I felt like an Italian sausage. Every time I look at that picture, I think I look fat.”

In “A Freewheelin’ Time” Ms. Rotolo walks a delicate line between not wanting to exploit her relationship with Mr. Dylan but needing to address people’s understandable curiosity about it. “Feeding the beast” is how Ms. Rotolo describes the futility of trying to gratify the endless hunger of Dylan fanatics. “When you know that someone is human, to make them godlike is disconcerting,” she said. “I’m not a rapacious Dylan junkie.”

When the couple first met in July 1961 at a folk concert at Riverside Church at which Mr. Dylan performed, they were just two of countless young people who had made their way to Greenwich Village to reinvent themselves. He had left his native Minnesota to pursue his dream of following the path blazed by his idol Woody Guthrie. Ms. Rotolo meanwhile had grown up in Queens, the daughter of working-class Italian Communists during the height of the McCarthy era. Well read, artistically inclined and intellectually adventurous, she yearned for an environment in which her interests did not seem weird, let alone dangerous, for a 17-year-old girl. In the 20-year-old Mr. Dylan she encountered a “kindred spirit,” she said.

They lived together in a small apartment on West Fourth Street and fed each other’s ravenous hunger for meaning. “We created this private world,” Ms. Rotolo recalled over lunch in an Italian restaurant on Waverly Place. “We were searching for poetry, and we saw that in each other. We were so ultrasensitive, both of us. That’s why it was a good relationship, but also why it was difficult.”

Mr. Dylan has been a gnomic figure for so long that it’s sometimes hard to recollect the Chaplinesque aspect that characterized him in his youth. His boundless enthusiasm proved a delight for the more reserved Ms. Rotolo. For his part Mr. Dylan soaked up her passion for the likes of William Blake, Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Rimbaud; he inscribed a paperback edition of Byron’s poems to her “Lord Byron Dylan.” Equally important, her political activism, particularly in the civil rights movement, spurred his thinking and writing about those issues.

“She’ll tell you how many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her: ‘Is this right?’ ” Mr. Dylan told his friend and eventual biographer Robert Shelton. “Because I knew her father and mother were associated with unions and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was.”

Their romance, then, began on the basis of an equality that became impossible to sustain. She would soon feel overwhelmed by the obsessive attention the world focused on Mr. Dylan. Having made the symbolic journey across the East River to discover herself and what she might become, she felt lost once again, reduced to being Mr. Dylan’s chick and urged even by her most well-intentioned friends to accommodate her life in every way to his genius.

In approaching Ms. Rotolo about doing the book, Gerry Howard, an editor at Broadway Books, mentioned “Minor Characters,” a memoir by Joyce Johnson, who had been Jack Kerouac’s lover at a similar stage in his career. “I’m a great fan of ‘Minor Characters,’ and I thought Suze stood in exact relation to Dylan as Joyce Johnson did to Kerouac,” Mr. Howard said. “They were present at liftoff and then had to live in the backwash of all that.”

It turned out that Ms. Rotolo too was a fan of “Minor Characters,” which is something of a pre-feminist classic, and saw her story in similar terms. In part for that reason she chose to write the book herself rather than with a collaborator. (Disclosure: I share a book agent with Ms. Rotolo.)

For his part Mr. Dylan was no less disoriented by his rising success than Ms. Rotolo was, and he resented Ms. Rotolo’s need for distance. A nearly six-month trip she took to Europe with her mother in 1962, for example, left him distraught. The pained letters he sent her (“Yes maybe I wish maybe you didn’t cut your hair — it’s so good ... it’ll grow back tho huh?”) reveal a vulnerable side of Mr. Dylan that has rarely been seen.

In the grip of his own struggle, he turned to other women for support, most notably Joan Baez, who, having become a star herself when she was barely 20, could help him negotiate this strange new terrain. Their romantic involvement, which included Ms. Baez’s frequent requests that he perform with her, also significantly expanded his audience, a fact not lost on Mr. Dylan.

“He needed somebody who could guide him,” Ms. Rotolo said. “I could not be the person he needed at that time. I needed that myself. I was still finding out who I was. I had no sense of mission or dead-on ambition, whereas he did. It’s a male-female thing, and it’s also of the time. I knew I was an artist, but I loved poetry, I loved theater, I loved too many things. Whereas he knew what he wanted and he went for it.”

When Ms. Rotolo became pregnant, she and Mr. Dylan agreed that she would have an abortion, which was illegal (and often dangerous) at the time. That further strained their relationship.

“The alliance between Suze and me didn’t turn out exactly to be a holiday in the woods,” Mr. Dylan wryly concludes in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One.” (Mr. Dylan declined to be interviewed for this article.) But he describes their first meeting in more glowing terms: “She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves.”

He often wrote about their love affair, most prominently in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings,” and most caustically in “Ballad in Plain D,” in which he castigates her mother and older sister, who did not approve of him. In his liner notes to “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” (1964), Mr. Dylan wrote, “ah but Sue/she knows me well/perhaps too well/an is above all/the true fortune teller of my soul.”

On a perfect spring afternoon Ms. Rotolo agreed to stroll through Greenwich Village and reminisce about some of the sites she writes about in “A Freewheelin’ Time.” After the stop on Jones Street, she walked toward Fourth Street, where the drones of a man playing a sitar floated from the Music Inn, a crowded instrument store that looked unchanged from the ’60s. “Musicians would just come and play at Allan Block’s,” she said, referring to the famed sandal store and folkie hangout that had been next door, “the way they would at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. If they didn’t have an instrument, they could go to the Music Inn and borrow one.”

A few doors east stood 161 West Fourth Street, where she lived with Mr. Dylan in a two-room walk-up for $60 a month. “Well, some things have changed,” she notes, as she eyes the “exotic novelties” shop that has replaced Bruno’s Spaghetti Store on the ground floor. Their apartment “was in the rear,” she said, “and we looked out on this little garden. There was a pizza place somewhere, so there was always a smell of stale sauce.”

Further west on Sheridan Square she pointed out the newspaper stand on a small island in Seventh Avenue where she and Mr. Dylan awaited the early edition of The New York Times that included Mr. Shelton’s review, now legendary, of Mr. Dylan’s performance at Gerde’s Folk City. The rave, which ran on Sept. 29, 1961, led to Mr. Dylan’s record contract with Columbia Records.

Ms. Rotolo still lives nearby, in the East Village, where she bought a loft, she said, “when they were giving them away.” She has been married many years, and her son, Luca, is a musician and guitar maker who also lives in the city. She has been an illustrator and a painter, and now calls herself a “book artist,” work she described in an e-mail message as reinterpreting “the book as an art object” and combining “drawing, painting, collage, and found objects.” “Reliquaries,” an exhibition of her work, will be on display through mid-July at the Medialia Gallery in Manhattan.

At the Italian restaurant Ms. Rotolo explained how “No Direction Home,” the 2005 documentary that Martin Scorsese directed about Mr. Dylan, inspired her to tell her own story. She is in occasional, if infrequent, touch with Mr. Dylan, and is extremely respectful of his privacy. That he would sanction Mr. Scorsese’s film, in which she appears, and publish his own memoir made her feel more secure about coming forward.

“The feeling I had was, sure, it’s about Dylan, he’s the focal point, but it was my life,” she said about “No Direction Home.” “This is what we all lived through, and what an exciting and pivotal time it was. I came to grips with the fact that this is important, and I should stop being so private.”

Still, she is not nostalgic. “All this indulgence of the ’60s, ay-yi-yi, get over it,” she said. Every era and place hold magic for people willing to live intently in them, she believes. “Everything occurs again, just differently,” she said. “There will always be creative people who feel that they’re different and create a community of some kind. Whether it’s a physical neighborhood or an Internet neighborhood, in Bushwick or in Greenwich Village, it’s not over."

"Bob Dylan freed your mind,
like Elvis freed your body."

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