The Magazine

Village Vanguard

Bob Dylan and the origins of folk-rock.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By RONALD RADOSH
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A Freewheelin' Time

A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

by Suze Rotolo

Broadway Books, 384 pp., $22.95

Everyone recognizes the cover photo for Bob Dylan's 1963 Columbia album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The singer is walking down Jones Street on a cold winter day in Greenwich Village. He is wearing a thin suede jacket and is holding onto a girl wearing a loden coat and boots, a young woman with a nice smile and long brunette hair.

The girl was Suze Rotolo, the daughter of Italian immigrant Communist parents, and Dylan's first serious girlfriend. Now this photo adorns the dust jacket, beckoning to readers who want to know more about Dylan and his life with Rotolo.

For years she has been the woman in the background, someone who has kept silent both about Dylan and her own life. With the publication of her own memoir, A Freewheelin' Time, Rotolo, now in her sixties, has come out of the shadows and given us a heartfelt, lyrical, and intriguing picture of not only her life with the enigmatic Dylan but a picture of life in the vibrant folk music community that was emerging in the Village at the time. We get vignettes of some well-known personalities: the "Mayor of Greenwich Village," as the late Dave Van Ronk was called; the beautiful folkie Carolyn Hester, who had come North from Lubbock, Texas; the singer who first emulated and copied the style of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who dubbed himself "the last of the Brooklyn cowboys." Elliott, she writes, "was the son of Woody and Bob was the son of Jack."

We get to meet other Village characters: Liam Clancy and the Clancy brothers; the famed sandal maker Allan Block; the proprietor of The Folklore Center, Izzy Young; and the young political songwriter Phil Ochs, who was in a fierce competition with Dylan. Most of them were starting out, lived in cheap walk-up flats, and hung out at bars like The White Horse, which had become famous as the pub where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death.

Rotolo's book can be read alongside David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street, Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, John Cohen's book of photos and texts of rare Dylan radio programs (Young Bob), and of course, the fascinating chapters on the Village in Dylan's own memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.

What Rotolo brings to the story is something that only she could offer: the coming-of-age story of a young woman thrust into an affair with an intense, ambitious, and artistic genius. When the 17-year-old Rotolo met Dylan, she was rather lost. Unlike her friends in Queens who headed off to college, Rotolo, a poor student with an artistic bent, headed to the Village. She soon began a passionate affair with the 20-year-old Dylan, another recent arrival who was trying to make it as a folk singer, without a reputation or following.

Then Dylan was discovered and signed by John Hammond to Columbia Records, and fame and fortune was on its way. Dylan's overnight success made Rotolo feel like "a string on Bob Dylan's guitar," his "chick." She was approvingly seen by Pete Seeger as the "woman behind the great man" and by Alan Lomax as one who would stand "by the poet, the genius [who] unselfishly tended to his needs and desires."

It was difficult for Rotolo to do this while her own identity was so unformed and she was still "struggling for permission to be." She loved Dylan, but felt she could not be his muse, follow him around, be there for him when she was needed, put up with his secretive personality, and tolerate his relationships with other women. She needed to become her own person, to learn what she wanted to do in life, and not to live a life walking "a few paces behind, picking up his tossed-off candy wrappers."

Rotolo's Italian parents were committed Communist party members, making Rotolo one of the ranks of New York's somewhat unique colony of "Red diaper babies." She grew up in a narrow and sectarian culture, among those who believed the Soviet Union was the model for a good society. This gave her a sense of identity, but made her feel alienated from her more conventional peers. Her mother was, for a time, an editor and columnist for L'Unita, the Italian-American CP newspaper.

When Suze started going out with Bob Dylan, she introduced him to the civil rights movement and the other left-wing causes of the day. But her first political act was working for Bayard Rustin, the anti-Communist social democrat, helping organize the Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools, a predecessor to the March on Washington. Later, she worked in the New York office of the Congress of Racial Equality, where she helped coordinate the Freedom Rides.

Her view of the Communist left was rather naïve. Like Dylan's, her bent was art, music, theater, and painting. Yet she saw herself as part of a family of like-minded people of the left who intended to change the world for the better and institute what she calls Karl Marx's good ideas. Fear of McCarthyism and what might happen to her and her friends' Communist parents was always in the background, giving her what she calls "an outsider status inflicted on us by the Cold War and our parents' political beliefs."

Yet she was inquisitive enough to seek out and read The God That Failed, which she calls the story of six ex-Communist writers' "agonizing journey .  .  . an examination of the Cold War and Stalinism by these important thinkers," a book that "made an impact." She knew the stories told were accurate. Yet Rotolo felt, at the same time, that she "was betraying the elders" and so she read it in secret! To acknowledge that the book contained difficult truths, she writes, was impossible: After all, The God That Failed was praised by anti-Communists, and "you were either on one side or the other."

Rotolo's strength is that while she knew that even to "raise questions about the Soviet Union and Stalin" might lead to being denounced as "a traitor and opportunist," she stood her own ground. A "big Question Mark suddenly appeared over my head," she writes, and she "began to doubt." Her quest even led her to find out about the verboten Italian anarchist and anti-Communist Carlo Tresca, whose "illicit .  .  . outlaw" status "made him infinitely attractive."

The heart of the book, as one would expect, is her life with Bob Dylan. The affair began in July 1961 and lasted, with a great deal of turmoil and drama, until 1964, by which time Dylan's fame and fortune had grown. His intensity and dark moods made her feel so trapped, she writes, that "I thought I would suffocate." Walking down East 7th Street with him one night, she simply told him that she had to go, and "turned and walked away without looking back."

Dylan, she wrote in a diary entry that year, was "an extraordinary writer but I don't think of him as an honorable person." But where, she asked herself, "is it written that this must be so in order to do great work in the world?"

In between the years with Dylan she went to Italy in search of the education she missed. In Florence she soaked in the great Italian artists. Then it was on to the medieval town of Perugia, in Italy's center, where she enrolled in art school. Here she had time to think, reflect, and develop as an artist in her own right. She would, however, receive a stream of cards and letters from Dylan, who wanted her to return to him.

While in Italy, she read Françoise Gilot's scathing book about Pablo Picasso, expecting to learn about the great painter whom she admired. Instead, she found it a book of "revelations, lessons, warnings." She found the similarities between Picasso and Dylan disturbing and read the book twice. Picasso, like Dylan, "took no responsibility .  .  . came to no decisions and did nothing that would have made it possible or easier for the various women he was involved with to leave him and get on with their lives."

She would have to make the painful separation.

Dylan loved and missed her, but his prime concern was his art. In her book she is very forgiving and shows great respect for him as an artist, despite their difficult relationship. All artists, she writes, move through the path of "imitate, assimilate, then innovate." Dylan may have started out echoing Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliott but "worked hard to learn his craft, to make his art his own."

Hearing his early songs, the press soon dubbed him a "protest singer." He had come to some issues because, as she writes, "I threw those interests out to Bob." He may have started singing traditional folk music and blues, but soon began writing his personal interior monologues in a form that captivated the world and transformed American music. Rotolo read Arthur Rimbaud, and soon Dylan did, too. He did not betray anyone when he "went electric" in 1965, she writes: He wrote about what was on his mind, and did not want to do what others wanted, even if it meant "alienating his public, fans, friends, and lovers."

The leftwing audience, steeled in the dogma of the Old Left's Marxism, expected Dylan to continue the political song tradition of Guthrie. "Bob listened, absorbed, honored them, and then walked away," explains Rotolo. An artist "can't be made to serve a
theory," she writes. Hence Dylan refused to accept the torch they sought to hand him. Sadly, she found that the emerging New Left was not much different and "felt equally betrayed by Dylan." She cannot comprehend how this supposedly different New Left, that she thought had rejected "the orthodoxy that had kept the left cemented to Stalinism," acted just the same as the Old Left.

The end of A Freewheelin' Time finds Rotolo turning back to the leftwing world she had come from. Always intrigued by Cuba, she hoped that its Latin culture would "give artists more leeway under Communism play up the 'party' in Communist Party," and that the Cuban revolution "would add color and soul and a democratic structure to the worthy ideas of Karl Marx." She hoped that "the ice-cold rule of Stalinism could not survive the warmth of the Cuban people."

Rotolo was not ready to give up on the possibility of finding a Marxist utopia. The result was her one last fling with the political left: Her trip to Cuba in 1964. She joined up with a generation of younger Communists who had broken with the party and formed the Maoist group Progressive Labor, and helped them organize the first group to publicly break the U.S. travel ban to Cuba. There she personally met both Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, and basked in their limelight.

Yet what motivated her was her "preoccupation with the censorship of writers and artists in the Soviet-bloc countries" and her desire to see for herself whether Cuba was following a similar path. She did not like the belief that art had to be a weapon, and writes that she had "secret and serious doubts" about both the slogan and the advocacy of socialist realism.

Unfortunately, while she regales us with the drama of going on an illegal trip to Cuba via London, France, and Prague--flying first-class--she tells us next to nothing about the answers she found to her questions about the lives of Cuban writers and artists. Did she meet the poet and journalist Carlos Franqui, then Cuba's major cultural figure, who soon went into exile and told the truth about the prison Castro had created? Is she familiar with the testimony he gave in his books and articles a few years later? Franqui's interests were the same as hers--art and literature and the graphic arts--and she would have had much in common with him. Does she know that Castro branded him a gusano--a "worm" and traitor--and claimed he was a CIA agent?

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author, most recently, of Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left, with Allis Radosh.