They were cherub-cheeked kids when each landed in Greenwich Village in early 1961, drawn like moths to the flames of art, music, theater and ideas that burned so brightly in every cranny of the Big Apple’s most bohemian quarter.
She was 17. He was 20. An iconic image of the lovers, huddled, red-nosed against the winter cold, walking a slushy New York street, would herald a new generation, unimpressed by Madison Avenue -- and the arrival of a major new talent -- when it appeared on the seminal album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in May 1963.
By then, Suze Rotolo and Dylan had broken up and gotten back together again. She’d introduced him to Picasso, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Rimbaud, Brendan Behan, commedia dell’arte and Modernist artist Red Grooms. And he -- already infused with the lyrics and rhythms of generations of balladry, blues and social commentary -- had stormed the citadel of the great American Folk Revival movement.
Now, nearly half a century later, long after Dylan smashed through countless musical and artistic boundaries and generated a cottage industry of writers trying to seal his legend, to capture his white heat, the intensely private artist who was by his side at the beginning is telling her story.
“He became an elephant in the room of my life,” Rotolo, now 64, writes in “A Freewheelin’ Time,” her “reliquary” of an “amazing . . . eventful time of protest and rebellion.”
But this memoir is more -- and in some ways less -- than a full accounting of life with the man she calls “the mover and shaper of the culture of that era.” It is a vivid insider’s portrait of Greenwich Village, ground zero at the cusp of a new era, a place “people like me went -- people who knew in their souls that they didn’t belong where they came from.”
Rotolo, a self-described “red-diaper baby” raised by cultured union activist parents, came by subway from Queens. She was eager to leave her widowed mother with her drinking problems, and to make a new life in art.
She painted theater sets, waitressed and tended the office for the Congress of Racial Equality, already a veteran of youth marches on Washington in 1958 and ’59. By night, she haunted the clubs where Dave Van Ronk, Victoria Spivey, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and John Lee Hooker passed the hat.
Rotolo first saw the “raspy"-voiced Dylan playing harmonica with another singer at “the Italian bar and restaurant cum music venue” Gerde’s Folk City. It was spring 1961. He’d arrived a few months earlier, by car from Minnesota, on a quest to find Woody Guthrie during “the coldest winter in 17 years” (he wrote in “Talkin’ New York”). Rotolo and Dylan met officially on a hot July day at a marathon music festival at a church in Upper Manhattan to launch a radio station. In his book, “Chronicles,” he says her sister introduced them. She says only, “Whenever I looked around, Bobby was nearby. . . . He made me think of Harpo Marx, impish and approachable, but there was something about him that broadcast an intensity that was not to be taken lightly.” By the time the musicians were packing their gear, “Bob and I were pretty much glued to each other.”
Rotolo was there when New York Times critic Robert Shelton put Dylan on the musical map on Sept. 29, 1961, when Columbia Records signed him and when he stayed up all hours writing some of the era’s best songs. And when she left for Italy in June 1962, pressured by her mother, who disliked Dylan intensely, she was the subject of some of his sweetest and most bitter songs (“Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”).
Much of this has appeared elsewhere, but Rotolo corrects the record and offers other angles on the prismatic artist that is Dylan. We see his October 1962 letter to her showing his horror over the Cuban missile crisis -- “the maniacs were really going to do it this time” -- and how it was the seedbed of the now familiar anthem “Masters of War.”
Like others in the Village, Rotolo doubted Dylan’s stories of his origins, but she was deeply hurt to discover he was really Robert Allen Zimmerman when his draft card spilled from his wallet in their 4th Street walk-up. “I called him Raz now and then, taken from his initials, just to annoy him.”
It is that sort of deception by the love of her young life, and the liaisons with Joan Baez and numerous other women he tried to keep secret, that helped drive them apart as his fame soared.
In that pre-feminist era, Rotolo also had stirrings of a desire to live her own life. “I couldn’t handle being ‘one step closer to God.’ I was being pecked at because of my proximity to the end of the rainbow. Expected to focus entirely on his needs, I was invisible -- downgraded from chick and guitar string, no less. . . . I felt lost, confused, and betrayed.” Rotolo discovered she was pregnant, but rejected Dylan’s pleas to marry. (She says they both decided on an abortion. He eventually married and divorced two women, both of whom were pregnant when they exchanged vows.)
After the final breakup -- famously told in “Ballad in Plain D” and “One Too Many Mornings” -- she wrote in a 1964 notebook entry, displaying a characteristic generosity in her despair: “I believe in his genius . . . [but he] doesn’t necessarily do the right thing. But where is it written that this must be so in order to do great work in the world?”
Rotolo, mother of a 28-year-old son with her Italian-born husband, has few regrets. She also holds things back. “Their traces go deep, and with all due respect I keep them with my own,” she writes, in one of many phrases in the book borrowed from Dylan’s songs, past and present -- potent evidence that his music remains part of the soundtrack of her life.