‘We wanted to change the social order of things’
She is best known as the girl on the cover of Bob Dylan’s album The Freewheelin’, yet her memoir of her full and rebellious youth suggests there is far more to Suze Rotolo.
It was here, in the New York city blocks enclosed between Broadway and the Hudson, and between 14th Street and Houston Street – in other words, in Greenwich village – that the Beatniks, politicos and folkies of the early 1960s – the outsiders who became the in-crowd – played music, penned poems, painted, debated and made history. And it was here, on one cold 1963 winter day, that two lovers walking down a slush-lined Jones Street, accompanied by a Columbia Records photographer, were captured and turned into the poster couple of a generation.
Neither Suze Rotolo nor her boyfriend Bob Dylan were dressed appropriately for an iconic portrait shoot. While Dylan ‘chose his rumpled clothes carefully’, Rotolo writes nearly half a century later, and put on a thin suede jacket which gave him ‘the right image’ but which was not ‘remotely suited for the weather’, she ‘felt like an Italian sausage’ in her green loden coat worn over two sweaters, one of them Dylan’s and very bulky. The famous photograph became the cover of Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’, and another photo taken on the same shoot is now the cover of artist Suze Rotolo’s memoirs of Greenwich village in the Sixties, titled A Freewheelin’ Time.
Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo
in Greenwich Village, 1963.
Those looking simply to excavate yet more trivia from the early days of Dylan shouldn’t bother with Rotolo’s book. Sure, there are Dylan photographs, anecdotes and love letters, but what really marks out Rotolo’s heartfelt and jumbled tribute to an era which many still consider to have been the best time to be young is not that it complements the vast mythology surrounding the elusive Dylan, who has been credited, or burdened, with being the voice of a generation. Rather, it is the fact that in this gem of a memoir we get to know the story, fascinating in its own right, of a woman whose life coincided with and helped shape the Sixties. For Rotolo, this was an era that ‘spoke a language of inquiry and curiosity and rebelliousness against the stifling and repressive political and social culture of the decade that preceded it’.
In that spirit, Rotolo – who at the age of 17 caught the subway from Queens to the Village, ‘without looking back’ – resented being cast in the role of a musician’s ‘chick’ as Dylan shot to fame. Following a few months of separation from New York and Dylan while she enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Perugia, Italy, she was, on her return, met with resentment from friends who thought she had been cruel to let Dylan suffer from the pain of being apart from his lover.
Even the freewheelin’ Village was a man’s world, where the girlfriends and wives of artists were cast as muses or expected to support their men from the sidelines. Yet it was Rotolo who had schooled Dylan in the politics of the left, who first made him aware of the labour movement as well as the fight for civil rights. She was from New York City, and grew up on a diet of politics, music, art and literature. He was from an isolated Minnesotan mining town. She introduced him to the work and ideas of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers; others they discovered together as they tried, in the spirit of their time, to reinvent themselves.
A ‘red diaper baby’ of Italian Communists, Rotolo grew up in Queens, in modest, working-class environs and under the shadow of McCarthyism and red-baiting, which made it hard for her and her older sister, Carla Maria (named after Karl Marx), to fit in. Rotolo describes, as does Dylan in the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, for which Rotolo was interviewed, how the threat of Communism and the threat of the hydrogen bomb permeated postwar American culture, creating a paranoid society. Schoolchildren were subjected to regular drills where they were taught to duck and cover under their desks, facing away from the windows.
After the sudden death of her father in 1958, Rotolo’s mother took to drinking. For the teenage Suze, Sunday trips to Washington Square in the Village were a welcome relief. Here, folk musicians gathered to play what was regarded as anti-establishment music, writers recited poems and political activists hawked their propaganda. While still in high school, Rotolo volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, marching on Washington for civil rights and desegregation, until she found paid work building theatre sets. But her political activism did not come to an end. At the age of 20, she made national news when she and four other students stood up for the ‘free travel of free Americans’ by, in defiance of the prevailing travel ban, heading over to Cuba where they toured factories and schools and met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Later on, Rotolo got mired in macrobiotic diet regimes, deliberating over the I Ching and the texts of Krishnamurti. But, as she writes in the endnotes of A Freewheelin’ Time, ‘I see no reason to take anyone to task for the foibles of the young’ – and so her readers probably shouldn’t rush to judgement on some of the peculiar things she got up to in her youth either.
Rotolo and the Greenwich crowd were in and out of smoky cafés, bars, clubs and basket houses (informal venues where musicians passed around a basket for tips), crammed apartments and lofts jam-packed with second-hand furniture, instruments and bohemians jamming, discussing politics and art. Off-Broadway theatres competed for space with second-hand bookshops, arthouse cinemas, thrift stores, soup kitchens and liquor stores. Here’s where Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby first took to stage, and where the likes of Odetta, Pete Seeger and John Lee Hooker played to small but appreciative crowds.
‘Everyone’, Rotolo writes, ‘was busy reinventing his or her wheels. Families were baggage.’ In a career-launching 1961 New York Times review of Dylan’s performance at the now legendary Gerde’s Folk City, music critic Robert Shelton wrote: ‘Mr Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.’ What mattered was being judged for your talents, interests, ideas – not where you came from, but who you were trying to become. Rotolo and her contemporaries may have been an image-conscious and earnest lot, but they also believed they ‘could change perceptions and politics and the social order of things. We had something to say and believed that the times would definitely change.’
As a 20-year-old, Rotolo tried hard to wrestle herself out of her role as ‘a string on Dylan’s guitar’ and over the years she has been stingy with interviews and respectful of Dylan’s and her own privacy. Though she has often found her past chronicled and re-interpreted in biographies, documentaries, fiction films and museum exhibits, she says ‘secrets remain… and with all due respect I keep them with my own’.
Many of her contemporaries have told their stories from the Sixties, an over-documented, over-mythologised and over-romanticised decade in American history. For that reason it is worth remembering that Rotolo’s memoirs are a slice of an interesting life, a tale of youths well spent, but, as she says, ‘life goes on for those who live it in the present. Nostalgia, cheap or otherwise, is always costly.’
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo, is published by Aurum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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