Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008) by Suze Rotolo recounts the author's early years in Greenwich Village and her relationship with Bob Dylan. She is the girl walking next to Dylan on the famous cover of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963). Rotolo was interviewed in the 2005 documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorcese. Her memoir is a fascinating, revealing glimpse into this early period in Dylan's career. It quotes from a number of his letters to Rotolo and gives a clear sense of what he was like as a young man just beginning to make his way in the New York folk scene. It is written in an informal style, not at all a literary style but still one that is clear and readable.

In early chapters Rotolo writes about her parents, both Communists who immigrated to America from Italy. They settled in Queens, New York City, where they raised their two daughters. Both girls grew up during the McCarthy era, and fear about arrests, persecution, and being spied on by federal agents was always an issue. Censorship that resulted from excessive sensitivity about political subject matter was an issue Dylan himself had to deal with in the early 1960s—Rotolo describes how he refused to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was denied the opportunity to sing his song "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues."

Rotolo is an intelligent, knowledgeable writer who understands the history and context of the 1960s. She writes as someone who admires and respects Dylan and who considers him a great artist yet at the same time as someone who sees him as a human being flawed like the rest of us. From an early point she makes note of her objections to his need to invent facts about himself (such as his name and stories he told about his upbringing). Later this develops into a concern with the nature of their relationship, especially after he meets Joan Baez.

This is not a kiss-and-tell memoir. Rotolo is discrete and doesn't offer much intimate information about her relationship with Dylan, except for the fact that they lived together. She says nothing about their sex lives nor about her relationships with other men. (She talks about friendships with other men, some of whom she may have been closer to than others). It's to her credit that she doesn't even feel obliged to apologize for not providing more private information. She focuses instead on Dylan, her parents and childhood in New York City, her identity and growth as an artist, the social and cultural scene of Greenwich Village, and the early 1960s folk scene.

Rotolo does discuss how she did not enjoy being stereotyped as a famous singer's girlfriend or "chick." She didn't see her identity as inherently defined by the man she loved, nor does she believed he felt that way either.

Rotolo discusses the recording of Dylan's first two albums and his gradually developing reputation as a singer and songwriter. She focuses especially on the recording and release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. She marks the Carnegie Hall concert he gave in October 1963 as the true beginning of the Dylan mystique.

I especially enjoyed Rotolo's discussions of such early folk music figures as Dave Van Ronk, Rambling Jack Elliott, Izzy Young, and Ian and Sylvia. Her considerable knowledge of the major figures of the 1960s folk scene gives this book a special interest. She did not agree with those people who felt that Dylan betrayed folk music when he went electric. She provides numerous examples of how people tried to make Dylan into the figure they wanted him to be, about how he resisted such pressures, and about how people weren't comfortable when he developed in ways they didn't anticipate or like. She sees his drift away from folk music and political activism as a natural and even inevitable aspect of his growth as an artist. She cites Phil Ochs, who wrote what she terms "topical" folk music—about current events and issues—as an example of someone less open to change than Dylan.

As Dylan's fame grew, as he became involved with other women (Joan Baez is the only one Rotolo mentions, though she implies there were others--she does make clear her heartbreak when she first learns of Dylan's involvement with Baez), and as her own interests and needs began to clash with his, they drifted apart and broke up, at first temporarily, then for good. Dylan apparently continued to want to see her well after she had decided that she could not see him—he even asked Albert Grossman to ask her to visit him while he was on tour in England in 1965. Rotolo describes the breakdown she suffered shortly after the end of their relationship. In the closing pages of the memoir she discusses her trip in the early 1960s to Cuba with a group of students (travel to Cuba then as now was forbidden to U. S. citizens), her involvement with other people, her work as an artist and as a set designer in the New York theater district, and her final decision to move away from the Greenwich Village scene to Italy in 1966. These overly long sections are not as interesting as those that involve Dylan, but they are probably for Rotolo a necessary way of bringing her memoir about her days in Greenwich Village to an end.

One wishes that the letters she quotes from Dylan could all be published, if there are enough of them. This memoir is a valuable document. No one figured more prominently in Dylan's personal life in the early 1960s than Suze Rotolo. She helped inspire his music, much of which he wrote about her.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

Thanks for this review. I've seen this book around and never knew what it was like or whether it was worth a read.