Suze Rotolo remembers the Greenwich Village folk scene and her relationship with a certain rising star.
By SIA MICHEL
Dating a voice-of-a-generation rock star probably sounds like fun, but ex-girlfriend memoirs are generally filled with put-downs. Rock stars cheat, they fabricate, they flex their egos and they steal your grooming products. Or worse: for Suze Rotolo, dating a young Bob Dylan even contributed to a “crackup” she describes in “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.”
One night in the early 1960s, when Dylan came home drunk, she writes, he accidentally dropped the contents of his wallet on the floor. Rotolo, then a teenager, picked up his draft card and was shaken. His last name wasn’t Dylan; it was Zimmerman. And even though they were essentially living together in a tiny walk-up on West Fourth Street, he hadn’t told her the truth, too committed to maintaining his mysterious persona. (He wasn’t an abandoned child who had lived with a traveling circus, either.)The fact that he was evasive and secretive with me eventually created a rift,” Rotolo writes. Still, the couple considered themselves soul mates of a sort, bonded by a love of culture and scrappy clubs like Gerde’s Folk City and the Bitter End.
Rotolo is best known as the honey-haired beauty strolling with Dylan on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the 1963 album that cemented his reputation and brought us “Blowin’ in the Wind.” She dated him on and off for four tumultuous years, as his career exploded and his personality darkened. Given how intensely private Dylan is, a relationship memoir promises plenty of revelations. But the draft-card incident is one of few striking anecdotes in the book, which is much less successful at expanding Dylanology than at vividly recounting what it was like to be a well-connected girl in the Village as a heady new youth movement flourished.
Rotolo met Dylan in the summer of 1961, when he was just another singer at an all-day folk concert at Riverside Church in Manhattan. She was a 17-year-old in a dress with thigh-high slits, and Dylan, 20, thought “she was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen,” as he wrote in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One.” Rotolo considered him “oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way.”
She was a Queens-bred red-diaper baby, a melancholy but adventurous civil rights activist who loved poetry, theater and modern art. Her dad was an Italian-born artist and union man; her mother worked for a Communist newspaper. “I was exposed to a lot more than a kid from Hibbing, Minn.,” she says of her beau, who was broadening his horizons with her as fast as he could. (“She reminded me of a libertine heroine,” Dylan remembered in “Chronicles.”)
Many young women at the time might have clung to a rising-star boyfriend at any cost, but Rotolo left town in 1962 and studied art in Italy. Dylan wrote her stylish, lovelorn letters, many of which are excerpted in the book. “It’s just that I’m hating time,” he wrote. “I’m trying to push it by — I’m trying to stab it — stomp on it — throw it on the ground and kick it — bend it and twist it with gritting teeth and burning eyes — I hate it I love you.” He said he was writing songs about her, like “Bob Dylan’s Blues” and “Down the Highway.”
When Rotolo returned to New York, she felt a chilly reception on the folk scene because she “was not there for Dylan when he needed me most.” She had moved to the Village to define herself, but now she was expected to be a helpmeet, a muse and a gatekeeper. The more famous Dylan became, the more uncomfortable she felt: she didn’t want to be limited to a role as her “boyfriend’s ‘chick,’ a string on his guitar.”
“A Freewheelin’ Time” makes an obvious nod to Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters,” a memoir about a romance with Jack Kerouac and the male-dominated Beat scene. Rotolo presents a similar scenario, a pre-feminist time when “women and girls were permitted to sit at the table, where they would be served without any hesitation, but they were not to ask for any more.” It’s exhilarating to watch Rotolo, shy as she was, push the boundaries; in 1964, she made an illegal trip to Cuba, where she met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
She attributes her messy breakup with Dylan, in part, to her inability to give an ambitious but increasingly beleaguered superstar the “committed backup and protection” he needed, “probably because I needed them myself.” (Dylan is more elliptical: “The alliance between Suze and me didn’t turn out exactly to be a holiday in the woods,” he said in “Chronicles.” “She took one turn in the road and I took another.”)
Yet despite her struggle for self-empowerment, she didn’t immediately dump Dylan for his affair with Joan Baez, who, according to other writers, made a dig at her from the stage at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival while she stood stunned in the crowd. Instead, the women seem to have more or less shared Dylan (apparently it’s even tough for beautiful pop stars to date pop stars), although Rotolo spends curiously little time on this part of her story. According to “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan,” by Howard Sounes, she may have tried to kill herself when she heard that Dylan would be touring with her rival; she does not mention this, even to correct the record. Likewise, she writes unspecifically about the breakup-influenced songs on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964), like the bitter “Ballad in Plain D,” which slams her mom and sister. “People would speculate and make judgments, and that became an intrusion,” she says.
Rotolo warns in the preface that she’s a private person too, and she must have cringed countless times as Dylan biographers picked apart her first serious relationship, generally portraying her as docile and mistreated. Even 40 years later, she seems uncomfortable delving into her time with Dylan. Perhaps an inherent contradiction is the problem: she’s writing about her unwillingness to be defined by her relationship to a famous man, in a book with Dylan on the cover. She compensates with many chapters on her artsy career endeavors and family life, but apart from a moving account of her adolescence after her father suddenly died, they read like a disconnected list of what she did.
But it’s quite a list — there are encounters with everyone from Phil Ochs to Bill Cosby to George Harrison, who asks her to bring some chicks over to his hotel, as if a Beatle needed help meeting girls. Toward the end of her memoir, Rotolo has a bleak meeting with her ex at the Kettle of Fish. “Know you cannot need anyone or anything and don’t believe,” he advises her. It poignantly underscores the way fame can destroy a piece of anyone it touches, especially the ones who wanted it most.
Sia Michel is the pop music editor of The Times.