Archive for the ‘Suze Rotolo’ Category

Suze Rotolo’s new book: sympathetic… revealing… unique…

September 22, 2008
Dylan Books’ exclusive review of Suze Rotolo’s new book, A Freewheelin’ Time – by Anne Ritchie, a contemporary of Rotolo, who first saw Dylan perform in 1965:

I got a lot from reading A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo. Subtitled A Memoir Of Greenwich Village In The Sixties, the book is not all about Bob, though every mention of Bob/Bobby quickened the pulse. It wasn’t till around p90 (in a 360+-page book) that Dylan really came into it, when Rotolo describes their first flirty meeting at a folk concert in July 1961, though she’d already seen him singing and playing back-up harp at Gerde’s.

The earlier sketching in of the political and social background to the early Dylan songs interested this reader – the contrast of bohemian Village life in the straitjacket of the fifties – as did her description of her own unconventional upbringing in an Italian immigrant family, where, as a “red-diaper baby” she imbibed her parents’ culture along with their leftist politics at a time of anti-communist fervour.

But it’s the affectionate, gentle reminiscences of the young Dylan that make A Freewheelin’ Time worth reading. Early on in the book we are treated to a picture of the aspiring folksinger, still with puppy fat, trying on one item of wrinkled clothing after another to get the right image. His walk is described as “a lurch in slow motion”; he has a “healthy ego”.

At the beginning of their relationship, Rotolo describes him as “funny, engaging, intense, persistent”, but also mentions his “facility for not telling the truth”, his evasiveness about his upbringing, the contradictory stories. We get a dramatic account of her discovery of his real surname when he drops his draft card: by this time they were living together but he’d kept that from her. To annoy him she would sometimes call him by his real initials, RAZ, though he didn’t mind when she called him Boo Radley.

There are several reminders of Chronicles: from Dylan’s soaking up of influences to his surprising talent for woodwork, using the cabinet housing the second-hand TV to make a coffee table and book shelves.

His letters to Suze while she was in Italy…Italy… are revealing. One, written at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, shows a genuine fear of imminent atomic war and a recognisable reaction: if the world was going to end all he wanted was to be with her. Another, in contrast, shows him responding to her news she’d had her hair cut. He liked it as it was. In one of his letters bemoaning her absence, “hating time”, he surely alludes to the Latin poet Catullus’s wonderfully modern-sounding poem Odi et amo when he says “I hate it I love you”.

Memories of their time together that resonate include Bob singing “Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love?”; watching the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV; hunting with him for an affordable jacket for the cover of the first album.

The story behind the Freewheelin’ cover is an interesting one. After the Don Hunstein (mis-spelt in the book) photo-shoot in their tiny, freezing apartment, they’re persuaded to go out into the cold. The unsuitable-for-the-weather suede jacket put on by Dylan is “an image choice”, while Suze, in two bulky sweaters and a coat tied tightly round the middle felt “like an Italian sausage”.

There are many intimate photos in the book, and other personal mementoes of her time with Bob. Ones that stand out are a newspaper cutting of “Bob Dylan of Gallup, NM” playing with “rural gusto” and the sheet music for Masters Of War and Train a-Travelin’ illustrated (well) by Rotolo.

That the background to Another Side Of Bob Dylan – which “made tough listening” – was the breaking down of their relationship is confirmed in a section aptly named “Ballad”.

Rotolo’s dissection of the painful break-up rings true, but she doesn’t go into tell-tale detail. She alludes earlier in the book to her mother’s and sister’s antagonism towards Bob and now concedes that her sister “had a valid point” in her assessment of him as a “lyin’ cheatin’ manipulatin’ bastard”. A later heartfelt comment “Yeah, he was a lying shit of a guy with women” is about as far as she goes in her criticism, his infidelities only hinted at.

A Freewheelin’ Time, rather than giving much new insight into Dylan the man, confirms what has often been written about him before. But it does give a more sympathetic picture, without a hidden agenda, one that covers the romantic side of him that concurs with his wonderful songs of love.

Rotolo also gives a valuable definition of the art of Dylan’s songs as “translations of moods and sensations… fictions that allude to these experiences”. More specific assertions are the claim that Mr Tambourine Man was written when Dylan was roaming the streets after a quarrel with her; that “Bobby had become Dylan” after the Carnegie Hall concert.

In her narrative she quite often slips into Dylan-speak (just like many of his fans): “we heard the rooster crowing at the break of day”; “He saw right from his side and I saw right from mine” and some section titles – Time Out Of Mind, Not Dark Yet – are borrowed from his album and song titles. I think they add to the memoir, which, as is revealed in the Acknowledgements at the end, she was encouraged to write after she appeared in Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home.

For the non-Dylan content, A Freewheelin’ Time is more of a woman’s book, the personal information – meeting Bob’s parents, hating being seen as a “chick” in a “pre-feminist” time, and resenting the phone calls complementing her as a muse and for standing by her man – would probably have little interest for most men.

There are another 70+ pages after the break-up with Dylan and this is where A Freewheelin’ Time fades away. I wasn’t really interested in her circuitous trip to Cuba or her move to Cambridge, Mass, with her new boyfriend and even mention of the odd meeting up with her erstwhile boyfriend failed to brighten up the narrative.

Nevertheless, I was left feeling warm towards Suze Rotolo and grateful that she’d shared the unique experience of her formative years alongside the towering talent of Bob Dylan.

Publication details: A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir Of Greenwich Village In The Sixties, by Suze Rotolo. London: Aurum Press, September 2008, hardback, 371pp, £16.99. ISBN 978 1 84513 392 4.