To Bob Dylan fans, she is The Girl on the Cover. The brunette with the wide eyes, long brown hair, and infectious smile forever immortalized on the arm her boyfriend on the cover ofThe Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
. It’s the record that really launched Dylan’s career and legend with self-penned tracks like “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and, of course, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
And though their relationship lasted on and off for about three years, Suze Rotolo has kept mostly silent. However, appearing on-camera to reminisce in Martin Scorsese’s recent Dylan film No Direction Home certainly seems to have opened the door for this book.
In the chapters B.B. (Before Bob), Rotolo tells of her unique upbringing as a “Red Diaper Baby” whose pro-Communist parents flooded her with a tsunami of books, music, and political ideas (though her father would tragically die early). She fought for a number of progressive social causes, though relating her experiences lead to the occasional purple prose here (“White people were looking at themselves and what their history had wrought, like a domestic animal having its face shoved in its own urine.”)
The pair met when she was 17 and he 20, moving in together a year later. Though their affair was passionate, it was still that of two very young people whose jealousies, whims, and ambitions often conflicted. And as Dylan’s fame began to rise, Rotolo made it plain that she had no desire to be a musician’s – even a famous one’s – “chick” or “old lady,” writing “I did not want to be a string on Bob Dylan’s guitar.” Dylan’s seeming indifference did not help matters any.
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That conflict – combined with Dylan’s not-so-secret relationship with patron Joan Baez and his descent into drugs and a tight-knit band of hangers-on - all but ensured that the relationship was never meant to last. “He did not make anything easy for anyone, or for himself,” Rotolo says. Still, she writes of Dylan mostly with the affection instead of bitterness.
The book actually sheds little light on the Bard of Hibbing for those already familiar with books like Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades or Howard Sounes’ Down the Highway. One minute he’s amusing and insightful, the life of the party; and next cuttingly insulting or aloof, passing judgment from atop a hipster Mt. Olympus.
Those looking for major revelations will be disappointed – save Rotolo’s admission that when she got pregnant, she and Dylan decided on an abortion. She does note that during early photo shoots and concerts, Dylan would go to painstaking sartorial lengths to pick out just the right clothes in order to give the impression he’d been riding the rails with ol’ Woody Guthrie himself, sporting the perfectly crumpled jacket or atmospheric hat.
And though she modestly never mentions it, Dylanologists generally agree that Rotolo was the inspiration behind songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Her mother and sister also provided lyrical fodder – albeit as the targets of “Ballad in Plain D,” perhaps the most caustic, stinging and hurtful song in the entire Dylan catalogue, one even he is sort of ashamed of today.
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Greenwich Village emerges almost like another character, and in fact it is here when Rotolo describes the coffee shops and bookstores, the hootenannyies and moviehouses, the parties and the street characters that A Freewheelin’ Life really comes alive. Like a historical travelogue during which this Dylan character just pops in and out of clubs like Gerde’s and the Bitter End.
As for the famous album cover, the pair are forever frozen in time on that wintry street in Greenwich Village. Dylan and Rotolo seemed to represent everything that was young, exciting, and carefree about the period of time after beatniks and before hippies. But as Rotolo writes, such was the casualness of the biz back in the day that neither she nor Dylan knew which if any of the improvised photos shot that day Columbia would end up using – much less putting one with the two of them on the cover.
In the decades since that time, Rotolo has worked in the theatre and as an artist, but her old boyfriend has always been there. “In so many ways, my past with Bob Dylan has always been a presence, a parallel life alongside my own. No matter where I am, who I’m with, or what I’m doing,” she sums up. Talk about pressure for any other lover! -- Bob Ruggiero
A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo, Broadway Books, 384 pp., $22.95