Books: A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

Share this article

GOING OUT WITH A ROCK STAR probably sounds like fun, but ex-girlfriend memoirs are generally filled with put-downs. Rock stars cheat, lie, they are ruled by their egos and steal your make-up. Or worse: for Suze Rotolo, dating a young Bob Dylan even contributed to a "crack-up" she describes in this memoir.

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

By Suze Rotolo

Aurum, 378pp, 11.99

Review by SIA MICHEL

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. Although they were living together, he hadn't told her that. (He wasn't an abandoned child who had lived with a travelling circus, either.)

Rotolo is 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 went out with 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 about him than it is about being a well-connected girl in Greenwich 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 concert in Manhattan. She was 17 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 melancholy but adventurous civil rights activist who loved poetry, theatre and modern art. Her father was an Italian-born artist and union man; her mother worked for a Communist newspaper ("She reminded me of a libertine heroine," Dylan recalls 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, such as Bob Dylan's Blues and Down the Highway. On her return, 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 Greenwich 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 the shy Rotolo push the boundaries; in 1964 she made an illegal trip to Cuba, meeting Castro and Guevara.

She attributes her messy break-up 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.")

For all that, she didn't immediately dump Dylan for his affair with Joan Baez who, apparently, made a dig at her from the stage at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival while she stood stunned in the crowd. Rotolo spends little time on this episode.

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 with a famous man, in a book with Dylan on the cover. She compensates with chapters on career and family life, but apart from a moving account of her adolescence after her father died, they read like a disconnected list of what she did.

Towards the end of her memoir, Rotolo has a bleak meeting with her ex. "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.