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

The Folk scene in New York in the early Sixties provided a primer on what happens when Show Biz and celebrity overwhelm a Progressive community. Should you return, today, to the funky precincts once home to the Peace Eye Bookstore, Jack Smith’s legendary apartment/performance space, store front theaters, and all of New York’s old Village Bohemia you’d find pricey condos, bankers and brokers, and seven-figure lofts.

These neighborhoods, whether San Francisco’s Mission District, London’s Portobello Road, or Chicago’s Old Town were once hotbeds of artistic life. They are all gone, and what’s disappeared with them are the grounds for what made the Sixties Village a Progressive Mecca. Money won the real estate battle for cheap rents and venues in the Village and elsewhere: artists make these areas “attractive,” which is the euphemism for exploitable in Real Estate markets. The message was not lost on Warhol, who created an art built on celebrity and the banal.

But a portion of the folk story has now been told by Suze Rotolo, (A Freewheelin Time, Broadway Books) made famous by a photograph, featuring herself and Bob Dylan (her lover) on the cover of Dylan’s Freewheeling LP.

Rodolfo’s resentment kicks in as she discusses the paparazzi rush she suffered owing solely to her association with Dylan. It surfaces as she relates the Scenic shift from activist-focused action, to corporate gold rush.

She is good on the duplicity cum street-smart savvy that defined the young Dylan: “. I felt insecure in not being able to trust him completely. He was vague about where he came from but open about anything that intrigued him… some of the tales …..Were out of sync with a previously woven one.”

Dylan’s inability to separate face from fiction was to serve him well, as his own mythologizing is now part of his well-crafted myth. Rotolo resisted Dylan’s compulsion to dramatize his relationships as yet another of his attempts at forcing his life, and the lives of those around him into a pre-ordained scenario. Dylan’s “identity” was quickly reworked to fit his ever-shifting visions of himself as troubador, activist, Guthrie disciple, folkie and ultimately Pop figure.

A Freewheelin Time is really the memoir of a woman who, as Dylan’s confidant, was able to observe the Village at its Bohemian pinnacle, and Dylan as he began the long march to a fame that has long since dominated his legend.

Dylan arrives in the Village in 1961: he’s 20 and Rotolo is 17. She’s enthusiastic about the Folk scene, and Dylan is soon at its center as a singer and guitarist of promise who, within a year of his arrival, has managed to garner good reviews, a self-promoting back-story, and status with other Village performers. Dylan is moving from self-described Woody Guthrie “jukebox” to Pop icon.   Guthrie, an Oakie Stalinist, hated the Show Biz scene that was to mould Dylan’s trajectory. Dylan was quick to suss that “political” folkies were doomed to media calumny and obscurity. Dylan was quick to see that Village figures like Phil Ochs crashed and burned based in part on their inability to conform to the media’s conservative agenda.

Rotolo provides a check list of Village names and places: the Clancey Brothers, Izzy Young at the Folk Center, Dylan  pals, Paul Clayton, Phil Ochs, and Peter La Farge (all suicides),Tom Paley, Mike Seeger and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, John Hearld, Ralph Rinzler and Bob Yellin of the Greenbriar Boys bluegrass band, Dave Von Ronk and Terri Garr, the Gaslight, and Gerde’s Folk City etc.

Dylan’s Horatio Alger turn would not have happened without Rotolo.  The performing scene had to be navigated, entry to which required that a Von Ronk or a Spolestra or a nightclub owner be won over to the performers cause. The glue in this world was friendship, solidarity, and cheap rent. At the same moment that the Folkies were celebrating the lives of radicals like Guthrie, they paved the way for the commercial blitz that sought to erase their politics.

Dylan sparks the interest of a former labor organizer turned businessman named Albert Grossman. Grossman will sign and manage Peter,Paul and Mary; Ian and Sylvia, and Dylan using one act to promote the other. Grossman winds up a millionaire and can be seen at work, as enforcer, in Pennebaker’s incomparable “Don’t Look Back.”  The legendary John Hammond signs Dylan to a recording contract at Columbia.

Throughout all this; the negotiations, the pandering, the calculated aggression, the nights partying, roving, scoring, schmoozing, smoking, and soaking up influences, Rotolo remains at Dylan’s side until, with the appearance of handlers, managers, flacks, and PR people she recoils from Dylan’s newly acquired Praetorian Guard. Dylan was quick to use those around him as “body-guards” and enforcers.  It’s a trait that Rotolo found problematic.  Rotolo is made aware that she is being used by people around her to “get” to Dylan. She comes to see herself as a potential pawn in a nasty game.

Mid-affair, she leaves for Italy, maintains an intense correspondence with Dylan, and returns a year later to find the singer involved with Joan Baez who has taken Dylan on a career boosting tour for which Dylan never reciprocates. Rotolo and the singer attempt a reconciliation but Dylan has now moved beyond Village folkie to media commodity in the time it took other people to learn to tune a guitar.

The singer she knew has moved from Woody Guthrie acolyte, to songwriter, to Folk hero, to rock and roll lynchpin in Grossman’s burgeoning publishing and recording empire. As the career pressure mounts, the dehumanization sets in.

Rotolo remains a private person, who at some point post Dylan suffers a breakdown, attempts suicide, and then slowly puts her life back together. The suicide attempt goes unmentioned. For a more detailed account of all of this see Bob Spitz’s: Dylan, a Biography.

Rotolo begins to question her belief in the singer’s essential decency; a solitary woman in a world composed of men bent on power, fame, celebrity and money.

Rotolo’s social life, once the locus of solidarity and fun, decay to Dylan driven put down marathons; the Civil Rights movement and anti War groups fade to nostalgia, over-powered and distorted by corporate media, judicial hostility, and a calculated indifference.

Rotolo moves on to other loves, Cuba, a session with FBI agents; an art career; and a hard won wisdom.

She remains true to something, which she is often at pains to identify: midst an increasingly brutish scene. She never quite condemns what had happened but comes to loathe the cults of celebrity, which will prove disastrous for people like Joplin (who Grossman managed), Hendrix, and Morrison. The celebrity scene is mired in the winner/victim saga, played out against a backdrop of drugs and glitz.

The question lingering just behind Rotolo’s musing on what had happened to the old Village, and obliquely,

Dylan, is where did all of that energy go?

The true story of how the promise and activism and hope of the 60’s were reworked into star profiles and sound bite platitude has yet to be written but Suze Rotolo’s book provides a beginning.

The problem with so much Dylanology has been its inability to see through to the forces which were acting on the society around the singer. Dylan arrives and prospers at a time when the commercial record business is in free fall, and is then revived and transformed by groups like the Beatles. As television comes into play, there is an abrupt shift to market plans which had nothing to do with the radio and film strategies that had preceded them. Dylan’s meteoric career mirrors that brief opening which brought Progressive FM, music, media collectives, documentary film, and the Civil Rights and Anti War struggles together. The years that followed these experiments have seen an American Establishment counter attack best summed by the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute.

Rotolo was not able to “abdicate” (her term) her life in favor of being with someone about to be swept along in a media firestorm. The mystery is that where so many submitted to the forces that hurried Dylan on his way: she would and could not. She remarks, “I felt my life was at stake,” and ends by saying: “we had something to say, not something to sell.” Rotolo is brave and honest; and this was to cost her a great deal.

Warren Leming is a writer/critic who divides his time between Chicago and Berlin.


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