Review: A Freewheelin' Time by Suze Rotolo

I’ve always wished that I’d been born in the right place and time to have experienced the Greenwich Village of the early-to-mid 1960s. Although I wanted to be a rock star, my true inspiration as a singer-songwriter came through folk music.

A little too young to immerse myself in the music of Phil Ochs, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Ian and Sylvia, I found my true mentors in Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, and Gordon Lightfoot. These were some of the first folk artists whose music legitimized the genre, thanks to Columbia Records’ decision to sign Dylan in 1962. I was only 11 at that time, so I still had to wait a while for folk music to come to me...

Recently, I read A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo. For those who are not familiar with her, Suze was Dylan’s lover during his Village years (1961-1964). She was the woman pictured walking with him on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Oh, yeah. Her.

Due to the image that the Beatles’ girlfriends and wives carried—that of muse, supporter, and too often co-dependent—I have to admit that my impression of Rotolo had been basically the same through the years. Reading her book, however, changed that and for the better. Although the book has its flaws, it is written honestly and intelligently. Suze (pronounced Suzie) was an educated woman: an intellectual, an artist, an activist, and a feminist. Raised in a politically active family, she was the perfect counterpart for Dylan. No simpering, clinging vine, she!

Rotolo inspired some of Dylan’s best songs, my favorite being Ballad in Plain D (which, according to Dylan himself in his book, Chronicles Vol. One, he regrets having written):

I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze,
With the innocence of a lamb, she was gentle like a fawn;
I courted her proudly, but now she is gone,
Gone as the season she’s taken...

Rotolo has a way with words that I really enjoyed. Her prose reveals a lot about her, making it easy to understand that she and Dylan thought a great deal alike in those early years. My only real problem was that she never seems to dip too far below the surface of any given subject or character description. She begins an anecdote then drops it to go to another. These short teases, as well as her tendency to repeat certain phrases and sometimes refer to Dylan by his full name after it’s quite obvious that Bob and Bobby are indeed Dylan, tend to make me think that she wrote down a lot of memories, only to string them together via a mental cut-and-paste process. I would have enjoyed the book more had she tried to transition a little more seamlessly. Still, she shares so many memories and insights that I can’t complain without feeling a little guilty. She was there, she was a vital member of the Village community and between her accounts and photos, I feel like I’ve traveled to a place and time that has always fascinated me.

Her greatest talent is her ability to invoke feelings that I’d lost through the decades. For example, she describes the paranoia of the Cold War era in such a way that it all came back to me as it was then, not as it is translated through nostalgic hindsight. It’s a good book.

Addendum: While writing this review I learned that Suze Rotolo has died of lung cancer in New York City.
Ballad in Plain D © Bob Dylan 1964