Saturday, April 16, 2011

“A Freewheelin’ Time”: Dylan’s Muse, But Not His Guitar String

A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo. 371 pp. Broadway. $14.95 (paperback)

Suze Rotolo, who recently passed away (my tribute here), became Bob Dylan’s girlfriend shortly after he arrived in New York in the early 1960s–and she also became his muse. Daughter of communist Italian immigrants, Rotolo raised Dylan’s awareness of social issues, inspiring his protest songs as well as his most poignant love ballads. She and Dylan were pictured on Jones Street in Greenwich Village on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan" album (1963).

Rotolo depicts a time when it was possible to live cheaply in the Village as a theater set designer, which she was–or a yet undiscovered folk singer. The earlier sections of the book encompass a more innocent period, as the couple lived together took in the Village's folk clubs, experimental theaters, bookstores, foreign films and art galleries. Dylan’s growing fame, however, broke them apart. Rotolo refuses the role of the musician’s “chick” or “a string on Bob Dylan’s guitar.” When she came back from a period in Italy, Villagers  accused her of not being there for him. Folk music itself was “a boy’s club.” Indeed, the sexism in bohemian circles was as prevalent as in the wider society, a point also made in Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters,” a memoir of the Beat writers. According to Rotolo, Dylan also didn’t handle fame him graciously; she eventually perceives him as “tight and hostile," holding court as “the reigning king.” Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez, though alluded to only briefly, was doubtless another factor in their breakup.

While her relationship with Dylan is central to the book, this is ultimately Rotolo’s story. As such, it doesn’t stop as her relationship with Dylan declines. She recounts her trip to Cuba in defiance of the U.S. travel ban, as well as iconic events of the time: the assassination of President Kennedy, the growth of the counterculture, the Vietnam war protests. She regretfully concludes that Greenwich Village is now too expensive to remain a center of bohemia. What endures, though, is the Village as a “state of mind,” a “calling” for the “creative spirit.” However we refer to it, that era and place, in all its artistic and political fervor, is preserved in Suze Rotolo’s illuminating memoir.

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