As a long-standing Bob Dylan analyst, I usually take a textual, not a biographical line over his work and his songs, and it therefore did not follow that, on hearing of its publication, I was necessarily going to rush out and buy and read “A Freewheelin’ Time”, the memoir by Dylan’s early-60s partner, the Italian-American graphic artist Suze Rotolo (b. 1943) (London: Aurum Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84513-443-3), known to all Dylan fans as the woman in the mid-length green coat on the cover of the album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. Nonetheless, having now read it, I am very glad I did. From the Dylan viewpoint, it is an invaluable complement to Bob’s own ‘Chronicles Volume One’ as an account of the singer’s formative years in New York; and in its own right, it is a dense and fascinating study of what it was to be young, gifted and radical in that period.
Suze Rotolo avoids any fashionable trap of debunking or putting down Dylan simply for being male and famous; she charts the waxing and waning of the relationship and narrates how it fell apart under the pressure of his fame and her unwillingness to be the-woman-behind-the-great-man, while also recalling, as if it were yesterday, how ‘Bob and I related to each other intensely’ (215). Notably, she refuses to claim any particular song as being ‘about her’, thus giving a welcome boost to the non-biographical reading of Dylan’s art: ‘His songs say it all. (..) They are fictions that allude to those experiences … I don’t like to claim any Dylan songs as having been written about me, to do so would violate the art he puts out in the world’ (290). Much more subtly, she offers interesting intertextual glosses on the songwriting and the songs, as in the moment when, on shipboard bound for Europe, she regales a fellow voyager with a rendition of an as yet unknown ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (170); or with illustrations like those showing the title-page of a Penguin selection of Byron inscribed to her by Bob (and signed ‘Lord Byron Dylan’ – 172), or a sheet-music version of ‘Masters of War’ enriched by her own graphics (248).
By no means all of the book is about Dylan or the relationship, and we also learn much about Rotolo as an individual in the flower of youth at a moment when the times really did seem to be a-changing. She offers the reader a first-hand sense of participation in the Greenwich Village bohemia, the civil rights movement and radical off-Broadway theatre. There is even a remarkable episode near the end (and nothing to do with Dylan) when Suze narrates how in 1964 she and a small group of fellow dissidents visited Cuba in defiance of the US government’s travel ban, meeting Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, only to have their passports invalidated on return to the Land of the Free. Whichever way one looks at it, from Dylan’s side or Rotolo’s, this is an absorbing and fascinating narrative of a time of ideals and innocence that now seem long past, of those heady, free-wheelin’ days whose death Dylan himself prophetically foresaw when he wrote, in ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, ‘Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat / I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that’.
Note added 1 March 2011: Sadly, I have to add that Suze Rotolo passed away, at the age of 67, on 28 February 2011.