On Bob Dylan’s Arm

(Originally published on MOLI 6/27/8)

Suze Rotolo is perhaps the most famous arm charm in rock’n’roll, quite literally. On the cover of Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, she clutches the singer’s side as they make their way down a wintry West Village street in 1963. Rotolo was 19 at the time, and the girlfriend of the 22-year-old artist who was just beginning to be recognized as a colossal folk and rock talent. Talk about pressure.

Before and after that photo, of course, Rotolo had a life story of her own, as she tells in A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Broadway). She was a red diaper baby, the daughter of communist Italian-Americans, who became an artist. She was a beautiful, intelligent New York City girl, whose political, intellectual, urban upbringing probably seemed exotic to the exile from small-town Minnesota. One gets the sense from this memoir that Rotolo was and is very much her own woman – albeit a fragile young person with a difficult home life, who probably tended to break “just like a little girl.”

Freewheelin’ is by no means a tell-all. In fact, the author tells very little of the personal details of her relationship with Robert Zimmerman (she does reveal that not even she knew his real name and identity until a news story revealed it). Neither rancor nor a great deal of sentimentality drive the narrative. Four decades later, she is eminently respectful of the four-year love affair and her ex’s privacy – that tactfulness, so refreshing in the age of endless celebrity dish, itself speaks volumes about both Rotolo and Dylan.

Freewheelin’ is most interesting as a document of Downtown New York during the folk boom and the birth of ‘60s counterculture. Mostly, Rotolo pays tribute to the incredible talent pool that was her community, people like Sylvia and Ian Tyson, Dave Von Ronk, and Janet Kerr. I absolutely eat up books like these, documents of bohemian places and times – god, it must have been fabulous to live there and then, I sigh as I turn their pages (even as an equally happening scene may be unfolding outside my window).

Rotolo also captures the souring of the hippie experience – the good trip gone bad. Unsurprisingly, her relationship with Dylan collapses under the weight of their greatly changed lives, as his fame mounts. She is stalked, her apartment burns, and she has the kind of nervous collapse that so many people, living on the edge in pursuit of a dream, had at that time.

The book falls apart a bit too; it’s unclear what Rotolo’s point is, as she grasps for a special light to shed on a much-illuminated era. Still, she has a vivid, clear way of describing her memories that’s enchanting; you can see how a guy would fall for her. “We were full of truths and enthusiasms, non sequiturs, stories, insights, pronouncements, resentments, and of course poetry, prose, and song,’’ she writes.

The Freewheelin’ photo is a portrait of youth in love, two people sheltering in each other’s arms on a cold city street. Rotolo is no mere ornament – and unlike the usual rocker arm candy, her body is completely covered in a bulky winter coat (she told the New York Times she felt like an Italian sausage). Still, she’s the full-maned bohemienne giving flesh to the skinny bard’s songs. An emancipated woman living with her lover – Rotolo was the embodiment of freewheelin’. Her memoir reveals that she was more than just a symbol, though, that she had her own life and stories to tell.

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Filed under Populism, Recommended reading

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