The Search for Suze Rotolo…
Several month’s back I was searching the library archives for a well crafted narrative of New York’s Greenwich Village. I picked up several books and pretty much lost interest. I was looking for something a bit deeper – something with more intimate – from a true insider.
This past week I found it. “A Freewheelin’ Time – A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” by “Suze” Rotolo (Susan Elizabeth Rotolo). At first glance at the book’s cover I surmised that Suze was indeed the young girl locked arm-in-arm with the minstrel for our age. So my next inclination was to thumb through the book. I have read all the Dylan biography and autobiography I will need for the rest of my lifetime (The only one I really enjoyed was Bob’s own “Chronicles Volume 1”).
This book quickly grabbed my attention with it’s intriguing illustrations – not just a traditional center or double set of obvious glossies – but snippets, publication extracts, art and insider ‘memorabilia’ that only someone entrenched within the Greenwich Village community could possibly access.
What a satisfying narrative, not ghost written, but authored by the ‘girl on the cover’ of Bob Dylan’s debut album, “The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan”, 1962.
Suze is native of Queens, New York, a daughter of Pete and Mary Rotolo, both of whom were members of the American Communist Party. Suze’s tale is replete with references to the era of “McCarthyism” which obviously impacted many of the people who surrounded her while residing in Greenwich.
Suze found her way to the Village early on – taking up residence there in 1961 at the age of 17. I had never really obtained more than a passing knowledge of her relationship with Dylan, thinking perhaps it had dissipated soon after the famous album cover ‘photo op’.
Not true. Suze was shepherd and guide for the ‘North Country’ minstrel who ventured in land far-apart from the land of many lakes.
This book is rich with information and tales of Suze’s friends, places and experiences; from Pete Seeger, to Phil Ochs; from Gerdes’ Folk City to Bob and Suze home at “Avenue B”; from her European travels to her involvement in testing the Cuba travel ban – and so much more.
Half way through this book I decided I would attempt to contact Suze, just to extend my gratitude for giving us such a introspective account of a mystical place and time in our baby boomer heritage. Growing up in Denver- which I wouldn’t trade for the world and visiting Greenwich Village in the 1950’s or 60’s – could be likened to Dorothy growing up in Kansas – and – yes – visiting the Emerald City.
I’ve always held the opinion that Bob Dylan was never just what he was expected to be. I recall him stating something along the lines of ‘I’m not leading anyone anywhere’.
And here is Suze’s account:
“Bob Dylan had to be the next One, the Prophet. He fit the bill with the extraordinary songs he was writing, which expressed wisdom beyond his years. The old-left wanted to school him so he would understand well and continue on the road they had paved, the one that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and others had traveled before him. They explained the way of the road and its borders.
Bob listened, absorbed, honored them, and then walked away. An artist can’t be made to serve a theory. He headed toward the lights that beckoned at the end of the tunnel. He made for the exit and from there he took the open roads that led him to where he chose to go instead. He didn’t want to accept the torch they were trying to pass to him.”
In the final account -I was happy to learn that Suze found her own way – found herself – far beyond the Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan.
And my attempt to make contact? I was saddened to learn that Suze Rotolo passed away in 2011 – three years after publishing this fine historical account – losing a battle with cancer. Do yourself a favor, locate a copy of the book, and walk the streets of Greenwich Village one last time with Suze Rotolo.