Knowing Bob Dylan: 1960s Greenwich Village

Image: Oscar Isaac in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’/Image © CBS films

Editor's Note: Suze Rotolo was an artist who lived in New York City with her family. A shy girl from Queens, Suze was the daughter of Italian working-class Communists. Growing up at the start of the Cold War and during McCarthyism, she inevitably became an outsider in her neighborhood and at school. Her childhood was turbulent, but Suze found solace in poetry, art, and music. In Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, she encountered like-minded friends who were also politically active. Then one hot day in July 1961, Suze met Bob Dylan, a rising young musician, at a folk concert at Riverside Church. She was seventeen, he was twenty; they were young, curious, and inseparable. During the years they were together, Dylan was transformed from an obscure folk singer into an uneasy spokesperson for a generation. Herewith, an excerpt from her 2009 book A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.


I've always had trouble talking or reminiscing about the 1960s because of my place close to Bob Dylan, the mover and shaper of the culture of that era. The kind of adulation and scrutiny he received made that conversation awkward for me. He became an elephant in the room of my life. I am private by nature, and my instinct was to protect my privacy, and consequently his.

I was writing a bit before we met - poems, little stories, observations - and I kept at it while I was with him. The writings served the same purpose as the sketchbooks I kept - except that these were verbal drawings:

It isn't you baby, it's me and my ghost
and your holy ghost.
There is a saying about one's past catching up
with them
mine not only did that, it overran the present.
So tomorrow when the future takes hold
I'll be sitting in the background with the Surrealists.

Though I no longer remember what triggered those thoughts, recorded in January 1963, reading them in the present gives me an eerie feeling of prescience. In so many ways my past with Bob Dylan has always been a presence, a parallel life alongside my own, no matter where I am, who I'm with, or what I am doing.

Dylan's public, his fans and followers, create him in their own image. They expect him to be who they interpret him to be. The very mention of his name invokes his myth and unleashes an insurmountable amount of minutiae about the meaning of every word he ever uttered, wrote, or sang.

As Bob Dylan's fame grew so far out of bounds, I felt I had secrets to keep. Though I kept my silence, I didn't relish being the custodian of such things. Time passes and the weight of secrets dissipates. Articles are written and biographies are churned out that trigger memories only because they are often far from the reality I knew. They tend to be lackluster yet fascinating in their fantasy. I acknowledge that memory is a fickle beast. Fragments of stories stride in and out; some leave traces, while others do not.

Secrets remain. Their traces go deep, and with all due respect I keep them with my own. The only claim I make for writing a memoir of that time is that it may not be factual, but it is true.

In these times, seeing Bob Dylan's life and work and the people he was close to documented or fictionalized on film, on display in museum exhibits and other commemorations in all categories, only intensifies the feeling I have of possessing a parallel life. It is an odd sensation to see myself on the screen, under glass, and written about in books, forever enshrined and entombed alongside the Legend of Dylan.

When I look at the pictures and hear the songs I also see and hear the story behind them. A still photograph morphs into a home movie and a scrawl on a page evokes a scene in a room or on a street. I hear a laugh coming from somewhere off to the side.

It has taken me many years to allow my parallel lives to converge. But there will always be a space between the image and the reality because ghosts live there and they cannot be contained under glass. Over time I have learned to be more at ease with the holy fascination people have with Bob Dylan. A song, a poem, a book, a film, an exhibit are simply representations of a period, a place, a person. And because memory is the joker in the deck I try not to take the representations of the past too seriously. Life goes on for those who live it in the present. Nostalgia, cheap or otherwise, is always costly.

I see history as a reliquary - a container where relics are kept and displayed for contemplation. So much has been written about the sixties that the more distant those years become, the more mythic the tales and the time seem to be. Facts and statistics are pliable. Truth and accuracy are truly Rashomon-like. Each story is true from the teller's perspective; the weight shifts. My decision to add my relics was not an easy one. Hindsight meddles with memory, after all, so the best I can do in writing about those long-ago years is to try to make them recognizable.

The stories I tell are about my place within that time and about the early years that made me who I was when I migrated from Queens, New York, to Greenwich Village. The backstory has to be considered: where my family came from, who they were, and all the other bits and pieces that make a person whole. I reminisce to the best of my ability.

Since I was born in one of the boroughs of New York City, the concept of coming to the city to find (or lose) oneself doesn't apply. But it was to Greenwich Village that people like me went - people who knew in their souls that they didn't belong where they came from. I was drawn to the Village with its history of bohemia - where the writers I was reading and the artists I was looking at had lived or passed through. Their spirits led the way, showed me the road, and named the place. I got on the subway.

The 1960s were an amazing time, an eventful time of protest and rebellion. An entire generation had permission to drink alcohol and die in a war at eighteen, but it had no voting voice until the age of twenty-one. Upheaval was inevitable. Talk made music, and music made talk. Action was in the civil rights marches, marches against the bomb, and marches against an escalating war in Vietnam. It was a march out of a time, too - out of the constricted and rigid

Traveling with the past within us, we were ready to roll into the future. It has now become a historical time made up of many personal stories, songs, and sidebars. There are many reliquaries from that era in American life. This is mine.

Copyright © By Suze Rotolo. Excerpted from A FREEWHEELIN' TIME: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo, published by Broadway Books an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.

Image: Oscar Isaac in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'/Image © CBS films

  • Chuck Zlatkin

    Editor: How about having the decency to mention that Suze Rotolo died in February of 2011. I'm sure her family and friends would appreciate you not giving the impression that she just wrote something. Please correct.

    • Word & Film

      Our sincerest apologies for using the incorrect tense above, Chuck. We've made the correction above and have added the year of the book's publications. Thank you for pointing out our error. -Word & Film

  • shar

    Suze died in did she write this?

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