the observer Sat 20 September 2008
Suze Rotolo is the girl with the wistful eyes and hint of a smile whose head is resting on the suede-jacketed shoulder of a nice-looking young man as they trudge through the snow on the cover of 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The couple met in 1961, when she was 17 and he was 20. The story of their love affair is a microcosm of the early Sixties, when the gentle strains of folk music gave way to the electronic blare of rock and a few puffs of pot turned into a bad trip on LSD. For Rotolo, it was a trajectory that would take her from the sweetness of first love to the trauma of abortion.
Dylan maniacs will scour these pages for clues to his lyrics - and find plenty. But they'll miss the point of this oddly organised (though not as random as it seems), delicately written, heart-tugging memoir of New York's Greenwich Village when it nearly was a village, and seemed the most exciting place on earth in which to be young. Rotolo's volume includes a map showing how closely packed into a few streets of the West Village the epicentre of the Sixties music scene was. One only needed to walk up Bleeker Street to get from Gerde's Folk City - where in September 1961 Robert Shelton discovered Bob Dylan and wrote the career-launching review in the New York Times - to the White Horse, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death less than seven years earlier, and we all hung out at its tables trying to catch the vibes (though it was a few months earlier, and in Chicago not New York, that the kid from the Midwest, his bid to perform rejected, slept on my floor for a few nights during a folk festival).
Rotolo, now an artist, captures this bohemian atmosphere with loving detail. Those who knew the scene will not be surprised to learn that it was she who taught small-town Bobby Allen Zimmerman about politics. She was the child of communists, whose affiliation had to be kept secret all through the Fifties and Sixties because of the overt persecution the family would have suffered during the McCarthy period.
Rotolo seems refreshingly free of the paranoia that afflicted many of our generation and virtually all her parents' cohorts, which manifested itself in the habit of hiding copies of the Communist Manifesto and Little Lenin Library books from the eyes of neighbours in the Westchester suburbs. Dylan knew left-wing politics from the dust-bowl perspective of Woody Guthrie, whom he finally met as Guthrie lay dying in a New Jersey hospital in 1961. But it was from Rotolo that he learnt about the labour movement and the organised left, as well as about the civil rights and peace movements. In a way, Dylan's Jewish background equipped him better for life in Greenwich Village than did Rotolo's Italian heritage. Both her parents were Italian-born, but the culture (and personnel) of the left was strongly Jewish. There was a slightly frosty meeting of Rotolo and the Zimmerman parents for dinner after Dylan's under-attended Town Hall concert in April 1963, and another in October for his Carnegie Hall appearance.
Following a temporary separation when Rotolo went to Perugia in 1962 to study, they were together until she decided to move out of the small flat they shared. Then, slowly, the romance fizzled out. Rotolo is generous about the break-up. Did Dylan leave her for Joan Baez? She says only that Dylan and Baez's 'professional appearances together were exciting and provoked gossip about an affair. At first it was just gossip - then, of course, it wasn't.' And she hasn't quite kissed and told. As she says: 'As Bob Dylan's fame grew so far out of bounds, I felt I had secrets to keep.' She still has a few.
· This article was amended on Tuesday September 23 2008. The publisher of Suze Rotolo's A Freewheelin' Time is Aurum Press, not Broadway Books as we said in the article above. This has been corrected.