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A Freewheelin' Time

A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

A Freewheelin' Time
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US$ 11.99
A Freewheelin’ Time is Suze Rotolo’s firsthand, eyewitness, participant-observer account of the immensely creative and fertile years of the 1960s, just before the circus was in full swing and Bob Dylan became the anointed ringmaster. It chronicles the back-story of Greenwich Village in the early days of the folk music explosion, when Dylan was honing his skills and she was in the ring with him.

A shy girl from Queens, Suze Rotolo 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.

Suze Rotolo’s story is rich in character and setting, filled with vivid memories of those tumultuous years of dramatic change and poignantly rising expectations when art, culture, and politics all seemed to be conspiring to bring our country a better, freer, richer, and more equitable life. She writes of her involvement with the civil rights movement and describes the sometimes frustrating experience of being a woman in a male-dominated culture, before women’s liberation changed the rules for the better. And she tells the wonderfully romantic story of her sweet but sometimes wrenching love affair and its eventual collapse under the pressures of growing fame.

A Freewheelin’ Time is a vibrant, moving memoir of a hopeful time and place and of a vital subculture at its most creative. It communicates the excitement of youth, the heartbreak of young love, and the struggles for a brighter future.
Crown Publishing Group; May 2008
385 pages; ISBN 9780767929127
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Excerpt
Portrait


In the 1960s Bobby wore a black corduroy cap, with the snap on the brim undone, over his head of curly khaki-colored hair. His clothes were sloppy and didn’t fit his body well. He wore shirts in drab colors, chinos and chunky boots, which later gave over to slimmer-fitting jeans and cowboy boots. I slit the bottom seams on his jeans and sewed in an inverted “U” from an older pair so they would slide over his boots. He is wearing them on the cover of the Another Side of Bob Dylan album. My solution was a precursor of the bell-bottoms that came on the market not too long afterward.

He had baby fat, and Dave Van Ronk, already a well-known folk musician dubbed the Mayor of MacDougal Street, loved to tease him about the way he looked. As a folksinger, he advised, Bob had to develop and present an image to the outside world, his future public. Such things might have been talked about in jest, but in truth they were taken quite seriously. Much time was spent in front of the mirror trying on one wrinkled article of clothing after another, until it all came together to look as if Bob had just gotten up and thrown something on. Image meant everything. Folk music was taking hold of a generation and it was important to get it right, including the look—be authentic, be cool, and have something to say. That might seem naïve in comparison with the commercial sophistication and cynicism of today, but back then it was daring, underground, and revolutionary. We believed we could change perceptions and politics and the social order of things. We had something to say and believed that the times would definitely change.

Bobby had an impish charm that older women found endearing, though my mother was immune. He was aware of it and used it when he could. But in general he was shy around people. He had a habit of pumping the air with his knees, a kind of marching in place, whether standing or sitting—all jumpy. Onstage he did it in time to the music. He looked good, despite his floppy clothes. He had a natural charisma, and people paid attention to him.

At the height of his Woody Guthrie phase, he talked through his teeth and when he laughed he would toss back his head and make a cracking ha ha sound or a small ha, with fingers covering his mouth. His walk was a lurch in slow motion. He had a touch of arrogance, a good dose of paranoia, and a wonderful sense of the absurd.

It was very important t him at that time t write as he spoke. Writin like speech an without havin any punctuation or t write out the word to.

We got on really well, though neither one of us had any skin growing over our nerve endings. We were both overly sensitive and needed shelter from the storm. But Bobby was also tough and focused, and he had a healthy ego. The additional ingredients protected the intense sensitivity. As an artist he had what it took to become a success.


We hadn’t been together long when we went to Philadelphia with Dave Van Ronk and his wife, Terri Thal, for a gig she had booked for the two of them at a coffeehouse. When Bobby got up on the stage, he stood straight with his head slightly back and his eyes nowhere and began to sing “Dink’s Song,” a traditional ballad I had heard sung before by others. I watched him as he sang:


If I had wings like Nora’s dove
I’d fly ’cross the river to the one I love
Fare thee well oh honey,
Fare thee well


He started slow, building the rhythm on his guitar. Something about him caught my full attention.

He pushed out the lyrics as he hit the strings with a steady, accelerating drumlike beat. The audience slowed their chattering; he stilled the room. It was as though I had never heard the song before. He stilled my room, for sure.

In those early years Bob Dylan was a painter searching for his palette. He had in mind the pictures he wanted to paint; he just needed to find the right color mix to get him there. He savored all that was put before him, dabbing his brush here and there, testing, testing, adding new layers and scraping old ones away until he got what he wanted. He would delve into ideas—latch on to them with incredible intensity and deliberate their validity. He had an uncanny ability to complicate the obvious and sanctify the banal—just like a poet. Some hated that about him because they felt he was putting them on, scrambling their brains, which he was. It was his way of examining and investigating what was on his mind. It worked for me, even when he made me nuts at times, because I liked to ponder other possibilities too, to find the bit that made a thing that was smooth suddenly produce a bump.

One evening we went to Emilio’s on Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, a restaurant that was a fixture in what was then still an Italian neighborhood. It had a lovely outdoor garde in the back that compensated for the stereotypical food. Bobby was all fired up about the  concept of freedom. What defined the essence of freedom?

Were birds really free? he asked. They are chained to the sky, he said, where they are compelled to fly. So are they truly free?


Folk City


Long ago, when New York City was affordable, people who felt they didn’t fit into the mainstream could take a chance and head there from wherever they were. Bob Dylan came east from Minnesota in the winter of 1961 and made his way downtown to Greenwich Village. Like countless others before him, he came to shed the constricted definition of his birthplace and the confinement of his past.

I first saw Bob at Gerde’s Folk City, the Italian bar and restaurant cum music venue on the corner of Mercer and West Fourth Streets, one block west of Broadway and a few blocks east of Washington Square Park. Bob was playing back-up harmonica for various musicians and as a duo with another folksinger, Mark Spoelstra, before he played sets by himself. Mark played the twelve string guitar and had a melodious singing voice. Bob’s raspy voice and harmonica added a little dimension to the act. Their repertoire consisted of traditional folk songs and the songs of Woody Guthrie. They weren’t half bad. Bob was developing his image into his own version of a rambling troubadour, in the Guthrie mode.

Before I actually met Bob I was sitting with my friend Pete Karman at the bar one night at Gerde’s watching Bobby and Mark Spoelstra play. Pete was a journalist at the New York Mirror. Back then there were seven dailies, as I recall, and the Mirror was right up there with the best of the tabloids.

Pete was a fellow red-diaper baby, as the offspring of Communists were called, who lived in Sunnyside, Queens, where I’d been born. He had gone through traumatic times, his parents having been jailed during the McCarthy era. His father was a Yugoslav seaman who had jumped ship as a young man. Left without papers, he also couldn’t get any because he had been born in Austria-Hungary, a nation that went out of business after World War I.

Pete’s parents were involved with other Yugoslavs in the American Communist Party when a woman they knew informed on them. They were jailed for about six months under threat of deportation, although there was no country that would take them. Shortly after their release, Pete’s father died of a heart attack. Pete, a junior high school student, was home alone when two policemen rang his doorbell to give him the news. A few years later he met my older sister, Carla, and they became close friends. During those years he spent a lot of time at our Queens apartment talking politics with my mother and soon was part of the family. When I was living by myself at seventeen, house-sitting an apartment in the Village, my mother delegated Pete to be my surrogate guardian and asked him to keep an eye on me. I had been living pretty much without any parental supervision since my own father had died three years earlier, but since Pete took me into bars I saw no need to chafe at his guardianship. In those days the legal drinking age in New York was eighteen. Underage girls could get into bars without being carded as long as an older guy accompanied them: Pete was my passport to legality.

That night, Pete was going on about something, in his gregarious way, and commented on a woman with a good pair of legs. In response, I pointed to Mark Spoelstra up on the stage and said, That cute guy up there has a nice pair of shoulders. Pete turned it into a running joke, pointing to guys and asking me what I thought of their shoulders. Not as nice as Mark’s, I’d reply. He has a real nice set.

When Bob and Mark left the stage Pete called out: Hey, Mark Shoulders, come meet Suze. She says you’re cute.

I was embarrassed and Mark looked confused. A natural storyteller, Pete often told the tale for laughs, until eventually it ended up revised and expanded in several books about Bob Dylan.


In those years Little Italy extended into the streets of Greenwich Village below Washington Square Park and Gerde’s was a hangout for local Italians, stray musicians, and Village types. Mike Porco owned it and ran the place with his brothers. Mike was a warm, generous man, and if his English wasn’t perfect his instincts were. He knew a good thing when he saw it, whether it was a struggling musician or a business deal and he was always ready to give someone a chance. I’m sure Mike knew I was underage, yet when he found out I could draw he let me try my hand at making the fliers that advertised the performance schedule and I joined the ranks of his rotating stable of fledgling artists. One of his younger brothers who tended bar spoke very little English, but he had the vocabulary he felt went with his job. Looking at me meaningfully one night as he topped a drink with a maraschino cherry, he said, Girls gotta guard their cherries.

I learned about Gerde’s history as a folk music club from the inimitable music man and raconteur, Dave Van Ronk. Dave always knew the story behind everything, and could tell it with the veracity and aplomb required to effectively eliminate other versions.

Sometime around 1959, Israel “Izzy” Young and a friend approached Mike Porco about making Gerde’s into a club for folk music. They wanted to call it The Fifth Peg (as in the fifth peg on a banjo). Mike wasn’t aware of the growing popularity of folk music, but he was game to try something that would improve business. He did have music in the bar now and then, some jazz or blues musicians and the occasional accordion player. It never hurt, so he said sure.

The verbal agreement was simple: Izzy and his partner would charge an entry fee and out of that they would pay the performers and for publicity, while Mike would keep the profits from the sale of drinks and food. Mike couldn’t lose, but it wasn’t a winning deal for Izzy. Word spread that there was a bar in the Village that featured live folk music, and people started coming to listen. Soon Gerde’s evolved into a destination.

The disastrous finances made it inevitable that others more savvy in the ways of running a club would ease Izzy out. The Fifth Peg reverted to its original name of Gerde’s, to which Mike added Folk City, but most people just called it Gerde’s. (The origin of the name Gerde’s Bar and Restaurant goes back to the 1950s, when Mike bought what was then a hangout for local factory workers. He never changed the name.)

Since Izzy Young didn’t specialize in hanging out, drinking, and smoking, he wasn’t around much in the evenings. He was the sole proprietor and founder of the Folklore Center over on MacDougal Street, a store that took up most of his time. Izzy sold books, magazines, broadsides, records, guitar strings, and anything else related to folk music and folklore. The store thrived as a gathering place for professional musicians, aspiring musicians, and folk music aficionados, with Izzy as its up-to-the-minute historian and archivist. You didn’t stop to talk to him unless you wanted to do a lot of listening. To engage with Izzy meant entering his universe, listening to his tales, and following his theories wherever they went. He never made much money at anything he did, even though he promoted many events in the world of folk music and folk dance. He was always full of information, ideas, and enthusiasms—his interests went way beyond the borders of the folk world—but he had no business acumen. No one would dispute that Izzy Young played a significant role in the rise of folk music in the 1960s.


Broadway was considered no-man’s-land, dividing Greenwich Village from the Lower East Side (soon to be renamed the East Village). During the day, the area around Broadway and Mercer Street was bustling with small manufacturing businesses on every floor of the ornate loft buildings, but after five there was no activity anywhere except on West Fourth Street, at Gerde’s. Most of the coffeehouses and other music clubs were farther west on MacDougal and Bleecker Streets.

The entrance to Gerde’s opened onto a small vestibule with another door that led into the place proper. The bar was straight ahead. Just to the left of the door, past a dividing wall maybe four and a half feet high, was a small elevated stage against the back wall. Directly in front of the stage were the tables and chairs with waiter service. The dividing wall continued opposite the bar, and customers t here could lean over it and watch the show, drinks in hand. Sitting on a bar stool afforded a view only of the top of a performer’s head. Past the length of the bar was a door leading down a steep flight of stairs to the basement, where the food, booze, and performers were stored.

If there were more than three people onstage at the same time, it was a crowd. It was fun to watch the bluegrass musicians choreograph their moves. They had to angle their instruments—guitar, banjo, and mandolin—just so, to be able to come together at the one microphone and sing a chorus, then separate for solos, without a collision. The  music spanned a variety of genres that included, besides bluegrass, traditional ballads, folk songs in many languages from many lands, blues, and gospel. Whoever came through the doors and signed up to play could perform at the Monday night hootenannies. Gerde’s was on the bar circuit for jazz and blues artists of an earlier generation, from the forties and fifties, artists who’d encountered the legendary musicians of the twenties and thirties when they started out. Many who were playing gigs at Gerde’s were legends in their own time and carried a long history of musical information for the younger players to learn from.


From the Hardcover edition.