NEW YORK STORIES: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” cover immortalizes a budding Greenwich Village love story

NY Daily News August 27, 2016

A recurring series on iconic scenes from the city’s storied culture.

SHE BELONGS TO ME Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo channeled the essence of young love when they snuggled on a Greenwich Village street for a photo that would become an instant classic.

SHE BELONGS TO ME Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo channeled the essence of young love when they snuggled on a Greenwich Village street for a photo that would become an instant classic.

If you walk along Jones Street in Greenwich Village, facing W. Fourth Street with Bleecker Street at your back, you’ll find yourself in the exact spot where Bob Dylan was captured on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in 1963. To experience it like Dylan did, you should go in the fading light of a February afternoon, dirty slush on the streets and a VW van parked against the curb. You should wear a suede jacket, too thin for the cold, and have your first real love braced against your arm. Around the corner, your $60-a-month apartment should await you, where you sometimes write songs — some to this first love on your arm — songs that would make you legendary the world over.

The photograph from “Freewheelin’ ” captures Suze Rotolo and Bob Dylan at a time when they lived on the cheap, wearing thrift-store or handmade clothes, mining second-hand book and record stores, slipping into neighborhood theaters and clubs easily accessed by friends with power over guest lists. Just around the corner on Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, Zito’s bakery gave out free hot bread to night owls. Grit mixed with glamour. A little farther on and to the east, a butcher on Bleecker and Thompson offered chickens for slaughter, then boiled them free of feathers. Four blocks north, the House of Detention prisoners yelled and catcalled from their exercise roof.

Rotolo and Dylan were 19 and 21, respectively, when Don Hunstein snapped the now-legendary photo, and while the image didn’t represent a seismic shift in folk-record iconography, its personal pulse remains intense. Rotolo was not a hired model. No one prepped hair and makeup. They walked down the street toward a Columbia Records staff photographer Dylan knew and liked, and who had shot him in the studio when he recorded his first album, “Bob Dylan,” in 1961, as well as that record’s cover. Thirty-year-old Billy James, Dylan’s Columbia publicist (the only “suit” Dylan is said to have trusted) looked on, there just for the fun of it.

The truth of first love remains frozen in this photo — ironic, as it was taken in an age of lies. For starters, Dylan was hiding his past and his real name. Until 1989, Rotolo would never publicly reveal that her parents were Communists. Rotolo and Dylan lived together, a situation they kept hidden from her suspicious mother. So much subterfuge, but not in this image.

***

Dylan met Rotolo backstage a year and a half earlier, in July 1961, during a 12-hour live folk radio broadcast at Riverside Church. “Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights,” he wrote in his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One.” “She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a particular type of voluptuousness.” He wrote he “could feel her vibe thirty miles away.”

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Rotolo was deep for a teenager. A red-diaper baby, she put herself through art school by working odd jobs in theaters and at CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and, at the time, house-sitting in her aunt’s West Village apartment. She had spent large portions of her life wandering the pages of books, and was fine-tuned by tragedy: Her father had died only recently, and she had just weathered a life-threatening car accident. When she fell for Dylan it was because she came to understand, as she explained to Dylan’s biographer Robert Shelton, “how frighteningly sharp he was.”

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY The Gaslight Cafe on McDougal Street in The Village, a magnet for beat poets when it opened in 1958, became a launchpad for Dylan and other drivers of the 1960s folk scene.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY The Gaslight Cafe on McDougal Street in The Village, a magnet for beat poets when it opened in 1958, became a launchpad for Dylan and other drivers of the 1960s folk scene. (CHARLES PAYNE)
They became a closed circle of two. “He was eccentric,” says folk singer Sylvia Tyson, who knew Dylan almost from his arrival in New York City, and befriended Rotolo because she contrasted so sharply with the groupies on the folk scene. “But he was eccentric in the contrived way that very young people get into, to try to make themselves interesting.”

At the beginning of their relationship, Dylan bunked on the couch of any friend or acquaintance who would have him. “Before Suze, he basically was hitting on girls because he needed a place to sleep,” Tyson recalls. But signing to Columbia less than two months after they met brought cash, and Dylan found them a home — a two-room apartment on the third floor of a four-story walk-up at 161 West Fourth Street.

Until November, when she would turn 18, Rotolo couldn’t legally live with him, but they entwined their lives. In the Village’s crooked streets, they grazed some of the estimated 50 neighborhood coffee houses, for improv or original plays, or 15-minute folk sets, from noon to the small hours. They would hit the Village Vanguard for jazz, still in operation today. Or for folk, Gaslight or Gerde’s Folk City or Village Gate, all now closed. A chummy band of fellow artists would be feasting on the inspiration at these venues. She even attended the recording sessions for his first album.

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As Rotolo wrote in her vivid memoir, “A Freewheelin’ Time,” Dylan was a shape-shifter from the first, whether to make himself unaccountable, or as an amusement, or as a goose to creativity. While no one in the Village at the time cared about people’s pasts, only their ability to fully occupy the present, Dylan hid that he was Robert Zimmerman, born in Duluth, Minn., even from Rotolo. An article in the New York Mirror about the Riverside Church show on the day they met reports that “Bob Dylan of Gallup, N.M., played the guitar and harmonica simultaneously, and with rural gusto.” He even told Rotolo he had been abandoned in that state and joined a traveling circus. A few months into their relationship, she learned the truth when he drunkenly stumbled coming into their apartment and his wallet and draft card fell to the floor.

***

Ten months after they met, Rotolo changed the course of music history: by leaving Dylan.

When she set out for Europe on June 9, 1962, she thought she was simply off for the summer to study art in Perugia. But as soon as the boat set sail, she felt stunned, watching him recede. She tried to evoke his ghost by teaching a fellow passenger Dylan’s recently written song called “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which would go on to be the first song of “Freewheelin’ ”

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’61 REVISITED The block that Dylan and Rotolo immortalized on the cover of “Freewheelin‘ ” is leafier than when the photo was shot, though it remains relatively unchanged. (ROBERT SABO/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
Dylan pined for her so immediately she found his first letter waiting at her Paris hotel when she arrived. Over the next months, he sent her Byron’s poetry and tender, sulky love letters. They made $100 phone calls to each other. She read the book about Picasso by his lover Francoise Gilot and immediately recognized Dylan as Picasso’s twin. But it was a cautionary tale: You could get sucked into a genius’ orbit, but art would always win the genius’ ardor.

His letters reflected that conflict. When he addressed her in text, he was passionate, revealing and honest, but that person lived in the ink. “I tried to figure out this guy who was calling me to come home to him, writing letters full of love,” she wrote in her memoir, “yet when I was with him, he seemed to take my presence for granted.”

In late October, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he spent a night drinking at one of their favorite Village hangouts, the now-closed Figaro Cafe. “If the world did end that nite, all I wanted was to be with you,” he wrote to her. “And it was impossible cause you’re so far away — And that was why it seemed so hopeless.”

***

When the “Freewheelin’ ” photo session occurred on that February 1963 day, the couple had only been reunited for a few weeks. Robert Zimmerman was gone. A man officially named Bob Dylan had greeted her (carrying with him a new draft card to prove it). His first album had been popular, but this next album — due for release in May — would change everything. Early on, Dylan only sang other people’s folk songs. But Rotolo had introduced him to the poetry of Rimbaud, as well as Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s song “Pirate Jenny,” which Dylan “unzipped” for inspiration. In his feverish creativity, he had brought forth to her “Don’t Think Twice,” and for future albums, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”

VILLAGE PEOPLE Dylan and Rotolo in September 1961, about a month after they met.
VILLAGE PEOPLE Dylan and Rotolo in September 1961, about a month after they met. (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES)
As a photographer, Hunstein would prove to be the perfect man for the moment. He preferred a documentary style and had already created stunning images of such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Igor Stravinsky, Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis. He talked to his subjects, drew them out, isolated an essential quality about them. “I was merely a living witness,” he told a journalist in the introduction to his “Keeping Time: The Photographs of Don Hunstein.” “What does any good journalist do?…Observe the artist and their expressions, then leap in.”

The group started in Dylan and Rotolo’s apartment, which Hunstein termed “bleak.” But the sparseness, including Dylan’s furniture, much of which he had built on the premises, didn’t seem particularly unusual to Billy James, the publicist. “Everyone had modest places back then,” he says.

Hunstein initially took a few shots of the image-conscious Dylan in his street-salvaged armchair. Then the photographer suggested Rotolo join. Reluctantly, she hung over the back of the chair while Dylan strummed his guitar. As the shutter clicked, the charisma between the two became apparent. Hunstein had isolated something essential about Dylan.

The light was fading so Hunstein suggested they go outside. Rotolo wrote in her memoir that she was already wearing a heavy sweater in the freezing apartment but pulled on an overcoat, making her feel like an Italian sausage. Dylan cared more about appearance and chose a favorite jacket.

The first outdoor shots focused on Dylan at the bottom of the front stoop and then the couple in the same place, her head leaning on his shoulder. Eventually Hunstein sent them against traffic on quiet one-way Jones Street and instructed them to walk back toward him. He had shot only one color roll and a few in black and white when the light failed.

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HE WAS THERE Dylan perfoming at The Bitter End, another famed Village mainstay, in 1961. (SIGMUND GOODE/GETTY IMAGES)
In the photo, they look happy, united in their closeness, which is how observers of the time considered them. “When the ‘Jones Street’ cover came out, it was totally appropriate to everyone,” says folksinger Carolyn Hester, who helped Dylan get discovered by inviting him to play harmonica on her own Columbia album. Rotolo’s anonymity quickly vanished. “People definitely recognized Suze on the street because of the cover.”

“I thought it was a lovely photograph,” says guitarist Barry Kornfeld, a friend of Dylan’s then, and a lifelong friend of Rotolo’s. “I thought it was unusual to have your girlfriend on your album cover. Somebody who was not involved in the album.” But maybe the deeper message was: She had contributed.

***

Love got more complicated as Dylan’s fame accrued. In 1963, Dylan felt the power of Joan Baez’s reflective light when they performed together at the Newport Folk Festival in July, and later during the March on Washington in August. Rumors began. “I think he was very much in love with Suze,” Tyson says. “I think the Joan Baez thing took her entirely by surprise.”

That same month Rotolo moved into her sister’s apartment on Avenue B, and soon realized she was pregnant. Dylan and Rotolo considered the option of keeping the baby, but decided it couldn’t work, and went, both of them terrified, to a New York City doctor for an illegal abortion.

LOCAL HERO Dylan frequently performed at Gerdes, a legendary folk venue at W. Fourth and Mercer Streets. This poster is dated September 1961.
LOCAL HERO Dylan frequently performed at Gerdes, a legendary folk venue at W. Fourth and Mercer Streets. This poster is dated September 1961. (BLANK ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)
Rotolo wrote that Dylan’s darkness and intensity could overwhelm her own mood. There was “something death-like”, she once said. For a depressive person, 1963 provided a lot of reasons for bleak thoughts: Medgar Evers was murdered in June; the Birmingham church bombings happened in September. A month after Dylan’s Carnegie Hall premiere in October (with massive blowups of the “Freewheelin’ ” cover outside on 57th Street), President Kennedy was shot.

To Rotolo, Dylan’s written words continued to be more loving than his actions. That same troubled year, Dylan composed his “11 Outlined Epitaphs” — poems later published in the liner notes of his third album, “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” — and called Rotolo “the true fortuneteller of my soul / perhaps the only one.”

Dylan tried to juggle her and she didn’t want to be juggled. They spent Christmas together with her family (she had met his parents that same year), but Rotolo considered the relationship ended before Dylan published an open letter to his friends in Broadside magazine in January 1964. It included these lines:

when the day comes when I can love everything
that breathes the way I love sue then
I will truly be a Jesus Christ ha ha
(but I dont wanna be a Jesus Christ ha ha)

In March, there was a last denouement. “(Rotolo’s sister) Carla called me one night and she was frothing at the mouth,” Kornfeld says. Carla had come to distrust Dylan entirely. “(Folksinger) Paul Clayton was staying with me and we grabbed a cab to get over there. Suze looked like she was in a state of shock. Carla and Bobby were going at it.”

That fight offered no return, although Dylan still tried. Through his manager Albert Grossman, he kept pulling Rotolo back into his orbit. When in 1965 Grossman called to see if he could get her passport to bring her along for that year’s U.K. tour, she knew that meant Dylan was asking her to go with him, but she said no. By then, he was associated with multiple women. On the tour’s U.S. leg later in the year, he secretly married Sara Lownds.

Dylan wrote “Ballad in Plain D” about the March 1964 fight but regretted later having recorded it because of its harshness to Rotolo’s sister. He addresses Rotolo herself in the song’s last lines:

The words to say I’m sorry, I haven’t found yet.
I think of her often and hope whoever she’s met
Will be fully aware of how precious she is.

That person would ultimately be Enzo Bartoccioli, an Italian film editor she met on her 1962 trip to Perugia, whom she married in 1967. They remained together 44 years until death did them part. When NPR’s Terry Gross asked Rotolo in 2008 if Bartoccioli had been her boyfriend in 1962, she replied somewhat evasively, “I knew him then. That’s when I first met him.”

Times change. The “Freewheelin’ ” image is one of the last artifacts of Dylan before fame overtook him. With it, celebrity came to the neighborhood: Flush record deals tainted the Village folk scene camaraderie. “With bigger money, there are a lot of people dependent on you for their livings,” Tyson says. “And they make demands.” It was no longer a neighborhood affair.

FOURTH ESTATE Bob Dylan paid $60 per month to live in this building at 161 W. Fourth Street, which sold for $6 million in 2015.
FOURTH ESTATE Bob Dylan paid $60 per month to live in this building at 161 W. Fourth Street, which sold for $6 million in 2015. (ROBERT SABO/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
But with Dylan and Rotolo, a bond continued, even in absentia. “She was very protective of Dylan, as he was of her,” Tyson says. “Even years later. I think she was the great regret of his life.” She laughs. “And it was all his damn fault.”

The rowhouses along the photo’s Jones Street block remain relatively untouched, and so too the building where Dylan once lived for $60 a month, which sold in 2015 for $6 million. It sits empty, the bottom floors seeking business rental at $25,000 a month. Chris Coffey, a consultant at Icon Realty Management who handles the property, says they have no plans to change the apartment layouts, and they would prefer a tenant who would somehow honor the history of the neighborhood. “We would be happy to work with Mr. Dylan or anyone from his team on how best to pay tribute to his legacy,” he explains. “That along with a respectful renovation should make the building stay forever young.”

The cover image has vanished. According to Hunstein’s wife, DeeAnne, the original photo negative disappeared from the Columbia files. And what of the eyewitnesses to that February day? Only one person remains who will speak: The former Columbia publicist Billy James. Suze Rotolo died of lung cancer in 2011. Photographer Don Hunstein suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. And Dylan? He’s not talking.

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