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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Those Were the Years That Were

I’ve been living a secret life this week. Along with my home and bookstore, husband and dog, and books and yard, I’ve been reliving the 1960s, only this time not in the Midwest. No, I’ve been living those years in the place we in the Midwest longed to be: Greenwich Village.

It was, of course, a book that made my time travel possible. How could I not pick up A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo, with its cover of the author when young, arm in arm with young Bob Dylan, the very photo from the cover of the “Freewheelin’” album released in 1963, the first Dylan album I ever bought (although not until 1965 or 1966)?

The book is Rotolo’s memoir, her memories of the Sixties as she lived them, not a tell-all of her love affair with Bob Dylan, and that was fine with me. Since her parents, both Italian, were Communists and activists, her growing-up years in the 1950s were heavily affected by McCarthyism and the fear that one or both of her parents might be hauled off to jail. 
We lived on the ground floor.... My father set up an electric saw in the basement ... and made nearly every piece of furniture we had.  

...We had bookshelves filled with books, a record player, and a collection of treasured 78s and 33-1/3 long-playing records. We listened to the radio; we didn't own a television. The other apartments were carpeted, had curtains on the windows, not Venetian blinds, and no bookshelves in the living rooms. 

Growing up in a family of readers, in a neighborhood where most other families did not have books, I understood that feeling of being different, of not fitting in. My parents had opera records, too. We did not have homemade furniture, and my parents were far from Communists, but the differences between the author's growing-up years and my own were as fascinating to me as the similarities.

After her father died and her mother’s plan to take Suze to Italy came to naught because of a freeway accident, the teenage girl found a job working for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in New York City. “It was 1961, the year of the first Freedom Rides....” It was also a time of cheap rents and musical ferment in New York. I recognized so many names in the crowd Suze and Bobby hung out with -- and was amazed at how many times people changed apartments, moving their few possessions (for whatever reason) apparently no big deal.

As the author notes, early 1960s American life had much in common, socially, with the 1950s. Only in Greenwich Village did the ordinary rules not apply. Ties for men, high heels for women – no rigid dress code like that in the Village. Interracial friends were common. Rotolo came on the scene when folk music was at its height, when even “famous” people’s names were not yet household words, and before drugs had a big part in the Counterculture. She was 17 when she met Bob Dylan, who was only starting to get attention from established musicians.

At one point, Rotolo traveled to Italy and spent several months studying art, soaking up European culture, and trying to figure out what kind of life she could make – if making a life together were possible – with someone as famous as Bob Dylan was becoming. The two came back together after that time apart, but the eventual break was inevitable. In following years, she married an Italian and had a family. Dylan has had a famous life, but Suze had her own life, too. I'm glad.

In view of their very public relationship and breakup (she writes how difficult it was to have her private life invaded by journalists and curiosity-seekers), I appreciated the author’s even-handed description of the boy she had loved and their youthful time together. (He spoke well of her, also, years after their relationship ended.) In this book, she does not treat him with kid gloves, but neither does she detract in any way from his musical genius, and she allows that he handled fame at an early age as well as he possibly could. They were so young! In writing of that time, the author remains true to her first love and their integrity.
...Bob was assaulted by many forces, most of them good, since he was gaining the success he always sought; but some were bad, because there was a new kind of complexity to everything going on around him. It was tough going for someone who underneath all the ambition and drive was very sensitive. I was equally sensitive and so overwhelmed by circumstances that I had trouble seeing how hard he was trying to hold things together.
When she writes of emotional struggle and awkward silences, I remember my old Sixties adolescence. I also recognize the idealism of the times:
The sixties were an era that spoke a language of inquiry and curiosity and rebelliousness against the stifling and repressive political and social culture of the decade that preceded it.
Civil rights, integration, freedom to travel, freedom of expression, artistic innovation – even the sexual freedom of the Village had an innocence and a purity about it in the early Sixties, as was true, I think, in most of the rest of the country. Certainly, I would say, it was true of my summer between high school and college. Stagestruck, hanging out with art and music and theatre people, my boyfriend of that year an art student, I felt very bohemian, as did my friends then, but we still took fairly seriously the barriers we transgressed (and there were many we did not transgress). Back then, what we considered “daring” could not yet be taken for granted. The freedom was all too new. And, of course, we were so very young!

When I finished the book, I searched online to learn what the author might be doing today and was saddened to learn that she had passed away four years ago at the age of 67. Here are the last lines from her New York Times obituary:
She remained politically active. In 2004, using the pseudonym Alla DaPie, she joined the street-theater group Billionaires for Bush and protested at the Republican convention in Manhattan.
In other words, clearly, she remained true to herself and to the spirit of the Sixties. I hope I have also, in my own country way. 

I've always said I want Bob Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In" sung at my funeral. David says no one will know the words. Okay, friends, start memorizing! I hope you'll have years to learn the words before you need to sing them for me.


Dawn said...

I looked up the lyrics. I think people will be able to sing them if you pass out a printed version. Many many years from now.

P. J. Grath said...

In quavering old voices!