Thursday, February 18, 2016

Blog on Blog: from the laptop of a Dylanologist still in the foothills


The man is a giant not just in the entertainment field or the music field or the poetry field or any field we try to put him in. He’s a giant in the field of not allowing himself to BE in any one field, let alone to be PUT in any one field. The more I read about him and his music, the less I know. Criticism, interviews, biographies, liner notes, reviews . . . the amount of material is mountainous. And the question still is, do we know Dylan any better after reading more and more of what’s been written about him.

1962 NYC
I thought I knew the guy well back during those heady days of 1963-64 when I was a freshman at Harvard. He was the main attraction at our Freshman Spring Weekend. It was rumored all week that Joan Baez might show up as his guest, a rumor which luckily turned out to be true.

Shortly after I had arrived in Cambridge, someone gave me a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the artist’s second studio album which had been released the previous spring. It was special. In the intervening fifty-two years, it has not only retained its significance for me, but that significance has increased.

Next Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of Suze Rotolo’s death. Dylanologists argue about her significance in Dylan’s life after he arrived in New York City, but there can be little argument that among the 36 studio albums Dylan has released since 1962, the cover picturing him and Rotolo walking arm-in-arm in the West Village is among the most recognizable and evocative. What it evoked for me that year was the feeling that companionship and physical closeness were the way to cope with the chill and loneliness of the world.

Listening to that album on a more or less daily basis was a big part of what I remember about the autumn of 1963. Then, on November 22, the album cover provided a different sort of comfort. My world, our world, the whole world was shaken to its foundation with the assassination of President Kennedy. Where before songs like “North Country Girl,” “Corinna, Corinna,” “Don’t Think Twice,” and to some extent, “Blowin’ in the Wind” resonated with the loneliness I was feeling just being so far away from home (a standard Dylan theme over the years, by the way), after this tragedy, I focused more on “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and again “Blowin’ in the Wind,” now for quite a different reason.

Seeing Suze’s ardent, even excited aura at having the whole street and the couple’s whole future to themselves, it was easy to absorb from that photograph the sense that despite the craziness outside, there was still warmth and security if we just turned to the right person.

Hardly Dylan’s first girl friend, Rotolo was nevertheless his first after his fortunes began to turn. They met in 1961 shortly after Dylan’s arrival, and the relationship lasted for three years. Rotolo was both lucky and unlucky to be in the right place at the right time as her lover’s meteoric rise to stardom was beginning. Chronicled most eloquently and, at times, poignantly in A Freewheelin’ Time, Rotolo tells her story with consummate objectivity and sensitivity.

The day I heard that Rotolo had died of lung cancer, I vowed to mark her passing with some sort of response for two reasons: I wanted to honor how influential she had been in that “freewheelin’ time,” and I wanted to reflect more conscientiously than I had in 1963 on how ephemeral are fame, fortune, youth, security, and love. (The computer Watson arrives at a similar conclusion with Dylan’s approval in the television commercial for IBM!)

Already at work on a series of 24-line untitled poems centering on what might simply be termed “the Dylan experience,” I wrote the following in honor of Ms. Rotolo:

Number Nine
- on the passing of Suze Rotolo, 2/24/2011

she was your “Bright Star,” a waif, a muse, yours
for almost enough time to be thought “stedfast”
your nomadic twin for a time musing for herself
and for her bourgeoning Village troubadour, she was
three years your junior; you’ve outlived her now
did your heart reach for that bright star whose
fair skin and golden hair you say dragged you
overboard amid talk and music and banana leaves?
did those Greenwich days fleetingly return, a union
a reunion you two built un-buttressed against distance,
family, different drummers, against diverging roads?
she said it was a “private little existence” and kept
a secret twinkle as she did—it lasted forty years
undiminished before the camera her confessor
how many more of your countless parishioners
chart their own freewheelin’ folkways years from
that February album cover where her wide-eyed
trust wrapped in dark green presses toward you,
where her arms are so tightly locked in yours,
where you amble toward more than a music scene
newly born buffeted by more than slush and wind?
indeed, as you’ve sung since those pre-natal buckskin
days, it ain’t you, not you - it was her, she did go away
from your window and your soul to save her own

* * * *

Dylan Fest Note
As many of you know, this May Mr. Dylan will mark his 75th birthday. Duluth Dylan Fest will once again mark this event with an eight-day week of events from Sunday May 22 thru the 29th. Five new events have been added including the placing of a city-sanctioned market in front of his Central Hillside home on May 24, the date Robert Zimmerman burst from the womb at St. Mary's Hospital here. The full schedule of events will be posted soon.

Meantime life goes on... all around you. Celebrate it.

Photo Credit: Ted Russeell

1 comment:

ed grazda said...

i met suzy in nyc in her later years and contributed some photos to her autobio. she was a bright light
and great spirit.