Down on the Street: Inside the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

February 1963. A grey afternoon in New York City, grey snow on the streets, a vanishing golden light in the air. In Greenwich Village, a couple tramp arm-in-arm along Jones Street. They’re very young – he’s 21, she’s 19 – very in love, and, like most who fit that description, they have had their very intense ups and downs. They’ve only just gotten back together after six months apart. She’s an artist from an Italian family, and she went off to Italy to learn about the place, and art and herself. He stayed put, got on with doing what he does, and let anyone who’d listen know how much he missed her.

Her name is Suze Rotolo. Suze is pronounced “Sooze-ee.” Sometimes, to annoy him, she calls her boyfriend Raz, a private joke since one half-drunk night when he dropped his draft card and she discovered his real name was Robert Allen Zimmerman. Mostly, he calls himself Bob Dylan.

There is a photographer with them this February afternoon. The light is failing. He shoots rapidly. A Volkswagen van pulls up. Dylan, freezing in the thin suede jacket he wore because he figured it would look good in the pictures, hunches into himself, keeps his eyes fixed on the slippery ground. Rotolo, bundled up in a green coat, huddles happily into him, smiles her smile straight into the camera. Click.

Neither knows it, but in a few months this picture will become the cover of his second, breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In the years that follow, the image will assume iconic proportions as a perfect evocation of a time, a place and what was supposed to have happened there – something about youth, a sense of freedom, times changing.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to talk to both Suze Rotolo and the photographer who took the Freewheelin’ cover picture, Don Hunstein, about that moment in Greenwich Village. Here, in their words, is a snapshot of the world behind the photograph.


VOICES

SUZE ROTOLO (1943–2011) At the time we spoke, Suze Rotolo had just published A Freewheeling Time, an eloquent, elegant memoir of the 1960s that is far more than just an account of the years she spent as “Bob Dylan’s girlfriend.” Born in Queens, the daughter of committed communists whose left-wing ideals inspired her own political activism, her book is first and foremost about a time and a place: a vividly-rendered recollection of the Greenwich Village scene, and the currents in the air as America’s youth grew restless, the Civil Rights struggle came to the boil and the Cold War started to freeze.

DON HUNSTEIN (1928–2017) As a Columbia Records staff photographer, Don Hunstein photographed some of the greatest figures in 20th century American culture, from Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis to Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. For him, the afternoon he captured the iconic picture of Dylan and Rotolo for  the Freewheelin’ cover was just another day at the office.

 

SUZE ROTOLO

 

You were born in Queens. Could you say how and why you first wound up heading to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s as a young woman aged seventeen?
SUZE ROTOLO: Well, it was a matter of feeling – I think it’s a universal feeling for many people: they suddenly feel as if they’re not comfortable where they grew up and where they are and with the people around them. They feel very different. And the myth of the Village at that time – not today, but then – was that it was a place you could actually go to that had this history of bohemia: artists and writers who had lived there or passed through, and a place, also, where there was music, folk music being played, every Sunday in Washington Square Park. And at that time, folk music was kind of an underground music, so with friends I used to go on Sundays, and then met more people and it was Like-finding-Like for the first time, I met people who had similar interests. At highschool, I was reading poetry by Edna St Vincent Millay and other poets, and I was interested in art, whereas most kids in highschool were into movie stars and popular music – and I would pretend to be, but I never really was. So meeting people in the Village who were also interested in poetry and art and theatre was really nice: to find out I wasn’t alone. It was a place, geographically, that you could go to that had this history of bohemia. Today, there is no specific geographical place for that. I don’t want to sound like All Is Lost, though, I mean there is always that creative spirit, it’s always going to find a way, whether it’s Greenwich Village or some other little town within a city, or through the internet. There will always be people who want to flow against the mainstream…to give hope that you can keep going within a repressive society of any kind.

In your memoir, you paint a picture of a New York that was very open, there to be explored: art galleries, theatres, coffee houses. And I guess that’s the atmosphere that Don Hunstein captured somehow in his famous photograph of you and Dylan. Could you describe a typical day, then, that you and Dylan might have spent together?
SR: Well, there was a lot of wandering and rambling, yes, and the nights started early and ended early in the morning. You would drift from coffee house to a club to a poetry reading to a jazz thing, and it would all end up late at night in Chinatown, a restaurant called Sam Wo’s, we’d all end up there for a meal, and then go from there to Dave Van Ronk’s house. Few people were married, and Dave was married at the time, and that was very adult – I mean, they had an apartment with furniture in it that was real! And they would have meals and then we would have poker games late at night. Dave would put stacks of LPs on the phonograph, and he would instruct us in a way with this background music, as important things that we had to listen to – all very casually, though, there was nothing academic about it at all, but Dave just knew so much. And we would play poker all night long for nickels and dimes, with a constant change of characters, musicians and people wandering in and out. Being young was a lot of wandering and roaming and meeting people and meeting up and talking and playing music and carrying on. It was a wonderful mix of information and… life.

When you think back to that period, do you ever remember being surprised by something that Dylan – this young guy – wrote, or a performance that he gave? Y’know, when you just thought – where did that come from?
SR: Well, always when you see or hear something that stands out – say you see an actor on stage or a performer on stage, and you say, Why does that person stand out amongst so many good performers? It’s something that’s mystifying. You can use the word charisma, and that’s it, there’s something special that stands out. But sometimes it only stands out for you, you see it about some performer, but everybody else says, “No, it’s the other guy…” But there was definitely something that Bob had as a musician that was unique, that made him float to the top of the barrel. He had the right stuff at the right time –not many people were writing songs, and if they did write songs, they were very much in the Woody Guthrie mode, which Bob did, too, of course, but he transcended it. His songs were not reporting, they were poetry – well, let’s see if we can do better here: They were universal. If he wrote a song that evoked the Civil Rights movement that was so important in those years, it still remains timeless. Or take the song “Masters of War,” written in 1962 or 63: if you hear that now, it speaks to now, it speaks forever. He had that quality, that was the special quality, it seemed universal. And his more private songs work the same way – they obviously speak to people in a very special way. But, you know, I was never able to see him as a godlike creature. He was always an artist at work, he was that way then, and he’s that way now. He was very dedicated and very passionate about what he was doing – this is hindsight now – but at that time, I saw him every day all the time, and this is what he was doing, and you don’t see it as being different from who he was, it was just part of who he was. And he has this wonderfully surrealistic sense of humour, too, which a lot of people miss – a lot of people seem to think he doesn’t have any sense of humour, I don’t get that at all. And on the other end, I don’t get why people expect him to explain the meaning of life, either. I don’t get either end of that.

How do you feel today hearing the songs from that period when you and Dylan were together? Do they make you feel uncomfortable, or do you have enough distance from it now?
SR: I have enough distance now, but listening to them, I listened to a lot of music while I was writing the book – I was listening to a lot of things, but I thought I should really listen to these songs again, from the earlier albums, and even his later albums, to get a sense of it. And there was no nostalgia in any of it, but it was just bringing back the mood and the torture that young love is. It isn’t that I listen to them now and they would make me sad or anything, but what they bring back is how hard it was to be young in that way, to be young and in love, and the torture of it, and that it’s kind of wonderful. If that makes sense.

And when you look at the couple on the front of Freewheelin’ what do you think? Do you think, “That’s me and Bob…” or what?
SR: That’s funny, it’s become a separate thing. I remember so clearly how that photograph came about, but at the same time it’s become a symbol of a time. It’s that distance you have when you look at something that’s familiar, but at the same time you see its place in society. Years ago, I would start to resent it. People would always say, “The Girl on the Cover…” It had become my identifier – but it’s not my identity, so I was angry at it. That’s not who I am, you know. But people would just see the girl on the arm of this God. But, as time went by, that got less. I just never wanted to be completely identified by that as who I was. Although…I understood why they wanted to put it on the cover of my book! That made perfect sense…But listening to those songs and looking at the photographs from that time, there’s not a nostalgic sadness, but a sadness for how hard it is when you’re young and how difficult everything can be. But, y’know, I say that with a smile, and there’s a pleasure in it. An affection for that time and place – but no nostalgia.

DON HUNSTEIN

What do you remember about taking the photograph that became the cover of Freewheelin’?
DON HUNSTEIN: At that time, I was a salaried employee on the staff of Columbia Records. And at that point, Dylan had made his first album, which was just called Bob Dylan, on Columbia, and I’d done that picture, too, which was really a last-minute thing. His whole career has been on Columbia, really – but at the time just before his second album, Freewheelin’, he was just beginning to really be noticed. Robert Shelton at The New York Times was instrumental in helping more and more people know about Dylan, because he was very shrewd, he knew very well that this kid was going to be big. And so, when Columbia signed a contract with Dylan, John Hammond had really lighted a fire under the publicity people and told them: this kid is going to be big. So, somebody in the publicity department said to me, “Look. This is going to be hot. We’ve got to fill our files with Dylan pictures, because it’s going to be necessary to have lots of this stuff on hand, because he’s just gonna burst out, and people will want pictures of him.” And then the publicity guy said, “Hey, I’ve just spoke to Dylan on the phone, and he said it would be okay to come on down to Greenwich Village and go up to his apartment to get some stuff.” And so, we did. I took my equipment, the usual stuff, and we got down there, and it was a fourth-floor walk up on Fourth Street, and Dylan was there and his girlfriend was there, Suze. And I asked him to sit in this chair – he had this kind of upholstered chair, by the look of it something he probably picked up from a dump someplace or something, but it looked pretty good, and so he sat in that and I shot maybe a couple of rolls of film of him sitting there playing his guitar. And then, when we were getting a lot of good stuff, one of us asked Suze to get in the picture too, and there are those shots, she walked around the back of the chair and leaned over, and those pictures, they were used a lot, too.

Can you remember whose idea it was to go out into the street that day?
DH: Well, I think it was mine. It was a February afternoon as I recall, and it was already grey, a grey day, and it was getting late, and I said, “Well, look, I think we’ve got plenty of stuff here in the apartment, I’d like to get something on the street, outside.” So we all, the four of us, the two of them and me and the publicity guy, went downstairs. There was dirty snow on the ground, not a heavy snow, but some snow, and they’re walking through it, and it’s on a street that abutted to Fourth Street, where his apartment was. And I went across Fourth Street to Jones Street, and because the light was fading, I said, “Hurry, let’s go,” and I asked them to go back a few yards and walk toward the camera – and, yeah, that’s the picture you’re talking about. Before we broke up, I did some more, I do have one roll of black and white 35mm stuff from just after what is now the cover picture, where Dylan is kind of pointing out the neighbourhood for Suze, not that she needed it, you know, but just as a little story for the pictures.

Did you know that one of the pictures from this session would be used for the cover of the next album?
DH: No. Because the Art Department didn’t even know that we were doing this stuff. I’m not even sure if Dylan had already finished the recordings for that second LP. Maybe he was in the middle of it. But I don’t even remember talking with the head of the design department about the pictures we had gotten, or why he chose what he did.

You shot Dylan over a number of years.
DH: Well, it wasn’t so long a period, really. I did some of his recording sessions over the next three years, yeah, and some of those shots are well known, too. He had changed by then: his whole physical style, his clothing, his hair, everything. He looked more mature, which of course he was. But, of course, once he hit in a big way, there were photographers all over him, y’know. And at some point, his manager Albert Grossman decided…well, Grossman, he was a guy I didn’t like at all. But y’know, so what?