Elephant Dancing: Bringing It All Back Home (04/08)

freewheelin-time

Vince White joined a legendary punk band in late 1983, seven years into the band’s life; his Out of Control: The Last Days of the Clash (Moving Target) is about the end of a story. Suze Rotolo’s , A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Broadway Books) is about the beginning of a story. “I met Bob Dylan in 1961,” she writes, “when I was 17 years old and he was 20.”

For a time Rotolo and Dylan were a couple; the cover of her book is a version of the photo that in 1963 appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the singer and a glowing Rotolo clinging to each other against the cold of a snow-covered Village street, which somehow also looked like the main street of Dodge City. The image radiated freedom, autonomy, adventure, invulnerability. These two people had their whole future ahead of them—theirs, and, it seemed, that of everyone who bought the album, everyone they stood for.

Telling her own tale more than Dylan’s—so rooted to her own ground you can almost feel her feet on the pavement as she walks west on 4th Street across MacDougal—Rotolo writes with the lightest touch. “He was funny, engaging, intense, and he was persistent. These words completely describe who he was throughout the time we were together: only the order of the words would shift depending on mood or circumstance.” You might read this as a description of Bob Dylan; you might read it for the pleasure of how much is said in so few words. You might read it for the way a whirlpool of connection and separation opens up at the foot of the second sentence. Rotolo’s tone creates a drama that is both public and personal, as when she watches Dylan perform the traditional “Dink’s Song” at a Philadelphia coffeehouse: “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.”

The book is demure, quiet, level, even through a nervous breakdown. Rotolo tells the story of a shared milieu and of a romance that, in its way, was also shared, but her self-respect is such that it translates into respect for the reader. She never violates her own privacy, and thus she never violates yours. Sex is never mentioned: with drugs, other than marijuana there is only the one awful night someone doses her drink with LSD. And as for the third part of the equation, there is that Freewheelin’ album. “It was folk music, but it was really rock and roll.” She makes her own textures, so that what is left out doesn’t feel as if it’s missing, and what is left in maps the territory she wants to bring into view.

The great thrill of Vince White’s book is that, more than 20 years after the fact, he summons up the frantic state of mind of two years in the Clash as if the story were still unfinished.

After Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon kicked guitarist Mick Jones out of the Clash, they held auditions. People showed up, played to backing tapes, weren’t told what band they might be joining. Vince White was one of two guitar players hired—as an employee. He was never off probation. In 1985 Strummer tells White he’s reforming the original band—he never did—and tells him to get married.

White brought a pure punk mind into the group. After graduating from college, he found himself overwhelmed by a sense of corruption and futility: “Everyone I met seemed to accept all the appearances of reality as truth. Like a giant conspiracy of assumptions that said a bus was a bus. But a bus wasn’t a bus. It was an obscene red metal object that moved down the street carrying blank faces that had come from nowhere and was going absolutely nowhere.”

That was the sense of the world that went into the first Clash songs, which seemed to batter the city walls in a search for a way out. Now the band is in Los Angeles and Strummer, here portrayed as all but driven mad by his own messiahship, is making radio promos: “We want you there to take the floor and break it down and get with the real sound of Rebel rock!” There wasn’t “a trace of irony,” White writes. “I was shocked. I didn’t recognize him… It was insulting and degrading. To people’s intelligence. To us and everyone who came to the shows. Surely people weren’t that stupid?”

White’s book turns its end into a beginning: He goes to work as a cabdriver, makes more money than he ever did as a musician, and travels the world as a free person. Rotolo turns her beginning into an ending: Her book, it becomes clear, is about the freedom a certain place and time offered those who were willing to grasp it, and as Village memoirists have written for more than a century, that place and time are gone. But unlike most of her countless forebears from Edmund Wilson on down, Rotolo doesn’t rest with I was there (and you weren’t): “Though it is a concept now priced out of its physical space, as a state of mind, it will never be out of bounds… it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual physical neighborhood or not.” Both White and Rotolo are seeking truth and freedom, and neither writes as if their reader is any less worthy than they are.


Interview, April 2008


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