Narrow and slush-covered, lined by red brick walls and black fire escapes, the street is empty but for a young couple inexplicably walking right down the middle. The man is stick-thin and vaguely androgynous. His hands are plunged deep into the pockets of his jeans. His flimsy suede jacket can’t begin to touch the cold.
An impossibly pretty, red-haired girl, in long coat and black boots, clings to him.
Overcast, mid-day light, the kind you see near winter’s end, follows them. The man does not know or care we’re here. The girl smiles at us.
I am only ten years old. There are many nuances of the adult world I have yet to grasp. But I wonder why he doesn’t have his arm around her. I ponder what it must be like to have a beautiful girl at your side, strolling such an exotic, glamorous city. It looks like he’s talking. What’s he saying to her? A thousand questions cross my mind.
It is 1969, the summer before my sister leaves for college. Once again I have snuck into her room to listen to her records. I find dozens of albums strewn about, on her bed, the dresser, the floor. I look at them all, listen to many, but The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is my favorite.
Unpredictable melodies sung in a voice like none other, although some of the messages behind the words I do not yet understand. But I keep coming back to this album, to this picture. Most of the other albums show familiar images of slender, long-haired musicians trying too hard to look cool and detached, the songs inside just as monotonous.
As I listen, I study the album and try to divine something new from the picture of the couple in the snowy New York street.
Twenty years later, visiting New York, I would seek out the very spot in Greenwich Village where this picture was taken. I think my love of photography, a belief in the power of the single image, I owe to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
As much as, sometimes more than the music, I remember the unforgettable album covers of that time. Creedence Clearwater Revival, with everyone staring out from a shady patch of woods, looking tough and inaccessible. Or More of the Monkees, with everyone staring out from a shady patch of woods, looking cute and precious. The piercing eyes from The Songs of Leonard Cohen, the stark simplicity of The White Album.
The following summer, my sister would return from college, and there would be even more great music to discover. Because teenaged girls generally dislike little brothers going through their stuff, I became adept at perusing her collection undetected, carefully placing each album where it had been found. If I were feeling particularly brave, I would pilfer a single Salem Menthol for the road.
I was reminded recently how powerful these images can be, the memories they carry across time and distance. On a long walk in my neighborhood in Oakland, California, I discovered that an honest-to-God record store had appeared.
I feared it might be one of those shops where you’re expected to know how to spot a first-pressing of Basco v. The Electroliners or whether Cellophane is the fourth, or fifth album from The Troggs. Nothing like that, it turns out. At the door I am greeted by the proprietors, Sean and Fernando. Their store is called Vamp.
They cringe if you call them “collectors.” Rather, they are just a couple of guys who amassed large LP collections and want to share. The walls are a feast for the eyes: Jan and Dean’s Surf City, Bowie’s Space Oddity, The Cars Candy-O, James Brown: The Payback. I ask if I can snap a few pictures.
Vinyl is the fossil record of the music that mattered. Digital is immediate and portable. But there’s nothing like listening to music while holding a record album in your hands, watching the turntable spin. And all of those great album covers.
Fernando says he loves vinyl because it slows the music down, demands to be listened to. He searches the shelves for a favorite, Picture of Heath, a 1961 jazz LP featuring Chet Baker on trumpet. The back of the album bears Baker’s signature. I can’t help noticing how he periodically looks at the cover while talking about it, like he’s seeing it for the first time.
Fernando says he sometimes thinks better of parting with it, and slips it behind the counter, out of sight. Today at least, the album is for sale, but I feel he should maybe reconsider.
As for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, I would learn later that the girl in the picture was named Suze. The photo was taken in February 1963. She was 19.
Looking at the image, their body language- his aloofness, the way she clings to him, one might conclude she was just another musician’s girlfriend. But that’s far from the truth. Suze was an artist with a curiosity about everything, whip-smart, versed in politics, involved in civil rights. A lot of the causes Dylan wrote about he first learned from Suze. But they say fame changed things, as it often does. Dylan would cheat on her one day, propose marriage another. The year after the picture was taken, she left him. Dylan wrote a song called Boots of Spanish Leather about missing Suze.
A few months ago I came across her obituary. Susan Elizabeth Rotolo. Cancer, age 67. She lived out her life on the fringe of notoriety because she’d been the girl in the picture. But that’s not who she was. She taught art, married, had a son. And over the nearly 50 years that passed, she stayed active in politics and pushed for change, running voter registration drives in Harlem, protesting Vietnam, and later, George W. Bush.
I leave the store and continue my walk, and it occurs to me that I should have asked if a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan might be about the shop somewhere.
I search for my phone, boot up iTunes. I see I have a few tracks from the album in my library. But it has been forever since I listened to the whole thing. Maybe I will save that experience for the real deal, for the vinyl.
Because then, I can watch the turntable spin and hold the album in my hands. I can look at the picture. And I think I’ll still have a thousand questions about the man in the suede jacket and the impossibly pretty, red-haired girl, walking arm in arm down that snowy, deserted New York street.
I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean
I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss
For that’s all I’m wishing to be owning.