You didn’t have to be a Bob Dylan fan to be thumbing through the albums in a record store in 1965 and stop when you got to the picture of Sally Grossman.
She was the woman in red on the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album, the one that included the likes of “Mr. Tambourine” and “Love Minus Zero.” It kicked off the best three-album run ever in the rock ’n’ roll era, since it was followed in rapid succession by Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.
Alas, “albums,” “record stores” and “1965” are all pretty much gone. Now, even more alas, so is Sally Grossman.
She died Friday at the age of 81, having parlayed a fascination with the Greenwich Village folk music scene into what could safely be called an eventful life.
Unlike Suze Rotolo, who was Dylan’s real-life girlfriend when she appeared with him on the cover of his earlier Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, Sally Grossman came to the Bringing It All Back Home cover more as a perfect prop.
She was the wife of Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, and Dylan had spent a good part of the summer at the Grossman home in upstate New York, finishing the record.
When it came time for Daniel Kramer to shoot the album cover, a more elaborate and crafted picture than Dylan had used for past albums or would use for future albums, Sally Grossman became one of the elements.
She was joined by a Fallout Shelter sign, a Time magazine with Lyndon Johnson’s “Man of the Year” cover, a magazine with an article on Jean Harlow and albums by Ravi Shankar, Robert Johnson, Lotte Lenya, Eric Von Schmidt and the Impressions.
Dylan is holding a Persian cat named Rolling Stone. The mantelpiece references the Beat poets and Lord Buckley, and Dylan’s cufflinks were a gift from Joan Baez, whose picture also appears on the back on the album.
Dylan himself looks serious and inscrutable. No surprises there.
But if 100 people looked at this album cover, certainly if 100 guys looked at it, 85 would say that what first catches their eye is Sally Grossman.
She’s leaning back on a chaise lounge, a casual cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her right hand. She’d look completely relaxed if it weren’t for a stare as noncommittal as Dylan’s own.
If she were speaking, she looks like she’d be saying, “What are you looking at?”
To which the answer would be, “If you have to ask . . . .”
There’s a reason why Kramer sells 30x40 prints of the Bringing It All Back Home cover photo for around $7,000. Unframed.
Sally Grossman, born Sally Buehler, was studying English literature at New York’s Hunter College in the late 1950s when she discovered nightlife in the Village. While history suggests folk music was the nexus there, the scene was wider than that, incorporating poetry, jazz, blues, art, comedy and a general sense of wandering off the mainstream path and creating pieces of the culture that would turn the ’50s into the ‘60s.
She dropped out of Hunter, she told Musician magazine’s Rory O’Connor in 1987, and became a waitress on Bleecker Street.
That probably didn’t thrill her parents, but it put her right where she wanted to be, at the heart of this exciting new world before it became a tourist attraction. She worked at the Café Wha and the Bitter End and “all over,” she told O’Connor, and eventually she got to know one of the Bleecker Street regulars, Albert Grossman.
He was on his way to music managerial history, starting to scarf up clients like Dylan, the Band and Janis Joplin as well as folkies like Gordon Lightfoot and Ian and Sylvia. He turned three solo folksingers into Peter, Paul and Mary.
Sally Buehler, 13 years younger than he, he married. So she was there when he relocated to Bearsville, N.Y., which he eventually almost ended up owning. His home there, like his previous home in the city, became a gathering ground for artists.
Then the managerial part, with its exhausting take-no-prisoners imperative, ended. He burned out, Sally Grossman said, and he also fell out with almost all of his artists, often over the significant cut of their earnings that he was taking. By the 1970s he was focusing on his multiple enterprises in Bearsville.
That included Bearsville Records, which released records by artists like Todd Rundgren, Jesse Winchester, Foghat and NRBQ. While it never became a major label, it kept a musical component in the Grossman empire.
After Albert Grossman died in 1986, from a heart attack on a plane trip, Sally Grossman took over his operations, including the label. She sold off a few enterprises over the years, but continued to run the Grossman empire up until the end.
At the time she shot the Bringing It All Back Home cover, Sally told O’Connor, she was just plunging into a five-year “blur,” total immersion in the musical tornado that swirled around and was fanned by Albert.
In contrast, she said, the cover photo itself was almost no story at all.
“I was around,” she said. “And Bob just asked me to do it.”
The red dress? She didn’t think she’d worn it again.
She only had to wear it once.