307: Bob Dylan, ‘Living the Blues’

This is the ‘true’ story of how I met Bob Dylan backstage at The Johnny Cash Show in 1969.

I’ve recounted the story more times than I can count. For years I’ve been meaning to write it up—and I did once tell the Joni Mitchell part of the story. But now, cleaning out the nooks and crannies as I vacate our home of 40 years, I happened upon the long-forgotten article I wrote days after the event. I was surprised how close ‘the facts’ are to ‘the truth’, due to the way a story inevitably evolves with the telling, enhanced by my irrepressible penchant for embellishment. I’m presenting the article in its original form, not for any profound musical insights, but because of its fascinating historical context.

June 1966 – “Blonde on Blonde”
July 1966 – Dylan’s motorcycle crash
Summer 1967 – the Basement Tapes (but not heard for months, then only sporadic songs)
December 1967 – “John Wesley Harding”
January 1968 – Dylan’s first live appearance in twenty months. He appeared unannounced at a memorial concert for Woody Guthrie, where he sang 3 Woody song backed by the Band.
April 1969 – “Nashville Skyline”
May 1969 – The Johnny Cash Show—Dylan’s first announced public appearance in three years!

Photos below: Rod Pennington

A New Thing for a Fellow Named Dylan” — Jeff Mitchel, May 6, 1969

The five of us in the Mustang were pretty cramped, having driven for six hours. But when we came to the top of a hill and saw before our very eyes the Nashville skyline as pictured on the back of our hero’s newest album, we were again as exhilarated as we had been for the past two days, since we had found out that Bob Dylan would appear as a guest at a taping for a Johnny Cash show.

We drove straight to the Grand Ole Opry Palace, where ABC was taping the Cash series, to be shown this summer. It was about four in the afternoon. The rehearsal for the show was to be about six o’clock, the actual taping at seven-thirty. I immediately called Bob Johnston, Dylan’s producer and our connection in Nashville. On the phone he told me that he was ‘sorry, but if you give an interview to one person, you have to…’ I asked him if he could at least get us into the show, because we didn’t have tickets for sure. He said yes, meet him at the stage door in twenty minutes. We waited.

[This is where the Joni incident occured. You can read about it in The Day I Broke Joni’s Heart in SoTW 106, Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’].

We waited. He and Dylan drove up in a 1967 white Cadillac limousine. As they walked into the theater, I accosted him. “Uh, I’m Jeff Mitchel [my former name] and…”

“Sure, wait here a minute,” he said.

We waited. After about half an hour we decided to enter through an unguarded back door. After about two minutes we were escorted out of the theater. We waited. We spent an hour trying to get a note to Bob Johnston. Finally a message came, to come in and wait for him by the control booth during the rehearsal and he would speak to us before the show. We were escorted in. We sat down in our appointed seats. After two minutes, three Rent-a-Cops came up to us and told us that there were strict rules that no one was allowed to be in the theater during the rehearsal. We tried to explain. They started pushing us and yelling. We asked them to be rational. They threw us down a flight of stairs and out of the building. We decided that we didn’t like Nashville too much.

We waited by the back door for a note from some higher being and contemplated the reason for our being in the Grand Ole South. About seven o’clock a crowd started to form around the door. It was the folks invited by members of the band, janitors and other dignitaries. For twenty minutes, about two hundred people marched by us into the theater. When we finally started crying, the guard allowed us in.

We found seats in the balcony and decided that this Grand Ole Opry was a pretty fine place. We had already experienced the Southern hospitality and we noticed that there was even a Negro in the orchestra. Pretty liberal place. The audience was composed of fine, upstanding Belles and Beaus, with only a scattered handful of Freaks. A very strange Dylan audience.

The taping started with Dylan. Cash introduced him. We were, needless to say, excited to be witnessing Dylan’s first scheduled appearance in over two years. The audience didn’t share our enthusiasm. There was some polite applause.

Dylan came on wearing a shiny black suit with a sport shirt. He sang ‘I Threw It All Away’ from his brand-new “Nashville Skyline” album, his new single ‘Living the Blues,’ and the 1963 ‘Girl from the North Country’ with Johnny Cash. The speakers in the hall were crackling, and we could barely hear anything but the drums. After a short delay, Cash announced that that had been for the taping, and the three numbers would be repeated for the studio audience. They were, and the sound was great.

Dylan’s voice was smooth, as on “Nashville Skyline,” but it fuller, richer, more forceful and exciting. The new song, ‘Living the Blues,’ is Country-Rock more than straight commercial Country. And Dylan did a GREAT vocal job on it. He seemed bored throughout the time he was on stage. He had agreed to do something and he was fulfilling the obligation. But he couldn’t have been more oblivious to the surroundings.

After he left the stage, I decided to try to see him. I called my friend and photographer Rod Pennington, and together we wound our way through the catacombs under The Opry till we found ourselves outside Dylan’s dressing room. I was shaking, but I felt that the worst that could happen would be that we would be thrown out. I had forgotten the rent-a-cops. I opened the door and walked into the anteroom. Mrs. Cash [June Carter] was getting dressed to go onstage. She didn’t even notice me. I walked into the main room. There were Johnny Cash, a photographer, a bouncer, and Bob Dylan. I was a nervous 14-year old girl. Dylan looked up at me. I gulped.

“Uh, excuse me, but, uh, if it’s, uh, not too much, uh, trouble, uh, I wondered if, uh, I could, uh, talk to you for, uh, a minute.” Gulp.

Dylan spoke.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked.

“Uh, well, uh, music?”

Dylan spoke again.

“I don’t know much about music.”

“What are you doing here?” butted in Johnny Cash.

The bouncer quickly bounced me.

Rod didn’t see me being bounced out another door. As he walked in he heard Dylan say, “Questions, all I ever hear is questions.” He walked up to Dylan and quickly blurted out, “Before I get thrown out, can I shake your hand?” Dylan obliged, and the bouncer did his trick.

We walked back upstairs mumbling “I saw BOB DYLAN!”

Joni Mitchell was onstage singing “Both Sides Now,” but we were too stunned to listen. We left the Grand Ole Opry, went to a hamburger joint for our first food in eleven hours, and drove through the night back to the Queen City.

All the way back I kept mumbling, “I met Bob Dylan!”