(This story is by freelancer Susan Green, a longtime Vermont journalist.)
When Bob Dylan steps onto the stage Tuesday evening for his concert at the Shelburne Museum, it’ll be 41 years, seven months, 12 days and approximately 16 hours since the first time he set foot in the Chittenden County town.
I’ve kept track of those details because, more than a decade after our previous meeting, he and I touched base again just after midnight Nov. 8, 1975. Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which would be playing at the University of Vermont that evening, was booked at the now-defunct Shelburne Inn.
He called me, and I jumped into my tiny 1964 yellow Renault to drive the 10 or so miles from Burlington’s Old North End to meet him. We’d last seen each other in 1963 at a Greenwich Village club that our crowd frequented during the heyday of the folk revival.
My earliest contact with Dylan had taken place in April 1961, when I was in Manhattan for a break during my freshman year at Plainfield’s Goddard College. A high school friend attending New York University and I began chatting with a boy who was strumming his guitar in a back room of the Folklore Center, a MacDougal Street store that sold records and instruments. He was 20 but looked no more than 15, in a jaunty black cap.
A few days later on April 5, we were surprised to witness him playing at a session of the nascent NYU folk music society. This was his first paid performance in the city — for $20. He had a voice and a persona that seemed much edgier than most other acoustic artists of that era.
I soon returned to college in Vermont, but, in New York again by late spring, kind of followed him around the Village. On harmonica, Dylan backed up a more noted vocalist at Cafe Wha? afternoon hootenannies. He also made the scene at Gerde’s Folk City for open mic nights every Monday.
While I was working at a Connecticut summer camp in July, Dylan became romantically involved with my childhood friend Suze Rotolo (the girl on the cover of his subsequent “Freewheelin’” album). This courtship began at a daylong folk showcase in New York organized by Bob Yellin, a bluegrass banjo virtuoso who’s been an Underhill resident since the mid-1980s.
Thereafter, whenever home in New York, I would visit the cramped West Fourth Street apartment she shared with Dylan. They were still broke in 1962. He was willing to come north to do a Goddard gig for $75, a sum that included their round-trip bus fares.
I loaned Dylan’s first album and the enthusiastic New York Times review of his professional debut at Gerde’s to the campus entertainment committee. Its decision: “Sorry, we don’t think he has any talent.”
At our 1975 reunion in Shelburne, we laughed when I reminded him about that snub. We caught up on the intervening years. I had a daughter; Dylan had a boatload of kids. He mentioned that his throat was sore; I mentioned that I’d become an herbalist with several potential cures for his condition at my house.
“Let’s go,” Dylan said.
While tootling along in my Renault, we mused about what it takes to live a good life. Borrowing a Beatles lyric, I suggested that “all you need is love.” Dylan did not respond to that statement, perhaps thinking me naive.
I raved about a Chick Corea event I’d just been to, during which the jazz pianist created a profound sense of intimacy with his audience. Dylan sounded a bit defensive: “That was a concert. Ours is a show.”
As we traveled on Burlington’s South Prospect Street, he admired the stately 19th-century buildings. But I also noticed he kept turning around to look at the station wagon behind us. I asked him, “What’s the matter?”
“We’re being followed.”
Followed? By crazed fans? The CIA? “Bobby, what do you want me to do?” was all I managed to say.
“Lose them,” Dylan instructed me.
So I sped up. The other car did too. When we reached my section of Burlington, I tore through the neighborhood. They were still on our tail. After several sharp turns, we seemed to be alone on the dark streets. But suddenly there they were again, coming toward us.
As the station wagon swerved around, I careened onto my street and raced up the driveway behind my five-bedroom house. From that hidden vantage point, we saw our pursuers zip right by.
“Who are they?” I finally asked.
“My bodyguards,” Dylan replied matter-of-factly.
Inside, I put a kettle on the stove for herb tea while he picked up the latest issue of People magazine, with his photo on the cover and a seven-page spread inside, from the coffee table.
After Dylan swallowed the remedies, he washed his cup — what a mensch! — before sitting down at the upright piano in the living room and banging out some blues.
One of my roommates, Elizabeth Danaher, yelled from the second floor: “Who’s playing that piano? I’m trying to sleep!”
Dylan muttered, “Oops.”
I called up, “Elizabeth, why don’t you come downstairs?”
She did, stunned when it became clear whose music had been silenced.
On our way back to the Shelburne Inn, Dylan was delighted by the less-than-tasty concoctions I’d served him: a cup of yarrow, comfrey, boneset and peppermint tea, as well as little frozen pills fashioned from powdered goldenseal and myrrh.
“Herbs are great, man,” he proclaimed. “They make you well and they get you high — with no side effects.”
“Bobby, nothing I prepared has any known mind-altering properties,” I told him. But Dylan was feeling quite happy just the same.
A week later, in bed with a rotten cold (irony!), I got a call from him somewhere near Boston. Dylan asked for a list of my herbs so he could buy his own stash at a health food store. I don’t know if the objective was physical healing or mood elevation.
Years beyond that, I opened a book about the tour written by playwright Sam Shepard, who had traveled with Rolling Thunder as a sort of unofficial chronicler. I was surprised by his entry from Maine: “Morning. I knock on Dylan’s door. Inside he’s on the phone, shirtless, ordering frankincense and myrrh, royal jelly, long distance.”
Shepard apparently associated myrrh only with the gifts bestowed on baby Jesus rather than as an ingredient of the little pills with antibiotic properties I’d given Dylan in Burlington. No frankincense was involved in my potion.
After the 1975 Dylan encounter, I fantasized about a new career path: herb doctor to the music-makers. Mary Carse, my Hinesburg stalking-the-wild-medicines instructor, suspected that the weeds she considered sacred would be wasted on hedonists. She issued a biblical warning: “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.”
Nevertheless, in April of 1976, carrying a small kit of bottled restoratives, I cast my herbs before rock stars during a two-week adventure through four Southern states with Rolling Thunder Revue. But that’s a whole different story.