Johnston continued to work with Bob Dylan. He presided over the Spartan, quietly revolutionary John Wesley Harding (“He said, ‘What do you think about a guitar, bass and drums?’ “I said, ‘Fine, but you need a steel…’”), the warm, slight Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait – for whose syrupy strings, since the release of 2013’s Another Self Portrait Bob has become something of a whipping boy. Johnston is characteristically unrepentant.
“They send in those people who don’t know a goddam thing about it and get them to change shit,” he says. “I thought strings was perfect and Dylan did too. I would mix it. He’d listen and say ‘Could you put couple of drumbeats on there?’ I’d deliver it to him in New York – he passed everything I did mixing-wise. Everything had to go through him.”
Still, some perceive there was a parting of the ways between Dylan and Johnston at this time.
“I didn’t stop working with Bob, he just wasn’t there,” insists Johnston. “So I started working with Leonard (for 1971’s Songs Of Love And Hate). I wanted to capture him – have him be Leonard Cohen one time. He said, ‘Is that what I’m supposed to sound like?’ ‘I said, ‘Yeah, forever.’ I didn’t want his charm, I didn’t want his bullshit.
“It was a different thing with Leonard when we went on tour (for the European dates recorded for 1973’s Live Songs album). I said, ‘I’ll get you the best goddamn band that ever walked on stage…’ He said, ‘I just want your friends.’ So I got Charlie Daniels and people like that and we smeared every place in glory. They can wheel Leonard out when he’s 180 and he’ll still do the same thing.”
“One of the really specific things about Bob was his talent for motivating people,” says Charlie Daniels. “Today, everyone’s like “Great, great…” Bob would say something like: “Your voice sounds like a mountain.” But also if something was not good, he didn’t mind saying that either. It’s about honesty. You know how artists can get caught up and self-indulgent? Sometimes you need your playhouse torn down.”