Sahara Desert Diary

The Idea

I was offered the chance to go to Morocco and trek through the Sahara desert for a week.

I said ‘yes’.

17 of us would go, along with Berber guides, cooks and quite a few camels.

Despite my aversion to camping, sharing confined spaces with strangers and shitting in the sand, I really had to go. I would be 51 by the time I went, and didn’t want to miss out. I might not get another chance.

I also had three lower vertebrae that had been x-rayed and showed signs of Degenerative Disc Disease and caused me a fair amount of pain, so I figured that a walk might do me good.

It had been a tough few years for me. My AA sponsor died, my business and marriage ended and I lost my Mum to cancer.

Looking after my little girl while working was tricky, and I had been too busy to grieve for my Mum and it was becoming an issue. I would often feel extremely emotional. Small things would make me want to sob my heart out but I couldn’t cry. I was unable to let my guard down. I had to be strong and hold it all together, but sensed that it was becoming bad for my health. I felt like there was an ocean of sadness waiting to come out and I was literally over-flowing.

So, I decided to do the Sahara trek as a tribute to my Mum (along with my AA sponsor, Simon and old music buddy, Paul) and to raise money for St. Michael’s Hospice (where all three had passed away) while I did it.

Simple. There was a synchronicity to it. I would be able to grieve as I trekked. I could let the grief out in the Sahara. While raising money. Perfect.

The Sahara measures nearly 3.6 million square miles, and reaches into 10 countries, so I figured I’d find a bit of space to be alone.

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The Diet

The first thing I needed to do was get in shape. I was about two stone too heavy, and unfit.

I had been inspired by seeing my cousin Sarah and her husband, Roger, get fit and I envied the happiness it brought them, so the trek became my focal point.

It was May 2014 and I had until February 2015 to lose weight and get a little more sprightly.

The first thing I did was radically change my diet. I simply cut out sugar, fat and a lot of carbohydrates. I stopped drinking tea and drank water instead.

I stopped having sugary, fizzy drinks, cakes, chocolate, crisps and ice cream, along with high fat or carby stuff like sausages, burgers, white bread, pasta. I ate a lot of natural yoghurt, fruit, grilled fish and protein and started walking a lot. I walked to work, getting faster each day, building up stamina gently but surely. I’d wear extra layers to sweat more, which seemed a logical step.

The first week was horrific. I didn’t know there was such a thing as sugar withdrawal. It was terrible, even for an quit-expert like me. I had given up alcohol, various drugs and cigarettes, so I was used to resisting cravings and knew I would do it, but it was surprisingly difficult, and intense. It affected my sleep, intestinal happiness and made me even more irritable than I usually am.

I wasn’t extremist about it – if I went out for the occasional dinner at a restaurant, I’d eat whatever I liked, but, generally, I was strict.

I started to go swimming twice, then three times a week and I went from 14st 6lbs to 12st 4lbs in 7 months, simply by changing my diet and doing a bit more exercise. I felt happier, more alert and, well, more attractive. It isn’t rocket science, but is very effective.

My BMI went down from 26.3 to 24.5. I assumed that was a good thing.

I tried out my walking boots and new lightweight shoes extensively, and both were comfortable. I broke them in over the course of 9 months. In the end, I opted to take just the shoes. They were so light and cool and very, very comfortable.

Luton to Marrakech


Our flight was at 6.45am, so I arrived at Luton airport at 4.35. I felt fine. I’d slept well, at the nearby Premier Inn. I was pretty excited to be heading off into the unknown on my own.

Aside from Niki, who jointly organised the trip, I knew absolutely no-one, but this wasn’t an issue. I had spent years in a rock band, travelling the UK and US in very close proximity to my bandmates, so was sure I could cope with 10 days of sharing rooms and tents with strangers.

I checked in and headed to the boarding gate.

The Ryanair flight was painless. I simply put my eyemask and iPod on and slept.

Riad Les Oliviers
Riad Les Oliviers

We arrived in Africa mid-morning, and, after a very long wait (the airport computers crashed), we were all admitted into Marrakech and I met my fellow travellers.

We were a mixed bunch of ages, from 23 to 64. There were 6 women and 11 men. I was happy that I wasn’t the oldest. Most of them seemed to know each other from previous excursions, so the banter started, which woke everyone up.

The bus ride to the centre of Marrakech was great. I hadn’t been to Africa before and found the architecture and street fashions really fascinating. The reds, browns and yellows everywhere were lovely.

I noticed that 99% of the world’s old Mercedes cars had been sent to Morocco to be used as taxis. Along with every single Renault 12.

Our resting place for the night, Riad Les Oliviers, lurked down a series of narrow, red, pink and yellow high-walled alleys. The heavy wooden door was small and I had to stoop.

The dark hallway was cool and the concierge wore a Beatle suit.

Incense and handshakes.

We had sweet tea and biscuits before heading to the terracotta roof terrace for ‘room allocation’.


It was sunny and warm on the roof, such a welcome change from the cold and rain I’d left behind. I lay on a very comfy, mattress’d recliner and waited to hear which room I was in.

I was to share a room with two guys I’d never met, which was fine, until I was told I would have to share a bed with one of them, which wasn’t fine.

I remembered the bed-sharing scene from Planes, Trains & Automobiles.  

The room had two beds, a single and a double.

Rob The Riddler sensibly grabbed the single. Myself and Cinema Dec put our bags on the double.  I sensed neither of us were keen for a midnight cuddle.

“No offence Dec, but I’m not overly comfortable sharing a bed with a bloke. I think I’ll grab one of those mattresses off the roof and kip on the floor…”

“Yeah, good plan mate…”

The deal was done, and we went down to meet the rest of the group, talking about girlfriends, football and other heterosexual stuff.



Marrakech smells. The sewage system needs attention. There, I’ve said it.

The snakes of alleyways are beautiful in every way. The shapes, colours and dimensions made me very, very happy – various shades of red and yellow against the bright blue sky.


I decided that I needed to collect Marrakech doors. I would hang them on walls like paintings. I could have spent a day just photographing the doors in one alleyway…but I had to keep up with the group. Getting lost would have been too easy.


I’ve led a charmed, irresponsible and selfish life. I have never learned to drive, and just get out of cars/ trains/planes when people tell me I’ve arrived and so have a very vague sense of direction. Marrakech, I could tell, would cause serious directional issues for me. Being distracted by the doors, colours and angles of the architecture didn’t help me make sense of where I was heading. So, I focused on following Big Neil, who was very tall and wearing a vivid red tee shirt.


Following Big Neil…


ساحة جامع الفناء

Jemaa el-Fnaa, Medina Quarter

We found a little place to change Pounds into Dirham, which was exciting. It seemed to work out at about £7.50 to 100DH.


Food-wise, we settled on a little street cafe, and the owner seemed ecstatic to have a party of 17 descend on his establishment and he pushed six tables together for us.

I sat between Louli, a homeopath from London, and Rob The Riddler, a multi-talented ex-traveller, carpenter, juggler and word-association genius.


I ordered something with chicken in it and a cold Coca Cola in the thickest glass bottle I’d ever seen.

Street vendors tried selling Rolex watches and iPhone 6’s, (genuine of course), but they were quiet, polite and didn’t hassle us.



In between chat, I watched the street.

Every shade of human skin colour went by, some in modern brand names, others in traditional robes and head wear. There were young women in makeup and tight jeans then others in full-length flowing Burqas.

Everyone had mobiles.


Myself and Marian. Photo by Snapper Madden.

There was a large but discreet Police presence in the main square. I was told it was to keep the tourists safe and free from hassle. 10 million tourists visited Morocco in 2013, so it makes sense to keep them happy, safe and spending.



The souks were more exciting and twice the fun I had anticipated. Haggling was compulsory and very entertaining. We all seemed to employ different techniques and bartering strategies, but everything was cheap, by UK standards, so everyone was a winner in the end. The best way to observe without being engaged by the traders, was to wear shades, avoid eye contact or pretend to be profoundly deaf.


Luke had the best technique I’ve ever witnessed. He decided how much he was going to pay and just stood there, stone-faced and waited.

Vendor: “650”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “No! 550”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “My friend. For you, 450”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “Look, today, best price, 350”

Luke: “100”

Vendor: “I can do them for 300. Ok? 300. Best price.”

Luke (walking away): “100”

Vendor: “Monsieur, come back. 200 and we have a deal, oui?”

Luke (by the door): “100”

Vendor: “Okay, okay, 150.”

Luke: “100”

Vendor (shaking his head, laughing): “Ok, 100.”


The colours and smells were magical. Spices, incense, coffee and moped exhaust fumes.

The narrow lanes were crazy with mopeds. They raced, beeped and swerved but never seemed to crash. We all got used to it mighty quickly, pressing ourselves into the walls and breathing in as they screamed past.


Some of the banter the locals used to lure us into cafes or restaurants was hilarious.

My favourite was: “guys, you been buying your clothes at Primark again?”

It made a change from the “guys, come on in, the best food in Morocco” or “buy one, get one free”.


At certain points in the day, loudspeakers would broadcast prayers in Arabic. The tone and elongation of certain vowelly words become more and more frenetic. It was both exciting and slightly scary. In the main market square, groups of people would lay down their rugs (sajjāda), kneeling to pray and worship.

Back at the Riad, I had a hot bath and an early night, as the morning would bring a long drive.


Marrakech to Zagora

From Marrakech, it was a ten hour drive through the Atlas mountains, to Zagora.


We set off early in two long-wheel-base Ford Transit vans, the tents, cooking gear, mattresses etc loaded on the top.

I sat at the back, by the window, iPod at the ready. I put my shades on and hoped that if the grieving process started, I would be left alone.


I was aware that my quietness might be seen as unfriendliness, so I did engage in conversation and banter, but making friends wasn’t an objective. I just wanted to get into the Sahara, start walking and see what happened.

I wanted to let the grief out, but not become a total mess, sobbing and falling around in the desert. I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, or appear miserable and ruin their trip. My hope was that I would find quiet times alone, amongst the chatter and camaraderie, to find some peace.

As we set off, I started to feel very calm. I was on the quieter of the two vehicles, and that was fine by me. I chatted a little to one of the guides, Larbi, but he soon lay on the back seat next to me and dozed off.

After about half an hour, Jacqueline Du Pre was giving it some serious cello, and my tears started falling. I felt pleased that I was free to grieve.


It had been a hard few years. I had focused on working, raising my little girl and dealing with a difficult divorce. I hadn’t had a chance to think about how much I missed my Mum.

She was the funniest person I had ever known and we were very close. I had caused her a lot of worry and stress during my drinking years, but she was really happy that I had finally sobered up and we had a great relationship for her last 8 years.

The cancer kept returning and in the end it took her life.

She had become extremely close to my daughter, Katy, (her only grandchild) and her death was hard on a 5 year old.

Katy’s way of dealing with her Nanny’s death was lovely. She would look out of her bedroom window at night, point to the brightest star and say goodnight to Nanny. I would hold her when she cried and listen when she talked.

 Nanny Window

She wrote ‘I love Nanny’ on her bedroom window in my Mum’s lipstick. It stayed there for three years, until we moved.


The landscape became more dramatic as we climbed the weaving mountain roads and I felt elated. I was alive, healthy and on my way to the Sahara desert. I was dealing with my grief and travelling, alone, for the first time in 6 years. I was very, very lucky.

We stopped for lunch at midday in Tarmigt, Ouarzazate and it was hot. Only about 30 degrees, but felt hotter in the sun trap of the restaurant courtyard. A chicken tagine, another heavy bottle of Coke.



After an hour and a half of increasingly rough roads, we stopped at a place called Tansifte.

I had decided months ago that I would buy and wear a cheche, the linen head scarf worn by many desert people, including Berbers. Jamal advised me to buy white, rather than the indigo blue he wore, as it might permanently dye my skin. ‘Going Berber’ would be ok in the desert, but probably not in Sainsbury’s.

I saw a very elegant man in full blue Djellaba and headscarf, so I mimed and pointed and he opened a giant wardrobe filled with scarves. Before I knew it, my hat was off and he was tying the scarf, then wrapping it around my head, showing everyone how to tie them properly.

He sold ten of them. That long white piece of linen would prove to be the best £8 I ever spent.


محاميد الغزلان


By the time we reached our campsite in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, Zagora, my arse had gone to sleep and the rest of me was keen to join it.

It was dark and everyone was hungry, but excited. We were right on the edge of the desert, the ‘plain of gazelles’, and tomorrow we would walk into the Sahara.


Dinner was served and everyone was very upbeat.

I had a long chat with ‘Commando Ray’ – ex-Army and the least retired man I’ve ever met. If I can be half as active as Ray when I’m 64, I will be very happy.

‘Commando Ray’ became our official record keeper. If we needed to know the time, temperature, altitude or location, we asked Ray. He charted the miles and times. He read a report at the evening dinners.

He is a gentleman and definitely a guy you would want on your team. He also had everything in his giant backpack. No-one ever asked for anything that he didn’t have.


Our rooms were little huts made of local stone and red clay. They had single wooden beds, a thin mattress on each and a blanket. There were no doors, just an open arch with a heavy blanket nailed to the top, to keep the dust out. The floor was a giant rug over bamboo mats covering up bare earth. There was a plug socket and I charged my various Apple products.

I was sharing with Super Linda, Camper Chris and Hashy Harry, but, thankfully, we all had our own beds.

Safely cocooned in my bag, I watched the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey on my iphone, and fell asleep.

Oh, and we saw Saturn. Or Jupiter. I can’t remember. Someone had an app on their phone that identified it. I was well impressed.

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Into The Sahara

Day Of The Alien

We set off at 9 in the morning and everyone was buzzing. It was a thrill and a half to be walking into the famous Sahara desert.

The camels had been loaded up with tents, cooking gear, food, water, mattresses and sleeping bags. They didn’t look too happy about it, but they set off ahead of us with a few of the guides.

I have to say that a camel’s feet are outstanding. And their penises point backwards.

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By 10.30, it felt like we were really in the desert. I had expected just sand, but the terrain was extremely varied. There were wide expanses of flat, dark sand covered in small stones, patches of shrubs, soft sand and hard sand that broke underfoot with a satisfying crack.

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There were many tones in the sand, too, and I couldn’t work out if the sand was actually different colours or the light made it appear that way. At times it was pale yellow, magnolia even, then golden, then orange and red.

At first, the small dunes were separated by wide, flat, stony tracts, but as we walked deeper into the Sahara, the dunes rolled into each other.

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‘Florence Of Arabia’

At 2 o’clock-ish, we all noticed a sheltered spot in a circle of dunes and saw that the guides had set up a lunch camp for us under a shady tree.

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It looked like heaven.

We were given pots of sweet tea, infused with mint, which we poured into small glasses. It was delicious.


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Commando Ray.

Taking my shoes off was deeply, deeply pleasurable. And slightly alarming.

My shoes were full of sand, which was no great surprise, but my hi-tech socks seemed…wrong.

The pouches that were designed to divert sweat had filled up with wet sand and had rubbed the skin on my right foot to the point of a blister. This was not good.

I brushed the sand off and applied a Compeed blister plaster to the worst area – the ball of my right foot, behind my big toe.

I let my skin breathe, sliding my feet in the cool sand. I may have let out a horny moan. It felt superb.

The walk so far had been great. I knew I was reasonably fit and had stamina. I was happy and decided not to worry about my blister. It would be fine.

After all, my socks had “antibacterial finish” and were “almost certain to keep your feet in tip top condition no matter how far you hike.”

So I was covered.


I felt something on my foot, looked down and saw an alien. A very small alien.

It was shiny silver. Metallic, polished aluminium Roswell silver. Alien space craft silver. There were many of them. And they were in the shape of…ants.

They were ants. Bright silver ants.

 Alien Ants

I tried to brush one away and it sank its head into my skin, biting me with fire-engine-red jaws. Thankfully, it was unable to break my skin.

The little silver ant bastard.


Lunch was rice with meat and vegetable tagine, tinned fish, salad and Khobz –  the flat, round bread I was falling in love with.

I had consumed about a litre of water from my pouch, so refilled it and went to take a few photographs. I climbed a dune and in every direction, there was nothing but yellow sand. It rolled and flowed like blonde hair. It was stunning and I became enveloped with awe.

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My AA sponsor, Simon, would have loved it. He would have been proud of me, too. He knew how much I liked comfort. And how much truly reluctant effort it had taken to get fit, lose weight and prepare for the trek.

I looked up at the blue, cloudless sky and smiled. I missed him. We had shared some great times, and had laughed together a lot. He had saved my life and I would never forget that.

Sobriety was amazing. I had been sober nearly 12 years. At one time, I couldn’t go for an hour without a drink or a drug. It would have been impossible for me. Now, I couldn’t imagine having a drink. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t need it, didn’t want it.

Life went on, drunk or sober, but my reactions to life were very different sober. I found AA to be extremely useful and rewarding. I wasn’t religious, or believe in any particular God, but managed to find a way around that.

I believe that music is divine. So I believe in the power and sanctity of music.

I took a stick, wrote my Mum’s name in the dune and watched the fine sand blow over and bury it.

I cried a little,  then went back to the group.


At 4pm, we set off again, and my feet were starting to hurt. Every time we went through the soft sand, up and over the dunes, my shoes, and socks, would fill up with sand which acted like sandpaper.

If the terrain had been more consistent, I would have taken my shoes off, but it kept changing from sand to stones and hard red clay.

I needed to sort it out.

Our Berber guide and leader, Jamal – one of the funniest, vaguest men I’ve ever met – suggested that we collect any loose branches or other wood for a camp fire. So, for two hours, we all dragged handfuls of long branches through the sand and stones.

Photo by David Madden.
Photo by David Madden.

By 7pm, we had set up camp in a flat dip surrounded by dunes. The eating tent was up, as was the cooking tent. We even had a chemical loo in a tiny tent of its own.


I had braced myself for squatting in the sand.


I had been chatting to Remedy Mike while walking, about my reasons for doing the trip, his job as chief UK homeopath, and we had decided to become ‘tent-mates’.

Putting our tent up was hysterical. Neither of us knew what we were doing, and Super Linda (seasoned trekker, camper, OCD nutter and joint organiser) stepped in because we had managed to put the top layer on back to front, which meant that we had no possible way of getting in or out.


      While waiting for dinner, most of the group sat on the dunes,      watching the sunset, chatting and laughing.


Myself, Dave, Daisy & Luke

I spent half an hour on a dune with Dave, Luke and the youngest member, Daisy, just talking crap and laughing out loud. It was lovely. Luke really made me laugh.


We sat in the food tent, in the glow of a gas lantern, waiting for dinner, watching moths flap and crash around the naked flame, unable to resist it’s deadly allure.

Commando Ray told us that we had walked 14.3 miles in about 6 hours. He congratulated us. That meant something, coming from Commando Ray.


After dinner, Jamal and his group of guides sat around the campfire and sang songs in Arabic, beating out intricate rhythms on jerry cans and tin pans. Someone said that they were traditional Berber folk songs, but I wasn’t so sure. They could’ve been playing anything. Either way, it sounded pretty cool.


My feet were complaining, so I took them to bed. In terms of my knackered old back, the sand was remarkably comfortable and, once the sun sank behind the dunes, it felt cold, so I was glad I spent a bit on my toasty sleeping bag.

I had a nice chat with Remedy Mike, put my eye-mask and ear-plugs in position, rolled over and flaked out.


Night Of The Stars

Gold. The rising sun on the dunes.

Breakfast was mint tea, khobz with local honey.

Phtoto by David Madden
Phtoto by David Madden

We set off at 9 and by 9.05, my sock-pouches had filled up with little banks of wet sand and were hurting. Scraping. I kept up with the main group, but I was getting worried. I had five pairs of these fucking socks.

Following the advice of a very experienced trekker, I wore two pairs, so that the friction between the socks themselves would reduce wear on my skin.

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I distracted myself by chatting to Cinema Dec about favourite films, Snapper Madden about photography and then Louli about the nature of addiction.

The desert was amazing. It would often, quite suddenly, become extremely windy. The sand was very, very fine and the cheche I had bought was a God-send. You could breathe through it while covering your mouth and nose. My wrap-around shades kept it out of my eyes. Even with the scarf, we all had a sand cough in the evening and I won’t describe what I discovered when doing some late night nasal excavation.

I'm on the far left...
I’m on the far left…

Every morning, I asked Jamal to fix my cheche properly and it would stay on until I went to bed. I could have done it myself, true, but when Jamal did it, it stayed put.

The sand was so fine that when it was windy, you could see dunes alter before your eyes. It was startling how quickly the landscape changed. It must have made navigation, by landmarks at least, very difficult.

Someone said that the guides used the sun to navigate, but I think they also used GPS on their phones. I definitely had better signal in the Sahara than I did back home in Wales.

When the wind ceased, it felt really hot and, from time to time, I would spy a mirage, a lake or river up ahead. Sometimes, it was heat haze, shimmering, but other times it was just a lighter shade of sand, pool shaped.

I can only imagine what a psychological nightmare it must have been, to be tricked like that,  if you were running out of water.

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We finally reached camp, and I could have wept.

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It had been a hard walk for me. I didn’t tell anyone, but my feet were really painful and concerning me greatly. I had fallen behind and didn’t want to be in the position of slowing everyone down.

I’d broken my shoes in over the previous 6 months and had done quite a few 6 hour walks, so they should have been fine. It was the sand and the sock-pouches.

“…these superb liner socks do just that and more as they have been created using Coolmax technology that not only helps provide great warmth, but they also help draw moisture away from your skin to keep it fresh and cool.”

For the last hour or so, we had been walking through deep, soft, golden sand, up, along and down dunes, so I had stopped to take my shoes off. I had tried to take my socks off, too, but couldn’t. They were impossible to remove without causing me searing pain that made me nauseous. I didn’t want to know what they were stuck to.

When I started to walk in just my socks, the pain was so intense that I dropped to my knees and swore ferociously. I had to use my walking stick to get back up and support myself. The solution was to walk on my heels, rather than use the soles and balls of my feet. This wasn’t good.

Putting our tent up was an ordeal. Remedy Mike was really unwell with some form of heat-stroke and I could barely walk. Thankfully, Super Linda and Hashy Harry helped us out.

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Remedy Mike crawled in and lay down, and Commando Ray gave him a packet of Dioralyte rehydration powder while Louli brought him fresh water. It had been a hot one.

While Remedy Mike slept and everyone prepared for dinner, I borrowed the first aid kit and used the scissors to cut my socks off. I was shocked. My feet were in a really bad way.


Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

My right foot was just a collection of blisters. Several large ones had burst and the skin was red and raw underneath. There was a lot of sand stuck to the wet skin, and I knew I needed to clean them up.

Both feet were swollen and extremely painful. It was a total disaster.

Rob The Riddler appeared and swore, clearly as shocked as I was.

I was hopeful that after I’d cleaned them up with wet wipes, they would dry out and heal up for tomorrow.

I took two codeine and paracetamol painkillers and hobbled to the food tent.


Everyone was in fine spirits, telling jokes and stories and the food was great. The plan was to get up at 5 a.m and climb the massive dune in the distance and watch the sun come up, then come back, have breakfast, pack up and leave at around 10.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb the dune, and would let my feet rest for the few extra hours.

I was really bonding with two of the younger guys, Dave and Luke. We had some alternately deep and hysterically funny conversations.

They had hung back during the day, noticing I was having trouble walking. They had chatted to me, making me laugh and generally lifting my mood. I was genuinely moved by their generosity of spirit.

They were both young guys and wanted to be at the front of the group, but they both took time to drop back and chat to me for an hour or so. It meant an awful lot to me.

I sat in one of the corners of the tent, leaning back against a pole, my feet covered by my scarf so people wouldn’t be put off their dinner. They looked like a butcher’s window, and we had days left to trek. I was worried and a little subdued.

Mohammed, the cook, heard that Remedy Mike was ill and boiled up some plain rice for him, to help calm his stomach. I thought that was a beautiful thing to do.

By David Madden.
By David Madden.



Before going to bed, I sat on a small dune and watched the sky. It was bright with stars and planets. It really was incredible. I’ve never seen a sky like it.

I thought of my old music buddy, Paul, who was far too young to die.

I smiled and remembered some of the crazy, drunken antics we became involved in. Staying up all night at Rockfield Studios, writing songs, smoking, drinking and stealing The Charlatans’ porno stash. Deliberately driving a car into every lamp post we saw. Outstanding times.

There’s a Leonard Cohen lyric that always reminds me of Paul:

Here’s to the few who forgive what you do – and the fewer who don’t even care.”

I will always miss the guy.

He would have loved to look up and see such a sky.

Tchak! & Desert Gut

Commando Ray went around every tent, letting us know it was nearly 5 a.m and asking if we wanted to climb the big dune.

Remedy Mike was even worse, and my feet were in no shape to go climbing, so we declined. My feet were burning and throbbing, so I took two more painkillers and went back to sleep.

The dune climbers returned, full of beans. It had been spectacular, and I was envious. I  would have loved to have watched the sun come up on such a massive dune, but hey-ho, it wasn’t to be.

Apparently, when they reached the top, they found about 30 German Christians, singing hymns as the sun came up. That sounded perfectly surreal.


One of the group had come down with ‘Desert Gut’.

Big Neil was a big, strong chap and not one to give in easily, and I could see he was in a bad way. Diarrhea was a nightmare at home. In the Sahara desert, it was the sixth circle of hell.

Remedy Mike was also in a very poor state. He seemed dehydrated, very weak, dizzy and unable to eat.

It was decided that the camels could be loaded differently, so that Remedy Mike would be able to ride one for the day.


For me, the first few hours were almost unbearable. The pain was extremely acute, and on two occasions I nearly passed out. My vision was flecked with bright white circles and I couldn’t hear properly. It was crazy.

I was used to a certain amount of pain, because of my back, but this was ridiculous. I had dislocated my knee a few years before and this was far more painful. And constant.

I basically walked on my heels, using my walking stick to take the weight off the front of my feet.


I started finding ways to distract my mind. I had to stop focusing on the pain. I recited song lyrics to myself, and repeated certain AA prayers a lot, especially the ‘serenity prayer’:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

I looked around at the desert, drank from my water tube and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

At several points, I saw Remedy Mike, leaning to one side on the camel, and people shouting and rushing to wake him, because he had fallen asleep. The poor guy must have been really ill.

I was very conscious that I was considerably slower than everyone else, so kept forcing myself to get faster. The group would stop, have a drink, wait for me to catch up and set off again. It was a good strategy, because had I stopped, I don’t know if I could have got going again.

I took painkillers at 3 hour intervals, but they didn’t seem to work and the pain was simply horrific.

At several points, I laughed. It seemed such an unusually severe pain, in such an extreme environment that my brain started to look for meanings, spiritually.

Was this some kind of test? A punishment? A sign? Was my Mum trying to tell me something?

I settled on the fact that I had worn the wrong fucking socks and pressed on.


I put my earphones in, switched the iPod on and Bob Dylan sang a song called ‘Every Grain Of Sand’.

I thought about my little girl, Katy, and how I wanted her to see that her Dad was prepared to put his words into actions. It was important to me. She had seen me lose weight, get fit and go to the desert to raise money for Nanny’s hospice. That was good for her.

The group had set up camp for lunch in the blue shade beneath a shrub-topped dune and as I limped towards them, I saw Remedy Mike asleep under a small tree, and saw how pale Big Neil had become, so resisted the urge to throw myself on the ground and sob like a little girl, demanding a helicopter.

I took my shoes off and someone handed me a sweet, minty glass of tea. I lay back in the cool sand and shook my head. I knew there would be four more hours of pain and I would have to just crack on with it.

My Mum kept going for years, fighting pain, treatment, despair, so I could walk a few days on broken feet! I had to ‘man up’.

There was a lot of laughter and banter in the group. It was wonderful. Jamal, the Berber boss, had introduced the word ‘Tchak’, which, he said, meant crazy. This phrase stuck, and was our battle cry.

Lying in the sand, eyes closed, my feet on fire, I smiled as humour spread through the group like a merry plague, lifting my spirits.



Super Linda & Niki Nutjob. True legends.

قدمي على النار

I shouldn’t have taken my shoes off. Camper Chris had warned me. I knew it was a mistake, but I really wanted to get the sand out and let them breathe. Standing up was an ordeal and walking was excruciating.

I watched a massive bird settle on a naked tree branch. I was sure it was a vulture but didn’t want to break my steady rhythm to investigate.

The desert floor turned from hard sand to stony shrubland and I could hear shouts of Tchak! from the group ahead. They were all milling around, pointing, looking down, taking photographs. As I limped closer I could see that they were standing in a dried river bed.

The sand was clay-like, gold and yellow, and cracked into two or three foot squares. It was incredible. The cracks were deep, really deep.


Photo by David Madden
Photo by David Madden

I kept walking.

As I passed by, I asked Snapper Madden and Camper Chris if they would take a few snaps for me, because I didn’t want to stop.

Photo by Mr Kelly
Photo by Mr Chris Kelly

Luke dropped back to chat, and we had some very entertaining and highly descriptive conversations about sex. I greatly appreciated his time. In fact, several people slowed down for a chat and offered to carry my back-pack or lend me a walking stick. It was very humbling.

I had been by myself for so, so long, keeping people at a distance,  that it really was an eye-opener for me – that people were so kind and generous.

I was struggling, and no-one gave me shit for being slow. They just waited for me to catch up and were encouraging. It was very moving. It definitely helped me keep going. I didn’t want to let them down. I wanted to keep up and not spoil anyone’s trip.

By five o’clock, I was really having a hard time. The pain was so bad, and now my heels were burning and the muscles up the backs of my calves were starting to feel crampy.

I was starting to weaken, psychologically. I could hear a little voice saying ‘I can’t fucking do this! I’ve got to stop!’ but I kept responding with ‘no chance, you can’t give in! You have to keep going!

It was seriously schizophrenic. I was rowing with myself for miles.


Dave dropped back and started chatting, but I found it hard to get involved. I was in so much pain and was finding it hard to block it out.

“Are we setting up camp soon, Dave? I don’t know how much longer I can keep going?”

Dave was amazing. He really kept buoying me up, got me nattering and laughing. I can’t thank him enough. He saved me.

At the back, again, with Dave.
At the back, again, with Dave.

Up ahead, I saw Niki, Luke, a guide and a camel, waiting on a small dune. I didn’t dare think that I had reached camp, so kept my head down and pressed forward, step by step.

When I reached them, they told me to get on the camel.

“What about Mike?”, I asked.

“He’s alright. He’s over at the camp. Get on. Unless you fancy another walk?”

Luke, me, Niki & Dave. Thanks to Cinema Dec for the photo.

I had tears in my eyes as I got on that camel. It was only a few hundred yards to the camp, but those few minutes on the camel were pure ecstasy.


عاصفة رملية

I don’t remember putting the tent up. Remedy Mike was still really bad and I think it was done for us. I had a brief chat with him, but he just wanted to be left alone and snooze. Louli was looking after him, making sure he was hydrated and warm.

The wind started to pick up as the sun went down, and I was leaning against a corner pole in the food tent, happy that I’d made it and glad I was off my feet.


According to Commando Ray, we had done over 12 miles, and when he said ‘so, well done everyone, especially Tim”, everyone started clapping! I nearly lost it. I was so touched.

I was really worried that I’d slowed them down and so grateful for those who had dropped back to chat to me. I think I said something along those lines, but can’t remember.

The food and chatter that night seemed more lovely than ever, and I realised that I was happy and, despite the pain, really glad to be there.

I was part of something, and it felt good.

Big Neil was not at dinner. He was in his tent, laid low with severe Desert Gut. One of the guides (I think it was Larbi), made him some plain boiled rice and tea, took it to Neil’s tent and made him eat and drink. He didn’t have to do that. He was genuinely concerned.

All the guides were the same – hard-working, polite, extremely good at their jobs, funny and kind.


The wind had grown worse, and the food tent had to be better secured. Everyone went to bed early, mainly because the tents would have blown away without their occupants.

I tried to walk to the ‘loo tent’, but I simply couldn’t see. The storm was really blowing and the sand was blinding. If I put my arm out, I couldn’t see my hand. So, I just stood with my back to the moon and had a pee where I stood, hoping I wasn’t pissing on someone’s tent.

When I got back to the food tent, I was alone, so I grabbed my sleeping bag and decided to sleep where I was. I figured Remedy Mike would enjoy some privacy and I fancied sleeping in a proper Berber tent.

I had to cut my socks off again and nearly fainted when I saw the state of my feet. They looked bloody, dirty and swollen. I felt sick, so slid into my sleeping bag and lay down.

At some point, one of the guides joined me in the tent. I was aware of him doing his prayer ritual and felt comforted by his presence. I slept really well that night.

Photo by David Madden
Photo by David Madden

Desert Storm & International Rescue

No-one else slept well at all. The wind had made the tents extremely noisy, and it was unsettling.

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My feet were in a terrible state. Because the wind kept pouring sand over everything, I couldn’t clean them properly, so just put two pairs of socks over the damage and hoped for the best.

When I stood up, I had to sit down. Fuck. I didn’t know how I was going to walk another 6 hours. It took three goes to finally stand up. I used my stick to take my weight, breathing out, trying to adjust to the searing pain. Thankfully, I was on my own in the food tent, so no-one saw me struggle.

I didn’t want to let the group down, or make them feel bad, but I didn’t think I had a choice but to crawl. The pain was too much. I laughed out loud – “I’m going to be crawling through the Sahara desert like some kind of bizarre, hairy toddler! Great. I’m so excited.”

The wind was still very strong, which made packing up the tents particularly amusing. Everyone pitched in and helped.

I took a few tentative steps and had to sit down again. Remedy Mike came over and I was really pleased to see that he was feeling better.

Jamal was on the phone a lot, and the guides looked worried. We were told that there was a serious storm coming, and that we needed to walk a fair distance to get to more sheltered terrain. My heart sank. I just didn’t know what I was going to do. If I did manage to walk, I knew I would be really, really slow.

Everyone got ready, fully covered in coats, scarves and shades, and the mood was tense, sombre even. With slowly building despair, I watched the camels being loaded, one by one, mentally preparing myself for a day of terrible pain.

I saw one of the guides, holding a camel, beckoning me. Niki appeared through gusts of sand, completely hidden by her blue Berber cheche and told me I was riding today.

“What about Mike?” I asked.

“He’s fine today. Get on there, matey.”


Once I was on that camel, I wept. I was wrapped in scarf and shades, so nobody saw me, but I cried with relief and gratitude. I had prepared myself for another day of intense pain and was now about 9 feet high, riding the lope of my new best friend, Colin The Camel.

It was beautiful. I took my shoes off and my feet swung free, either side of my lanky new ride. My eyes were about 13 feet off the ground, so I suddenly had a fantastic view of the Sahara. It really was both beautiful and vast.

It took a few minutes to adjust to the strange, seesaw motion of Colin, but I soon relaxed and went with it, perfecting the one-handed, nonchalant, experienced Camel-rider pose. It was paradise.


The wind was intermittent, and we were all covered in sand. We all stayed close together, because visibility could, quite suddenly, become a major issue.

I got the distinct impression that Colin wasn’t happy to be carrying me. The hints were reasonably clear. Every hour or so, he would try and crush my legs by deliberately smashing into the side of another camel. I understood. I wouldn’t want to have carried him.


Commando Ray had an enormous back-pack, with a Union Jack flag flying from the top of it. It weighed more than I did, but, being a squaddie, he carried it. It was in his DNA. The rest of us only carried our bare essentials and water, letting the camels take the rest, but not Ray. He had carried his own gear all his life, in the Army, and in Civvy Street. There had never been an exception.

So, after our 11 o’clock nut stop (where a giant sack of mixed dry, salty and honey-glazed nuts, dried dates and figs would be handed around), I looked up and saw Commando Ray’s rucksack on the camel in front of me.

I immediately turned and shouted to Dave, who was walking behind me, “Dave! What’s wrong with Ray?”

“Bad gut, mate. Both ends apparently.”

“Does he want to get on here?”

“Nah. He’d just have to keep stopping and getting off.”

Commando Ray had been struck down with Desert Gut, and had to keep stopping and heading off into the dunes. When I saw him lying on his side, covered in a blanket in the food tent, refusing lunch, I knew he must be bad.


During lunch, there was a lot of phone calling and Jamal didn’t look happy. The weather was not good and for five minutes, I saw it rain in the Sahara desert.

The sky was dark and you could see the sand storm raging in the distance. It hadn’t reached us yet, but it was coming.

Jamal, Niki and Super Linda made the decision to call for help. A bad storm was on the way, and we would be stuck in it. We would probably be fine overnight, but no-one knew how long the storm would last. It would make walking and navigating very difficult. We could end up stuck in the Sahara desert.


The 4X4s were called and we would be driven to safety. We would go back to our first campsite, in Zagora. Everyone was cool about it. No-one wanted to risk being stranded or getting lost.


الإنقاذ من الصحراء


So, we packed up and watched the camels and most of the guides disappear into the desert. For reasons I didn’t fully understand, Super Linda, Cinema Dec, Dave and Luke set off with them. Everyone else carried their gear to a nearby well to wait for the rescue vehicles. Camper Chris and Commando Ray were devastated not to be walking with the guides. The former had a blistered foot, and Commando Ray had a serious dose of Desert Gut.

I just wanted to get off my feet. The short, 100 metres to the well was agony.




Just as the 4X4s arrived, everything changed. It went dark and the storm hit. It was intense and surprisingly vicious. The sand made visibility very poor. So, 6 of us squashed ourselves into the first car, and the rest into the old Landrover behind.


We set off, all buoyant at the thought of chairs, toilets and even a shower, but after about 200 metres, we stopped. The driver kept checking his mirrors but the Landy with the rest of our group wasn’t moving. He got out and went to see what the trouble was. He was literally swallowed by the sand-storm after about 6 paces. He just disappeared.

We waited, trying to keep our spirits up, but Remedy Mike was still feeling dodgy, Commando Ray had ‘Desert Gut’ so we kept quiet and tried not to panic.

Somehow, someone had poured water into the diesel tank of the Land Rover!


It took almost half an hour to rectify and the storm was raging. It was starting to become scary.

At last, we set off slowly, doing no more than 25 mph and visibility was atrocious. None of us could work out how the driver navigated.

We went up, over and down the smaller dunes and around the larger ones. It must have been hard for Commando Ray, sat in the back, on top of the wheels.

It took 40 minutes, but when we saw lights in the distance, we cheered.

 2015-02-18 22.11.52IMG_3142

We got back to camp at 7pm and I was extremely happy to throw my rucksack and sleeping bag onto a bed. I was sharing with Big Neil and Remedy Mike, which was excellent. While they both had a snooze, I hobbled off to get a First Aid kit, so I could cut off the Compeed blister plasters and clean up my feet.


It wasn’t a pleasant experience and took 38 minutes to get them as clean as I could. They were a mess.

Dave had lent me some flip-flops, so I shuffled off to make a phone call and find some tea.

The guides, camels, Super Linda, Dave, Luke and Cinema Dec arrived safely back at 10.30pm. It had been a hard 5 hour trek for them and they looked exhausted and half blind from the sand. Mohammed and Larbi brought out steaming bowls of soup and it felt good to have everyone back together.

An early night was enjoyed by all.


Camel Racing & The Corner Shop

My eye-mask and ear-plugs had been a real help again, as the storm had raged all night, flinging the blankets, which acted as doors, making them slap and batter. I hadn’t heard a thing and slept like a baby. A sandy baby. I looked down and my sleeping bag and bed was covered in fine, yellow sand.

At breakfast, everyone was in fine spirits and it was decided that, aside from an organised camel race, we would do whatever we wanted. Some of the group wandered back into the Sahara to take some photographs, others found a nearby Hammam. Luke, Dave and Hashy Harry discovered a corner shop and brought me back an ice cold bottle of Coke. Superb.


I couldn’t walk anywhere, so enjoyed the peace of the cool, comfortable dining room, feet up, listening to music and watching the beams of coloured light stream through the stained glass windows.


I just wanted my feet to dry enough that I could get the dirt out from under the blisters.


The Feet in all their glory. Thanks for the photo Daisy.

A few locals popped in to do their prayer routines across the room. I closed my eyes and let them get on with it.


My mind kept wandering off and settling on thoughts of my Mum. Like anyone who has lost somebody close, the pain becomes easier to manage but it doesn’t go. I missed chatting on the phone, telling her what I was up to, laughing and being stupid. Her sense of humour was so lovely, and often quite wicked.

She was very, very funny – right up to the end.

The day before she died, the nurse at St. Michael’s Hospice quietly told me that if there was anything I wanted to say to her, I should do it within the next hour, because she would be upping the morphine dose (at my Mum’s request).

It was tricky. I managed to hold it together, held her hand and said “thanks for being a great Mum.”

She looked up at me, smiled and said “thanks for being a crap son.”

We laughed again, and it was a lovely moment.

Then she squeezed my hand, and told me how proud she was that I’d got sober and what a great Dad she thought I was.

Me and My Mum at St. Michael's Hospice.
Me and My Mum at St. Michael’s Hospice.

She died the following morning, but I still feel happy that we had shared those few moments, and some final laughter.

I dozed off listening to Leonard Cohen and awoke when it was lunch time.

The rest of the afternoon was spent generally arsing around with Luke, Dave, Big Neil, Daisy and Hashy Harry. It felt good to be off my feet and laughing.

Dave & Luke
Me, Luke & Neil
Me, Luke & Neil

After dinner that night, Jamal and the guides sang and played music on various drums, then everyone started dancing. Except me, of course. For once, I had the perfect excuse. Nobody needed to see my idea of dancing. Along with Commando Ray, I retired early as the booze and hash came out, but apparently the revelry continued until two or three.

Good work, guys!

The Posse
The Posse

Pottery, Aït Benhaddou & Snow

We set off at 9 in our trusty Transit vans. I sat at the back again, behind Commando Ray and watched the brightly coloured doors, shopkeepers in robes, kids on their way to school and stunning Moroccan architecture.


I had music in my ears and felt awesome. My feet had dried out significantly and the swelling had reduced. I just hoped they didn’t become infected, because I couldn’t get all the dirt and sand out.


We stopped at Tamegroute, and had a squint at some pottery. Several people bought Tagines, but, in truth, I didn’t really like Moroccan food, so passed. I could quite happily live without tagine, couscous or chick peas again. The bowls and plates were lovely, but I didn’t have room to take any home.


We arrived out our Riad, in Ait Benhaddou, at 6.30 and it was freezing. We had become accustomed to the heat and suddenly put on several layers.


Dinner was more tagine and tea.

After having no wi-fi for a week, it was funny to watch everyone back on their phones, heads down, deep in Facebookery.

I slept really well, in a proper, clean, sand-free double bed.

The morning arrived, with a stunning view of the snow covered Atlas mountains. At breakfast, there was concern that the pass would be closed. The snow had been heavy through the night.

It was bizarre. One minute, we had heat enough to topple Remedy Mike and cause sunburn, then vicious sandstorms and now, roads closed due to snow.

I had the first hot shower in 8 days. No washing with chilly wet wipes today – I had soap and shampoo. Utter bliss.

Photo by David Madden
Photo by David Madden

At 10, we set off to see the famous UNESCO World Heritage city of Ait Benhaddou – used as a backdrop in Gladiator and a load of other films.

It was only a ten minute walk, which wasn’t too hard on my stupid, girly feet. I had been very keen to visit the place, and it was as beautiful as I had imagined it might be.

 2015-02-21 10.17.082015-02-21 10.16.572015-02-21 10.17.152015-02-21 10.17.292015-02-21 10.20.59

Then, it was time to head off through the Atlas Mountains again, back to Marrakech.

2015-02-21 12.45.462015-02-21 12.45.422015-02-21 12.45.37

زيت الأركان

2015-02-21 12.46.12

Argan oil comes from the fruit of the Argan tree. Well, the two or three hard-shelled nut kernels inside, to be accurate. It is a hard and labour-intensive exercise to extract and grind the nuts, to capture the oil. It’s usually done by Berber women. The oil is meant to be good for you. It tasted quite nice, when I dipped some bread into it.


We stopped in Zerkten, and, after a Berber omelette and local vegetable soup, I watched some women extracting Argan oil via grim, traditional methods. They didn’t look overly happy, but it wouldn’t be my job of choice either. I left a tip in a wooden bowl and went off to look at some Moroccan silver jewellery.


The mountains were even more beautiful this time, having recently enjoyed a liberal coating of virgin-white snow. The temperature read ‘-9’ as we drove out of Zerkten.

Prostitutes, Getting Lost and The Last Supper

By 4pm, we were back at Riad Les Oliviers, in Marrakech. After an hour on the roof, sunbathing and drying my horror-show feet, I went for the second hot shower of the day.


I couldn’t wear my trekking trousers for a single minute longer, so headed into town to buy some cheap alternatives. I bought a pair of Levi jeans, paid £22, put them on and threw my grubby, disgusting trousers in the first bin I passed. Nirvana was clean denim.

Later on, myself, Big Neil, Daisy, Hashy Harry, Dave and Luke found a nice local restaurant, way up on a terrace, five staircases high. The food was okay and the view superb. We watched the sun set, and the square erupt in smoke, colour and light. It was buzzing. We went for a wander and I bought a cool silver ring for next to nothing, and a little handbag for my daughter.


When we returned to the Riad, something really weird but strangely fascinating occurred.

Being an avid people-watcher, I had been observing a lone German tourist across the room from our table. He appeared agitated, excited, and kept texting on his mobile. He just didn’t seem right, if you know what I mean.

After twenty minutes, the doorbell to the Riad chimed and one of the staff went to answer. The German chap stood up and followed. I assumed he had been waiting for a friend, who had arrived.

Thirty seconds later, a very dark-skinned lad of about 17 came into the tea room with the German. They chatted quietly and the German led him up a flight of stairs, heading for his room. The boy was clearly a prostitute. It was plain as day.

From the office burst the Riad manager, who chased the German and the young boy up the stairs. There was an altercation and the young black boy was escorted from the premises, unhappy and trying to demand money from the German, who rather sheepishly retired to his room, alone.


Luke & The Pelican Omelette


In the morning, a few of us went for breakfast in the town square. We settled on a cafe that looked tidy, busy and clean.

I ordered croissant and cafe au lait. If I ate one more tagine, I would die. I had reached my limit.

Everyone ordered fairly standard stuff…but not Luke. He ordered something no-one could pronounce.

It arrived in a mini tagine. When he lifted the lid, it appeared to be some manner of omelette, drowning in oil. There was a dark meat in it but none of us recognised its origin.

Luke tried the meat and had no idea what it was.

It was obviously a pelican omelette. There was no other explanation.

He valiantly ate it all but his face had me in hysterics. He went pale green and his discomfort made me even more amused.

I haven’t laughed so much for a long time.


After breakfast, I decided to do some exploring on my own. I had been around other humans constantly and felt in need of some alone time.

Being a stranger in a foreign country is one of my all time favourite pastimes so I was feeling happy as I set off from our Riad.


My feet hurt, but nowhere near the levels I’d experienced in the Sahara. They were healing nicely.

I found a cool Patisserie and bought some pain au chocolat for later and spied a little back street cafe that was full of locals. I ordered meat on skewers and it was superb.

I sat and watched Marrakech for ages and noticed that the only people who gave money to the beggars were local. None of the tourists, myself included, seemed to.


I guessed there was no benefit system in Morocco. It’s a good job that Islam is based on both community and generosity.

I thoroughly enjoyed my quiet, observation time and slowly found my way back to the Riad and lounged on the sunny roof until Daisy, Dave and a few others came up, with wine, and the last evening began.


نحن خسر

We got lost.

The alleyways got the better of us.


In daylight, they looked very similar. At night, they were identical and indecipherable. I knew the name of the restaurant that Commando Ray had booked for us, so asked a local kid I saw loitering if he would show us the way.

His name was Mohammed, he said, and he was learning English at school. He was 14 and knew exactly where the restaurant was.

We arrived at our destination about 7 minutes later and I gave Mohammed all the coins I had in my pocket, which was about 35 Dirham. He looked disgusted, so I asked the rest of the posse to chip in. I think he ended up with about 75 Dirham, which was about £4. I thought that was a fair price for a short walk, but he got stroppy and protested. No-one was inclined to give him any more money, so he sloped off, whining.

Luke & Daisy
Luke & Daisy

There had been a communication error between Commando Ray and the restaurant, and we had no booking. Everyone shuffled about, unsure how to proceed, so our ever-resourceful leader, Niki, headed off through Marrakech in search of an alternative, her 16 little chicks following.


At 9pm, after a couple of rejected venues, we sat in straw hats, on top of a tall building, 9 tables pushed together and had our last supper. It was a blast. Everyone was feeling good, happy, shouting Tchak! and glowed.



The whole of Marrakech seemed to glow orange.

أكثر من المشي

I sat back and watched everyone laughing and chatting. I realised I had been through more than just a trek.

A tidal wave of grief hadn’t burst out of me, and perhaps it didn’t need to. Perhaps being busy, crying a little bit occasionally and looking after my little girl was how I was meant to deal with my Mum’s death. Maybe letting it out slowly, over a few years was better for me.

I learned that I had a certain degree of mental strength. I was pleased that I had walked and kept up with the group, despite being in some physical distress. I think I get that strength from my folks.

I am also very grateful to the group I trekked and travelled with. Certain people really helped me when I was in trouble, and no-one got arsey with me, even though I slowed them down. I really appreciate that.

My default setting has always been to keep people at arms length. I have been self-sufficient and not let people in for a long, long time. I have never felt that I need people and have developed strategies to actively keep people away.

On this trek, though, I did need people. I needed help and these strangers responded. There was no fanfare, no drama, they just quietly got on with it.

There are several people that I will keep in contact with for the rest of my life, and if they are ever in need, I know I will do whatever I can to help them.

So thank you Mighty Marian, Remedy Mike, Louli, Cinema Dec, Snapper Madden, Loopy Lisa, Camper Chris, Rob The Riddler, Commando Ray, Niki Nutjob, Super Linda, Delightful Daisy, Hashy Harry, Big Neil, Dave and Luke.

Back in the UK, halfway home, I decided to stop at some services for coffee and a snack.

I stood in line at Burger King, and in front of me were Dave and Luke. Like magic. It was lovely.

My feet are healed and I’m going swimming tonight. I want to keep reasonably fit.

It is my Mum’s birthday today, and I will cry a little, but that’s fine. It doesn’t mean I’m weak and I don’t need to cry for a month, but it’s okay for me to miss her and be sad.

Pat Prince
Pat Prince

It was a strange, painful, funny and beautiful trip and I don’t regret a single moment.

Well, apart from the fucking socks…obviously.


I raised just under £2,000 for St. Michael’s Hospice.


The Kit

I acquired the kit I needed gradually, so the expense was spread out. I spent a fair bit of money, but wanted to be prepared.
I bought an Osprey Talon 22 backpack (extremely comfortable, light and robust), a Camelbak 2 litre ‘Unbottle’ with Antidote Reservoir (bloody brilliant – kept in the hydration pouch of the rucksack, it stayed cool – and worth the £37), a Fujifilm XP200 digital camera (it was shock and sand proof – and proved flawless and faultless), and a cracking Snugpak Special Forces 2 Sleeping Bag (again, this proved a great bargain – warm, comfortable and folded up pretty small).

The lightweight trousers, waterproof jacket and fleece I got in a sale at Mountain Warehouse and the wet wipes, antibacterial hand rub, small toothpaste and (the absolutely essential) Compeed blister plasters from Tesco.

I bought an Apple iPod Shuffle from Currys so I could listen to music on the plane/bus/trek and a solar charger for it (a YD-t011, which worked well, tied to my rucksack).

I also purchased ear-plugs and eye mask, which were really, really useful. Snoring can be an issue when tent/room sharing, and the ear-plugs worked well. The eye mask, too, was great for helping me get to sleep.

The lightweight running shoes were by Inov8 – called ‘Roclite’ 315’s. The reviews I had read online said that they were perfect for running through sand, as it simply flowed out through the fabric as quickly as it went in. That seemed a good idea.

Several bloggers had worn them for ‘desert running’ – so a 51 year-old ex-musician ambling through the Sahara for a few days should be a breeze.

The socks I bought were by Peter Storm – Unisex Multi-active Coolmax Liner Socks. The girl at Millets told me that they would be great for a long trek. They had special pouches to gather the sweat away from sensitive areas.

I never want to see those socks again.

** * * * * * * * * **

Thanks to David Madden for the good photos.

Thanks to Chris & Linda Kelly for the day pack – that I’ve still got. Ha!

Thanks to Nicola Rose for asking me to go.

Thanks to Imlil Trek Holidays & Jamal

Jamal – our Berber leader and owner of Imlil Trek Holidays. I recommended him, his guides and company without hesitation.

13 responses to “Sahara Desert Diary

  1. An Absolutely fabulous read!! You have done amazing !!! You should feel incredibly proud!! ❤️snobby olive 😍

  2. What to say? I felt I was intruding at times. Intimate, personal, private. I felt a tear as I read along feeling you were trusting me, revealing a little bit of the real you. I’ve been on the same psychological journey in the past, so a lot of your feelings echoed down the alleyways of my past. I envy you the glamourous location. Mine was Luton! Strangely we were about the same age. I can assure you it does get better, as you seem to be discovering. A beautifully written piece. You should be proud of this. I was proud to have been given the chance to read it. Before I get bogged down in sentimental musings – thanks! A fucking good read!

  3. Darling Tim, I have to share with you my little story about why I was on this mad trek too. I had a friend who lived in Knighton, Preya, a lovely Sri Lankan who was married to an English guy with 3 wonderful children. I was drawn to her kind, open face, her funny expressions and wonderful accent and we became firm friends. She was an amazing cook, gardener, general know it all about the natural world and she loved sharing her knowledge and passion about wild life. We had lots of laughs, we shared walks in Knighton and beyond and we laughed about our kids and discussed our hopes and fears about the future.
    And then one day she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Completely out of the blue. It shouldn’t happen to her, a fit, beautiful woman aged 40 something. She never smoked, drank. What the hell? For the next two years she had so many bouts of chemo that she lost sensation in her feet and hands. I don’t understand how she drove her children to school, but she managed it, twice a day. She cooked and cleaned and kept house and gave birthday parties. She was truly amazing. And then a rogue cancer cell lodged in her brain and she died of a brain tumour. When I last saw her, two days before she died, she held my hand and whispered ‘come on, let’s go and DO something’.
    So, when Niki asked me whether I wanted to go on a trek to the Sahara I thought ‘yeh, right, that about sums me up’. But you know what, I know too many people that have died of cancer, and too many that are battling it too. Life is short, so for Preya, I thought, y’know what, I bloody will go and do something. So I did.
    I have read your fantastic diary through a tear streamed face. Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts. I can’t imagine how you walked the days that you did, and you never let on just how much pain you were in. You’re a hero darlin’. keep in touch xx Lisa xx (less of the Loopy mind, what on earth do you mean? #spotonassessment

  4. Damned socks ! Oh prince…..I just finished your “book”…and expect to see it in the shops soon please. Did it ever dawn on you that possibly all your ‘co-walkers’ enjoyed the slow-down while you were so incapacitated ….I think that might just be true. I do hope your “stupid girly feet” ( huh-hummm ! )….are as good as new now….No Jumping Jacks for a bit ……Nurse Lea says so. I know a couple that are artists and the wife has done a book on doors around the European countries mostly….SHE will love your photos and the tale you have told. Another friend that is learning pottery will SO live the idea of the sunken potter’s ‘chair’….what a brilliant idea that is……. …..Well “CRAP-SON”…….thank you so much for this overwhelming story…the trials and tribulations of a man I love…( and I too fought back some tears ) ❤

  5. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing your personal journey. I loved reading it, it was beautiful and honest and really touching. I am so pleased you came on the trek and enjoyed it! Here’s to the next one….. (P.S. Now you’ve mentioned it Chris is a bit camp isn’t he it’s those chicken legs haha 😂😂😂)
    Big respect and big love, Linda x

  6. A lovely, moving story and very well written. Daisy (who is my cousin, just like Harry, and is indeed delightful) sent me the link. I went on a trek in Nepal years ago where there was one very slow trekker, and we didn’t mind waiting for her. I wonder if bare feet would have been better in the sand? But then you might have stepped on a scorpion, which would have been bad.

  7. Ha, you got me twice in one day! First, with the Bowie/Wild is the Wind post, and now this engaging story (enough to pre-empt my DVR’d episode of “Vikings”), which reminded me of a similar, though not as painful (those feet pics are hardcore, man!) trip to Tunisia I took not long ago. So glad I stumbled onto your blog!

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I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be.

(1986 press conference)

When I was a kid, Dylan was my hero. I loved his songs, his strange voice, his wit and compassion. He seemed to care about the down-trodden and oppressed. It was inspiring for a shy kid looking for direction. I looked up to the guy, and felt connected to him, because his songs touched me, moved me.

I had no idea if the man himself really had any of the attributes that I pinned on him. All the ideas I had about him were from his songs, and the few books that I’d read.

As I got older, I started to suspect that the guy I was holding up as a hero, was, possibly, simply a man like any other. I didn’t like that notion. I wanted him to be larger than life, an aspirational figure, someone who would uphold a morality that I couldn’t, be a champion for the underdog.

After many Dylan Anonymous meetings, I came to accept that he was simply a musician. He was not a deity, higher power or superhero. He was not The Myth.

Today, 35 years later, I still think the music is great – but I no longer idolize the guy. I just love the beautiful, varied and cinemascopic songs, the voice that sings them. I also like that he does what he wants, regardless of how his audience might respond.

So, while riding on a train going West, I asked myself, ‘When did the Dylan Myth begin, who started it, and why do people keep accusing him of ‘selling out’?

The Myth

“So all you newsy people, that spread the news around.
You can listen to my story, listen to my song.
You can step on my name, you can try ‘n’ get me beat,
When I leave New York, I’ll be standin’ on my feet.”

His tall tales and general evasiveness regarding his background started before he was even called Dillon, Bobby Vee, Zushe ben Avraham, Elston Gunn, Blind Boy Grunt or Bob Dylan. The Myth can be traced back to the late 1950’s – if his classmates’ memories are reliable.

The film No Direction Home has some great recollections by people who knew him back then, and there are a myriad books retelling the same (or similar) story. Bob Dylan’s own memoirs, Chronicles Vol. 1, is also a fascinating version of The Myth.

It seems fairly certain that the young Bob dreamed of escaping the dreary confines of parochial hometown Hibbing and discovered the magic carpet of music. He was in several bands – The Jokers(1956),  The Shadow Blasters(1957), The Golden Chords(1957/58), The Satin Tones(1958), The Rockets(late 1958) and Elston Gunn & The Rock Boppers(1959).

Dylan sells out by going electric in 1958.
Dylan sells out by going electric in 1958.

To his great credit, he followed his dream to fulfil his Yearbook ambition and “join Little Richard”.

Hibbing High School Yearbook.
Hibbing High School Yearbook.

Everything appeared to progress well at first. He paid his dues in the clubs, pubs and coffee houses of New York He learned his craft, learned how to work an audience, and how to write. He took opportunities that presented themselves and had both ambition and self-confidence.

His love and admiration for Woody Guthrie was obvious, but he seemed to soak up everything he heard, from Odetta to John Lee Hooker, Dave Van Ronk to Victoria Spivey. He also possessed a knack for remembering melodies and songs and was not averse to borrowing other people’s style and technique. Like all musicians, he learnt by copying and adapting what he saw and heard around him.

“…he took the basic song and if he didn’t like the lyrics he just changed it to what he wanted.” – LeRoy Hoikkala on Robert Zimmerman in the late 1950s.

Dylan sells out by playing a Jazz guitar.
Dylan sells out by playing a Jazz guitar.

He also spun more yarns than a fairy tale convention.

In 1963, Andrea Svedberg’s Newsweek article did a hatchet job, an expose, on the newly emerging Bobby Dylan, and it hurt.

Amid general snootiness and repetition of (wholly unfounded) rumours that someone else had written Blowin’ In The Wind, the article took delight in outing The Myth. Rather than being the bohemian, ramblin’ Woody circus minstrel he had constructed, young Bobby Dylan was found to be Robert Zimmerman, who came from a quietly respectable, middle-class Jewish family.

It didn’t harm his career in the long run. In fact, it may have helped, because it created more mystery and probably led him to reassess his attitude towards the Press, and the information it was prudent to release.

It’s a useful tool, The Dylan Myth. A coat of many colours. It creates intrigue and mystique. It keeps people guessing and grants the man behind The Myth the freedom to live his real life, his life away from performing and being Bob Dylan.

The Myth Mask.
The Myth Mask.

Today, X factory finalists and other drama-schooled celebrities are taught how to deal with the media, how to project and protect their image. Everything is controlled, designed and orchestrated. Nothing is left to chance. Tricky questions are taught to be fielded with tact and grace. When young starlets deviate from this orchestration, they end up in Beiberland and rehab.

Celebrities, and their PR managers, charm and befriend the media. They hire manicured, draped and anonymous houses and pretend to let us into their Hello! homes, their lives. Rock Stars compose Press Releases about their impending divorces. They are treated like royalty, pandered to and indulged.

Things were different when Robert Zimmerman started to morph into Bob Dylan (His name was changed, legally, on the 9th of August, 1962).

The Bear

“You can buy the best of Bob Dylan for $5.98. Don’t ask to meet him.”

The Bear & The Chameleon.
The Bear & The Chameleon.

Albert Grossman often seems to be credited or blamed for creating The Dylan Myth, but I am not entirely convinced that is the case. He was inventing characters for himself way before he met Mr Grossman.

Elektra Records chairman, Bob Krasnow (friend and business associate of Grossman’s), believes that “what you see today in the music business is the result of Albert. He changed the whole idea of what a negotiation was all about. Albert understood that music was becoming an industry.

He was the first person to realize that there was real money to be made in the music business“, said David Braun (music lawyer who represented Bob Dylan during the 1960s).

Jonathan Taplin said: “As far as Bob goes, Albert just got too greedy. He kept a huge percentage of Dylan’s publishing rights at a time when many other artists completely controlled their own publishing.”

Dylan later told Robert Sheldon, “I finally had to sue him. Because Albert wanted it quiet, he settled out of court. He had me signed up for ten years… for part of my records, for part of my everything. He only had me for 20%. There were others who had to give him 50%.

Peter Yarrow felt Dylan owed Grossman’s far more than money: “Look, just as there never would have been a Peter, Paul and Mary, there never would have been a Bob Dylan who could have survived and made it without Albert Grossman. Personally, artistically and in a business sense, Albert Grossman was the sole reason Bob Dylan made it.

I don’t agree with Mr Yarrow’s opinion. I think Dylan’s talent, charisma and ambition would have shone through, without Albert Grossman.


I think Mr Grossman helped shelter him from the intrusions of the Press, by making him unapproachable, but no-one could have predicted the focus that Dylan would become. He went from captivating folky beatnik to Spokesman for his Generation in a very short time.

It Ain’t Me, Babe

When you think about it, it’s an odd occurrence – to raise a musician to the level of spokesman or cultural leader. The media attention must have been great, in terms of wanting to cut through and make a living from your work, but to be held up as some kind of figurehead would surely have been troubling, especially at such a young age.

For politicians, though, it would have been the aim, the goal. Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy all held the hopes of the people, were spokesmen for their own generations. They were elevated to positions far above ordinary men, but they set out to achieve that.  I don’t think Bob Dylan set out to be a spokesman for a generation. He just captured and focused certain feelings in his songs.

“I was just there at the right time with pen in hand”  

– Bob Dylan, 1978


Dylan’s perceived connection with ‘protest’ and/or politics, has always struck me as odd.

Did people not listen to his songs?

“My name it ain’t nothing, my age it means less.”

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

“Well, I try my best

To be just like I am

But everybody wants you

To be just like them

They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.”

Along with the whole of My Back Pages, It Ain’t Me, Babe, Restless Farewell and many more since.

He was, at heart, a rock n roller from the start. He had a deep passion for the old songs of America, but stumbled into the folk scene by accident. The songs, the stories, were as vibrant and expansive as rainbows, and he played them with a fresh, different attitude. A James Dean, Buddy Holly, Elvis attitude. When asked what tunes the Bobby of The Golden Chords liked to play, his band mate, LeRoy Hoikkala said: “Some of the southern type music, the blues songs…a lot of Little Richard. Bob loved Little Richard, so we did a lot of Little Richard stuff.”

A rigid folk scene was never going to contain him for long.

I don’t mean to suggest that his topical, beautiful, shattering early songs were not genuine or absolutely heartfelt, I just don’t think Dylan was into the politics, or rules of that particular folk or ‘protest’ music scene. I think he wanted to say something about the madness and sadness he saw, discovered he was good at it and wanted to make a living as a musician.

I was singing to define the way I felt about the world.

It might be worth mentioning that his girlfriends, Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez, were also very involved in politics and protest…just as his girlfriend in the late 70s was very involved in Jesus. Dylan seems to get completely absorbed by whatever piques his interest, gets right to the heart of it, then moves on, which is typical of most artists. Picasso didn’t just paint angular harlequins.

Dylan sells out!
Dylan sells out!

Dylan has said, on several occasions, that he felt constrained by the ‘Folk/Protest’ movement of the early 1960s:

“Folk music was a strict and rigid establishment. If you sang Southern Mountain Blues, you didn’t sing Southern Mountain Ballads and you didn’t sing City Blues. If you sang Texas Cowboy songs, you didn’t play English ballads. It was really pathetic.”

“I didn’t much ever pay attention to that. If I liked a song, I would just learn it and sing it the only way I could play it…But it didn’t go down well with the tight-thinking people. You know, I’d hear things like ‘the kid is really bastardising up that song’.”

“When I started writing those kinds of songs, there wasn’t anybody doing things like that. Woody Guthrie had done similar things but he hadn’t really done that type of song…He contributed a lot to my style lyrically and dynamically but my musical background had been different, with rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues playing a big part…In other words, I played all the folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. This is what made me different and allowed me to cut through all the mess and  be heard.”

There’s no black and white, left and right, to me anymore. There’s only up and down, and down is very close to the ground. And I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial, such as politics.”

– December, 1963

“Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman.  From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organization…”

– to Nat Hentoff, 1964.

“To tell you the truth, I really don’t know what politics are. When I am seriously dealing with something, I find my self to be on the side of the right this time and the next moment I am completely on the side of the left side.”

Sell Out!

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like – being so famous so quickly, and, most importantly, the kind of fame he had was so…unusual.

I have a friend who is an actor in a long-running British TV soap opera. He explained to me how the perceptions and expectations of people towards the character he plays can directly affect his private life, his real life, depending on the storyline of the soap opera he acts in. He has been verbally and physically attacked, spat at in the street – because of the person he plays on TV.

As frightening as it may sound, some people genuinely don’t seem to understand the difference between reality and an actor playing a role on television.

It seems to have been similar with Bob Dylan, but magnified a thousand times. Just because he wrote some meaningful songs, that touched a lot of people, he had been hoisted up onto a pedestal and demands placed on him. The art had been mistaken for the artist. The song had been mistaken for the singer. Responsibilities had been tied to the artist which did not belong to him.

Every artist who puts their work in the market place has to live with criticism, negative and positive. That’s part of the deal. However, does an artist have to accept the expectations and dreams of the people who buy (or don’t buy) his work?

I don’t think so.

“People say ‘You’re the prophet, you’re the savior.’ I never wanted to be a prophet or savior. Elvis maybe…”

– Bob Dylan on 60 Minutes.

"So, what's it like to be Spokesman of The Sixties?"
“So, what’s it like to be Spokesman of The Sixties?”

With Bob Dylan, the whole thing seemed to get wildly out of hand very quickly, and it still goes on. The reaction to his recent appearance in a Chrysler advert is a case in point. Social Networks were alive with calls of ‘Sell Out!’.

This statement is typical, but by no means the most vicious or unreasonable:

“The real villian is Bob Dylan, who traded in a generation’s memories when he allowed the song to be used as an advertising jingle, probably for a tidy profit.”

I can’t see why people are so upset that Bob Dylan sometimes does adverts, private gigs or allows his music to be used to sell things like cars, yoghurt, beer, his own accountancy firm or Co-Operative supermarkets.

He’s not selling Arms, drugs or blood diamonds. He never robbed any churches or cut off any babies heads. He’s a musician who is making a living in a sales-based industry. He isn’t a charity, although he has, and does, a lot of work for non-profit organisations and causes that he believes in. He tends not to invite film crews to witness such things. He has also been known to spontaneously donate money to local communities…but I digress.

Bob Dylan supposedly ‘sold out’ for ‘going electric’, for signing to Columbia, for singing Country, for singing Gospel, for making money (like Tour 74 and the 1978 alimony Tour), for not singing ‘Folk’, for going ‘Vegas’, ‘Disco’, ‘Pop’.

If he stays out of the limelight, he’s a recluse. He has been accused of pretty much everything, from racism to alcoholism. He ‘sold out!’ for doing Hearts Of Fire (“I did it for money. I mean, why else would I do it?“) and, of course, for doing adverts.


He’s had people try to enter his home, go through his garbage, searching for clues to God knows what. There have been open letters printed in the Press, answers to all manner of questions demanded of him. He’s been quoted by Presidents, called ‘Judas’ for playing music he always set out to play, has been stalked, sued, derided, insulted and followed by women pretending to be his wife. He regularly has hundreds of people on file who are considered a threat to his safety, and for what?

Because he writes songs.

It really is bizarre.

“People come up to me like I’m some long lost brother or something, just because I wrote a song which happens to bother them in some particular way. Well, I got nothing to do with these people, and they got nothing to do with me.”

Dylan and Mossad security agent, 'Big Abe'.
Dylan and Mossad security agent, ‘Big Abe’.

Don’t Follow Leaders

Dylan has tried to destroy The Myth many times. Self Portrait, according to the man himself, was an attempt to do that very thing.

“I wasn’t going to be anybody’s puppet and I figured this record would put an end to that…I was just so fed up with all that who people thought I was nonsense.”

– Cameron Crowe, Biograph, 1985.

“ I’d also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn’t know anything about…they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?’”

“There’d be crowds outside my house. And I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired.”

– Rolling Stone, 1984.

The career sabotage, as Dylan said, did seem to backfire. If anything, it seemed to fan the flames of mystery. Fans and critics alike seemed to demand that he returned to whatever position they had perceived he occupied before he crashed his Triumph. To join whatever cause happened to be popular.

People bought his albums, (and bootlegs, for which Dylan receives no money at all), saw his shows but that wasn’t enough.

Bob Dylan must be more than a musician, more than a songwriter, more than a man. He must be Super Bob, prophet and holder of a generation’s moral compass.

You have to buy in to something in order to sell out from it, don’t you?  Bob Dylan, in my opinion, never bought into anything. I can find no evidence that he belonged to any organisation, left-wing, right-wing or otherwise.

He distanced himself from the ‘Folk/Protest’ movement precisely because it was limiting, on a variety of levels, and probably because of the demands that audiences were putting on him. People at the time seemed to want a leader, a champion, a focus. Bob Dylan did not want to be that person.

The industry he works in is as sales-based as any other. It is a capitalist operation, so can’t be anything else. He is a musician and sells his work to people who want to buy it.

I see no problem with musicians making money. I wish more of it went to the artist, rather than the industry they are surrounded by, but it is what it is.

I know musicians who choose to work outside of the music industry, despite having been offered ‘deals’. That’s their choice, but I know that they struggle, financially, and have to work extremely hard to earn a decent standard of living and, more importantly, to get their music heard.

Hank Williams not opposed to making some bread.
Hank Williams not opposed to making some bread.

Licensing your music for TV commercials is a very good way to make money, aside from gigging and selling albums, books and other merchandise. Woody Guthrie had sponsors and Hank Williams regularly had advertisements on his radio shows – just ask Miss Audrey. It’s not a new idea, but a cursory scroll through Google, Facebook and Twitter, suggests that Bob Dylan gets attacked for doing it. He sells out.


Because he is still associated with a social movement that happened, 50 years ago, in parts of America. A social movement that he deliberately distanced himself from at the time.

How crazy is that?

You too can be as bad as James Brown!
You too can be as bad as James Brown!

Some people, like Tom Waits (“Your credibility, your integrity and your honor are things no company should be able to buy”), don’t want to License their music or use their image to sell products, but most do. It’s a personal choice. I think great art can make money without cheapening it. I don’t think an artist has to starve to be respected.

I can tell you that it doesn’t mean anything to him that people might not like what he is doing. Him still do it. And that is the most important thing. Him still do it.

Bob Marley

Sound Of The Longhairs.
Sound Of The Longhairs.

Advertising Signs

I’m not selling breakfast cereal, or razor blades or whatever. You know thing’s go better with Coke because Aretha Franklin told you so and Maxwell House coffee must be OK because Ray Charles is singing about it. Everybody’s singing about ketchup or headache medicine or something. In the beginning it wasn’t anything like that, had nothing to do with pantyhose and perfume and barbecue sauce…Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry… they all struck fear into the heart. Now they got a purpose sort of… to sell soap, blue jeans, anything, it’s become country club music… White House… Kentucky Fried Chicken… it’s all been neutralised… nothing threatening, nothing magical… nothing challenging. For me I hate to see it because it set me free, set the whole world on fire.

– Bob Dylan, 1985

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.

2014-08-13 17.03.37

Advertising has changed a lot since James Brown did commercials for hair spray.

After years of chasing generalised demographics, the trend is now for ‘psychographic profiling’.

Psychographics look at the mental model of the consumer in the context of a customer life-cycle. Amazon was a market leader in this technique, through innovations like “recommended products” and “users like me also bought.”

Psychographic algorithms have learned to predict its users, and what they are interested in.

Kids who like Jake Bugg, for example, may well be interested in certain albums by Bob Dylan.

The market works. I get to enjoy great music and the musicians get paid.

Michael and Janet Jackson, Ray Charles, Britney Spears, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Queen, Pink, Christina Aguilera, Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Madonna, Ludacris, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and One Direction have all been ‘the face of Pepsi’.

2014-08-13 17.49.03

The Rolling Stones advertised Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in 1964.

The Who, Golden Earring, The Moody Blues and The Turtles advertised Coke or Pepsi. Cream did Falstaff beer, Jefferson Airplane and Jerry Garcia did Levi’s jeans.

I’m not sure when it became immoral or ‘a sell out’ to earn money from advertising, but Dylan seems to get the most vitriolic and sustained criticism.

2014-08-13 17.11.26

He has actually done surprisingly few ‘Adverts’ in his career as Legendary Seer of the Sixties. He advertised Fender musical instruments in 1965 and allowed his instrumental, Turkey Chase, to be used in a commercial for a Greek beer in 1979, but as his songs are of paramount importance to him, it isn’t surprising that the following list is relatively short.

It is worth noting that, according to Bob Spitz, Dylan has a permanent clause in his contract with Sony that gives him absolute control over how his music is used.

2014-08-13 16.51.11


They were put together down in Argentina/By a guy making 30 cents a day.


A version of The Times They Are A-Changin’ was used in a commercial for Dylan’s accountancy firm, Coopers & Lybrand.

Agency president Fred Bertino said, “we got lucky!

Part of the agreement blocks Hill Holiday (the Ad Agency responsible for the commercial) from using Dylan’s name, even when discussing the commercial.

We bought the rights to the song, not the rights to talk about him,” Bertino explains.

The version in the advert is Richie Haven’s, not Bob Dylan’s.

It was definitely Dylan’s decision, however, as he owns the copyright.

When The Times was originally copyrighted in 1963, the U.S. copyright statute provided for a 28-year original term and a 28-year renewal period.

The standard Songwriters Guild of America contract in the ’60s limited the grant of rights to the publisher to 28 years (same as the original U.S. copyright term), after which the worldwide rights would revert to the songwriter.

It appears that Dylan’s contract with Witmark had this provision, since when the copyright to The Times was renewed in 1991, it was renewed in the name of Special Rider Music, rather than Warner Bros. Inc. (Witmark’s successor).

In addition, even prior to the copyright renewals of his early songs, Dylan appears to have had control over the use of his songs as jingles. (From Krasilovsky and Shemel, This Business Of Music, 7th Edition 1995)

Selling cakes in 1969.
Selling cakes in 1969.


Dylan licenses  The Times They Are A-Changin’, this time sung by a children’s choir, to be used for a Bank Of Montreal commercial.


Dylan licenses the song ‘Love Sick‘ to Victoria’s Secrets, makers of ladies garments. He appears in the TV commercial.

He also allowed an exclusive compilation CD of his work to be sold by Victoria’s Secrets.

Dylan gets into Ladies underwear.
Dylan gets into Ladies underwear.


Kaiser Permanente Health Insurance are granted license to use the original, album version of The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Dylan’s people agreed an 18-month deal whereby Starbucks had exclusive rights to sell Bob Dylan: Live at The Gaslight 1962.

HMV Canada pulled all Bob Dylan products off their shelves in protest. HMV began stocking their shelves with Dylan’s albums (albeit sparingly) in December 2005 in order to capitalize on the Christmas season. HMV fully restored Dylan’s discography to their shelves in the spring of 2006.

Columbia later offered the Live at The Gaslight 1962 CD as a free giveaway with any Bob Dylan purchase at HMV stores.


Dylan appeared on a stool in an Apple ‘Silhouette Ad’. The video was created to help sell ‘Modern Times’ and featured the song “Someday Baby.”

Shamelessly selling his own music.
Shamelessly selling his own music.


Bob Dylan appears in a TV commercial for the Cadillac Escalade. The music is not his. The advert also promotes the show he hosted on XM Satellite Radio, whose receivers are standard on the Cadillac Escalade.

2014-08-14 23.15.23


Dylan licensed the original album version of Blowin In The Wind for use in a commercial by supermarket chain, Cooperative Group in the UK.

His label later said that “the Co-op’s adherence to ethical guidelines on environmental impact, fair trade and social responsibility, influenced his decision.

A Co-Op spokesman said “When we put the ad together we were astounded that no-one had ever used Blowin’ In The Wind in this context before. We felt the sentiments expressed in Dylan’s masterpiece summed up the optimism we have for the Co-operative.

Also in 2009, a remix of the song, Forever Young was used in a Pepsi commercial. It featured images of a mid-Sixties Dylan, with shades, cut with images of Will.I.Am, who raps a verse. The advertisement ends with the slogan: “Every generation refreshes the world.

2014-08-14 23.21.25


An advert for Google Instant cleverly used clips from the Subterranean Homesick Blues scene from Don’t Look Back, featuring part of the album version of the song.


Brother used a mechanized cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’, performed by printers.

The license would have been granted by Dylan, regardless of the performer.


Retailer Kohl’s ran a television commercial in November for the Christmas holidays. The commercial shows a couple decorating an elderly woman’s apartment, to the sound of a cover of Dylan’s Forever Young.


Chobani, makers of yoghurt, used the original version of  I Want You as soundtrack to their commercial, featuring a bear.

(The inclusion of a bear in the advert is clearly a reference to Albert Grossman, who was known to frequent shops.)


It’s hard these days to find food made with only real natural ingredients. But at Chobani, it’s the only way we know how. A Cup of yogurt won’t change the world, but how we make it, might.”

The tagline is “How matters.

Also in 2014, Jeep used two Dylan songs for car commercials. The first was a cover of Blind Willie Johnsons Motherless Children for Jeep Cherokees.

The second used Rocks And Gravel from Live at the Gaslight 1962.

"Let Dylan carry your morality..."
“Let Dylan carry your morality…”

Then there was the infamous Chrysler advert at The Super Bowl, which features Dylan selling an American-made car.

Good car to drive, after a war” wasn’t the tag line.

"'What time is it?' said the judge?
“‘What time is it?’ said the judge?

There is a Bob Dylan Swiss watch and a Gibson Bob Dylan SJ-200 signature model guitar, 120 of which are signed by Dylan himself. One of the guitars is apparently owned by the Bob Dylan Corporation.

“My son is a corporation and his public image is strictly an act.”

(Abe Zimmerman, 1963)

The Gibson Bob Dylan Sell Out model SJ 200.
The Gibson Bob Dylan Sell Out model SJ 200.



Dylan played at West Point Military Academy on Saturday, 13th October.

Elliott Mintz: ”Bob Dylan is doing pretty much the same thing that he has been doing for the last 30 years. The nature of the venue is not of great importance to Bob. He’s just Bob.”

From the stage, Dylan remarked: “Talk about a guillotine there! Actually not such a bad way to go. There are much worse ways than that!” after It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).

He played Masters Of War, which pours scorn on armaments manufacturers and the politicians and military advisors who send soldiers off to fight wars.

2014-08-14 23.30.17


On February 3, Dylan and his band performed at the Biltmore Hotel, Las Vegas, for approximately 250 people. The show was a corporate sponsored event and was not open to the general public.

The show was sponsored by Nomura Securities International, Inc., a subsidiary of Nomura Securities Co., Ltd. and they are the largest brokerage house in Japan. Interestingly, Nomura helped to underwrite a US issue of Sony stock in 1961.

Nomura president Ethan Penner apparently remarked: “I am not here paying someone a lot of money to amuse themselves – they are here to amuse me.

Good luck with that, Mr Penner.


On Sept. 27, Dylan performed at the Catholic Eucharist Congress in Bologna, Italy. Pope John Paul II was there, in body, if not in spirit.

On the 14th of November, Bob Dylan played at an Applied Materials private employee party, along with Jakob Dylan and Wallflowers. They didn’t sing together.


Dylan played at a Lucky Jeans private party at Club Rio Suite Hotel And Casino, Las Vegas, NV on March 1st.

In 1990, Lucky Jeans retailed for almost $70, the top price then. Rock artists would wear our products, and we would hang their photos in the stores. We were known for our twice-a-year parties at the trade shows in Vegas. When Bob Dylan played for us in the mid-’90s, we knew we were a success. Artists like Jackson Browne, who wouldn’t normally play trade shows, loved our brand. They wore our stuff and would perform for us…

– Barry Perlman, CEO Lucky Brand, Fortune Magazine, Sept 14th 2012

2014-08-13 21.16.25


Dylan and Norah Jones played a private show to celebrate Amazon’s 10th Anniversary on July 16th in Seattle. Dylan is the top-selling living male recording artist on Amazon, and Jones is the top-selling female artist.

It’s not uncommon for high-profile artists, even one as closely associated with the counter-culture as Dylan, to appear at corporate events. The stigma that used to be associated with these corporate gigs seems to be just about gone now. The artist’s motivation for doing this is usually money. They pay extremely well. … (Dylan’s) doing casinos and all kinds of things now. Bob hasn’t been as selective in his choices as he would have been even 10 years ago, or as any artist would have been 10 years ago.

– Gary Bongiovanni of the concert trade magazine Pollstar.

Getting a massive fee for playing a Private Party for Lucky Brand jeans seems like a massively good idea. I see no moral reason for not doing private gigs. I happen to think Amazon treat their employees disgracefully, but that has nothing to do with Bob Dylan.

Harmonica Sell Out!
Harmonica Sell Out!

The Apple, Google, Pepsi and Chrysler commercials advertised Bob Dylan as much as the products that paid the fee.

Tax Deducatble Charity Organisations

Bob Dylan’s music endures because he so brilliantly captures our heartbreak, our joy, our frailty, our confusion, our courage and our struggles. His words convey a depth of meaning that few artists can equal, inspiring us and always moving ahead of our expectations.

– Karen Scott, Amnesty International’s manager of music relations.

Bob Dylan is currently, publicly, supporting the following charities:

Amnesty International, City of Hope, End Hunger Network, Feeding America, K9 Connection and Music Rising.

2014-08-18 22.36.03

In 1963, Bob Dylan performed, for free, at an SNCC rally in Greenwood, Mississippi and the historic ‘March on Washington’, where Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Dylan sang “Only A Pawn in Their Game”, among others, at the Lincoln Memorial. Given it’s central theme of the racist murderer not being wholly responsible for the crime, with institutionalised racism being equally complicit, it was a brave choice.

In 1964, Dylan wrote Puff The Magic Dragon but gave it away when he realised it was terrible.

On Sunday, August 1, 1971, Dylan played for free at the “Concert for Bangladesh” in the afternoon and evening.

The shows were organised to raise money for a massive refugee crisis that was gripping the South Asian nation of Bangladesh.

Dylan wrote and released the song George Jackson in the same year, as a response to the assassination of the Black Panther and author.


Dylan appeared at a Friends For Chile concert in 1974. It was organised by Phil Ochs. Dylan’s performance was possible influenced by the intake of alcohol.

Where am I? Huh?

Where am I? Huh?

2014-08-13 16.44.35

Rubin Hurricane Carter wrote his autobiography, ‘The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472’, in prison. It was published in 1974.

The following year, he sent the book to Bob Dylan, who visited Carter in jail. Inspired by Carter’s story, Dylan and producer Jacques Levy wrote the eight-minute narrative epic “Hurricane,” which ended up on the album Desire.

Dylan featured the song heavily in his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and played at the New Jersey prison where Carter was held to show support. The Revue, which also featured Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Roger McGuinn, went on to play a benefit concert (to raise money for Carters legal costs) at Madison Square Garden (raising $100,000).

The second benefit at the Houston Astrodome didn’t fare so well. The high ticket price, the arena’s ‘poor sound’ reputation and the question of whether some of the advertised stars would actually appear, prevented a sellout. By the morning after the concert, rumors abounded that the benefit, suffering from high stadium, hotel and transportation expenses, had actually lost money – according to a 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

The song was licensed for use in the 1999 film, The Hurricane.

The New Yorker film critic David Denby called it: “False, evasive and factually very thin – a liberal fairytale.”

In March 1975, Dylan played a benefit concert, in San Francisco.

It was a one-day festival in aid of Bill Graham’s S.N.A.C.K. (Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks) organization.

(Dylan plugged a mime troupe show at the 1965 San Francisco Press Conference. The troupe was being promoted by Bill Graham.)


On June 6, 1982, at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA, 85,000 people showed up for a concert to promote nuclear disarmament.

“Peace Sunday: We Have A Dream”, a six-hour show, featured Bob Dylan as a surprise guest during Joan Baez’s set.


1985 was a busy charity year for Dylan. He contributed vocals to the single, Sun City, which urged artists not to play the Casino and leisure complex in the heart of South Africa. Artists who played there were considered by many to be endorsing the racist Apartheid system.

Interestingly, the following artists did play Sun City:

Elaine Page, Frank Sinatra, Queen, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt (who received $500,000 for six concerts in 1983, saying “I don`t like being told I can`t go somewhere“), Julio Iglesias, The O’Jays, Ray Charles, Boney M, Black Sabbath (Drummer Bev Bevan refused to play the shows, and was replaced by Terry Chimes, formerly of The Clash), Rod Stewart, Status Quo, The Beach Boys, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Laura Branigan, Kim Wilde, Modern Talking, Cher, Dolly Parton, Chicago, Rick Wakeman, Kenny Rogers, Gloria Gaynor, George Benson, Shirley Bassey and Barry Manilow.

Stevie Wonder turned down $2 million to play in Sun City. Bill Cosby turned down a similar amount.

Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Jay Z, Nelly Furtado and Jon Bon Jovi have all played for members of Libya’s Gaddafi family in recent years. The going rate is $1 Million for 45 minutes.

Dylan also sang on the USA For Africa single, We Are The World and was filmed for the video.

There is fantastic footage (on YouTube) of Dylan rehearsing for his part, asking Stevie Wonder to help him, by playing the chords on the piano and coaching him to get a decent vocal.

2014-08-17 16.54.59

In the same year, Dylan infamously headlined the original Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.

After an excited intro from Jack Nicholson (“Some artists’ work speaks for itself; some artist’s work speaks for his generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present to you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man! The transcendent Bob Dylan!“), Dylan sang three songs with Ron Wood and Keith Richards ‘backing’ him.

As the sound monitors were behind them (and behind a giant curtain where a plethora of stars rehearsed the finale), they could not hear themselves, resulting in a shambolic performance.

Dylan, Richards and Wood may have had a small glass of beer prior to taking the stage…

2014-08-17 16.52.24

In between songs, Dylan said this:

I hope that some of the money…maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe…one or two million, maybe…and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms that, the farmers here, owe to the banks…

Bob Geldof, who organised the event, was deeply upset by the statement:

He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid…. Live Aid was about people losing their lives. There is a radical difference between losing your livelihood and losing your life. It did instigate Farm Aid, which was a good thing in itself, but it was a crass, stupid, and nationalistic thing to say.

Peter, Paul and Mary were originally pencilled in to join Bob Dylan for a performance of Blowin’ In The Wind, but Dylan called the organizers a few days before the show saying that he would play with Wood and Richards instead.

Inspired by the comments Dylan made at Live Aid, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp agreed that family farmers were in dire need of assistance and decided to plan a concert for America. The show was put together in six weeks and was held on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois before a crowd of 80,000 people. It raised over $9 million for America’s family farmers. It was called Farm Aid. Dylan played a set, backed by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.


Dylan helps raise funds for Chabad, by doing a video spot during filming for Hearts Of Fire.

Dylan performed for free at the Bridge II Concert, on December 4, 1988, in California at the Oakland Coliseum.

Performers that night were – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Nils Lofgren, Billy Idol, Dylan, G. E. Smith, Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Tracy Chapman.

In September 1989, Dylan appeared on a Chabad telethon.

Dylan contributed lead vocals, as Lucky Wilbury, for the 1990 Romanian orphans appeal single, Nobody’s Child. The whole appeal was organised by Olivia Harrison.

In 1991, Dylan contributed a song, This Old Man, to For Our Children, a benefit album for children with pediatric AIDS.

In September, Dylan appeared on TV, helping raise money for the Chabad Telethon, saying:

Give plenty of money to Chabad. It’s my favorite organization in the world. Really, they do nothing but good things with the money. The more you give, the more it will help everybody.”

On July 30, 1999, Dylan played alongside Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, and David Sanborn in a one-night-only concert in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, as a benefit for Clapton’s Crossroads Centre at Antigua.

Bob Dylan Eric Clapton Crossroads MSG 1999 Michael Brito

On March 24, 2002, Dylan attended the 10th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Party in Los Angeles.

In 2008, Bob Dylan announced that part of the profits from his upcoming Canadian tour will be donated to the Raise A Reader charity.

Raise A Reader is a charity devoted to improving literacy levels, and has raised more than $10 million to this end. Amongst the other major supporters of the Raise A Reader charity are Michael Buble, Anne Murray and James Taylor.

In 2009, Dylan released Christmas In The Heart.

Feeding America will receive Dylan’s royalties (forever) from sales in the USA, while two further charities, the United Nations’ World Food Programme and Crisis in the UK, will receive royalties from overseas sales.

Dylan said: “That the problem of hunger is ultimately solvable means we must each do what we can to help feed those who are suffering and support efforts to find long-term solutions. I’m honoured to partner with the World Food Programme and Crisis in their fight against hunger and homelessness.

It’s a tragedy that more than 35 million people in this country alone—12 million of those children—often go to bed hungry and wake up each morning unsure of where their next meal is coming from. I join the good people of Feeding America in the hope that our efforts can bring some food security to people in need during this holiday season.”

On July 23, 2009, Kristie Buble (no relation to Michael), a police officer in Long Branch, New Jersey, picked Bob Dylan off the street because residents had complained about an old homeless man walking around in the pouring rain and peering into the windows of a vacant home.

Ever the chameleon, Bob Dylan changes colour at a Polo Shirt Convention.
Ever the chameleon, Bob Dylan changes colour at a Polo Shirt Convention.

In 1978, when I was a kid of 15, Bob Dylan was my hero.

In truth, I became obsessed by him. I used to try to walk like him, dress like him, act like him – or at least the image of him I created from books, interviews and film clips.

Dylan’s music has been playing throughout my life. It has been in the background through divorces, bereavements, personal struggles – as well as travels, romances, triumphs and various joyful events.

I have been lucky enough to see him in concert quite a few times, most recently at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

My record collection contains every album he has ever officially released. The same is true for Leonard Cohen, Millie Jackson, Tom Waits and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but Dylan is different, somehow. His songs affected me very deeply when I was young, and that affection has grown. He’s a fascinating guy.

The fact that I love the guy’s music, doesn’t mean I should hold him accountable for my expectations, morality or beliefs.

Dylan has adamantly never bought in to anything, as far as I can see, and so the whole notion of him selling out is a nonsense. He is a hard-working musician who sells his music to people who want to buy it. His responsibility to his audience ends there.

He cannot live up to or accept any moral or political ideals that people attach to him. That is a wholly unreasonable demand.

From the very beginning, he has refused to accept the various titles he has been burdened with – leader, Sixties protest singer, folksinger, Born Again Christian, spokesman, idol, prophet, sage or seer.

Neil Young once said that Dylan was “a reflection and extension of the history of American music.

I think I would agree with that.

Bob Dylan is a great musician, end of story.

“Half of the people can be part right all of the time,

Some of the people can be all right part of the time.

But all the people can’t be all right all the time

I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.

I said that.”

Raining money.
Raining money.

Thanks To:

Dag Braathen for photos, insults and being Norwegian.

Wikipedia, Google, Rolling Stone, Snoozeweek, Expecting Rain,, Lars Lindh’s interview with LeRoy Hoikkola,, and my 9 year old daughter, who told me that Dylan’s version of This Old Man was “too scary for kids” and that it would “give her nightmares.”


  1. You took a lot of effort here and rather than getting into details I would like to show my appreciation for showing so much nuance, and in general I share your view, anyway you want to see it, the man gave us great music and lyrics, and even the person behind this art is at least interesting, and purposeful or not he gives us an insight in our times

  2. Pingback: Bob Dylan – selling out since sixty two·

  3. Very well researched and written story. I follow the logic and shake my head at people who want Dylan to be something other than he is.

  4. Great job. The only things I can think of that you missed was that he also gave permission to use a song to World Wildlife Org and also a clean water for third world countries initiative. Maybe Hard Rain? There’s a video and there was a big traveling mural.

  5. Really good piece. I was worried at first that you’d come to bury him but you don’t. People are people and yes, Bob can’t be all right all of the time (in our perception). Other than family and very close friends I would say that he’s been the most important person on the planet to me since I first saw him as a 15 year old in 1966. Everyone disappoints at times, it’s the nature of life, and no-one can live up to our demands constantly. Bobby comes closer that anyone else I know.

  6. Perhaps Dylan’s accountants were able to reduce his annual income tax bill he paid each year with a tax-deductible contribution exemption every time he performed at a charity benefit concert and that’s one reason he’s apparently still worth $180 million? On July 28, 1965 Pete Seeger, incidentally, wrote a memo to himself that contained the following interesting reference to Bob Dylan’s post-1963 philosophical/political/artistic shift: :

    “It isn’t pretty to see a corpse–man or beast…
    “I knew that last week at Newport, I ran to hide my eyes and ears because I could not bear either the screaming of the crowd nor some of the most destructive music this side of Hell. Bob Dylan, the frail, restless, homeless kid who came to New York in `61 was now the frail, restless, homeless star on the stage.
    “…When we see a flaming streak across the sky, we all exclaim, though the light has died before the echo of our voices. But I am glad I saw this shooting star…The songs Bob wrote in 1962 and 1963 will be sung for many a year..
    “…What is the reason for the change–I don’t know. A girl gone perhaps. A manager come. The claws of fame. Or was he killed with kindness?…”–bob-a-feldman-360p/1679869

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Music is a time-machine.

It can transport me at anytime. I could be walking to work, hear a song on a radio and off I go.

“Sorry, I won’t be in today. It’s 1986 and I’m really drunk.”

I heard Mikey Dread through a van window and I suddenly remembered how much I used to like him.

When I got home, I pulled out an old vinyl copy of World War III and turned it up in the late sun.

It sounded awesome and I recalled a party in Bristol: Red Stripe, dope smoke, cooler-than-me musicians, the sun and Mikey Dread, 1986.

Hedonistic heaven.

I Googled Mikey Dread and was gutted to learn that he had passed away.


Mini Biog

A talented engineer with a love of technology and the actual intricacies of sound, Michael George Campbell furthered himself, education-wise, right up until his untimely death in 2008. He was only 53.

Born in Port Antonio on the North of Jamaica, it was a long way (in every sense) from Kingston, but Campbell landed a job as DJ (and initially as sound engineer) for the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.

Starting in 1976, his show (Dread At The Controls) was four hours long and on a Saturday night. His witty style, voice and crazy jingles made his show extremely popular. And he also played the rough and revolutionary style of music known as reggae.

(For great examples of his DJ skills, find the US release of the RAS label LP African Anthem Dubwise. The between-track patter has been reinstated and is brilliant.)

The conservative JBC may have frowned upon his dub and reggae playlists, preferring the irrelevant and saccharine European and American pop, but he was still awarded Top Radio Personality of the Year in 1977-1978.

Mikey Dread eventually walked out of his job at the JBC in 1979.

Having already worked with Lee Perry, Carlton Patterson and Sonia Pottinger, he began to start engineering, playing or mixing for Sugar Minott, Junior Murvin, Earl Sixteen, Wally Bucker, Sunshine, Jah Grundy and Rod Taylor and started his own label, DATC.

Between 1979 and 1981, he released three classic albums, Dread at the Controls, Evolutionary Rockers, and World War III, which brought him to the attention of, amongst many others, The Clash.


I am reasonably sure I saw him sing once, at a Singers And Players gig in Bristol. My memory of events is a little fractured and Red Striped, so I could be mistaken.

I used to drink in a Bristol pub called The Old England, and loved the jukebox. It was as mixed as the customers. I used to hear (the Mikey Dread produced) Clash song ‘Bankrobber’ along with ‘Police And Thieves’. There was Desmond Dekker, The The and Gregory Isaacs; Barrington Levy, Jimmy Cliff and (Mikey Dread-mixed) UB40. It was an eye and ear-opener for me – to see hardcore punks, middle-class students (like me) and Rastas mingling.

That pub, and Bristol in General, had a profound effect on me, musically. It was a very interesting time to be there.

World War III

It is the LP, World War III, that I am particularly fond of. I feel synaptically altered, through euphoric recall, every time I hear it. It was, and still is, immense.

It starts with the sound of a tape rewinding, stopping, going forward, then back. There’s no doubt that the album was recorded onto tape. The rolling, warm bass lopes and wide open spaces sound glorious. You can hear the humming of the amps, hear the space that is filled with music. I swear I can hear soul.

Give me hiss, give me heat, give me tape to vinyl and a pair of speakers bigger than a house.

Break Down The Walls crashes in with tight, fizzy snare, chop-chop guitar and a super lo-fi organ that lays out the melody. Then comes awesome deep, deep bass, reverbs and delays. Then Mikey Dread gives us his distinctive vocal, always timed to perfection, easy on the ear and filled with mirth.

Stop hiding out in the shadows

Scared to show the world you exist

Don’t lock yourself in the darkness

The world is so much brighter than this.

Yeah, if you never take a shot

You’re never gonna win.

So turn it all around and break down the walls.

The sound of this album is just…astonishing. It manages to retain an authentic, rootsy Dancehall feel, while combining studio FX trickery and heavy dub principles. Some of the dub mixes could be lifted from a Prince Far-I tape but with almost pop-catchy melodies. Dread’s nasal, toasty vocals keep the vibes lifted and when he combines with the deep baritone of Watty Burnett (from the mighty Congos), it makes me stop and smile. Broadly.

There is plenty of whimsical humour on this record, but some strong messages too. Dread ruminates on the idiocy of prejudice based on hairstyles, on economic deprivation due to race and speaks of his frustration at capitalism. He speaks with authority, and from experience. He was signed into very restrictive music contracts, and cleverly waited for those contracts to expire before he released music through his own label, Dread At The Controls (DATC).

His final message, in the title track, is delivered with such tenderness and humility, it is hard not to be affected.

Let me get this thing down straight

We are brothers and sisters and should never live in hate.

Mikey Dread was a great musician and DJ, a learned and prolific producer, a good writer, a very distinctive and soulful singer. There aren’t too many people I could write that about.

I have joy in my heart when I hear his music, and a little sadness that he has passed away.

Thank you, Mikey Dread, thank you.


RIP, MIKEY DREAD, 4 June 1954 – 15 March 2008

If you want to buy the album, get the 2002 CD version, with all the dub versions and extended mixes. It’s not as sonically pleasing, but the dub cuts are brilliant.

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Leaving Richmond – An Elusive Glow EP

I often don’t understand things, but have a feeling about them, anyway.


Music is one of those things.


I made a living as a musician for years, but I can’t write or read a note. I have no idea how it works. It is as much of a mystery to me as quantum physics.


All I know is that it can move and inspire me. If it makes me feel something, it’s a keeper.


The Rolling Stones album ‘Some Girls’ makes me want to go out and treat women badly. Bob Dylan sometimes makes me want to be religious. Mikey Dread makes me wish I was a black Rasta. Mazzy Star make me want to take morphine. I could go on, but you get the idea.


Leaving Richmond make me want to fly. With joy.



Whenever I play their stuff, I immediately want to travel. There should be a new music genre called, maybe, Volition Rock or Transit Music.


It has a drive, a propulsive energy, that inspires me to get my nomad on. In February, I will be walking across the Sahara Desert. The only music I am taking is by Leaving Richmond.


The beauty of our species is in this music, too.  It works like anti-depressants should – prodding the happy gland, releasing endorphins and making you want to be a part of something. Part of the world.


Don’t ask me how it does these things, because I don’t know.


It just does.


This music is utterly inspiring and life-affirming.

What more do you need?


The EP is released today – 29th July 2014

You can buy it here

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Bob Dylan At Budokan

Fremantle, Western Australia, March 25th, 1978


My parents wouldn’t let me go to the Dylan concert. I was 14 and beside myself with resentment.


I had a Saturday job, sweeping the floors of a pine furniture workshop, and on this particular day it was rage that propelled that broom. I bristled with it.


I wanted to see my new hero.


I had only just found his music and he was playing in Perth tonight and here I was, fourteen miles away, stranded, grounded, oppressed!


In my room, I remained truculent, silent and fuming.


At school on Monday, I heard that he played Girl From The North Country, my favourite song.


I was beyond heart-broken.


The One That Got Away.

The One That Got Away.


The Record Store


About five months later, after my broom shift, I went to the local record store as usual and headed straight for the Dylan section.


I could scarcely believe my tired, dusty eyes: a new Dylan record!


It was a double LP and a lot of money, but I had to have it.


As I approached the counter, I trembled with excitement.


The guy behind the desk nodded as I handed over my crumpled, hard-earned dollars, “did you see him in Perth? Man, he was brilliant! You’ll love this. It was recorded in Japan, just before he came here…”


I still felt the disappointment fire through my veins but at least now I could hear what I’d missed.


Bob Dylan At Budokan was mine. The first record I’d ever bought.


I went straight to my room and opened the cellophane. It was glorious – there was a booklet with photos and all the lyrics in English and Japanese.


And a poster!

Get Thee On My Wall

Get Thee On My Wall


I gently dropped the needle, put my headphones on and slid into another realm.


I had never heard the first song, Mr Tambourine Man, before but I was knocked out by the beautiful guitar at the start, by the rich sound and his voice. It was amazing. What a song!


I read the lyrics as it played, knowing that I had never been happier. I played it from beginning to end, pausing only to change sides.


Later, my old man told me I was an idiot for spending all my savings on a bloody record, but I didn’t care. I had pushed the broom myself and the money was mine. Besides, it was worth every penny – the lavish packaging, the lyrics, the big, new sound, his flawless singing and a fucking poster!


It was perfect.


The Record


During a recent tour of Japan, CBS/Sony released a three-record set of Dylan’s greatest hits, called Masterpieces. Dylan was so impressed by the attention and care given to the Masterpieces album by CBS/Sony that he agreed to let them release a live album recorded at his last Japanese show. Tentatively titled Dylan Live at the Budokan, the LP should be ready by August.”

– June 29th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

The writers complain the show’s disco or Las Vegas. I don’t know how they come up with these theories...”

– Bob Dylan, 1978,  to Robert Hilburn.


At the time, I felt that the Budokan album, and the tour generally, was a natural progression from the Rolling Thunder Revue (that I’d read about in Sam Shepard’s brilliant Rolling Thunder Logbook).


The costumes, the varied and radical arrangements, the large array of musicians. It made sense. It was theatre – and a good, old-fashioned ‘show’. I also really loved the female backing singers.


It wasn’t quite so ‘travelling circus’ but it was just as musically innovative and the shows were just as long. It also involved hats…well, the occasional beret, at least.

with Jo Ann Harris. And the beret.

with Jo Ann Harris. And the beret.

I had a couple of bad years. I put a lot of money into the movie, built a big house … and it costs a lot to get divorced in California.


“The ‘78 tour was not so improvisational as Rolling Thunder. It was more rehearsed in the traditional sense of rehearsal. Although Bob took some of the songs and completely put new music to the lyrics and he changed the “feel”–radically–of some of the material. But once he decided on a feel, and the arrangement was worked out, it would pretty much stay that way for weeks. It wasn’t like he would play something that was a shuffle one night and a waltz the next.”

– David Mansfield.


The crowd-pleasing elements were obvious on both tours – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door from the Rolling Thunder Revue wasn’t all that different from the Blowin’ in the Wind on Budokan. Slow, anthemic, crowd-pleasers. At least on Budokan, I was spared an over-emoting Roger McGuinn.


Dylan has always been a shrewd and skilled entertainer – he learnt the hard way (and the best way), playing his harp for a dollar a day, paying his dues, honing his skills, learning how to work a crowd – and in 1978 he was able to please the crowd while pleasing himself, pressing on and challenging expectations.


Most musicians respect and admire Bob Dylan for exactly the reasons a lot of people, even ‘fans’, criticise him: he changes.


His metamorphoses are both beautiful and staggering – rock n roller to folky, folky to electric poet, rocker to country singer, Master of Americana, a pop crooner, gypsy rocker, film-maker, gospel thunderer, civil war balladeer…and at each turn, shouts of “Judas!” or ‘What is this shit?’.


The Street Legal/Budokan/Slow Train period stands as one of the most startling, strident and musically interesting periods of his career, and the Budokan album is a peek inside the chrysalis. It’s not the best of the 78 Tour, but it is fascinating, superbly recorded and so fucking unusual!

Getting his Vegas on.

Getting his Vegas on.


They twisted my arm to do a live album for Japan. It was the same band I used on Street Legal, and we had just started findin’ our way into things on that tour when they recorded it. I never meant for it to be any type of representation of my stuff or my band or my live show.” – Bob Dylan in typical negating mode.


The album was recorded at the beginning of the tour and released quickly in order to catch the market. It was a souvenir of the tour, originally intended for Japanese release only. Probably in response to bootleggers and importers, CBS released it in Australia and then worldwide. It was fantastic value for money – as were the shows themselves.

Dylan played almost every night for 3 months and the shows were regularly 3 hours long, with partying very much in evidence:


“Actually it was a very hedonistic time. Bob hadn’t quite found religion, it was the year before all that went down and we all partied hard! Plus we had our own plane in the States, and our own train in Europe. First class all the way.”

– Ian Wallace.

with George Benson

with George Benson


They played to a total audience of two million people, with 114 shows in Japan, the Far East, Europe and the US, and the tour reportedly grossed over $20 million, which is pretty good for 1978.


It was very big news in Japan, as Toshiyuki “Heckel” Sugano, engineer and CBS Production Director recalled:


“It was certainly a matter of popular national interest — and the eight, virtually sold-out concerts he played at the 10,000-seat Budokan set a new record for any foreign artist in Japan.”


Mr Sugano also sheds light on the care Dylan took with the shows and the running order of the album:


“It was funny though, because the audiences were silent all the way through and then they applauded at the end of the concerts — like classical music audiences do. This worried Dylan, until I explained that it was normal in Japan, and especially in Tokyo.


For myself and the others in our CBS team, that album was a special source of great pleasure, because Dylan entrusted us entirely with the song selection, mixing and artwork.


I remember Dylan, the serious musician, asking me all the time after his concerts, “What did you think about today’s sound — really?”


I remember, too, a very kind person with a very good sense of humor who is, put simply, a most honorable human being.”


-Toshiyuki “Heckel” Sugano, May 22nd 2011, Japan Times.


Selected Songs


Mr Tambourine Man


I love the guitar intro to Mr Tambourine Man – the playing and the sound. Warm sparkling colours and tube break-up, like sun through stained glass.


I can’t even pretend to be objective about this track, because it is burned into my brain like a childhood rainbow.


Shelter From The Storm


Falsetto mirroring isn’t a vocal trick that can be used too many times, but it works on this performance, strangely enough.


Ballad Of A Thin Man


The 1966 recordings of this song are amazing. Garth Hudson’s swelling, swirling Hammond bursts along with Dylan’s stabbing piano and wounded howls sounding supernatural and I really haven’t heard better versions.


However, this Budokan arrangement is great. The drums are ace with both Steve Douglas and the brilliant Billy Cross getting to step out a little.


Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright


A reggae take of a folk song was a reasonably fresh and interesting approach in 1978.


The move has been subsequently pop-kicked to death by a myriad of bands, with varying levels of appeal  – The Clash, UB40, Eric Clapton, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, The Police etc, etc..


The slightly limp, loping reggae vibe doesn’t bother me at all, but, oh, the flutes…the flutes. I loathe the instrument and could happily live the rest of my life without ever hearing a flute again. I have listened to this track for holistic reasons, but, quite frankly, it makes me want to punch things – particularly flutes.


Flutes should be shoved into bagpipes and then buried in the jungle. Kurtz could play one with his ass.


Dylan goes out on a limb.

Dylan goes out on a limb.


All Along The Watchtower


In 1978, the intro to this song was the first time I had heard Bob Dylan speak, so it gets one star for that alone.


I saw him perform a radically different take at the Royal Albert Hall in London last year, and although that growling, ominous storm of a version was great, this is better.


Until Desire, I hadn’t heard a violin used as a lead instrument in ‘rock’ music and I like it occasionally.


I’m a huge fan of Billy Cross, so could listen to his sound and string-bending all day.


It’s just a brilliant version of a great song.


I Want You


This has always sounded like a foretaste of what we were to hear on Saved. It’s a brother to A Satisfied Mind, and even though the windy instrument sounds suspiciously like a flute, it’s played with economy and isn’t too shrill, and so I still love this track.


I think the vocals are amazing – tender, aching and executed perfectly. I love that he can bring out the sorrow in such a chirpy track.


Just Like A Woman


The timbre of his voice is lovely on this whole album. I don’t know what microphones they used, or how they were EQ’d, but he sounds fantastic – strong, supple and rich. A lot like my second ex-wife.


Again,  this version has a strong Gospel feel to me, and could easily have fitted into his late 1979 or early 1980 shows.


He delivers “it’s time for us to quit” in perfect 1966 style, and when he blows that harp, I am smiling like a child.


Dylan sounds like a nightmarish cabaret letch while the new arrangements struggle under sterile production and some bizarrely emphatic flute playing” said Mojo.


Okay, I’m with them on the flutes, but ‘sterile production’? Are they nuts? The production is sublime. It radiates warmth.


Nightmarish cabaret letch’? Jesus, the guy can’t win. If he says nothing he’s surly and arrogant, if he interacts and makes jokes, he’s a ‘nightmarish cabaret letch’.


Dylan likes women. Well, stone me, what a weirdo.



Oh, Sister


Creepy organ, staccato stabs, congas, bongos or whatever they are, and sinister sax. This song has atmosphere, and some cool reverby guitar. I’m not a major fan of Dylan’s moaning at the ends of the verses, but the rest of it is top notch.


Bobbye gets her rhythm stick.

Bobbye gets her rhythm stick.


Simple Twist Of Fate


“Here’s a simple love story…happened to me…”


In comparison to some of the rehearsals for the tour, this version is fairly pale. It’s worth it for the little tick-tick-tick on the snare when he sings “he hears the ticking of the clock” line. Hilarious.


One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)


The piano on this track is immense. It only appears here and there, but it’s perfect. The hand drums, too, deserve a mention. I get a bit tired of the sax, but it’s Steve Douglas, so I’ll keep quiet.


Is Your Love In Vain?


I really don’t like this song, but, musically, the Budokan take is wonderful. There’s something so nasty and misogynistic running through the lyrics, that even an old chauvinist like me feels slightly nauseated. As a post-divorce bag of vomit, it works. I recognise it, but don’t want to hear it.


The intro goes “here’s an unrecorded song. Let’s see if you can guess which one it is?”

Beret and dungarees.

Beret and dungarees.


All I Really Want To Do


This performance is so exuberant, strident and choppy that I cannot help but love it.


It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding


Such drama, such boldness! It’s great! It has everything you could ask for really. And Dylan delivers the lyrics perfectly, with bite, venom and his own perfect timing.


What was it that people didn’t like?


Oh yeah, the flutes.



Jerry Weintraub/Management III


Dylan went to see Neil Diamond play at the Aladdin Theatre over the 4th July weekend in 1976 (as reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, July 18, 1976), and he may have been jotting down notes.


If the shows hadn’t impressed Dylan, he would certainly have been interested in the box office numbers Diamond had earned through Management III and Jerry Weintraub.


“By the time I got Jerry to manage me, I almost didn’t have a friend in the world. We were working on [Renaldo & Clara]…I was being thrown out of my house. I was under a lot of pressure, so I figured I better get busy working.

– Bob Dylan 1977.


Jerry Weintraub was (and still is) a big noise in the movie and management world. His clients included John Denver, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Carpenters, who were all big money-spinners in the late Seventies, so it makes a great deal of sense for me – that Bob Dylan would choose to work with him at that particular time.


Fritz Rau (who was negotiating the 78 tour with Weintraub) is invited to dinner:


“…Bob Dylan enters the room. Knowing his reputation of being rather taciturn, I wonder: What is he going to say? Probably he’ll inquire about the tour deal again. Nothing in that vein: ‘Fritz, I wanna talk to you about the American Folk Blues Festival of 1963.'”


In 1987,  Mr Weintraub told reporter, Fred Schruers:

“Bob Dylan was here yesterday, sitting right where you’re sitting. We talked her hours. He is a friend of mine, you know, a great guy, a perceptive guy.”

There once was a kid with a dream

Whose vision was clean and supreme

He formed Management III

and quick as can be

The dream became one with his scheme…


First there was Denver

And eventually Frank…


He was man of the year,

The wiz of the biz

And accolades too many to count.


His dream and his scheme

Turned bread into cream,

Success it continued to mount…”


(This little poem is, in it’s entirety, framed on Jerry’s office wall. It’s by Bob Dylan.)


The Press Hit The Nail On The…oh, hang on….


The fire and brimstone are behind Dylan…” wrote Janet Maslin on July 12th 1979.


It is my favourite dumb-ass quote, because Dylan released ‘Slow Train Coming’ on August 20th. Surely the most fire and brimstone of all fire and brimstone albums.

A Proverb For No Particular Reason.

It is better to be in chains with friends, than in a garden with strangers


Thanks to:


Dag Braathen, once again, for his unfailing criticism, contempt and sneering. And pictures.

5 responses to “Bob Dylan At Budokan

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan At Budokan·

  2. Hi, this is a good article. Well written with a strong feel of the time and place. Sound judgement on Budokan – making me reach out for a re-evaluation of my own. Nice work.

    Thank you

  3. Very well written, entertaining and full of insight. I’ve tried to convey some of the same sentiments on the album over at Johannasvisions, but you’ve done a much better job.


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I asked the good folks at Circuit Sweet if they had anything interesting I could listen to, and possibly review.


Among the names they sent was a band called Rumour Cubes. I was immediately attracted to the name. It reminded me of something Ivor Cutler never wrote.


Having no preconceptions at all is a great way to hear something. I make a point of reading nothing about the artists I might write about. I just want to hear it and see.


The song titles entertained me – ‘Seven Year Glitch’, ‘Your House Isn’t Haunted, You’re Lonely’, ‘Research And Destroy’ and ‘Do Not Go Gently‘. I’m a long-time admirer of Dylan Thomas, so the latter title piqued my interest.




Serendipity means a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise”.


It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, in relation to The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes were “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”.


Rumour Cubes are a discovery that I was not in quest of.


Despite growing up with the ‘wordy guys’ and their peculiar voices (Dylan, Cohen, Young, Mitchell and Waits), I have found a couple of singer-free bands that I will follow and listen to for as long as they make music.


Specifically, Aulos, from Hereford, UK, and Leaving Richmond from Los Angeles, USA.


And after one listen, I am adding Rumour Cubes to that list.


The music is joyous, deeply textured and melancholy. The tracks are witty, superbly played, recorded and just about break my heart, in a delicious, hypnotic way.

Michael Nyman, Cocteau Twins, 4AD, Einaudi maybe, a little Satie, some Massive Attack, a trip to Portishead…


Like tearful, shining morphine.


They sound like no-one else, and I don’t care who they are or what they look like. They are just amazing.


You have got to buy this. It comes out on the 18th of August, 2014.


Find some alone time, turn it up and absolutely fucking revel in it.


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Rod Stewart – The Killing Of Georgie

In 1979, Rod Stewart wasn’t on my musical radar. I was into Dylan, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, old ‘Blues’ and anything angry or melancholy.

I was 16 and in a state of perpetual, irritated bewilderment.

One afternoon, bored and looking for something different to listen to, I went scoffing through my parent’s LP collection. I noticed a vivid pink record called Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits, and put it on.

I thought Maggie May was pretty good, but didn’t think much of the rest.

Then an electric piano version of Walk On The Wild Side started and I was about to dismiss it as a pop copy, when I caught the words:

In these days of changing ways

and so-called liberated days

a story comes to mind of a friend of mine;

Georgie boy was gay I guess

nothin’ more or nothin’ less

the kindest guy I ever knew.

The song had my attention, partly because it sounded genuine and partly because I kept getting called gay or ‘a poof’ at my new school.

I was not only new, but very thin, pale, with a pretty face and a suspiciously strong interest in ‘art’. Fortunately, I was quickly able to escape the homophobic bullies because I was good at sports, football in particular, but at first I was definitely a target.

Others were not so fortunate.

I witnessed plenty of violence towards a couple of other ‘arty poofs’ at my new school, and definitely didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. It made me feel sick, angry and upset.

My childhood had been spent around artists, poets, performers and other extravagant people – many of whom were most definitely and outwardly gay – and I felt no fear of difference.

So, the Killing Of Georgie, really affected me – as much as Masters Of War or Strange Fruit had. It tapped into my developing sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Violence borne out of fear, ignorance and prejudice was plain ‘wrong’.

I thought it was a really great song, and was impressed that Rod Stewart had written it himself. I had him dismissed as the embarrassing guy from ‘Top Of The Pops’, prancing about singing, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.

Clearly, he had another side – and one I respected.


A victim of these gay days it seems.

Six years later, back in England, I was stunned by something I saw on the TV.

A dark, ominous sky. A volcano erupts. Fiery, Hellish, cascading rocks part to reveal a tombstone being chiselled.

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” dooms John Hurt, “it is a deadly disease and there is no known cure.”

The word chiselled into the tombstone is: AIDS.

“Don’t die of ignorance,” runs the slogan, which is kind of ironic, given that it was generally suggested to affect only gay men.

At the time, I worked in a warehouse in Portishead, outside Bristol. A few days after those AIDS TV adverts were broadcast, one of the guys from work came in, badly beaten up. He had been coming out of a bar in Clifton with his boyfriend, and they were both attacked, because they were gay.

Several of his work colleagues refused to sit or eat with him after those adverts and he left his job shortly afterwards.

I remember the then-Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton, referring to people “swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making”.

This was also the time that my Brother ‘came out’.

He was bullied at school, ridiculed, beaten up, invited to parties and refused entry – because he was gay.

In 1986, he tried to take his own life as a result of the endless brutality. It was only because the paramedic acted so quickly that he survived.

Soon after, his house was broken into, trashed, and ‘AIDS SCUM’ painted on the wall outside in red paint. The Police took no action and no investigation was ever carried out.


Glad To Be Gay

Rod Stewart wrote the Killing Of Georgie in 1976, about the murder of a friend of his in 1974. The date was changed purely for rhyming purposes.

It didn’t come particularly easily to him:

I deliberate over the lyrics, I really do. I’ll come up with one line in a day, and then it might be a couple of days before I come up with the rhyming line. It’s never been easy for me.

but he retains a good deal of pride about having written it:

“…there are songs like ‘The Killing of Georgie’ that I’m very proud of, you know, written in ’76, it was a topic that not many people had dealt with.”

The song has a beauty and power that seems to come from truth. Stewart has said very little about it:

That was a true story about a gay friend of The Faces. He was especially close to me and Mac. But he was knifed or shot, I can’t remember which. That was a song I wrote totally on my own over the chord of open E.

At the time of the record’s release, Rod Stewart was the UK’s most super-hetero lothario ever. He was a major, major star and I think it was an admirable move to put it out.

The motivation to write the song may come from the fact that Stewart was ‘discovered’ and promoted by the famously gay Long John Baldry:

It’s probably because I was surrounded by gay people at that stage. I had a gay PR man, a gay manager. Everyone around me was gay. I don’t know whether that prompted me into it or not. I think it was a brave step, but it wasn’t a risk. You can’t write a song like that unless you’ve experienced it. But it was a subject that no one had approached before. And I think it still stands up today.

I think he is quite right to be proud of the song. It has some beautiful lines that have stayed with me all my life:

His mother’s tears fell in vain

the afternoon George tried to explain

that he needed love like all the rest.

Pa said there must be a mistake

how can my son not be straight

after all I’ve said and done for him.

He said “Never wait or hesitate

Get in kid, before it’s too late

You may never get another chance

‘Cos youth’s a mask but it don’t last

live it long and live it fast”

Georgie was a friend of mine.

The Killing Of Georgie is one of a few comets that soar through my musical universe – songs that cemented and encouraged a youthful, hopeful sense of acceptance and tolerance.

I struggle to retain it on a daily basis, but feel it’s worth the effort.

It wasn’t just the subject that made the song shine for me, either – it was that Rod Stewart wrote it. It was unexpected. And that fills me with a great optimism for my species.

It reminds me that great empathy and humanity can reside in anyone, and that any judgements or prejudices I may hold are completely and utterly ridiculous.

Nice one, Roderick.

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Bob Dylan – under the red sky


“I was maybe a little out of my league, experience-wise, when I did Under The Red Sky. I was really just getting started as a producer. There were mistakes that I made…”
– Don Was, musician and producer of Under The Red Sky.

Handy Dandy

Handy Dandy

Bob Dylan wasn’t taking it easy in 1990.

As well as playing The Fastbreak Tour, a Spring Tour of North America, the summer festivals in Europe, then late summer and Fall tours of the US, he recorded with Brian Wilson, played at Roy Orbison’s tribute concert, guested at a Tom Petty show, shot the promo video for Most Of The Time, played a chainsaw artist in ‘Catchfire’, recorded for the Traveling Wilburys (Volume 3), was awarded the French award ‘Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres’, and played an amazing and lengthy set at ‘Toad’s Place’.


The Recording Sessions

This seems to be the way it went down:

The first session was on 6th January 1990 at Oceanway Studios, Los Angeles. Usable (and released) takes of Handy Dandy, 10,000 Men, Cat’s In The Well and God Knows were all recorded at this session.

Everything else was recorded in March and April at Record Plant Studio, The Complex Studio and The Sorcerer Studio – all in Los Angeles, California.

There were also many overdubbing sessions – on April 30th and then May 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 14th & 25th.

The list of contributing musicians is long:

Kenny Aronoff – drums
Sweet Pea Atkinson – backing vocals
Rayse Biggs – trumpet
Sir Harry Bowens – backing vocals
David Crosby – backing vocals
Paulinho Da Costa – percussion
Robben Ford – guitar
George Harrison – slide guitar
Bruce Hornsby – piano
Randy Jackson – bass guitar
Elton John – piano
Al Kooper – organ, keyboards
David Lindley – bouzouki, guitar, slide guitar
David McMurray – saxophone
Donald Ray Mitchell – backing vocals
Jamie Muhoberac – organ
Slash – guitar
Jimmie Vaughan – guitar
Stevie Ray Vaughan – guitar
Waddy Wachtel – guitar
David Was – backing vocals, production
Don Was – bass guitar, production

Most of the musicians were in the studio at the same time as Dylan, but others, like Elton John, over-dubbed their parts later.

The mysterious house.
The mysterious house.

The Songs – A Personal View

Wiggle, Wiggle

I don’t know why the critics were surprised by this song or took such issue with it. Lightweight, funny, talking or rocky blues songs have been on most of his albums since 1962:

‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’, ‘I Shall Be Free’, ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’, ‘On The Road Again’, ‘Obviously 5 Believers/Temporary Like Achilles/Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’, ‘Down Along The Cove’, ‘Country Pie’, ‘Winterlude’, ‘You Angel You’, ‘Buckets Of Rain’, ‘Mozambique’, ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’, ‘Dirt Road Blues’, ‘Summer Days’, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, ‘Soon After Midnight’…it’s pretty much a trademark.

Along with Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits, I think Bob Dylan is one of the funniest writers in ‘popular’ music and ‘Wiggle, Wiggle’ is a legal move.

It’s a simple song but I would rather hear this than, say, the sanctimonious ‘Disease Of Conceit’. The production, although pretty harsh to my ears, isn’t too interruptive and the drums are simply ace.

Kenny Aronoff, in particular, has done a great job on these recordings – his drums are groovy and driving and solid as a rock.

In fact, the playing on all the songs is excellent and the musicians were clearly aided by some brilliant engineers, as the original and released mixes testify to the capture of some very nice sounds.

‘There’s a hole where Slash has disappeared’

Slash contributed a solo to the track which never made it onto the final mix.

Slash talking before the album’s release:

“I walked in at about 2 p.m. and… I noticed this little guy wearing leather gloves and a hooded surfer’s sweater, which struck me as odd because it was warm out. Finally, I realized it was Dylan.
I thought, “What’s going on here?”
Anyway, Dylan and I spoke — he was pretty quiet. George was laying down some slide, and we started just getting drunk and stuff. Then they asked me to play a song with a pretty silly title, “Wiggle, Wiggle.”

I just learned it on the spot. It was such a simple, yet superb I, IV, V progression that there is really nothing much to say about it.”

“When I went to play the lead, Bob came up and asked me to play like Django Reinhardt! l couldn’t figure out where he was coming from. I didn’t hear that at all! So basically, I just laid down the part I thought should be there. Everybody seemed to be happy with it. It was just a funny day, but the song got done and hopefully it will make it on the album.”

Slash talking after the album’s release:

“Dylan? I hated it. He was impossible to work with. He was impossible to talk to. He was absolutely no fun to be around. He had no idea what was going on, as far as I could tell. I did a really good solo for him and he took it off at the very last minute.
He said, ‘It sounded too much like Guns N’ Roses.’
Well, why did you call me?”


Under The Red Sky

Don Was:

“Before George (Harrison) had even gotten a sound on his guitar or heard the song, Bob sat down behind the board in the engineer’s seat, hit the record button and said, “Play!”

Apparently, it was not the first time Bob had done this to George.

All things considered, it was a respectable solo but the guitar was way out of tune and, well, George didn’t even know what key the song was in!

Bob indicated that the solo was perfect and that we were done.

George rolled his eyes, turned to me and asked, “What do YOU think, Don?”

Suddenly, all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. The Concert For Bangladesh was sitting two feet away from me awaiting some words of wisdom! How am I gonna tell George Harrison that his solo wasn’t up to snuff? What if Bob really DID think it was a good solo? Was I missing something?

Finally, I decided that I wasn’t hired to be their adoring fan. I had to step up to the plate as their producer – “It was really good but let’s see if you can do an even better one,” I said.

“THANK YOU,” answered George.

Bob laughed, rewound the tape and let Ed Cherney, the engineer, have his chair back. It was a life-changing lesson in record producing: gentle, respectful truth shall set you free.
George nailed the solo on the next pass.”

It is clearly written in the form of a children’s fairy tale, even starting with the classic lines from ‘Mother Goose’: “There was a little boy and there was a little girl…”, and the lines are repeated, nursery-style.

Immediately, I am taken back to childhood imaginings – by the words at least -and it’s a nice trick.

Michael Gray, in particular, has written at length about the use of Biblical and fable imagery on this album and his arguments are pretty persuasive.

I can’t imagine Bob Dylan writing most of these songs – 10,000 Men, Wiggle, Wiggle, Under The Red Sky, Unbelievable, Handy Dandy, 2 X 2 or Cat’s In The Well and filling them with fairy tale or fable imagery and rhyme by accident.

On the original take, his delivery sounds very…fatherly. It sounds as though he’s telling a story, tenderly, to a child.

The final version has some over-dubbed vocals with elongated vowels at the end of most of the lines, which changes the feel considerably.

The album is dedicated to his (then) four year old daughter, Gabby Goo Goo. Four years old is a prime ‘fairy story’ age and though I don’t believe the album was written or recorded specifically ‘for’ his daughter, I can imagine that he had her on his mind and was, when he was able, reading a lot of nursery rhymes and children’s stories.

It definitely has an innocent mood and I think Don Was hit the nail on the head when he said:

“One of Bob’s great virtues as a songwriter is that he creates these impressionistic pieces that provide a rich tapestry of images while leaving plenty of space for you to drape your own meaning. In many ways, you could attribute Bob’s enduring popularity to his ability to allow each listener to become kind of a co-writer. Maybe that’s why he bristles at that whole “spokesman for a generation” thing. In truth, he’s created a body of work that enables everyone to be their own spokesman. He can do this with a complex song like “Visions Of Johanna” or incredibly simple ones like “Under The Red Sky”

From 'Backtrack' or 'Catch Fire' or whatever the hell that film is...
From ‘Backtrack’ or ‘Catch Fire’ or whatever the hell that film is…


On the unmixed take the piano at the start is great, setting the groove and leading the band. Dylan’s harp sounds more organic on the earlier mix, but overall I think the final, released mix is better, with the guitar riff underlined and I really like the repeated rockabilly guitar phrase that Waddy Wachtel plays.

Don Was described the session:

“Day three was “all Jews day”: sounds like summer camp, doesn’t it?
Al Kooper, Kenny, Waddy Wachtel, Bob and myself with David and Ed Cherney in the control room. We didn’t order any gefilte fish from canter’s deli but we did have fun.
It was a prolific day that yielded Under The Red Sky and Unbelievable.”



Born In Time
(originally scheduled for inclusion on Oh Mercy!)

“...the foggy web of destiny

The original take was much more bluesy and piano-led and sounds far less sentimental, to my ears. It has a sombre and intimate feel that draws me in. The released version is sparkled up and reverbed and it loses its power. I prefer a more basic and less effected sound – always have.

Don Was:

“Day 4 was Robben Ford, Bruce Hornsby, Kenny and Randy Jackson on bass. We cut ‘Born In Time’, ‘TV Talking Song’ and a very cool Grateful Dead-style extended instrumental that featured Bob on harp.
At the time, I didn’t even know that Born In Time was left over from Oh Mercy! I’d never even heard that version ‘til someone played me a bootleg copy a few years ago.

At the session, he [Dylan] just sat down at the piano and played it for everyone. Once the groove was established, Bob yielded the piano bench to [Bruce] Hornsby and picked up an acoustic guitar for the take. There was so much going on at that moment that I didn’t really focus properly on the lyrics as they were going by. It took years for me to realize how deep that song is. I mean, really fucking deep.

For a while, I felt that we didn’t do it justice in the studio. I’ve listened to it recently though and it’s right on the money. There is a world-weariness in Bob’s vocal that is integral to the song, you know…”You can have what’s left of me”.

Getting that point across is more important than any little ‘production’ gimmicks that may have been overlooked. It’s a mood that foreshadows the sensibility of Time Out Of Mind. It’s certainly the crown jewel of Under The Red Sky.”

Robben Ford:

“…finally Bob arrived, and he had on like a sweatshirt with a hood, a baseball cap, these kind of jogging pants. And motorcycle boots. Kind of an odd combination.

When we started recording, Dylan, basically, would just start some kind of a vamp going on the guitar. The whole band was out in the room, in contact with each other, there wasn’t a lot of separation. And Bob has a table in front of him, with pages and pages and pages of lyrics, and he would just start some kind of a thing going on the guitar, and we’d all fall in behind him, and just start jamming. And as soon as he kinda liked what was happening, he’d start picking up lyrics, going through the pages, and just start trying to sing it over whatever we were doing. If he didn’t care for that one after a while, he’d put it down, pick up another page, and start trying something with that. So, literally, we just jammed.

At first, it was very hard to tell what he was thinking, because he just didn’t say a word to anybody. But I got the impression he was happy to be there. And when something would start happening that he liked, he would get very animated. You could tell he was excited. He’d pick up the harmonica and start blowing, and start trying to sing his lyrics, that he’s reading off the pages. And there were literally, pages and pages, loose pages, they weren’t bound or anything. There must have been 40 or 50 pages on the table, and he’d just start fishing through them and start singing them.
He had a suggestion for the guitar solo on that, and he kind of sang it to me, and I thought it might work if we used a delay – he had these back and forth notes going on, and I thought we might use a delay for the second and fourth notes – and he said, “Okay. We’ll try that.”

Although I do like this song, I don’t think it fits with the rest.

It's all the Wilbury's fault.
It’s all the Wilbury’s fault.

TV Talkin’ Song

“T.V. Talkin’ Song” had a far more sinister ending in its original version, with the speaker being hanged from a lamp-post. I didn’t think he was improving on it after a certain point. I think it lost something.” – Don Was.

That Tell Tale Signs didn’t have the original version of TV Talkin’ Song on it, borders on criminal negligence, especially when there is a cheesy, jangly, Lanois-soaked outtake of Born In Time that serves only to illustrate why it was rejected in the first place.

The vocal delivery, originally, is really well timed and in a lower register and sounds better.

On the album, it sounds like he is reading off his sheet and singing over a backing track, rather than being part of it. The timing is off and, to me, it sounds awful. I can’t bear to listen to it.

The released version is drum-led, rather than piano and guitar led, and lacks any atmosphere. The simmering, rich and expressive groove is replaced by click-track banality.

The ending of “…later that evening, I watched it on TV” was funny on Black Diamond Bay, it isn’t on this one.



10,000 Men

A blues shuffle with David Lindley on slide and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan on rhythm guitars. It builds nicely and, again, has children’s book lyrics. I think Dylan’s voice is a little thin, but otherwise, it sounds good.

It’s frustrating because it could be great. The words and the musical treatment just seem at odds.

David Lindley:

“He was real personable. A lot of people get the impression he has a star complex, but he really doesn’t. He’s not like that at all. He’s just saving his energy for what he’s doing, because it’s like kung-fu, y’know. People come at him from all angles and directions and he has to deal with them. We’d talk about all sorts of things, mainly music and guitars: which ones sound good when you play them a certain way, which strings you use.

Dylan would organise stuff in the studio as we were going along, as he heard certain things. He’d shuffle verses around a lot. It was amazing to watch him do it, quite a process. He was always working on stuff, organising verses and finishing things, changing words if he felt they worked better. And it was all done within the structure of what was going on. He was pretty impressive, shooting from the hip.
There was always the freedom to bring your own ideas to the table. Dylan was very approachable in that respect. We’d talk in the studio. He’d say simple things like “I like that” and “Yeah, do that”.

It was Dylan who was the ultimate authority, always. Don deferred to Dylan in that respect. But sometimes he would insist he was right, in a very nice way. On those occasions, Dylan would listen to it and then say “No, no, I like my way of doing it.”

It's still all the Wilbury's fault.
It’s still all the Wilbury’s fault.

2 X 2

How many paths have they tried and failed? How many other brothers and sisters linger in jail?
How many tomorrows have they given away? How many compared to yesterday?

I think the released mix is better than the original. The re-done vocal sounds more assured and the mix has tightened up the sound. I like Elton John’s piano solo, which was added at an over-dub session.

God Knows
(Originally scheduled for inclusion on Oh Mercy!)

God knows the secrets of your heart, He’ll tell them to you when you’re asleep

Don Was:

“We never discussed anything about ideas or themes. There was just an unspoken understanding between us. Bob never played us any of the songs in advance and David and I never told him who the musicians were gonna be. God Knows was our audition. You should’ve seen the room that day. Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan on electric guitars, David Lindley on a Weissenborn slide, Kenny Aronoff …Bob played acoustic piano and sang. I played bass. Nobody knew the song. Bob played it on the piano for us once through and then we cut it.

The modus operandi for all subsequent sessions was immediately established: listen to Bob and respond sympathetically. I suspect that’s how he’s made most of his records.

The first take was a mess – too many musicians.

For take two, we began with just Bob and Stevie Ray and built up the arrangement very, very slowly. His singing was great. It was a keeper take. The rough mix from that moment is the mix that appears on the album. David and I were jazzed.

I can’t speak for Bob but he had the option of splitting after that. Instead of going home, he went on to cut Handy Dandy, Cat’s In the Well and Ten Thousand Men with us that same afternoon. So I guess he dug what was happening.”

Courtesy of Dag 'Tiny' Braathen.

Courtesy of Dag ‘Tiny’ Braathen.

Handy Dandy

“He’s got that fortress on the mountain,
With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in”

“I remember, just before we recorded Handy Dandy, Bob remarked about how, years earlier, he’d been to a Miles Davis session. The band improvised for an hour and then Teo Macero, the producer, took a razorblade to the tape and cut it into a coherent five-minute piece. It allowed the musicians to stretch out without worrying about whether they were adhering to a set arrangement.
We decided to try something similar with Handy Dandy. It was originally 34 minutes long and had some amazing solos by Jimmy and Stevie. We picked the most appropriate four minutes and cut that together.”

I would love to hear the 34 minute version! This is not just my favourite song on the album, but one of my favourite Dylan performances ever. I love the phrasing, the smile in his voice, the lyrics and the playing. It’s a hoot.

The piano and organ mirror Like A Rolling Stone, which is slightly odd but really enjoyable. As Like A Rolling Stone’s riff was originally heavily influenced by La Bamba – or many early Rock N Roll cuts – it has a ‘throwback’ feel, which I doubt is accidental. The whole album seems to be looking backwards to some degree.


Cat’s In The Well

Stevie Ray Vaughan sounds fantastic on this song, his playing fluid, funky and perfectly timed. When I hear this song, I always wonder if they would have recorded together again. I think SRV’s style, tone and timing were perfect for Dylan’s tunes.

Bob Dylan: ‘He was a sweet guy. Something else was coming through him besides his guitar playing…’

Amen to that.

Robben Ford:

“I remember really not wanting the day to end. There was something about being there with the guy that just had its own power. As I said, he didn’t talk to people. He never really spoke to anyone except for Don, the producer. But, still, there was an aura to the environment around him, you felt like you were part of something really special. I’ve been around a lot of famous people and played for them – Joni, George Harrison, Miles Davis – but Dylan really was unique”.

Say 'Cheeeeeese'.  Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1990.
Say ‘Cheeeeeese’. Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1990.

Too Much Of Nothing

I’ve found it hard to work out how I feel about this album. I’ve listened to the early mixes, the Tell Tale Signs versions, the released LP on vinyl and the 2013 mp3 remasters and I have come to the conclusion that the album doesn’t work, for me anyway.

In 1985, Dylan said that he would like to do an album of children’s songs, but that his label wouldn’t be able to market it. Well, now he’s a bona fide rock ‘legend’ and seemingly in line to get every award known to man, he could.

And I’d buy it. I bought the Christmas one.

I think he tried to do it with this album but ended up getting a mixed up confusion.

I find it hard to believe that Bob Dylan went into the studio with a bunch of new ideas – songs based (thematically and stylistically) in dark children’s tales – and heard them in his head as big production rockers. I think he just had a good time with some great players and went with it. Maybe he was just too Wilburied out.

If he recorded the songs (without the Oh Mercy rejects) now, with his current band, who are so adaptable and musically sensitive to him and his songs, it would be a triumph. His voice would suit it, too – Rumplestiltskin in a wolf suit.

As it is, it’s a bit of a puzzle that I rarely feel the urge to hear. It’s a shame because the writing is stylised, simple and really interesting; the music and playing really great but…not when put together.

It Just. Don’t. Fit.

Cat’s In The Well

The cat’s in the well, the wolf is looking down
The cat’s in the well, the wolf is looking down
He got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground

The cat’s in the well, the gentle lady is asleep
Cat’s in the well, the gentle lady is asleep
She ain’t hearing a thing, the silence is a-stickin’ her deep

The cat’s in the well and grief is showing its face
The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace

The cat’s in the well, the horse is going bumpety bump
The cat’s in the well, and the horse is going bumpety bump
Back alley Sally is doing the American jump

The cat’s in the well, and Papa is reading the news
His hair’s falling out and all of his daughters need shoes

The cat’s in the well and the barn is full of bull
The cat’s in the well and the barn is full of bull
The night is so long and the table is oh, so full

The cat’s in the well and the servant is at the door
The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war

The cat’s in the well, the leaves are starting to fall
The cat’s in the well, leaves are starting to fall
Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all

Copyright © 1990 by Special Rider Music


Bob Dylan – before playing Wiggle, Wiggle in concert:

This is a big hit for me back in the States. Sold about 9 million! It’s all about fishing.

This is my ecology song for tonight. It’s my one and only ecology song right here off of my last record. Thanks for making that record such a big hit!! Now I’ve done my duty!

Thank you everybody! This song is off my new latest smash record!! It’s up to about 10 million now. It’s gonna sell a whole lot more before it’s through. Well, it would be nice if it did anyway.

Thank you! Thank you everybody! That was one of my anti-religion songs. Here’s one of my fishing songs.


Copyright information and other trivial factoids

The album ‘under the red sky’ was not included in the Sony-BMG merger.

The album as a unit was copyrighted on 15th October 1990.

The album photographs were copyrighted to Bob Dylan. The front cover, originally thought to be Israel, is generally believed to be the Mojave Desert.

The location of the rear photograph is unknown to anyone who doesn’t know it.

The album is dedicated to Gabby Goo Goo, who is almost certainly Bob Dylan and Carolyn Dennis’ daughter, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. She was born on January 31, 1986.

Dylan played accordion on all the tracks that have accordion.

He only played 10,00 Men once in concert – at Keaney Auditorium, University Of Rhode Island on 12th November, 2000.

He only played Handy Dandy in concert once – in Vigo, Spain at the Recinto Ferial (Fairground) on 27th June, 2008.

Don Was: “We also cut a song called “Heartland” that didn’t make the album but turned up as a duet on Willie Nelson’s Across The Borderline record.”

About this article, Dag Braathen wrote:

The  piece is OK but the ending needs some work. The album is clearly awesome.”


Recording session info from 2 sources:
Michael Krogsgaard: Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions (Part 9). The Bridge #14, Spring 2003, pp. 6-33.

Interview sources:
Guitar World, October 1990, Rob Hughes, Uncut Magazine and a Guns N Roses Fansite.

Thanks to Dag Braathen & Kathleen.

10 responses to “Bob Dylan – under the red sky

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky·

  2. Hello Billy, interested to read your thoughts on this album which is one of my favourites of Dylans. The last three songs are possibly the finest conclusion to any Dylan album. For a long time, i didn’t get this album at all. When it came out, and it wasnt another Oh Mercy, I just couldn’t understand it. But after repeated listens, I suddenly got it, and I could then appreciate it for the wonderful work that it is.

    All the best

    Martin Cowan

    • I think the majority of the songs are amazing but I wonder if the musical settings are what he really wanted or heard in his head? I will listen to it again with your words in mind, as I do find it a very alluring album. Thanks for writing.

  3. I enjoyed reading the comments and I think they are a pretty fair assessment. It’s still a hell of a lot better than Down In The Groove. I thought the production was good and the stories amusing. I think Dylan works similarly on all his records, particularly those after 1978.

  4. Cmon. Disease of Conceit is actually a good song and Wiggle wiggle is as good as it’s name suggests

    • I can’t stand the song, although it’s well performed. Thanks for your opinion though.

  5. Wow. I enjoyed this. I have to say that the album generally works for me, with the exception of T.V. Talking Song. But still I agree with most of your personal insights. I have had the same thought about what this album would sound like recorded with his band today. Nice analysis.

  6. So where was the cover shot taken? It was discussed once in great detail at the old Dylan Pool. The conclusion was that it was somewhere in the Mojave Desert like maybe on some backroads on the way to Vegas from California. I would be very interested to know exactly where the cover photo was taken.

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Ant Savage

Ant Savage – The Ruby Sun EP

I’m a big fan of unusual voices.

All my favourites have them.

I think I may have found another in Ant Savage.

I read in The Guardian that he is a self-taught guitar player, which appeals to me, because it often makes the playing unique – and this is the case with Ant Savage.

His playing is sparse, mostly, but rich and melodic and his guitar sounds great. I hear a lot of recordings where the acoustic guitar sounds awful, but this is lovely.

It was recorded in his front room in Bedford, then mastered by Ru Cook at Lost Boys Studio.


The Songs.

Ruby Sun starts with a strum and I thought I was in for just another bloke with misery and a handful of folk chords.


The song is a masterclass in the effectiveness of simple arrangements. There is a female voice (Hannah Birch) weaving in the background, piano rolls, cello and his breathy, broken voice sailing through it.

It’s quite brilliant and the atmosphere he builds is amazing, given the simplicity of the instruments.

Lessons Of Theft starts like an Eno ‘ambient’ album, with double bass (played by Marek Orzel), piano spikes and filigrees and guitar hammer-ons. His voice comes in, part Morrissey, part Nick Drake, woeful and playful, and it’s just…great.

I keep playing it.

I have no idea what the words are about and I don’t care. I just like the sound of it all.

You know the feeling when you’ve been away for a long time and are on the final part of the journey home, the excitement rising, senses on red-alert because you’re nearly there?

That’s how Home makes me feel.

The Starlings is gorgeous. Like the slow swell of the sea, his voice lifts and falls and carries you away. Sorrow has never sounded so sweet.

I hear a musical bloodline to The Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Nick Drake and This Mortal Coil. He would be at home on 4AD.


This is so much more than a guy with a guitar.

There is intelligence, wit and idiosyncrasy.

And that odd, tidal vocal style, ancient and fresh.

As a debut, this is perfect. It has more than enough to keep you listening but hints strongly at the possible wonders to come.

Keep an eye on this guy.


The Ruby Sun EP is released on April 14th.


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Neil Young – Helpless

I first heard Neil Young in 1978.

Myself and my best friend, Simon, sneaked out of his bedroom window, late one night,  to attend our first ‘proper’ party.

We were 15 and innocent as strawberries.

There was beer, dope, girls and loud, loud music. It was awe-inspiring.

Simon and I got separated. He went in search of dope and I stayed near the beer, alone on the stairs, watching events like a hawk.

Teenage dream girls danced in bikinis and actually spoke to me. It was momentous.

These were the cool, beautiful Demi-gods of the brutal school hierarchy. They were the chosen ones and I was among them. At least hovering around them, anyway.

The music they were playing was great, too, for a hot summer night on the West Coast of Australia.

The Eagles, Seals & Crofts, Rickie Lee Jones, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, JJ Cale and The Byrds. There was some disco, too, that I wasn’t familiar with but, after an hour of watching a room full of semi- undressed Bardots dance to it, I was a solid, aching fan.

I also heard someone else. Someone I didn’t know. He sounded a little bit like my hero, Bob Dylan, but more…guitary.

I moved into a dark room to be close to the stereo speakers. It was great! The songs sounded so real. It was as though these people were in the room. The singer’s voice was odd, which I liked. It had a country warmth but sorrowful and bluesy, too.

Before my brain could engage a casual tone or a social filter, I turned to the human form beside me on the old couch and blurted, “who is this? This is amazing! This is the best band I’ve ever heard!”

As my eyes adjusted to the smokey dark, I realised the form I had addressed was female. And pretty. And older.

Rather than dismiss or ignore me, she smiled and my heart floated away.

She leaned in close and said “it’s Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Good, isn’t it?”

The Man

The Man

Her warm breath on my neck rendered me catatonic for several seconds, but I managed to nod.

And, like a dream, we sat and shouted into each other’s hair for hours. About music and poets. Angela told me all about Neil Young.

She played an LP called ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and said it was her favourite. It was his second album and had three of his best songs – “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. She said that those songs were written when Young had a fever.

The songs were long, loose-limbed and sounded so, so good. Angela knelt beside the stereo and flicked through the row of LPs, picked one out and put it on the turntable. It was an album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young called ‘Deja Vu’.

She told me who played on it, asking if I knew who Jerry Garcia was, or The Grateful Dead? I shook my head and she explained them. As the third song faded, she took my hand in hers and whispered, “Listen to this!”

Vocal symmetry

Vocal symmetry

That strange violin-like intro and loping, loose and lilting drum beat with acoustic strums, piano rolls and descending bass slope – it was majestic, intensified by this lovely girl who was squeezing my fingers and smiling, her eyes shooting yellow sparks into me.

The song made me feel like I was watching the singer as he looked at an old photograph. His perfect, peaceful memories were pouring out through his sorrow-edged voice. I could see his face reflected onto the photograph –  a home or a remembered face. I was young, but I knew that one day I would look back and the view would be both lovely and sad. Like the song.


“I know! It’s so good.”

The voices on the chorus were earthy and celestial at the same time. I made her play it three times, until someone shouted at us to change it. I wanted it to go on for so much longer.

Angela hadn’t let go of my hand.

I was in paradise.

Not only had I discovered Neil Young, but I had found that my shyness and inhibitions dissolved in this stuff called alcohol.

I soared above myself, immortal. I was brave and deeply attractive. I had consumed liquid angels and they were showing me how amazing life could be. I was connected to the world by a harmonious golden thread. An invisible ribbon of love tied me to all humanity.

After two beers.

Later on, Angela took me upstairs and, well, she introduced me to more than music. In the blue moonlight, many mysteries unravelled as I experienced the female form. My naive passion was treated with exquisite tenderness and I  finally realised what all the fuss was about.

Thank you Mr Young

Thank you Mr Young

As more beers went in, though, I began to feel very odd. I walked down the stairs like a man going up a hill. I couldn’t tell the difference between anything. I leant against shadows and was followed by walls. I banged into people that weren’t there. For the first time, I was hopelessly drunk.

I woke up in the front garden, alone, with no shoes and a blanket over me. It was still dark but thinner, nearing dawn.

The house was quiet. Those left were asleep.

Angela was gone.

I found a phone and called my Dad, asking if he’d pick me up.


He didn’t know I was at a party.


I was meant to be at Simon’s, revising for something.


My old man went nuts. Absolutely mental. I was grounded for life. I would never be trusted again. I was never going to another party.

I said little, nodding when appropriate, apologising in the silences between the fury and generally looking meek and sorrowful.

When we got home I was sent to my room and told not to come out.

I lay on my bed and smiled at the best night of my life.

Thank you, Neil Young.

At 15, in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1978.

At 15, in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1978.

2 responses to “Neil Young – Helpless

  1. Pingback: Neil Young – Helpless·

  2. Saw Neil for the first time in Louisville, KY in 1983–it was a bizarre experience. This was the “Trans” tour and I don’t think that anyone was prepared for this show. Neil was late, the crowd grew restless, and they didn’t like the music once Neil started performing. About 30 minutes into the show, someone threw a beer bottle which smashed into the giant TV monitor/prop. Neil left the stage, the house lights came up, the concert was over, and a riot almost ensued. I frankly didn’t care all that much for “Trans,” but didn’t think it was THAT bad!…Have seen Neil a couple of times since–my favorite was in ’85 when he played with the International Harvesters and toured with the RE-AC-TOR album. A criminally underrated album and band…

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