Bob Dylan Live: Stirling Castle Part One

This show is from July 2001 when I went on the road up to Scotland from London to attend a show by Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan given in the grounds of Stirling Castle and who by that point was over 12 years into his Never Ending Tour. This is the Part One of the story.

Really hadn’t thought I would want to write about Bob’s Stirling Castle show in July 2001. After writing up the five September 2000 shows I hadn’t done anything since then with regard to words on Bob for months and I didn’t think in the build up to Stirling the fires would be re-ignited. However after seeing the show I realised I was wrong, way wrong, that the energy was there to make me want to sit down and put down on paper my impressions of the whole damn trip.

The September 2000 shows had been special for me after all. Five Bob Dylan shows in five different cities over a period of about a week or 10 days and getting into more than one or two scrapes along the way. That brilliant feeling of arriving in a new city with the knowledge I was there to see Bob Dylan live that evening was simply unbeatable, unbelievable and unrepeatable!!! A privilege that can only have happen if you are lucky enough to have the liberty plus a little bit of cash. This time it was different. There was only one show I was going to for a start and it also happened to be a hell of a long way from London, up in the grounds of Stirling Castle and within spitting distance of the Highlands of Scotland.

I had calculated that if the going was good it would be eight hours there and eight hours back in my Nissan Primera. A long way to go to pay homage there was no getting away from that, but it was going to be my only opportunity of the year to see him, so I had to grab the chance whilst I still had it. There was another show Bob was playing which was in Liverpool and would have been much closer, but it was announced a week or so after Stirling and by that point I had already paid out some serious cash for tickets for both me and Marc Murphy to make the trip up to Scotland. For me then in 2001, it was either Stirling or bust as far as Bob was concerned. Simple as that!

After I had sent away for the tickets I didn’t really give the show much thought. It was still some months away so it only hovered around the back of my mind from time to time as a hopefully pleasant prospect which was out there in the future. Towards the end of April the tickets came through, they were nice big blue ones with a picture of Bob scowling into the camera on the front of them. The printed wording beneath was simple and to the point – Bob Dylan in Concert (no support), Stirling Castle, Friday 13th July 2001. Excellent! That was all the information I needed to know. I stashed the tickets safely away in my bedside drawer, enjoying that nice warm feeling there was now most definitely a Bob show for me on the horizon. The Ragged Clown, Mystery Tramp, Bread Crumb Sinner, the ultimate Song and Dance Man from the Land of the Star Spangled Banner would soon be back in town, well, soon be in Stirling at least.

I had booked the tickets through Desolation Row, a booking service run for Bob Dylan fans by a guy in Welwyn Garden City who had taken early retirement in order to dedicate himself to all things Bob. That at least was what he told us in his quarterly fanzine called Dignity, which I subscribed to for a little while until getting bored of it. I had also taken up the offer of booking our accommodation through Desolation Row, because to drive up to Stirling and back in one hit was simply not an option, unless stimulants far stronger then coffee were on the menu, which they weren’t as when it came to driving I always played it straight, better safe than sorry was the motto for me. Desolation Row were able to book rooms at Stirling University for just £23.50 per person per night, a price which included en-suite shower and continental breakfast. Seemed to me we simply could not go wrong with that and Marc Murphy agreed, having been impressed when I told him what the arrangements were, not that he was the kind of guy to kick up a fuss about such matters, being a mild mannered man who was pretty free and easy going.

Still it had to be said that although the show in July was a pleasant prospect, I wasn’t getting over-excited about it, certainly there was nothing like the anticipation I had experienced a year previously when I had been counting down the days to September before hitting the road in search of Bob in places like Birmingham, Sheffield, Cardiff, Portsmouth and of course London. For the Stirling show I was playing the odd Bob CD from time to time as a way of building up my enthusiasm but I wasn’t heavily into any particular album. It had been four years since Bob’s last release, 1997s critically acclaimed and game changing Time Out of Mind, which had gone a long way to restoring Bob in the popular consciousness due it being so well received by the critics. So there was nothing new for me to get into, although there were plenty of rumours flying around on the Net that new Bob stuff was imminent sometime in 2001. As for all the old stuff there were no Bob albums I was suddenly rediscovering at that time and therefore playing a lot as I guess over the years I had munched  my way through all of them.

July 13th finally came along, in the middle of a patchy summer as far as the weather was concerned, which comprised of nice sunny days followed by periods which were pretty piss poor. The fact that the 13th was a Friday didn’t really make me feel nervous about the journey we had to make. I wasn’t superstitious, or at least I didn’t think I was, also I had no doubts about my ability to drive up to Scotland and back without getting into any problems. Of course unfortunate things can occur but there is only so much that one can ever legislate for, it is simply impossible to understand how the alignment of stars and planets countless trillions of miles away from Earth might have a bearing on such things, if indeed they do. Similarly countless millions of people would be on the road at the same time as us without any thoughts of bad astrology flying through the minds, even if the law of averages meant at least one or two of them would end up that day facing the crunch.

Marc arrived at my place in Woodford on the evening of the 12th where the both of us proceeded to have a good night together before hitting the road early next morning. He was in a lot better shape than the previous September when he had made the trip up to Sheffield with me whilst being on a pair of crutches, all due to an unattended badminton injury which had not gone away. We hit the gin and tonics which gave us a lift, got us chatting about all things Bob, but I stuck to just the one double as I didn’t want to get smashed before the long drive up to Scotland the next day. We had our food and then as we were sitting around the table after the meal I hit upon the idea of taking my hipflask up to the show with me in case we wanted a tipple, a dram, a wee drop, whatever it is you like to call it. If the weather was bad it would be a good thing to have a hipflask full of the finest malt whisky with me in order to perk ourselves up. Before I knew it I had taken the hipflask, which my dad had given me a few years ago, down from the shelf above my CDs and cleaned it out before then filling it up with 12 year old Bushmills from a litre bottle I bought not too long ago on the Duty Free. Neat! Neat! Neat! That was what I think you might call it. By the time I was finished filling it up the flask felt satisfyingly heavy, a nice little power packer full of the good stuff. I had been waiting a while for a good opportunity to use it and now that opportunity had come along. I knew the weight of it in my pocket would make me feel good when I was standing in the grounds of Stirling Castle and those Scottish winds began to whistle whilst we were waiting for Bob and the boys to walk on stage and hopefully blow our minds.

On Friday 13th we were on the road by 6 in the morning. I had kind of calculated on getting up to Stirling between 2 & 3 in the afternoon. That seemed fairly realistic to me, I didn’t think I was being over-optimistic as long as we got ourselves out of bed and made an early start, both of which we had succeeded in doing. Desolation Row had stated we would be allowed access to our rooms on campus after 3pm, therefore I thought it would be good if we checked out the centre of town when we first arrived, so as to make sure it wasn’t going to be long a walk to the castle for the show in the evening. We didn’t want any nasty surprises, such as finding out at the last minute Stirling Castle was 10 miles out of town and way up in the hills. There was also the fact that maybe if we got there early it would also allow me enough time to find a decent whisky shop and to buy a couple of malts so as to keep my stocks ticking over back in Woodford.

We headed straight up the M11 in the early morning light and since the motorway virtually began at the bottom of my road we were soon blasting our way through the sleepy countryside of Essex and Cambridgeshire. The route I intended to take – M11, A14, M1, A50, M6, M74, M80, A9 – was pretty damn simple when you thought about it, with the reason for going M1, A50, M6 being to bypass Birmingham as I was worried it would be horribly congested. In retrospect it probably wasn’t the best decision I ever made but I wasn’t to know that at the time. The problem was that when we got onto the A50 it was riddled with roundabouts which made the 50 miles to the M6 stop start all the way and a real test for a driver’s patience. Nevertheless by 10 in the morning we had got past Manchester, heading up the M6 with things looking good, as the faster part of the journey was now just beginning.

The further north we went the more the traffic thinned out and the country opened up, with London and the South East receding into the distance far, far behind us. I had brought my Phillips CD player along with us for the ride, having splashed out on six batteries so we could play music on it during the trip. I had also brought a whole stack of CDs which perhaps unsurprisingly were dominated by Bob. Favourites in the form of the Daniel Lanois produced brace of Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind each got a couple of plays and also some Weld era Neil Young which sounded most excellent, stuff in other words to get us in the mood for the show. The conversation between Marc and I was sporadic, we often went fairly long periods without saying much to each other, in this instance both of us happy to have the space filled by the sound of Bob singing out to us from the CD player on the back seat of the Nissan, plus a good bit of Neil with his endless feedback, guitar distortion and very long songs.

We made our second stop of the day at the Westmoreland services about 50 miles south of  Carlisle and where the first Bob fans appeared, all of them obviously heading in the same direction as me and Marc. Somehow I had expected to see more of them but maybe it was simply the case that we were running ahead of the pack. We ate a snack at the services along with having a large coffee each, whilst sitting at a table looking out over a pond with a view of the Lake District behind it which could only be described as being extremely pleasant. Needless to say the coffee was to wake me for the final couple of hours on the road as we pushed up into Scotland with destination Stirling firmly in our sights. It was just gone midday when we left the services and we were pretty much on time for a 2 pm arrival as things had so far gone according to plan, so in this instance there could be no complaints from me about any travel gods not looking after us, no siree, not ever.

By the time we crossed the border and drove into Scotland the rain was coming down steadily, it made driving a bit more difficult, but not that difficult. It was still a case of being in the fast lane all the way and short shrift was given to malingerers who we came across hogging up the road as we bombed along in the Primera. All we wanted to do was burn our way through space and time, me and Marc riding high, as an unlikely pair of heroes you could ever wish to meet, on the road from London and on our way to see Bob Dylan play a show in an ancient tartan citadel which neither of us had ever been to before. The border country was pretty wild and the population sparse, I think I must have almost forgotten it existed, there were little in the way of landmarks to speak of, just plenty of low lying hills with mist on the top of them. The last time I had driven through that part of Scotland was over six years ago, coming back from a wet week in April spent with friends in the Highlands, when we had hired a cottage on the shores of a quiet loch down the road from Fort William and on one of the evenings had eaten an unforgettable lamb curry made for everyone by my wife Dawa Dolkar.

By 2pm we had reached Stirling. Not bad going at all and I guess things might have been quicker if I had stayed on the M6 going through Birmingham instead of taking that convoluted A50 diversion which had only led me into a land of a million roundabouts. We parked up in a multi story car park in the centre of town, then got out to stretch our legs and find some food, walking through the mall connected to the car park which was busy with people out shopping, stocking up for the weekend no doubt. I guess that a fair number of them might have been Bob Dylan fans but under the circumstances it was difficult to tell. They all looked a bit more local, more Scottish shall we say, with rather fierce looks and attitudes of no messing about, all of which suddenly made me want to take a piss in a public toilet next to Debenhams.

We got out of the crowded mall to walk the open streets of Stirling town centre. The weather was dry but the skies were grey and there was the threat of rain to come at some point in the day, that was for sure. We gazed up at Stirling Castle high on the hill overlooking the town. It would be a steep ascent, in times gone by the place must have been a nightmare to lay siege to, which I guess was the point as to why it was built there in the first place. Those Scottish warriors of the not so distant past certainly knew a thing or two about strategic positioning, because the castle seemed to dominate the horizon to the west and loomed threateningly large over the town below. After wandering around for a while we found a bar bistro full of people with some classic Dylan being played on the sound system by way of Blonde on Blonde, the last but most important of his mid 60s Golden Trilogy which had begun with Bringing It All Back Home and continued on through Highway 61 Revisited. It seemed as good a place as any for us to stop and have some food. Marc ordered a pint of Orangjeboom and a Mexican Chilli Burger whilst I had a sparkling mineral water and something called a Veggie Max which as you might have guessed didn’t have any meat in it. The food was good, excellent in fact and I tipped the boy a quid who brought it to us, not exactly generous but he was only about nine or ten so must have only been working there so as to get a bit of pocket money.

Finding a decent whisky shop in order to buy myself to a bottle of the hard stuff proved to be a challenge, which was a bit of a surprise considering where we were, but after a pretty thorough look around town I found an Oddbins. It had a fine display of malts, being especially strong on the smokey Islay distilleries which happened to be my favourite at the time. After ten minutes pondering and pretending to look like an expert, which was a ridiculous thing to do in front of a Scot, I finally went for a 15 year old Bruichladdich at £29.99 a bottle and also a ½ bottle of 12 year Bowmore on special offer at £12.99. I kind of instantly regretted only getting a ½ bottle of the Bowmore as it seemed such a weedy thing to do, because really you either went for it or you didn’t. The worst possible thing to do was to end up stranded somewhere in-between, caught in a no man’s land, which of course was exactly what I had gone and done. Credit card bills can soon mount up however and it was all too easy for me to imagine how bad I would feel if I saw a £60 or £70 debit against Oddbins in Stirling on my next statement, all of it spent on the Demon Drop. As it was I limited myself to an expenditure of £42.99 but all the same I couldn’t help feeling a bit of a idiot walking out of the shop with just 1 ½ bottles. No two ways about it, there were no half measures allowed and I had bottled out, or bottled half so to speak. In actual fact what I had really wanted was to buy a bottle of Springbank which happened to be Bob’s favourite malt, or at least that was what I had read on the Net, but Oddbins only had a 21 year old Springbank which weighed in at hefty £59.99 a bottle. Wow! Maybe next time for that one, or maybe not. Legend had it Bob ordered his Springbank by the case load and in the process had become an honourable member of the esteemed Scottish Malt Whisky Society.

By the time me and Marc drove around to our accommodation, which was a halls of residence just off the main campus of Stirling University, it was nearly 4 in the afternoon. The skies were darker, clouds were rolling in from the hills and there was now a steady drizzle, so all in all the signs were becoming more and more ominous as far as weather conditions for Bob in the evening were concerned. I was glad that I had brought my sweatshirt and Levis jacket, not to mention the hip flask full of Bushmills as it now looked like it was going to be needed. The porter obviously knew we were up for Bob because when we checked in he made a joke about how he himself was going to be the support act that evening. It wasn’t particularly funny, rather lame in fact, but I suppose at least he was making an effort, making welcome strangers in town. He gave us the keys to our rooms and once we had let ourselves inside they looked like excellent value for £23.50 which was a real plus after a long day on the road, when one or two home comforts were always more than gratefully received.

We decided to rest for an hour or so before heading back into town. It had been a fair old journey we had made after all and the 6 in the morning start time from Woodford now seemed like it was quite a long time ago. We agreed Marc would give me a call at 5.15 and so I drew the curtains and lay down on my bed to re-charge my batteries, in need of a little rest and relaxation. I quietly gave thanks to those travel gods for looking after us, granting us safe arrival in the town of Stirling with no sticky situations occurring on the way. I almost had a snooze after that, almost, but not quite. I usually had to be pretty shattered to ever sleep in the day due to a wired metabolism which made it difficult for me to fully unwind, despite the fact I had spent years and years practising meditation with all the mind calming exercises which went with it. Nevertheless by the time Marc gave me a knock I was feeling much better, just from simply having a rest by way of lying on my bed and letting things go. Within a minute or so I had put on my Levis jacket with that hip flask full of
Bushmills safely tucked away in one of my inside pockets, along of course with our precious tickets for the show and we were soon on our way.

The weather had now cleared a bit, there was a faint glimmer of an early evening sun which warmed the place up quite considerably, in fact I suddenly felt over-dressed, as for a little while it looked like the skies might completely clear and give us a fine evening. For me at least that seemed to be what Scotland was all about; wild, beautiful and unpredictable. We made our way across an old cobbled bridge built hundreds of years ago standing high above a river, it had seen a lot of history according to the placard stuck in the ground next to it, although in places it was hard to read because someone had spray painted over it making the whole thing more or less illegible. The main gist however was that it was all to do with the great Scottish hero William Wallace, Braveheart, the guy who had gone head to head with Edward I and eventually lost. The waters of the river flowed full and fast beneath us, pure Scottish waters no doubt making their way down from the Highlands and out to the sea. Stirling Castle rose up in the distance above the town, just like it must have done for centuries and it was a special scene; Scotland, Bonny Scotland, so far away from life back down in London and suddenly it felt really great to be there.

By the time we had walked into the middle of Stirling it was now pretty clear what most of the people were in town for and the place was now a lot busier than what it had been a couple of hours before. It was coming up to 6 and there was a steady stream of people making their way up the steeply cobbled streets to the castle. Naturally we joined them and by the time we reached the top of the hill the queue for the show was already well established, in fact it was a lot longer than I expected which was a little bit of a shock. Faint feelings of panic arose in me as I began to worry we had seriously miscalculated the scale of the event and that we should have got there at least an hour earlier. We strode briskly past all the people already waiting in order to take our places at the back of the queue, soon finding ourselves beginning to walk down the other side of the hill. We got to a place in the queue which just so happened to be a spot giving us fine views of the surrounding countryside to the east of the town, where green pastures rolled on down to the Firth of Forth which was a wide streak of blue water lying in the far distance.

After just a few minutes standing in line we began to hear music coming from inside the castle walls and realised with great delight that Bob and the boys must have been beginning their sound check. The sound was crystal clear and it was something of a bonus to be able to stand there listening to them play. It felt like this was a private concert, I guess the stage and the equipment were all set up, so why shouldn’t they do some songs just for themselves and the select few who were already inside?  We were on the other side of the high walls but still getting a preview of what might be later to come and from what we were hearing things boded well. It was simply not that often you got to hear Bob play in such a relaxed way, gently strumming familiar tunes on his guitar, breaking them up every so often, singing the odd snatch of verse before trailing off and moving onto something else. It was beautiful, timeless and the main thing which struck me was that even now after all the countless thousands of shows which Bob has played he was still hard at work, still polishing and refining, striving for perfection. The sound of Bob and the boys playing from within the castle silenced the waiting crowd. Talking was kept to a minimum as we savoured the opportunity to hear Bob do his sound check and play in way we had never heard him before, all in such a magical setting and seemingly so intimate. It was early evening time way up north in Scotland in the middle of July where the light was still good, hills rose up beyond the back of the town, green fields lay below and there was the sound of Bob Dylan playing for us for free in the golden rays of the setting sun. What could possibly be better than that? For the nearly an hour snatches of songs lazily came and went before us like the drifting clouds in the blue skies above us…Boots of Spanish Leather, I Don’t Believe You, You’re a Big Girl Now, Girl from the North Country, Tombstone Blues and so the list went on.

People were now walking past us in serious numbers and the end of the queue must have stretched right down to the bottom of the hill on the other side of the castle, in other words plenty of punters had made the journey to Stirling in order to see Bob. Behind me and Marc were three middle aged Scottish guys who looked like they had seen quite a bit of life. They had well lined, rough weather beaten faces but spoke with that quietly knowing Scottish lilt which can be so gentle and pleasing on the ear. They smoked their cigarettes along with a couple of joints whilst keeping a sharp eye out for any police who just might all of a sudden happen to come along. Their main topic of conversation was heroin, how it had so profoundly affected the lives of so many of their friends and acquaintances. One of the guys had recently seen a TV programme in which it was revealed some of the top judges in the country were heavily into smack, only they got their stuff legally prescribed to them because they were in positions of power. Apparently there were only a couple of GPs in the country who had the authority to prescribe heroin and all these top judges just so happened to be their patients. Naturally the stuff they got was premium quality and as a consequence there were no ill effects for them at all, apart from the fact that they were Grade A junkies of course. That didn’t matter however, as apparently you could carry on working for years and years when the horse you were taking was that good. It was a nice story, judges chasing the dragon! I guessed the guys must have made their way up from Edinburgh, home of Trainspotting and countless other tales which have come out of the 24 hour capital city of Scotland.

Part Two to follow.

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