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Posted Saturday July 29, 2006 07:00 AM EDT

The Bob Dylan Motorcycle-Crash Mystery

Dylan on the cover of his album Blonde on Blonde, from shortly before the crash.
Dylan on the cover of his album Blonde on Blonde, from shortly before the crash.

On July 29, 1966, something happened to Bob Dylan while he was riding his motorcycle near his Woodstock, New York, home. Forty years and a small library of biographies later, it’s still hard to be much more precise or detailed than that. What really befell Dylan on that day remains, like so much in this pop-culture icon’s closely guarded life, cloaked in mystery.

Ill-defined or not, the accident has been treated as a major event in Dylan’s life; at least one biographer divides the founder of folk-rock’s career into “pre-“ and “post-accident.” What made the event so significant?

Since 1961, when he had arrived in New York, Dylan’s life had moved quickly. In 1965 and ’66 the pace only increased. As one observer put it, Dylan wasn’t merely burning his candle at both ends; he was using a blowtorch. His incredible productivity—perhaps his three best albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and the double album Blonde on Blonde, were recorded within a 14-month span—was very likely fueled by methamphetamine; bone-thin in ’66, Dylan had the giveaway look of a speed freak.

In June 1966 he returned from a nine-month world tour, made especially grueling by the relentless hostility with which audiences met his new sound (he’d plugged his guitar in and added an electrified backup band). Though he was exhausted, embittered, and thoroughly road-weary, his aggressive manager, Albert Grossman, had booked him into a 64-date American tour, due to start in August. If Grossman had gotten his way, writes the biographer Howard Sounes, in Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Dylan would have been “on the road interminably until every last ticket dollar had been sucked up.” Other commitments loomed as well. Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness “novel,” Tarantula, was scheduled for publication. Reading the galleys in July, he had misgivings about the entire book and told Macmillan, his publisher, that he wanted to revise it. He was given two weeks. At the same time, ABC-TV wanted an hour-long documentary of the just-completed world tour; all that existed as of July was miles of unedited footage.

The accident was Dylan’s means of escape from an unendurably fast-paced, pressurized life. As he said in a 1984 interview, “When I had that motorcycle accident . . . I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that.” At some point during his convalescence he realized that he wanted a much more tranquil, family-centered life. (He had secretly married Sara Lownds in 1965, and he and she would raise five children together). His music changed, too, from the white-hot fury of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde to the sparer, quieter sound of 1968’s John Wesley Harding and 1969’s Nashville Skyline. He stayed off the road until 1974, when he toured with the same players who had backed him on the 1965-66 tour; they had since become famous as the Band.

But enough about the crackup’s aftermath; what about the crackup itself? According to Sounes, who gives the fullest, most judicious account, on the morning of July 29 Dylan and his wife drove from Woodstock to Albert Grossman’s house in nearby Bearsville. Dylan’s motorcycle was in Grossman’s garage, and Dylan wanted to take it to a repair shop. He set off on the bike from Grossman’s with Sara following him in their car.

An anonymous source, a close friend of Dylan’s, told Sounes that as Dylan started on his way, he lost his balance and fell off the bike, and it fell on top of him. He himself told his biographer Robert Shelton that he hit an oil slick. He gave a different, longer account to the playwright Sam Shepard, who published it in Esquire as part of a one-act play. “It was real early in the morning on top of a hill near Woodstock,” he told Shepard. “I can’t even remember how it happened. I was blinded by the sun for a second. . . . I just happened to look up right smack into the sun with both eyes and, sure enough, I went blind for a second and I kind of panicked or something. I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me and I went flyin’.” It’s impossible to choose between these varying accounts. In other words, we’re not likely ever to know what really occurred.

The first reports of the accident had Dylan barely escaping with his life. But if he had been seriously injured, an ambulance would have been called. None was, nor did Sara take her husband to the hospital. Instead, she drove him to the home office of his doctor, Ed Thaler, 50 miles away in Middletown, New York. As Sounes writes, “This was a grueling one-hour drive by country roads, not a journey for a man in dire need of medical help.”

It’s impossible to pinpoint Dylan’s injuries. By most accounts, including his own, he broke several vertebrae. “The damp weather still affects the wound,” he told Shelton some time later. When the filmmaker D. H. Pennebaker visited him several days after the accident, he was wearing a neck brace, although, says Pennebaker, “he didn’t appear very knocked out by the accident.”

Dylan stayed at Dr. Thaler’s for six weeks. If he wasn’t extensively injured, why the long convalescence, especially when he had a wife and baby waiting at home? Rumors have long circulated that he was recovering from a heroin addiction, although Thaler has denied this. ”He did not come here regarding any situation involving detoxification,” the doctor told Sounes. But Dylan had to stop using drugs—if not heroin, then amphetamines—at some point, and this was a logical time. Post-accident photographs of Dylan show him fleshed out, not the wraith of 1965-66.

The accident itself was not a major event, but it gave him a much-needed chance to stop, rest, and take stock of his incredible journey since 1961. When he returned to work, it was at a much less frenetic pace than before the accident. He may not have been exaggerating when he later told an interviewer, “I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been.”

Tony Scherman is a writer who lives in Nyack, New York.

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