50 Years Ago: Bob Dylan Crashes His Motorcycle … or Does He?
Just a few weeks after Bob Dylan released the final album in one of rock’s greatest runs, he almost ended his life. On July 29, 1966, the singer-songwriter was riding his beloved 1964 Triumph T100 motorcycle on the back roads of Woodstock, N.Y., when he lost control and crashed.
Or did he?
It’s one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest stories, and one that may or may not be a myth made up by Dylan to give the proficient and burned-out artist a much-needed break from the spotlight. Like the man and his music, that motorcycle accident is shrouded in mystery. And whatever the case might be, a new Dylan emerged from the wreckage.
In mid-July 1966, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, his third classic LP (and a double one at that) in less than a year and a half. In that time, he transformed from one of the country’s most socially conscious political singers to one of popular music’s most vital artists. He did it with three albums — Blonde on Blonde and its two 1965 predecessors, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited — and a backbreaking and career-defining tour.
It all started to take a toll on him by the time Blonde and Blonde came out. Dylan was now in upstate New York with his wife, Sara Lowndes. On July 29, he was coming back from his manager Albert Grossman’s place in West Saugherties, located near Woodstock, on his bike, with his wife driving behind him. He then lost control, and reportedly ended up cracking vertebrae in his neck.
But there’s no official record of the incident. No ambulance was called, and Dylan never checked into a hospital for his injuries. Rumors began to swell, some claiming that Dylan had died or had suffered serious brain damage. Others guessed it was just a huge hoax to give him some time away from public scrutiny, or maybe even to kick a nasty drug habit.
In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote, ““I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race. Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses.” And that’s about as close to an official account of the crash we have.
But Dylan has been known to embellish his history. Early in his career, he told interviewers that he ran away from home and joined a carnival as a young teenager. It most likely never happened. And his entire baiting of the press during the whirlwind shows of 1965 and 1966 were filled with self-mythologizing stories, most of them untrue. Was the bike crash just another part of his legend building? Maybe.
Either way, it got him off the road and away from the questions, nagging and demands that had become commonplace by mid 1966. Dylan retreated to his Woodstock home and stayed there, secluded, for the remainder of the year going into 1967. By the following summer, he was ready to make music again, so he recruited the backing group (which later renamed itself the Band) from his 1966 U.K. tour and recorded more than 100 songs (which eventually became The Basement Tapes) in his house and the nearby home the other musicians were sharing.
Though the music wouldn’t be released until 1975, the period kicked off a new era for Dylan — one that included albums as diverse, and as divisive, as John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. Each was marked by a shift in Dylan’s playing, writing style and, most notably, vocal tones. But he wasn’t eager to go back on the road. Aside from a handful of appearances — notably an Isle of Wight show in 1969 and a performance at the Concert for Bangladesh to help out friend George Harrison — it would be another eight years before Dylan toured again.
Whatever happened on that road on July 29, 1966, it altered Dylan forever. In a way, it was liberating, especially from his perspective. His music shifted gears, and with it, so did the artist himself. The break knocked back his legend while it built a new one around him. Lines can be drawn throughout Dylan’s long career: the gospel years, the ’80s, the comeback. The motorcycle accident was a mid-’60s turning point, a historic moment as significant as the Beatles‘ decision to stop touring and Brian Wilson‘s post-Smile breakdown. It changed part of the landscape forever.
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