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Bob Dylan's 1966 Motorcycle Accident: What Really Happened?

Icons | August 13, 2019

On July 29th, 1966, the month after Blonde On Blonde was released, Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle near Woodstock, New York. It was a mysterious event that put his career on hold for years and changed the course of rock history. But little is known of the actual event -- what happened on that winding road in upstate New York?

The demarcation is clear: From his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) through Blonde on Blonde in 1966, Bob Dylan was a national figure, hailed by some as a folk-music or rock messiah. It's pretty much a fact that Bob Dylan was the voice of a generation. Then -- he disappears. 

Bob Dylan Was Absent In The Late '60s

The cover of 'Blonde On Blonde,' released in June 1966. Source: Amazon

His return to music was gradual, and consider all he missed. The 1967 Summer of Love? No Dylan. Monterey Pop in '68? No Dylan. Woodstock in '69? No Dylan. He returned to recording, but his records were smaller in scale. Compare the manic energy of his "rock" or "electric" period -- Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde On Blonde (1966) -- with the post-crash albums John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969). All five of the albums are critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, but he was a changed artist.

In the five decades since the accident the reality of his injuries has never been revealed, leaving the hours after the crash in a miasma of speculation and rumor. Did Dylan purposefully crash his Triumph motorcycle in order to escape the mounting fervor around his work? Did he break his neck? Or was it his collarbone? Was he really left with permanent brain damage from the accident, or was the story just an excuse for the voice of a generation to take a vacation? 

There Wasn’t A Lot Of Reporting Around The Incident

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In 1966, a star could get up to no good without anyone hearing about it. Even someone as famous as Bob Dylan could get into a potentially fatal motorcycle crash in upstate New York without so much as a peep. At the the time of the accident the only story about the it was a two-sentence mention in the New York Times titled “Dylan Hurt in Cycle Mishap.”

Without a police report of the accident there’s no way to determine what actually happened. All of the eyewitness reports of the accident come from people who saw the wreckage but not the incident. Dylan’s motorcycle accident is a bit like a tree falling in the woods. 

Dylan’s Manager Saw The Aftermath But Not The Crash

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According to biographer Howard Sounes, Dylan’s crash occurred directly after he left the house of his manager Albert Grossman, as he rode near Striebel Road, a treacherous, curvy path that’s unfriendly to all motorists regardless of their vehicle (or place in the pantheon of rock). During the ride Dylan was being followed by Grossman and Grossman's wife Sally, who were in a car.

There’s no minute-by-minute description of the ride, but it seems as if Dylan took off ahead of the Grossmans and ate pavement on a curve out of sight. Sally Grossman said that when they came upon Dylan, the singer was “kind of moaning and groaning” but that he didn’t look injured. 

Following The Crash Dylan Stayed In A Local Doctor’s House For A Month

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Rather than go to a hospital, Dylan opened to be driven to the home of Doctor Ed Thaler, who lived about an hour away from the crash site in Middletown. This is where the conspiracies about what really happened to Dylan begin. If Dylan was really injured in the crash, then he should have been driven to a hospital or even airlifted. He’s Bob Dylan -- in 1966, people would have moved mountains to make sure he survived an accident, so why did he want to stay in a basement?

Dylan probably wasn’t on knock-knock-knockin’ on Heaven’s door as Dr. Thaler’s wife has claimed. It’s more likely that he was either attempting to assuage his delicate ego or continue building a myth that he’d been working on for a decade. Thaler’s wife said that while Dylan was in their house for a month he lived in the third floor bedroom and, despite claiming that he had a broken neck, he regularly ate dinner with the family and hung out with members of The Band. Thayer doesn’t believe that Dylan was lying about the accident, and she said he was a very polite guest. 

Robbie Robertson Says That Dylan Used His Recovery Time To Think About His Life

Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan. source: pinterest

If anyone really knows what happened to Dylan it should be Robbie Robertson from The Band, the group that accompanied the singer on his world tour in ’65 and ’66 and played on the massive collection of “Basement Tapes” following Dylan’s accident. Robertson says that Dylan definitely hurt his neck in the accident, and that he spent about six weeks in a neck brace. The time was beneficial to Dylan because it gave him time to think about the future and if he really wanted to be the voice of a generation or if he wanted to have some semblance of a normal life. Robertson said:

People say, ‘Oh, he didn’t have an accident, this was just so he could kick heroin or whatever.’ No, no, no! He fell off the motorcycle and fractured his neck, and he had to wear this brace on his neck for quite a while, I would say about six weeks.
It was a long time. He couldn’t turn his head; he had to turn his whole body to turn. And at the same time, he was going into another phase. He was going into this place of having kids and having a family and this rock ’n’ roll lifestyle just didn’t suit him anymore.

The Rumors Of Dylan’s Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

Bob Dylan on his motorcycle in Woodstock. Source: pinterest

As word about Dylan’s accident spread through the underground, rumors about what actually happened to him ranged from the believable -- that he’d broken his neck -- to more extreme stories about the performer. One story said that the wreck left Dylan transformed into a grotesque version of himself, that he was blind and no longer able to play guitar let alone work on his announced novel Tarantula.

On top of the claims of his death there were many imagined reasons behind the crash and his sudden disappearance. Dylan was an avid motorcycle rider, he’d been riding them since the ‘50s, did he really lose control on a road he’d been on many times before? Was there an oil slick or was the road just wet? Some people believe that Dylan was overindulging in amphetamines at the time (his heavy use had unnerved The Band while they were touring together in early 1966) and that he needed an excuse to detox in peace so down to the pavement he went.

Dylan was away from the world for long enough for rumors to swirl that he died in the accident, but at the very least those rumors were squashed when he released John Wesley Harding on December 27, 1967. Even before the release of the album Dylan was announcing himself to the world. While recovering in West Saugerties, New York he recorded an entire set of songs that were sent out for copyright. Even if he was gruesomely disfigured, at the very least he was alive.  

The Accident Was An Excuse For Dylan To Escape

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Whether the motorcycle accident was as severe as Dylan’s doctor claimed it was, the idea that Dylan was hurt beyond recognition was an excuse for him to disappear for a while. To stop being Bob Dylan. As an up-and-coming folkie in the 1960s Dylan was sought after by all manner of hangers-on and would-be groupies. Dylan says that he found the entire thing exhausting, and that the town of Woodstock, where he lived in 1966, had become a “nightmare.” In his memoir he wrote that “everything was wrong, the world was absurd.”

As soon as word of the motorcycle crash spread Dylan canceled tour dates and put off public appearances. When a reporter from the New York Daily News tracked him down in Woodstock in ’67, Dylan said that he’d been “poring over books by people you never heard of” while getting in touch with old friends.  Dylan later wrote of the incident

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.

Dylan Said The Accident Was An Act Of 'Transfiguration'

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The man himself has rarely spoken about the accident, whether it was real or imagined isn’t important to Dylan. He likens the motorcycle crash and the mythology around it to a “transfiguration,” or the complete change of form into a spiritual state. While speaking with Rolling Stone in 2012, he talked around the accident and, rather than give specific answers, he talked about what happened to him afterwards. He said:

I had a motorcycle accident in 1966. I already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.
So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. Have you ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It’s about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. The title could refer to me.
Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.

Tags: Bob Dylan | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Band

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.