Bob Dylan has always been a motorcycle enthusiast, a habit he picked up after acquiring his first two-wheeler—a Harley 45—during his teens. After achieving his early success and moving to Woodstock, New York from Greenwich Village in 1963, he bought a 1964 Triumph T100, a quick and light 500cc, which became his main form of transportation for the next several years.
During this epoch, Dylan took that bike with him everywhere, tearing around the winding back roads of the Catskills, both solo and with passengers. In her autobiography, Joan Baez recalled, “He used to hang on that thing like sack of flour. I always had the feeling it was driving him, and if we were lucky we'd lean the right way and the motorcycle would turn the corner. If not, it would be the end of both of us.”
But on July 29, 1966, it almost was the end for Dylan, when he wrecked his treasured Triumph on Striebel Road on the outskirts of Woodstock.
Year of the Grind: 1966
By late 1965, with the major radio success of the single “Like a Rolling Stone,” life had spun into a blur for America's now-biggest pop icon, and 1966 became an even more exhausting grind of shuttling between limos, hotels, dressing rooms, stages, and airports. Powering through a six-month world tour with his new electric backing band The Hawks, Dylan was also bouncing in and out of Nashville, sporadically recording his forthcoming release, Blonde on Blonde. After finishing the album on March 9, the musicians spent the next two months back on the road, jetting around Europe to wrap up the final leg of the tour, which ended in London on May 27 to a sustained wall of boos from Britain's lingering folk purists who still hadn't gotten over Dylan's new sound.
Finally back in the states, Dylan fled to his home in the artist colony suburb of Woodstock called Byrdcliffe, but there would be little R&R. With Blonde on Blonde ambling up the charts upon its June release, there was lots of press to do, along with some planning for the next tour. Moreover, his free-verse novel Tarantula was ready to go to press, awaiting his edits. Not to mention the film edits needing done to D.A. Pennebaker's fresh tour footage for a TV special that ABC had commissioned.
Nobody really knows what caused the wreck other than Dylan and his new wife Sara Lowndes, who was driving behind him after leaving his manager Albert Grossman's house in nearby West Saugherties. Dylan later told biographer Robert Shelton that an oil slick caused him to lose control. But according to playwright Sam Shepard, Dylan said the sun blinded him and he got thrown by the bike. Whatever happened, the crash ended up cracking a vertebra and giving Dylan some serious road rash. With the whole thing shrouded in secrecy, the rumor mill went berserk, with fans churning out gossip that placed Dylan somewhere between dead and suffering permanent brain damage.
Among other things, the crash forced Dylan to cancel his upcoming Yale Bowl performance, as well as yet another tour that Grossman had shoved in the pipeline. But Dylan took it a step further and retreated altogether from his life as a rock star and into the bosom of a quiet living with his young family. For the past five years, the grueling tours, cutting one album after the next, the mad rush of dealing with press and crazed fans, the cyclonic pace of celebrity, everything had taken its toll; Dylan was ready for some domestic bliss.
In his memoir Chronicles, he 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.”
Dylan took a couple weeks to convalesce, followed by a couple months to shake off his sea legs, but as far as creative output he never slowed down. In fact, many consider 1967 the most prolific of his songwriting career, and throughout the spring and summer Dylan would join The Hawks at Big Pink (the nearby communal band house) to record more than 100 songs in what would become known as The Basement Tapes.
Although this massive folio of songs was never intended to be anything more than demos, the cream of these legendary sessions would be released as a double album in 1975. “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn,” and “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood),” were among some of Dylan's finest songs to come to light during this epoch. And to boot, Dylan was also drumming up the lyrics for his next album, the country-tinged John Wesley Harding, which he'd also record late in the year.
Tours Aren't Us
Dylan took the motorcycle accident as an opportunity for some permanent down time. Much to the dismay of his fans, it would be eight years before he'd take it back on the road. During his hiatus, however, he did come out of hiding for the occasional live performance, playing a total of four shows over that eight-year span, including the fabled Isle of Wight festival in 1969 and George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.
Neglecting to support any of his albums over the years, though, by 1973 Dylan's popularity had slipped into idle, and he sorely missed the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. So in January 1974 he joined his old stage mates The Hawks—now The Band—for the Before the Flood tour, which was being trumpeted by Bill Graham as the biggest live touring event in the history of American rock. Indeed, tickets were in such high demand that 12 million orders were placed for the tour's 658,000 available seats, amounting to four percent of the U.S. population. Talk about a welcome wagon.
For years following the accident, there was a lot of controversy about its plausibility. Did it really happen? Was Dylan making it up just so he could take a much-needed rest? One rumor even held that the accident was a cover, and that in reality Dylan went into rehab to kick drugs. Even today, the crash is still hotly debated, with fans and scholars still referring to Dylan's career in terms of “Pre-Accident” and “Post-Accident.”