By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
Bob Dylan’s early career was as successful and prolific as any in the history of popular music. But by the mid-1960s it began to burn him out and he grew desperate to escape the spotlight, if only for a short time.
The morning of July 29, 1966 could have been much worse for Dylan, but it ultimately gave him the break from fame that he wanted: He got into a motorcycle accident and, while he obviously survived and recovered, took an extended hiatus from touring.
The accident remains shrouded in mystery to this day: Did it happen at all? And if it did, how serious was it?
The true details of the accident may never come out, but what’s now known is that Dylan’s eight years away from the road weren’t only to recover. Eventually he revealed that he used the accident as an excuse to get out of touring for a while and focus on his family.
Here’s what is known about the incident: Dylan left his then-manager Albert Grossman’s house with his wife Sara, riding a motorcycle while she followed in a car. He had recently pulled the old bike from a garage and wanted to take it for repairs. Soon after, he returned to the Grossman household in serious pain.
The biography Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes covers the story of the accident in greater detail than any source, but still finds itself confounded by what actually happened to Dylan that morning. He didn’t appear to have any cuts or significant injuries, but was groaning in pain.
The mystery grew when Dylan’s physician, Dr. Robert Thaler, admitted to the author that Sara never drove her husband to the hospital, but straight to Dr. Thaler’s home, where he stayed for six weeks after the accident.
American singer Bob Dylan at a press conference in Paris, France on May 22, 1966. (AP Photo/Pierre Godot)
The press sensationalized the story, reporting broken vertebrae in Dylan’s neck and a crash that nearly killed him, but based on the firsthand accounts of the incident it clearly wasn’t as bad as the initial reports. The most popular version of the story tells that he slipped on an oil slick, fell to the road, and the bike fell on top of him.
Dylan did claim that he suffered broken vertebrae, and supported his claims by wearing a neckbrace, regularly complaining of back pain, and taking up swimming as a form of physical therapy. If he didn’t get injured, he kept up quite the charade. But it’s incredible that he broke his back and somehow didn’t require hospitalization for it.
Dr. Thaler also confirmed Dylan’s visit wasn’t drug-related, telling the author in no uncertain terms: “He did not come here regarding any situation involving detoxification.”
Dylan finally opened up about the accident in his autobiography Chronicles: Vol. 1 – with a single paragraph. He admitted the accident wasn’t the only thing keeping him off the road for eight years:
“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.”
SEE ALSO: Bob Dylan Pissed Everyone Off When He Played Electric Guitar at a Folk Festival
Dylan did keep making music while away from touring, but only made a few live appearances in that time. He released Planet Waves in 1973 and returned to touring soon after, reinvigorated by his time off and the success of the album’s seminal track “Forever Young”.
The accident was not how Dylan wanted to escape the limelight, but it turned out to be something of a blessing for him. Even if it was just a minor incident and he used it as an excuse to disappear for a while, it helped reenergize him and spawn some of his greatest material in the 1970s.
Dylan clearly cared deeply about his music, but not more than his family, which he revealed in Down the Highway was the driving force in his hiatus.
“Art is unimportant next to life…My family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all cost.”
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