Crawling from the Wreckage: Bob Dylan and his Motorpsycho Nitemare
“I was mighty, mighty tired. I had come a long, long way”
“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.” ~ Chronicles, Volume One
Part 1 — In the Rat Race
The word “truth” appears some twenty-three times in Chronicles, that memoir full of Dylanesque half-truths, The motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966 is one of the few times Bob Dylan uses it when speaking about himself.
In June 1966, Dylan had returned to his home, an 11-room house whimsically named Hi Lo Ha on Camelot Road outside of Woodstock, after a grueling nine-month world tour. But any respite from the touring g-rind that Dylan may have hoped for was going to be short-lived. His manager, Albert Grossman, already had another 64-date U.S. tour planned to start in August, including detours to Rome and Moscow.
Dylan had also committed to deliver the final manuscript of Tarantula to his publishing house as well as to provide a filmed documentary of the tour he had just wound up to ABC TV.
Reviewing the galleys of Tarantula in early July, Dylan decided that his prose/poetry collection was a mistake and told Macmillan he wanted to revise. His editor gave him two weeks. ABC was chomping at the bit for their documentary, but in July 1966 all that Dylan had was yards and yards of unedited film.
The 25-year-old wasn’t in the best of shape to finish either project by August. Dylan was a committed speed freak by 1966 — the `66 tour was fueled by methamphetamine as was Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde — the three albums all recorded within an amazing 14-month span.
There were also stories of Dylan dabbling with heroin from observers as diverse as Dave Van Ronk and John Lennon as well as Dylan himself. Dylan told biographer Robert Shelton in March that he had, “…kicked a heroin habit.” In another interview with Shelton Dylan also claimed to have worked as a male prostitute.
Maybe he wasn’t street whoring, maybe he wasn’t on smack, but speed was another thing. Dylan was obviously wired, and as he told Rolling Stone, “I was on drugs, a lot of things. A lot of things just to keep going, you know? In the same 1969 interview he was asked if drugs influenced his songs. “No, not the writing of them,” he said. “But it did keep me up there to pump ’em out.” Photographs and film of Dylan in `66 show a spectral young man who seems determined to become the founder of the 27 Club within the next two years if Fate doesn’t take a hand.
As it turned out, Fate did have other plans for young Mr. Dylan.
Part 2 — A Bad Motorcycle with the Devil in the Seat
Bobby Zimmerman purchased his first motorcycle, a Harley 45, in 1957 when he was 16 years old. The photograph shows him a year earlier with friend Dale Boutang on Dale’s Harley 74.
“Bob was considered one of the tough motorcycle crowd,” a Hibbing schoolmate told Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto.
“Always with the black leather jacket, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, rather hoody. And Echo [Helstrom] with her bleached hair and vacant look; That’s mostly how I first noticed him, running around with this freaky girl hanging on the back of his motorcycle, with her frizzy white hair flying and her false eyelashes. It was shocking to me. I tried not to be narrow minded, but I thought that crowd was a bunch of creeps. We used to laugh at the sight of them on the motorcycles. They used to zip through town and it was funny to see them. The thing is motorcycles were taboo because motorcycle guys were automatically bad. I had to stay away from them. They were terrifying, Bob with his big boots and his tight pants.”
“We’d pull into the Hibbing Root Beer stand on Bob’s motorcycle when the weather was warm,” said Echo Helstrom.
“One time, just outside my house on the old service road, he tried to teach me to ride it. He told me all about the controls, started it up and set me on board. Only trouble was my feet weren’t long enough to reach the ground. But I didn’t realize that until I’d already taken off.”
“I made about twenty yards in first gear and thought I’d better practice stopping before I went any further, so I tried to put on the brakes; but something went wrong and the engine started revving and I hit a post or a tree and went head over heels. The motorcycle fell over and the rear wheel went crazy with sparks flying and gravel…Bob stood there with his mouth open and his eyes real big, not believing it.”
From all reports Bobby Zimmerman was not a great driver of either car or motorcycle, exacerbated by his refusal to wear glasses. At different times in Hibbing he narrowly missed colliding with a train and in another incident hit a child with his motorcycle.
Nine years later his skills hadn’t notably improved. In her autobiography, Joan Baez recalled, “He used to hang on [his Triumph] like a 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.”
Bob Dylan’s bike of choice when he left New York for the Catskills was a 500cc Triumph Speed Tiger T100 SR which he used to cruise around Woodstock and Bearsville. It seems this might not be the motorcycle of the accident. Like with all Dylan legends, the facts are muddied, unclear, vague.
Let us now consider alternate world theories, where reality is fungible, and truth depends on your perspective.
The most common story before diverging into different realities has Dylan and his wife of seven months, Sara, arriving at Albert Grossman’s house in Bearsville on July 29, 1966 to pick up a motorcycle.
In one reality the bike is the Triumph. In another, the motorcycle is an AJS 500, a different British model, originally owned by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, purchased by him in 1963, now being stored at the Grossman’s and either loaned, sold, or given to Dylan. The AJS’s tires were flat.
Whether Triumph or AJS, Dylan apparently aims to ride the bike to a mechanic in Woodstock, followed by Sara in their station wagon.
In the AJS reality, the trip would have been a challenge for a skilled motorcyclist, which Dylan was not, dependent on how low the tire pressure, and whether the rear or front tire, or both, are flat. It’s possible a motorcycle could be ridden slowly for a few miles with a flat front tire… as long as the road is straight. But if you go much above 10 mph, or if you need to brake or turn, it’s very likely you will crash.
In the Triumph reality, Dylan crashes about a mile outside of Woodstock. He had been up three days and hit an oil slick [says Dylan]. The back wheel locked [he says in another interview]. “I was blinded by the sun for a second” [he tells Sam Shepard]. “I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me and I went flyin’.”
In the AJS reality the accident is a farce. Dylan doesn’t even make it out of the Grossman’s driveway before he loses control and tumbles off the bike, which then falls on top of him.
Sara returns to the Grossman house with the injured Dylan where Sally Grossman watches him fall out of the station wagon and collapse onto her porch, “clearly in pain though not injured enough for anyone to call an ambulance.” Sally, who is on the phone with Albert, tells him about the accident.
In one Triumph reality, Dylan is rushed “in a friend’s car” to Middletown Hospital. Dylan claims to have then “spent a week in the hospital” before being moved to Dr. Edward Thaler’s home to recuperate. In a second Triumph reality, as well as in the AJS reality, Sara drives him directly to the Thaler’s in Middletown.
All the realities converge for a while at the Thaler’s.
Part 3 — “I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells”
Ed and Selma Thaler befriended Dylan and Sara after being introduced to the couple by the singer Odetta, also a client of Albert Grossman’s. Ed Thaler, a physician of internal medicine as well as general practitioner, had a wide range of interests including music, photography, and boxing, all of which were Dylan enthusiasms. Thaler was not a “specialist in substance abuse,” as some books advocating the Dylan detox reality scenario claim.
Thaler was a civil rights activist, a raconteur, and known as someone “uniquely able to talk to almost anyone about almost anything.” Neither of the Thalers were star struck by Dylan, which probably came as a welcome relief to the singer. Thaler was a decade older than Dylan, 35 in 1966, and whether Dylan’s formal physician or not, was probably something of a older brother, if not father figure to him. In any case, Thaler was the one who the injured Dylan came to.
Dylan arrived in Middletown “very upset,” the doctor’s widow, Selma Thaler, said in a 2016 interview with The Associated Press. “He didn’t want to go to the hospital, so we said, ‘You can stay here.’”
In the same interview Thaler said that Dylan didn’t show any visible sign of injury but believed he had broken his neck, which if it had affected his spinal cord, would have mandated a trip to Middletown Hospital. By most accounts, including his own, Dylan had fractured several vertebrae, still a serious injury but one that could be treated with a neck brace, rest, and pain management. When the filmmaker D. H. Pennebaker visited Dylan at the Thalers several days after the accident, he was wearing a neck brace, although, says Pennebaker, “he didn’t appear very knocked out by the accident.”
Robbie Robertson also noted in an interview, “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.”
“And he looked different. He was different on the inside and the outside. But, yeah, it was all true.”
Accepting the Thaler’s invitation, Dylan moved to a third floor bedroom, eventually taking over most of the third floor after Sara also moved in. The Thaler home was only a few blocks from a Methodist church and the couple was likely to have heard those Methodist bells regularly during Dylan’s retreat.
One report has Dylan at the Thaler’s for less than a month. Most accounts peg his stay from anywhere from six weeks to two months with the Thalers taking Dylan and Sara on day trips to their summer home on Yankee Lake and their “…eating dinner with the [Thaler] family and having friends over on Friday nights, including Allen Ginsberg and the musicians who would later become famous as The Band.”
They even showed movies on the living room wall. Selma Thaler told a reporter in a retrospective article on Dylan’s stay that she thought she had seen an early cut of “Don’t Look Back.”
In the interim, Grossman’ offices issued a terse press release noting the accident and cancelling Dylan’s August 6th concert at the Yale Bowl, which garnered little attention in the media past a short blurb in the New York Times titled, “Dylan Hurt in Motorcycle Mishap” and reading in its entirety, “Bob Dylan, the folk singer an song writer, is under a doctor’s care for injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident last Friday. A representative of Mr. Dylan said the injuries have forced the cancellation of a concert scheduled for Saturday night at the Yale Bowl in New Haven.”
Sometime in early August Dylan phoned drummer Mickey Jones and told him that due to the accident there would be no rehearsals for the upcoming concerts until further notice.
The “until further notice” would be a while. Dylan concerts planned for Shea Stadium, the U.S.S.R, the Hollywood Bowl, in Burlington, VT, and in Rome, Italy, in New York City, in New Jersey, and in California, were all canceled.
Bob Dylan would only do four shows over the next eight years, and after untapping himself from whatever monster power source had charged him, would radically change the direction of his life and music.
But that’s another story for another time.