Remember When: Bob Dylan Suffered a Mysterious Motorcycle Accident at the Peak of his ’60s Success

On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan suffered injuries due to a motorcycle accident. Or at least we think he did. It’s one of the most mysterious incidents in the history of rock and roll, one where it’s hard to separate what likely happened from the myths that have grown up around it.

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We might never know the true answer. But if we go back to when it happened and examine the circumstances, we can take our best educated guess about what essentially put an end Bob Dylan’s most furiously productive era.

A Relentless Schedule

In May 1966, Bob Dylan returned to his home in Woodstock, New York, following the completion of a long tour that started in the U.S. and wended its way through Europe, concluding with a pair of celebrated shows at the Royal Albert Hall in London. These were shows where he played the first half all alone with an acoustic guitar, then brought out The Hawks (whose members would go on to form The Band) for the electrified second half.

That second part of the show often drew derision from fans who didn’t like Dylan’s rocking new direction. One of those fans famously shouted “Judas” at Dylan during a particularly combative show in Manchester, England. (“I don’t believe you,” Dylan growled in response from the stage. “You’re a liar.”) In the midst of all that chaos, he found the time to record the double album Blonde on Blonde, a masterpiece of rowdy, unhinged rock and sad, surreal love songs.

This was all coming at the end of a stretch where Dylan had released seven albums in barely over five years. That kind of pace wasn’t unusual for artists at the time. But this was Dylan, who seemed to make every other song an epic and pushed the boundaries of the music with each new release. Add in the constant touring, and the pressure was building to a fever pitch.

The Crash

If he was hoping for some respite when he came home from that tour, Dylan had to be disappointed. He was tasked with editing footage for an intended television documentary entitled Eat the Document, a task he really wasn’t qualified to undertake. His long-hyped book Tarantula was well overdue at his publishers. Worst of all, his manager Albert Grossman was already scheduling his next tour.

Dylan was in a bad enough state when he came from England. Popping pills to keep up his energy meant that he wasn’t getting much rest. In later years, he would admit he was lucky to have survived that stretch in his career. Another tour might have been pushing it.

All of which made what happened next even more convoluted. Dylan left his manager’s house in Bearsville, New York, on that July morning on a motorcycle with the intention of taking it to a garage for repairs. His wife Sara was following behind him in a car. But almost as soon as they left, Sara rushed back in to the Grossman house to get Albert’s wife Sally, who came out to see Dylan emerging from his wife’s car in distress before crumpling down on the porch with apparent injuries.

So What Happened?

While many have claimed over the years to know what exactly happened that day, those reports are often contradictory. There was never a police report, nor did Dylan get admitted to a hospital, so there’s no real record of the incident. We do know that, in the immediate aftermath, Dylan decamped to his personal doctor’s house in Middletown, New York, for a period of about six weeks before finally returning to Woodstock.

Dylan has claimed he suffered broken vertebrae. Friends who visited claimed that he was wearing a neck brace and that he underwent physical therapy, including swimming, to help recover. And that was that. No statement clarifying things. No daily update on his recovery.

We now know the accident did indeed destroy any talk of touring in the near future. (He wouldn’t tour at length for another eight years). When he did get back to making music, it was in an informal manner when members of The Hawks joined him in Woodstock to record some publishing demos. (These would become The Basement Tapes.) Dylan’s next studio album didn’t arrive until the end of 1967, and the record he made (John Wesley Harding) was a quiet, contemplative affair. While the rest of the pop music world barreled on at full speed, Dylan, following the accident, kind of backed away from it all.

Many fans have long speculated that Dylan didn’t suffer an accident that day, but he was just looking for an excuse to slow down the pace. An interesting theory, but likely false. Dylan likely rolled his bike that morning on some sort of sharp curve and suffered non-life-threatening injuries that needed time to heal. If that respite healed his psyche as well, allowing him to come out of it in a more sedate of mind with different priorities (raising his family for one), then maybe that mysterious accident couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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