By 1966, Bob Dylan’s fans had grown used to listening to his evocative lyrics and wondering where his head was at. But after his near-fatal motorcycle accident on July 29 of that year, they spent 18 months wondering where his head — and the rest of him — had gone.
Early that morning, Dylan, 25, was taking his Triumph 500 to be repaired near his Woodstock, N.Y., home when he hit an oil slick. He flew over the handlebars, suffering cracked vertebrae, a concussion, and multiple bruises. But his release from Middletown Hospital a week later didn’t soothe fans’ fears. That’s because Dylan simply and utterly disappeared.
When his 60-concert tour, scheduled to start Aug. 6, was canceled, rumors took wing: Dylan was dead, disfigured, paralyzed, or a vegetable. His editor at Macmillan Publishing didn’t help: He announced that the singer’s novel, Tarantula, would be delayed because ”he couldn’t use his eyes for a period of time.”
The accident came just as pressure and personal excess threatened to consume Dylan. After bursting onto the folk scene five years earlier, he had reached pop stardom with three albums and three singles in the top 10 — but was becoming increasingly grim and taciturn on stage and off. In Don’t Look Back, the documentary of his 1965 tour, he appeared tense and belligerent, fueled by adrenaline and, reportedly, amphetamines.
It turned out his recuperation and retreat gave him a reprieve from desolation row. Taking the opportunity to nest in Woodstock, he and The Band recorded what would become (when released in 1975) The Basement Tapes. Upstairs, he devoted himself to his family: wife, Sara; their son, Jesse, born in January, 1966; and Sara’s daughter, Maria. Giving his first postaccident interview in May 1967, Dylan elliptically alluded to his absence: ”Something has got to be evened up is all I’m going to say.”
Something, at least, was restored. The Bob Dylan who reemerged on Jan. 20, 1968, for two joyous Woody Guthrie tributes at Carnegie Hall, was no longer irascible, but genial and open. That month he released John Wesley Harding, whose simplicity reflected a newfound serenity. ”I’m a country boy myself,” he said at the time, ”and you have to be let alone to really accomplish anything.”