Did Bob Dylan really have a motorcycle accident, or was he covering something up?

Something happened on July 29, 1966. The New York Times broke the news a few days later: Dylan had been in a motorcycle accident and would be canceling his concert at the Yale Bowl. If you ever wondered whether rumors spread before the Internet, the answer is yes: fans traded stories that Dylan was horribly scarred, paraplegic, insane, or even dead. These stories proved not to be true, but one thing was certain: he was gone.

Dylan spent the next nine months in seclusion in upstate New York; as he recovered, he and the Band made the much-bootlegged music that would ultimately be released as The Basement Tapes. He didn’t put out a new album until 1968, the deliberately low-key John Wesley Harding. So what actually went down that July day? It’s fuzzy, but the gist appears to be that Dylan visited the home of his manager Albert Grossman in Bearsville, New York. Dylan picked up an old Triumph 55 motorcycle and was planning to ride it to a nearby repair shop.
As he left the property, however, he took a spill. The way he told the story in 1967: “The back wheel locked up, I think. I lost control, swerving from left to right. Next thing I know I was in someplace I never heard of—Middletown, I think—with my face cut up so I got some scars and my neck busted up pretty good.” The official story at the time was that he broke some vertebrae in the neck, was knocked unconscious, and was in critical condition for a week.

Later, however, witnesses—including Albert Grossman’s wife, Sally, famous as the girl on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home—would tell the tale differently. Apparently, Dylan had poor eyesight and was notorious for his lack of skill on the bike; as he left the Grossman property, he just lost his balance and fell off his motorcycle in an undignified fashion. Although he could have been driven to a nearby hospital, he was instead taken to a doctor who was an hour away.

Rumors circulated that he was secretly in rehab for drug addiction, but the accident appears to have been genuine, if not as serious as reported. Afterwards, people spotted Dylan in a neck brace; friends reported that he took up swimming and received ultrasound treatment.

So why did Dylan check out for so long, then? By 1966, Dylan was not just hailed as the voice of a generation, he was expected to lead folk and rock fans in a new direction with every album, and very possibly, redefine contemporary society as a hippie utopia. Plus, Dylan had been going virtually nonstop for a long time: he released five records in just over two years, from 1964 to early 1966. He had a full tour of sixty concerts scheduled, plus a contract renegotiation with Columbia Records. Fans and biographers have long assumed that Dylan seized on his injuries—real, if not as serious as reported—as an opportunity to step away from his white-hot celebrity and the pressure that came along with it.

Dylan said as much himself in 2004, in Volume One of his excellent autobiography, Chronicles: “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.”

(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)