Common Tread

(Former) motorcyclist wins Nobel Prize

Oct 17, 2016

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, the whole world wondered if he was the first songwriter to win it (actually, no). Naturally, I wondered if he was the first motorcyclist to win a Nobel Prize.

Although I doubt that he’s still riding at 75, motorcycles were an important part of his early life — and may nearly have ended it a time or two.

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. As a teenager, he lived in Hibbing — a town which was then famous as the home of the world’s largest open-pit iron mine.

Bob Dylan
Young Robert Zimmerman on his Knucklehead.
Bob favored American iron as a high school student; he scraped up enough money to buy a Harley Knucklehead that was about as old as he was. He was frequently seen around Hibbing on that bike, and they tell stories of the time he risked being hit by a train to save his Harley. It had stalled, or he’d crashed it, at a railway level crossing and he stuck with the bike, dragging it out of the way just as the train rumbled through.

Dylan sold his Harley when he left Minnesota, but as soon as he started to have some success in New York (in his early 20s) he bought a new Triumph T100 Tiger. Back then, Joan Baez was a frequently terrified passenger.

Luckily, he didn’t have any passengers on July 29, 1966, when he crashed the Triumph. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, lived on Streibel Road, a winding stretch of two-lane blacktop in West Saugerties, New York (near the town of Woodstock).

He left Grossman’s house, trailed by his new wife, Sara Lowndes, who was driving a car. Dylan himself gave different accounts of the crash: he hit oil, he was blinded by the sun. He later said that he broke vertebrae.

That might be exaggerated. He was famous by then, so if he’d been admitted to hospital, the story would probably have gotten out. A serious injury might also have led to a police report. There was none. It was four days before The New York Times published a short account that was sparse on detail.

According to one biography, Sara drove him back to Grossman’s house, and from there he was transferred by car to the home of Dr. Ed Thaler, a doctor that Dylan knew. Thaler lived an hour away, in Middletown, New York. The route took them past several hospitals.

Instead, the troubadour lived in Dr. Thaler’s home, eating meals with the Thaler family, for a month. Beat poet Allen Ginsburg dropped by; so did Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and the musicians who’d later be known simply as The Band. One night, they projected an early version of D.A. Pennebaker’s acclaimed documentary "Don’t Look Back" on Thaler’s wall.

Whatever the extent of Dylan’s injuries, he canceled upcoming performances. He had toured and performed constantly in the five years before the crash, but he performed in public only a handful of times in the eight years that followed the incident. (He was still very creative. He recorded more than 100 songs. He just stopped performing in public.)

Dylan remained vague about the crash. There were rumors that the entire incident was just a cover story and that he was really out of the public eye for a stretch of drug rehab. Reports that he used a lot of amphetamines in the early 1960s are consistent with the behavior of other musicians from that period.

Highway 61 Revisited cover
The cover of "Highway 61 Revisited" was probably the best free advertising Triumph ever got.
I think the Tiger may have been Dylan’s last ride, but it was not his last brush with motorcycle history.

Peter Fonda originally wanted to use Bob Dylan’s "It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" under the credits for "Easy Rider." Fonda was a producer on the film in addition to starring in it. But he failed to negotiate the rights to Dylan’s performance from Grossman, who was a famously hardnosed businessman.

Fonda then tried to get Roger McGuinn of The Byrds to record a cover version. Fonda also pestered Dylan to write a completely new song. Finally, out of frustration, Dylan grabbed a napkin and scribbled, “The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be/Flow, river, flow.”

Then the singer handed the napkin to Fonda, saying, "Give this to McGuinn. He'll know what to do with it."

McGuinn did know what to do with it. He wrote an elegiac ballad that — even though it includes no motorcycle imagery — nicely captures the sense of a ride, while it also foreshadows the film’s darker themes. The influential rock critic David Fricke said the song perfectly captured the social mood of late 1969 and highlighted “the weary blues and dashed expectations of a decade's worth of social insurrection.”

As soon as "Easy Rider" was finished, Fonda screened it for Dylan. When the singer saw his name in the credits (as the co-author of the title song) he insisted that it be removed. McGuinn later said that Dylan didn’t like the film. It’s also possible that he felt he was being used to promote it.

The film ended up on the American Film Institute’s "100 Greatest American Films" list. So, in the fullness of time, Dylan might’ve reconsidered his songwriting credit. But if he had any lingering regrets — over giving up his Triumph, or giving up his screen credit in "Easy Rider" — I guess a Nobel Prize will make him feel better.