Becoming the Hero of His Own Dream — The Transfiguration of Bobby Zimmerman
“Renaldo wants to be free from his unforgettable past — in other words, he wants to forget his unforgettable past and something earthshaking must have happened to him.” ~ Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg and Pierre Cottrell — 1977.
According to John Bauldie, editor of the Dylan fanzine, “The Telegraph,” Dylan demanded Ginsberg’s tape at the end of his first interview about “Renaldo and Clara,” claiming he had “revealed too much.”
The Death of Bobby Zimmerman
The motorcycle accident? Here’s the true git from one who was there and saw it.
Bobby Zimmerman was cruising down the highway when the muffler fell right off his bike. No hassle — it had happened before — the muffler was just wired on until Bobby could get around to welding it.
Bobby pulled a U-turn to go back and get the muffler. Damned if another biker wasn’t hauling ass on the wrong side of the road and broadsided Bobby just as he turned. Killed him instantly, and that was the end of Bobby Zimmerman.
It was September 3 1961 outside of Bass Lake, California. Three weeks later the name “Bob Dylan” would make its first appearance in The New York Times. The day after the Times article was published Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who had first heard Dylan a couple of weeks earlier at Carolyn Hester’s apartment, called him into the booth at Hester’s recording session and offered Dylan a contract. “Bob Dylan” would be released six months later.
Dylan mentions the name he was born with only twice in the 304 pages of Chronicles: Volume One, both instances while relating the death of Hell’s Angel Bobby Zimmerman in a motorcycle accident. “That person is gone. That was the end of him,” Dylan concludes and never writes the name in Chronicles again. The anecdote went largely unremarked by reviewers and Dylan fans when Chronicles was released, most readers taking the story about the other Bobby Zimmerman as another example of Dylanesque, quirky humor.
After all, Bobby Zimmerman was right there, typing away at Chronicles.
The Ghost of Death
“Renaldo rids himself of death… He’s becoming the hero of his own dream…”
“How can he be rid of her?”
Bobby Zimmerman wasn’t heard of publicly again until eight years after the publication of Chronicles when Dylan did an extraordinary interview with Rolling Stone — extraordinary in the sense that it was unlike any Dylan interview published before or since.
The conversation was nominally in support of Dylan’s new album, Tempest, although the subject of Tempest would barely be touched upon. Dylan would complain three years later “… the guy wanted to know about everything except the music,” but it was apparent early in the interview that he was in a fey mood, and the “guy” — journalist Mikail Gilmore, who was a Dylan interview veteran—decided to let his subject roam where he would.
Apropos of nothing said earlier, Dylan suddenly produces a copy of Sonny Barger’s 2000 memoir, “Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club,” taking pains to point out the names of Barger’s co-writers, Keith and Kent Zimmerman. “Do those names ring a bell?” Dylan asks. “And there’s two of them there… One’s not enough?”
Dylan challenges the mystified Gilmore to read a certain passage from the book aloud, which turns out to be Barger’s recollection of Bobby Zimmerman’s death, essentially the same story that Dylan recounts in Chronicles.
“You know what this is called? It’s called transfiguration,” Dylan says as Gilmore finishes his reading of the passage.
It’s Called Transfiguration
“When you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time.” ~Bob Dylan to Mikail Gilmore
Here’s another true story, as well as I can tell it.
Once upon a time there was a boy who wanted more than anything else to be a rock-’n-roll star. He played guitar and he played piano. He formed one band after another and played rock and blues anywhere he could, even on the roof of his camp’s rec room one summer. He played boogie-woogie like Jerry Lee Lewis and rocked out like Little Richard. He hitch-hiked to Fargo, North Dakota so he could play piano for Bobby Vee.
Eventually, the boy — now a young man — changed his name and got sidetracked from rock-’n-roll for a while to take up folk music. He was good at that too, good at singing old folk songs and writing new folk songs. But he never forgot his love for rock-’n-roll and eventually went to the heart of the folkie movement and played electric rock for them and made them all crazy. He released his own rock albums — three in the space of a year — and then went on a rock-’n-roll tour and made his audiences even crazier.
His Muse had gone crazy too, pouring lyrics and music into the young man at such a fever-pitch that the only way he could keep sane was with drugs, lots of drugs, and all the time.
That was fitting because those were crazy times, marchers in the streets screaming “Whose Side Are You On?” five-sided buildings levitating in the air, monks and babies in flames, presidents and ministers shot down like dogs. Crowds of people were walking on the roof of the young man’s home, sleeping in his bedroom, going through his garbage and constantly shouting at the young man to “LEAD US!” and “TELL US WHERE IT’S AT!”
At the height of all this Craziness, the young man realized he had accomplished his dream. He was a rock-n’-roll star, in fact some would say he was the rock-n’-roll star. But the achievement was like he had climbed a mountain of shit to pick one perfect rose growing at the very top, only to find that he had lost his sense of smell by the time he reached the summit.
He was tired and had come a long, long way. Now what he wanted more than anything else was a white picket fence, a passel of kids, and most of all, to be left alone. So, Bobby Zimmerman decided to leave the rat race.
Some say he died in a motorcycle accident. Me, I think he took the closest personality that was at hand and left the old one behind, like a snake shedding its skin.
Bobby Zimmerman transfigured into Bob Dylan on July 29 1966. The young rock-’n-roller was gone — gone for good — replaced by the blank slate he had created for the public.
He could forget the past and write anything — anything! — on that slate, and he would, too. Bob Dylan as family man and country crooner, Bob Dylan as cover artist, Bob Dylan as lounge lizard, Bob Dylan as apocalyptic preacher. Bob Dylan as anybody but Bobby Zimmerman, folk rock-’n-roller extraordinaire. That guy was dead and no longer existed, as Bob Dylan would try to explain in a Rolling Stone interview several decades later.
The only problem, as Bob Dylan would discover and later document in Chronicles, that with the departure of Bobby Zimmerman his Muse had gone South, too. The old songs were like ashes in his mouth, and Bob Dylan couldn’t write or perform like Bobby Zimmerman.
It was going to take years of work to replace him.
“Something Earthshaking Must Have Happened to Him”
I’m fairly certain that there was a motorcycle accident, although it probably wasn’t the motorcycle accident of popular Dylan legend. Like the hand injury of several decades later, I’m less sure about the accident’s severity or if it was staged. Let’s look at what we think we know…
The Rat Race
In June 1966, Bob Dylan returns to Woodstock after completing a four-month world tour that included legs in North America, Hawaii, Australia, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and France. He’ll have a two-month respite before leaving on another 64-date world tour commencing with the Yale Bowl on August 6.
Dylan has a wife, Sara, who he’s been married to for less than a year, a six-month-old son, Jesse, and a four-year-old daughter, Maria. Dylan has barely seen any of them since 1965. He left Woodstock just a month after Jesse’s birth for his latest tour.
Recorded interviews and video taped during the 1966 tour reflect a seriously drugged-out 24/25-year-old man, probably using amphetamine, possibly also using heroin, if the infamous cab ride with John Lennon is any indication.
A week before Dylan is scheduled to kick off his new tour, he crashes a motorcycle. The most likely story is that the accident happened somewhere on the long driveway leading out of Albert Grossman’s Bearsville estate, where Dylan flipped a motorcycle with a flat tire onto his back.
Dylan is driven to a physician/friend’s — Ed Thaler — home by his wife, an approximate hour-and-a-half car ride. According to an eye-witness account, Dylan was extremely upset when he arrived at the Thaler’s, and pleaded not to be taken to a hospital.
It’s possible that Dylan did injure his neck in the crash, fracturing several vertebrae. Accounts report him later wearing a neck brace and unable to move his head. It’s also possible, although less likely, that he’s at the Thaler’s home to wean himself off drugs.
Dylan stays at the physician’s house for the next 4–6 weeks. His wife and children also move in. His scheduled tour is cancelled and, except for one-off appearances, Dylan won’t tour again for nearly a decade.
There are many questions you could ask about the accident, including:
Why would Bob Dylan even try to ride a motorcycle with flat tires, as the most credible story has it, given that even the most experienced motorcyclist would find a bike with a flat near impossible to control?
Sara Dylan supposedly first returned to the Grossman house with the injured Dylan before moving on to the Thaler home in Middletown. Was it to ensure that Sally Grossman reported to the absent Albert that Dylan had been hurt badly enough that he needed a doctor?
Even though they were friendly acquaintances, the Thaler’s acceptance of the Dylan clan — including the regular appearances of a six-month and four-year-old — into their home for over a month appears far above and beyond the Hippocratic Oath. Was there more going on than a neck injury?
I Love a Mystery
I tend towards the speculative side, although it’s as much because I love a good mystery as anything else. It’s possible — though highly improbable — that Dylan and Sara came up with the “motorcycle accident” to get Dylan off speed and smack and out of Albert Grossman’s grip, if only temporarily, and to derail Grossman’s plans for the Fall 1966 tour.
In that scenario, they convinced their friend, Dr. Ed Thaler, to go along with their plan. Or maybe Dr. Thaler convinced the two of them. Perhaps, injury aside, Dylan was in such poor shape that Thaler believed that his health — if not his life — was in jeopardy unless he got clean, and that a successful recovery required his being under Thaler’s direct home supervision. Dylan, being Dylan, wouldn’t risk the media attention of a hospital stay anyway, especially if there was more than a neck injury involved. The Dylans might have also wanted Thaler’s physician gravitas close at hand to forestall Grossman from talking Dylan into the Fall tour when he recovered — or even talking to Dylan at all.
The Bard vs the Bear
“He looked like Sydney Greenstreet from the film The Maltese Falcon, had an enormous presence, always dressed in a conventional suit and tie, and he sat at his corner table. Usually when he talked, his voice was loud like the booming of war drums. He didn’t talk so much as growl.” ~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles
Whether the Dylans staged his fall from the bike or took advantage of a serendipitous accident, the question remains “Why?” Why not simply tell Grossman that Dylan wanted — needed — a break from the touring grind and/or to get off the hard drugs? After all, he was the artist. Albert was just the business guy. Sure, there might be kicks, even threats of legal action, from stiffed promoters… but hey, it wouldn’t be the first time .
Maybe Bob Dylan was a bit scared of Albert Grossman, who seemed to have something of a Svengali-like hold over him, if Louie Kemp’s memoir, “Dylan & Me” is to be believed. In Chronicles Dylan does claim to have faced off Grossman over his original Columbia Records contract, refusing to allow Grossman to renegotiate the deal, even though Dylan had been underage at the original signing. When Dylan tells Grossman that he instead signed an amendment to the original contract out of respect to “Mr. Hammond,” Grossman “just went about berserk.”
But, according to Kemp, even into the 1980s Dylan was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t shake himself free of Grossman after two decades of trying. “Nobody’s ever beaten Albert,” Dylan tells Kemp dispiritedly, who discovers that Dylan is being represented in the negotiations by Grossman’s lawyer, who, unsurprisingly, is telling Dylan he has no choice but to agree to Grossman’s terms.
Kemp secures Dylan another lawyer, all the while with Dylan repeating, “Albert is the Bear. No one has ever beaten him.” The various suits stretched on for another six years, the Bear would eventually die, and Dylan would settle with Sally Grossman. Kemp ends his story noting that Grossman had one last laugh beyond the grave. The infamous Warhol Silver Elvis, which Louie Kemp intimates was all but stolen by Grossman from a naive Dylan, was eventually sold at auction for $37 million.
Legend has it that Dylan’s break with Albert Grossman was precipitated by the birth of Dylan’s son, Samuel, in July of 1968. To celebrate Sam’s birth and to commemorate his father’s recent death, Dylan decided to change the name of his publishing house, Dwarf Music, to Sad (Samuel Abraham Dylan) Music, only to be informed by his secretary/business administrator Naomi Saltzman that Grossman owned half of Dwarf and had to agree to any name changes.
Reading both his 1962 managerial and Dwarf Music contracts with Grossman through for the first time, Dylan is infuriated to find that Grossman is collecting a 25% manager’s fee as well as 50% of Dylan’s publishing royalties, and that Bob Dylan is not even in control of the licensing of his own work.
While this might have been the final straw, there were intimations of cracks in the Grossman / Dylan relationship long before July 1968 — maybe as far back as July of 1966. In May 1967, in his first interview after the motorcycle accident, Dylan told a New York Daily News reporter that while he had new songs “in his head,” they weren’t going to be published until, “some things are evened up. Not until some people come forth and make up for some of the things that have happened.”
It’s unclear exactly what needed “evening up” or who the “some people” were. Were Dylan’s remarks directed at Columbia Records, who Grossman was hotly negotiating with at the time for a new Dylan recording contract? Or were they targeted at Albert Grossman himself? Journalist and Dylan associate Al Aronowitz said that around this time Dylan took to “sneering” at the mention of Grossman’s name, darkly hinting at an incident involving “somebody’s wife.”
Whoever’s wife was the cause of the the sneering and whatever “evening up” needed to be done, Dylan signed a new recording contract with Columbia Records in July, after flirting with the idea of moving to MGM. As part of the contract, Dylan agreed to deliver four new albums over the next five years, the first to be delivered within the next six months.
And, as far as publishing new songs goes, while Albert’s reluctant meal ticket was successful in staying off-tour, the Bear was also successful in getting 10 to 14 songs from what would become known as The Basement Tape sessions taped, published and copyrighted in October 1967. An acetate of the songs was pressed and made available to groups in the U.K. such as Manfred Mann (“The Mighty Quinn”), The Brian Auger Trinity/Julie Driscoll (“This Wheel’s On Fire”), and Fairport Convention (“Million Dollar Bash”), as well as groups connected to Albert Grossman, like Peter, Paul, and Mary (“Too Much Of Nothing”).
Did Bob Dylan, wanting to determine how much income he’d have from his music publishing house if he stayed off the road indefinitely, agree to publish some of the Basement Tape songs, only to discover that, whatever he made from them, 50% was going to go directly into Albert Grossman’s pockets?
In the Fall of 1967, Dylan recorded John Wesley Harding. Some of the songs on the album, such as “Dear Landlord,” could be interpreted as referring to Grossman — or were they about Dylan’s overall unhappiness with the business aspects of the music industry?
Around the same time, months before Sam Dylan’s birth, Sara Dylan told a friend that her husband was thinking of changing managers; “the idea being he shouldn’t have to read a contract. He should be able to trust people.”
There were still nearly two decades of entanglement between the Bard and the Bear ahead. In 1979, with a different legal advisor recommended by Louie Kemp, Dylan discontinued all royalty payments from any of his publishing companies to Grossman. The wheels of justice grind slowly, and it wasn’t until three years later that Albert Grossman filed a lawsuit against Bob Dylan demanding back royalties and punitive damages.
Like characters from Bleak House, the Dylan / Grossman sides might be slugging it out still except that in 1986 — with the suit still in court — Albert Grossman died of a heart attack while on a flight to London. A year later Dylan settled with Albert Grossman’s estate for approximately $2 million dollars.
At various times, editions of Andy Warhol’s “Silver Elvis” series have sold for prices of up to $105 million dollars. Dylan’s Double Elvis — the painting that he traded to Albert Grossman for a couch in 1965 and was later resold for first $750,000 and then $37 million— probably was worth at least $2 million in 1987.
Imagine how much easier it would have been on his life if Bob Dylan had waited to make the trade.
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