Let the record show that there have been two occasions in Dylan’s life when his career has been threatened by injury as a result of accidents that have befallen him. The first occasion was on the 29th July 1966 and the second occasion, as disclosed by chapter 4 of Chronicles Volume 1, was sometime in January 1987.
This is how Dylan, in his own words, describes the 1987 accident and its potentially career ending consequences:
‘It was 1987 and my hand, which had been ungodly injured in a freak accident was in a state of regeneration. It had been ripped and mangled to the bone and was still in the acute stage – it didn’t even feel like it was mine. I didn’t know what had befallen me, and this was a bizarre twist of fate. All potentialities had gone to pieces. With a hundred show dates scheduled for me starting in the spring it was uncertain that I would be able to perform. This was a sobering experience. It was now only January but my hand was going to need plenty of time to heal and be rehabilitated. With a cast on my hand that went nearly to the elbow, I realized that my playing days might well have faded out.’ (Chronicles page 145)
Dylan then goes on to reflect upon the events of the year before the accident happened:
‘I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It would be my last’. (Chronicles page 148)
‘The tour with Petty was broken up into parts and during one of the lay offs, one of the organizers, had set up some shows for me to do with the Grateful Dead. I needed to go to go to rehearse with the band for these shows so I went to St. Raphael to meet with the Dead.’ (Chronicles page 149)
‘I rejoined Petty for what was to be the final run of a long, drawn out tour.’ (Chronicles page 151)
‘The shows with Petty finished up in December…..After the tour I was sitting in London at the St. James Club with Elliot Roberts who had engineered both the Petty shows and The Dead shows. I told him I needed to work two hundred show dates next year.’ (Chronicles pages153/154)
After accepting Elliot’s advice that it would be best to wait until the spring before Dylan started his ‘two hundred show dates’, Dylan then writes further about his career threatening accident:
‘Then it hit me….. Returning from the emergency room with my arm entombed in plaster I fell into a chair – something heavy had come against me. It was like a black leopard had torn at my tattered flesh. It was plenty sore…. I was on the threshold of nothing, ruined. This could be the last turn of the screw. The trail had come to a halt.’ (Chronicles page 156)
And on the prospect of how the injury affected the way he wanted to play guitar:
‘That wouldn’t be happening any more. The thing was, I needed two hands. If I couldn’t play, I wouldn’t be doing anything better than ever now. Nothing would be exactly right.’ (Chronicles page 162)
But, thankfully, the injury subsequently improved:
‘One day I went to the clinic where the doctor examined my hand, said the healing was coming along fine and that the feeling in the nerves might have a chance of coming back soon.’ (Chronicles page 170)
Until the damage hand was finally healed:
‘In time my hand got right…. The doctor encouraged me to play my guitar - that stretching my hand was therapeutic, actually good for my hand – and I was now doing that a lot. I could begin the shows that were scheduled for me, starting in the spring, and it seemed like I was back where I began.’ (Chronicles pages 173/174)
I opened this article by referring to the first career threatening accident in which Dylan was involved in July 1966. Actually as it turned out, the seriousness of that accident was somewhat overplayed for the purpose of providing Dylan with a reason for excusing himself from continuing a damn impossible life on the road. He didn’t break his neck, he wasn’t on death’s door but the prematurely terminated motorcycle ride did give him the much needed opportunity to spend some quality time with his wife and family.
So, what of the accident that occurred in January 1987? Well, for a start it couldn’t have happened in January 1987. Dylan talks of the tour with Petty the previous year and the concerts with the Grateful Dead. That tour and those concerts were in 1987 so the January after that year would be January 1988. He says ‘The shows with Petty finished up in December’ but actually the last date of the Petty tour was on October 17th 1987 at London’s Wembley Arena. He mentions the two hundred show dates to start ‘in the spring’ but actually what subsequently came to be called The Never Ending Tour was due to start in June 1988 and would run to 71, not two hundred (or even one hundred) dates that year.
Taking the above facts into account, the ‘January’ that Dylan writes about when he was walking around ‘with a cast on my hand that went nearly to the elbow’ and when he, ‘realized that my playing days might well have faded out.’ must have been January 1988. Agreed?
But hold on a minute, on the 20th January 1988 Dylan appeared on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, playing guitar, he jammed with George Harrison and Mick Jagger after shaking hands with Bruce Springsteen. It was all caught on TV for posterity, but no hand to elbow cast can be seen So perhaps it wasn’t January 1988 after all. Confused? Perhaps Bob just got the date wrong. If that is so then you would be excused from thinking that if Bob can’t quite remember the exact sequence of events of something important as a career threatening accident that occurred less than 20 years ago how on earth could he remember the pattern on the wood floor when he visited Lou Levy’s office more than 40 years ago?
The answer my friend is what makes Bob Dylan and Chronicles Volume 1 so unique. It is a book that blurs fact with fiction; that makes you believe that what you are reading is gospel but actually it isn’t. This book is written like a song which you think is biographical but actually isn’t. It is almost a novel rather than a biography and, to my mind, it should be read that way. All the colour, all the memories, all the detail (true and false) are mixed together to present a self portrait which has a recognizable face but also has philosophical undertones and ironies of life’s bitter sweet journey. A Pilgrim’s Progress with a Joker acting out the part of a real life pilgrim. Like a Dylan song which improves the more you get to know it, Chronicles just gets better the more you read it.
If Dylan is a cowboy angel and Chronicles is his War and Pace and his pen is his candle, then he foresaw this project many years ago in the first verse of another great work of fiction:
Of war and peace
the truth just twists
Although Dylan may consider that his fame has banished him to somewhere east of Eden; with Chronicles he has joined together the wood and the trees. Read it with joy as we all move onwards towards that eternal forest.
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