In the mid-1960s the most celebrated folk musician of his era bought a house for his growing family at the southern edge of the Catskills, in the nineteenth-century painters’ retreat of Woodstock. He was a “protest singer,” to use a term that was then new. His lyrics—profound, tender, garrulous—sounded like they were indicting the country for racism (“where black is the color where none is the number”), or prophesying civil war (“you don’t need a weatherman to know the way the wind blows”), or inviting young people to smoke dope (“everybody must get stoned”). Fans and would-be acolytes were soon roaming the town on weekends, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Eccentric-looking by the standards of the day, they infuriated local residents. Nothing good was going to come of it. One of the town’s more heavily armed reactionaries would later recall:
[A] friend of mine had given me a couple of Colt single-shot repeater pistols, and I also had a clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle around, but it was awful to think about what could be done with those things. . . . Creeps thumping their boots across our roof could even take me to court if any of them fell off. . . . I wanted to set fire to these people. These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues were all disrupting my home life and the fact that I was not to piss them off or they could press charges really didn’t appeal to me.
The folk singer was Bob Dylan. The reactionary old coot with all the guns . . . well, that was Bob Dylan, too. At age 25, he was growing uncomfortable with the role conferred on him by the music he’d written at age 20. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” he would later write in his memoir Chronicles.
There is certainly an element of baloney in this. No one writes a song like “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” without a certain oracular ambition. And, on the evidence of his music, Dylan’s ambition was overpowering. Listen to “Positively Fourth Street,” “Just Like a Woman,” or “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” in all of which the passions are expressed through a narrative about social standing—who’s on the way up and who’s on the way down. Beautiful as they are, the fire in these songs comes not from political injustice or unrequited love but from the warning: You are really going to regret having been mean to me, once I’m famous.
And yet, Dylan’s unease with his listeners’ expectations rings true. Born in 1941, he was not a baby boomer, as all high-school and almost all college students were by the time he moved to Woodstock. Nor was he a suburbanite. Hibbing, Minnesota, where he grew up, is in the Iron Range, 200 miles north of Minneapolis. And he chose not to join the great mass migration of the middle class into America’s universities. Maybe the new world that was on its way didn’t mean as much to him as everyone thought it did. It was just something folk singers sang about, in the same way they sang about floods, freight trains, and the woman who shot down that no-good man of hers who done her wrong.
By July 1966, Dylan was a hot ticket—too hot. He had just finished a grueling four-month world tour during which fans alternately swooned and shouted abuse, accusing him of having “betrayed” folk music by playing it on loud electric instruments. An even more demanding American tour was scheduled to begin in early August, and by then Dylan was supposed to have met deadlines for a television special, a movie about the last tour, and a not-quite-finished novel. Dylan’s manager then announced he had been in a near-fatal motorcycle crash. While Dylan’s record label Columbia issued a press release speaking of fractures and a concussion, there was no police report, and Dylan was never treated in any hospital. Rock historian Sid Griffin—whose authoritative book about Dylan’s Woodstock recordings, Million-Dollar Bash, has just been reissued in expanded form—believes some kind of accident happened, but that Dylan almost certainly exploited it as a pretext for desperately needed rest and recuperation. He would not tour again for eight years.