In the summer of 1966, Bob Dylan, careening through the peak of his insane celebrity and terrifying creative powers, flipped over the handlebars of his motorcycle, speeding on a straightway outside of his home in Woodstock, New York. No one really witnessed the accident, save his then wife Sara, who was supposedly following him in a car for some reason. She picked him up and took him to the hospital, the story goes, where initial reports suggested that the great songwriter’s injuries were life-threatening, or that he was a vegetable, or that in fact, we’d never see Bob Dylan again.
Like Lou Reed says, those were different times. As huge a star as Dylan was at that point, no one could really make much sense of what had actually happened. There was no 24-hour news, no internet tabloids, no cell phone cameras and nothing like the current market for exploiting the downfall of a major celebrity for profit. There was intense speculation, theoretical controversies, but nothing definitive.
Over the years it has become commonplace to suggest that Dylan’s famous motorcycle accident was less an actual ‘accident’ and more a contrivance to explain the imminent, long absence from the public eye which was then imperative for keeping Dylan sane, alive, or both. Probably, maybe, he fell off his motorcycle and suffered minor injuries. But mostly he needed an opportunity—any opportunity—to exit the stage and touring life before it killed him. Following the “crash” Dylan basically disappeared for several years.
Two decades after the infamous 1979 incident during which a virulently drunken Elvis Costello used racial slurs while describing Ray Charles and James Brown during a ludicrous shouting match with Stephen Stills in a Columbus, Ohio bar, Costello ruefully described the incident as his own version of Dylan’s motorcycle accident: the consequence of too much stimulation of every kind, an inevitable, embarrassing meltdown, following a punishing pace of work and extreme ingestion that his constitution could ultimately not handle. Understandably, Costello was pilloried in the press and to some extent his career in the States was indelibly harmed. But he survived, apologized and continued to make great music.
In the case of Tiger Woods, an athlete for whom I have long expressed a childlike ardor, it seems sort of ridiculous in retrospect not to have seen the motorcycle accident coming. Failing to take note of any of the lessons of history, I for one have been sandbagged, slack jawed, gob smacked and generally demoralized at the revelations regarding the troubled and indiscreet goings on in the life and marriage of my acknowledged hero.
I don’t exactly feel angry with the man—for one thing, it’s a pretty short list of great and remarkable individuals throughout history who don’t experience some manner of a messy personal life. Furthermore, what business is it of mine to judge, and what makes me such a saint? From the perspective of the rough passage he is experiencing in his marriage, I feel about it the same way I have when countless friends (and I) have gone through similar transgressions and estrangements. I sympathize with all the parties, I don’t remotely claim to understand the personal dynamics that might have brought this to bear, and I hope that it works out for the best with the least amount of anguish manageable.
I am a little worried for him. I do wonder if he might benefit from the priceless advice of Paul Westerberg, who once urged a world class fad to leave a trail of crumbs, and also to remember the suicide you’re on. Woods, whose achievements over the past twenty years have accrued to something nearly inhuman, has now revealed his off the course proclivities to be something that resembles the lost chapter of “The Dirt.” It isn’t so much the imperfection that is disturbing, as the seeming bleak toxicity of his private existence.
Image is a dangerous dalliance. To become a human commodity whose very success and high profile results in the employment of many and perhaps even the well being of thousands cannot in any way be construed as a simple matter. I am also reminded, whatever the reason, of accounts of the final days of Jerry Garcia. In his case, it was apparent to everyone around him that the enormous traveling circus of the Grateful Dead needed to be at least temporarily suspended, so that he could gain control of his addictions. But even if that’s what Garcia wanted (I have no idea) it was way too difficult to achieve this. Hundreds of people were employed by the band and tens of thousands of tickets were sold. Millions of dollars were at stake. There was no simple way to turn that ship around, maybe no way at all, save the ultimate way.
Andre Agassi’s recent memoir contained the surprise revelation that he hates tennis. Agassi explains that he was always brilliant at the sport, an intuitive genius, and forced to play night and day by his Czar-like father from the time of his early childhood. But he didn’t much like it, and often dreamed of stopping, indulging in excess of various sorts to relieve the pressure.
What if, strange to say, Tiger Woods hates golf? He has never seemed anything less than profoundly engaged and apparently overjoyed to be competing, but on the other hand the guy has been on the public stage since he was three years old. It is now plainly obvious that the polished veneer of his public presentation masks some darker pathologies. If Tiger Woods wanted to be off the public stage for any significant period of time, or to someway transgress against or overthrow his near Messianic persona, how exactly could he go about it?
The ultimate paradox of this very sad and strange saga is as follows: Short of actual death, contriving his own seismic public embarrassment may have been the only way out. Maybe, on that fateful Thanksgiving morning when Tiger’s SUV smashed that fire hydrant, leaving him lying half conscious in the street, cradled in his then wife’s arms, maybe he was finally free. Not a god, not a symbol, just a flawed, tired man, who finally went over the handlebars.
nice, and not just because you made me reconsider world class fad.