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The story of how Bob Dylan almost died in the back of Neil Young’s hearse

It is a headline that raises a lot of questions, and the first one we will address is what we mean by Neil Young’s hearse. Thankfully, it was merely one that he drove as opposed to one that they carried him off in. But why, exactly, was he driving around in a coffin carrier in the first place? After all, he’s a folk musician, not the Prince of bloody Darkness!

His 1948 Buick Roadmaster, which was dubbed Mortimer Hearseburg or simply Mort among friends, was actually very precious to Young. He adorned it with bumper stickers reading: “Shit Happens”, and he even wrote the track ‘Long May You Run’ about it as a loving ode before it was auctioned in 2017. 

Part of the reason it endeared itself so much to Young was because, as it happens, the vehicle turned out to be ideal for touring. Aside from there being enough space to swing a dead cat in the back, it had more than a few mod-cons that any musician hitting the road would find handy. 

As Young explained to Rolling Stone: “I loved the hearse. Six people could be getting high in the front and back and nobody would be able to see in because of the curtains. The heater was great. And the tray…the tray was dynamite. You open the side door and the tray whips right out onto the sidewalk. What could be cooler than that? What a way to make your entrance. Pull up to a gig and just wheel out all your stuff on the tray.”

Thus, the hearse became a treasured possession for Young. When he found fame and fortune as a result of the car’s touring ways, he decided to stick with it rather than opt for a Ferrari, or even simply an estate vehicle without cadaverous connotations. As he once declared: “Mort was real important… part of my identity. Like a cowboy and his horse.”

However, for most people, the vehicle was an oddity and, seemingly, when Bob Dylan found it parked up while visiting Young’s ranch, he was captivated by its curious allure. His next step, however, was a pretty peculiar one. Wandering the ranch grounds alone and feeling weary, the folk forefather inexplicably decided that he would climb into the back of it to take a nap. 

It goes without saying that it was a bizarre place to take a snooze, and as Sandy Mazzeo explains in the Neil Young biography, Shakey, it almost had dire consequences. Later that day, Mazzeo got behind the wheel of the hearse to take it for a spin for an unspecified reason. Then all of a sudden, he hears repeated loud bangs and gravelled voiced groans, which when driving a hearse proved understandably disconcerting. 

As Mazzeo explains: “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s a ghost’. I look in the rearview mirror, and it’s Bob Dylan.” The twist, however, was that this was during Dylan’s rather outlandish turban phase – an interesting phase for anyone other than a religious convert to go through – and this only furthered the ghostly illusion. “He’d slept in his turban and it had come all undone – he looked like a mummy!”

Fearing that the morbid past of Mort had finally caught up with it, Mazzeo believed that he was genuinely in the presence of the ghost of folk past, and this introspective apparition almost caused him to run the car off the road. In the cavernous tomb of the back of a hearse without a seatbelt in sight, a collision would no doubt have left the turban-wearing troubadour lying in repose.

Fortunately, Dylan managed to quickly suffuse the situation by making it clear that he was not the undead, but simply a sleepy voice of a thousand generations sporting tousled headwear. Weirdly the story just seems to end there, with very few questions asked about why Dylan couldn’t traverse the last few yards up the driveway to find a mattress and instead chose to nap in a transitory deathbed? I suppose it is once more just Bob being Bob. Alas, all is well that ends well. 

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