Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #74: Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat

Just a fun song to listen to. You'll forgive me for starting with such an obvious and matter-of-fact phrase, but I think that occasionally the analysis needs to be set aside (if only for just a moment) to simply make a statement of fact. After all, at the core of this blog is a fan talking about music that he loves by his all-time favorite artist. If I can't take a moment to express such a simple notion in a way other than in my usual over-thought metaphors or tales of my own experiences, then what does my fandom really mean?

And so I'll reiterate - this is just a fun song to listen to. I love the fact that it was Dylan that played the opening blues solo to kick the song off - it clangs and sounds anything but smooth, but there's an energy behind it that carries through the rest of the song. Robertson, thankfully, takes over for the rest of the song, and his licks are much sharper and stinging (I love the fact that that simple progression, surely not Robertson's own invention, was basically appropriated for every "Rainy Day Women" live performance from 1974 to eternity). And Dylan, for his part, is at his sneering best vocally, putting down the fashion-obsessed woman of the song as only he can. And, just as importantly as everything else (to me, at least), the piano in the background serves as a secondary percussion, never quite at the forefront but always present in the mix. If Blonde on Blonde really is the classic late-night album, this is the perfect song for the point in the evening where you want to kick back, light up your smoke of choice, take a sip of well-aged scotch, and start busting chops. It's pretty damn hard not to love a song like that.

My Dylan-loving friend (who you'll know from other blog entries) told me that when she showed up to her first day 6th grade in Northern Virginia, she was wearing a Chicago Bulls cap, Air Jordans, and a flannel jacket. Sadly, she ended up catching flak for her lack of fashion sense, and within a few weeks it was all Limited Too and chokers for her, a concession to peer pressure and the always-present idea of just how important clothing is to your image. Leaving aside how awesome the mental image of a girl wearing that outfit is, it's obviously sad that somebody has to worry about shit like that, even (or especially) at that age, and that haute couture has to be something people have to worry about. One wants to go back in time, snatch that young woman away from the disapproving eyes of her peers, and deposit her in Boulder or Berkeley or Austin so she can continue to dress as she pleased in peace.

It is that love of fashion (or a confused version thereof) that gives "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat" its sharp lyrical edge. For those of you that may never actually have seen a leopard-skin pillbox hat, feast your eyes on this monstrosity. I mean...who in their right mind would want that on their head, unless it was either for a Halloween party or they were so out of touch that they still thought it was okay to dress like something out of a 1950's stag film? Dylan, who was at his apex of taking down the foibles of womanhood in this point of his career (and, between Edie Sedgwick and Joan Baez, certainly had his share of writing fodder), takes mocking aim at the kind of people that not only care about the crap they wear, but don't even have the proper instincts of what crap they should be wearing. Not only does he viciously dig on the hat itself - I can't help laughing, just a little, at "honey, can I jump on it sometime?" - but he even takes a shot at some imaginary goon that woos the woman of the song, but only because he's actually impressed by her ugly accoutrements. It makes me sad that there are people actually like that.

This song's had considerable staying power for not being an out-and-out classic - Dylan's played it on just about all of his tours, and it's certainly recognizable to even the casual fans. I wonder why that is. Is it just the fact that the title sticks easily to the brain, or that the well-worn blues progression makes the song easy to listen to and the lyrics that much more in sharp relief? I like to think that people can relate to the idea of how stupid caring about nonsense like what kind of hat looks good on your head and they feel a certain bond with a song that makes that stupidity even more ridiculous. All I know is that I'm ready to cue it up and listen to it all over again.

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fashionbabe said...

I actually prefer this song to the other blues number on this album, pledging my time, as it doesn't drown you with wailing harmonica.

Rainy Day Women does use a lick somewhat reminiscent of Robbies, but that lick is as old as the blues itself.

rob! said...

I think I just heard what sounded like Beck singing a cover of L-SPH over the Oscars end credits! WTF?!?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it was a Beck cover of this song at the Oscars. He did it for a tribute/charity album. It's pretty sweet.

Cymbaline said...

This song contains my all-time favorite lyric induced visual,

" a matress balances on a bottle of wine"!

I also loved the cover at the end of the Oscar's last night.

LarryK said...

How can you not love a song that says:
"I saw you makin' love to him - you forgot to close the garage door"!

Unknown said...

are you serious?? I had no idea that song was actually about a HAT. I thought it was about something much more obvious, but obviously by the other comments, I got a wild imagination! and I think I will keep it (my interpretation of the lyrics) is way more fun, sexy, and interesting than yours!

allan said...

" a matress balances on a bottle of wine"

Me too, Dragon!

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde rated & discussed

Anonymous said...

"Marley's Ghost" covers this song and performs it at most of their shows. Was on one of their CD's. They do an awesome job with it. LOVE IT.

perpetual wonderer said...

Hey Tony! Great blog. I am a BIG Dylan fan. I got hooked on to his stuff only a couple of years ago but its been only him since then...several hours a day. I don't know how I didn't come across your blog earlier.

Anyway, I think I don't agree with your interpretations of some songs. And this one would be one of those. I think Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat is about lot more than a fashion conscious woman. I think it has more to do with a woman that left a guy, just so she wanted to be with someone who would be 'more fashionable'. But this guy in turn is just as vain too. Hence, 'but I know what he really loves you for...its your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat..."

Here is my interpretation in brief. Hope it makes sense:

There is this girl that Bob (or the lead character in the song) was seeing. And he was really into her. But the girl had other ideas. She decided that Bob isn't 'cool' enough for her, and dumped him for a guy that Bob has only heard about. But Bob had a hard time getting over her. (Hence the doctor told him it wasn't good for his health to go and see her). Now that he has begun moving on, he sees that the girl is not satisfied with her new boyfriend as well. Thats when the classic Bobby brand of jeering, mocking and cynicism makes its way through the song.

Let me know what you think of this. It could be that I am interpreting the song this way cuz it looks that way from where I am at. Guess thats the beauty of his songs. They can mean so many different things at different points of time in your life...each meaning just as profound as the next.

Anonymous said...

it's worth checking out Lightnin' Hopkins' "Automobile Blues" as a precursor to this song.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony, Thank you for another interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box Come and join us inside and listen to every version of song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.