Leopard skin pill box Dylan. It don’t mean nothing. It ain’t about no one.

by Jochen Markhorst

Woman with hat – artists can not resist it. Picasso paints dozens of portraits of his successive muses and mistresses with headwear. From his earliest, blue period (Femme au chapeau à plumes, 1901) via the tragic Marie-Thérèse Walter (the one of Le Rêve, 1932) to Dora Maar (mistress from 1936 to 1944) and muse Lee Miller (1937), Nusch Éluard, who inspired half the forefront of the surrealists (Magritte, Miró, Man Ray) and second wife Jacqueline Rocque in ’54, until his last works; the central female figure on Final auvre (1971) also has a nice hat. It is universal among painters, that fascination. Warhol (Woman with hat, 1957) Matisse, Van Dongen, Renoir, Vermeer (Girl with a Red Hat, 1665), and also Rembrandt paints dozens of women’s hats, including a red one on his Saskia.

It’s not much different with the musicians. Randy Newman thinks a lady is most exciting when she leaves her hat on (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”, 1972). Gene Kelly wonders “Where Did You Get That Hat?” (1949). Woody Guthrie has a laugh with it in 1940 with “Wimmen’s Hats”: you can sell a woman any old thing… if you tell her it’s a hat (written one day after he wrote “This Land Is Your Land”, remarkably enough), Prince swoons in admiration for a maid with a raspberry beret (“Raspberry Beret”, 1985) and Carmen Miranda understands that everyone is glad to see her with her wearable fruit salad (“The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat”, 1943).

Dylan is not at all indifferent either. The lady in “Black Diamond Bay” causes some furore by wearing a Panama hat as well as a necktie. “Cute hat, by the way,” flirts the Don Juan in “Sweetheart Like You” and a veil has something too, apparently (“Golden Loom”, “Changing Of The Guards”).

But this song is different.

It oozes sarcasm, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. Thanks to the humour, the speaker only just avoids the pitfall of adolescent hurt, aggrieved jealousy, but mean and slightly bitter he is all the same. And the prosecutors of the Dylan community agree who the target of that biting ridicule is: Edie Sedgwick, the childish femme fatal from the Warhol entourage.

The witnesses are not the leasts. Patti Smith states, in writing, without a hint of doubt, that Sedgwick is the real heroine, the real protagonist of Blonde On Blonde, singer Nico states that Leopard-Skin is about Edie and that “everyone thought it was about Edie because she sometimes wore leopard” and Andy Warhol points out that Dylan and Sedgwick spent a few days in The Castle, a somewhat pompous country retreat in the hills of Hollywood, just before the recordings, around Christmas ’65.

Some witness experts endorse the witness statements; leading biographers such as Clinton Heylin, David Yaffe and Michael Gray study indirect evidence and draw the same conclusion, quite categorically even.

The jealous blows would then come to the credit of Dylan’s friend Bob Neuwirth, who after Dylan has a indeed convincingly documented relationship with Sedgwick.

The defense is not strong. Unsolicited, Dylan first explains it himself, on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, May 27, 1966, when, after a performance of Leopard-Skin, he responds to the boo:

“What you’re just hearing here now is the sound of the songs…you’re not hearing anything else except the songs, the sound…of the words…and sounds…so, you know, you can take it or leave it. (…) I’m sick of people asking what does it mean. It means NOTHING.”

Detective Jan Wenner does not believe this and explicitly asks about the underlying idea of this song for his Rolling Stone interview, 1969. Defensively the main suspect Bob D. states:

“It’s just about that. I think that’s something I mighta taken out of the newspaper. Mighta seen a picture of one in a department store window. There’s really no more to it than that. I know it can get blown up into some kind of illusion. But in reality it’s no more than that. Just a leopard skin pillbox. That’s all.”

And that is not too credible a reply. Every reader or listener who has moved beyond primary school understands: this text is not about a hat. It is about a fictional or perhaps real lady underneath that hat. There are no witnesses to discharge, other witness experts such as Ian Bell and Howard Sounes leave the options fairly open and only report that ‘people’ think that this song could be about Edie, that ‘people’ suspect that the two have had a short relationship. Robert Shelton does not even mention her. In his No Direction Home, however, he delivers exculpatory evidence by quoting indirectly a discharging statement from intimus Bob Neuwirth: “Bob never wrote a song about any one person. They are about a lot of people, and sometimes not about any people at all.”

Alas, again not very valid, of course. This report is not dated by Shelton, but we can assume that Neuwirth says so sometime in the late 1960s. At least well after Dylan has already written “Song To Woody”, “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”, “Ballad In Plain D” and more songs that are unmistakably about one real person. And also in later years Dylan sings about recognizable individuals (“George Jackson”, “Sara”, “Lenny Bruce”, to name but a few examples), but Neuwirth’s point is clear: Dylan does not hide an attack on or an ode to someone behind misty, ambiguous metaphors. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” undoubtedly contains impressions and memories, but above all it is poetic realism, the condensing of fragments of a reality. And well alright, part of that poeticized verity is perhaps Dylan’s disdain for superficial ladies who hide uncertainty behind promiscuous behavior and appearance, and yes, recent experiences with a certain Miss Sedgwick will probably find a romanticized echo.

Clearer sources of inspiration, however, are not a hat or a specific lady, but can be found in Dylan’s record collection. The bullying humour, the lyrics structure: “Automobile Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins from 1960: “I see you drivin’ ’round in your brand new automobile.” And perhaps even more heavily the Memphis Minnie classic resonates, the song Dylan announces in his Theme Time Radio Hour with the words one of the great blues songs of all time, one of the great car songs of all time, one of the great driver songs of all time! Sung by one of the great old ladies of all time: “Me And My Chauffeur Blues” (1941), and, still enchanted, closes up with Memphis Minnie, you can drive me anywhere!

In an early version of Leopard-Skin that influence is still almost undiluted:

Well you can ride with me, honey, 
I'll be a chauffeur, 
Just as long as you stay in the car: 
If you get out and start to walk 
You just might topple over, 
In your brand-new leopard-skin pill-box hat.

The song’s final version is a struggle. The first run, still in New York, has a slow, dragging blues stomp and lasts more than six minutes (the final version takes just over four minutes). The last take in New York is already faster and sharper, but Dylan is still missing something, apparently. Perhaps he is annoyed by the unimaginative, drum part – no, no, no, it’s not as good as it was yesterday one can hear him say on The Cutting Edge. Maybe we can just record a few versions and then glue the best parts together, he proposes to producer Bob Johnston, who answers with an enthusiastic “Yeah!”

It will not be done. Dylan takes the song to Nashville, where the magic begins. Not by itself, by the way; in Nashville, too, the maestro has to pull and push for thirteen takes, while not avoiding frivolous experiments. He holds on to corny party items right through the song for a while – a doorbell and a jokingly chanting “Who’s there?”-choir and car horn honking. At the end of the day, he drops that too, fortunately (the horn is in the wrong key, also).

But the end product is contagious, as also the colleagues seem to think.

Distinctive is the sizzling, steamy live version by Wofgang Niedecken, the singer of the Cologne ensemble BAP, unfortunately sung unintelligibly in the Kölsch dialect (“Leopardefellhut”, 1995), with prominent slide guitar. As with most covers the opportunity is seized to let the guitarist excel; it is a real Chicago blues, after all. Irresistible in this category are Charlie Musselwhite, John Mellencamp, with a fantastic wind arrangement too, Tommy Womack, master guitarist Peter Parcek and especially guitarist Walter Trout, who by the way has also one of the most intense versions of “Girl. From The North Country” at his fingertips.

And otherwise the pianist gets a leading role, as with chief Dylan interpreter Jimmy LaFave.

Virtually no one does deviate from the Chicago blues format. Janet Planet, the Brown-Eyed Girl who has been Van Morrison’s muse for years, fills two albums with Dylan covers in more complex jazz arrangements that rarely manage to move (although her “I Shall Be Released” has a very special grandeur). Her Leopard-Skin is one of the few covers that fail.

Style retention is not a must, though. The furious, stirring version by Beck, the opening track of the charity album War Child – Heroes vol. 1 (2009) is a fascinating mix of industrial violence and musical craftsmanship, and belongs in any case in the Top 5 of most successful covers. Reportedly, Beck was chosen by Dylan himself to record this song for War Child. That was a good choice from the old master. And that’s a cute hat, by the way.

Wimmen’s Hats – The Del McCoury Band

 

Dylan’s goofy take 8:

 

And finally, Beck…

 

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