Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

Commentary

Leopard Skin Pill-box Hat is one of Dylan’s funniest songs. Dylan is often accused of being morose, downbeat, a buzz-kill. Nothing could be further from the truth. From his first album (see Talkin’ New York) to his latest release, humor is a consistent ingredient. He even tells jokes at his live shows. (my favorite: “My ex-wife is a tennis player. Love means nothing to her.”)

Some readers might be unfamiliar with pill-box hats. This type of hat goes back at least into Elizabethan times. Although it has often been used as an accessory with military uniforms, it’s generally known as a woman’s hat. It usually has a flat top and straight, upright sides. Jacqueline Kennedy made them popular in the early sixties. Kennedy was wearing a pink pill-box on the day her husband was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

The pill-box hat serves little purpose. It’s not warm, it doesn’t protect the face, and it is difficult to keep on one’s head. It’s a vanity hat, which is probably why Dylan chose to put this type of hat on the woman being ridiculed in the song.

So why is it a “leopard-skin” hat? Leopard-skin has been used for woman’s clothing for many years, and was especially popular in the sixties. Sexually suggestive, leopard-skin was often used in woman’s underwear and other nighttime attire. Leopard-skin has also long been associated with ‘loose women’.

Many commentators have suggested that this song – and also Like a Rolling Stone and Just Like a Woman – might have been inspired by Edie Sedgwick. Edie was a wild child with a perchance penchant for wearing outlandish clothing. A leopard-skin pill box hat would probably have fit right into her wardrobe. George Plimpton, in his book, Edie, recounts an interview with the one-time leader singer of the Velvet Underground, Nico, in which she claims that the song is about Edie. However, she provides no hard evidence.

Leopard Skin is a twelve-bar blues song. Dylan clearly used Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Automobile Blues as a model, both musically and lyrically. The song is another good example of how Dylan modernizes an old style. Here are Hopkins’s lyrics:

I saw you riding ’round in your brand new automobile
Yes I saw you ridin’ around, babe, in your brand new automobile
Yes you was sitting there happy with your handsome driver at the wheel
In your brand new automobile

Now your car so pretty baby, will you let me drive sometime
Yes your car so pretty baby, please let me drive sometime
She says her chauffeur was a good chauffeur, lord but he ain’t like mine
In your brand new automobile


Lyrics

Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Well, you must tell me, baby
How your head feels under somethin’ like that
Under your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

Well, you look so pretty in it
Honey, can I jump on it sometime?
Yes, I just wanna see
If it’s really that expensive kind
You know it balances on your head
Just like a mattress balances
On a bottle of wine
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

Well, if you wanna see the sun rise
Honey, I know where
We’ll go out and see it sometime
We’ll both just sit there and stare
Me with my belt
Wrapped around my head
And you just sittin’ there
In your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

Well, I asked the doctor if I could see you
It’s bad for your health, he said
Yes, I disobeyed his orders
I came to see you
But I found him there instead
You know, I don’t mind him cheatin’ on me
But I sure wish he’d take that off his head
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him
Makin’ love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

7 thoughts on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”

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    Just as Bob Dylan’s Mozambique was obviously a comment on political awareness — or rather lack of it — and a well pointed needle towards the vague political awareness of those who consider themselves aware and committed but know little about specific countries and events, so Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hats had an obvious political context at the time. New and very young Dylan listeners may not find these references so obvious as those who were there. Most know of Jackie Kennedy and her pill-box hat, and most know of the dedicated followers of fashion. And most accept it as ludicrous, because of how a leopard- skin pill-box hat looks. And most know about Edie Sedgwick. But the barb was greater at the time, and some recent enquirers clearly miss this particular layer of significance.

    Bear in mind our hero himself was wearing a very large- patterned hound’s tooth suit at the time, there is ludicrous and there is ludicrous. Clowns on stage and clowns in power. Mobutu had made himself head of state with full executive powers in 1965. He wildly imprisoned, exiled and executed his political opponents. He had been involved in the army coup and fared well in the vacuum left by the Belgians when the Belgian Congo gained its independence in 1960.

    Thirty one years into his reign Zaire is among the very saddest places on earth. And he still wears his famous Leopard-Skin hat, and smiles. Mobuto is a multi-billionaire, Swiss bank accounts, Swiss medical care, he is recouping on the Riviera in one of his many homes in Europe. This man has thoroughly understood American values from the outset, the CIA role in his rise to power long well known, playing the cold war game from all sides, mixing with bankers and arms dealers, getting strong American support in exchange for US raids against Angola and other communist strongholds in Africa. And in the mid-1960s the African leader with a leopard-skin hat on his head in his photographs was often in the newspapers.

    This is just the scene, I do not mean to imply that Bob Dylan knew his African politics in any better detail than he knows his own records, but it seems extremely likely that he moved in circles where Mobuto and other similar issues would be discussed at length. He will have seen the reaction of politically committed people to a craze for leopard-skin pill-box hats, a symbol they will have recognised for its African significance, one more straw to the shame they already felt about their country’s foreign policy and intervention in foreign elections. (Mobuto’s Popular Revolutionary Movement did not become the sole legal party of a one party state until 1967, before that he had to win multi-party elections. Luckily he did not have to import his democracy from the ancient Greeks, he found more accommodating bedfellows.) Bob Dylan observes, comments and reflects. On Fashion. On the fashionable. On fashionable politics. On political fashions. On the people that he’s known. On lameness and the like…

    I cannot recall Bob playing Kinshasa, can you? Maybe its the abacos law? Bob could not wear his hound’s tooth suit there. One wears the outfit designed by Mobuto, abacos, short for: a bas la costume — down with suits.

    If only it were not so serious, a person could easily support a down with suits party on many levels: what suits stand for, why they are worn, what they mean, a certain character’s personal taste in, and so on. But Mobuto’s authenticity doctrine is not a man being frivolously silly, he has always been deadly serious.

    Lightning Hopkins Automobile Blues has a lot to answer for!

    1. steve

      Great comment.   I never consider this angle myself, nor read it anywhere before.  Now that I think about it, it does seem plausible, a connection Dylan may have considered.  Mobuto certainly deserved the ridicule, even more than poor Edie.  Interesting.  Love the link to Dylan’s own pill-box 🙂

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