I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan since roughly 1972. I had inherited a copy of Blonde on Blonde from one or other of my older brothers, along with a record player, and I spun all four sides incessantly. I laughed (“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”), I cheered (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”), I cried (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), I sang along (every word). Three years later, Blood on the Tracks joined the rotation, followed by Desire in 1976. Those were great years to be a young Dylan fan.
This May is a busy month for Dylanites like me. The 16th was the golden jubilee of Blonde on Blonde. May 17 marked 50 years since Dylan was branded a “Judas” for turning from acoustic to electric. On the 20th, Dylan released his 47th album, Fallen Angels, and today, May 24, marks Bobby’s 75th birthday. In this week’s Pathways post I explore that early period of my Dylan fandom, to see what else I can discover about my musical companion of 44 years.
I loved everything about Blonde on Blonde, from the slightly out-of-focus portrait on the cover (right), to the twang and rasp in Dylan’s voice, to the range of emotion, to the arrangement of the words. This was so, even though that voice could veer determinedly off-pitch and those word arrangements could be thudding and hackneyed (e.g., the “Jeeze I can’t find my knees” line in “Visions of Johanna”). In one of my favorite songs, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Dylan’s verses stack up with expertly constructed rhythm to paint a precise portrait of a relationship gone wrong. I played the song for all my friends. I presented the lyrics in my high school poetry class. The song struck me most for its strange combination of spite and yearning. It could not have been so perfectly cutting without the pile-up of compound adjectives—“brand-new” + “leopard-skin” + “pill-box”—Dylan uses to describe and ridicule that hat.
At the time, I didn’t know that the song was about anybody in particular. In the Topics connection (above) to Blonde on Blonde, I learned that Edie Sedgwick—famous It girl and Andy Warhol muse—was the subject of Dylan’s bitter love song. He also had her in mind when he penned the regretful words of “Just Like a Woman.”
On the “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” Topics page, I’m delighted to see that several of my favorite musicians have covered the song. Beck’s cover is a straightforward garage-band rendition, entertaining enough, but without the deeply neurotic edge that makes Dylan’s meandering rant so poignant. Two giants of the Austin music scene, Guy Forsyth and Carolyn Wonderland, do a raucous bluesy version with new verses. Wonderland, in a stuttering preamble that belies her musical chops, says that Dylan gave her a writing assignment: “He wanted to hear what it would be like if a girl wrote back verses for ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.’” Wonderland sings a spot-on rejoinder to each original verse Forsyth sings. To the Dylan line “Tell me baby what it feels like to have your head under something like that, your brand-new leopard-skin pill-box hat,” she responds, “I was wondering when I stole it, it might make my eyes look fat, but it feels so darn good sittin’ there, the perfect itch for the perfect scratch.” Dylan approvingly called Wonderland’s interpretation “nasty as shit.”
While Dylan was constructing Blonde on Blonde, he toured with a backing band named the Hawks, later known as the Band. Dylan’s sets during that 1966 world tour mixed songs from his established, mostly acoustic repertoire with the charged, amp-driven tunes he had written for the new album—each set starting acoustic and switching to electric halfway. Dylan had performed that controversial trick for the first time at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Fans were divided: Some booed the switch, others embraced it.
During a performance in Liverpool, England, that year, a heckler demanded, “Where’s the poet in you? What’s happened to your conscience?” Dylan responded, “There’s a guy up there looking for a saint.” At the notorious Manchester concert a few weeks later, another fan ran with the religious theme, shouting “Judas!” during a lull in the set. “I don’t believe you,” Dylan rejoined. “You’re a liar!” As the opening bars of “Like a Rolling Stone” came in, he instructed his band to “Play it fuckin’ loud!”
The booing, the walkouts and the bad reviews during the 1965–66 tour took a toll on Dylan and his band. Hawks lead guitarist Robbie Robertson later remarked, “After those shows we were lonely guys. Nobody wanted to hang out with us.”
The Hawks would become the Band, and gain the first measure of fame on their own with the 1968 album Music From Big Pink. By the time they joined Dylan for a two-month tour in 1974, the Band had pressed an additional four albums. This tour, according to the Topics connection, was Dylan’s first since the exhausting jaunt of 1966. The 1974 tour yielded a double live album, Before the Flood, which featured songs by Dylan alone, songs by the Band alone, and songs by the Band backing Dylan. Its enormous success was a testament to the popularity of both acts. Robert Christgau wrote in Creem, “Without qualification, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded. All analogous live albums fall flat.”
In the 1970s, in my hometown near Woodstock, New York, the Band attained a level of renown almost on par with that of Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. I missed out on seeing the 1974 tour, and I still regret that each time I spin the concert album Before the Flood.
I did, however, get to see the Band in a glorious outdoor show at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, just after they finished their tour with Dylan. It was in the days before cell phones, and I have no photos or videos, just age-softened memories of sitting on a blanket in the sunshine and singing along to all the great songs: “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia.”
Just two years later, the Band announced their breakup. They played a farewell concert, with many of their great musical contemporaries joining them, including the Staples Singers, Ron Wood, Young, Mitchell and, of course, Dylan. My friends and I attended screenings of the Martin Scorsese–directed concert film The Last Waltz as a pilgrimage. In the audience at the movie theater we cheered as if it were a live show.
Feature Photo: Everett Collection