Bob Dylan's ribald, satirical ode to '60s sartorial fetishism, "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," reveals a deep connection the visionary musician has had to Texas.
The song, which appears on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, was produced by Texas native Bob Johnston and faithfully replicates the tone, song structure and organic simplicity of Houston blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins' "Automobile Blues." Dylan's Web site features an endorsement of Les Blank's brilliant down-home documentary The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins (filmed in Houston), and Dylan's reverence for Texas blues also manifests itself in his folk rendition of Coutchman, Texas native Blind Lemon Jefferson's poignant "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."
Though he's much better-known for his connections to Minnesota and New York City, Dylan's Lone Star credentials essentially crown him an honorary Texan. His songs have been covered by Texas icons from Willie Nelson to the 13th Floor Elevators and Johnny and Edgar Winter. John and Alan Lomax's association with Lead Belly, who lived in Texas for many years before a stint at Louisana's Angola Prison, where the Lomaxes recorded hundreds of the bluesman's songs, was of great interest to Dylan.
On December 7, 1968, Rolling Stone published an article with the headline "Tribute to the Lone Star State: Dispossessed Men and Mothers of Texas," which certainly had to be on Dylan's radar even if it barely scratched the surface of the Texas blues scene. This stereotype-laden article attempted to explain the whole blues and rock phenomena of Texas by focusing on the characters and scenes in Austin and Houston. Dylan has worked with late Austinite Doug Sahm, who is quoted in the article, along with which also mentions Houston rock clubs Love Street and Catacombs as well as former Houstonian Townes Van Zandt, who isn't given much ink in the story but later went on to inspire Dylan with his style and repertoire. Dylan once covered Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," and Van Zandt covered Dylan's "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" and (as Little Willie the Gambler) "Rambling, Gambling Willie."
The Texas contingent of musicians who have worked with Dylan over the years has always been really strong: Charlie Sexton, Denny Freeman, Augie Meyers and Norah Jones, to name a few. Both Daniel Johnston and Gary Clark, Jr. have counted Dylan as an influence. Billy Gibbons has covered Dylan songs. Of Houston native and blues guitarist Carolyn Wonderland, Dylan once said, "she's something else." Wonderland has covered a number of his songs over the years.
"He gave me permission, so to speak, to compose my own songs when the traditional material did not quite carry the message I wanted to convey," said Powell St. John of Dylan a few years ago in an interview. St. John wrote six songs for the 13th Floor Elevators, and also belonged to a band named the Waller Creek Boys with Janis Joplin and eventually founded the band Mother Earth. Joplin had a poster of Dylan hanging in her home, and her Southern Comfort-soaked, rough-hewn studio outtake rendition of Dylan's "Dear Landlord" is absolutely incredible. Alvarado, Texas native Terry Southern, author of The Magic Christian and screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, knew and sometimes hung out with Dylan, according to Southern's son, Nile Southern.
Not everyone from Texas hopped on the Dylan train, though. During the mid-'60s, Dylan's hilarious interview with an Austin reporter showed he didn't have any problems answering a question with a question:
Reporter: Are you trying to accomplish anything?
Dylan: Am I trying to accomplish anything?
Reporter: Are you trying to change the world or anything?
Dylan: Am I trying to change the world? Is that your question?
Reporter: Well, are you trying to push idealism over to the people?
Dylan: Well, what do you think my ideas are?
Reporter: Well, I don't exactly know. But are you singing just to be singing?
Dylan: No, I'm not singing to be singing. There's a much deeper reason for it than that.
Reporter: In a lot of the songs you sing you seem to express a pessimistic attitude toward life. It seems that "Hollis Brown" gives me that feeling. Is this your true feeling or are you just trying to shock people?
Dylan: That's not pessimistic form, that's just statement. You know. I'm not pessimistic.
When it comes to Houston, Dylan has performed here frequently enough to have an appreciation and understanding of the city. The Lone Star State's favorite eccentric Jewish cowboy, Kinky Friedman, appeared with Dylan during a 1976 concert at the Astrodome billed as "The Night of the Hurricane II." The concert served as a benefit for middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had been wrongfully convicted for a 1966 triple homicide at New Jersey's the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, N.J.
Dylan and Jacques Levy wrote the song "Hurricane" after Dylan read Carter's autobiography The Sixteenth Round; the song continued Dylan's tradition of singing socially conscious songs (especially on matters of race), which also includes "George Jackson," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "The Death of Emmett Till." How the concert was moved from the Superdome in New Orleans to the Astrodome at the last minute is a long, twisted story, but Dylan's involvement in the show trumped all of that, especially since other high-profile musicians shared the bill with him: Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Ringo Star, Carlos Santana, Stephen Stills, T Bone Burnett and Dr. John.
A little known but exquisite funk band Carter endorsed named the 1619 Badass Band opened the show. Dylan played a cover of Friedman's "Ride Em Jewboy" during the concert - a song he has only performed twice. In 1978, while playing a concert at The Summit, Dylan played 28 songs, the longest set he has ever played in Houston. He played the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2002. Dylan has performed at a number of other Houston venues that no longer exist: Hofheinz Pavilion, Astroworld's Southern Star Amphitheater and the Music Hall.
The last time Dylan graced a Houston stage in 2009, his set list reflected what was perhaps a nostalgic clinging to the classic 1960s-era portion of his songwriting catalog. Still channeling his Western persona as established during his appearance in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Dylan wore a cream-colored cowboy hat and sang a number of early classics: "Highway 61 Revisited," "Like a Rolling Stone," "It Ain't Me Babe," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat." Reviews of Dylan's 2009 concert here suggest he did not play what is perhaps his most beloved and best-known song, "Blowin' in the Wind."
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Dylan was so inspired by his travels in Houston he penned a somewhat sarcastic song about it that appeared on the 2009 Together Through Life album called "If You Ever Go to Houston." The song references the Magnolia Hotel, his missing woman, a police officer and the intersection of Lamar and Bagby streets in downtown. The silly message Dylan seems to be promoting with the song is, basically, you better watch your back and walk like you know where you're headed when in Houston.
Shouldn't be much of a problem, since no one ever seems to walk the streets of Houston these days. It's a song that could make any Houstonian laugh, and perhaps it should even be city's new theme song.
Bob Dylan & His Band perform tonight at Bayou Music Center, 520 Texas. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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