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 leopard-skin 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!
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