Memoir in a Melody: Edie Sedgwick’s Shadow in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’

In our Memoir in a Melody series, Signature examines the storytelling of well-known musicians, exploring the autobiographical elements of their famous songs

In the mid-sixties, the apex of cool (if you go in for that sort of thing) was Bob Dylan at the Factory. He came at the behest of Andy Warhol to star in one of Warhol’s famous "screen tests," which consisted of the subject sitting silently in front of a camera for about two minutes and forty-five seconds. In the resulting film, Dylan looks alternately bored, vacant, vulnerable, and full of contempt. According to many, Dylan thought Warhol no better than a talentless leech.

Around then, Dylan met Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful but troubled gamine whom Warhol had groomed to be one of his "superstars." Over time, Edie would come to inspire a number of Dylan’s songs, including (maybe) the instantly recognizable tune "Like a Rolling Stone." It was an opportune time for Dylan to enter the scene, as Edie’s creative romance with him was souring.

In Warhol’s 1975 memoir The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, which is more a collection of droll aphorisms and snapshots of his life than a traditional memoir, he introduces a thinly veiled Edie as "a wonderful, beautiful blank. The mystique to end all mystiques… After one look at [Edie] I could see she had more problems than anybody I’d ever met. So beautiful but so sick. I was really intrigued." For her part, Edie was perhaps initially drawn to Andy because he wanted to make movies of her. She saw her visage in lights, her extraordinary appearance finally seguing into a bankable skill. The two became inseparable, even on occasion dressing alike: striped boat shirts and silver hair.

For Andy, Edie was a vessel, but for Dylan, she was perhaps something else entirely. "Dylan liked Edie because she was one of the few people who could stand up against his weird little numbers: she was much stronger than the sycophants who were hanging around him at the time," recalled film producer -- and former Dylan road manager -- Jonathan Taplin when speaking to Edie’s biographer Jean Stein. Edie: An American Girl is unique in that it is essentially a book-length oral history of Edie’s life; Stein includes testimony from Edie’s family, Bob Neuwirth, George Plimpton, Viva, and a host of other well known sixties characters. No one directly mentions "Like a Rolling Stone," and indeed, some Dylan historians advise against assigning his songs a single muse, but the parallels are hard to ignore:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, "Beware doll, you’re bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin’ you

Highway 61 Revisited

Perhaps Dylan wasn’t quite as cowed by the "Princess on the steeple" as Mr. Taplin thought. Certainly, Dylan wasn’t worried about Warhol’s feelings, considering he reduced the artist to a sniveling sadist: 

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat

Maybe Dylan was disheartened to see Edie Sedgwick fall further into her drug addiction. Maybe he always thought her a rather comedic figure, as he portrays what is almost certainly her in "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat." ("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.")

We can’t be sure why Dylan rejected Edie, but sources seem pretty sure that she had become infatuated with him and was then crushed to learn that during this time he secretly married a woman named Sara Lownds, reportedly the inspiration for "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." (Nora Ephron broke the news to the world.)

The union was a surprise to many people, including Dylan’s then-tour manager Victor Maymudes, as son Jacob reveals in the memoir he pieced together from tapes his father recorded before his death. Another Side of Bob Dylan: A Personal History on the Road and off the Tracks contains many stories of intimate moments Maymudes spent with Dylan, including the time when the road manager confronted the rock star about his choice in wife. "Bob’s desire to get married to Sara surprised me. I asked him about it. ‘Why Sara?! Why not Joan Baez?’ He responded with, ‘Because Sara will be home when I want her to be home, she’ll be there when I want her to be there, she’ll do it when I want her to do it.’”

If he wanted that kind of woman, certainly Edie would have been the wrong choice. But then again, neither was Sara Lownds: the couple divorced in 1977.