Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #102: Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)

Perhaps the only Basement Tapes song that actually doesn't stand alone on its own weird island, "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" is a thematic cousin to "Tiny Montgomery", in which the song's narrator rhapsodizes about a mythical figure that, when he/she arrives, will turn everything upside down. Aside from the fact that this sounds like the plot of any number of movies (from Footloose to Mary Poppins), one wonders why it was "Tiny Montgomery" that made the cut, consigning "Quinn the Eskimo" to cult status for nearly 2 decades. Now, obviously you can't have two tracks on an album that's basically about the exact same thing (well, okay, you can - but that's a VERY narrow subject you'd be repeating), so one of them had to go. And, with the benefit of hindsight, it's a lot easier to say that "Quinn the Eskimo", a song that (as covered by Manfred Mann - what a terrible band name, btw) actually gave Dylan a #1 single in the UK, should have been the song to show up on the final album, or even on a Dylan release before the Basement Tapes was ever compiled. So why didn't it?

What I would consider the most likely view (YMMV) is that Robbie Robertson (and, by proxy, Dylan - do you really think he didn't have any input on compiling that album?) didn't want to put a song already that famous on the album, choosing instead to highlight some of the lesser known tracks from those sessions. This might actually also explain why "I Shall Be Released" didn't make the cut - not only were both already well-known songs at that point, but the Dylan/Band versions had already seen the light of day through the infamous Great White Wonder and any Dylan fan that was actually interested in the sessions would almost certainly have already heard the songs in question. And, if you want to have a little more romantic possibility thrown into the mix, Robertson knew that the two songs mentioned had already achieved commercial fame and wanted to keep The Basement Tapes totally pure - i.e., free of any considerations other than the music on vinyl and the Americana roots that helped birth that music. To put it in other words, the Basement Tapes would be free of the taint of selling out; this was something to worry about, even back then, after all.

I could be wrong, certainly; nobody knows for sure if Dylan had any hand in selecting the songs, and there could be any number of reasons two of the most famous songs from the sessions were not released on the album that purported to represent the best of those sessions. But when you listen to "Quinn the Eskimo", it's pretty hard to believe that anybody would want to keep this song locked away, no matter how ragged or lacking in musicality you thought those takes were. For one thing, the melody is absolutely infectious - there's a good reason that Manfred Mann's take topped the charts in the shiny-happy pop days of 1968. Even though their version makes the song sound like just about any random track you could pick from one of those Time-Life compilations (jaunty organ? Three-voice harmony? Why, I've never heard that in a 60s pop song before!), the melody is still there, and you still can't help but get it stuck in your head. For another, the lyrics are a kind of ragged genius; Dylan weaves some kind of tale of feeding pigeons, jumping for joy, and getting some sleep, before hitting us with that remarkable carnival barker chorus. The tune is practically built to be liked by people, and it continues to be liked to this day.

Which brings us, then, to Dylan's version, as found on Biograph. It seems funny to think about, but the version that I find myself enjoying more is the Self Portrait take from the Isle of Wight show; it's even more ramshackle than the Basement Tapes take, but there's such a spirit of goofy bar band fun throughout (the botched vocals and backing held together by Scotch tape, Robertson's squealing guitar solo, Dylan's country voice wrapped around those lyrics as the Band shouts smartass harmony behind him) that invites repeat listens with a huge dumb grin on your face. The 1967 version, by contrast, is much more muted by comparison; if there's an actual good reason to lock the song away for so long, it might be the fact that the slow tempo of this take makes it sound nothing like just about any other version anybody's ever released. And yet that version is still remarkable to listen to, Dylan in fine voice and the Band jangling away behind him, Manuel's piano and Hudson's organ standing out beautifully. There's a kind of stately elegance here that seems almost counterintuitive to the looseness of the lyrics, and that alone made it worth issuing to the public. It's almost a shame that everybody that heard it thought "hey, here's a good ol' rave-up song"; giving it another stately treatment might be the way for some future band to go with this song.

"Quinn the Eskimo" isn't a masterpiece by any means, but it certainly doesn't have to be; we have enough of those from the Basement Tapes sessions as it is. What "Quinn the Eskimo is", plain and simple, is a good old time, a fun romp through a fantastic chord structure and one of the catchiest choruses this side of Beck's "Loser". And as much as I'm not particularly a fan of Manfred Mann's version, I'm still glad it exists - any way to give Dylan's music more exposure is generally a good way (My Chemical Romance's cover of "Desolation Row" nonwithstanding), and it's always a good thing for a song this good to be exposed to the world, no matter how much you try to gussy it up or make it sound like second-rate Byrds or something. What the hey, if Dylan wasn't going to give it a proper release, somebody had to step up and do it.

And that's that for The Basement Tapes! Sorry to those of you waiting for a "best of the unreleased" essay - that still might come somewhere down the line, but I think it's better that we move on to something (yet again) completely different. Join me, won't you?

Author's note: Bob Dylan has stated that his inspiration for this song was Anthony Quinn's role in The Savage Innocents - whether or not this is true, we can only guess. It IS Bob, after all. One thing that is true is that Anthony Quinn just happens to be the reason my name is Anthony, and not Jim or Ray or Ed or something like that. Just thought you might like to know.

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7 comments:

NICOLE M said...

i actually first heard this song on the Wonderland soundtrack and have enjoyed it since. Quinn was also the persona that Kate Blanchett played in Im Not There I think. nice post, interesting!

Anonymous said...

Hadn't a version of "Quinn the Eskimo" already been released on "Self-Portrait" when "The Basement Tapes" LP was being compiled? Of course, you're dealing with these songs in the chronology of when they were recorded -- after "Blonde on Blonde" -- rather than when they were released -- after "Blood on the Tracks" -- so perhaps that's how you missed this?

Tony said...

Thanks, Nicole! Your blog is quite interesting as well, and I hope you keep it up.

Anonymous, when I was starting the Basement Tapes posts, I was planning on a special essay at the end talking about both the unreleased songs and the well-known songs that didn't make the official album cut, but in the end settled on posts for the two most famous non-official album songs. As for the Self Portrait version of "Quinn the Eskimo", I'll get to that in due course...but not in the way you might think.

Justin said...

I think what anonymous was referring to was when you said,

"consigning "Quinn the Eskimo" to cult status for nearly 2 decades ... should have been the song to show up on the final album, or even on a Dylan release before the Basement Tapes was ever compiled. So why didn't it?"

but Quinn was technically the first of all the Basement Tapes songs to officially surface, in 1970. Then joined by its three Basement brethren on Greatest Hits Vol 2 three years before the Basement Tapes compilation. We'll nitpick you, Tony, right down to the bone. Congrats on making it through TBT -- I know you're excited to move on to something new.


Going with the idea that the 1975 Basement Tapes album was a hopelessly poor representation of the sessions, my dream version of a comprehensive, canonical Basement Tapes reconfiguration would go as follows:

Disc 1

The first 14 songs would be a duplicate of the original acetate distributed and copyrighted, followed by the other songs released in '75, and rounded out by the other most well-known, fully-formed songs from the sessions. So it would look something like

1. Million Dollar Bash
2. Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread
3. Please Mrs. Henry
4. Down in the Flood
5. Lo and Behold
6. Tiny Montgomery
7. This Wheel's On Fire
8. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
9. I Shall Be Released
10. Tears of Rage
11. Too Much of Nothing
12. Quinn the Eskimo
13. Open the Door, Homer
14. Nothing Was Delivered
15. Odds and Ends
16. Goin' to Acapulco
17. Clothes Line Saga
18. Apple Suckling Tree
19. Santa Fe
20. Sign on the Cross
21. Silent Weekend
22. Get Your Rocks Off
23. I'm Not There

As a singular collection of songs, this would be a far more definitive representation of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes than the one that exists now.


DISC 2

A disc of covers, thoughtfully compiled by theme and/or chronology. Collected together, the covers from Genuine Basement Tapes run close to 80 minutes. Performances like Young But Daily Growin' and Banks of the Royal Canal would be major additions to the officially released catalogue. And Ian & Sylvia could probably use the royalties. Taken as a cover album, I think this would be even more of a self-portrait than Self-Portrait.


DISC 3

The exorbitantly-priced bonus disc: substantial alternate takes of songs from disc 1, e.g. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere with alternate lyrics. IIRC, the earliest first-bootlegged versions of Too Much of Nothing and Tears of Rage were not the same ones released in 1975. Fill it out with the (even) more wackier original songs from the sessions like I'm Your Teenage Prayer and All-American Boy, plus All You Have To Do Is Dream and whichever half-finished songs (like Under Control or Baby Won't You Be My Baby) you deem worthy of inclusion. Probably need See You Later Allen Ginsberg in there for posterity. And there's always the intriguing possibility of songs that somehow still haven't been released, too ("Wild Wolf"?).

As for the Band songs, they can be excised to their own separate disc in their own context.

I think this would be a happy medium between the official release, incomplete and misrepresentative, and the sprawling Genuine Basement Tapes, full of fragments and distortions, which can be kind of daunting and inaccessible. The Basement Tapes are a significant part of the Dylan mythos; they deserve better.

andrew! said...

Incredible coincidence, Bob started playing this song live for the first time since Isle of Wight in the summer of '02 when my nephew Quinn was born. I absolutely love the version from Shepherd's Bush in 2003.

Anonymous said...

You can rate this song here: http://www.tweedlr.com/songs/303/the-mighty-quinn-quinn-the-eskimo

Anonymous said...

and don't forget manfred mann changed the lyrics from "everybody's gonna wanna dose"

to the safer, less drug-referencing "everybody's gonna wanna doze"

ha ha

like when he gets there, with all his excitement people are gonna wanna take a nap?

lol, right

makes NO sense that way

oh well, i guess saying "dose" was TOO cutting edge for Manfred