Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When the Eskimo Gets Here

For a long time, I assumed that the version of "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)" that appeared on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II had been taken from the Basement Tapes sessions, a little bonus ripped from those widely bootlegged tapes. After all, it was obviously recorded live, in one take, and the unmistakable voice of Rick Danko yelps out the harmonies. And I knew it had been recorded for the Basement Tapes, because Manfred Mann had picked up the song as early as 1967.

What I had forgotten was that it had also appeared on Self-Portrait (which doesn't necessarily preclude it being a Basement Tapes song). I feel a little guilty about this, since I have defended Self-Portrait in the past, especially "Minstrel Boy," although I haven't listened to it in about fifteen years since I have it only on vinyl. (Did it ever come out on CD?)

Here is the biography of the song:

July 1967: Dylan and the Band record the song for the first time, and take one ends up on the bootleg album Great White Wonder, "released" in 1969 and sadly unheard by me. The dirgelike take two ended up on Biograph in 1985. Greil Marcus claims the title of the song derives from The Savage Innocents, a 1960 Nicholas Ray film in which Anthony Quinn plays an Eskimo named Inuk. "I don't know what it was about," Dylan said in 1985. "I guess it was some kind of nursery rhyme."

Late 1967: The Basement Tapes are circulating as demos; Peter, Paul and Mary take their cover of "Too Much of Nothing" into the Top Forty in the last two weeks of 1967. Manfred Mann had already had hits in the U.K. with "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" and "With God on Our Side" (!), so they jumped all over "Quinn the Eskimo." Released on January 12, 1968, their version - titled "Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)," according to Billboard, but without the parenthetical according to the label above - went as high as Number 10 in the spring of '68.

August 31, 1969: Dylan performs with the Band at the Isle of Wight Festival, for his first live show in three years, since the motorcycle accident. The Beatles are in attendance, and afterward they hole up with Dylan to play him a test pressing of Abbey Road. Dylan plays (among other songs) "She Belongs to Me," "Minstrel Boy," and "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)," all of which will end up on Self-Portrait. You would think a British audience would recognize the song more as a Manfred Mann Number One hit (which it was in the U.K.) than an unreleased Dylan song, but Dylan works in mysterious ways. Listening to it now, I can hear the signs that it was recorded after the Basement Tapes era: Dylan has his "Lay, Lady, Lay" croon working, and that voice was only heard in 1969 during the Nashville Skyline era, plus you can hear Levon Helm's voice joining the last chorus, and Levon wasn't there for the Basement Tapes.

June 8, 1970: Self-Portrait is released, with that live version of "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)" as the second-to-last song on Side Three. The single from that album, "Wigwam," was almost a hit, going to Number 41 on the Billboard charts. My copy of Self-Portrait, incidentally, still has the price sticker on it; I bought it for $5.50. Worth every penny.

November 17, 1971: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II is released. The only song from Self-Portrait accorded the honor of being included on the double album is "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)."

November 7, 1985: Biograph is released, including Take One from the July 1967 session. This version is now called "Quinn the Eskimo," with no parenthetical. At the time, it probably didn't even have a title.

February 16, 1989: The film The Mighty Quinn, with Denzel Washington as a Jamaican police officer, opens. The title song, here called simply "The Mighty Quinn," is done by Sheryl Lee Ralph reggae-style and with the verses rewritten. They were apparently hoping it would be as big a hit as Sister Carol's reworking of "Wild Thing," from Something Wild in 1986. It wasn't.

In Chronicles, Dylan wrote: "On the way back to the house I passed the local movie theater on Prytania Street, where The Mighty Quinn was showing. Years earlier I had written a song called 'The Mighty Quinn' which was a hit in England, and I wondered what the movie was about. Eventually I'd sneak off and go there to see it. It was a mystery, suspense, Jamaican thriller with Denzel Washington as the Mighty Xavier
Quinn, a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that's just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song 'The Mighty Quinn,' Denzel Washington."

Monday, October 10, 2011

No Bud of Mine

With all the encomiums, most of them deserved, heaped upon Steve Jobs' head in the past week or so, it's worth remembering that he is also responsible for one of the true scourges of the modern music fan: the earbud. I don't know if the earbud existed prior to the introduction of the iPod, but that's when I first encountered it, and when it becamse ubiquitous. It was fitting for an Apple product: simple, sleek, discreet, no doubt cheap. Remember those early commercials, with the Kara Walker-style black silhouettes of people grooving to their new iPods? Those ads were as much about the earbud as they were about the iPod.

There was only one problem with earbuds: They don't work. Maybe my ears are unnaturally small, but I could never keep those things in place at all. I don't mean they would fall out if I moved my head around too vigorously; they would fall out if I nodded "yes."

I never used the earbuds that came with my iPod, but at the time I was able to find some headphones that hung snugly over the ear, with a tiny speaker nestled on top of the tragus. Recently, though, out of some misguided sense of paternal devotion, I lent those to my son, who liked them so much I ended up giving them to him. What he didn't realize was that I had direct access to the family's bank account, and could thus go buy a new pair for myself.

What I didn't realize is that all you can get these days are earbuds. Since they were an Apple product, and everyone knows Apple products are designed perfectly, they took over the market. When I went to Best Buy, I found earphones with a similar design as my old pair, ones that attached to the top of the ear, but the speaker was the modern form of the earbud, a little rubber raspberry perched on a stick that's supposed to be plugged into your ear. When I didn't have my hand pressed to the side of my head, they stayed in for about 20 seconds. At least the frame keeps them on my ears, unlike the classic free-form earbuds, but since they're so loosely placed in my earhole, the sound tends to be thin and tinny.

But unless you want those '70-style headphones that clamp over your ears, this appears to be the only option now. After all, they're so sleek and well-designed. I guess for a generation of people who only otherwise listen to music coming out of their computer's speaker, they're good enough.