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."


  1. Actually, Manfred Mann had a hit with their cover of "Just Like a Woman" too. But it's kind of crazy how different their "Quinn" is from their earlier Dylan covers, which are pretty straight ahead. "Quinn" has lots of slapback echo and backing vocals that seemed to have wandered in from the Kinks' "David Watts." (I assume Shel Talmy produced both; he worked with both bands.) It makes me think of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me & My Monkey," as opposed to their "If You Gotta Go," which makes me think of putting on Van Morrison and Them.

    You should hear their cover of "Please Mrs. Henry" from 1972's "Manfred Mann's Earth Band." Extraordinary. Also recommended: Coulson Dean Mcguinness Flint's "Lo and Behold," a 1973 album of nothing but obscure (mostly unreleased) Dylan songs by what may have been the ugliest band in all of rock history. Their version of "Lo and Behold" interpolates the riff of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and their "I Wanna Be Your Lover" sounds like the Beatles trying to recut "Paperback Writer" as a country song, but being too drunk to be up the task.

  2. Interesting. I'm a "Self Portrait" apologist myself, and they've definitely released it on CD, as I own one. Such an eclectic album. One can be quick to dismiss it as "shit," as Greil Marcus (I think) famously stated, but it's greatness is the irony of the album's title -- what with the number of covers (of classic artists, as well "covers" of his own songs) that make up the lengthy album. It's an abstract self-portrait, but fitting for such an artist consistently reinventing himself.