Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Dylan's Basement Tapes and the Mighty Eskimo

For several months now, visitors to have been greeted by a homepage that seemed to be advertising a new Bob Dylan album titled Shadows in the Night. Once you clicked what appeared to be an album cover, you were taken to Dylan’s recording of an old chestnut, “Moonlight and Open Arms,” once recorded by Frank Sinatra.

On Tuesday August 26, however, the news was about the release, on November 4, of the 11th collection in The Bootleg Series: The Basement Tapes Complete, a six-disc compilation of those fabled homemade recordings of Dylan and The Band (before they were even known as “The Band”) from 1967, a period between the motorcycle accident that gave Dylan an excuse to take a rest from his hectic career and the release, on December 27 of that year, of John Wesley Harding. When the basement tapes found their way onto an unauthorized and illegal set called Great White Wonder, it was the beginning of that illicit and shadowy industry known as “bootleg” recordings. In 1975, Columbia officially released a scant selection of these recordings on a two-record set, The Basement Tapes, but there was something inauthentic about the package. Robbie Robertson of The Band was in charge of compiling the songs and included eight tracks by The Band in which Dylan did not participate (and were not even recorded during these sessions), and there was some tinkering with the sound to make the crude recordings (part of their charm) sound more “professional.” There were also some mind-boggling omissions. Neither “I Shall Be Released” nor “The Mighty Quinn” (aka “Quinn the Eskimo”), two of the most famous songs from the sessions, were included even though a character obviously meant to represent the latter was pictured on the cover.

“The Mighty Quinn” (aka “Quinn the Eskimo”), a 1969 hit for Manfred Mann, is on the track listing for The Basement Tapes Complete. Like most Dylan songs, “The Mighty Quinn” (aka “Quinn the Eskimo”) has led to speculation concerning who or what Dylan is singing about. The man’s own comments, and there have been very few about this song, are not too helpful.

“’Quinn the Eskimo,’ I don’t know,” he told Cameron Crowe when asked about the song for the booklet packaged with 1985’s Biograph. “I don’t know what it was about. I guess it was some kind of nursery rhyme.”

I don’t know what the song is “about,” but I’ve always suspected that the Quinn in the song came from actor Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek himself, which is not to say the song has anything to do with him, only that two movies he appeared in may have triggered Dylan’s imagination. As a film buff (and Dylan left no doubt that he is one by including Todd Browning’s 1932 Freaks among the movies that “stay with you” in that same interview with Crowe), Dylan probably saw The Savage Innocents, a 1961 film directed by cult favorite Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause), in which Quinn was cast as an Eskimo. Dylan almost certainly would have seen Federico Fellini’s La Strada with Quinn as a circus strongman (you know, the kind who breaks chains across his chest). From those two Anthony Quinn movies we get both “Quinn the Eskimo” and “The Mighty Quinn.”

So there. Another Dylan mystery solved. (Others may have made the connection between the song and two Anthony Quinn movies, but I’m not aware of it.) More mysteries are sure to be unearthed on November 4 with the release of The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Volume 11, though I’m guessing that the riddle of “Yea, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” will never be solved. That’s just as well. What is life without wonder?

Brian W. Fairbanks