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Preface: As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake i...

Monday, January 14, 2013

Who is the "Mighty Quinn"?

The following blog-post is, for the moment, ONLY an **extended intro** cum teaser. But the entire article WILL get plunked here, maybe two or three days after making a debut in dead-wood media, thereby generating some do-re-mi for both the papers and your beleaguered racketeer of writing. Stay tuned... can't believe this stretch-essay has incubated over five months... *sigh* ...
   May, nine months... *siiiiiiiigh*...    
   July, 11 months...    
   March, 2014 19 months...
My THIRD August: Okay, sneak preview (30%?) of this stinking, overlong yet way-too-short albatross... now (Aug. 29) SENT OUT... and waiting for editorial blessing (doubtful, given 6,300 words...) Yep, as journalism it went over like a uranium blimp...
    FOURTH August (2015): Wait for the book (not the movie, because there won't be one).

Suggested call-out from article (one of a bunch):

More astonishingly, (the Beatles') "Come Together" artfully and playfully recognizes two related Shakespeare sources that Dylan uses--can you spot them?

The Shakespeare in Bob Dylan's basement    

Who is the Mighty Quinn anyway? (a rascal from Quebec??)

...and, um, why did Dylan perform a sex-change operation on him before slipping her across the border?

Now, when someone offers me a joke,

I just say no thanks,
I try to tell it like it is,
And keep away from pranks.
                          - Bob Dylan, "Going to Acapulco" 1967

Any attempt to render sense from the published lyrics to these (Dylan's 1967 Basement Tapes) songs just strikes me as against the whole spirit of the sessions.

                              -Clinton Heylin, Revolution in the Air

The why is plain as way to parish church:

He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob...
                 - Shakespeare, As You Like It

He got the voice that speak in riddles...

              -John Fogerty, "Old Man Down the Road" 1985

Bob is not authentic at all. He's a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.

                                   Joni Mitchell, 2010

The lights of my native land are glowing,

I wonder if they'll know me next time 'round.
                           -Bob Dylan, "Duquesne Whistle" 2012

You ain't never going to figure out what Bob's going to do next. Only God knows what's going on in his mind.
                 -Ronnie Hawkins OC, 2014

  Behold the sizzling 60s, now largely reduced to a dusty diorama of hippies, LSD and Woodstock (or in the April Walrus magazine, a rehash of the Port Huron Statement in dishwater-dull terms). But poke around the area, hotspots may surprise you.

    For starters, try a little-visited YouTube snippet of the Beatles in studio circa January 1969, messing briefly with Bob Dylan's "Please, Mrs. Henry"--just a minute-long audio-clip with a photo slapped on, but it features John strumming guitar and mock-rasping a bit of the chorus--"Please, Mrs. Henry! Mrs. Henry, please!"--a few people chatting around him, then George talking about "playing the tapes" (those famous long ago Dylan Basement Tapes) and almost-laughing, "The words!..."
    Ah yes, the words. Stuff like "I'm a thousand years old, I'm a generous bomb/ I'm T-boned and punctured, I've been known to be calm"--to quote the song's romping discombobulation (which the Beatles only toyed with, though "I Am the Walrus" approaches its zany spirit).
    What can possibly be said about those Bob Dylan lyrics? In fact two entire books have recently been devoted to the Tapes, one by senior rock-music critic, Greil Marcus, who wrote the liner-notes to the official Basement Tapes album finally released in 1975. His book The Old, Weird America wraps the songs in every tangent from "the great Harvard scholar" F. O. Matthiesson to Appalachian coal-mining history, but neither it nor Sid Griffin's Million Dollar Bash get very far into the screwball lyrics, whose mystery endures. A befuddled critic today might still echo George Harrison's speechless wonder at them. Or like Dylanologist Scott Heylin postulate they have no rational meaning. Or maybe they are "automatic writing" or "patched together out of scraps."
    The story behind the Basement Tapes is that Bob Dylan, after a July 1966 motorcycle accident and/or collapse from overwork and drugs, retreated to his home in upstate New York, and for much of 1967 recuperated by woodshedding with his 80%-Canadian back-up band from an arduous 1965-66 world tour, in the basement garage of their nearby West Saugerties house, dubbed Big Pink (and iconicized in 1968 when the band became the Band and released their first album Music from Big Pink).
    The Saugerties crew fixed up Big Pink's basement for sound-recording (another YouTube clip has Robbie Robertson recalling how this pioneer home-studio came about) and cellarside they recorded a staggering number of songs. The casual sessions (often attended by a dog named Hamlet) began with covers of old American folk tunes, and over time drifted to Dylan originals with a similarly antiquated "Americana" flavor, as well as stray tidbits from the Band, for a total of 100+ songs.
   Mostly it was done for the sheer joy of making music, although it is now credited with starting the roots-music and alt-country genres. But Dylan also had the idea of putting 14 of his songs onto a demo-tape and circulating copies for other artists to record. The Beatles, as noted, didn't bite. But another British band, Manfred Mann grabbed "Mighty Quinn" (aka "Quinn the Eskimo") from the tape and made a big hit of it (#1 in Britain).
    Which is where your Edmonton kibitzologist comes in--on Christmas 1967 at the age of 14, I received a tiny portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, and one of the songs it soon captured from the radio was "Mighty Quinn."
    Aside from being a catchy singalong song, two things stood out: first, its odd lyrics, e.g. "Let me do what I wanna do, I can't decide on my own"--huh? Actually, the end-lyric is "I can't decide 'em all" as research determined, but the correction clarifies nothing; the words remain as cryptic as the following line: "Just tell me where to put 'em, and I'll tell you who to call"--huh?? Again, the chorus of "You'll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn" to my young ears sounded like "You'll Nazi nothing."
   The second eyebrow-raiser was flipping through a purloined-from-dad Playboy magazine and seeing, amid more comely Hollywoodites, a photo of actor Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo with fur-edged hood in some film. Surely this was a clue, but what sort?? My Hardy Boys Detective Handbook hadn't prepared me for this at all.
   Despite being a junior music fanatic, at that age I was unaware of Dylan's authorship, and barely registered Dylan himself, despite digging his midsize hit "Rainy Day Women #12 and #35" a year earlier (which also stumped me with its chorus of "But I would not feel so all alone/ Everybody must get stoned!")
    Succeeding years, however, especially college with its discovery of the tabloid Rolling Stone, planted Dylan firmly in my consciousness, up to the mandatory heavy contemplation of his lyrics. It was a jolt, for instance, when I read Joseph Conrad's Victory and realized Pedro in the novel matched "faithful slave Pedro" in Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" (albeit Conrad's Pedro lacks a "fantastic collection of stamps/ To win friends and influence his uncle"). And a bigger triumph deducing that the highway in "Highway 61 Revisited" neatly symbolizes faith.
    But Dylan wasn't my light on the road to Damascus; critic H. L. Mencken supplied that. Still, fate delivered plenty of Dylan epiphanies to tuck into my karma, from seeing him in concert in Nuremberg in 1978, to reading a Rolling Stone item about a costume-party where attendees came as something in a Dylan song (hugely successful, e.g. a partygoer who "dressed/ With 20 pounds of headlines stapled to his chest") to debating another aficionado as to which Dylan album was best--he chose Blonde on Blonde, I voted the Basement Tapes. On such questions reasonable fanatics may differ.
    But like many of the hypnotized, I fled Dylan after his late-70s leap to Christianity. My love of literature, however, eventually led (long story) to becoming an amateur Shakespeare shamus, mainly of his lesser-known play Troilus and Cressida. Which is how I happened to wake one morning in August 2012, a week after downloading the 1975 Basement Tapes, with a peculiar line from its "Crash on the Levee" serenading my groggy brain: "You can train on down to William's Point/ You can bust your feet, you can rock this joint"--and wondered, did this refer to William Shakespeare?
    A preposterous connection. And yet the song's minimal lyrics do seem to be a distorted echo of Prince Hamlet lashing out at his mother: "Mama, don't you make a sound"--and/or Ophelia: "If you go down in the flood, it's gonna be your own fault"--although the scrambled state of the words (bookish Dylan playing hillbilly-illiterate, it seems) keeps a clear verdict just out of reach. But really, what the heck is "It's king for king, queen for queen/ Gonna be the meanest flood anybody's seen" doing on an all-American levee? Eh?
   Furthermore, as any Bobphile knows, Ophelia has already had a surreal cameo as an "old maid" in 1965's "Desolation Row." And in Dylan'sTarantula (a stream-of-anything book also from the mid-60s) he taunts a middlebrow for getting good grades in easy literature, but not in Hamlet, indicating Dylan knows its status as a enigmatic "problem play" among the profs. Again, "Shakespeare he's in the alley/ With his pointed shoes and his bells" saunters through "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" in 1966, the same year Dylan, on the European leg of that grueling concert tour, visited Hamlet's Kronborg Castle, where as Howard Sounes notes in his Dylan-bio Down the Highway, "Bob was interested to learn all he could about the fabled Prince of Denmark." So, if every auteur from Goethe to Lincoln to Kurosawa has succumbed to Shakespeare-fascination, why not Dylan? And why not another go at Hamlet in 1967?
    But while glumly contemplating how short the song is (under two minutes) and the need for more evidential verses, I notice only one song on the Basement Tapes is shorter, the rousing opener "Odds and Ends" at a mere 1:48; a favorite song among favorites, but now idly rehearsing its lyrics in my head, it hits me like a wallop: Dylan berating a lady (again) sounds like Prince Troilus watching Lady Cressida in the climactic tent-scene in Troilus and Cressida.
    "I stand in awe and I shake my face/ You break your promise all over the place" (as the song starts) perfectly describes Troilus's initial shock, the idiosyncratic "shake my face" depicting his subsequent rage and hinting at you-know-who. And the couple did pledge love-vows to each other.
    Going to Dylan's official website to verify the "Odds and Ends" lyrics delivers a second, larger wallop: the revisionist Dylan, who often tweaks his poetry in perplexing ways, has changed the intro line--instead of awe and shaken face we get "I plan it all and I take my place." This is now CLEARLY the Troilus and Cressida tent-scene.
    For those unfamiliar with the play, Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare's reconfiguration of the Trojan War tale, borrowing heavily from medieval sources (especially Chaucer) who added a love-story to the skeleton of Homer's Iliad. In Shakespeare's version, as the long war festers, on the Trojan side Lady Cressida's uncle Pandarus arranges a tryst between her and Prince Troilus, but the day after it is consummated Cressida is traded to the Greeks in exchange for a Trojan prisoner. In a hasty farewell, Troilus tells Cressida he will come to the Greek camp and surreptitiously visit her (the plan). When a group of Trojan warriors goes to the Greek camp to watch a single-combat, Troilus slips away to, nope, not have a romantic moment with her, but merely eavesdrop--"take my place" unseen in the tent where she stays. What he sees (as per Dylan) is Cressida flirting with her Greek guardian Diomedes. Cue the jealous fury.
    Atop these two play-echoes, I recollect a third, well-known hint of Shakespeare in the Basement Tapes song "Tears of Rage"--"What dear daughter 'neath the sun/ Would treat a father so?/ To wait upon him hand and foot/ Yet always answer 'no'"--this is widely seen as a reference to King Lear. With these three items staring at me, the question naturally arose: how much more Shakespeare might be in the Basement Tapes? Maybe every wacky Dylan song on the Tapes encapsulates a nugget of Shakespeare?
    The next step is familiar: just as I consult a Bible concordance to ferret out religious allusions in Shakespeare (Troilus and Cressida is riddled with them), I now reach for a Shakespeare concordance (Google be praised!--there is one online!) to start looking for word-matches with Dylan. It is tedious slogging and 19 times out of 20 a searcher draws a blank, but slowly bits of Shakespeare begin to emerge. One of the first is the rocked "joint" from "Crash on the Levee"--it connects with (causes?) "the time is out of joint" in Hamlet. As the song contains zero indication what "joint" Dylan is singing about (let's not speculate in the marijuana direction) the word is added to our Hamlet hints, filed under wordplay, alongside a certain levy/levee pun.
    "Odds and Ends" yields even better links to Troilus and Cressida. Its chorus of "Odds and ends, odds and ends/ Lost time is not found again" resonates with the play's "Speech on Time," and more deeply with the "arrival scene" in which the traded Cressida is led to the Greek camp, where resident highbrow Ulysses proposes that the Greek princes greet her with each a kiss. Three princes, old Nestor, Achilles and Patroclus do so, Patroclus most suggestively, explicitly acting Paris embracing and kissing Helen, the very cause of the war. Next comes Menelaus, the cuckolded husband who began the mobilization of a thousand ships to get his Helen back:

Menelaus: I'll have my kiss, sir. Lady, by your leave.

Cressida: In kissing, do you render or receive?
Menelaus: Both take and give.
Cressida: I'll make my match to live,
The kiss you take is better than you give,
Therefore no kiss.
Menelaus: I'll give you boot, I'll give you three for one.
Cressida: You are an odd man; give even or give none.
Menelaus: An odd man, lady? Every man is odd.
Cressida: No, Paris is not, for you know 'tis true
That you are odd and he is even with you.
Menelaus: You fillip me o' the head.... (to ...Dylan's "You take your file and you bend my head" etc.)

   *    *     *
(main body of essay with another ton of detail) 

  *     *     *
 ...An appalling amount of stuff remains to be sorted out, e.g.the time jokes (hint: "quarter to three" in "Going to Acapulco" and its "soft gut" are both filched from Shakespeare's "Seven Ages"). Again, there's the status of Dylan's "This Wheel's on Fire" as a grab-bag of the Tragedies (e.g. "confiscate your lace" from Othello, "unpack" from Hamlet, "wheel's on fire" from King Lear and/or G. Wilson Knight's study of the Tragedies, The Wheel of Fire).
    Yet again, a half-essay must be written on Dylan deriving "I Shall Be Released" from Richard II (and how, as with "Odds and Ends" and Troilus and Cressida, his distillation proves Dylan a razor-sharp critic). Indeed, I would argue that in "Crash on the Levee" Dylan has, implicitly at the very least, solved the centuries-old mystery of Hamlet, perceiving that the play is no tragedy (as Voltaire also argued) and that Prince Hamlet is no tragic hero but a downright vicious schmuck--which is how Dylan plays him. Why else would Dylan caricature Hamlet blaming Ophelia for her own drowning? And then sneering, "You're going to have to find yourself another best friend somehow"--a downright spiteful, nay lunatic thing to say. Isn't it time we scholars stopped making excuses for the unhinged Prince of Denmark? (Voltaire notably didn't go quite so far; instead veering off into the notion that Shakespeare was a wild barbarian who ran amok over the rules of drama. The French satirist never quite caught Shakespeare's deadpan satire of nutbar Hamlet, as Dylan does)...
    *      *      *

    *      *      *
That's it for now; still less than half the essay. As I said, the whole stinking mess will get dumped here after publication...

Oh yes, the no-longer-secret identity of Quinn, not that anyone cares... the evidence is more interesting than the mere fact in any case...

Damn!--not sure WHY an end-jam of words is occuring on this blog-post (verbiage overload??) but doing a cut-and-paste to the Straight Dope page SHOULD be possible...
    (July 1, 2016, Quinn-page still there... all quiet... now an ancient, academic question, like the color of F. Scott Fitzgerald's undershorts...)