I’m not sure to whom Manfred Mann did a bigger injustice. Was it Bruce Springsteen, for turning “deuce” into “douche” on his group’s version of the Boss’ “Blinded By The Light?” Or was it Bob Dylan, whose “Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” was transformed from a rollicking bit of Basement Tapes ephemera into a bizarre, piccolo-laced pop song. Either way, Manfred and his revolving sidemen laughed their way to the charts, scoring huge hits with both.
As for Dylan’s own versions, one of which was a live stab released on Self Portrait, the other a Big Pink recording with The Band unreleased until Biograph, they’re both prime bits of inspired lunacy. I won’t be presumptuous enough to speculate on the meaning of a song when Bob himself has admitted he’s not even sure what it is.
After all, the silly songs that take up much of the Basement Tapes always seemed like an end run around any sort of coherence anyway. While it’s impossible to say how much was improvised on the spot, it’s endless fun to dwell on the thought process (or stimulant intake) that unearthed phrases like “not my cup of meat” and “A cat’s meow and a cow’s moo, I can recite ’em all.” It comes out sounding like Lewis Carroll singing on a back porch with his American cousins.
However Dylan’s neurons were firing, the character of Quinn The Eskimo is one tailor-made for some Pixar movie, don’t you think? Note to self: Talk to Bobby’s people and see who has the rights.