Bob Dylan Covers Week No 1: Mighty Quinn - Manfred Mann
Around about 1967 Bob Dylan was asked who he thought did the best covers of his songs and he replied, "Manfred Mann". Those who remember his wisecracking, enigmatic utterances to the press of those times will recall that he usually spoke in riddles or replied to a question with a question, so I suspect he was just trying to either wind up Roger McGuinn, who's group the Byrds definitely were the best Dylan song coverers, or promote sales of his albums in the UK. When asked about it, Tom McGuinness, the Manfreds' lead guitarist said "Yes, Dylan did say that, but he probably said it about The Byrds as well. He also said that Smokey Robinson was the world’s greatest poet." Apparently McGuinness laughed at the last remark but I think that's quite a good shout (we will return to that idea in future posts).
That being said, the Manfreds' covers weren't half bad, as their versions of "With God On Our Side", "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", and "Just Like a Woman" bear witness. I choose "Mighty Quinn", for a number of reasons: first it features some great vocals by Mike D'Abo, his phrasing at first sounds totally deadpan and pop-neutral, but after a while the subtle emphasis of his intonations and timing come through; second it is an example of the amazing flexibility of Dylan's songs in that here the unlikely "Quinn" becomes an ultra commercial pop number one; third it is a great example of something that Dylan was very good at: writing a song that no-one can understand, not letting on what it means (if it does even mean anything) and allowing the great words and tune to do the work on their own, without any accompanying rational, a sort of pure music and poetry.
There are many theories of what "Mighty Quinn " is about, some involved famous drug dealers, another referenced actor Anthony Quinn, another the documentary film maker Gordon Quinn and so on. Personally, I always thought it was about a load of people living in some Arctic base for whom Quinn's arrival every few months, along with supplies and other goodies, was the adult equivalent of a visit from Santa Claus.
That's the great thing about songs like this - we can all build our own fiction around their words. I know for a fact that most people in the UK in 1967, mishearing it, sang along with the wrong words rendering "Come all without, come all within" as "Come on without, come on within", somehow making the imperative chorus more persuasive. I also got more of the words wrong including "some of them have money man, others are using pound notes" for "some are building monuments, others are jotting down notes" and most critically: "everybody's gonna wanna know" for when Quinn the Eskimo gets here "everybody's gonna wanna doze" which just goes to show that even in the most inconsequential things our brains are constantly re-ordering information to fit with our own personal theories and understanding.
Finally it's worth it just for the glorious lines:
"....everyone's beneath the trees
feeding pigeons on a limb but when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
all the pigeons gonna run to him!"
We all know guys like that.