Quinn the Eskimo

This is something that doesn’t get touched upon very often – a really dumb Bob Dylan song. At their best, Dylan’s cryptic verses fell just on the right side of silly. This is one time he clearly overshot the line, and he knew it. It’s like he started out in his usual vein of poetic seriousness, then said ‘fuck it’, scribbled down a random chorus and wandered off. However, it also happens to be one of his catchiest songs, so it’s enjoyed a life of its own. It’s best known as a novelty Manfred Mann hit, but it’s been covered by a variety of notables. Sing-along choruses have never been Dylan’s bag – he’s not a crafter of pop hits – so this may well be the singiest Dylan chorus ever. Which he still, gleefully, performs in concert. Perhaps he really wanted to contribute something to the culture that was just silly and fun. Wearing the voice-of-a-generation hat all the time gets wearying, you know.

 

Queen of the Highway

I’ve always thought that The Doors were the most perfect road trip music. Obviously they thought so too. I’m not just talking about consciously driving songs like L.A. Woman or Roadhouse Blues, though those were both clearly designed with the open road in mind. You can’t just play the hits on your road trip – that’s boring! – you need to play all of all of the albums. It won’t get you across the country, but you can get across a fair sized state, at least. And it’s the quieter songs like this one that allow you to just glide along and watch the clouds roll above you. Preferably in a desert landscape with a clean horizon and an endless sky. There’s just something hypnotic about it.

Pop Star

In 1977, shortly before retiring from pop music, Cat Stevens would write a song called (I Never Wanted) To Be a Star. His gripes with the music industry were genuine and he took his retirement a lot more seriously than most others who threaten to do so. But for the time being, in 1970, he was happy enough to speculate about stardom. By that point, of course, Stevens had already experienced pop success, and the stress of it nearly killed him. Being a teen idol was decidedly not for him, but he was still willing to pursue the spotlight as long as it was on his own artistic terms. I’m not sure if there’s an element of irony here, but the song paints the game of chasing success in pretty innocuous terms. Nor was Cat Stevens ever much of a one for irony, anyway.

Please

File under obscure favorites. If I may recommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.

Peace Frog

You know from the first line that the title is an ironic one. This song is not at all about frogs. It’s about that time Jim Morrison got maced in New Haven, Connecticut. He also mentions a more formative event; “Me and my — mother and father — and a grandmother and a grandfather — were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truck load of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just — I don’t know what happened — but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death. So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta’ been about four — like a child is like a flower, his head is floating in the breeze, man.”  Morrison felt haunted from that moment on, and it inspired both is writing and his modern-shaman persona. Whether the legend strikes you as corny or cosmic really depends on how susceptible you are to Morrison’s weird mysticism.

Pavilions of Sun

Swans do fly. One from the Tyrannosaurus Rex vaults. This one does a real 180 on you; it starts off like a mellow head trip with the bongos, then it explodes into a raging guitar solo. All in less than three minutes. It’s Marc Bolan being split two ways with his persona. It’s a tiny capsule in which you witness the failed ‘new Donovan’ reinvent himself as a guitar god. To use one of Bolan’s favorite animal images, the glam rock swan arises.

Paintbox

Late sixties Pink Floyd is my favorite kind. They were so playful then! This one was written and performed by Rick Wright, who was never the dominant personality of the band and thus often has his contributions overlooked. I think it’s a very charming song, with barbershop echoes in the vocal crescendos. It was a B-side to a single nobody remembers, and can be found on the Relics compilation. It also goes to show that scraps and B-sides can often outshine more well-known material, and compilations of such can be as strong as a ‘regular’ album, if not better. Obviously, as a fan, going around scraping such gems together is unrealistic, so you have to rely on the artists’ being their own best curators. I find that no matter how good I am at being a fan, there’s still songs I’ve never heard, or even heard of, that pop up, even from the most long-dead and/or overly documented groups. So, if you’re a musician, start organizing your archive now; if you don’t, someone else is going to have to do it for you, after your death.