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Bob Dylan: Joey, the story-songs and the enduring appeal of Desire

Ian Malin

The darker side of human nature has always attracted artists. From Hamlet and Paradise Lost to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad we have always liked to read about and watch the battle between good and evil. But when Bob Dylan attempted to follow the Godfather films of the early Seventies with his own tale of moral decay and corruption in New York’s Little Italy it backfired.


Dylan’s 1976 album Desire is best known for the opener Hurricane. Its account of boxer Rubin Carter and the injustice of him being framed for a crime he didn’t commit marks Dylan’s return to a protest song in the vein of The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. With the swirling violin of Scarlett Rivera, a musician Dylan apparently discovered when he bumped into her by chance on a street in New York, and its angry refrain ‘He coulda been the champion of the wooorld’, Hurricane is one of our man’s greatest songs, and that is saying a lot, a track that helped Rubin Carter’s release from prison when his sentence was overturned nine years after Desire’s release.


Joey, though, never received the acclaim of Hurricane. The sixth track on Desire doesn’t take an heroic victim as its subject. Instead Dylan chooses to tell the tale of mobster Joe Gallo, a man who rejoiced in the nickname ‘Crazy Joe’, a notorious enforcer in the Profaci crime gang who was gunned down at Umbertos Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy while celebrating his 43rd birthday in April 1972. While the subjects of the Godfather films inhabit a world that was already passing into history, the life and death of Joe Gallo was a little too recent for some critics who panned the song for its supposed glorification of violence. But this 11-minute epic is still startling.


Desire is a magnificent record. A year earlier the monumental Blood On The Tracks had told the story of Dylan’s break-up with his wife Sara. If you own only one Dylan album it should be this one. Desire’s problem was that it followed Blood On The Tracks but it still sounds wonderful with its same caravan of musicians as the acclaimed Rolling Thunder Revue tours the previous year and some outstanding story-songs co-written by Jacques Levy.

With Joey, and to a lesser extent Hurricane, Dylan waded into controversy. One critic Robert Christgau wrote: ‘Although the candid propaganda and wily musicality of Hurricane delighted me for a long time, the deceitful bathos of its companion piece Joey tempts me to question the unsullied innocence of Rubin Carter himself.’ This absurd comparison, though, would have been laughed off by Dylan. For him everyone’s stories were grist to the mill and in Joey he was not glorifying the life of Joe Gallo, merely offering another take on a man ‘caught between the mob and the men in blue’.


But Joey is one of those songs that even Dylan enthusiasts find it difficult to come to terms with and the collaboration with Jacques Levy has been controversial. Two years ago the publishing company and Claudia, widow of Levy, who died in 2004, sought $7.25m from the $300m sale of Dylan’s song catalogue to Universal Music. A judge sided with Dylan, saying Levy and his descendants were only entitled to compensation under a deal signed in 1975. Levy’s Guardian obituary made the point that ‘much of Desire’s success lay in the interplay between Dylan and Levy and since then Dylan and his musicians have often reworked Levy’s contribution’.


Whatever the ill feeling among the family of Levy, a New York lyricist who wrote Chestnut Mare with Roger McGuinn for The Byrds, Joey is a cinematic masterpiece with beautiful metered rhymed verse, a compelling work with a cracking chorus on which Dylan’s voice combines sublimely with Emmylou Harris:


Joey, Joey

King of the streets, child of clay

Joey, Joey

What made them want to come and blow you away?

After Isis, which Dylan and Levy worked on in the latter’s loft, transforming it from a dirge to a pounding three-chord triumph, they worked on Joey from scratch. Levy, who knew Gallo, says he brought the idea to Dylan. However reprehensible the song was to many, Dylan himself had no qualms. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘that’s a great song. Yeah. And it never loses its appeal. That’s a tremendous song and you’d only know that singing it night after night.’


Despite its detractors, Levy and Dylan continued to defend a song that still sounds great today. Levy told journalist Lester Bangs: ‘Bob has always had a thing about outlaws. Would you call John Wesley Harding a small-time hoodlum? I think calling Joey that is labelling someone unfairly and Joey wasn’t a psychopath either... he was a victim of society, of growing up poor. It’s never been proved that the Gallos killed anybody but plenty of Joey’s people got killed.’


He did 10 years in Attica, reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich

They threw him in the hole one time for tryin’ to stop a strike

His closest friends were black men ’cause they seemed to understand

What it’s like to be in society with a shackle on your hand


Certainly Joe Gallo was no saint but what is great about the song Joey is that Dylan made something so modern seem like a myth. And like Rubin Carter it still packs a punch that leaves you breathless.

 

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