Behind The Song: “Joey,” by Bob Dylan

Written by Dylan & Jacques Levy for Desire, 1976, this cinematic ballad of Joey Gallo, a murderous mobster, was castigated intensely, although it had one champion: Jerry Garcia

Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Tour



“Joey.” It’s one of those rare Dylan songs that few people appreciate; even lifelong Dylan enthusiasts have problems with “Joey.” . In fact, lack of appreciation is a mild way of expressing the vitriol with which people have attacked this song.

Dylan wrote “Joey” – and many songs – in 1975 with Jacques Levy, a playwright and lyricist who wrote “Chestnut Mare” and other songs with Roger McGuinn. “Joey” is one of many beautifully detailed and cinematic songs Dylan and Levy wrote that were included on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire.

“Joey” is an epic ballad aboutJoey Gallo, a real-life mobster who was gunned down on his birthday in 1972 at a Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy It relates the man’s entire odyssey – from birth to death and beyond – in classic Homeric tradition, as Dylan himself identified it in our interview with him. It is not an exaggeration; like Homer, Dylan tells this story in rhymed verse and metered, using the beautiful linguistics of poetry to compose a richly detailed life-story of this man presented as an unjustly vilified anti-hero.

Bob Dylan, “Joey”

But whereas “Isis” was entirely fictional and mythic, Joey was non-fiction, and yet mythic. It told the story of Joey Gallo, a mob boss from the Gallo family who died at a clam-bar in New York, where he was shot while eating with his family. His death – as well as his birth – his life, his time in jail, his reading while in jail, his demeanor, appearance, attitude and even court appearances – are all here, written in perfect rhyme and meter.

It is an extraordinary song. Yet it is one which was widely disliked – even vilified – by fans, critics and others alike. The main point of the antipathy towards “Joey” is the same which was directed at The Godfather upon its release: that it glorified the underworld, and made these murderous, crooked Mafia families seem like royalty.

Both are masterpieces. Dylan’s, however, is not a movie, it is a song. It also isn’t The Warren report, or some legal document intentionally obfuscating the facts to portray Joey as a hero.

It is a song, and a tremendously compelling and charged one, with some of Dylan’s most cinematic lyrics. He and Levy wrote all but one of the songs on Desire (Dylan wrote his song for his wife, “Sara,” alone). All of the Dylan-Levy songs, including “Hurricane,” “Isis,” “Romance in Durango” and others, are beautifully visual, with great use of detail, location and character, like a great novel. But they are told like ancient poetic epics, in perfect, metered verse.

Add to this Dylan’s musical expression: the words are propelled by more than the craft; they come alive in this electric merger of language and imagery with melody, phrasing, groove, visceral melody, and Dylan’s visceral, intense delivery.

“Bob liked the work I’d done with [Roger] McGuinn,” Levy said to the Village Voice, “and said, ‘Let’s get together and see what happens.’

Dylan & Jacques Levy during recording of Desire, 1975.

They met up at Levy’s loft, where they first worked on “Isis,” which Dylan had already started. It was a “slow dirge” then, Levy said, pounded out on the piano to a repeating three chord figure. They worked for hours, into the early morning and finished it.

“We’d sit around tossing ideas back and forth,” Levy said, “until a song was finished. Bob would have an idea, or I would have an idea, and we would write the songs together; throwing lines, words, rhymes, plot schemes back and forth. It wasn’t even a case of writing every other line.”

“Joey” was the second song they wrote together, and their first they started from scratch. The idea, according to Levy, who knew Joey Gallo, was an idea he brought to Dylan.

“I suggested the `Joey’ song to Bob,” Levy said. “I took [Dylan] to dinner with Jerry and Marta Orbach; we told him about Joey, and he became excited about the prospect of the song. I don’t think he ever read much more about Joey than what most people did; but we had all known Joey very well, and told Bob all about him.”

This suggests that Dylan’s focus on Joey Gallo had much more to do with his story, and the sympathetic, mythic human drama it revealed, which to Dylan meant more than the actuality and morality of his life. It is similar to his motivations for delving into his Christian period and obsessional focus on Jesus, which, according to his best pal Louie Kemp in his wonderful book Dylan & Me, 50 Years of Adventures, had more to do with the mythic story and language in which it was told as potential song content than any spiritual allegiance to Christ.

Dylan, having broken the mold of what was considered acceptable song content from the start, forever changing the arc of popular songwriting by showing that, as Robbie Robertson put it, “anything goes,” knew he didn’t want to repeat himself. His dimensional breadth of lyrical expression wasn’t random, or due to pure genius. Dylan, since long before he had a record deal, was actively enlarging his expression by reading everything he could; both for the content and the language. As he wrote in his book, Chronicles, upon his first arrival in New York City, he’d read every book on the shelves of friends who let him stay over at their homes. He’d also go daily to the library to read newspapers from the 19th century – again, for the human themes he learned would repeat, like choruses of songs, through the decades, and for the use of language to express experience.

Dylan’s attraction to “Joey,” especially considering Levy’s account of introducing Dylan to the story over dinner, seems much more about the mythic and sympathetic potential of the story than any allegiance to the truth, or obligation to present facts.

Critics around the world agreed that “Joey” was not simply unfortunate, but somehow reprehensible. But none of these attacks figured in Levy’s contribution at all. They assumed, naturally, that Dylan would be leading any songwriting session, and was the guiding force behind “Joey.” They saw “Joey” as a calculated move on Dylan’s part to falsely glorify Gallo, as opposed to the truth of an artist discovering new territory to explore in song.

“To me,” Dylan 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.”

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But to many, especially New Yorkers, this was an unforgivable breach on Dylan’s part. Joey Gallo, despite the fact that he eluded being charged ever with a murder, and would not carry a gun in later years, was not a figure from the distant past or some foreign land. He got killed in Little Italy in 1972, only a few years prior to Desire. New Yorkers, especially, in close proximity to his empire, were outraged by the song as they remembered Crazy Joe, as he was known.

Most infamous was Lester Bang’s review of Desire in the Village Voice, which was anchored in intense animosity towards Dylan for writing “Joey.” Bangs identified it as “Desire’s longest cut,” and referred to it as “the ponderous sloppy, numbingly boring 11-minute ballad `Joey,’ about yet another folk hero/loser/martyr, mobster…”

After a long treatise on Joey’s actual history and how Dylan distorted it, he asks the big question he feels needs an urgent answer: Why? Why did Dylan choose to write this song, and from this sympathetic angle?

Though he never spoke to Dylan about this song (as we did; see below), he did speak to Levy, who confirmed that the motivation for “Joey” was his obsession with the subject, not Dylan’s. But he convinced him.

Joey Gallo

“Bob has always had a thing about outlaws,” said Levy to Bangs, “people on the outside of whatever side there was. Would you call John Wesley Harding a small-time hoodlum? I think calling Joey that is labeling someone unfairly, and [Joey] wasn’t a psychopath either. He was just trying to build something, to help his people and family, and I don’t mean family in the Mafia sense. Yeah, he was a victim of society — of growing up poor, and if you look at the results of the Gallo-Profaci war, say, you’ll find that it’s never been proved that the Gallos killed anybody, but plenty of Joey’s people got killed.”

“And I don’t think he set up Joe Colombo,” Levy added. “If there was a vicious side of Joey, I think that people like myself, the Orbachs, people who were around him for at least a year before he died, would have seen it come out.”

Levy does reflect the very perspective which so outraged critics and others, that Joey Gallo was falsely accused or murder, and even his own admissions weren’t credible. When asked about Joey’s famous boast about being the killer of Albert Anastasia,  the boss of the Gambino family, Levy dismissed it as bragodoccio. 

“That was Joey’s wise-guy side bragging about something like that;’ it is not proof of having done it. That was Joey posing as the tough guy, the Hollywood Richard Widmark–Jimmy Cagney stereo­type.”

To this writer and others coming from more of a distance, and just a kid when the song was released, the choice of Joey Gallo as a song subject was great. Making mythic something so modern seemed like something only Dylan could do. How true it was didn’t matter at all to me., I had no knowledge of the guy, though I knew he was a mobster, and not exactly a saint.

But I absolutely loved the song for the usual reasons why Dylan’s songs were so beloved then and still. Because of the beautiful, brilliant energy and joy of songwriting which is alive in the writing itself – in the great meter and rhyme of those lyrics, with that visceral music, both triumphant and mournful, and that luminous Dylan phrasing which ignites lines that lie flat on a page so that they come alive with vivid force. 

That final verse was the one that astounded me the most, in which Joey’s murder takes place, and is described in great cinematic terms so that you watch it unfold And then so delightfully completed by Dylan’s phrasing on “then he staggered out… into the streets of… Little Italy….” 

The greatness of that songwriting, merging the darkness, the real truth, the history and myth in with the beautiful details – such as his sisters’ names Jacqueline and Carmella – always seem to far surpass any misgivings people had about the subject.

Also, since “Joey” contradicts the prevalent and erroneous idea that all of Dylan’s songs are abstractly poetic, and impossible to fully understand. “Joey” abandons abstractions to embrace charged, richly detailed, cinematic songwriting with vivid visual clarity; Dylan paints a picture of a life and death so explicit and exact that we can see every frame of it, and even experience Joey’s death as if we were sitting there watching it. And he does it with a rhyme scheme and a meter that makes the immediacy of the imagery even more striking:

“One day they blew him down
in a clam bar in New York
He could see it coming through the door
as he lifted up his fork.
He pushed the table over to protect his family
Then he staggered out into the streets
of Little Italy.”
 

from “Joey”
By Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy


So when I had the great privilege and, yes, thrill of interviewing Dylan in 1991, I asked him about several specific songs, and intentionally chose some that rarely were discussed. I asked about “Joey,” which was the last song we discussed as Elliot Mintz, who set up the interview and was with us during it, said the interview was done after we touched on “Joey.”

Admittedly, at the time – this was prior to the Internet and easy access to all snarky reviews and worse – I was cognizant of some of the anti-“Joey” sentiment, though not at all how extreme it was. What I did know didn’t seem warranted to me, given the remarkable writing of the song, as well as Dylan’s great performance of it on Desire.

Also, there’s a long tradition in folk songs, and songs by Woody Guthrie and others, of songs about outlaws, the modern anti-heroes of our time. Woody wrote “Pretty Boy Floyd” about a famous and violent outlaw gun-downed also, but in a cornfield instead of a clam bar.

Dylan seemed both happy and surprised that “Joey” was brought up, as he was obviously well-aware of all the castigation it had received over the years. Much more so than I was.

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“To me,” Dylan 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.

“You know who got me singing that song?” he asked. “Garcia!” [Pronounced in Dylan cadence: Gar-ciii-a!] Yeah. He got me singing that song again. He said that’s one of the best songs ever written. Coming from him, it was hard to know which way to take that.

“[Garcia] got me singing that song again with [The Grateful Dead]. It was amazing how it would, right from the get-go, it had a life of its own, it just ran out of the gate and it just kept on getting better and better and better and better and it keeps on getting better. It’s in its infant stages, as a performance thing.

“Of course, it’s a long song. But, to me, not to blow my own horn, but to me the song is like a Homer ballad. Much more so than `A Hard Rain,’ which is a long song, too. But, to me, “Joey” has a Homeric quality to it that you don’t hear everyday. Especially in popular music.”

His response was aligned exactly with how I felt, and generated gratitude for Jerry Garcia letting Dylan know that it was a great song, And great songs do eclipse truth.

But understanding why so many songwriters also hated “Joey” was not easy. Didn’t they recognize how brilliant the writing is?

Some who did agree the writing was great, and who love Dylan and his other songs, still hated “Joey.” The greatness of the writing didn’t forgive the transgression of glorifying a bad man.  

“I agree the writing is great,” said songwriter-producer Jeff Gold, who grew up in Staten Island, and lives now in L.A. and owns West Valley music, a beloved music venue and store.  “It is amazing songwriting. It should be; it’s Bob Dylan. But that’s what makes this worse. Because you just don’t write a song about someone like Joey Gallo. He was a vicious murderer. The song makes him into some kind of hero because it is Bob Dylan. People all around the world hear it and believe it. He shouldn’t have written it.”

“Joey”
By Bob Dylan & Jacques Levy

Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when
Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion
Always on the outside of whatever side there was
When they asked him why it had to be that way, well, he answered, just because

Larry was the oldest, Joey was next to last
They called Joe Crazy, the baby they called Kid Blast
Some say they lived off gambling and runnin’ numbers too
It always seemed they got caught between the mob and the men in blue


CHORUS:
Joey, Joey
King of the streets, child of clay
Joey, Joey
What made them want to come and blow you away?


There was talk they killed their rivals, but the truth was far from that
No one ever knew for sure where they were really at
When they tried to strangle Larry, Joey almost got hit the roof
He went out that night to seek revenge, thinkin’ he was bulletproof

Then, the war broke out at the break of dawn, it emptied out the streets
Joey and his brothers suffered terrible defeats
Till they ventured out behind the lines and took five prisoners
They stashed them away in a basement, called them amateurs

The hostages were tremblin’ when they heard a man exclaim
Let’s blow this place to kingdom come, let Con Edison take the blame
But Joey stepped up, he raised his hand, said, we’re not those kind of men
It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again

[chorus]

The police department hounded him, they called him Mr. Smith
They got him on conspiracy, they were never sure who with
What time is it? said the judge to Joey when they met
Five to ten, said Joey, the judge says, that’s exactly what you get

He did ten 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

They let him out in ’71 he’d lost a little weight
But he dressed like Jimmy Cagney and I swear he did look great
He tried to find the way back into the life he left behind
To the boss he said, I have returned and now I want what’s mine

[chorus]

It was true that in his later years he would not carry a gun
I’m around too many children, he’d say, they should never know of one
Yet he walked right into the clubhouse of his lifelong deadly foe
Emptied out the register, said, tell ’em it was Crazy Joe

One day they blew him down in a clam bar in New York
He could see it comin’ through the door as he lifted up his fork
He pushed the table over to protect his family
Then he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy

[chorus]

Sister Jacqueline and Carmela and mother Mary all did weep
I heard his best friend Frankie say, he ain’t dead, he’s just asleep
Then I saw the old man’s limousine head back towards the grave
I guess he had to say one last goodbye to the son that he could not save

The sun turned cold over President Street and the town of Brooklyn mourned
They said a mass in the old church near the house where he was born
And someday if God’s in heaven overlookin’ His preserve
I know the men that shot him down will get what they deserve

Joey, Joey
King of the streets, child of clay
Joey, Joey
What made them want to come and blow you away


From “Joey”
By Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy

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