Like most mortals, I have made some terrible mistakes in my day. One of the worst was paying actual money to see Dylan and The Dead at the Philadelphia stop of their infamous 1987 “collaborative” tour. Pairing Dylan—who has always needed a hot shit backing band to kick him in the keister—with the shambolic and drag-ass Grateful Dead was about as ill-conceived a notion as East Germany’s mass production of concrete umbrellas in 1961. (Death toll: 341.)
The low point of the Philadelphia show was “Joey,” Dylan’s seemingly endless paean to Brooklyn Mafioso Joe Gallo, who was gunned down while eating a bowl of mussels in morte sauce in Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in Little Italy in 1971. “Joey” came off the same LP (1976’s Desire) that gave us “Hurricane,” and Dylan made wrongfully persecuted Buddhas of both subjects, which is exactly the problem. Because while the imprisoned (and most likely framed) middleweight boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was a bona fide sympathetic figure, it’s hard to say the same about “Crazy Joe” Gallo, who was not only a high-ranking made member of the Profaci crime family, but a homicidal maniac to boot.
Dylan’s treatment of Gallo peeved plenty, most notably the late, great Lester Bangs, who dismissed “Joey” as “one of the most mindlessly amoral pieces of romanticist bullshit ever recorded.” And it’s impossible to ignore the maudlin sentimentality at the song’s core: “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.’” How gooey sweet. Gallo, evidently, was one of your pacifistic homicidal maniacs.
It’s also as evident as the late J. Garcia’s x-ray on the Shroud of Marin in the song’s chorus: “Joey, Joey/King of the streets, child of clay/Joey, Joey/What made them want to come and blow you away.” Oh, I don’t know, perhaps they didn’t much care for Gallo’s brand of aftershave. Or were a mite piqued at Gallo for rubbing out fellow mobster Albert Anastasia as he sat in a barber’s chair, which foul deed Joey performed because he didn’t much care for Anastasia’s brand of aftershave either.
Had Dylan celebrated Gallo as a fascinating figure while honestly acknowledging he was a pathological killer, I’d have no trouble with “Joey.” Instead Dylan chose to transform Gallo into a kind of Mafioso saint, which is why “Joey” fails as art (despite the fact that its melody is really kinda catchy) and is totally dishonest at heart. One can only wish Dylan had either played it straight or written a protest song about somebody, anybody else—say the Dylan family mutt, falsely accused of leaving little brown logs on next door neighbor Kenny Loggins’ lawn. But he didn’t, and “Joey” stands as a testament to either Dylan’s naïveté or utter cynicism, it’s hard to know which.
It was Dylan who told us the answer was blowing in the wind, only to inform us later that said wind was an idiot. Looking back on that night in Philadelphia in 1987 I realize I was an idiot too. Not so much for actually paying to witness Dylan and The Dead lethargically drag the carcasses of some of Dylan’s greatest songs around, but for still trusting in Dylan as a Speaker of Truth, while he was hard at work whitewashing a blackguard.