Needle Droppings:
Bob Dylan, “Joey”

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.

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  • Martijn

    Dylan is like a God to me: one remembers only His good stuff and forget about the bad. For instance: I can sing ”Hurricane” by heart and could have sworn I never heard ” Joey” at all.
    Same with God: you always remember Him talking from a burning bush and living in the belly of a whale, or saying cool things like “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Or the part where He is smiting Moses.
    Anyway, much enjoyed reading this! (I didn’t want to say just that and so embellished & embossed it with some high grade nonsense.) Greetings, Vinyl Distric!

  • totalblamblamman

    Dylan’s Desire is a great album full of loose performances of great songs. I am not here to defend Dylan nor do I know  much about the context of the song “Joey”. Dylan has long played with fictionalizing history… there has been much speculation on how he even does this with his own autobiography. There is nothing in the album that suggests that the song “Joey” be taken as a history lesson. I think it ought to be taken for exactly what it is… a song on a Dylan record. 
    It’s a story. This story has some basis in reality but I highly doubt it was ever meant to be taken as a history lesson.

  • Michael Little

    Thanks, Martijn! And Totalblamblamman (love the Bowie rip!) you’re right in saying Dylan has always played fast and loose with the facts, especially when it comes to the specifics of his own life. Which is okay; if the fiction tops the truth, go with the fiction. But it grates on Joey, and I think I should have parted with Bangs and spent the entire piece (instead of just part of it) explaining why it grates, at least on me. In a nutshell, the song is maudlin. Period. Hurricane (which may well be as fictional as Joey) conveys outrage, while Joey is sheer sentimentality, and at heart as gooey sweet as anything Barry Manilow has ever shit our way. I feel the same way about Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which I don’t like either. I guess the bottom line for me is that while Dylan is a great artist, the best (in my opinion) rock has ever produced, he isn’t great enough to play the maudlin card, because no artist, no matter how great, is THAT great. It just can’t be done, except as comedic shtick, and Joey shows no signs of being in any way, shape or form a comedy tune. Killdozer could have pulled if off, the way they did on paeans to the likes of Earl Scheib and Irwin Allen. But Dylan? No way. He gave up comedy after The Basement Tapes, and I haven’t completely loved ANYTHING he’s done since. It’s amazing, when I think about it, how little of Dylan’s body of work I really absolutely love, namely Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and The Basement Tapes. In this respect he’s like the Stones to me, whose only albums I truly and totally adore are Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Yet I still believe (as I said above) that Dylan’s the greatest artist of the rock era. I simply don’t love anything he’s done since 1967, with the exception of a song or two or three off subsequent albums. Like Idiot Wind. Genius. Anyway, thanks for writing. I appreciate hearing from you. Mike

  • tjarlz williams

    Turgid drumming and the usual rubbish rhymes too.


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