Joey: one of Dylan’s worst songs, or one of his best?

By Tony Attwood

I start with trepidation, because when I have touched on quintessentially American issues, as for example with “George Jackson” no matter how much and how often I say, “I’m a British guy and thus I can’t get all the nuances and details of American situations, histories, people, and events, but this is how it strikes me…” I get back some comments telling me I haven’t got a clue what I am talking about and should shut up.

But there is a further point here, not just with George Jackson and Joey but also with “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and indeed Hurricane, and that is that these records are released in the UK, and of course across the world, so we have to make sense of them too, if we are to enjoy and understand the music.

They don’t come with notes from Dylan, so we’re all there enjoying or not enjoying the music, and also wondering about the storyline, the background.   It’s not really our fault we come from a different cultural background.

Thus my commentaries on the more contentious songs represent one regular guy from outside the US trying to make sense of what is going on in the music, but without the benefit of being part of the world Dylan writes about.

That is not to say that Dylan should be spelling things out just for us non-Americans, that would be ludicrous.  I think I am just reflecting the battle a lot of people go through in trying to understand the what and the why, as well as getting the overall feel of the music.  In a sense these little reviews of mine are my journey in doing that.  Trying to make sense of the music of a guy who by a large could be from another planet.

Of course when it comes to “Joey” we have additional issues.  Not just the music and the lyrics, not just of who Joey Gallo was and what he did, but also of Lester Bangs and his article “Dylan Dallies with Mafia Chic” subheaded, “Joey Gallo was no hero”.   It is an important piece of musical criticism in my view, which asks the question as to whether Dylan really cares about these people he writes about or is he using these people to ensure his own relevance?  Of course I have no idea what the motivation was, but by this stage in 1975 we most certainly were at the stage of Jacques Levy writing the lyrics and Dylan the music.  Indeed I have seen quotes from Dylan saying definitively that Levy wrote all the words.

Of course Dylan is implicated because he chose to record this song and put it on his album, and indeed in so doing he took off one of my favourites, Abandoned Love.  But it seems his love of the outlaw motif overwhelmed his need to check the accuracy of the story he was told.

The case made in the article (and it is a masterpiece of rock analysis, whether one agrees with any of it or not) is that Dylan has always been interested in his own image, and has created stories and myths to enhance the image of Dylan.  For what it is worth my own view is that this is probably true, BUT, I also follow the psychological theory that suggests that we all do this.  We none of us have access to all our past memories, so somehow our brains pick and choose the memories we consider to be the points that define who and what we are.

However it is quite possible to make this a conscious process, and to recognise that our perceptions of our past (and thus our definitions of who and what we are) are based on incomplete data.  Thus there is nothing wrong with highlighting key positive moments within our definition of what we are.  People who do this, so the theory (the name of which I now totally forget) says, are happier people.   People who don’t actively redefine their memories tend to be more miserable.

So if Dylan does this, then he is just emphasising a trait that many people do subconsciously and a smaller number do consciously.

Bangs’ article gives us a run down (accurate or not I don’t know) of mafia development and claims that Dylan wove his song out of the mythology.   But if that were all it was, it would be just another Bangs article – well written, well argued, and having a bash at a well established artist, piece of music or point of view.  But it is the end of the article – the final column in the Village Voice version which takes us somewhere else.

Bangs had a phone call or meeting (I think it was the former) with Levy and asked him about the writing of the song.   Levy said that he suggested the song to Dylan, and Dylan was excited about the idea, emphasising the point that Dylan was always interested in outlaws, citing the JWH album by way of example.  Levy put forward a strong defence of the Gallo family saying, “I think calling Joey [a hoodlum] is labelling someone unfairly, and he wasn’t a psychopath either.  He was just trying to build something to help his people and family, and I don’t mean in a Mafia sense.”  His view is he and Dylan worked on the song together.

It goes on to say that Joey was the victim of social circumstance, and that it was never proven that the Gallo family killed anyone.  When Bangs argued that Joey claimed to have killed Anastasia, Levy argues back that this was just his bragging style.

So, we have Dylan’s view that Levy wrote the words, and Levy’s view that they knocked around the ideas together.  Either way it seems that as Bangs says, Dylan didn’t do his homework, but then poets aren’t expected to do homework.   Which is probably why Plato banned poets from the Republic, now I come to think of it.

Bangs article is, as I suggest, really worth reading in depth.  Unfortunately what most people know about Bangs and this song is his comment in Creem, “One of the most mindlessly amoral pieces of repellently romanticist bullshit ever recorded.”  Heylin by and large has the same doubts, but being a lesser writer reduces it all to one sentence, “Gallo was just plain nuts.”

Heylin reports on Dylan discussing the choice of song with Larry Sloman (author of On the Road with Bob Dylan) three months before the release, with Dylan saying “I never considered him a gangster.  I always thought of him as some kind of hero… An underdog fighting against the elements.”

Piecing the bits together it does seem as if one way or another Dylan felt he had (in Heylin’s words) “an outlaw ballad as epic as the medieval Robin Hood ballads.”  And of course it is a theme Dylan has picked up on.

The problem is that none of us knows just how moral or immoral Robin Hood was (if there ever was a man whose activities served as the basis for the legend), given that he first turned up in Piers Plowman in the 14th century, and has been modified in legend ever since.

The big difference is that I am not too sure that many people other than Dylan have chosen to defend Joey Gallo, while Robin Hood has evolved into the absolute romantic English hero.  The county of Nottinghamshire (which by chance I visited last night) has (or certainly used to have) on its borders the sign “Robin Hood Country.”  (The traffic was heavy last night so I didn’t notice if those signs are still there as you enter the county). Nottingham Castle does Robin Hood tours, you can spend the day in Sherwood Forest and see the giant oak that (allegedly) the Merry Men met under etc etc etc.  I guess most of us who live nearby have done it a few times.

But Joey Gallo’s image is nothing like this.  The contentiousness of Robin Hood is simply that we have no idea who he was, or whether he was just a symbolic representation of a man who stood up for the poor.

Back with Dylan, we also have to take into account where he was in his writing thus far in the year…

“Joey” doesn’t seem a natural progression from any of that, which makes it seem most likely that Levy did have a major, if not total involvement in the theme and the lyrics.

Of course not everyone has been critical.   The Allmusic review of the song calls it, “One of the finest songs on Desire” and notes that regardless of the questionable character the song is about, “it’s a beautiful creation. Dylan sings many of the verses, especially One day they blew him down in a clam bar in New York... with heartbreaking skill and timing, and is very persuasive in his evocation of Gallo’s life, whom he sees as a decent, kind man, a “king of the streets” and a man with morals (“But Joey stepped up, and he raised his hand/Said ‘We’re not those kind of men’…)

It then goes further and calls this “Arguably one of Dylan’s finest songs of the 1970s,”…

Rolling Stone however took a different line, arguing that, “When Bob Dylan sings about historical figures, he often gets a lot wrong. “Hurricane” is riddled with errors, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is almost worse. “Joey” has some issues too, but it’s mainly objectionable for the simple fact that it glorifies a vicious mobster. Judging solely by the song, one would think he was a saint.  It does this across 11 minutes, and is ultimately interminable.”

Between 1987-2012 Dylan played the song at concerts 87 times, mostly, according to Heylin, forgetting the words along the way, including apparently in Brixton in late March 1995, “the night after they buried East End hoodlum Ronnie Kray.”   At least I think most people in the UK who consider such matters have a less forgiving vision of the Kray Twins than we get from Dylan’s vision of Joey.

Perhaps my problem with the song, in all the years before I picked up on who Joey was (and it really wasn’t that easy to get that information in England in the days before the internet unless a magazine like New Musical Express delved into it, and I can’t remember it doing so) was musical.  It just doesn’t have enough musical or fascinating or exhilarating interest for me (and this is of course a very personal view) to carry the length.

There is a slight interest gained from the fact that the song is in G but starts on the chord of C, however this is hardly unknown, and C, D, C, G as an opening chord sequence is hardly revolutionary.   Likewise ending the verse on A minor is intriguing, and carries us forwards, but then, after hearing it the first few times, we just know it is coming.

The same can be said of the end of the chorus.  Having used the classically correct chords for a song in G all the way through, Dylan throws in the chord of F under “What made them”.  Another nice twist, but he’s done it before.

One review from the Vinyl District had this interesting comment:

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. 

And there is a part of me that is with that, except I don’t find the melody “kinda catchy”.

Here’s one other thing I found:  In a readers’ poll conducted by Mojo magazine, “Joey” was rated the 74th most popular Bob Dylan song of all time.  In a Rolling Stone survey of the 10 worst Dylan songs of all times, “Joey” got listed along with “If Dogs Run Free” and “Wiggle Wiggle”.


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 hit the roof
He went out that night to seek revenge, thinking he was bulletproof

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 trembling 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”

Well, maybe.  Maybe not.  I’m an English guy, writing this looking out across the Northamptonshire countryside.   And I rarely believe what I read in the papers.



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10 Responses to Joey: one of Dylan’s worst songs, or one of his best?

  1. hans altena says:

    A good article once again, yet, on those grounds JWH might be regarded as even more perverse, because Joey is just more detailed and complex and doesn’t shy away from more morbid details, contrasting the hero worship of the rebel on which songs like these are based. The whole idea of these kind epics is an idealization, creating a fictitious world where men of the street oppose the mighty and die in the end but conquer on a level of honour. Only seldom the person in case was morally okay in reality, it’s the story that matters, the dream that one can stand up against the powers that be. I am not interested in anything else, hell, even the great Mandela has may faults on his name. That doesn’t mean Gallo is the best choice for outlaw poetry, too shallow in my book, though Dylan must have tasted some of the myths surrounding him in his days, and the actual poem lacks in duality and ambiguïty, proving Dylan had little to do with the writing, some of the lyrics border on cliché, without that special faculty of juxtaposition which Dylan offers when using them, so that you suspect something deeper. That leaves us with the melody and how the piece was performed. It is not revolutionary in terms of music, but the way it is brought, with all the drama and brilliant timing, it seldom fails to sweep me of the floor. Seldom have two singers sounded so gorgeous, Gram Parsons and the same Emmylou excluded. And that is justification enough for me. Although, I would have preferred Abandoned Love on the album, and this one as a much sought after out take…

  2. It’s neither, just a good story song with lovely musical accompaniment, joey’s demise gives clues to how the TV show, ‘the Sopranos’ really ended, ” pushed the table over to protect his family then he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy” Makes sense for a show that had a lot of Dylan music in it. Dylan and outlaws, well John Wesley Harding was no saint but you’d never know it listening to the song.

  3. Futzi Wailer says:

    Idolizing criminals while demanding law and order is intrinsically American. Hollywood has always been its mirror. From Bonnie & Clyde to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Michael Corleone criminals have always been mythologized. It’s woven into the American DNA and Dylan is uniquely American. Joey is a great song in the same tradition as Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd. Both were criminals on the margins of society, both mythologized in song. Of course “the facts” we’re changed in each. How else do you turn a psychopath into a hero?

  4. whalespoon says:

    In my opinion, this is one of Bob’s worst songs up to that point in his career. (He would eclipse it later with songs from “Down in the Groove,” “Knocked Out Loaded,” and “Under the Red Sky.”) I find “Joey” practically unlistenable, although I have done my best to warm up to it since I bought my first copy of “Desire” in 1978. The turgid tempo, the dull melody, the lifeless harmonic structure, and the glorification of a bloodthirsty gangster is appalling. To me, the occasionally creative rhyming and wordplay are the only redeeming factors. “Desire” is one of my top 3 or 4 favorite Dylan albums ever. Every song on it is a gem–except for “Joey.”

  5. Matthew says:

    Surely the point of the song is that it is sung by one of Joey’s gang — “I heard his best friend, Frankie, say: ‘He ain’t dead, he’s just asleep'” “I saw the old man’s limousine…” — and the contradiction of God-fearing people with a sense of morality managing to square their behaviour and their actions. When he sings: “And someday if God’s in heaven overlooking his preserve,” the narrator has no difficulty in seeing God as just another gang leader… “I know the men who shot him down will get what they deserve.”

  6. Passion4Blue says:

    The song may not have been criticized as sharply if it hadn’t been based on a real personality. Lets just say if it were just a work of fiction, then we’d appreciate it as thus.

  7. i like ‘Joey’ a lot, so much that i made a pilgrimage to Umberto’s Clam House to eat the same white sauce that Joey liked and probably ate when ‘he pushed the table over, to protect his family’…and highly recommend it.
    then, again, i like mob stuff…

    do not trust Dylan’s interpretations of other people. in one youtube clip, he introduces ‘Lenny Bruce’ as being about a guy who didn’t care about fast cars and flashy stuff…Lenny was first arrested in an MG convertible with a mural of exotic dancer Hot Honey Harlow (that is how it read), his wife, painted on the door. Dylan is right about him not liking fancy clothes, in this instance. that is because Lenny was dressed as a priest so he could go ask for donations under the auspice of the church. haha…google and see his first arrest photos from Miami as a priest…

    i asked Lenny’s daughter, Kitty, ‘do you think you father didn’t want to live anymore, like in the Dylan song?’ and she said Dylan is good at rhyming things and making good songs but does not have a clue about how Lenny felt.

    i am truly surprised, now that i think of it, that Dylan never did a song about Hank Williams. if he is still writing new songs in ten years, i bet he does…unless one is on tape somewhere…we shall see.

  8. hans altena says:

    I like the idea of the perspective being that of one of the gang, as Michael suggests, that way it even makes more sense! Just as Romance in Durango is sung as if the already dead fugitive were speaking. And then we turn to the one watching tv and seeing the disaster of the island in Black Diamond Bay, to end up with Dylan himself in Sara. He has had a sequence in mind with his albums mostly, and if not, it was clear he did not care much about it.

  9. Mark says:

    I think it’s a song about war. Probably world war 1.

  10. ‘Joey’ is , like most of ‘Desire’, actually a ‘cinematic’ song. What we need to ask is whose narrative voice is being used here? Seems to me that the narrator of the song is like one of the Italian Americans in ‘The Godfather’ (the obvious reference point) who idealises Joey as an ‘American hero’. Coppolla’s films ask us to question what American heroes are and investigate the role of gangsters as mythological figures. Dylan’s narrator gives us a fictionalised tragic ‘biopic’. Of course, we shouldn’t take this literally, any more than we take the ‘nice family guys’ of the Sopranos literally. The gangster genre is a coded commentary on American values, the institutionalisation of violence in American culture and the importance of ethnic pride. ‘Joey’ is Dylan’s contribution to that genre. It certainly isn’t a ‘protest song’ !

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