All Directions: Does Dylan really care about these people he writes about?

By Tony Attwood

This is episode 32 of the series “All Directions at Once” which considers Bob’s compositions not as a series of isolated songs, but as a constant evolution of Dylan’s talent, with each song related to the world around him, and what had gone before.

The last two episodes were…

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We are now dealing with 1975, and for context here is where we have got to in terms of Bob’s compositions

Thus the last song we dealt with was Isis, which raised the question of whether it matters or not what a poet (or any other form of artist) says when it comes to the truth. And this question now reaches a new height as we move on to “Joey” (and indeed thereafter, “Rita May”), the next two songs Bob Dylan wrote.  This article confines itself to Joey, and the issue of truthfulness in songwriting.

Joey and Rita May have each caused a lot of argument and controversy (Jochen’s piece on Rita May is particularly interesting in this regard I think, if you want to leap forward and not bother with my ramblings below).

For whatever our position on such matters, we can see that by now the two writers were settling down with each other, flexing the songwriting muscles (if there are such things) and seeing what they could do together.  And this brings us right up against the issue of facts and accuracy.

And as I have tried to point out in a previous article in this series, (When it comes to Bob, does truth matter?) I don’t think the issue of accuracy really is as straightforward as some commentators make it out to be.

In terms of “Joey,” Dylan has always seemed to like outlaws and indeed the song composed immediately before “Joey” (“Isis”) could be seen  as a song about a person living her own life, beyond the law and beyond the control of others.

But, critics will in general have none of this, for when there is a fight to be had with Bob, many will immediately take up the cudgels, not least because it gives them something to write about while suggesting  the writing is not simply “a fan”, but is instead a “proper critic”.

Thus the discussion of this song has focused much of the time not on the song itself but on who Joey Gallo was and what he did, a focus sharpened by Lester Bangs and his article “Dylan Dallies with Mafia Chic” sub-headed, “Joey Gallo was no hero”.

Dylan is thus criticised not for writing about real-life characters but for getting the facts wrong.  But that to be is a really silly stance to take.  What have the critics had to say about the historical accuracy of thousands of other songs which relate to contemporary and historic events, none of which are accurate because they are not histories, they are…. songs.  Not much I feel.  Dylan, it seems to me, comes in for special treatment.

Indeed I am reminded of the PG Wodehouse comment, “A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against “Summer Lightning”. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

In short, while it might be true that the biographer aims to understand the character he studies and writes about, and is required by his genre to be factually correct while exploring the relevant history, motives and outcomes, the poet, like the painter, like the playwright, like the novelist, like the songwriter, is not there to do the historians job.  And the songwriter is most certainly not there to be a biographer with added music.  He is there to entertain, to go beyond the bounds of mere fact, to play with possibilities, to explore new options…

It matters not that Wodehouse created his characters but made some of them caricatures of archetypal members of the prewar British aristocracy; they were his characters and he could do with them as he pleased.   And although Dylan takes actual real-life people and turns heroes into villains, and vice verse, that is his choice as an artist.

I would have thought that it was clear enough that he is not a biographer, but is a songwriter, just as Wodehouse felt it ought to be clear enough that it was up to him how he created and manipulated the characters he invented.    Certainly if the biographer claims his work is a truthful review of his subject, then that’s what he must deliver.  But Dylan the songwriter does no such thing.  He wrote songs that made no claim to be anything other than songs.  Songs are not biography; if they were they would be called, err… biographies.  Just as Wodehouse’s comic novels which make fun of the British aristocracy, are comic novels.   It is so simple a point, I can’t understand why some commentators don’t get it.

In short, the moment the critic loses touch with the simple reality that his subject is a writer of songs, and that songs are not accurate history but vehicles to express emotion and feeling, then the critic has, I fear, slipped into a fantasy world of his own aggrandisement, believing he can tell us mere mortals not just what is good and what is bad art, he can now also tell us what is and what is not real – as if we can’t tell for ourselves.

Dylan, in short, like songwriters throughout the ages, is spinning tales.  He is doing what artists do: playing with and manipulating reality so that the rest of us are given the chance to be able to perceive the world around us in new ways.

And my point, in case I am getting rather obscure here, is that Bob has always understood this.  Which explains why Ewan McColl got so angry with Bob – because of the way Dylan manipulated folk songs, and merged the oeuvre with pop and rock instrumentation.  McColl appreciated the traditional British folksongs as the pure art of the 19th working man, an art form that should be preserved and not mucked about with.  Dylan saw it as the foundations on which  he could build something new, something as relevant as “First time ever I saw your face” was relevant to McColl when he wrote it, and as songs such as “Butter and Cheese” were relevant to rural folk in 1820s England.

Lester Bangs asks the question as to whether Dylan really cares about these people he writes about or whether he is using these people to ensure his own relevance.  To me that is like asking whether PG Wodehouse cared about his characters such as The Hon. Galahad Threepwood, Bertie Wooster and the butler, Jeeves.  The answer is obviously yes, because both artists care about their creations.  People don’t write songs about others they are not interested in.

But take the song above.  We can have a laugh at what is going on in the song, and we can care about the characters at the same time.  And if we change the song – so what?  Does that show disrespect for the people who sang it 100 years ago?    Songs are not real life any more than the novels of PG Wodehouse with all their preposterous characters living 100 years ago, are real life. They are windows on the possibilities and options that life gives us.

So when “Hard Times of Old England” turns up with a full rock band, does that destroy the memory of the people who toiled away for a pittance in the 18th century?  Are the starving families now long since passed away lessened in some way by our recreation of the songs that they had, reworked in a pop rock format?

I think not.  In fact, if we want true reflections of the real world, then we read serious, well-researched history, or listen to the songs written at the time and make sure they are preserved – which of course we can do, and many of us still choose to do.  But that does not stop us listening to re-worked versions, any more than it stops us both listening to Dylan’s song “Joey” and also reading a serious historical account of Joey’s life.  We can do both if we wish – the mere existence of Dylan’s song, does not stop me going to the bookshop.

When I earned a living for a while arranging traditional English songs in a contemporary style so that children could experience, understand and enjoy them, was I acting in some evil way, destroying the past?  Personally I don’t think so, and thankfully no one ever accused me of that, even though the arrangements were quite widely used throughout UK schools.

But this is Dylan, so it seems different rules apply.  But the reality is that if you want history as history read the works of historians, but if you want to know about the feelings of people, feel their lives and then consider these in relation to today, you also need the work of artists.

And of course this reworking can go on and on through all directions at once…

So my point is, there is a place for understanding the exact reality of the past, and that is what we do through the academic study known as history.   But there is also a past for exploring, sharing and making it relevant to what we are now.   And thus there is a place for the creative artist to re-write history, just as has always been the case.

Does it worry us that the Robin Hood who supposedly lived in Sherwood Forest was nothing like the image used by Nottingham City Council to bring in millions of pounds each year to the city’s coffers?   Those who get particularly worried by this should avoid the city work as a historian.  But those not so worried can appreciate the art – the songs, the drawings, the theatre.  After all, if you wanted to know about the life and death of Hamlet, the last thing you’d consult would be a play written by a guy from Stratford living in London who never travelled overseas, writing 300 years after the events portrayed.

Of course I have no idea what Bob’s motivation was in writing about Joey Gallo, but I treat the result as a work of art, just as I treat Hamlet as a work of art.  If we are to criticise Dylan, the only criticism I would level is that Abandoned Love, is a much better song than Joey, and yet it was dropped to make way for Joey.  It seems Bob’s love of the outlaw motif won the day and he sang the song of an outlaw.

As for whether Dylan has always been interested in his own image, and has created stories and myths to enhance the image of Dylan, I would ask what artist who releases his or her work to the world isn’t interested in the world’s reaction?   If the artist is not interested in putting across ideas, thoughts, concepts and the like, then she or he can keep the works secret.

Which would explain why “Joey”, “Blind Willie McTell”, and other biographical songs such as Rita Mae (which turns up next) are fantasies.  Although it is interesting that few people if anyone really get worked up over the fact that “Blind Willie McTell” has little, musically or lyrically to do with Blind Willie McTell and his music.  Don’t worry about the old blues man, let’s get worked up about the guy in jail.

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, or a 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.

Dylan’s view on the other hand is that Levy wrote the words, countering Levy’s view that they knocked around the ideas together.  Either way it seems that as Bangs says, Dylan didn’t do much or any research.  And what I am trying to say is that because Dylan is a songwriter not a biographer, that doesn’t matter.  Dylan in fact is being true to the tradition of songwriting.   It exaggerates, it changes, it re-interprets, it re-works.

In short, if someone writes a biography of you, they’ll probably be pleased.  If someone writes a song about you… you might not recognise the result.   And that is simply how it is.  Once upon a time people composed and sang sea shanties about mermaids.   Are those songs now of no value because we don’t believe in mermaids any more?

Or, more worryingly, is Bangs on the side of Plato, and like Plato would rather like to ban the poets from society because they don’t tell us the truth?

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, calling the song,“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.”  I could say, “Plato was just plain nuts,” but I fear neither Bangs nor Heylin would quite know what I was talking about.

The series continues (when I get my breath back)

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4 Responses to All Directions: Does Dylan really care about these people he writes about?

  1. J,M,READ says:

    PG. Wodehouse was a joke. I should imagine the critic he tried to castigate in his juvenile way was telling the truth. PG Wodehouse wrote by numbers and to mention him an article about Dylan is ……………………………….
    I’ve never been impressed by his work and that was before I found out about his War Record; the man lived in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

    Sincerely J.M.READ

  2. Matthew says:

    It’s worth remembering that Joey is written/sung from the point of view of one of the gang — “I saw the old man’s limo…” — and at the end, he sees God as just another gang leader: “…if God’s in Heaven overlooking his preserve, I know the men who shot him down will get what they deserve.”

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    JM Read: PG Wodehouse wrote over 100 novels, was a very popular author, and remains so today at least in the UK. It may be true that his work is a limited or no value, but in order to show that one would need to put together some evidence. Seriously to consider that 62 words saying that the work of a highly acclaimed novelist and short story writer is an adequate way of presenting an argument is surely rather a poor way of presenting your point of view. And point of view it remains since you have provided no evidence.
    For myself (and of course this is just my view) your commentary says far, far more about yourself than it ever says about PG Wodehouse.

  4. Matthew says:

    Sure Wodehouse was politically naive, and as a writer he was — as he himself admitted — without ‘depth’, but he did what he set out to do (i.e. amuse) as well as could be done.

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