All Directions at Once: Going Beyond Joey

By Tony Attwood

This is episode 33 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 three episodes were…

In my last piece I meandered around the issue of how real people (whether they be still alive or no longer with us) are represented in songs, and why some people get so worked up about the issue of accuracy within song lyrics.

Not everyone is of course worried by such matters.  The Allmusic review of the Joey 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’…”)

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.”

So we must face the question, does accuracy matter in songs?  And if yes, then we ask, why does it matter in this particular art form, when it doesn’t seem to matter in any other?

Between 1987-2012 Dylan played “Joey” 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.”

The accuracy of lyrics in songs never worries me, largely because to be worried I’d have to have some sort of dividing line such as, “If the person is alive or has been dead for less than 20 years, the song should be accurate…” which actually seems rather daft.

So 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)  was musical.  It just doesn’t have enough musical or lyrical fascination to carry the length.  In which regard it is the opposite of “Isis” which pushes out such a huge amount of energy one can hardly catch one’s breath.

But many others liked the song.  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”.  Dylan seems to have responded by playing each of the last two named songs over 100 times in concert.

Levy did however have an interesting comment saying that, “I think the first step was putting the song in a total storytelling mode, I don’t remember whose idea it was to do that. But really, the beginning of the song is like stage directions, like what you would read in a script: ‘Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night…. Here comes the story of the Hurricane.’ Boom! Titles. You know, Bob loves movies, and he can write these movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, yet seem as full or fuller than regular movies”.

And of course all of us are used to films of life stories being inaccurate – they have to be in order to become watchable movies, because the reduction of the events of maybe 30, 50 or even 70 years to two hours means a lot is cut.

What I guess those who don’t like what’s going on here are unhappy about is the age-old concept of  “poetic licence” (which the Oxford Dictionaries define as “The freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect”).   It is a phrase that has been with us since the 18th century, so we’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea – and indeed I think as a culture we are totally used to and accepting of the concept – except when it doesn’t fit with the social or political views of critics like Heylin.

Of course ultimately poetic licence can go so far that the resultant artwork becomes a parody of the facts of the case.  But mostly judgement in such matters is clouded by belief.  Indeed as Picasso said in 1948, in Russia they hated his work and loved his politics, whereas in the US the situation was reversed.

And as so often I am drawn back to Dylan’s comment, “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours,” which comes down to the fact that if we have the talent we can put our ideas across with artistic licence, and those who want to share the visions can then do so.  As for everyone else, just look and listen elsewhere.

My view, for what it is worth, is that people who argue to the contrary, fail to understand the nature of poetry.  For as Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”   And as Plato said in the Republic, “We are, at all events, aware that such poetry mustn’t be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth…”

But we should never forget that Dylan’s works are songs, for the most part consisting of music and lyrics, mostly doing what songs generally do which is to offer the listener an emotional experience (in contrast, shall we say, to the official record of a day’s proceedings in court which aim to strip out emotion and give us facts).

Once more we can turn back to “Times they are a-changin'” for guidance.  It is an emotional piece in which the overall emotional content suggests that things are really going to get better, because that’s what we all want.  The logical analysis  shows us that what the lyrics actually say is the change will happen come what may, but emotionally many listeners to the song feel that they are part of making this change happen.

In my view, it is worth noting both what the lyrics say, and what the emotion is that is generated, and indeed many far more astute that myself have explored this field.  I would note, for example the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman who theorised that “people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”

If we go back to “Isis” that suggests (and I think rightly) that we might judge the song by how we feel when Dylan sings

She said “You going to stay?” I said "If you want me to, yes"

We none of us have clear access to all our past memories, because our memories are filtered and jostled around by other memories all the time, so somehow our brains pick and choose the memories we consider to be the points that define who and what we are.

The arts are part of this, and we hold on to art works, or moments from the art that moves in time (such as songs) – but what we hold is always incomplete.  In relation to the songs we know what we feel; it is moments from the songs – lyrical and musical phrases.

Of course there is nothing wrong with highlighting key moments from songs to help us highlight what we are.  People who do this, so the theory of Selective Exposure Theory goes, and who manage to focus on happy memories,  are happier people.   People who don’t actively redefine their memories and so pick up the peak of negative memories as much as positive memories, tend to be more miserable.  Listening to Dylan and remembering key phrases from the songs can indeed make many of us very happy.  Analysing the songs and complaining that the lyrics are inaccurate just… well, nothing much.  Certainly there is no uplift if that is what one considers to be important.

But we can (and I believe many people do) select moments from songs which embody what we love about the song.   The critic however ignores all this emotional response, because she or he has to write a logical piece which ignores the fact that the art work is an emotional experience.  The critic tends to reduce the song to the logic of whether the reportage is accurate or not.

And issues of accuracy bedeviled this series of joint compositions, as we can also see through the next song the duo composed: “Rita Mae”, a song which according to a lot of commentators (as Jochen has noted before) comes from Bertha Lou.

But this song has more than a strong link to an earlier piece, but it is also known for being about (in full or maybe just in passing) the writer Rita Mae Brown.

When I suggested this might be the case, Claudia Levy, Jacques Levy’s widow, wrote back to Untold Dylan saying that suggestion was wrong, saying the Jacques held Rita Mae Brown in high regard, and that the song was a parody of prevalent attitudes toward women.

As Jochen noted in his review, in the Prism Films interview in 2004, in which he describes the song as “a simple fifties rock thing, which is part of my background and Bob’s background too.” 

Obviously one can judge by reading Rita Mae Brown’s works, if you don’t have the time, these phrases certainly help give an insight…

  • One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.
  • Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
  • Good judgement comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgement.
  • About all you can do in life is be who you are. Some people will love you for you. Most will love you for what you can do for them, and some won’t like you at all.
  • I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.

Apparently the song was written in the same week by Levy and Dylan as the duo wrote Joey, and being so utterly different in style and in the nature of the lyrics it might well have been an antidote to all the work on Joey.

But it was thought to be worthy enough to be kept and it was as the B-side of Stuck inside of mobile and be put on the “Masterpieces” album.

So we have now had in quick succession two songs about people: Joey and Rita May.  And then immediately after that the two songwriters came up with a third: Hurricane.

Indeed, from the commentaries written concerning this period, after Joey there was a definite  determination to continue with the notion of songs in the “outlaw” mode of writing.   But once again the criticism of the accuracy of Dylan’s portrayal of the outlaw which surfaced with “Only a pawn” and continued through to “Joey,” turns up again.

Meanwhile most commentators don’t consider the music Dylan composed for the song, within which there is something extraordinary; a power, the drive, the energy, as Dylan’s vocalisations are combined with the most amazing improvised violin counterpart throughout, making for an utterly remarkable performance.

What’s more, aside from the sheer drive and energy of the song, we are also transported along by the uncertainty of where we are – a feeling that is perfect for the lyrics.  And we have the arguments against the song, which once more are simply saying there is something wrong with the song because it isn’t accurate.  No one seems to think too much about the music.

So we start with a minor (Am) and shift to F – back and forth back and forth for four lines of power, drive and uncertainty, until we get to the chorus where are rocking instead from C to F major before chords tumble over each other as we have the last line of the chorus, “Put in a prison cell but one time he could have been the champion of the world”.

The question that arises is thus simple: is the art affected if the songs are not historically accurate?  If the art is propaganda on behalf of a prisoner, does that make it any less a piece of art?   Really, I can’t see how.

Eventually it was ruled in 1985 that Carter had not received a fair trial and he was released.  In 1988 the prosecution said they would not seek another trial and the case came to an end.    But the arguments went on, with those against the version portrayed in Hurricane saying there is no mention of the boxer’s criminal past and a reputation for a violent temper continued their arguments.   But still I argue, this is art – art doesn’t have to be accurate or complete.  It offers insights not total truth.  If you write a love poem you mention the beauty, not the clicky knee.  To move away from all this would move us away from all poetry, and all art.  (I just wish someone would one day turn up a love poem written by Clinton Heylin; it would be something to behold).

But there is one more thing that I want to mention about this song.  What we do get in this work is something that we don’t see too often in Dylan – an onrushing, never stopping, full speed story line, from the opening

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall

onwards to…

Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see
And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously

This is the power and drive and storytelling of Isis, transformed into a re-write of a real-life story.   It is a phenomenally hard thing to pull off – to keep the format of the song, but having it streaming forwards throughout with the storyline coherent and driving.

In the end I do think poetic licence allows the artist to emphasise one approach against another without seeking to balance the evidence, and without any attempt to consider opposing views.  My view, for what it is worth, is that people who argue to the contrary, fail to understand the nature of poetry, of song, and indeed human emotion.

As Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”   And as Plato said in the Republic,  “We are, at all events, aware that such poetry mustn’t be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth…”

So Dylan has given us songs about real life people and situations.  The question now was, could this be done with the same level of detail, by creating a series of fictional tales?

We were about to find out.

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