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The song Bob Dylan wrote about a notorious gangster

There isn’t much Bob Dylan hasn’t written a song about. The freewheelin’ troubadour caught a lot of attention during the salad days of his career as he trumped his contemporaries and delivered real songs about real issues and, sometimes, about real people too. Whether it’s Edie Sedgwick or champion boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’, Dylan was never afraid to immortalise someone in a song.

More often than not, the figurative casting of a central character in one of his golden songs was a gentle and guided process. Dylan usually used his own personal connection with these people to provide some hefty foundations to his work, but, for one track from his 1976 album Desire, he tore up his own rulebook and delivered a track based on the life of someone he had only read about in the papers — notorious gangster Joey Gallo.

In the seventies, the world of organised crime was front-page news. Long gone were the days of operating in the shadows, the Mafia now found themselves in the full glare of the public eye. It meant, every day a new story was being reported across the media, one particularly sensational story was that of Joey Gallo who was shot down on his birthday by a rival at a restaurant in New York City. It captured Dylan’s attention and saw the esteemed songwriter begin to pen an ode to the underworld icon.

It wasn’t all Dylan’s work, however. Much like many of the songs on Desire, Dylan relied on Jacques Levy to help craft some of the tracks, including the 11-minute ‘Joey’. In fairness, Dylan likely needed Levy’s input to ensure that his re-telling of the mobster’s life was linear and deliberate in its narrative. The song may well be a highly fictionalised retelling of his life, but it is one hell of a story.

In fact, there has been much debate over who exactly wrote the lyrics to the song. Dylan has claimed that it was Levy who handled the lyrics on this particular number when speaking with Bill Flannagan. However, this claim was disputed by Levy who, when speaking to Lester Bangs around the time of Desire‘s release was clear that the duo had shared writing responsibility on the track.

The truth is likely to be lost forever. What we do know is that the song remains an interesting insight into the world of organised crime, from the point tof view of an outsider. Always interested in the figure of ‘The Outlaw’, note his wonderful ‘John Westley Harding’, Dylan was intent on widening the view of the mobster gunned down at a restaurant. What could have been a simple tabloid headline was now given some context. As Levy told Bangs: “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.”

The reality is, however, a little less clear thanks, in no small part, to the terror and chaos Gallo enacted as a member of the mob. While Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ is centred on misjustice, ‘Joey’ seems to act as judge and jury, seemingly relieving Gallo of his bloody past. Whether the song lands as one of your favourite Dylan songs, one cannot move away from the reality at the core of the track.

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