Bob Dylan Countdown #170: “Joey”

Crazy Joe Gallo was a character that even the imagination of Bob Dylan would have had a difficult time dreaming up. He was, among many other things, a mobster who prolifically read and wrote poetry, befriended movie stars and other celebrities, kept a pet lion in his hangout to intimidate his enemies, and was gunned down spectacularly in a clam bar. He was an outlaw, in the literal and figurative senses, if ever there were one, and Dylan’s affinity for such anti-heros just couldn’t pass this opportunity up.

As I’ve stated before, I’m not concerned with factual accuracy when it comes to Dylan’s portrayal of real-life figures; I’m only concerned with the effectiveness with which he tells his story. In Gallo, the songwriter had a character that allowed him to project all kinds of romantic notions of the gangster with a heart of gold. Some of these notions sway perilously close to cliché, but they play like a Hollywood scene that we’ve seen replayed a million times but still get caught up in it anyway.

Co-songwriter Jacques Levy’s theatrical leanings also have their perfect outlet in this song. All of the elements are there:  The rough-and-tumble childhood, the rise to power, the comeuppance at the hands of rival gangsters and cops, a period of reflection and self-improvement, and the untimely demise. There’s even an epilogue where his loved ones remember him fondly.

The music even plays like a soundtrack, with Scarlet Rivera’s violin and Dom Cortese’s accordion providing the romance while Howard Wyeth’s thudding drums portend the ominous fate of the hero. It’s all done in expert fashion, and Dylan sells the lyrics with just the right hints of admiration for his protagonist and disgust at those who wronged him.

Is there a lot of whitewashing involved in the storytelling? Seems to be. That’s not as damning, in my opinion, as the crawling pace, which sometimes casts a harsh light on the hamminess of the lyrics. As a poetry fan himself, Joe Gallo might have flinched a bit had he heard it. Of course, if you believe Bob and Jacques, Joey heard every word as he watched over the streets of New York from his new hangout in heaven.

Let’s hope somebody up there remembers to feed the lion.

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