Whenever Bob Dylan puts out a new album, it is sure to generate a lot of talk. What is he thinking, what is he saying, what does he mean? A cynical person might respond that he releases these things, no matter how sloppy they are and no matter how long we might have to wait for something half-baked, precisely so people will keep talking about him. History is, after all, a rather gray address. It is automatically assumed that every Bob Dylan album is an event, but there are times — the Rolling Thunder tour is probably a good example — when our sense of the enterprise in question as an event eclipses whatever significance and integrity it might possess.
As for Desire, much has been made of Dylan’s support of Hurricane Carter’s defense, and of his return to topical songwriting in general, but I think there are grounds for questioning his motives. Does Bob Dylan really care about Hurricane Carter, Joey Gallo, and, in retrospect, George Jackson, or might not our same hypothetical cynic contend that he is merely using all these people to insure his own continuing “relevance”? The answer can only he found in Dylan’s handling of these people in the songs which purport to convey the folk/street truth behind the headlines. I am not so much interested in Rubin Carter — and I think most listeners would have to admit that they feel the same way — as I am in whether Bob Dylan is being straight with me or not. The man does, after all, have a reputation second only to David Bowie’s for image-mongering, and second to none for mythmaking. One tends to wonder if the myths he has made, even when they deal with actual historical personages, might not devolve to an endless alienated outlaw narcissism; if he has not, in fact, been talking about himself all the way down the road. I believe that; I don’t think he is being straight with his audience anywhere on Desire, but is rather exploiting both them and the subjects of his songs to keep his own image polished.
I think you can find all the evidence you need in Desire’s longest cut, the ponderous sloppy, numbingly boring 11-minute ballad “Joey,” about yet another folk hero/loser/martyr, mobster “Crazy Joey” Gallo, who was murdered by other mafiosi in Little Italy in 1972.
During the ’60s, there were five Mafia “families” dividing up the pie of various turfs and rackets in New York City, under the control of one Godfather-like “boss of bosses.” Although the modern Mafia encourages more of a “businessman” image and tries to play down the bloodletting, the families are usually fighting among themselves for greater power and influence, and one of the most successful families during the ’60s was the Profaci family, which later became the Colombo family. In intermittent but very bloody opposition to them was the Gallo family, led by the brothers Larry, Joey, and Albert “Kid Blast” Gallo, who were never quite able to attain equivalent power even though they remained the overlords of one small section of Brooklyn. According to a detailed analysis of mob warfare by Fred J. Cook in the June 4, 1972, New York Times, “The severe bloodletting in the Profaci-Colombo family began when the greed of the Gallo brothers set them lusting after [the former’s] power. Indeed it touched them with the kind of madness that drives a shark berserk in a blood-stained-sea,” and the Gallos tried every lethal ploy that they could think of to muscle their way into a bigger piece of the action. In October 1957, according to some reports, Joey Gallo acted on a Profaci contract and blasted the notorious Albert Anastasia, one time lord of Murder, Inc., out of his barber’s chair in a celebrated rub-out, thus paving the way for Carlo Gambino to become, and remain, boss of bosses through the ’60s and early ’70s. But the Gallos never found any more favor with Gambino than they had with his predecessors, so they embarked on an all-out war with the Profacis that lasted from 1961–63; though there were no real winners, the Gallos were no match either in numbers or tactically for the Profacis, and the war ended in early 1962 when Crazy Joe Gallo was sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison for extortion, and, a few months later, Joseph Profaci died of cancer.
While Joe Gallo was in prison, he read extensively, becoming a sort of jailhouse intellectual, and when he was finally released in 1970 he began to cultivate contacts in the literary and show business worlds, who welcomed him to their parties and obviously considered him an exotic amusement indeed. Jimmy Breslin’s book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, had been inspired by the legendary ineptitude of the Gallo family in their early-’60s bids for power, and Joey developed close contacts with Jerry Orbach, who played a character corresponding to him in the movie based on the book, and his wife Marta, with whom, in the last months of his life, Joey began collaborating on various autobiographical literary projects. Out of Radical Chic bloomed Mafia Chic; he became something of an above-ground social figure, and told columnist Earl Wilson that he was ‘”going straight.”
Apparently that was a lie, however. While Joey was in prison, his gang languishing and awaiting his return, a new figure had arisen from the Profaci ranks to bring New York mob power to a whole new, all but avant-garde level: Joe Colombo. Colombo founded the Italian American Civil Rights League, an organization ostensibly devoted to deploring and “legitimately” opposing the “prejudice” which caused most Americans to link mob activities with citizens of Italian descent. Between 150,000 and 250,000 Italian-Americans ultimately joined the league, and the impact on politicians was considerable, which was how Nelson Rockefeller and Louis Lefkowitz ended up having their pictures taken with underworld toughs. Joey Gallo returned from prison with his power on his own turf intact but of course completely cut out of the Colombo empire. On June 28, 1971, Joe Colombo was gunned down by a supposedly lone and uncontracted black man in front of thousands of his horrified followers at a rally in Columbus Circle. The consensus was that Crazy Joey was behind it, especially since he’d perplexed other mafiosos by hanging out with black prisoners during his stay in the joint, and ostensibly aimed to start a black mob, under his control, when he got out. According to many inside sources, there was a contract out on Gallo from the day Colombo was shot, and on April 7, 1972, as he celebrated his 43rd birthday in Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, an anonymous hit-man walked in off the street and shot Crazy Joey to death much as Joey himself claimed to have murdered Albert Anastasia. It was the end of a gang war that had lasted almost a decade and a half — a few more of their henchmen were disposed of, and the Gallo family was decimated, their power gone. Mobsters in general breathed a collective sigh of relief — the Gallos had always been hungry troublemakers — and went back to business as usual.
It is out of this fairly typical tale of mob power-jostlings that Dylan has, unaccountably, woven “Joey,” which paints a picture of Joey Gallo as alienated antihero reminiscent of West Side Story’s “Gee, Officer Krupke!” lyrics — “He ain’t no delinquent, he’s misunderstood.”
Always on the outside of whatever side there was
When they asked him why it had to be that way
Well, the answer — just because
Joey Gallo was a psychopath, as his biographer, Donald Goddard, confirms, although the analyst who examined him while he was in prison diagnosed Joey’s disease as “pseudopsychopathic schizophrenia.” Joey’s answer: “Fuck you. Things are not right or wrong anymore. Just smart or stupid. You don’t judge an act by its nature. You judge it by results. We’re all criminals now… Things exist when I feel they should exist, okay? Me. I am the world.” Toward the end of his life, his wife routinely fed him Thorazine, which he docilely took, even though it still didn’t stop him from beating the shit out of her.
Dylan then goes on to paint a romantic, sentimental picture of Joey and his brothers in the gang:
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.
Well, according to the DA at Joey’s early-’60s extortion trial, “In the current war taking place between the Gallo gang and established interests, there have been killings, shootings, strangling, kidnappings, and disappearances, all directly involving the Gallos. Interestingly enough, since the defendant’s being remanded on November 14 in this case, there have been no known offensive actions taken by the Gallos in this dispute. This would give some credence to the belief that Joe Gallo, is, in reality, the sparkplug and enforcer of the mob.” But who believes DAs, right? Okay, try his ofttimes enormously sympathetic biographer:
“Almost all the charges ever brought against him, even in the beginning, were dismissed. No witnesses. Once people got to know that careless talk was liable to bring Joe Gallo around to remonstrate and maybe make his point with an ice pick, witnesses in Brooklyn became as scarce as woodpeckers. Once the story got around that Joey had gripped a defaulter’s forearm by the wrist and elbow and broken it over the edge of a desk to remind him that his account was past due, the Gallos had very few cash-flow problems with their gambling, loan-sharking, and protection business.”
Later in the song Dylan asserts that “The police department hounded him.” Considering the number of rackets that the Gallos were involved in, nothing could be further from the truth. Goddard:
“Right from the start, relations between the Pizza Squad [NYC anti-Mafia cop team] and the Gallo gang had been imbued with a grudging professional respect, which, in certain cases, shaded into something close to affection. They played the game by the rules.” Adds a cop:
‘They’re a peculiar mob… They knew what we had to do and they weren’t going to question it. They treated us like gentlemen. That don’t make them good guys, but they had a little more savvy [than the Colombos]. It was like ‘Why stir the pot? If you’re going to be down here, let’s make it pleasant for both of us.’ It’s a game. If you get caught, you get caught.”
Perhaps most curiously of all, Dylan says that “They got him on conspiracy/They were never sure who with.” Funny, because everybody from Goddard to the courts and cops agree that Joey’s downfall came when, early in May 1961, he tried to muscle in on a loan shark named Teddy Moss. Moss resisted, and, in the presence of undercover cops, Joey said “Well, if he needs some time to think it over, we’ll put him in the hospital for four or five months, and that’ll give him time.”
But how can Dylan have a martyred Mafioso without an evil judge:
“What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met
“Five to ten,” said Joey
The judge says, “That’s exactly what you get.”
This is what, for want of a better phrase, must be termed poetic license. The truth is that Joey’s lawyer was as lame as his gang, and never made it up from Florida for his trial, and Joe refused to have anything to do with the two other lawyers appointed to represent him, choosing to stand mute while the DA delivered a steady stream of evidence that was pretty solid in the first place and never disputed. That Joey allowed this to happen suggests, not that he was railroaded, but merely that he was incredibly stupid. Goddard:
“Readily concurring that Joey was ‘a menace to the community,’ Judge Sarafite chalked up the first victory in the attorney general’s [Robert Kennedy, who once branded Joey Public Enemy No. 1] assault on organized crime by handing down the maximum sentence of seven and one-quarter to fourteen and one-half years’ imprisonment.”
Dylan: “…10 years in Attica/Reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich.” He also read Freud, Plato, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, John Dewey, Bergson, Santayana, Herbert Spencer, William James, Voltaire, Diderot, Pascal, Locke, Spengler, Wilde, Keats, Shakespeare, Goethe, Will Durant, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Adenauer, de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Clarence Darrow, and Louis Nizer, as well as taking part in a homosexual gang rape about which he bragged at a cocktail party after his release:
“He described how, with several other convicts, he had spotted a pretty young boy among a new batch of prisoners and laid in wait for him. Dragging him into the Jewish chapel, they ripped his pants off and were struggling to hold him down when one of them heard the rabbi talking in the next room. A knife was immediately put at their victim’s throat with a whispered warning not to cry out, and the rape proceeded in an orderly fashion, each man taking his turn in order of seniority. They wanted this kid, Joey said, while his asshole was still tight.”
This was most likely not, however, the reason that (according to Dylan) “his closest friends were black men.” It was “Cause they seemed to understand what it’s like to be in society/With a shackle on your hand.” And also, as previously stated, because Joey for a while entertained dreams of launching a black Mafia when he got out. The psychoanalyst who interviewed Joey in prison voices agreement with Dylan in more clinical terms, but adds “Joey was a terrifically prejudiced guy… on a strictly, and deeply, personal level, he was a knee-jerk nigger-hater,” and also allows that it was “entirely possible” that “I was conned by one of the greatest con artists of all times.”
After Joey is finally sprung, Dylan has him blessing both the beasts and children: “’Twas true that in his later years/He would not carry a gun.” Of course not; no Mafia chieftain ever has, unless in unusually dire fear for his life. The cops would like nothing better than to send one of these guys up on a carrying concealed weapons rap, and anyway that’s what the wall of protective muscle that accompanies them everywhere is for.
“ ‘I’m around too many children,’ he’d say/‘They should never know of one.’ ” Again true — mob leaders have always been scrupulous about keeping their wives and children universes removed from the everyday brutality of their work. Anybody who saw The Godfather knows that. But as for Joey’s magical touch with children, let his daughter, Joie, speak: “He would come home and say, ‘Make me some coffee,’ And I would say, ‘Daddy, I have homework. Can I do it later?’ ‘No. Now.’ It was like I was refusing him, and nobody ever did that. He was the king, and I couldn’t stand it… He used to abuse Mommy terribly, and I resented him coming between us. He broke her ribs once… I used to complain to Mommy about him and bug her to leave him. ‘What a man you picked,’ I’d say. ‘Who’d want to live with that maniac? You’ve got to be crazy to put up with this.’ So then I’d divorce him as my father. I’d take a piece of paper and draw a very fancy certificate that said, ‘I, Joie Gallo, hereby divorce Joey Gallo as my father.’ ”
Joey, Joey… what made them want to come and blow you away?
There are several theories in answer to that question. The most prevalent was that, since most people took it for granted that Joey was behind the shooting of Joe Colombo almost a year before, there was an open contract out on Gallo by the Colombo family, meaning that Joey had effectively committed suicide in having Colombo shot. Two other theories advanced by investigators extremely close to the case have Gallo once again trying to muscle in on territory occupied by other, more powerful mob factions. In one case, he could have told two thugs to crack a safe for $55,000 in Ferrara’s Pastry Shop in Little Italy, a landmark frequented by Vinnie Aloi, at that time a very powerful capo in the New York Mafia. This would certainly have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to the mob bosses’ patience with Gallo’s hustles, as would another incident reported in the June 4, 1972, New York Times:
“Three weeks prior to Gallo’s getting killed, he, Frank (Punchy) Illiano and John (Mooney) Cutrone went out to the San Susan nightclub in Mineola, L.I., in which John Franzese [another powerful capo in the Colombo family] is reported to have a hidden interest. Joey is reported to have grabbed the manager and said, ‘This joint is mine. Get out.’ In other words, he was cutting himself in. This was the first sign we had that Crazy Joe was acting up again.”
In any case, any of these courses of action (and Gallo may well have undertaken all three) amounted to signing his own death warrant. An interesting sidelight is that at this time Joey was broke, practically reduced to the shame of living off his bride of three weeks; his mother had already mortgaged her house and hocked her furniture to pay for bail bonds. Meanwhile, of course, he had begun to hang out with what Goddard calls “the show-biz, tablehopping cheek-peckers’ club”: Jerry and Marta Orbach, the Ben Gazzaras, Neil Simon, David Steinberg, Joan Hackett and her husband — people that, as his bride Sina warned him, “might be exploiting him for the thrill of having a real live gangster empty their ashtrays and talk about life and art.” Marta Orbach told him Viking Press was interested in publishing whatever literary collaboration he could cook up with her, so they began making daily tape recordings of his reminiscences at her house. At first it was supposed to be a black comedy about prison life, but then there was talk of an outright autobiography and even a meeting with an MGM representative to discuss selling it to the movies — so there is also the remaining possibility, as a final theory, that just about anybody in the underworld, getting wind of this might be nervous enough about possible indiscretions to want him snuffed.
The two key points here are that (a) by this time he was totally pathetic (Goddard: “He had outgrown the old life. To allow himself to be forced back into it was unthinkable — a submission to circumstance, a confession of failure. As for his new life, the prospect was hardly less humiliating. It entailed another kind of surrender — to show-biz society and public opinion. His self-esteem would depend, not on his power and sovereign will, but on how long an ex-gangster could stay in fashion. Like an ex-prizefighter, he might even be reduced someday to making yogurt commercials.”), and (b) Dylan got even the very last second of Gallo’s life wrong: “He could see it coming through the door as he lifted up his fork.” Gallo was shot from behind. So all that remains now is the question to Bob Dylan: Why? Although that is one that I doubt he is going to answer, I was able to get through to his collaborator on “Joey” and the rest of Desire, Jacques Levy, who explained the way he and Dylan had worked on the album, and had a ready defense for the lionization of Joey Gallo: “Bob liked the work I’d done with [Roger] McGuinn, said, ‘Let’s get together and see what happens.’ So we’d sit around tossing ideas back and forth until a song was finished. Bob would have an idea, or I would have an idea, and we would write the songs together, throwing lines, words, rhymes, plot schemes back and forth. It wasn’t even a case of writing every other line.
“I suggested the Joey song to Bob; I took him to dinner with Jerry and Marta Orbach, we told him about Joey, and he became excited about the prospect of the song. I don’t think he ever read much more about Joey than what most people did; but we had all known Joey very well, and told Bob all about him. You know, Bob has always had a thing about outlaws, people on the outside of whatever side there was. Would you call John Wesley Harding [sic] a small-time hoodlum? I think calling Joey that is labeling 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 family in the Mafia sense. Yeah, he was a victim of society — of growing up poor, and if you look at the results of the Gallo-Profaci war, say, you’ll find that it’s never been proved that the Gallos killed anybody, but plenty of Joey’s people got killed. And I don’t think he set up Joe Colombo. If there was a vicious side of Joey, I think that people like myself, the Orbachs, people who were around him for at least a year before he died, would have seen it come out.”
But, I interjected, Joey himself bragged that he had killed Albert Anastasia. Levy almost laughed: “That was Joey’s wise-guy side bragging about something like that is not proof of having done it. That was Joey posing as the tough guy, the Hollywood Richard Widmark–Jimmy Cagney stereotype.”
Levy and I ended up agreeing that we would never agree on this subject. He had known Joey; all I had were the biased accounts of Donald Goddard, Joey’s ex-wife and first daughter, journalists, cops, and judges. The reader can draw his own conclusions, although I do think that Dylan can stand accused of not doing his homework. But then he’s a poet, and poets aren’t expected to do homework, right? It seems to me that the reason why Dylan’s Joey is so at variance with most accounts of Gallo is the same as the reason Dylan doesn’t like to do retakes of his songs — he is simply lazy. I also think Desire is an exploitation record, that the answer to the question, “What is Dylan thinking? is that he is not thinking at all, and that the only thing remaining is to suggest antihero fodder for future Dylan compositional products: Elmer Wayne Henley, William Calley, Arthur Bremer, and that kid who tried to rob a bank at 13th Street and Sixth Avenue and ended up drunkenly requesting replays of the Grateful Dead on the radio. Certainly they all qualify as alienated victims of our sick society, every bit as much on the outside as Joey Gallo.
One does wonder, however, what Gallo would have made of Dylan’s tribute to him; and one receives a possible answer in Goddard’s book, where Gallo’s ex-wife describes borrowing a hundred bucks from Joey’s father to buy records so that the Prince of Brooklyn, always a fan of contemporary music, could catch up on what had been happening in soundsville during the decade he’d been away reading Reich in the slams: “He got especially mad over a Byrds album called ‘Chestnut Mare’ that I wanted him to hear. ‘Listen to the lyrics,’ I said. ‘They’re so pretty and well done.’ ‘I don’t want to hear any fags singing about any fucking horse,’ he says — and he’s really venomous. ‘It’s not about a fucking horse,’ I said. ‘If you’ll listen, it’s about life.’ But he doesn’t want to hear about life either.… Next thing I know, he jumps out of the bathtub, snatched the record off the machine, stomps out in the hall stark-naked, and pitches it down the incinerator.”
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 8, 2020