Preserved in Desire (Bob Dylan)

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(Marking the death of Hurricane Carter, here’s a reprint of this piece from some years back reflecting on Bob Dylan’s songwriting around the time of his 1975 album, Desire.)

Bob Dylan Desire

Thanks to Jay for sending me links to two stories from (one and two) which ruminate on the case of Hurricane Carter, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the shootings in Paterson, New Jersey.

Just past 2:30 a.m., June 17, 1966, Paterson police detective Jim Lawless enters Lafayette Bar & Grill, 428 E. 18th St. A half dozen other officers are on their way to the scene.

Behind the long wooden counter, bartender James Oliver, 51, lies in his own blood, his spine severed by a blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. Dead.

Fred Nauyoks, 61, shot in the head, shot-gunned in the back, ice still melting in the drink in front of him, slumps onto the bar. Dead.

His friend, William Marins, shot in the head with a .32 caliber handgun, staggers around, blood flowing from his forehead and left eye. He dies in 1973, of unrelated causes.

Hazel Tanis, 51, hit in the left side with shotgun pellets and shot in the right breast, stomach, lower abdomen and genital area, has been rushed to a hospital. She lives, in severe pain in St. Joseph’s Hospital, for another month.

The articles take a fairly detailed and long view of the entire case, and are well worth reading if that interests you.

Relevant to Dylan’s famous song, there is this mention:

The New York Times features Carter in a front-page story in 1974, and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan brings out “Hurricane,” a decidedly one-sided account that includes the verse, “Here comes the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for somethin’ that he never done. Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been, the champion of the world.” It has at least one local side-effect: Patricia Valentine, a key witness, finds her dog dead outside her house. Someone puts a bullet through her front window.

It’s not clear how the direct link can be made between Dylan’s record and those attacks on Patricia Valentine, but there you go. There can be no doubt that “Miss Patty Valentine” felt oppressed at hearing her name pronounced on the airwaves in a very unflattering tone.

Certainly, “Hurricane” is a “one-sided account” of the controversy. And it would be hard to think of a ballad ever written to honor or defend someone that didn’t present a one-sided view. It would be strange indeed to hear a song with verse after verse of arguments presenting both the defense and prosecution cases, and ending with something like, “Now it’s up to you the listener to figure it out.” One would guess that Dylan himself hopes to this day that Rubin Carter was indeed innocent. Clearly he believed it at the time: “Hurricane” cannot be dismissed as merely an exercise in writing a very particular type of song (although I think it is also that); it was an unabashed joining of the battle to have him freed. It would be interesting to ask Dylan how he feels about it now. Of-course, he didn’t sit in the courtroom through all the trials and appeals, so he can’t be expected to deliver a detailed and balanced opinion. But the question would be what made him give himself over entirely to this particular cause (when he had most certainly been entreated in vain for the sake of many others) and does he feel any ambivalence about it all these decades later? He hasn’t performed the song publicly since 1975.

Whenever I think of the album Desire, I think of-course of “Hurricane,” and also of the song “Joey” (about the then recently killed gangster, Joey Gallo), and also the outtake (released latterly) “Catfish” (about the then first “million dollar baseball player,” Catfish Hunter). There is also the song “Sara,” about Bob’s then wife. You can view all of these songs as being somewhat of a piece: they are all songs which laud or glorify real flesh and blood people who are very much contemporary. All were living at the time, aside from Joey Gallo, who was at least not long cold (shot to death in Little Italy in 1972; Desire was recorded in 1975).

It’s difficult to see all of this as coincidence. Bob Dylan—aided and abetted by co-writer Jacques Levy—must have been interested in the challenge of writing songs about real, contemporary persons which idealized them and lifted them beyond the mundane, the ambiguous and the complex. It’s one thing to write such a song about “Billy” the Kid, or about “John Wesley Harding”;those characters are long since dead, and it’s long since ceased to matter to most everyone what the truth was about their lives and motivations. All that matters in those cases is the quality of the particular re-telling of the story.

Bob Dylan Desire rear cover

“Catfish” is a song about James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter, a right-handed pitcher in the U.S. Major Baseball Leagues from 1965 to 1979. Particularly noteworthy—and contemporaneous to the writing of Dylan’s song—is the fact that he became the first “free agent” of the modern baseball era, thanks to a finding by an arbitrator that the owner of the Oakland Athletics (Charles Finley) had breached the Fish’s contract by neglecting to make payments to his life insurance policy. Two weeks after being granted free agency, Hunter signed with the New York Yankees for $3.75 million dollars—by far the largest contract ever obtained by a baseball player at that time. Hence:

Used to work on Mr. Finley’s farm
But the old man wouldn’t pay
So he packed his glove and took his arm
An’ one day he just ran away.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Come up where the Yankees are,
Dress up in a pinstripe suit,
Smoke a custom-made cigar,
Wear an alligator boot.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

(I love that line: “packed his glove and took his arm;” as if he carried his arm separately, unattached to his body. A perfect image to apply to a pitcher.)

Now, it’s a given for many people that baseball players, along with lots of other professional sports people, are grossly overpaid in this day and age. Catfish Hunter can almost be said to have initiated the age of exorbitant salaries. Surely many people at the time questioned whether someone should be paid $3.75 million dollars for throwing a ball. Catfish was good (he won 21 or more games each year between 1971 and 1975) but he’s not considered to be the greatest pitcher of all time or even a contender. Yet, what’s the angle taken in Dylan’s song? There’s no back-biting over the Fish’s then enormous salary. It is only introduced as a source of honor: he’s a “million-dollar man.” Catfish is portrayed in Homeric terms. When Catfish is on the mound, it’s the same old story all the time: “‘Strike three,’ the umpire said, / Batter have to go back and sit down.” He’s not merely another pitcher. He’s more like an invincible force of nature. Dylan is writing this song while Hunter is still pitching, of-course—very shortly after he signed with Yankees. Yet, he’s seemingly writing it from the point of view of centuries hence, erecting a statue in song to the great pitching maestro, Catfish Hunter. Next year, Catfish might have lost his mojo and fallen to ignominy (although he didn’t) and Dylan’s song might have appeared ridiculous. But that wasn’t the point. Dylan didn’t care what Catfish might be next year; he cared about the Catfish at the peak of his powers that he was memorializing in this song in 1975.

“Sara” is the one song of the four that is written about someone that Dylan really knows. You might even say that he knows this person all too well. It’s presumed by the world that Dylan’s previous album, Blood on the Tracks, was inspired by problems in his marriage with Sara. Desire was the next album Dylan recorded, and, while Blood on the Tracks never mentioned Sara’s name or included any conclusively “confessional” songs, Desire includes this naked song of love and need which actually names names. Now, we can assume that Dylan knew plenty of negatives about his wife at this stage, and she knew the same about him, since they were (and are) human beings. Yet, this song is not about scoring points or finding flaws. Interspersed with verses which nostalgically paint pictures of their romantic and family life together are these refrains which lift the subject of the song to a very high pedestal indeed:

Sara, Sara,
Sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life,
Sara, Sara,
Radiant jewel, mystical wife.

Sara, oh Sara,
Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress,
Sara, Sara,
You must forgive me my unworthiness.

Sara, oh Sara,
Glamorous nymph with an arrow and bow,
Sara, oh Sara,
Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go.

Does this mean that Dylan saw only the good about Sara, and any conflict was a thing of the past? Well, hardly (their divorce became final about three years later). But that is not to say that what he was saying about Sara here was untrue or insincere. It was a truth: an aspect of the truth, but no less true on its own terms for being only a part of the picture.

“Joey” is the one song of this group that Dylan has continued performing publicly (as recently as 2004). That’s all the more interesting, since, at the time, it was probably the song that generated the greatest controversy. The rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a famous piece criticizing Dylan for falling for “mafia chic” and painting an absurdly rosy picture of the thuggish Joey Gallo.

In 1981, Dylan was asked about various songs he had written honoring outlaws, and the subject of “Joey” came up.

Dylan: … I don’t know if the people I write about have high moral standards, I don’t know if Robin Hood did, but you always assumed that they did.

Herman: You assume that Joey Gallo did?

Dylan: In some kind of way you have to assume that he did, in some kind of area. It’s like … I’ve never written a song about some rapers, you know. I think what I intend to do is just show the individualism of that certain type of breed, or certain type of person that must do that. But there is some type of standard I have for whoever I’m writing about. I mean, it amazes me that I wrote a song about Joey Gallo.

Herman: But you did!

Dylan: Yeah!

Herman: A long one too.

Dylan: Very long one. How long was that? About a half hour?

Herman: About eleven minutes.

Dylan: Yeah, well I feel that if I didn’t do it, who would?


The hostages were tremblin’ when they heard a man exclaim,
“Let’s blow this place to kingdom come, let Con Edison take the blame.”
But Joey stepped up, he raised his hand, said, “We’re not those kind of men.
It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again.”

Joey, Joey,
King of the streets, child of clay.
Joey, Joey,
What made them want to come and blow you away?

Dylan clearly wasn’t writing about Joey Gallo as a historical person, with a journalistic eye on accuracy. He didn’t know him. He was seizing on an idea of Joey Gallo that caught his imagination: Joey Gallo as a man of high principle, a man who loved his family, did what he had to do to get by in the world, and was framed, trapped and ultimately killed by more unscrupulous enemies. Is this how Joey saw himself? Maybe. But that’s not the point in the end either. The point is that out of this mélange Dylan wrought a song, this ballad of a man named Joey, which immortalizes a certain image of him, and is a kind of cry against injustice for all similarly cornered, tragic and confused sinners. All of us, that is. “What made them want to come and blow you away?” Well, there were doubtless lots of things that made his enemies want to shoot him. And most of us deserve a pretty good punishment too. The song, however, is about the Joey we’d like to be: the Joey with a sense of compassion for those trembling hostages, the Joey who was a friend of oppressed “black men” in jail, the Joey who “dressed like Jimmy Cagney,” the Joey who thought children shouldn’t know of violence, and the Joey who used his last energies to push over that table and shield his family.

From the Hurricane, to Catfish, Sara and Joey: Dylan was clearly plying a certain groove on those Desire sessions. Each song is different (and in my view “Joey” is the greatest of the four), but each is aiming at immortalizing a certain idealized image of a contemporary and obviously flawed human being. It’s not journalism. It is balladry. Some may say it’s poetry. “Hurricane,” as I said above, was intended as a genuine contribution to Carter’s cause and so is certainly more than merely an exercise in this kind of songwriting, but it is that too. Even Rubin Carter’s staunchest supporters may have grinned when they heard a verse like this about the boxer:

Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
But he never did like to talk about it all that much.
It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay
And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
Up to some paradise
Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
And ride a horse along a trail.
But then they took him to the jailhouse
Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.

Dylan gives us Rubin Carter as a peace-loving American cowboy, riding along an idyllic trail. That is of-course a wonderful and dramatic way of contrasting freedom in the open air with the confines of a dark, cramped cell, and it works, as does the song as a whole. “Hurricane,” with its amazing laying out of the crime, the characters and the case, comes closest to that line separating balladry or poetry from the newspaper article or mere polemic, but, I think, it does not quite cross it (although it certainly must have seemed to at the time to the people who were named in it). It stands up, perhaps all the better now for the distance of the years, and, despite the ambiguities still surrounding the case, it will remain a remarkable example of a very particular kind of songwriting being practiced in earnest by a very particular songwriter.