It has not taken long for the multi-million dollar sale of Bob Dylan’s songwriting catalogue to bring out the first skeletons from his creative closet.
The wife and publishing company of Jacques Levy, who is credited with co-writing seven of the nine songs on Dylan’s epic album Desire, are suing the music legend for $US7.25m. The lawsuit comes six weeks after it was disclosed that Dylan had sold his catalogue of songs to Universal Music for a reported value of more than $US300m.
The claim states the Levy estate was not compensated after the Universal deal and now want “their rightful share” of the sale from both Dylan and the Universal Music Group.
Levy, a theatre director who died of cancer in 2004, co-wrote the lyrics to “Hurricane,” “Isis,” “Mozambique,” “Oh, Sister,” “Joey,” “Romance in Durango” and “Black Diamond Bay.” - all included on Desire, released in January 1976. The court papers also list four other songs – “Catfish,” “Money Blues,” “Rita Mae,” “A Bedtime story” – as being co-written by the pair.
Though Desire got mixed reviews from the critics, the suit highlights that it topped the Billboard Pop Album chart for five weeks, went double platinum, and was ranked 174th on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
The lawsuit, which claims Dylan owes Levy’s family 35% of income from the songs, stated that Dylan’s associates had “refused to remit their rightful share of the revenue and/or income earned from the catalogue sale with respect to the compositions.”
“The Dylan defendants have engaged in a civilly wrong pattern and history of intentionally and maliciously ignoring and disregarding plaintiff’s rights, including those to income and any and all revenue generated by the compositions, including the subject buy-out of the catalogue sale,” the suit states.
Dylan’s lawyer Orin Snyder wasted no time in issuing a strong statement: “This lawsuit is a sad attempt to unfairly profit off of the recent catalogue sale. The plaintiffs have been paid everything they are owed. We are confident that we will prevail. And when we do, we will hold plaintiffs and their counsel responsible for bringing this meritless case.”
Levy earned a Ph.D in psychology from Michigan State University in 1961. He then practised as a clinical psychologist in New York, but was increasingly fascinated by the theatre scene. By the middle of the decade he had switched his talents fulltime to theatre directing and found success in 1969 when he directed the off-Broadway erotic revue Oh Calcutta.
During this time he became friends with Roger McGuinn, lead singer of The Byrds who had found fame with country-rock interpretations of early Dylan classics like “Mr Tambourine Man” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” McGuinn and Levy would co-write a number of songs in the 70’s, including The Byrds’ hit “Chestnut Mare,” as well as directing a less-than-successful musical together.
In the spring of 1974, McGuinn introduced Levy to Dylan. The pair would quickly cement a friendship and Levy would become the stage director of both the 1975 and 1976 legs of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review performances.
Interestingly, it was the film The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, released by Netflix two years ago, that unveiled Levy family criticism of how Jacques was being treated by Dylan associates. Family members complained that Levy had been erased from Martin Scorsese’s record of the theatrical tour which mixed archival footage with fictional elements.
Last November, Levy’s widow Claudia, lead plaintiff in the latest suit, told a Bob Dylan fan newsletter she was disappointed Scorsese had used a fictional character as the tour’s director.
“It just pains me no end that Scorsese took Jacques out of that film and had these people who are just really absurd in there. It totally changes the feeling of what that tour was like. It makes it feel that that there was some kind of dissension and tension, and that was never true. It was never true,” said Claudia who had accompanied Jacques on the entire Rolling Thunder tour.
The latest complaint notes that Levy’s estate was not originally paid synchronization license fees in connection with the use of the Levy’s songs in the Netflix documentary. They were eventually paid, but only after a demand in 2020.
In January 1975, Dylan released his acclaimed album, Blood on the Tracks, and by the middle of the year, he started work on songs for a follow-up release. In July he asked Levy, who was now involved in the Rolling Thunder tour, to help him write some lyrics.
Levy said later: First of all it got me a little nervous … You know I write the lyrics, I don’t write the music. I said to him – and it was very funny at the time, though I didn’t know how funny it will be now – I said ‘You know I write the lyrics, I don’t write the music.’ It never dawned on me that he was going to ask me to write lyrics for him.”
The pair would leave New York City for a cottage in East Hampton where, for three weeks, they collaborated to finish off 14 songs, seven for Desire. The only two on the album not involving Levy were “One More Cup of Coffee,” which Dylan completed some months earlier, and “Sara,” the song he wrote for his wife soon after their separation.
There is no doubt that Levy had a profound influence on the narrative nature of several songs on the Desire playlist. The most obvious were the real-life ballads “Hurricane,” about the wrongfully imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and “Joey,” an ode to the Brooklyn Mafia hitman Joe “Crazy Joe” Gallo.
“Hurricane,” the provocative opening track, sees Dylan returning to the protest songs from his early career. Though it was criticised for taking liberties with the truth, the song descriptively takes the listener to the night of June 17, 1966, and a New Jersey bar, the scene of the crime of murder for which Carter was accused.
The opening is tantalizingly impulsive: Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/
Enter Patty Valentine from the end of the hall/ She sees the bartender in a pool of blood/
Cries out, "My God, they killed them all!"/Here comes the story of the Hurricane
As the eight-and-a-half minute song continues, the rhyming gets brutal: All of Rubin's cards were marked in advance/ The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance/ The judge made Rubin's witnesses drunkards from the slums/ To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum/ And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger/ No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
The lyrics of “Joey” - an eleven-minute, twelve-verse ballad - also have descriptive elements not evident in the more mystical songs Dylan wrote by himself for Blood on the Tracks. One can only speculate that Levy was setting the lyrical agenda with the peculiar storytelling so evident on Desire.
Here again, there is a once-upon-a-time opening: Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when/ Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion/ Always on the outside of whatever side there was/ When they asked him why it had to be that way, "Well," he answered, "just because."
One stanza is just downright smart: 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."/He did ten years in Attica, reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich
Despite the intoxicating language, the song had its critics, chiefly high-profile Lester Bangs, who, after listening to “Joey”, described it as “one of the most mindlessly amoral pieces of repellently romanticist bullshit ever recorded.”
The most mesmerizing track on Desire is the haunting “Romance in Durango”, helped somewhat by astonishing backing-vocals from Emmylou Harris and the violin of Scarlet Rivera. It has been openly acknowledged over the years that Levy wrote most of the lyrics for this ballad about a Mexican bandit and his lover on the run in Durango.
He was no doubt mindful that, a few years earlier, Dylan had appeared in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which had been filmed in Durango, Mexico. But Levy later explained that the evocative opening – Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun/Dust on my face and my cape/
Me and Magdalena on the run/I think this time we shall escape - was actually inspired by a postcard he had received featuring a “Mexican shack with a bunch of peppers on the roof in the sun.”
Whatever the outcome of the family lawsuit, the fact is that it has drawn attention to Levy’s collaboration with Dylan. There will always be a debate as to what exactly Levy contributed to the listed co-written songs. But we do know that on Desire alone there is a lyrical attitude and boundless metaphors missing from other Dylan albums.
Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation.