Lawsuit Over Bob Dylan Catalog Sale Revolves Around 1976 ‘Desire’ Album

If you were picking big stories in music industry for 2020, you’d have to point to the song catalog sales by Stevie Nicks and Bob Dylan, followed by Neil Young in early ’21. With musicians unable to perform live, many artists from the ’60s and ’70s decided to cash out. (Shakira did as well.)

Judging by media reports, it appears Dylan’s sale involved the biggest windfall of the bunch. According to an analyst who spoke with The Washington Post, complete control of Dylan’s publishing rights could have cost Universal Music more than $300 million.

But while Dylan wrote nearly all of his songs alone, several he composed with Jacques Levy (1935-2004) in the mid-’70s went into the Universal deal. Claudia Levy, executor of her late husband’s estate, filed suit in Jan. 2021 seeking $7.25 million for Levy’s compositions and $2 million in damages.

Mrs. Levy’s complaint, previously reported by the New York Post, entered the New York Supreme Court docket Jan. 20. The bulk of Levy’s work with Dylan appeared on the 1976 album Desire.

Jacques Levy’s estate sued Bob Dylan over payment for 10 songs including ‘Hurricane’ from ‘Desire’

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter greets Bob Dylan after a benefit concert in 1975. | Bettmann

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If you’ve ever picked up the Desire album cover and wondered about Levy (who’d previously written with Roger McGuinn), you’re not alone. Levy played a key role on Desire, co-writing seven of its nine tracks. That includes “Isis,” “Romance in Durango,” and “Hurricane,” a top-40 hit for Dylan in Jan. ’76.

Levy also co-wrote three other lesser-known songs with Dylan that did not appear on Desire. According to the suit, Levy’s estate did not received its agreed-upon 35% share for income derived from the sale of the 10 songs in the Universal deal. Therefore, it’s seeking $1.75 million in compensation and $2 million in damages from Dylan.

In addition, Levy’s estate is seeking $3.5 million from Universal in connection to the deal. The complaint used $300 million as an estimate for the catalog sale, so that amount may go higher if and when the case proceeds in court.

Furthermore, the complaint highlighted a pattern of Dylan minimizing — even excluding — the contribution of Levy to Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which Levy directed in ’75 and ’76.

The Levy estate suit includes several accounts of Dylan leaning on Levy while composing songs for ‘Desire’

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform as part of the “Rolling Thunder Revue,” December 1975. | Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

As court documents go, the Levy estate’s complaint is a fun read. It includes accounts by Dylan, Levy, and Desire bassist Rob Stoner about the songwriting process. One passage includes Levy recalling Dylan’s struggles to put his feelings about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter into song.

Levy, a theater director, came up with an opening he thought sounded like a stage direction: “Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night.” The complaint also included a quote from Dylan Larry Sloman included in On the Road with Bob Dylan (1978).

At first, Dylan didn’t think he had enough material for an album. Then he played something for Levy and asked for feedback. “He took it someplace else,” Dylan told Sloman. “Then I took it someplace else. […] Then he went further, and I went further.”

Stoner recalled Dylan conferring with Levy in the studio following every take — and Levy offering new ideas, which Dylan often accepted. “Those dudes trusted each other on a very high creative level,” Stoner said in a quote cited by the complaint. We’ll have to watch how the suit plays out in the coming months.