Joey Gallo and the Jukebox Gangsters of Red Hook, Brooklyn

In 1971 a charismatic and brainy gangster named Joey Gallo returned home to New York City after ten years in jail, intending to resume the war for control over the Profaci mafia family that had sent him to jail in the first place. Joey Gallo and his brothers Larry and Kid Blast did not seem to have great instincts as gangsters, and never rose high in the serious business of organized crime. But Joey was a natural-born celebrity, with an uncanny knack for calling attention to himself. Over a decade earlier, he got a proud showing in Robert Kennedy’s book about crimefighting, The Enemy Within, and even seemed to get the better of the future Attorney General and Presidential candidate in Kennedy’s own book.

The New York newspapers couldn’t get enough of the fun-loving Gallo mobsters, who mostly shot and got shot by other mobsters, and in the early 1970s Jimmy Breslin wrote a book about them, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which got turned into a Mafia movie just before a much better movie called The Godfather was released. It’s been completely forgotten today, but the movie version of Breslin’s book starred a then-unknown Robert DeNiro as a member of the inept gang.

And Joey Gallo is back again as the subject of a lively biography by Tom Folsom, The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld. This book connects Joey Gallo’s wandering intellect to its sources, from the gangster movies that inspired him to the Beatnik scene that enthralled him during his early years running a jukebox and vending machine service from Red Hook, Brooklyn during the late 1950s.

Gallo had particularly great taste in existential philosophy, counting Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Reich and Albert Camus among his favorites. Folsom’s book breezes through Gallo’s fast life and doesn’t try to deconstruct what these writers might have meant to the striving gangster. It reads like a collage, skipping merrily from past to present, connecting lots of dots, from the famous Albert Anastasia barbershop shooting in the 1950s to the prison race riots of the 1960s (Gallo was an early believer in racial harmony) to the cozy Greenwich Village theater scene of the 1970s, where Gallo mingled with the likes of Jerry Orbach, Gay Talese and Neil Simon before he was shot to death in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy one late evening after enjoying a Don Rickles nightclub performance that would be the last show he’d ever see.

Another friend of Joey Gallo’s from the Greenwich Village theater scene was Jacques Levy, director of Oh! Calcutta, who would soon work with Bob Dylan on a great 1975 album called Desire that would include a song called “Joey”. It’s because of this wonderful song — one of the best and longest tracks on an album full of mysterious lyrics, jangling acoustic guitars and gypsy violins, that I myself became interested in the legend of Joey Gallo. I can’t deny that I’m partial to this book because of my affection for the Bob Dylan song. The book illuminates many of the lyrics for me, from the beginning:

Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the year of who knows when
Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordian

to the end, when:

he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy

This song has taken on a life and legend of its own. It reappeared in a live version on the later album Dylan and the Dead in which Jerry Garcia improvises a beautiful short fill to illustrate the moment of Joey’s death. The Dylan song may be bigger than its subject, and this is a perfect example of the artistic serendipity this minor Mafia figure always seemed to create.

That serendipity is the true subject of Tom Folsom’s book, which ends with a vision of the new IKEA that looms over present-day Red Hook, the once desolate neighborhood where the brothers ran. It’s a nice final touch. My only question, upon finishing The Mad Ones, is whether or not Martin Scorsese will turn it into a movie. I don’t see why he wouldn’t.

8 Responses

  1. I wonder if the title is
    I wonder if the title is taken from the famous Kerouac On The Road quote, “…the only people for me are the mad ones…”

    Biography is where it’s at!

    I have found that in the recent years I mainly read biographies. They are more fascinating than novels, made up stories that may or may not reflect reality.

    Fiction no longer seems particularly interesting but reading about what real people did in real life, what they accomplished and how and what they thought about while doing their life work is inspiring.

    Caveat here is we probably ought not be inspired by a crazy murdering gangster, but it sounds like a fascinating read.

  2. TKG, it definitely is named
    TKG, it definitely is named after Kerouac. I don’t remember if the connection is explicitly made but there’s a lot of Beat connection in the early chapters.

  3. In the way ‘The Merchant of
    In the way ‘The Merchant of Venice tells you more, and more besides, about venture capitalism than the Wall Street Journal. Bob Dylan’s ‘Joey’and ‘Hurricane’ told me more about them than most things I’ve read.

    Scorsese Scmhorcese, why dont you do the film Levi, verite syle leaning on the Fellini.
    I’m sure if you enquire, MickeyZ and I would write a you script.He’s read the book and I’m as thick as two short planks, we both write, and you’ve got experience of film making, as indeed I almost have. How could it not be wonderful.

  4. THE MAD ONES looks like a
    THE MAD ONES looks like a really interesting and outstanding book. As soon as the Riverbend Festival is over, here in Chattanooga, I will see if I can get some coin and go out and get Tom Folsom’s book. I liked SERPICO, so I think I’ll like this one, too… One from the other side of the tracks… One about the police and the other about gangs. Yessir, looks intriguing.

  5. TKG
    If he was only ‘mad, bad

    If he was only ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ he could elevate himself to being one of us.

  6. Frank dimattaeo’s book was so much better .him and his father were actual Gallo gang members and know all the inside truths instead of all these writers who were never is called “growing up in the mafia,the president street boys” it’s available on Amazon,ebay ,Kindle great read and filled with never before seen uncle was Joseph “big lollipop”Carna,a Gallo crew member

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!