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.