Back in season two of The Sopranos, in an episode in which nothing much happens - no ventricle-charged bloodshed, no real turning points, the kind of week that drives the obsessive plot-sitters wild with frustration - Tony Soprano is forced to report for duty every day as an executive at the waste management company he owns. With the Feds closing in, his lawyer advises the boss to stay out of the strip club and away from the streets. As with every week in this brilliantly-written series, the episode was its own discreet chapter and it ran along a crooked road to this soundtrack:
Disco Inferno - The Trammps
Gotta Serve Somebody - Bob Dylan
More Than a Feeling - Boston
Space Invader - The Pretenders
You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory - Johnny Thunders
The songs were perfect; against an almost casual lack of action, they portrayed much of the underlying tension in the life of a mobster. And man, they took me back.
Music propels The Sopranos, and so much of it was either recorded in - or inspired by - the 1970s, and a certain style of life here in the low-down middle atlantic states of that wonderful, dogshit time. Although the backdrop is the real estate-charged world of turn-of-the-millenium north Jersey, the hoods who make up the revolving central cast are leather-clad, picaresque hot-rod jockeys riding the Turnpike of 1977 or so, flipping 8-tracks into the console, sucking on the embers of an old joint, and downshifting battered Camaros past the exit signs.
Line up Tony's crew in black and white in the parking lot of the Bada Bing, and they look much like an aging band of northeast classic rockers, with paunches, thinning hair, and leather coats - the E Street Band in their 40s and 50s. Oh yeah, one of them is the E Street Band in hs 50s - Steve Van Zandt, a musician of singularly good historical taste, who no doubt inhabits the soundtrack of The Sopranos just as well as he fills the greasy pompadour of Silvio. Van Zandt's wardrobe for the show is amazingly like his threads for the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour - no accident there, I think.
Indeed, outside of Tony's thoroughly modern children and their plot lines, every character in The Sopranos has that 70s grime on them - before unleaded gas, before environmental controls on the refineries of Elizabeth, before new graffiti-free subway cars, before a sterile Times Square. And yeah, before the unrelenting Federal prosecution of the 80s made the Soprano crew into pure fantasy. Although he's the youngest member of the gang, Christopher Moltisanti is the clearest 70s throwback in the cast, played to spectacular precision by Michael Imperioli - those of us who grew up in Yonkers in the 70s knew this guy, and I suspect this goes for Belmont, for Queens, for Brooklyn, for Newark, for Philly, and onward down the seaboard. The character is pitch perfect, although at the extreme range of violence - his sensibilities toward life, his priorities, are closer to The Seven-ups (that underrrated 70s car-chase opera), than to the old-time gangsters of The Godfather.
At the center, of course, is James Gandolfini, whose habitation of Tony Soprano has certainly ruined him for future lead roles. As Chris is the young Tony, living his 70s now, Tony just looks back. He only looks back. There are few clues to what he thinks about the future, what he wants to do, or really, how he wants to live. Everything is about the past - an elegaic but unsympathetic view of the past. Tony talks about his younger days on the therapist's couch, but when he walks into the kitchen singing Aqualung, you're back there.
Sunday's episode indulged that 70s symbolism to the max, with its noirish, filthy carnival scenes, the short leather jackets, the focus on cars and drugs, the big hair, and the music. Over the course of its run, repeat musical quotations have framed the action, with pulll quotes from Jefferson Airplane, Booker T and the MGs, Cream and Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, The Eagles, Boston, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller Band, Stones, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Steely Dan. No accident that Silvio tried to lure the outed gay gang member back with backstage passes to the big Blood, Sweat, and Tears show.
This week, as Christopher fell back into heroin and self-hatred, the score returned to Johnny Thunders - the ultimate destructive 70s era New York rocker. The carnival faded to near black and white: deep, horrific colors like a faded print of the French Connection. And Thunders and the Heartbreakers lurched into a live, raucous version of Pipeline - no doubt played in some dive club in Brooklyn circa '78, filled with half-drunk, leather-clad guys like Christopher Moltisanti.