Tom Folsom’s The Mad Ones recreates the subterranean world of New York in the ‘60s, when Beatniks, jazz musicians, and existential dropouts began to rub up against the old-school underworld of the city. The era was personified by the Gallo Brothers, low-level Red Hook gangsters who ran jukeboxes and provided muscle work for the Profaci family. Led by Joey Gallo, a striking antihero who bridged the gap between the two worlds, Larry, Joey, and Kid Blast were featured in Life, Harpers Bazaar, the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Newsweek and even Women’s Wear Daily.
Joey Gallo was a hero to Bob Dylan, who memorialized him in an epic ballad, friend to Jerry Orbach, and inspiration to Jimmy Breslin and Mario Puzo. The boys were stylish and extraordinarily dangerous, capturing the imagination of a wide array of New York intelligentsia, but in many ways it was a surface fascination that paid little mind to the deep currents of Gallo’s mind.
Nicknamed Joe the Blond or Crazy Joey, Joey Gallo was born and raised in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, known more at the time for shipyards and gang battles than for its current incarnation of condos and Ikea. Gallo built a small criminal empire with his brothers and cohorts, eventually earning his stripes and being invited to join La Cosa Nostra. He first appeared on the national scene when called to testify before Robert Kennedy and the US Senate on charges that his gang beat a man who refused to join their jukebox union.
He and Brother Larry arrived with sunglasses on and cigarettes lit, refusing to answer every question. Sam Ervin, the stately senator from North Carolina asked, “Can yew boys tell us of an honest day’s work you ever did in yo’ life?” He received the same answer, “I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might, you know, tend to incriminate us.” During this era, the brothers and their misfit gang of thugs proved their loyalty to the Profaci family time and time again as enforcers and earners, but were constantly put off by their Don in their drive to rise through the ranks.
At this time, bored with his traditional nightclubs (featuring cocktail piano and crooners), Joey fell in with friends of Ali Baba, his knife-throwing Egyptian bodyguard who led him into the hip scene in the Village. It was a new world, where philosophy, music, and art held the same value as violence and money did in his professional life. He met Jeffie, a painter with a black beehive, they connected over the work of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre.
They became regulars at the Village Vanguard, and Joey began to view his struggle with his mafia family from a more revolutionary mindset. He drew parallels linking himself and his gang to the struggles of figures like Castro, and the mafia to the establishment. It wasn’t long before he launched an armed rebellion against the Profacis, holing up in his grandmother’s tenement, stocked with bombs, grenades, and rifles. Lined with mattresses, the Gallo gang situation drove the NYPD and FBI into the standoff as well and the story captured the hearts of New Yorkers, who love an underdog.
During the standoff Joey was convicted of extortion and sent to prison. There he painted, read history, and courted the Black Nationalists movement, befriending black heroin kingpin Nicky Barnes. After his release, he began a conflict with Joe Colombo. When Colombo was shot down by an African American, suspicion shifted to Joe the Blond by association. The incident is often cited as the impetus for Joe Gallo’s murder in Umberto’s Clam House on his 43rd birthday.
Author Tom Folsom has a stellar resume, as co-author with Nicky Barnes of Mr. Untouchable: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Heroin’s Teflon Don and as director of numerous documentaries for Showtime and A&E. His attention to detail is extraordinary and his research appears impeccable. His goal, to illuminate this window in time when the counterculture and the criminal underground collided, is wonderful. It’s a truly unique period and stands out from the usual gangster literature. His writing style, however, leaves a bit to be desired. The staccato, abbreviated prose seems designed for film adaptation more than the reader and his voice is like some kind of love child of Jack Webb and the beatnik Cheetos mascot Chester Cheetah. There are some downright ugly sentences in this book, (“The Florida sun beat down on Joey’s mole.”).
My first time through I found these drawbacks to be a major distraction from the story; my second read through gave me a much greater appreciation for the remarkable confluence of people and place during that era. The Mad Ones is well worth a read for those interested in New York underground culture and history.