A Working Class Family: Ed and Edie Falco

Photo (partial) © Miriam Berkley

PopMatters talks with Ed Falco and his niece, actor Edie Falco, about their life in the arts and Ed's gritty new novel, Saint John of the Five Boroughs.

Saint John of the Five Boroughs

Publisher: Unbridled
Length: 432 pages
Author: Edward Falco
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-10

Remember that cool uncle you idolized when you were growing up? You know, the one with the long hair, the motorcycle and enigmatic lifestyle? Well, Edie Falco has one of those uncles. In fact, the onetime Carmela Soprano, current Nurse Jackie, and three-time Emmy winner has an uncle who’s still cool, even if he is a little older. His name’s Ed, and he’s an award-winner in his own right, having won honors for his work as a playwright, novelist and poet. He’s also the director of Virginia Tech’s MFA writing program.

The two have been close since Ed lived with Edie and her family when she was just a kid. Since then, they have been active supporters of each other’s artistic ambitions. Ed has been to the premieres of many of Edie’s stage productions and has visited his niece often on the sets of her TV shows. Edie relishes any opportunity to crow about her uncle’s talent, including at a recent Book Expo America, where she shared her enthusiasm with an equally enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd at New York’s famed Algonquin.

Edie is also a fan of Ed’s new book, Saint John of the Five Boroughs, an action-packed novel that bounds from the sleepy Virginia suburbs to the party-hearty campus of Penn State to the sophisticated but mean streets of New York. Set against the backdrop of the height of the Iraq War, Saint John of the Five Boroughs is about the collateral damage inflicted by violence -- both literal and metaphorical.

The novel centers on Avery, a disillusioned college senior and budding artist, and Grant, a onetime performance artist (the Saint John of the book’s title) from Brooklyn who’s now in over his head with risky mob business. After meeting Grant during a booze-soaked night at PSU Avery, on a whim, decides to leave behind her comfortable collegiate experience and run away with Grant to the bright lights of bohemian New York. Shocked by her daughter’s sudden change in course, Avery’s widowed mother Kate is soon en route to New York looking for answers, unaware that her life is soon to reach its own crisis point.

We talked to Ed and Edie about their support for each other, their mutual admiration society, and to Ed about Saint John of the Five Boroughs, the origins of violence and how the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 touched his life.

PM: Could you talk about your relationship and how that’s helped your respective careers?

Ed: Edie is my older brother’s daughter. My brother (Frank) is almost 12-years older than me, and so my relationship to him is sort of half-brother, half-father-figure to me. I kinda grew up with him and his family, I was very attached to him and his wife and his children. I did a lot of growing up with him, and I watched the kids go their various ways, and when Edie went into the arts that was always a thrill for me to watch her, in high school and out of college.

I never dreamed that Edie would go on to the kind of success she’s gone on to, only because the field is so competitive and so hard. But I knew she’d make a life in the arts, one way or another, because she was talented and dedicated, and the way it all worked out has just been a terrific thrill. I’ve been thrilled for her every step of the way.We’ve become friends as she has done well in her career, and I often go and visit her and I’ll stay with her in (New York City).

If one thinks about support, it’s been just simply going to see her plays. I’ve gone to see all her premieres… Frank and I went to London to see the last performance of Side Man, and just in general, I’m a huge fan. It’s a thrill -- we’re a working class family, and to have two of us in the arts, and Edie succeeding as famously as she has, and I’m doing OK in my career, it’s nice, it’s fun.

Edie: Because he’s a family member, you certainly would do it anyway, just to be supportive, but someplace along the line, as an adult, I forget when it first occured to me, that as an artist he is someone I would have noticed regardless of our relationship. Before I really understood his work, not that I completely understand it now, I think it was when I first saw a production of Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. He had a production done at his school and it was so impressive as a play, not just as my uncle’s play, and things really shifted at that point.

I had been reading his stuff up until then, but it was such a captivating play, it really resonated on so many levels. It’s also interesting because you can’t tell if you really are recognizing people who may have acted as inspiration for some of the characters, which is also a trippy thing as a family member. Any chance I get to talk about his work, and how proud I am of it, and how exciting it is to be his niece, I will take.

PM: Edie, do you continue to have a strong relationship with Ed?

Edie: He comes to the city with a certain degree of regularity and he stays with me. And he has been actually a pretty large part of the lives of my kids, who are very young, but Ed is definitely one of the characters who comes in and out and visits and brings toys. He’s really watched my son, who’s now four-and-a-half, grow up.

To have gone from him being somewhat of an idol of mine as a kid, my cool Uncle Ed… he was Uncle Eddie back then… to being almost like a peer, where we can talk about artwork and plays that are good, and politics, like an adult, it’s still a little hard for me to believe this is Uncle Eddie I’m having these conversations with.

PM: Edie, have you ever thought about trying to get a film deal for Ed?

Edie: I wish I was that powerful. I’ve thought many times about how cinematic his books are, and how good his plays are, and we actually made a real attempt to make these things happen. It made me realize just how powerless I am insofar as producing is concerned. We talked to people, I did readings, and things looked like they were going to happen, and one after another they just fell through and we both got very frustrated and kinda walked away from it. It is not what I do, or what I know how to do, and I found it very disheartening.

The thing is, Ed’s work stands on its own, and productions will come, and screenplays will come, and he doesn’t need me to do anything to make that happen. But should the opportunity arise, he’s knows I’m there.

PM: Did you both grow up Catholic?

Edie: To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a Catholic background. My dad is Roman Catholic, and I was baptized as per my very religious grandmother, but I was never raised in any religion at all. I’m half-Italian, but I’m also half-Swedish. I think Ed has more of a background with that.

It’s just sort of coincidence, and an odd one, that any of the stuff that I’ve been involved in had Catholic imagery, or the characters have had some sort of a background in that. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got nothing.

Ed: I grew up Catholic. My brother Frank was always less formally religious, and so I don’t think he raised his kids in the way we were raised. We were raised by an Italian-Catholic family who took us to church every Sunday. Frank was a jazz musician and a drummer and moved away from a conventional view of religion and I don’t think he raised his kids with any sort of conventional religious views.

PM: Ed, tell us about how your religious upbringing influences your writing.

Ed: I grew up in the Catholic Church. I was an altar boy at the age of 10, and the mythology of Christianity is just written in my bones. I don’t consider myself conventionally religious, I’m not like a churchgoing Catholic, but the mythology of Christianity is always interrogated and thought about in my writing. I think of myself as a spiritual person, but not a religious person.

PM: What about the Saint John in the title, how does he relate to the book?

Ed: I’m thinking of the Saint John who’s the author of Revelations. I use that roughly as a kind of structuring device for the novel. Saint John retreated to his cave to write the Revelations, and I sort of followed that structure within the novel. Saint John thinks about the apocalypse and the end of the world and he writes about the Antichrist, and my mock Saint John in the novel is sort of living the crisis of faith that Saint John the Divine is writing about.

But it’s loosely used as a structuring device. The last section is Off The Island, or when (Grant) leaves, and hopefully he starts thinking and regrouping and thinking about his life again.

PM: You mention the word “crisis”, I feel like in this book almost every character is at a stage of crisis.

Ed: Yeah. I’m thinking about violence in the book. And that’s another place where Revelations links up with it. The Revelations is incredibly violent. There’s locusts with stingers, and when they sting you, you suffer for six months before you die.

The issue of violence is something I’m thinking about throughout the novel. Each of the characters has suffered some act of violence, either natural or cultural that disrupts their lives. The first section is called Blasted, and they’re drinking in the first section, so I assume the reader is gonna think that Blasted is a slang term for getting drunk.

But also, each of them suffers an act of violence that blasts them out of their routine life… In each of the characters, sometimes (the violence is) natural… and sometimes it’s not natural, like death in Iraq, death in war, death in crime.

PM: Was it important for this book to be set in the year 2006, so that you can have the height of the Iraq War as a backdrop?

Ed: I think so. I have a political side to me, and yet I don’t want to write political writings, so the background events of the culture are of interest to me, and I hope that the personal events I am writing about are echoed in the background events of the cultural events. So I am writing about the violence in Grant’s character, or the ways violence disrupts life, but I’m also suggesting that there’s this whole wider cultural implication that that violence is played out on a cultural level. The violence inside us is played out outside us, also.

PM: Almost like war makes violence acceptable?

Ed: Yes that, and also it sort of questions, is it the violence in us that leads to war, are we violent by nature, and is war a sort of acting out of that violence, rather than the grandiose political reasons we have for war?

At the end of the book, when Lindsey (Avery's aunt)… checks out (her brother) Ronnie’s MySpace page and sees that picture of Ronnie with his face all bruised up, I hope that suggestion says something about that violence in our nature as simply a part of us, and draws some connections between the violence in us and the cultural violence that’s played out in war.

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10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

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Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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