TV

J.F.K. Symbolism on 'The Sopranos'

Nathan Pensky

As both a desired endgame to the American dream as well as the tragic flaw underlying that dream, the mythology of J.F.K. crops up on multiple occasions in The Sopranos to show the self-contradictions of the show’s characters.

T.S. Eliot once compared the works of Shakespeare and Dante, writing that the work of the former is “more horizontal” and the latter “more vertical,” that Shakespeare’s plays represent a rich variety of human experience, as well as an evenness of literary achievement, while Dante’s poetry is narrower in characterism and theme, and given to aesthetic highs and lows. The distinction references the general movement through the history of Western literature from “objective” characterizations to “subjective” ones, from institutionally-defined characters to protagonist-driven abstractions of interiority.

While Eliot’s illustration is instructive in providing an X-Y axis on which to position literary characters in terms of their distinctions between the inner and outer life, it also requires highly esoteric literary knowledge. (Cultural elitism was always the tragic flaw of Eliot and his New Criticism cronies.) And while any modern, intelligent reader could perhaps sense the ebb and flow of the literary history underlying the post-modern characters they read, as well as in the culture in which they currently live, he or she would likely require extensive literary education to appreciate as much on the level Eliot requires.

It’s interesting to wonder where a like understanding of television, a much younger medium, would figure in the model of Eliot’s axis. The simplest way to answer to this question would be to assign a show with a strong protagonist in the vertical and a show with a strong ensemble cast in the horizontal, and then go from there. On this track, it would make sense to place a show like The Sopranos in the vertical, which plumbed the depths of its main character more than possibly any show in television history, and maybe a show like The Wire in the horizontal. Then one imagines “plotting” certain other characters within this “graph.” Archie Bunker, for instance might figure high on the vertical, if such was a measure of a character’s individuality, but also broad on the horizontal, if such was a measure of a character’s quality to represent his larger culture. A character like, Columbo, on the other hand, would create just as tall but a slightly skinnier graph. Somehow this is all reminiscent me of the exercise made at the beginning of Dead Poets Society that Mr. Keating called “excrement” but which I always thought was oddly instructive.

However, and wholly aside from television being a younger medium, it is also much more dependent on established cultural norms than literature. Much of the appreciation of what one sees on American TV would be lost to someone who was raised, say, in Japan or India, at least not without profound translation. While Shakespeare is still staged around the world and Dante read in every corner of the globe, a show like The Sopranos could prove difficult for viewers unfamiliar with many of the pop culture it references, or at least not quite as readily enjoyable without a culturally horizontal understanding in Eliot’s sense.

Eliot’s X-Y axis in terms of television is probably best characterized in a given cultural understanding of the material (horizontal) and a character or group of character’s dialectic negotiation within that culture (vertical). Western television characters are ever more colored by the highly insular existence of the inhabitant of the large city. Tales meant to highlight the individual are often characterized through themes of “the one against the many,” the many comprised of a multitude of citizens crowding around them on on all sides, yet remaining socially and culturally remote. Television stories rely on (and makes good use of) normative definitions of social behavior much more so than the literary “canon” of Eliot’s axis; it is a medium created by committee, appreciated by a large swath of a culture at a time, and often with the input of panels of television viewers to guide production. The comic transgressions of situation comedy are transposed against the norms of what is socially acceptable. Even cable television, which is afforded more leeway in depicting non-normative behavior, is subject to a rating system, and takes amorphous, malleable cultural norms for its subject matter, though often with a “twist,” as with programs like Weeds and Hung. Having no long canonical tradition, Eliot’s axis transposed onto television would, therefore, make use of established socio-cultural norms as its X-axis and entertainingly oddball behavior as its Y.

The novelty of idiosyncratic behavior cast against a socio-normative x-axis is used extremely creatively on The Sopranos. While David Chase’s mob microcosm includes brilliant commentary on the larger American cultural landscape, New Jersey is less a real place than an otherworld modeled in a grimly heightened pantomime to our own larger American one, yet always subject to the moods of the show’s main character. Using viewers’ general knowledge of their own post-industrial society, the show highlights Tony Soprano, a character on the one hand always hearkening back to more strictly defined cultural landscape, on the other struggling against the moral relativism implicit to that culture’s crumbling substructure. The good ol’ days of his father’s mafia provided a cultural alternative to a straight life at once working-class and counter-cultural; that his own generation of mobster, however, seems bound and determined to find its own alternative both troubles and enables him.

Meanwhile, the formal difference of cultural norms between his mafia world and our own are less described than referenced, and this, often comically or via pop culture; if Tony’s Y-axis of personality is plumbed through the lengthy analysis scenes with Dr. Melfi, the culture against which his behavior is meant to be understood is barely touched on, hinted at more than fully colored in. But The Sopranos lives and dies with Tony, this perhaps literally, which the controversial black-out of the last episode may attest to. Setting is defined by the length of Tony Soprano’s reach from his criminal underworld into suburban America, as well as by the contradictions of his “monster as American everyman” psychology.

Tony’s is not the only psychology shaping larger power dynamics and conflicts of “the one and the many” on The Sopranos; the idiosyncrasies of many of the show’s characters have far reaching implications. Thus while the “vertical” of our Eliot axis would apply only to Tony, the show itself, as a representation of the entire cast of characters, comprises more of a web of individual influence, where each character maintains narrative focus for a length of time, and the individual characters play key roles at all points. The Sopranos is less a series about a “mob” than a multitude of individual characters whose distinct voices and motivations are ultimately enveloped into an irrepressible conglomerate.

If anything unites the characters on The Sopranos, it's that each struggles alone, and mostly unsuccessfully, against the cultural imperatives of the mafia tradition that came before them. Yet the show is defined by moments of unflinching individuality. Entire wars are waged based on the hurt feelings, rumors as petty and personal as Uncle Junior’s willingness to perform cunnilingus or the fatness of Johnny Sac’s wife, Ginny. These characters are highly sensitive for their being ruthless killers, both to each other and their own self-determined roles, and the interlocking strata of their world are pliable to the demands of personal psychology.

One very interesting “vertical” negotiation of larger cultural strata on The Sopranos involves the show’s use of recurring imagery of John F. Kennedy. As both a desired endgame to the American dream as well as the tragic flaw underlying that dream, the mythology of J.F.K. crops up on multiple occasions to show the self-contradictions of the show’s characters. Here are three particularly telling moments:

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

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”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

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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