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'Sopranos' star says he doesn't know if he's dead

Denis Hamill
New York Daily News (MCT)

NEW YORK -- "I have no idea what happened to Tony," actor James Gandolfini said Thursday night, standing aboard The Highlander, the Forbes family yacht at Pier 60 on Manhattan's West Side.

"You have to ask ("The Sopranos" creator) David Chase that. Smarter minds than mine know the answer to that. I thought it was a great ending. You decide."

Gandolfini was joining most of the cast of "The Sopranos" for a fund-raising cruise to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital -- Tony (Paulie Walnuts) Sirico's pet charity.

The stars defended the ending -- which had the screen cut to black as Tony's family sat down to dinner -- even if not all of the actors understood it.

"I have no idea why I had so much trouble parallel parking at the end," said Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played Meadow Soprano.

"It was on the page, and like always, I played what was written. But I loved the ending. I can't think of a single better way to have ended this show."

Edie Falco, who played Tony's wife, Carmela, said that after a sad goodbye, it was nice to have the old gang together for charity. "No one says no to Tony Sirico," she said. "But I don't think it will be long before we all see each other again."

Was she talking about a hotly rumored movie that would clear up the ending many fans felt was too ambiguous?

"God, no," Falco said. "I don't mean that. I think the ending was just great. I mean that. I have never second-guessed David Chase, and I'm not about to start now."

"Yes, I was at that table, but I have no idea what happened after the screen went blank."

Sirico couldn't understand the criticism of the finale.

"I thought the ending was outstanding. We got Phil Leotardo. We went back to our lives," he said. "What do people want? More blood? A whole family whacked? I like that David Chase let the viewers decide."

Aida Turturro, who played Tony Soprano's erratic sister, Janice, floated two theories as she wobbled across the lolling money-green yacht.

"Tony and Bobby talked a few episodes back about how when you finally get hit, you never see it coming and the world just goes black," she said.

"The other one is that they just live their lives as a family, and we just left them in the middle of their lives."

Like Turturro, Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio, was glad the ending kept viewers -- and castmates -- guessing.

"A conventional ending would have been a fraud," said Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

"Life doesn't have tidy little endings. Even some great songs just fade out like the last episode of `The Sopranos.'"

"But on my Sirius radio show, I see the opinions shifting across the country. It started out fifty-fifty, and by last night, it was eighty-twenty in favor of the ending.

"It's also a lie that we shot three or four endings. David Chase, who wrote and directed the last episode, did one ending. He knew what he wanted, and it was great. Like the show."

Billionaire Steve Forbes stood at the door of the family yacht donated for the night and greeted all the stars and guests, who paid $500 a head to climb aboard.

"I have no idea what happened to Tony Soprano," Forbes said. "I do know that when it ended, I threw around several four-letter words like Tony Soprano would have and thought my cable went out."

"I hope the creator, David Chase, rushes the movie into production because I want to know how it ended."

Gandolfini insisted he didn't have an inside line on that.

"The ending was exactly what it should have been," he said. "Don't look at me, I don't have an answer. All I know is that it's over."

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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