Monday, 26 November 2012


Some cultural icons are ripe for explaining to dusty old judges. Lady Gaga makes a fine example.
   “At that point, we contend the defendant illegally downloaded Lady Gaga.”
   “I am sure that members of the jury will join in my expression of astonishment. Could you provide further elucidation? A lady who was gaga…”
   “Lady Gaga is a singer popular with the young persons, m’Lud.”
   “A singer. You mean of recordings, in the hit-parade…”
   “Mm. And dancer. Fashion icon. She has many facets.”
   “Facets. How would you describe her to members of the jury?”
   “I believe you would describe her as a highly personable young lady, m’Lud.”
   “Really. Perhaps I should investigate her oeuvre.”
   “And you contend that this filthy swine did what to her?”
   “Downloaded her, m’Lud.”
   “Members of the jury, shield your ears.”
   And so on. I was taken aback, in the manner of a judge, when I heard that Lady Gaga once appeared in The Sopranos. When? In episode nine of the third series. She cheers young Anthony Soprano’s trashing of a swimming pool. Blink and you miss her.
   I thought long and hard about The Sopranos before I took the tour. To the extent that I decided to watch the whole damn thing all over again. I knew that at least one guy from the show went to jail then became an actor. At least one guy from the show did that the other way around.
   If you watched a movie, a TV show, or a play…if you read a rather annoying piece of blurb…if you thumbed through a comic book…
   Someone, somewhere, somewhen, somehow wrote it. David Chase didn’t write the show on his lonesome. He didn’t spring from the ocean as if created a writer the day before penning Mafia scripts. That goes for the actor James Gandolfini, too – he didn’t just spring out of nowhere.
   He was that guy in movies. I’d seen him a few times. He seemed to have a mild Denzel Washington connection going. Maybe Denzel helped out with a film role. Then Gandolfini played Tony Soprano and his world changed.
   As usual, The Sopranos got a mention well in advance before it washed up on Scottish shores. I’d lost track of the times some new show was touted as the most amazing thing. Only for the show to unfurl before me with distinctly unamazing qualities in the writing department. Often, I’d struggle to sit through the first episode – and I’m patient. Really patient.
   I didn’t make it through the first fifteen minutes of Lost.
   What is this?! It’s going to be a crock of shit with no reasonable explanation at the end. Going by reports of how that TV show ended, my crystal ball was firing on all cylinders that day. Yes, my crystal ball has cylinders.
   The Sopranos lived up to the hyperbolae. I watched the show. Hell, I even got sucked into er which was running before it. Catching the last five minutes of a relentlessly-paced medical drama was enough to draw me in. Great to see actors in one show appear in the other.
   That first episode of the Mafia drama was one of the strangest opening episodes of a TV show I’ve ever seen. Someone, somewhere, somewhen, somehow wrote it. (That’s true of Lost. Mm.) Television. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.
   The show remained consistent. A world was created. It felt real, on its own terms. Perhaps not in the depiction of the psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi – but drama must be dramatic, else you are simply looking out the window at your own life unfolding in uneventful bursts.
   I applauded the casting of every single actor who played someone in the FBI. They all appeared to have that Federal quality to them. If you’ve ever dealt with Federal people, you’ll know what I mean. (My blog’s banner headline is symbolic. I am NOT actually on the run.)
   To our tale. I was headed, once again, to America. The Big Apple. I landed in Newark, took the train from Noo Joisey to Noo Yawk, and prepared to return to Joisey for the tour. See the shootings. Take a tour of sites and sights featured in The Sopranos.
   This was the first TV-themed tour I’d undertaken. There were echoes of my own private movie-themed tour. In San Francisco, I’d gone around checking out locations featured in the Hitchcock movie Vertigo.
   While in San Francisco, I’d been complimented on my accent. Don’t ever lose it. Well, I’ll see what I can do. Later, I’d scare the hell out of an American while using that self-same accent. And later still, a man would comment on the accent being familiar to him.
   He was a radio-ham. I thought them extinct, but no. He tuned in and listened to Scottish tones from a place called Kearny, over in Jersey. On hearing the man say this, I never for a moment thought I’d end up on the streets of Kearny. But I did. Taking the tour. Before I took the tour, I watched The Sopranos again and noted two things. One, I set down. Here’s the observation…
   I am slowly chewing my way through The Sopranos. Very interesting, watching it from the start. The actor who plays Vito in later years pops up as a character called Gino inside a bakery in an early episode. Just a bit-part. Clearly, the people who made the show felt he could return as a major character. Violent, funny, tragic, weird. Often in a single episode. A great telly show.
   If you watched a movie, a TV show, or a play…someone, somewhere, somewhen, somehow acted in it. The other thing I noted became significant on the tour. Very significant. I was drawn to a particular scene. There was nothing in it. That’s what drew me.
   Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela, played by Edie Falco, sits at a table in the Plaza Hotel over in New York. A waiter approaches and wordlessly drops off his delivery. He then leaves. That’s it. I watched, thinking that poor bastard didn’t get any lines.
   There’s an actor. Some bit-part guy. You’ve probably seen him in countless things. He can say he’s worked with Edie Falco on The Sopranos. No one gave him any lines. Realistically, he should at least have said something.
   You really notice bit-part acting in TV comedies. The star utters witticisms to people in a queue and they laugh or shrug or roll their eyes. Oh. That’s bit-part no-line acting. A little exaggerated, to play up the comedy. The only reason for drinking from that cloudy well.
   This scene sticks in my mind. I have no clue why. Though I could pretend my crystal ball was firing on all cylinders. I think about the actor. His glorious scene in the show. The lack of lines. An oversight, I’m sure.
   The tour starts with a button. This is a giant model of a button on a needle, situated at 39th Street and Seventh Avenue. (Dat’s life in the Big City. Or on 39th, anyways. Hey, if I don’t plug my own work then who will?)
   I meet the tour guide and hop on the bus with a whole bunch of fans, not knowing what to expect. The guide says he’ll give us a few more minutes if anyone wants to meet one of the actors from the show. No takers. Just me. I hop off the bus and head to the back for a rendezvous with…
   Joseph R. Gannascoli. In the show he played Gino, and Vito. At the back of the bus, he’s operating out of his car. There’s a merchandising opporchancity. Joe is in the act of packing up. The queue to talk to him came and went while I was photographing the giant button.
   He spies me. We have a quick chat, as I don’t want to hold the bus up. I mention his Gino appearance. Joe tells me that two or three people on every tour spotted his earlier unrelated role in the bakery scene. I only noticed because I watched the whole show before the tour.
   We talk about episodic TV. I always like to see a minor character suddenly take on a major storyline, as his character did. The twist in the storyline came from Joe himself after he read Murder Machine, a book by Jerry Capeci. Joe’s character of Vito took on a life of his own. He wasn’t just some hit-man in see-through socks.
   Joe signs some merch for me, and I hop back on the bus. What can I tell you? He’s a stand-up guy. Our guide introduces himself. We head for the tunnel Tony Soprano emerges from at the start of every episode. Not to go all Dr Melfi on you, but this is as though Tony is born when he appears on the Jersey side of the tunnel.
   Marc Baron is our guide. How informative is he? David Chase created the show. By the time the tour is over, I wonder if David Chase himself could be more informative. The tour means a lot to fans. I catch a woman taking a photo of the Bada Bing parking lot. The look on her face is ecstatic. Come on. The Bada Bing. Fuggedaboutit.
   I watched the whole show before I took the tour. There’s a quiz. We can win prizes. There’s a pen worth going after. From the Bada Bing itself. All sorts of prizes are up for grabs. These are often themed to the question. Yes, I watched the whole show before I took that tour.
   How did I do at the quiz? No better than anyone else on the bus. Marc Baron failed to hand out the pen. He tried again later with another question. Still no takers. I watched the show! Before the tour! Some questions were beyond arcane.
   You start to wonder how many females were murdered on the screen. Is that the trick to the question? We’re going for body-count and names, now? Just for fun, where was Frank Sinatra born? Loads of people answer questions for fun. The pen finally goes to someone on a serious question. Damn. I wanted that pen.
   Facts. Locations. Quiz torture. Up for grabs – another prize. Oh, I know this one. No one on the bus speaks. This is an obvious one! I claim the prize. Wow. I’m astonished that I paid a lot of attention to a particular type of scene in the show. Maybe because I was looking for something to happen. And it almost went down in one episode.
   That’s a writer’s imagination at work. What if this happens to Tony Soprano? Surely the writers will address that. They did. Marc tells us who he really is. Why, he’s the guy who starred in an unlucky thirteen episodes of the show. Either as a stand-in or as a minor character. A bit-part moment here, there.
   For example. Say Carmela Soprano has to visit the Plaza Hotel, and a waiter waltzes through the scene. Marc Baron will step in and be that waiter. I perk up at this, as I’d zoned in on that moment when I watched the show not long before I took the tour. Why? Writerly instinct. I’m an analytical marvel. Just dumb luck. Take your pick.
   Marc treats us to an epic discourse on this scene he shares with Edie Falco. It’s not true to say that half the cast of The Sopranos came from GoodFellas and half came from Cop Land. Though that’s close. I remembered Edie from Cop Land.
   The Plaza Hotel had an arrangement with the makers of The Sopranos. An actor could play the part of a Plaza waiter, but accuracy in presentation had to be preserved. Marc Baron was sent on a course to become the waiter. Method? Eat your heart out, Pacino.
   Edie Falco broke the scene into fragments by asking Marc questions he was obliged to answer. The director was having none of it. Marc Baron had no lines. He wasn’t getting any lines, just because Edie Falco tried to do him an actorly favour.
   For me, that was a great moment on the tour. Something I’d specifically noted was discussed by the man himself. Beyond that, Marc’s knowledge of the production went way past spooky. We toured familiar places. Heard anecdotes. We were treated to continuity glitches pointed out as we drove along.
   The tour was exceptional. I knew from my San Francisco trip that it was strange walking through places that you’ve seen in movies or TV. There I was, suddenly, on the streets of Kearny. Thinking back to San Francisco and the radio-ham who’d noted my accent.
   Okay. Look for a Scottish connection. Anything. You have a few minutes here. Right there. Just along from the Fire Department. A place selling fish and chips. THISTLE. Box ticked. Job done. Off we go.
   Bada Bing. Located in Lodi. Satin Dolls is the real name of the place. I snap an image of a fake rust-stain painted on a wall to make the location seem grimier than it is. There’s a shift-change inside. Some of the scantily-clad women who work at the bar prefer not to tangle with the tourists.
   Marc Baron points out the fact that the show, dealing with the Mafia, is inaccurate in its depiction of the club. In New Jersey, you get the boobs or the booze in clubs like that. It’s illegal to have it all. The TV show depicts a topless bar. Maybe Tony paid to have a few rules removed.
   Tour guide Marc talks to me about atmosphere and memories of certain deals that go down in various episodes. There’s a merchandising opporchancity, which I take. Various women strut the stage when not serving drinks. I’m in the queue to buy a T-shirt, not realising I’m standing against a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.
   “Excuse me.”
   A leggy blonde in a red bikini brushes against me on her way to the changing room. She returns in a black baby-doll nightie and nudges a strategically-placed pole. It’s all research, of course. I can put stuff like that in stories. Research. Honest.
   Before more scantily-clad women manage to throw themselves in my direction, I’m at the head of the queue. I spy the pen I didn’t win in the quiz. As I’m buying a T-shirt, the manager throws the pen in free anyway when I ask after the item. I read the inscription. SATIN DOLLS AKA BADA BING. 230 ROUTE 17 S. LODI, NJ.
   The pen still works. Lady Gaga has moved on to other things.


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