When musicians I’ve followed for years pass on, particularly if they were unheralded, I’m on it. It’s almost a civic duty to get the word out that this person existed, and did some great things in his life. It’s a strange, distant kind of mourning. I didn’t know the person, but I knew his art, and his art spoke to me in a strong sense that I carry with me. Much like I’d carry memories or life lessons learned from a parent.
James Gandolfini passed on unexpectedly this week at the age of 51, victim of a massive heart attack, and it registered with me for a number of reasons. For better or worse, he will always be associated with his character Tony Soprano, the mob boss from the long-running HBO series The Sopranos. It seemed that he was born to play the role, it fit him so well. That sense of “New Jersey” he imparted: the accent, the ethnic background, the heft of his presence. I’m sure this drove him nuts when the show ended and he wanted to do other types of characters (and did), but sometimes an actor just becomes so cemented to that character he plays that he will never shake the image.
And it’s not a bad thing. Most of us aren’t going to be remembered for anything! It takes that sort of long, ongoing work, in this case as an actor, to plant the memory in people’s minds because, believe me, in the society we live in now, most people are punching through memories and emotions like five-second song snippets on an iPod. Many of us have lost or never had the ability to contemplate or spend time absorbing memories, thoughts, emotions. Our senses are dulled as a result; our world is cheapened with this sensory overload of flashing emptiness.
That emptiness seems based on imagery of how we should all be: wealthy, beautiful, thin, young, highly materialistic, throwing money around like it was confetti, thousands of friends and followers on social media, every gear clicking in perfect motion. Living in the right place, at the right time, knowing all the right people, being one of those right people to know.
Which is why it’s always a pleasure when someone like James Gandolfini breaks through on such a massive level of success. If he hadn’t played a mob boss on a long-running TV series, you wouldn’t look twice at the guy. Schlubby white guy, the kind you see all the time in sports bar and offices, going bald, seriously overweight, middle-aged. You wouldn’t look twice because people like this have been rendered invisible in our society: they don’t matter or register in our bullshit world of hype and imagery. Every fiber of his being is not screaming to get your attention: no fiber is. He doesn’t give a shit whether you notice him or not. Guaranteed, Tony Soprano would not have Facebook, Twitter, etc. accounts!
But the man clearly mattered. Because he was given the chance to inhabit a character that showed just about every human emotion possible, for a very long time, and he pulled off the near-impossible by making millions of people empathize with a rank sociopath … who also had a very warm, humanist streak about him that he liked to think was his true self beneath the hard, murderous exterior he tried to hide from his loved ones.
What shocked me most about his death wasn’t his age, although the guy was only a few years older than I am, and I can tell you, no one was meant to die this young. Yes, that was shocking in and of itself. But then yesterday I started seeing pictures of Gandolfini as a teenager … and I was shocked. He wasn’t born a portly, balding New Jersey gangster. The pictures reveal a handsome, svelte kid who more than likely had a natural charm about him that lead him into acting.
Aint it funny how life sometimes doesn’t work itself out until you lose things? I didn’t figure out how to truly be an adult, be a man, until my father passed on. I didn’t really understand what my possessions and material wealth did (and didn’t) mean to me until I spent the better part of year living with hardly anything after a life-threatening house fire. Life takes, and when it does, you’re left with the choice of mourning your old ways, or rolling with the punch and figuring out how you’re going to get back up again.
Gandolfini lost his looks: his hair started coming out. He gained double-digit poundage over the course of years. That svelte kid, I’d wager, some time between graduating high school, then floating around Manhattan taking pick-up jobs in bars and construction, slowly morphed into this guy who more than likely resembled his father in middle-age. His breakthrough role came in True Romance in 1993, at which point he was 32 years old; his look was already much closer to Tony Soprano than that high-school photo. A few pounds lighter, a little more hair, but miles from that fresh-faced kid from a small town in Jersey.
I’m sure he had his doubts, thought, man, I’m losing my looks, in this business? I’m screwed. As it turned out, it was synchronicity as he grew into a perfect fit for a young New Jersey mob boss rising through the ranks. On a show that was pure genius in terms of capturing not just how someone would live in the mafia in New Jersey at the turn of the century, but much more importantly, how New Jersey really felt. That was the secret of The Sopranos: it was about New Jersey more than anything else. And truly captured so much of how that state, the suburbs and cities, the pine barrens, the beaches, the colleges, the restaurants, the working class, the upper-middle class … how it all really felt.
He was given the role of a life time and ran with it. I didn’t even pay attention to The Sopranos until the last season (as I’ve never had HBO in my adult life), but, boy, did I give myself a crash course at that time, and have since watched the complete series at last two times over. It’s a hard watch end-to-end … so dark and violent. You tend to feel overwhelmed by the darkness and paranoia when you swallow two or three episodes a night for a few weeks on end.
It was that everyman quality that made Gandolfini so special as an actor, that thing he probably tried like hell to run from when he moved to New York, but soon realized, this is who I am. I suspect with Tony Soprano there was very little acting going on. Sure, he personally wasn’t that dark and violent, but he clearly tapped into that character and somehow found the will to play him so convincingly. And an episode after murdering someone with his bare hands, bend over backwards to make sure his teenage daughter felt secure and special while they toured potential colleges for her in the New England countryside.
What I loved about Gandolfini, beyond his acting, was that he was such a huge fan of Rutgers football, so big a fan that he was granted a sideline pass and seemed to be there for all the home games. A state-school kid, like so many of us, a guy who had working-class parents who could barely afford to push him into a state college and hope like hell that he wouldn't drop out. (I suspect that Rutgers, much like my alma mater Penn State, is probably becoming prohibitively-priced as compared to how relatively cheap it was when we went in the 80s.)
That speaks volumes to me, although I gather it means shit to most people. You have to understand, being a Penn State fan, for years, decades, Penn State would trounce Rutgers annually. Because the Rutgers football team was terrible. Penn State made a habit of poaching the best players from New Jersey, so that Rutgers was often left with the second-tier players and had to make-do with losing seasons for years. To be a Rutgers football fan, which I’m sure Gandolfini was during those dark years, took a lot of gumption, a lot of patience. It was easy to be a Penn State fan (years before the Sandusky meltdown). Being a Rutgers fan more than likely meant you genuinely cared for the team and university. In either event, it's a special thing for me to see someone tied into a university in a state he was born and raised in. There's a nice sort of humility in that, a recognition of home within yourself.
To me, James Gandolfini represented … me. With some good breaks and the chance to really shine through creatively at a level he couldn’t anticipate but surely adapted to quickly. A working-class kid who found his way in the world, bided his time, and lucked into a role that perfectly mirrored qualities he’d been quietly nurturing and grasping all his adult life, but never had the right forum to present them.
Generally when people identify with celebrities, they want to identify with the glamor, the power, the flash. Not with him. I identified with how well he was able to make sense of who he really was and exactly where he was from … and to use these things to his advantage, in ways millions of other people could understand. I identified with how well Tony Soprano wore a wife beater and a bathrobe, despite living in a palatial suburban Jersey McMansion. How he loved playing classic rock in his car. How he loved old westerns and war movies because they represented a sense of quiet, stoic masculinity he aspired to (but deeply skewed via the dark nature of his profession). How he understood his daughter was just like him, while he knew he had screwed up his son with his nonsense, the same way his Dad had screwed him up. He was smart enough to know, but not smart enough to know how to stop it.
There’s a guy at work, a senior-level manager, whom I get along with very well, and our main connection, a deep connection, is that I know all the classic-rock and new-wave music he’s loved all his life, and he’s finally found someone at work who “gets” him on that level, whereas there was no one like that before. It’s a minor, seemingly inconsequential thing … until we start talking rock and roll, and you can see his eyes light up when he realizes he’s finally dealing with someone who knows what in the hell he’s going on about.
And I get that same “Tony Soprano” sense around him (although he’s not a merciless sociopath … but he does seem to have deep regrets and a strange kind of darkness related to how much money he makes and how it relates to where he’s from and that financial disconnect … he loves life, but he loves making a lot of money, too). A guy who grasps those little things in life, a deep passion for something other than money, but is also wrapped up in that desire to have power in that larger financial sense. Guaranteed, most people in that place, it’s all about the money, that quality of life it brings, and there’s not much else going on there, these people using their intelligence and drive to make it on that level. It's normal -- it's expected. But to pass by that guy’s office and hear “Thorn Tree in the Garden” while he plays it on youtube, and I go, “Hey, man, Derek and the Dominos.” And it launches him into a memory of the day he heard that coming from a window on the campus quad in the early 70s. And he knows I get this -- not just the music, but the way it ties in with a sense of self that transcends decades and identities shed and acquired.
It’s that feeling I associate with James Gandolfini, too, that sense of humanity amidst a sea of shit, sometimes even shit of your own making, but being able to pause like that and have a moment take you somewhere else, even if it’s only to the past, where you can remember being a lot more innocent and open. In some ways, those moments keep you just as innocent and open as you were then, or at least remind you to keep that shit in your head, because it’s good shit. That’s what went through my head when I started thinking about Gandolfini passing on so young. He took me back to some place I knew so well.