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Baker's Dozen

Mob Deep: Michael Imperioli's Favourite Music
Simon Price , August 5th, 2020 09:21

Actor, writer, producer and musician Michael Imperioli – best known for playing Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos – chooses his 13 favourite tracks, and discusses the use of music in the series. Simon Price listens in an unmarked van across the street.

The mood, and the lighting, is dark. In the back office of the Crazy Horse nightclub, a besuited Tony Soprano, head of New Jersey's Di Meo crime family, sits with his consigliere Silvio Dante sombrely chewing over their escalating war with New York. Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's troubled heir apparent, bursts into the meeting late. Failing to read the room, he wisecracks his apology with a Bruce Springsteen lyric. "The highway was jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive..." Silvio, played by Steven Van Zandt – the E Street Band guitarist who co-wrote 'Born To Run' and has played the song live over 1,700 times – is in shot, but does not react.

Such neat little pop-cultural in-jokes are just one small reason why The Sopranos was, and still is, so loved by so many. Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher for eight years, agrees. "The Sopranos played with a lot of those things," he says. "Like me shooting a guy in the foot [a callback to Imperioli's character, Spider, getting shot in the foot in Goodfellas] and saying 'It happens', and me being a writer and Christopher being a writer, Steven being who he is: a Jersey legend and a rock legend. I think The Sopranos was a very serious piece of work that often didn't take itself so seriously, which was the endearing thing about it."

That Springsteen zinger is far from the only pop reference in the show's script ("He Marvin Gayed his own nephew!" being another classic). Indeed, The Sopranos dealt directly with the music industry in several plotlines. In A Hit Is A Hit, Christopher hangs out with a rap mogul called Massive Genius who seeks reparations from mob accountant Hesh Rabkin who, in a thinly-veiled reference to the real-life Morris Levy, has exploited a black doo-wop group by claiming their songwriting credits. In another, Christopher's fiancée Adriana manages a godawful grunge band who find themselves on the wrong end of the volatile Moltisanti temperament.

Furthermore, Van Zandt isn't the only real-life musician to appear in the show. In The Fleshy Part Of The Thigh, Lord Jamar from Brand Nubian and Treach from Naughty By Nature turn up as rappers whose credibility is enhanced (or, in one case, diminished) by receiving bullet wounds. There are cameo appearances from David Lee Roth and Frank Sinatra Jr. at illegal card games. One recurring character is played by none other than Frankie Valli. A 15-year-old Lady Gaga is an extra in the Imperioli-penned episode The Telltale Moozadell.

Imperioli has revisited the series a lot lately. He's been touring a three-man show, In Conversation With The Sopranos, with Steve Schirripa (Bobby Bacala) and Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy), which went on hiatus due to COVID-19 before it had a chance to reach the UK. In the meantime, he's launched an episode-by-episode podcast, Talking Sopranos, with Schirripa and a variety of guest stars.

And before we continue, I must lay my cards on the table. I'm that guy. The guy who's watched The Sopranos all the way through, five or six times, both with and without DVD commentary. The guy who's read all the books, from trashy recipe spin-offs to the heavyweight The Sopranos Sessions. The guy who's watched hours and hours of interviews with creator David Chase on YouTube looking for clues. The guy who's listened to all the podcasts (not just Imperioli's own Talking Sopranos, but unofficial fan-casts The Sopranos Show and No F*ckin Ziti). The guy who's trawled through all the long reads about the controversial final episode from obsessive bloggers. But this isn't going to be that interview. I won't be asking Imperioli what he thinks the ending means, and I definitely won't ask what happened to the Russian. ("I wouldn't be able to answer anyway," Michael replies.)

Instead, we're talking about his musical taste, which went mildly viral a few weeks ago when Michael, a recent convert to Instagram, began posting a few of his favourites, notably My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. For anyone who holds both that The Sopranos is humanity's greatest artistic achievement of the 21st century, and that MBV were one of the greatest bands of the 20th, this crossover was a joyous thing to behold. In a way, though, it's silly that anyone was even surprised.

For one thing, Imperioli is actively involved in music, from hosting events for The Jazz Foundation Of America to performing with his own band La Dolce Vita, and – as we'll shortly discover – is a personal friend of more than one rock legend. For another, if Tony 'Paulie Walnuts' Sirico or Dominic 'Uncle Junior' Chianese turned out to be a shoegazer, then you'd have a story. But Imperioli? He was still in his teens when MBV began releasing music. What did everyone expect he'd be into? Is he supposed to listen exclusively to Dean Martin, just because he's played mob characters?

"I guess so," Imperioli ponders. "I mean, I think particularly My Bloody Valentine hit a nerve because the fans of that band are pretty rabid. There's not a lot of middle ground with that band, either. You don't know them, or you don't like them, or you really, really, really like them. Maybe not a lot of actors are into that kind of music, so maybe they think actors are gonna have a bit more mainstream taste. I'm pretty new to Instagram, only a few months really, but it's been really cool engaging with fans of The Sopranos or fans of mine who share similar musical taste. That's been really fun."

The show's groundbreaking use of popular music is a subject which comes up frequently on Imperioli and Schirripa's podcast. "The choice of music was very rarely on-the-nose," says Michael. "Whenever it was, it kind of stuck out. But it very rarely was." As the writer of five episodes, did he get to choose the songs? "Well, you could suggest whatever you like. It didn't necessarily get used. Because those choices were really made by Martin Bruestle, the post-production supervisor, as well as David Chase, who had the final say on everything, down to the final draft of the script. He would sometimes edit and put his own imprint on it, which I think is important because you need that unifying voice to always keep everything in the same stream. But you can suggest stuff, certainly, as a writer. It was not always accepted, but sometimes you might suggest something and it might be used in a different episode, or it might be turning them on to something they didn't know."

One of the most affecting scenes in the whole series involves Imperioli and a particularly inspired choice of music. In Season 6 episode The Ride, against the backdrop of the Feast Of St Elzear, a religious carnival for New Jersey's Italian-American community, recovering junkie Christopher falls off the wagon spectacularly. As he jacks up and gets high, Fred Neil's 1966 beauty 'Dolphins' begins to play. Christopher's descent into abject squalor, crashing out on a piece of waste ground and at one point hugging a stray dog for comfort, becomes oddly ravishing when set against the gently psychedelic blur of the lights of the Ferris wheel and Neil's reverberating guitars and poetic lyric. With a scene like that, would Imperioli have been notified beforehand about the song?

"For the most part, I was not told in advance about music, but with that particular scene I may have been told we were going to set it to 'Dolphins'. I don't remember for sure, but that scene, if any of them, would have been the one where I would have been aware of what song was being used. Because I think that was already set, and it works beautifully. I love it."

'Dolphins', however, isn't Imperioli's favourite tune on the series' 700+ track playlist. "My favourite song in The Sopranos soundtrack is 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory' by Johnny Thunders. That's the number one, for me, out of all the ones they use. Next would be 'Look On Down From The Bridge' by Mazzy Star, in season one. It's the end of an episode in the cemetery, and Tony's looking at his son. Mazzy Star starts playing, and it's tremendous."

Another selection Michael singles out for praise in Talking Sopranos is 'Turn Of The Century' by Damon & Naomi, which crops up in season one episode Denial, Anger, Acceptance when Christopher is delivering crystal meth to Tony's teenage daughter Meadow. That duo's former band are one of Imperioli's all-time favourites. "I was a big, big Galaxie 500 fan," he tells me, "and saw them every chance I could in New York, at CBGB's and The Knitting Factory and wherever, and I just always loved that sound. Just seeing them live was a really beautiful experience. They sounded just tremendous, the tone on Naomi Yang's bass and the way Damon used cymbals, just very distinctive."

My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, Galaxie 500: a picture is emerging. It would seem that early '90s dream-pop and shoegaze hold a very special place in Michael Imperioli's heart. His thirteen choices begin, though, at the very birth of rock & roll...

You can find the Talking Sopranos podcast here; click on the picture of Michael Imperioli below to begin reading his Baker's Dozen