Last week, I wrote an article about jamband musicians who exhibited criminal behavior. This week, I would like to profile a criminal who exhibited behavior with odd parallels to the jamband scene: the late “Crazy Joe” Gallo, immortalized in the Bob Dylan song “Joey” (which was performed sporadically by the Grateful Dead over the years) and generally regarded as one of the more offbeat characters from the decidedly non-traditional world of organized crime.
Let me say at the outset that while over the years Gallo has developed a reputation as something of a folk hero, my intent is not to support that notion. Dylan has said many times over the years that the sympathetic “Joey” is a modern twist on the classic “outlaw ballad,” and Gallo was a brutal thug who used violence and murder, against civilians as well as fellow mobsters, to establish himself as a dominant underworld figure in his Brooklyn neighborhood between the late 1950s and his assassination in the early 1970s.
However, Gallo took a unique approach to the gangster life that was similar in many ways to the approach jamband musicians have taken to the rock n roll life. Don’t believe me? Take a quick look at three facets of Crazy Joe’s life of crime that might have brought him closer to Moby Grape than the Mob.
Following the Beat
Avid reader Gallo devoured books by Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac as well as the existential philosophers who influenced Kerouac and his buddies. The Beat writers were a major influence on the original jamband scene of the mid-60s, real-life Kerouac compatriot Neal Cassady even drove the Dead around in Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus and was immortalized in their song “That’s It For the Other One” as “Cowboy Neal at the wheel.”
In the late 60s and early 70s, Gallo hung out at the same Greenwich Village bars and cafes that many jamband musicians hung out and performed at, and discussed philosophy and poetry with the beatniks and hippies who formed the nucleus of the jamband audience. Self-improvement expert Charlie “Tremendous” Jones said “”You are the same today as you’ll be in five years except for two things, the books you read and the people you meet.” Who would’ve thought a gangster was reading the same books and meeting the same people as the musicians at the center of the Love Generation?
Gallo was unusual among notoriously ethnic-oriented mobsters for recruiting a diverse group of criminals into his gang, including Arab- and African-Americans. In the early days of the jamband scene, groups like the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead also flouted the ethnic-oriented music industry of the time, including African-Americans as official members (Allman Brothers Band drummer Jaimoe) or as regular collaborators (Merl Saunders with the Dead).
Double bills at the Fillmore in the 1960s pioneered the pairing of predominantly white jambands like Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company with the black blues performers who influenced them, like BB King and Bo Diddley. Gallo’s gang operated like a jamband – if you fit in and could do the work, who you were or where you were from wasn’t so important.
Jambands have gone from social and musical outlaws to an accepted part of mainstream culture. Furthur plays Obama benefits, Jerry Seinfeld is a Phish fan, college Greek culture centers around the Dave Matthews Band. Gallo also “went respectable” at the end of his life, counting famous actors such as Jerry Orbach and Ben Gazarra among his closest friends and finding himself the inspiration of books and features by esteemed New York journalists such as Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.
Like a jamband musician, Gallo broke the rules long enough to rewrite them. He may not have been admirable, but he was suited to his times and was inspired in a very different direction by the same countercultural philosophies and social forces that inspired the jamband musicians of his day and ours.