Creator David Chase Revisits the Music of 'The Sopranos'
Prepare to nerd out and go DEEP on his use of everything from Andrea Bocelli to Slipknot to Al Green to the infamous scene with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
Just before the moment that would precede its end credits and immortalize its place in television history, the 2007 series finale of The Sopranos introduces one last crucial character: a jukebox. Its table-side extension resting between the booths where New Jersey mob boss and patriarch, Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini), sits for a meal at Holsten’s diner, the jukebox rings out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as per Tony’s selection. Filling its own resident corner of Americana with that slice of 1980s arena rock, the jukebox summons the arrival of Tony’s wife, son, and daughter to their family night out — that is, until The Sopranos creator, David Chase, abruptly pulls its plug, along with the visuals of the scene, to end the show in utter blackness and silence. Although many have associated Chase with his groundbreaking series’ notoriously ambiguous (non-)ending, a greater symbol of his influence is to be found in that final sequence’s jukebox: an omnipresent machine that breathes the last breath of sonic life into The Sopranos, whose six seasons sprawl with musical ingenuity.
Chase’s long-cultivated rock ’n’ roll persona, says Sopranos co-writer and co-producer, Matthew Weiner, is the last entity to scratch its name into the fabric of the show: “It’s just like smashing your guitar. [David] was banging and destroying his guitar, and saying, ‘Tony Soprano has left the building,’” Weiner told EmmyTVLegends.org. If Chase is his series finale’s jukebox, then the message of his last, defiant song is, Just as I brought you into this world, so can I take you out. Just as I created this world, so too can I destroy it.
Ever the rebel spirit, Chase typically denies fans and critics’ requests to decode the ‘meaning’ or ‘intent’ of The Sopranos and its myriad aesthetic and thematic layers. Nonetheless, eight years after The Sopranos’ conclusion, Noisey caught up with Chase to consider, in stream-of-consciousness fashion, many tracks from the show’s acclaimed and eclectic soundtrack whose compilation he oversaw. A work of hybrid mastery, Chase’s Sopranos soundtrack mines from and mashes up a multiplicity of artists, genres, and aural moods to paint the landscape of its portrayed realms of the Italian-American mafia, suburban family life, and modern psychotherapy. Though Chase remained against interpretation of several moments of The Sopranos throughout our conversation, his revisitation of some choice cuts from the show's soundtrack revealed more about his creative process and sensibility than any literal reading of a song’s lyrics or a scene’s shots. Chase tells us he loves “going in and out of levels” — and that he does, as he zigzags between his various levels of musical authorship to navigate The Sopranos’ depicted themes surrounding class, corruption, crime, gender, race, religion, the Gangster and Western genres, psychological illness, and what it means to be ‘the Man,’ and the anti-hero, in the 21st century.
NOISEY: A key feature that makes The Sopranos a ‘Jersey’ show is its grounding in the rock world. Tony Soprano’s consigliere, Silvio Dante, is in touch with the New Jersey rock club scene. In his past, Silvio wanted to be a singer, which didn’t work out, so he became a mobster.
David Chase: The show reached out on its own, because it’s informed by the fact that Silvio is [E Street Band guitarist] Stevie Van Zandt, who started his real-life career just like that. It has that echo.
Stevie Van Zandt once said that you first insisted that The Sopranos’ soundtrack should be comprised mostly of bands that Tony and his wife, Carmela, would have really listened to in high school.
Not exclusively, and it never was. But certainly any song that Tony would be listening to, that he would have on his radio stations, that would be the case. That’s part of the reason why “Don’t Stop Believin’” was there. He would’ve liked that song as a kid or a young man. That would have been part of his playlist.
Stevie thought that you meant you’d have to throw in a lot of crap from that era…
I used to tease him. One time I scared the shit out of him and said we were gonna have a song by Lover Boy and he went, “Oh, no!” Yeah, “throw in a lot of crap,” that’s his take on it.
Steven’s comments bring to mind the question of ‘quality’ versus ‘authenticity’ when it comes to scoring the show. Were there times during which you deemed the authenticity of what the characters would listen to was more important than your idea of ‘quality’ music, or vice versa?
That’s a really good question, and a tough question. Would I use the word “quality”? I’d put it this way: you can’t just have cool songs. The songs can’t all be good, because life isn’t like that. You listen to the radio and there’s a lot of shit. You go to your friends house and they put on something or you hear music from upstairs and go, “Oh, God, I can’t stand that!” I’ve seen people do this, where every song is a cool song. It takes you out of the moment.
In season two, episode one, “Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office,” Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” plays during the opening montage. The song feels like a meditation on the characters’ movement into the future…
The intention was to show the characters alone and in the beginning of this new phase of their life. “It Was a Very Good Year” was the one time in which we used music to comment on… ‘Meta’ is the word, but I don’t really like that… We were commenting on the fact that the show had been so successful. That was part of the joke: season one had been “a very good year.” That was the only time we ever did that. But it did work for the story, for the characters.
It’s a montage of looks. Tony’s mother, Livia, stares into the distance, Carmela stares into the distance as she’s carrying food to the table, Tony’s capo, Paulie Walnuts, grimaces as he’s having sex with his mistress, Silvio stares in the mirror, Tony’s son, AJ, stares in the mirror…
The whole show was about aging, time, and mortality. At absolute bedrock, that’s what The Sopranos was about: how we use our time on Earth. And that was one of the first instances of presenting that theme musically. That’s why we had people by themselves looking in mirrors off into space. They’re reflecting.
Characters’ reflections are often expressed musically in the show. For Carmela, Andrea Bocelli’s rendition of “Con Te Partiro” throughout season two signifies her reflections on her relationship with Tony.
“Con Te Partiro” we used four or five times. That song was immensely popular at that time. That’s the reason we used it, it was in the air all the time. If Carmela and her friends were real people living in New Jersey. They would have loved that song, heard it all the time and been playing it all the time. I didn’t want to investigate the lyrics, because that song worked emotionally without you understanding what [Bocelli] was saying. What that meant, for Carmela, was: “I want to be anywhere but here. I don’t want my life. I want a different life.” That means nostalgia for the old country. Andrea Bocelli is portrayed in the media as a gentle, sweet man. He’s blind, he could never hurt anyone. The complete opposite of Tony. Someone she could mother, nurture, and who always would say “Thank you” instead of “That’s what we’re having for dinner tonight?” That’s what was going through her mind. I remember it playing when the women are having lunch in Vesuvio…
Yes, in episode four of season two, “Commendatori.” It recurs later when Tony watches mob boss, Annalisa Zucca, sunbathe in Italy, and there’s a cut back to Janice walking in on Carmela, who’s listening to the song. Janice says to Carmela, “This song, Jesus…”
Janice, at that point and time, was more of a rebel, more intellectual. Janice had been living in Seattle, and you know what was going on in Seattle at that time. Janice was just way hip, too hip for that song.
She’s rejecting identification with the plight of women who love the song. In that way, it’s Janice expressing a feminist idea.
It is a feminist idea. Those Italian pieces, it’s really all about pain. Even if you didn’t understand the language, you understand the emotion of those song. “Con Te Partiro” sounded like opera, but it wasn’t. And it was playing so much that Janice saying that about it was reinforcing her outsider status. Later on, Janice goes back into the old New Jersey matrix, and is one of the wives. And at that point, Janice is still a counterculture person in her head. To Janice, “Con Te Partiro” is terribly middle-brow, so middle-class. It’s kitsch.
Another spin on pop culture’s musical “kitsch” in The Sopranos is the use of the Big Mouth Billy Bass in episode seven of season three, “Second Opinion.” The toy plays Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” referencing the whacking of Tony’s former capo, “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, whose body was ‘dropped in the water,’ a la the song’s lyrics. Initially, you wanted the toy to sing Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but McFerrin disliked the content of the show and didn’t allow it to be licensed for the episode…
Bobby McFerrin should’ve not worried and been happy. There were things that were done on The Sopranos purely for a laugh. What happened at the end with Billy Bass? Did somebody hit a guy with it?
Tony smashed Georgie, the strip club bartender, over the head with it.
[Laughs] Well, yeah, if it had been “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” that’s really a simple-minded, stupid joke, right? You’re hearing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and somebody’s getting beat over the head with it. Once we didn’t have that, we added “Take Me to the River” for the reasons that you’re suggesting. By that point Tony had that whole revelation about Pussy and the fish. So whenever he saw that Billy Bass thing, it reminded him of that. He had that dream sequence about the talking fish.
You’re stressing that a lot of these moments were done as punch-lines — that they’re not always loaded with meaning. But then, The Sopranos is a show about psychoanalysis.
That’s all a part of it: to reduce [therapy] to that. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was Meher Baba, that was his admonition and his slogan. So, here’s Tony Soprano struggling with his internal psychic world, his pain, his brutality, his problems, and his sadness… To have it be reduced to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”… We should all be able to do that! That would be great! I guess that’s what Meher Baba was saying: that’s simply what you need to do. But that would be impossible for Tony Soprano, or for almost all of us.
One song whose meaning has been dissected to death is Material & William S. Burroughs’ “Seven Souls,” featured in the opening sequence of episode one of season six, part I, “Members Only.”
I’m not going to interpret the sequence, but I will tell you we tried to have that song in the pilot, and it didn’t work. Later, I dreamed of this sequence with that song in mind. The great things about that song… There is the counterpoint of William Burroughs’ voice against that music. The information in there about the ancient Egyptians, who said there were seven souls and they all had a different name — I found that, on a spiritual and on an informational level, fascinating. It goes to which I said earlier, the overarching or underlying theme of the series, which is death, and the fleeting nature of life.
Slipknot’s “Eyeless” plays from AJ’s room in episode two of season three, “Proshai Livushka,” and AJ is a huge metal fan. He also clings to existentialism, experiences the same bouts with depression that Tony does, and is coming to grips with the fact that his father murders people for a living. Metal speaks to the doomy, morbid themes that AJ would probably want to explore as he comes to terms with what his father does, and what his identity is.
The first thing to consider for AJ’s musical taste was that a lot of young men or boys his age are death-obsessed, morbid. Maybe there was a time when it wasn’t death metal, and a time when it wasn’t even heavy metal, but a lot of teenage, American boys are very into destructive-sounding music.
Almost everybody hates AJ [laughs], and I have never understood it. He’s very relatable, a typical teenage kid. Obviously he’s not gonna be the valedictorian of his class, and he’s got some problems. When you say that his father was a murderer — of course he was. I never understood this disgust with AJ. I don’t know how he could have turned out any differently than he did. And he’s to be commended, and so are his parents, because it’s pretty obvious at the end of the show that AJ is not gonna be a killer like his father, and not gonna be a thief and a liar. Maybe a liar. We all lie. But he’s not gonna be a thief, a bully, and a murderer. That’s progress.
In episode ten of season one, “A Hit is a Hit,” The Sopranos foregrounds racial tensions between white, Italian-American gangsterism and black/African-American ‘OG’ gangsterism in hip-hop.
There was a lot of admiration [of the Italian mafia] on the part of rappers. Someone named Capone…
Capone of Capone ’N’ Noreaga.
[Laughs] Irv Gotti! There was a lot of that. We were just interested in that phenomenon, and trying to reflect what was really happening with that music at that time in the country. The African-American ‘gangsta’ scene had some of the outer-trappings of the Italian mafia, when it reality it was nothing like it. But you know, it’s about masculinity. It’s bad-boy-ism and masculinity.
Ja Rule’s “Holla, Holla,” which is produced by Irv Gotti, plays at a house party being thrown by Tony’s daughter, Meadow, in Livia’s house in episode three of season two, “Toodle Fucking-Oo.” There’s a sense that it’s an incursion of young, contemporary, non-white music in Meadow’s grandmother’s house. It signifies a generational shift.
Exactly. It’s a generational shift, a social class shift. That was a big shift, a seismic shift. African-American music has always been highly valued by young, white Americans, and the British too, going way back to the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues. Again, that was an attempt at being true to the era, to have a feel of contemporaneity about it. At a white suburban party, you have African-American gangster music. Which I saw, I experienced that myself. I had a daughter that age. I could be wrong about this, but I think what’s a little bit different about it is that young, white American females were into that music, that ‘bad boy’ music.
In episode eight of season three, “He Is Risen,” Tony’s “bad boy” status takes the form of the Western influenced anti-hero, especially when it comes to his opposition to Ralphie. As Ralphie and Tony square off and look at one another in a casino, The Ramrods’ version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is playing on the jukebox…
The Western motif in The Sopranos goes back to the pilot. The imago figure that Tony picks out to talk about how Americans have lost their bravery, their ability to self-contain, and to stand up to trouble silently and with dignity was Gary Cooper. He came back to that several times. It’s also a comment on the fact that the Western is another genre. There’s Gangster movies and there’s Westerns, and the two are not the same. They have different pasts, everything is different about them. There were times when we wanted to make that apparent — that the ethos of the Western is not the same as the Gangster.
Episode one of season four, “For All Debts, Public and Private,” features Dean Martin’s rendition of “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” a song which later resurfaces over the end credits of episode five of season four, “Pie-O-My”…
This is what I’m talking about, the difference between the two genres. The Cowboy movie was a story about a hero, and the Gangster movie is not really about a hero — it’s about an anti-hero, if you even want to call it that. If there can even be grace with that. But what I mean by that is, there’s a paradox with Tony, who refers to himself as a “fat fuckin’ crook from New Jersey,” and who in any way compares himself to Gary Cooper or sees himself as a cowboy. Cowboys were laconic. They didn’t talk a lot. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” that was John Wayne’s famous quote. In Tony’s world, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” is betraying your friends, squealing to the cops — there were plenty of people like that in his organization, though he never did it — taking as much as you can for yourself, and fuck the other person. It’s so diametrically not a Western. As Westerns went on, we began to see the Western anti-hero. But that’s not what Tony’s looking for, and that’s not what “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” is about. That’s about the classic Western hero.
At the end of “Pie-O-My,” Tony is shown smoking a cigar in a stable with his horse, Pie-O-My. So, that “Ghost Riders in the Sky” cue from the jukebox in “He Is Risen” is foreboding — Tony is squaring off with Ralphie, who will later set fire to Tony’s pony to collect insurance money.
The primary impulse, there, was to suggest the feud of ‘the Man’ as expressed in American movies: the tough guy, the ‘Man.’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is a sardonic comment on how those two guys would be eyeing each other, because they are not cowboy heroes, they’re not gunslingers. They don’t meet in the middle of the street and draw against each other. In reality, I don’t think that that ever happened, actually [laughs], but certainly it did in the movies. So there’s a sense of the pathetic that musically describes that whole trope to those two gangsters from New Jersey.
This has to do with me also. I grew up in a time when the Western was king, on television and especially in the movies. When I was a kid, I had cowboy hats, two six-guns. There was this great gun I had called the Fanner 50, and I had a Red Rider rifle and cowboy boots. This was extremely important in my life. And I went from that to the Gangster movie growing up. These movies are all, in a way, descriptive of how to be ‘the Man’ or how not to be ‘the Man.’
The opening and end credits music in “For All Debts Public and Private,” Time Zone’s “World Destruction,” characterizes Tony and his crew as men linked to the most destructive facets of society — whether it’s capitalism run amuck, corruption, greed, or how all of those facets erode the communities in which they live.
Great song. It has the feeling that this is the atmosphere in which Tony Soprano lives — that feeling of end times, a feeling of “Where are we going, how did we get here?” A feeling that Paulie, for example, doesn’t really trouble himself with. Phil Leotardo, I don’t think he troubled himself that much with that. Little Carmine, I don’t think those guys care. But Tony reflects on all that stuff, and everything going on in the world has a deep effect on him. And, I can’t stress this enough: it’s just a motherfucking kick-ass song. If you want to lead off your TV season with something where people [laughs] are gonna sit up and listen, you can’t get better than that.
John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown,” the song-poem at the end of episode two of season six, part II, “Stage Five,” is another of The Sopranos’ “motherfucking kick-ass songs.” Did you have a relationship with John Cooper Clarke’s music prior to the show?
Yes, I did. I used to listen to KCRW in Santa Monica all the time. That was a great resource when I lived out there. And one night around 11 o’ clock I was listening on headphones and some DJ on some station played this thing called “Evidently Chickentown,” and I said, “Someday, someday! Someday that’s going in something!” I’m very proud of that. I thought that worked really well. That music took the curse off of something in that episode. I have only myself to blame, but we were flirting a little bit too much with The Godfather: going from the church, to this, to back to the church, to the baptism. Then I re-read the script, and I thought the use of that song was so counterpoint to that Godfather, operatic thing that it helped a lot.
In episode seven of season four, “Watching Too Much Television,” the song the guys play to welcome Paulie back from jail that Paulie calls “my song” is Frank Sinatra’s “Nancy (with the Laughing Face).” Bobby Bacala turns to Silvio and asks, “What the fuck? Why is this is song?” Nobody knows the answer, and it’s never explained why it’s significant to him. Is this another one of The Sopranos’ open-ended mysteries?
That song was written by Phil Silvers about his daughter, Nancy. Frank Sinatra recorded it. Somehow — talk about what people know and don’t know — Paulie would’ve heard that story. And the fact that Phil Silvers wrote it would count for him. What he was really attracted to was the emotionality of that song, or maybe hearing that it was about a little girl. If he was a true sociopath, he’d get all blubbery about that. He has no kids. He has nothing to identify with there, you know? …“Nancy (with the Laughing Face)” [laughs]!
That struggle to identify with someone is conveyed The Kinks’ live version of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” which plays over the end credits of episode ten of season five, “Cold Cuts.” The song is about the experience of feeling like your pain and your suffering is far worse than anybody else’s, or whatever anybody else could imagine.
[Laughs] Yeah, right. That’s true. You know what my favorite part about that song is? In that version, they’re the song along, and Dave Davies says “What are you?” And the audience goes, “I’m not like everybody else!” And it’s like 5,000 people saying that [laughs]!
Tony sabotages and walks out of Janice’s Sunday dinner by baiting her into a rage. His ‘happiness’ for her only goes so far. When he realizes she’s calmer, less angry, it’s too much for him to take.
He doesn’t want to be alone with that. He wants her back in his cesspool. He doesn’t want her escaping that family.
That encapsulates Tony’s character, and in many ways, this is a song that could apply to everybody on The Sopranos.
I think you’re right. That one lyric, “I’m not gonna take it all lying down,” could be applied to everybody on the show.