Once Upon a Time in New Jersey *****

Who is this Johnny Boy Mollica and what does he want from us?  I first asked myself that question two summers ago when I was first introduced to his music in a small club in northern New Jersey called Antonia’s.  I was in the east writing a feature on an indie band that was performing in New York’s West Village and visiting some friends in Fort Lee, New Jersey, when one friend suggested we go out for some drinks and a little local music talent.  So, we did and there he was… performing solo, just on acoustic guitar and singing his heart out.  I found him to be entrancing—singing songs about street characters I had really only really come across on television, in the movies, and in Nelson Algren’s fiction (I grew up in the Midwest and all the tough guys I came in contact with were cowboys).  I introduced myself and told him that I was a rock journalist.  I asked him how he would describe what he was doing and he replied, “Wise guy rock, except tonight its wise guy folk because it’s just me on the guitar.”  He was engaging and I liked him right away.  

He was kind enough to give me two of his latest CD’s at that time—one simply called JOHNNY BOY and another called WEST NEW YORK.  Each collection included songs that were enormously entertaining and deeply moving to me and friends of mine that I played them for.  Songs like THE NIGHT OF THE BIG CHEAT, THE GHOSTS OF HUDSON AVENUE, DADDY’S LITTLE GIRL, HOBOKEN NIGHTS, MADE IN AMERICA, and THEY’LL NEVER FIND ME HERE made clear what he meant by “wise guy rock.”  They were all tales of small time Hudson County, NJ desperados looking for a short cut and the big score.  Highly cinematic, they brought to mind some of my favorite films like MEAN STREETS, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE and ON THE WATERFRONT.  Yet, there was something highly literate about the storytelling approach.  His protagonists were flawed, tragic characters all desperately configuring to break out of their doomed traps the only way they knew how… either with a gun, a weak plan, and always, always, with limited hope.  

In his song THEY’LL NEVER FIND ME HERE he laments:

Underneath a restless moon, I shot out the stars
I robbed a car in Jersey City, I didn’t get that far
The county cops nailed me on a Bayonne pier
Now I’m coming back to you, babe
They’ll never find me here

 In his song THE GHOSTS OF HUDSON AVENUE he sings:

Here I stand in the blackness of the desolation
This guy on the docks can get me a gun
Maybe this was my fate since my innocence fell
You gotta play the hand that you’re dealt
Maybe this time, you never can tell

In his song MADE IN AMERICA, the stakes are raised when he declares:

Daddy was a maniac, a family man
Made in America with the Black Hand
Raised on the streets, he grew up in the life 
Made in America with family pride

Still in all, the one song that really blew me away was his epic THE NIGHT OF THE BIG CHEAT.  

The night of the big cheat
I met Frankie on Ninth Street
He said that this one score
Would put me back on my feet
He made it all sound easy
Like a child's game
The capos and the soldiers
Would never know my name

Later, after being set up by the boys the central character regretfully howls:

Line up Bogy, Cagney, Robinson and Garfield
I’ll spit in their eyes and tell them all how I feel
About this life of crime that brought down all this heat
And put me on the lame on the night of the big cheat 

His compositions are deeply entrenched in the daily lives of characters that he calls in his song DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL the “Blood members of this strange blind place.”  He claims “These wizards don’t use mirrors in the guilty halls of harshness and darkness... they don’t fool around.”

However, writing about small-time wannabe gangster types is only one dimension of his urban tapestry.  Besides the themes of machismo, modern crime and violence, his songs suddenly become highly confessional discussing alienation, ill-fated love, Italian American Identity, Roman Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption, and personal identity, while remaining associative and lyrical enough to reflect the lives of his listeners.

In his song BONES IN THE LANDSCAPE, he moans:

I’m fighting my own battle with a broken sword
Going through the motions emotionally bored
Stillness in the moonlight, nobody’s around
Silent as the lifeless buried underground
The city in the shroud, drones on wearily 
Surmounting civilized thought… benighted urgency
Waiting eyes that watch me, convicting no one else
Even Judas had the grace to hang himself 

It’s a cruel world, no one cares
We’re all faceless, no one dares
Disturb the endless misery
The troubling anxiety
We’re all afraid and lonely
Bones in the landscape

In his song DEAD BOYS ON LOST DANCE FLOORS he faces his own mortality declaring:

As dirty rainwater 
Falls from death dark skies
And flows down angry gutters
The cruel hours crawl by
Ghosts of all my past pains
Handcuff my ragged heart
To dead boys on lost dance floors
They’re tearing me apart

RAINCOATS IN DECEMBER, a personal favorite of mine, is a modern, urban version of “Young Goodman Brown” as the protagonist’s innocence is crushed by the overwhelming discovery that:

Even Daddy’s got a secret, Mommy doesn’t know
I followed him one night, I know where he goes
Nothing is for certain, only dirty lies
Put your faith in nothing, its cryptic suicide
I stumble past the starers, I’m no one they’ll remember
I stand among the weary raincoats in December

This brings me to his newest offering ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW JERSEY.  Upon first hearing the title I asked him if he was at all worried about playing up the whole New Jersey thing.  I told him let’s not forget, to many listeners, Springsteen owns the territory and the subject matter.   He frowned and responded, “Hey, man, this is where I was born and raised.  I’m a Jersey boy.  My slant is a little different based on the part of the state I grew up in and my experiences.  This is who I am.  Should Woody Allen and Spike Lee not make movies about New York City because Martin Scorsese does?  And should Scorsese not have made any films at all set in NYC because Sidney Lumet was doing it before him?  I don’t think so.  End of story….”  

The CD begins with a song which attempts to champion the Occupy Wall Street Movement called THE GANGS OF NEW YORK (paying tribute to the Scorsese film and the book it was loosely based on).  In this narrative, Johnny Boy parallels the tensions that exist today in America over class warfare with the New York City draft riots of 1863.  It is an angry indictment against the “privileged few” and the “idle rich” ending with the announcement that “time passes over us, but shadows remain.”  The whole tone of this piece reeks of unrest and potential violence as he concludes:

So, meet me in the shadows of Paradise Square…
PS, we’ll come and get you tonight if you’re not there 

In his song GHOSTS AND CRIMES, he informs us of his personal hardships and struggles to remain free and true to his ideals in a world that tries daily to beat individuality out of us:

There's a journal written in my blood
It’s the tale of my sorrows and loves
I keep asking the mirror of time

Is this the end of the line?

Alone with my ghosts and my crimes?

In his song NEW JERSEY LUCK, he’s back on the streets playing the role of the small time hood confessing:

I rob the girls’ pocketbooks while they’re on the dance floor
I blow them all kisses as I strut out the door
I got me a honey on the other side of town
We’re gonna kick it all night in a Weehawken lounge
I stood where Burr shot Hamilton and I counted my bucks
It’s a five finger discount… it’s New Jersey luck 

In his song FALSE WHISPERS, he assails his former love telling her that her “False whispers speak louder than screams…”  He goes on to say:

The credits roll, the names that have scarred you
Disappear like melting snow
They left you cold, manipulated and marred you
Everything you already know
Now, it’s all futile… it’s a disgrace
The treachery behind your pretty face  

The last track is a beautifully written ballad entitled OUR STORY WILL BE TOLD.  It sounds like something that could have been on Dylan’s BLOOD ON THE TRACKS album.  It chronicles the love of two outsiders who find love, lose it, and reclaim it.  In one of the song’s darker verses he states:

Sin always brings plague, the serpents arrived
Like a wagon full of corpses, not a bit of hope survived
Slaughtered like a boar, ravaged like a crow
How I would survive I did not know
I became a fiend I sank so low

The chorus finally reunites the lovers and assures them of fairytale-like immortality in one of his more hopeful choruses:

Sunset red over Hudson skies
Meet me in the shadows
Under the bridge tonight
With lilac in your hair
And the flush of marigolds
Forever cloaked in rainbows
We’ll never grow old
And from the lips of angels
Our story will be told 

I’ll say no more.  Obviously I love these songs.  To me, each one is a gem.  If I had to sum up what Johnny Boy Mollica is I’d describe him as an urban hoodlum/poet version of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan all rolled up in one.  When I mentioned this to him, he said these artists were his “favorite teachers.”  Specifically, he said, “What Springsteen did for the south Jersey beaches, boardwalks, loners, and dirt roads, I’m attempting to do for northern NJ’s streets, projects, poolrooms and bars… explicitly, Hudson County.”  

Still in all, to this reviewer, his overall final effect is highly original.  To me, his approach to songwriting is very much like Quentin Tarantino’s approach to screen writing-- borrowing from all of his favorite storytellers whether they be filmmakers, novelists or television writers, only to produce fresh, highly acclaimed final products. 

I can not believe that thus far some record company hasn’t grabbed him and promoted him to national acclaim.  His uplifting melodies are infectious and again his lyric writing is superb.  

I’ll close by quoting him one last time.  In his stark naked rendering EVERY DOG HAS ITS DAY he states:

I was bullied as a young kid, abused everyway
Dark places I hid, I still live there today
It’s written on my cover, all of my falls
I stand before you famous for nothing at all
So, tell me what’s good and I’ll tell you what ain’t
I’ll push through the chaos in my war paint
But my moment’s coming, I’ll have my say
I ain’t finished yet… every dog has its day

I sure hope he does.  This wonderful talent deserves it.  Bravo, Johnny Boy Mollica!  Keep ‘im coming!  I’ll be listening….

Ethan Scott
Contributing Editor of ROCK RAG… Tucson, AZ
August 2015

Watch for Ethan’s upcoming book

REBEL VOICES: Today’s Indie Music Scene
Ethan is also the author of The Cellar Sessions, Volumes 1, 2, and 3