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Tom Waits Meets Super-Joel

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A recent obituary in the Los Angeles Times began: "Bernie Boston, the photojournalist who captured the iconic image of a young Vietnam War protester placing a flower in the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman died...The photo known as 'Flower Power' became Boston's signature image and earned him acclaim in the world of photojournalism. Taken during an antiwar march on the Pentagon on Oct. 22, 1967, the photo was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize."

The protester, not identified, was Joel Tornabene. In my autobiography -- Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture, published by Simon & Schuster in 1993 -- I described him as "an unheralded Yippie organizer known as Super-Joel. His grandfather was Mafia boss Sam Giancana, but Super-Joel had dropped out of the family business. Instead, he let his hair grow long and distributed LSD. The intelligence division of the Chicago Police Department warned Giancana that Super-Joel shouldn't hang around with me. The cops were telling the Mafia that I was a bad influence. It could've been worse. The FBI planned to 'neutralize' Dick Gregory by alerting the Mafia to his verbal attacks on the crime syndicate."

Super-Joel once told me, "If it wasn't for acid, I with my Sicilian ancestry and you with your Jewish ancestry, we would never have become such close friends." And he kissed me on the forehead. But that was okay. It meant love now, not murder.

Super-Joel was arrested during the 1968 Democratic convention. He yelled and gave the cops the finger through the caged door at the back of the paddy wagon. He got arrested three times that week. He was just another anonymous Yippie. FBI files indicated that the government wanted to indict twenty individuals for conspiracy to cross state lines for the purpose of inciting a riot at the convention, but the grand jury wouldn't go along with such a wholesale indictment.

I wrote in my memoir that "Super-Joel's indictment was dropped when an attorney for...Sam Giancana, managed to persuade them that not only did Super-Joel come from 'a socially prominent family' in Chicago, but also that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial." However, in 2006, I learned that his sister, Fran, had said, "Our grandfathers were a Sicilian doctor and a Norwegian Irish carpenter. I can't imagine how anyone would actually believe that Giancana relationship."

I contacted her immediately, apologizing "for passing on false information," adding that "Although I included that story in my autobiography, recently I've had the rights reverted back to me, and I plan to have it re-published in an updated edition, so I will certainly include a postscript revealing that hoax."

She replied, "I think that Joel must have had quite a good time with the 'Giancana connection hoax.' I was first made aware of this story after his death in Mexico in 1993. His attorney, Dennis Roberts, came to Chicago to meet with my mother and our family. He seemed to be quite surprised to see a simple middle-class family home in Franklin Park, rather than a River Forest Mafia compound. I wasn't aware of the extent of this story until Prairie Prince, who I know Joel was close to for years, asked me a few years ago which side of the family was Giancana. Since then, I've seen your tale regarding his being moved to the unindicted co-conspirator list due to the 'grandfather connection.'"

"I'm embarrassed to admit that I believed it," I confessed, "simply because Joel was extremely convincing when he told me--so I'm a professional prankster who got pranked himself--but I really had no way of double-checking his personalized put-on."

And I'm not the only one who's been fooled like that. Another sister, Felicia, has located an interview in which Tom Waits is asked who Joel is.

Q. "Who's Joel Tornabene?"

A. "He's in the concrete biz. Mob guy. He was the grandson of Sam Giancana from Chicago. He did some yard work for me, and I hung out with him most of the time. He died in Mexico about five years ago. He was a good friend of [producer/composer] Hal Wilner, and he was a good guy. He had an errant--I don't know how to put this--he used to go around, and when he saw something he liked in somebody's yard, he would go back that night with a shovel, dig it up and plant it in your yard. We used to get a kick out of that. So I stopped saying, 'I really like that rosebush, I really like that banana tree, I really like that palm.' Because I knew what it meant. He came over once with twelve chickens as a gift. My wife said, 'Joel, don't even turn the car off. Turn that car around and take those chickens back where you found them.' He was a good friend, one of the wildest guys I've ever known."

Waits has written a song--"How's It Gonna End," on his album Real Gone--that includes this lyric: "Joel Tornabene lies broken on the wheel...."

And the ten-year-old son of Joel's cousin recently used Joel as a topic for a history project--he centered it on the '68 convention--titled "Someone Who Took a Stand."