Vinyl Episode 1 - Darkness at the Heart of "Record Man"
by Joshua B. Hoe
This is a recap and will include "spoilers" so don't read it if you want to maintain surprise and suspense. I recently wrote a pre-cap of the series as well.
So, while the rest of the world watched the Mid-Season Premier of TWD, I watched Vinyl (because Music, duh).
Before I get going I have to stop and just bow down to the BATSH*T crazy Terrance Winter.
If you have ever seen Tin Cup, Winter is a guy who just "goes for it" no matter what. Clubs burning down, gangland murders, brutal shakedowns, drugs and sex everywhere, no fear in his game.
Also have to take my hat off to the music choices, very impressive.
The Big Premise
When I first saw the songlist a few weeks ago for episode one, I was wondering how the classic Blues and R&B tracks would integrate (no pun intended) into the story of a white record executive.
Turns out that was exactly the point.
The central theme of Episode 1 was this:
The house of rock and roll was built on exploitation and stealing from African-American musicians.
Which is pretty much 110% true.
But what about the actual narrative arc?
The main character in Vinyl is Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) the owner of a record label called American Century Records.
Okay, so the main character story is that Richie Finestra, a bartender, got into the business by networking with and becoming the manager for a gifted blues artist Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh). Grimes chooses to work with Finestra because he has a 'great ear' and because they get along well. Richie chooses to work with Grimes because he is a legitimate blues artist and friend.
Finestra hooks up with a record label as an A&R guy (important to note that all of the record executives at this label are white and often mob-connected) while many of the artists are Black.
So, Richie's mentor at the label expects Richie to learn to distance himself from the artists and use them as cash cows. One thing we learn about his character is that over time, he has turned exploiting his artists into such an art form that nobody credible will sign with him anymore.
Anyway, long story short, Richie allows the label to turn Grimes into a pop artists (or as Grimes calls it making "kids music"), sells him out and cheats him of payments, and eventually leaves him in the hands of the mob when he bolts the label (at the first opportunity).
Oh, Richie is also, once we catch him up to real time, struggling with a serious drug problem.
Sounds like a great guy so far right (Only gets better on that front)?
Winter clearly is making a much bigger point here. This is not just about the linear story line. I know this is true because Winter "haunts" Richie with several ghosts throughout the show.
The first ghost to appear is the ghost of Ruth Brown singing "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" during the scene where his mentor tells him to exploit his artists.
The second ghost is Chris Kenner and Allen Toussaint's "I like It Like That" which was recorded by several white acts after it was a hit for Kenner.
There is also the ghost of a particularly mocking Bo Diddley, whose caricature almost seems to be laughing in the face of Finestra at his birthday party (if you don't know what is meant by the Bo Diddley beat - this is it).
Richie's music problem seems threefold:
1) At the heart of Rock and Roll is an exploitation of black music and artists. Richie knows deep down he is part of this, and everything he loved about music is what he now takes advantage of.
2) At the heart of Richie is an exploitation of all artists, and this has resulted in him making money but pushing no artists he connects with or cares about
3) There is no longer anything at the heart of what he does, he has lost his way entirely. So much so that his label is bleeding money and he is contemplating selling it to German investors (Polygram).
I think Winter might be using Richie as a metaphor for what has gone wrong with music. Way too much exploitation, way too little caring about music, and a dark history of oppression that has gone unaddressed (no amends have been made).
Richie has certainly not made his amends, during the episode he strays into the Bronx because of traffic problems, here's what has to be one of the Kool DJ Herc house parties, and wants to go in. He is stopped and told to leave by none other than his old friend Lester Grimes (although he is too drugged up/exhausted to be anything but haunted by this encounter).
Enter Punk Rock
Okay, I have some real issues with Winter's treatment of Punk here. Two "punk" bands are highlighted:
Richie starts the episode off by heading to a New York Dolls concert at The Mercer Art Center (this is a Tarantino style wrap-around device - the episode is told in flashback after the intro starting at five days before this concert).
The second punk band is called "Nasty Bits."
The secretary of the A&R department at American Century records is a girl named Jamie Vine (Juno Temple). She is a HUSTLER with capital H. She provides the drugs to the executives and is looking for an angle so she can move up inside the company.
She intercepts a tape by the band Naughty Bits from their singer Kip Stevens (James Jagger). Kip is basically playing John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) in a Sex Pistols type band here (Jamie even suggests to him that his persona should be nihilist indifference).
Somehow, Jamie gets the Nasty Bits tape to Richie who hears something special in it while he is having a drinking and drug spree at home. His child walks in on him losing his mind, and his wife (Olivia Wilde) lets him know how intolerable he has become.
He leaves the house and goes to the Dolls show where apparently it sinks in that punk is the "New Thing" he has been looking for.
My issues with this are as follows:
1) Why move the Sex Pistols to NYC and make them the vanguard of NYC punk?
This makes no sense to me. I get that Mick Jagger is a producer and his son has a British accent, but NYC had its own Punk bands developing at this time (beyond the Dolls). You might have heard of The Ramones? A little later The Dead Boys (and Dead Boys kind of had the same ethos)?
This just seems unnecessarily ahistorical. Yes, I know Sid moved to NYC. Yes, I know the Pistols toured the US. Yes, I know there was crossover starting with Ramones playing the Roundhouse. But, this is a New York story about Punk being the NEW sound. That happened in NYC and later happened in London.
I just don't get why you make London punk the center of a NY story when NY punk predated London punk.
2) What are you folks really saying?
Richie needs to heal what he did to music, not connect to the next big thing.
Winter is right on that the gaping hole at the center of the awfulness of most 1970's Rock and Roll was how it gentrified and sucked the soul right out of the Blues.
I certainly get that Richie isn't going to heal. I get that he is not only a suspect narrator, but probably a doomed one.
But this first episode played like the beginning of a Rock and Roll Exorcism, and I don't know how in the world Punk can heal what he (and the music industry) did to the Blues.
3) How can this Punk save anything?
The punk you are portraying with the "Nasty Bits" is Sex Pistols Punk which lasted maybe 2 years. It resulted in a total collapse of this brand of nihilist punk. The collapse was so total that everything after the fall was called Post-punk even though much of it musically still fit into Punk.
Again, I understand that he will likely fail. Just don't understand what the larger argument about music is here. Maybe it is just too early in the show.
Stuff I Left Out
So, because of a bizarre payola problem with a powerful but crazy radio executive named Frank "Buck" Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay) Richie is also a murderer.
Yup, addicted to drugs, losing his business, exploitative and destructive to artists, bad husband, and murderer. You know, "Rock and Roll."
I don't have too much to say here except to give a shout out to Andrew Dice Clay. I have not always been much of a fan, but he killed it here. If I had to rank performances in this episode, his might be #1.
The other two performances I really thought were nuanced and great were Olivia Wilde (in very little screen time and with a backstory that seems pretty contrived, she still was really good) and Juno Temple as the A&R secretary hustling to get ahead.
Over The Top
Overall, it was a strong start, and the music (aside from the Naughty Bits) was outstanding.
If I have one criticism so far it is of the direction (yes, I know it was Scorsese). I have been to a billion seedy clubs to see bands, and you really don't need to make every person look TOTALLY freaky, it is more subtle than that. One counterculture image with impact would be much more impactful than having every single person look outlandish.
I know it is ostensibly a tale about excess, but did we really need the Mercer Art Center to collapse in the middle of the concert. I think it would have been much better to have that be part of his drug fueled delusion personally (especially since the effects came across as pretty cheesy). Yes, I know there was actually a collapse, but not during a concert and not with the Dolls involved.
It also strained credulity a bit for him to live this kind of musically charmed life where he can just find the birth of rap and punk in a five day period. I am willing to give you some artistic license but come on.
That said, thanks for including music by the late greats Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, and Allen Toussaint.
What did you think of the first episode of Vinyl? Did you agree or disagree with my criticisms? This post is only missing your opinion, leave a comment!