Vinyl (HBO): Meet The Ghosts

Over the span of my four episode recaps I have make the case that one of the narrative devices being used by Vinyl's writers is the "haunting" of  the principle characters by "ghosts" that musically represent the internal struggles that they are facing. 

I believe these ghosts, much like the hat in the Cohen Brothers movie Miller's Crossing, are very important to understanding the characters and, in some cases, the larger issues in music they are standing in for.

These "ghosts" are also shout-outs to some of the great music artists of all-time. Many of them are not recognized today for what they contributed to music.

Perhaps the most important statement the show makes using these "ghosts" is that Rock and Roll in the 70's owed a great unpaid debt to Black music (this was particularly apparent in Episode One). You could certainly make the argument that part of the argument the show is putting forward is that music sucks when it forgets what makes it great.

In that spirit, and since I saw that the new tracks released for Episode 5 include a track by the late great Rosco Gordon ("Let's Get High") I thought I would pay homage quickly to one of the greatest living ghosts in music today - the incomparable Antoine "Fats" Domino Jr.

Two weeks ago, Fats celebrated a birthday (88th), and I wanted to take this chance in print to at least mention one of the greatest artists of the Rock and Roll  generation. In addition to being called the "King of Rock and Roll" by Elvis Presley and inspiring both John Lennon and David Bowie, the Fat Man is also the living bridge between the boogie-woogie style of music and  Rock and Roll. 

In addition, both Fats and Rosco (both piano players) had HUGE influence on reggae and ska music.  Happy belated birthday to one of the all-time quiet giants, Fats Domino.

And now a review of the ghosts! As new ghosts enter the show, I will update this list!

Ruth Brown

Ruth Brown represents how terrible a person Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) has become in her appearance (Singing the song "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean"), signifying he treats pretty much everyone wrong. But in context, in her time, Ruth Brown was a massive superstar. Brown in her heyday was known as  "Miss Rhythm," as "The Queen of R&B," and Atlantic Records was often called "The House That Ruth Built."

Not sure why her name doesn't "ring out" today - but glad Vinyl gave her a much deserved shout out!

Here are some of her hits:

Chris Kenner and Allen Toussaint

This was one of my errors, I am not 100% sure that the inclusion of Kenner and Toussaint's classic song was a plot point. I think I rushed to make Kenner a ghost mostly because I love the song and I love Allen Toussaint (one of the true giants of New Orleans music).

However, Chris Kenner's biggest hit was this song (reached #2) and was covered and made even more popular by several white acts (so that would reinforce the plot).

Sadly, Alen Toussaint recently passed away. If you are not familiar with his work you should absolutely become a fan of him, The Meters, Professor  Longhair, and Doctor John. Trust me, it will be good for your soul!

Bo Diddley

The late great Bo Diddley was so amazing he has his own beat (The Bo Diddley beat). Seriously, ask any drummer who is old enough to play a "Bo Diddley Beat" and they will know exactly what you are asking for.

On the show Vinyl, Bo Diddley shows up and mocks Richie's domestic bliss during Richie and Devon's house party (right before Richie goes to kill Frank "Buck Rogers). The song he plays is the classic "Hey Bo Diddley." His appearance foreshadows how far gone Richie really is despite appearances (a point made quite violently only a few minutes later).

 Jerry Lee Lewis

I wrote at a great deal of length about Jerry Lee Lewis in the Episode 2 Recap - He tried to kill Elvis Presley at Graceland, he got married like 20 times (once to his cousin), he is known as "The Killer" which he says was a childhood nickname but also has been attributed to the suspicious death of one of his many wives. He is also one of the greatest figures in Rock and Roll History.

Richie Finestra's character has many parallels to Jerry Lee. Both are unquestionably talented and flawed human beings that leave wreckage everywhere in their wake. I believe Jerry Lee signifies Richie's whiteness, his talent, his destructiveness, and of course that he is literally "a Killer" (in case we start to forget). 

Just like Richie can unquestionably hear a great artist/song, Jerry Lee Lewis can unquestionably play, here are some examples of that.

Bruce Lee

What the heck, Bruce Lee wasn't a musician, but there is a scene in the show where Richie goes to watch "Enter The Dragon" totally obliterated beyond belief, and as a result, becomes convinced that he is a Kung Fu fighter. He ends up breaking Zak's nose and acting like even more of an ass to his wife. 

Why not give a shout out to Bruce Lee, I mean he was flat out incredible in Enter the Dragon!

Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter was a really good drummer. 

Yes, she was an incredible singer, but she was a really great drummer. If you get a chance to see the recent PBS documentary about The Carpenters, you will see she can really play. There is a great moment in the documentary where Richard (her piano playing brother) mentions that she always considered herself a "drummer who sings."  


Anyway, Karen Carpenter is the first ghost that haunts Devon (Olivia Wilde). She shows up singing "Yesterday Once More" (well, technically it was Aimee Mann singing a cover, but you get the idea) as Devon drives off from breakfast without her kids. As I said at the time, having Karen Carpenter as your ghost is not a good sign for Devon (Karen Carpenter died tragically from complications due to her Anorexia).

If you have not heard the Carpenters, they are oddly addictive. At first you will think they are kind of cheesy, but they will seriously grow on you. They really understood melody. There was a great album of cover versions of their songs by assorted cool artists like Shonen Knife and Sonic Youth called "If I Were A Carpenter" you should for sure check out too.

Howlin' Wolf

I have a soft spot in my heart for big singers (no idea why).  I wrote at length about the appearance of Howlin' Wolf singing "Smokestack Lightning" in the episode three recap.  Short form, Richie has done some really bad stuff and will be facing some consequences.

Howlin' Wolf was not just giant of stature, he was one of the most successful Blues artists of all-time. He managed to actually treat his bands well and stay married to the same woman (like Fats did) for his whole career. 

Here him howl!

Otis Blackwell

Could not find a great picture of Otis. Otis Blackwell is famous for writing many of the songs that made Jerry Lee Lewis famous (Great Balls of Fire and Breathless). His ghost appears to ask Richie and the world why Richie is not at Frank "Buck" Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay) funeral ceremony. 

To highlight the overall feel of Rock being a genre mostly famous for appropriating Black music, Blackwell released multiple albums called "These Are My Songs!" 

Pretty sad if you take a few seconds to think about that.

Here are some of HIS songs.

Janis Joplin

Unlike the rest of the "ghosts" most everyone knows who Janis Joplin is already. Obviously, one of the most definitive voices in rock history. 

Janis shows up in Episode 4 to sing "Cry Baby" and acts as a conduit box between Richie's anger and Devon's. I likened it to the use of what I call "The Silencio Box" in the David Lynch movie "Mulholland Drive." So what did I mean by that? Okay, might as well explain this now (only makes sense if you have seen the movie).

My theory is that Mulholland Drive is a movie in two parts - Part One is the main characters "fantasy" of who she is (played by Naomi Watts) and Part Two is her living in her actual life. 

The movie operates as a wrap around, during the credits she is fantasizing and masturbating (sorry, that is what she is doing) and the first half of the movie happens during that period. The trip to the club Silencio and the odd blue box in the middle of the movie is her transition from her fantasy of herself back into the reality of who she really is.

This also accounts for all the bizarre dream like elements of the first half of the movie (although that is kind of all Lynch stuff).

Janis Joplin is pretty amazing as well!

Okay, that was all the "ghosts" so far. I anticipate that I will be writing about Rosco Gordon in just a few short days.  Hope everyone tunes in for the Episode 5 Recap, I anticipate having it out early Monday morning!

Have a great weekend!