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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Richie sees dead people and other assorted clichés on a still engaging episode of Vinyl

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Am I right in assuming that most of you figured out Ernst was dead (or at least imaginary) from the moment Richie started talking to him? I say that not to flaunt any kind of intellectual superiority—I’m a very gullible viewer—but to point out how tired a device it is: the concept of a mentally unstable character with a devil on his shoulder, a devil that encourages him to go further down the rabbit hole of depravity and addiction.

Maybe we’re meant to pick up on this early in the game. But if that’s the case, then why is Ernst’s death treated as a revelatory finale to the episode? More importantly, why do we need to see it at all? Richie’s already got enough ominous shit fueling his downward spiral, from coke to depleted finances to being an accomplice in a murder. Once writers Carl Capotorto and Erin Cressida Wilson add a traumatic car accident to the mix—one that resulted in the death of both Ernst and (I’m assuming) Devon’s unborn baby—the wild grimness becomes somehow more unbelievable than it already was. But even among the clichés; even among the deceitful ghost sidekick, Richie’s stereotypically dark HBO protagonist, and Devon’s oppressed artist-turned-housewife, “Cyclone” at least has some alluring visuals and a glimpse of salvation that’s far more interesting than any of the hedonism has been so far.


Let’s go back to that car sequence. As heavy and dumb a cinderblock as the actual crash is, there’s no denying the power of the vision that arrives with the aftermath. When Richie awakes from the accident surrounded by pain—Ernst dead on the ground and Devon writhing in the back seat with blood pouring from between her legs—he gazes at the Coney Island Cyclone directly in front of him. A specter of Buddy Holly then appears before the vehicle, rocking his way through “Rave On” as the historic wooden rollercoaster looms in the background. When separated from Vinyl’s melodrama, that’s a striking image on its own, hypnotic to look at and emblematic of how we’ll always tie certain songs to certain events, for better or for worse.

And for all their clichés, the Ernst scenes do drive Richie towards finally, hopefully getting his act together (at least somewhat) by the next episode. After Devon returns home from her own lost weekend at the Chelsea Hotel, she’s horrified to see that her husband has been talking to a dead guy for three days straight. Only when she leaves with the kids does he seem stuck at true rock bottom, and therefore likely to make the slow climb back to stability. As I said last week, I don’t want Richie stable because main characters can’t be dark, tragic, or even unlikable. But a protagonist—even an HBO protagonist—needs to embody those traits in a unique way that goes beyond getting violent, doing a bunch of blow, and succumbing to coke-dick when he tries to fuck one of his secretaries.


Just stack those actions against Zak’s storyline and see which plot is more interesting. So far, Vinyl has proven to be most compelling when focusing on the hustle and bustle of the music industry, and seeing Zak work alongside the more forthright Andrea establishes a dynamic we haven’t seen yet on the series. Perhaps even more crucial, it’s just plain fun to watch two colleagues who admire each other work towards the same goal in different ways. When they try and recruit David Bowie to play a benefit show, for instance, Zak goes into nervous music-geek mode while Andrea’s able to ease into a more casual, flirtatious rapport with the rock star.

By the end of “Cyclone,” it’s looking like Zak might end up being more of a musical savior to American Century than Richie. Sitting at the wind-down of his daughter’s bat mitzvah, having ejected Richie for showing up high and gradually ruining the lives of his coworkers, Zak stares intently at a young man playing “Life On Mars” on the piano. It’s not clear exactly what he sees in the rendition—whether he’s becoming open to piano covers at the label, wants to pursue Bowie more doggedly, or something else altogether—but he’s clearly moved. I doubt the show would do anything so severe as make Zak the protagonist, but a more prominent role for him would be most welcome. Because at this point, Vinyl would be much more unique if he and Richie started working in cooperation, not in conflict. We’ve seen so many of the main character’s flaws. It’s time to see some oh his strengths, and hopefully a lot less dead people.


Stray observations

  • I suspect the Bowie scene will be polarizing, but I thought the show handled it nicely, even if the namedropping of albums was a little on the nose. Bean has a good handle on Bowie’s image consciousness and practicality, as well as his otherworldly stage presence.
  • Another thing that bugs me about the Ernst business is that, up until this point, his flashbacks haven’t been a huge part of the show. It seems strange to attach so much dramatic weight to his death and specter.
  • I randomly discovered writer Carl Capotorto played Little Paulie Germani on The Sopranos.
  • ”You know about the Biafra benefit?” “What, is that a disease?”
  • “Mr. Nasty Shits doesn’t like anybody.”
  • This song. One less egg to fry. What is he, a fucking midget?

“It’s Mostly Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)“

  • The Champs’ “Tequila” tinnily echoes from the poolside radio.
  • “Rave On” plays several times throughout the episode—a surefire way to fuck with Richie’s head.
  • That’s “With A Girl Like You” by The Troggs when Devon steps in the Chelsea Hotel’s elevator.
  • Richie puts on Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’” when first gets to his office.
  • The song playing during Andrea’s meeting with the American Century team sounds like James Brown, but I can’t be sure. Either way, Richie badly sings The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” over it when he enters the room.
  • Richie’s failed attempt at having sex with Heather is scored by “Rocket 88.” Though originally credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, the band is actually Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.
  • Bean as Bowie plays “Suffragette City,” which is—somewhat surprisingly—the original version, not a cover.
  • Two different versions of “Here Comes The Night” pop up in the episode. First, Lulu’s take plays while Devon is talking with Ingrid in the latter’s bedroom. Later on, Richie listens to Them’s version when driving home. Them and Lulu were both on Decca records, and released their covers in the same year. Bowie would go on to perform “Here Comes The Night” himself later on in 1973 for his covers album, Pin Ups.
  • The Lulu version goes right into one of her other hits, “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby).”
  • When Richie and Ernst sit in the car, hung over, they analyze the fairly silly lyrics of The 5th Dimension’s “One Less Bell To Answer.”
  • Kip and the guitarist he meets play along to The Stooges’ “No Fun” before stealing the instruments from the store.
  • The face of “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” is the lead singer of Karisma, but the pipes belong to Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio.
  • Karisma also does a credible version of The Association’s “Cherish.”
  • The solo piano riff on Bowie’s “Life On Mars” is sung by Trey Songz.
  • Speaking of which, HBO doubled down on the Bowie love tonight by featuring another piano-driven cover of “Life On Mars” on Girls.
  • I don’t know if Kaleo’s “No Good” is an original or a cover (or where it appeared in the episode), but it’s included on this week’s Vinyl EP alongside Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” Adebimpe’s “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” Karisma’s “Cherish” (featuring Johnny Gale), and Songz’ “Life On Mars.”