When Richie Finestra returns to the American Century offices after the events in the first episode of Vinyl, his rock ‘n’ roll rebirth extends far beyond a renewed cocaine habit. First, he abruptly cancels the buyout with Polygram. When his partners protest, he draws inspiration from the Bruce Lee films he’s spent all day watching and pulls some half-baked—yet still effective—martial-arts moves on them, managing to break the nose of Ray Romano’s hapless head of promotions, Zak Yankovic.
But his most surprising transformation is much more subtle. Before informing his staff that he wants them to recruit musicians whose energy sets them on fire, rather than keep scooping up moneymakers like Donny Osmond, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he changes out of his sweaty bender polo and decides between two band t-shirts. Pink Floyd? “Oh, come on,” his two-faced head of A&R, Julian “Julie” Silver (Max Casella), tells him. “Sabbath! It sends a stronger message.” Done. Richie chooses the Black Sabbath shirt.
Only it’s not just a shirt. Right before Richie and promotional thug Joe Corso (Bo Dietl) somewhat cooperatively killed Buck Rogers last week, the crazed radio-station owner was drumming along to “Iron Man.” With that in mind (and whether he’s conscious of it or not), Richie’s shirt choice feels like the waving of a victory flag, an emblem of his own perceived triumph over shallow pop music; over the German conglomerate; over his partners’ concerns; over everything. This is a man who, throughout the episode, gets away with murder and generally does whatever the hell he wants, even if it’s kicking the shit out of his best friend and financial partner.
And that begs the question: Is Vinyl positioning Richie to be right about everything? Is he being set up as a coked-out music revolutionary or a tragic—apologies for the overused term—antihero? Although many of you would probably say the latter (especially considering Terence Winter’s past work), if we’re speaking in Scorsesian terms (the director has confirmed his future involvement with the show), I’m not so sure. We’ve seen many drug-fueled rise-and-fall tales from him before (Goodfellas and Casino), but we’ve also seen the other side with The Wolf Of Wall Street. And for anyone who argues that film as being another example of a rise-and-fall story, I view it more as a getting-away-with-it story.
So it could go either way. Although the detective who questions Richie only asks him about a lesser crime possibly involving last week’s record-company owner Maury Gold (Vondas…I mean Paul Ben-Victor), Buck’s murder could still come back and bite him in the ass. And even as Richie’s all fire and charisma at work, his marriage to Devon continues to be a struggle. He has no qualms about inhaling coke with Julie at the office, but when holed up in his apartment with his wife, he howls with slobbery vulnerability and remorse over his actions, made all the more poignant by flashbacks to their younger, more bohemian days as cohorts of Andy Warhol (John Cameron Mitchell).
Many of these journeys to the past show that Vinyl’s best musical sequences are often the ones that are the most surreal. I had major issues with the Dolls concert taking place during the collapse of the Mercer Arts Building because of how clunky it was in its literalization of the power of music. The art form’s side effects are so much more intangible than that, sneaking into our ears and transporting us when we least expect it. When Devon hears the Carpenters song of the title while driving, Karen Carpenter materializes next to her in the passenger seat to bring forth a surge of memories. Out of nowhere, everything gets cast in a shade of orange built for illuminating dusky drives to high-school dances—the kind of thing you only truly experience as a teenager. But the beauty of music is that it can conjure that kind of color synesthesia. It can conjure magic. The same thing happens when Richie’s freaking out in the office to the tune of Jerry Lee Lewis, his maddened self-deification spurned on by a vision of the “Breathless” singer pounding away on his piano. It comes from a abstract yet somehow visceral place, and depending on the direction of the show, could end up being either celebratory or prophetic.
Other potential threats loom on the horizon as well. Julie, for all his corporate-stooge lapping of Richie’s balls, wants to polish the gnarled punk of Nasty Bits when Jamie brings them in for an A&R showcase. Grooming the band into a pop-rock act reminiscent of The Kinks (not that The Kinks aren’t fantastic) seems to be the opposite of what Richie demanded in his pep talk. What are Julie’s true motivations? Conversely, if the Bits do stick to their ‘70s punk roots, history doesn’t point to them selling a lot of records. Like it or not, Yes, Donny Osmond, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and many of the other acts Richie now admits to despising were where the financial gold was back then. There’s also the issue of Zak, who spends the episode slogging around in his broken-nosed stupor, the dollar signs ins his eyes crumbling to green dust when he realizes how much his daughter’s bat mitzvah is going to cost, and how Richie’s botching of the buyout jeopardizes that. It’s quite possible that he won’t feel so chummy towards his comrade a few episodes from now.
None of this is necessarily bad. Vinyl could easily go down the everything-falls-apart route of Boardwalk Empire and so many other masculine dramas of the past decade and still be good television. But as Richard Hell pointed out in his scathing critique of the show, we’ve seen this sort of thing plenty of times. While I don’t share many of Hell’s criticisms, his review does make me wonder what the series would be like if Richie were a little more stable. Cocaine is one thing—after all, this is the music industry in the 1970s—but does he have to be such an eye-bulging coke addict and a murderer? What would happen if he was able to kick his habit, but still fight for his label and the music he believes in? What would happen if the protagonist’s obstacles weren’t all death- and drug-related? Sure, he might still fail spectacularly. But he could also fail in a way we’ve never seen before.
- Since there are so many songs on every episode, I started a sub-category called “It’s Mostly Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)” below, where I list all of the music I can keep track of in each hour. This doesn’t include songs written just for the show and is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to add anything I missed in the comments section. Maybe it’ll result in a mammoth Spotify playlist at the end of the season.
- I was so glad to hear Richie say “I’m not talking about the Dolls, per se.” Had he told his employees to only seek out punk bands, Vinyl would quickly become insufferable. And this is coming from a punk fan.
- I have no idea how much he’ll be in the show, but Mitchell plays Warhol with just the right amount of reptilian detachment.
- Between this and The Wolf Of Wall Street, P.J. Byrne is killing it as the ignorant lackey with odd hair.-
- “What I just heard sounded like five dogs with their cocks stuck in a lawnmower.”
- “Don’t make a racket. David’s playing Nathan Detroit in the camp singalong tomorrow.”
- Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” not so subtly underscores the return of Clark (Jack Quaid) from his check handoff to Geffen Records in L.A.
- Two live Velvet Underground songs in the Warhol flashbacks: “Venus In Furs” and “Run Run Run”
- The Jackson 5’s “ABC” and The O’Jays’ “Love Train” didn’t sound quite right in the bat mitzvah-shopping scene, which made the cover-band joke wonderfully sly. I wonder if HBO couldn’t get the rights to the songs (I doubt it) and had to invent Charisma with a “K.”
- Similar to the visions of Jerry Lee Lewis and Karen Carpenter, Bobby “Blue” Bland appears to sing “I’ll Take Care Of You.” Gil-Scott Heron recorded his own version of the song years later, which got sampled on Drake’s Take Care, in addition to providing the album with its title.
- No surprise here, but we get the first of what’s likely to be many Rolling Stones songs with “Under My Thumb.” Even if Mick Jagger wasn’t involved with Vinyl, it’s only a matter of time before Scorsese or someone else uses “Gimme Shelter” in a montage.
- Zak throws on Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride” when he’s quietly imploding in his car. Am I wrong in thinking this isn’t the first time that song’s been used in a Scorsese project?
- Finally, we have Lee Dorsey’s “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky” when Richie goes to reconnect with Lester.