Some Final Thoughts On Season 1 Of ‘Vinyl’
Yeah, I know that Episode 10 of Vinyl aired two weeks ago Sunday, but as with every installment of the first season of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter’s ode to the ’70s music scene in New York City, I first had to push myself to watch the finale, then summon the energy to dissect everything that was wrong about it, and finally and grudgingly put fingers to laptop. The shame about this whole mess is that it never should have been such a dire chore.
My initial plan, after immersing myself in the first three hours, had been to hate-watch the show and write about it every week. But other strong voices emerged to tackle that onerous task, chronicling the many weekly missteps and far too occasional pleasures. My favorite: Observer columnist and my old pal Tim Sommer, who I prefer to think of as the long-ago host of WNYU’s hardcore-punk Noise the Show and a driving force in art-rockers Hugo Largo, rather than as the man who championed Hootie and the Blowfish at Atlantic Records.
Why should he, I, you, or anyone else have cared? Let’s start there, with the things that were so promising about this show.
Go back to my shorthand synopsis of it as an “ode to the ’70s music scene in New York City.” This was the most exciting musical era ever in the cultural capital of the world, with punk, disco, and hip-hop all aborning in a fertile incubator the likes of which have never been seen before or since. The slime, grit, and stench of the Rotting Apple were captured with admirable dedication—no surprise, given Scorsese’s involvement. If you weren’t there back then (and I was, though I was only 9 years old), it’s hard now to summon just what it was like, or why anyone would be nostalgic for it. But the auteur behind Taxi Driver did a pretty good job when he recently spoke about that movie during the Tribeca Film Festival.
“You could taste the humidity and you could taste the anger and violence that was emitting from the streets themselves,” Scorsese said. You could hear all of that in the music and art that was exploding everywhere. Remember: The most noxious compost often fertilizes the most beautiful flowers.
So Vinyl got NYC right, and it certainly got the music right. Greg Kot and I recently had a fantastic chat with ace music supervisor Randall Poster on Sound Opinions, and I was sincere in my praise for his selection of so many great songs from that era, ranging from deep album tracks by Rocket from the Tombs, Mott the Hoople, Focus, and ABBA, to immortal classics by the New York Dolls, the Stooges, David Bowie, Patti Smith, and many, many others.
A lot of the actors were great, too, especially Ray Romano (as partner Zak Yankovich to superstar scenery chewer Bobby Cannavale’s label head Richie Finestra), Juno Temple (as a young and aspiring talent scout and much stronger female lead than the chronically overrated Olivia Wilde), Max Casella (as the clueless A&R boss Julie Silver), and Ato Essandoh (as a musician done wrong by the mob turned manager of nascent punk band the Nasty Bits).
Most of all there was the incredibly rich plot material of this time period and the people who made it: the artists and the folks behind them in an extremely colorful, corrupt, and often absurd major-label record industry that no longer exists. Some of this the show runners got very, very right, from things major (the despicable characters in corporate radio, the old-school mobsters on the fringes of things, the varied personality types swirling around in the clubs, recording studios, board rooms, and mail rooms) to very minor (there was a second mention of sainted journalist and critic Lester Bangs in the finale!).
But much else was very, very wrong. I pegged all of the land mines when I wrote about the show the first time, and their explosions were fatal to all of the next eight episodes. Chief among them: The horrible distraction of seeing badly cast actors portraying towering musical giants whose DNA has virtually merged with our own. Every time we saw a patently fake Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, Graham Parsons, Mama Cass Elliot, Sly Stone, or David Bowie, the show’s spell on us was broken and the episode never recovered. (The one notable exception: Shawn Klush, the actual Elvis impersonator who portrayed the King in Episode 7.)
As all of the trades have reported, HBO was banking on the show being its biggest hit after Game of Thrones—it green-lighted a second season before the first had even aired—and when its ratings and critical reception were lukewarm to dismal, the suits panicked and jettisoned Winter, who I think was probably the least guilty culprit here. (A veteran of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, where he brilliantly mixed fictional and legendarily real-life characters like Al Capone, his post-show “Inside the Episode” commentaries each week displayed a bountiful passion for and knowledge of the source material, so much so that it was hard to blame him for all the awful things that had gone down in the hour just passed.)
Is there any hope for Vinyl in the future? I’m dubious: To replace Winter, HBO has tapped two guys whose credits include The Bourne Ultimatum and Godzilla, and Scorsese (whose aesthetic always has been much more The Last Waltz than C.B.G.B.) and Jagger (whose biggest contribution seems to have been the nepotistic and all-wrong casting of his son as leader of the Nasty Bits) are still nominally on board. But of course I’ll watch, and you probably will, too.
Again, why do we care? With so many potentially great things going for it, Vinyl could and should be absolutely amazing. Given the money being spent here, it’s likely the only series we’ll ever get on the topic. And most of all, the music is incredible.
Maybe we should just listen while averting our gaze, or commit to taking a shot every time Cannavale does that terrifically obnoxious Olympic overacting whenever he takes a snort of cocaine. That way, we’ll be way too drunk to be annoyed by anything in no time at all.