Note: This is a recap; plot points and spoilers ahead.
In the opening scenes of the new series “Vinyl,” which premiered in a two-hour episode on HBO last night, there’s a man in a Mercedes parked in an alleyway, chugging wine out of a bottle, with two suspicious looking characters loitering nearby. A business transaction takes place, where we learn that an eight ball of coke costs $180 in 1973, which is over $1,000 in 2016 dollars, so it’s not surprising that the dealer assumes “Wall Street man?” With great dudgeon his customer replies, “No! Record man.” It’s all very “Waiting For The Man,” except that the fact that the dealers don’t just jack the customer and take his bankroll and his car is, for a New Yorker, completely improbable.
There’s a perfectly framed shot of his eyes after he takes the first snort of the drug, pupils open as wide as manholes. He picks up the car phone and dials a phone number off of the business card of a New York City police officer. At that moment, a mob of glitter-and-sequined covered kids come running over the car (literally), flying by, screaming. In the distance there’s the faint sounds of Shadow Morton’s “Stranded In The Jungle,” as covered in only the way the New York Dolls did.
This is our introduction to Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra, CEO of American Century Records, and the main character in “Vinyl,” the new HBO drama series from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter. “Vinyl” is set in the music business in New York in 1973, that moment when the sea change happened, the birth of disco, punk and hip-hop. It is a tale of lost love, of excess, of lies, of broken dreams, of rock and roll fantasy. Mick Jagger is an Executive Producer and is the Executive Music Producer, so you’d like to think there would be more right than wrong as far as its portrayal of the music business in the early ‘70s goes; after the pilot, the jury is still out on that.
After the glam stampede rushes by Richie’s car, he hangs up the phone and follows them around the corner to the Mercer Arts Center, which actually looks like the outside of the Mercer Arts Center. Finestra is recognized by the doorman and allowed to enter. As someone who was a fanatic New York Dolls fan in my early 20s, I wasn’t old enough to have ever seen a show there, but in the absence of film or detailed photographs, I dreamed about it plenty. I’m mentioning this because as Richie Finestra walks up the winding stairs to what’s likely meant to be the Oscar Wilde Room (although by 1973 the Dolls had graduated to the O’Casey Theater in the complex, but that doesn’t sound as cool), with the echo of the Dolls sound-a-like band in the distance, that two minutes was full of real anticipation and emotion, both from the point of view of the character as well as for the viewer. That two minutes of being able to feel like I was walking into the Mercer Arts Center to see the New York Dolls will forgive a certain amount of “Vinyl”’s future transgressions.
As the first band we see in the show, initial impressions matter. Did they get this right? The answer is, close enough. The onstage moves are about right. The vocals are...close enough. The guy playing guitarist Johnny Thunders actually looks like him, teased hair and lightning moves. Dolls lead singer David Johansen is played by Christian Peslak (of the band Saint Rich) and while there’s a slight physical resemblance, it’s the onstage moves that seal the deal — the “you’re a prima ballerina” move during “Personality Crisis” is spot on.
There’s no archival footage used in “Vinyl,” so actors play every musician, from Ruth Brown to Robert Plant, with varying success, and either they have the rights to the original music, or have hired someone to reproduce it. Except for the roles of fictional artists Nasty Bits and Lester Grimes, music performances are meant to set a mood or establish a plot point. Being able to find an actual musician who both resembles and can play just like a historical figure is an impossible task and not necessary here, but it does occasionally create moments when you will wince because some part of it is off, or wrong enough to make a real difference.
From the Mercer Arts Center, we cut to Richie sitting in a boardroom, immaculate in an off-white suit. In voiceover, he tells the story of American Century and introduces his partners: head of promotions Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), and head of sales Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie), who are in Germany, meeting with Polygram Records, in a deal that’s meant to bail out American Century and the partners. We flash through scenes of payola, cash being delivered in record album sleeves along with vials of coke, Richie narrating tales of business and accounting chicanery involving returned record albums, and a Led Zeppelin deal going “better than the Hindenburg,” at least.
Back in the States, the in-office scenes inside American Century Records are painfully accurate on dozens of levels. There’s the glory of tacky, early ‘70s fashion, details like the enormous IBM Selectric typewriters, ancient old audio equipment, the smoking in the office and the oh-so-delightful sexual banter. “What do you want, Clark?” A&R assistant Jamie Vine asks Clark Morelle, a junior A&R rep. “A blow job, but I’ll settle for an ounce of weed.”
Jamie has unrelenting confidence despite her role as “sandwich girl,” stepping into a conversation with Kip Stevens (James Jagger, yes, related), lead singer of the Nasty Bits, who stopped in to try to sweet talk his way past reception to get to A&R, a thing bands used to do before you needed an appointment and photo ID to walk into an office building in Manhattan. She takes his tape, schools him that Slade “sold two million albums in the UK last year. How did the Nasty Bits do?” He tells her that the band are playing the Coventry the following night, a club in Queens that was one of the only places that a band like the Nasty Bits could get a gig in 1973. CBGB’s didn’t exist yet, and you needed a label deal to play at Max’s Kansas City.
But the American Century executive team is in for a rude awakening once they arrive home. Richie gets into his car only to be told by his driver that they’re going to “33rd & 7th,” which is, of course, the address of Madison Square Garden. There’s a problem with the Led Zeppelin deal, and Richie has to go fix it. When he arrives, Zeppelin’s legendarily abrasive manager, Peter Grant, is arguing with someone else, so Richie takes this opportunity to plead his case to Robert Plant directly. They got Plant’s clothes right, but not much else, to be honest. But the worst part of the scene is the dozens of groupies hanging around, who then follow the band like rats scrambling after the Pied Piper as the band walks onto the stage. There are easily 30 women gyrating on the side of the stage. The Led Zep soundalike band isn’t very good, either.
Richie, exhausted, now tries to head home to Connecticut. But there’s terrible traffic, and so he directs the driver to take a shortcut through the Bronx to an alternate route. While winding their way through this detour, Richie hears a beat, music that sounds familiar in the distance. He directs the chauffeur to stop, and rolls down the window. First, he’s approached by two prostitutes; then, by a drug dealer. When Richie tries to ask what this place is, find out what’s going on, the dealer pulls out a gun.
That’s the moment when Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) steps to the window and there’s a sudden glimmer of recognition between himself and Finestra, and the two men are allowed to leave unscathed. What Scorsese is trying to portray here is the earliest days of hip hop — Kool Herc holding a party in the rec room of an apartment building, which, legend has it, you could hear on the other side of the adjacent Major Deegan Expressway. There’s just not enough background provided for the average viewer to understand why this is important; the next flashback has Richie reflecting on his relationship with Lester, but doesn’t tie it back to the reason he stopped in the first place.
Flashbacks are used to take us back to Richie’s early days in the music business in the 5’0s, starting as a bartender, working up to a job at a record company. “Vinyl” uses classic R&B tracks — Chris Kenner, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding, to name a few — to transition in and out of the flashbacks. It might feel tired and rote, the story of the early record men (and they were pretty much all men) being drawn into the business through their love of early rock and roll, but it is also how it actually happened, from Leonard and Phil Chess at Chess Records to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. In Richie’s case, it was “Blackboard Jungle,” then Bo Diddley, then jump blues. He discovered Lester Grimes when he worked as a bartender, and then got him signed, but had to leave him behind when he bought his way out of his first company because his mentor’s gambling debts left him beholden to the Mafia, who brutally assault Lester when he refuses to continue to make pop records for them.
Back in the office, Richie walks into his A&R team meeting about new music. They’re listening to a record by a new group called ABBA, making jokes and dismissing their potential. Richie is incensed. “You’re all hearing this the same way? Three bars, I can tell they’ll be filling football stadiums.” He learns that they lost another act — Long Island’s own The Good Rats — to Warner Bros. “I’ve been going all around the city, there’s nothing good out there,” one of the reps insists. Richie lectures them, “Go where people sing. I want what’s next.” Jamie seizes her chance to tell Richie about the Nasty Bits, and gets her revenge on Clark when he tries to diminish it, only for Richie to tell him, “You lost your privilege to speak when you lost the Good Rats.” (By the way, this was actually not a huge loss.)
Things get even worse when Donny Osmond pulls a no-show at a promotional event hosted by influential radio station owner Frank “Buck” Rogers, played by Andrew Dice Clay in a divine casting move. Rogers calls a meeting at a sex club (probably meant to be Plato’s Retreat, although it didn’t open until 1977), which might seem like a bit too Scorsese until you understand the power that men like him held, or thought they held, over the music business back then — he’s surrounded by beautiful women, his house is full of awards, he thinks that rock and roll would be nowhere without him. And then a two-day coke bender causes him to go off the deep end and try to kill Richie, and ends with him getting his head bashed in with one of his trophies by an associate trying to save Richie.
At this point, Richie is reeling from his role in Rogers’ death (IMDB lists Clay in seven of the 10 episodes this season, so Dice fans, take heart — Rogers will reappear, one way or another), as well as his encounter with Lester Grimes, whom he feels he abandoned. So now we’re back to where we came in: Richie in the car in the alley, back to the Mercer Arts Center. Plaster begins to fall from the ceiling. The chandelier shakes. Coked up, traumatized Richie thinks the building shaking is part of the show, and doesn’t notice when everyone around him starts freaking out. Then he notices a crack beginning to run around the outer walls of the room. The lights come down on the stage, the band stop playing, the ceiling collapses and the chandelier comes crashing down right on top of Richie. Cut to the outside as the whole building collapses, and the picture fills with smoke.
(Some of this is accurate: the Broadway Central Hotel, the building housing the Mercer Arts Center collapsed on August 3, 1973. The Dolls were not onstage at the time, and the arts center wasn’t full of people. There were four fatalities in the hotel.)
In the next shot, we see the outline of Richie’s body, covered in plaster dust, the chandelier just adjacent to him. The camera comes in closer, and we see other arms, legs, shapes of bodies. We hear coughing, cries for help. Richie’s eyes open. He sits up. He struggles to his feet, clambers over the debris and any other nearby victims. He stumbles down the street with a look of elation on his face. Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll” music plays as the credits roll.