Saturday, March 5, 2016

History as Mudpie: HBO's Vinyl

Multiple raptures: Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra in Vinyl.

HBO has aired only three episodes of Vinyl, its musical comedy-drama about the struggle of record-company boss Richie Finestra to resuscitate his failing label in the shifting rock market of 1973. But it is so far from being a clear success on any level a smear of silliness and effrontery, of blatant intent and thudding execution that no one is to be scolded for being disappointed with it. Even its more enjoyable aspects, of which there are several, haven’t come into focus. Yet I’ve decided, after the initial turn-off, that I like the show.

I like Bobby Cannavale, who as Richie carries the show like a stylish ox, always smarter and subtler than he seems on the verge of being. I like Ray Romano as his hapless partner, whose broken nose is a scarlet letter for his emasculated spirit. I like almost all of the other actors. I like some of the musical fantasies in which impersonators of rock, soul, and R&B legends sing their classics in greater or lesser relevance to the temporal action. Beyond those immediate virtues, though, the show is as easy to embrace as a sloppy drunk drenched in pukey cologne. Chiefly because, in addition to its erratic passes at both comedy and drama, it offers a steady stream of ahistorical clunkers. It’s a weekly Internet bitch: “What Vinyl got wrong last night.” I’m hardly free of pedanticism, so I understand the general amazement that co-creators with these credentials Terence Winter, who helped innovate the cable drama as a chief writer on The Sopranos; Martin Scorsese, who in the 1970s defined an aesthetics of film and pop music that movies, including his own, have been aping ever since; and Mick Jagger, who is Mick Jagger could, through deficits of diligence or simple caring, permit so many small, dumb, seemingly pointless inaccuracies. A young English punk singer (James Jagger), somewhat like but then again not at all like Johnny Rotten, turns up in the East Village in 1973: it never happened. Richie’s A&R man, revolted by the punk prophet’s screechy nihilism, tells him and his band to play like The Kinks in 1965: unlikely advice for ‘73. Pop phrases of recent vintage like “Too soon, too soon” and “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” scrape against the period, as do references to certain latter-day concert rituals (crowd surfing) and culinary trends (herb-encrusted chicken).

Yet these anachronisms have already become such a consistent part of the show’s texture that I suspect they are, if not meant to actively irritate the audience, at least meant to keep it off-balance (though for many viewers that may be the same thing). One recalls that Boardwalk Empire, Winter and Scorsese’s previous HBO collaboration, was likewise based in history, but departed early and forever from the scant and scurrilous factual record of Atlantic City politics during Prohibition, taking both real and reality-based characters through plots that were sheer fantasy. Even the show’s credit sequence, scored to the seventy-years-after hard pop of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, mashed eras in a way that was indefensible only to those who demanded chronological congruence at the expense of imaginative freedom.

 James Jagger (centre) and band: Somewhat like, but not at all like, Johnny Rotten.

We should have guessed that Vinyl was up to something similar at the climax of the two-hour debut episode, which Scorsese directed. Watching the New York Dolls play “Personality Crisis” to a throbbing crowd at the Mercer Arts Center at three in the morning, Ricky experienced multiple raptures suicidal despair, cocaine high, rock ‘n’ roll rebirth as sonic vibrations and communal ecstasy caused the very building to implode. The story was easy enough to debunk: only a wall had collapsed, and it had been during the afternoon rehearsal of a band that wasn’t the New York Dolls. Yet the building came down, the show told you: the smoke that billowed up to the sky and coated Richie as he strutted free of the apocalypse was no dream, as unreal as it might have seemed for those few seconds. History was being invented here, boldly and audaciously, and the show was as good as saying: Fuck history, this is happening now.

Disappointingly, Vinyl has offered little nitty-gritty with regard to process. Often HBO shows have been distinguished by deep detail on the arcane rites and microeconomics of subcultures from the Mafia (The Sopranos) to the Mormons (Big Love), the drug business (The Wire) to the funeral business (Six Feet Under). In each, extensive research and expert consultancy were blended without hassle or ostentation into crosscut storylines and comprehensible character arcs. You got an abiding sense of how things worked in those worlds, the rules that were set down, the dialogues and decisions behind practices we all had heard of but knew almost nothing about. Mad Men, a show HBO turned down, did this for advertising, and one hoped that Vinyl would do it for the record industry circa 1973, would excavate the numbers and anatomize the hype.

No episode so far has yielded a detail that a clever writer steeped in pop couldn’t have spun out of whole cloth and a few back issues of Billboard. But here again the show, cannily or lazily, and to whatever purpose, is confounding an expectation, refusing what feels like a need the need implanted in us by previous well-crafted cable dramas. The absence of that procedural-technical substance was, by the end of the debut episode, glaringly obvious; by now, it seems less an absence than a rejection. Certainly the show’s budget allowed for the creation of scenarios that were factually tight, revealing of industry nuts and bolts, authentic to the period gestalt of language and custom. No doubt Winter-Scorsese-Jagger would have demanded that accuracy-unto-anality, had they felt it essential to what they thought they were doing. But it doesn’t seem to be. Which means they are up to something else and that viewers can either get used to figuring out what that might be, enjoy the show as it comes and find their own shapes in it, or stop watching altogether.

The New York Dolls, about to bring down the house.

Vinyl is on a nervy path, taking a blatantly anti-purist approach to pop history, as if that history were not holy writ but simply raw material for the invention of stories that might or might not plausibly have occurred. What it seems to be doing strikes me as not dissimilar to what Joel and Ethan Coen, inspired by the early-Sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, did in 2013 with Inside Llewyn Davis. Namely, to extrapolate a self-justifying fiction from a real milieu, one involving individuals and events of which many still-living people have impassioned memories, creating a result that is not exactly alternate history, more like history altered: a parallel universe a few steps to the right or left of reality. The Coens’ presumptuousness in this angered a number of people, especially veterans of that scene, like Therri Thal, or latter-day devotees of it, like Suzanne Vega (both of whom published critical responses in The New York Times). For my part, I had no trouble taking Llewyn Davis as a fictional free agent, and his story as a digressive, selective dream of a complex and inclusive scene rather than a faithful recreation of it. I recognized the movie’s direct or indirect invocations of Dave Von Ronk, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, the Clancy Brothers, novelty records, Beat culture, the Gaslight Cafe, etc., but I also accepted that the Coens were co-opting recognizable pieces of cultural history to serve a constructed narrative, rather than merely constructing a narrative to illustrate the history that most people had already agreed upon.

That’s something that fictive artists as opposed to historians, journalists, or documentarians are allowed to do. But they probably shouldn’t be stunned when their inventions offend those to whom the relevant history matters as both big picture and personally meaningful detail. (There’s Inside Llewyn Davis invention, and there’s Mississippi Burning invention.) At least one fan of Slade and Status Quo has rushed to those bands’ defense as a result of dismissive remarks sounded in last week’s episode of Vinyl; probably the fans of Donnie Osmond, who was subjected to torrents of slander and obscenity in the debut, are plotting revenge in some other corner of the Web. These are only limited, specific examples of the right-minded, if usually self-righteous, reflex to defend historical accuracy against artistic erasure, the facts of the matter against the unregulated reign of “imaginative play.”

Whether Vinyl will go anywhere more interesting than it has already been, fly off the rails with a piercing shriek, or simply grind to a dishonorable halt, I don’t know. I don’t know what tomorrow night’s episode will do. That’s part of what will make me watch. People are not wrong to want, even to demand, some fidelity to the facts and feel of a real time and place, from which real culture arose. But they may be wrong to carp about the absence of such fidelity when it is clearly not on the agenda. In Vinyl, established facts are wedded to wild fabrications, accuracies to anachronisms, and the often stupefying nature of the latter can only emphasize how little obeisance is being paid to historical veracity or canonical correctness as ends in themselves. The only apparent thing unifying all that we have so far seen and heard in Vinyl, from “Personality Crisis” to herb-encrusted chicken, is a promiscuous adoration of pop culture as it was in 1973, as it is now. Laying out their raison d’etre, Winter-Scorsese-Jagger might have said: Pop history is a river of dirty water. Let’s make mudpies.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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