Monday, February 15, 2016

Vinyl Bullshit

I'm going to try something different here.  Watching HBO's Vinyl now on their streaming app.  I had high hopes for this show, still do I guess, but as I watch it, there's just so much "off" about it.  Easily-corrected off.  Off in ways that are utter bullshit to longstanding rock fans.

What I'll do here is keep a running list of what I see wrong.  Sure, there are right things.  A lot of great one liners.  The "right" 70's hair and facial hair, as so many 70's based TV shows and movies have (like every adult male in the 70's had a handle-bar mustache and/or sideburns).  Understand, I wasn't even there, I was a kid at the time, but fully engaged in music, in magazines, devouring anything rock-related as a kid.  Even in this once-removed position ... I can smell the bullshit. 

You want to know why I'm not a famous writer?  Because whatever relentless drive it takes to position yourself with HBO to the extent that they'll greenlight a series like this ... is inversely proportional to the senses of style, taste and basic history (i.e., getting it right) that a person like me has.  These are smart, talented guys who love the same music I do and have the same historical references.  But they've learned to bend truth and push connections in ways I haven't ... and it's just not worth it to me to be that full of, well, bullshit!  So, here's my informal list of what's wrong with the series.  And understand, a goofy Cameron Crowe movie like Almost Famous, whatever else you think about it, gets just about everything right in terms of how it portrayed the times.  I wish I could say the same for Vinyl.


1. Was the Mercer Street Arts Center remotely like it's portrayed (i.e., a ratty, back-alley rock club)?  Wasn't it part of a hotel on Houston St. with different performing rooms, of which one was where the Dolls were doing their thing?  They seemed to have mistaken the grubbiness of CBGBs with this scene, i.e., I don't picture the Arts Center as being all that run down? When I see pictures of the crowd seeing the Dolls, sure there were some people glammed up, but most of them seemed like normal rock fans, i.e., mostly in jeans and t-shirts, not too flamboyant.  Flamboyant didn't really exist yet in American rock lexicon, at least not in that flashy/drag-queen 70's way the Dolls brought into play.

2. We have a British kid in a punkish band living and playing in NYC in 1973, trying to "make it" there.  Was there any historical precedence for an artist like this?  The entire downtown scene was kids from the outer boroughs and mostly northeast/midatlantic America.  There were no British "punks" in Manhattan circa 1973.  There were no American "punks."  There was a loose gathering of downtown bands playing music that would form the basis for "punk" to be recognized as a trend a few years later.  The pictures seem to portray a bunch of under-fed white kids who looked like they'd been to college or were just hanging out on street corners in Queens.

3. NYC subway cars and stations circa 1973:  were they this run down, garbage strewn and graffiti covered?  Graffiti, at least the colorful, bubble-lettered type that's now considered an art form as opposed to simply-scrawled tags,  seems more like a latin-influenced trend that came in later in the 70's, and I'd be surprised if it was that widespread in 1973 that subway cars were being tagged like they appear here, i.e., like they were in the 80s. For a good reference point as to how subway stations looked at the time, you have scenes in The Exorcist and The Warriors as a guide.  (Actually, any number of New York-based movies ... like the original Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 for starters.  But I guess some old Jewish guy in a houndstooth fedora reading the Post on the Uptown 1 isn't quite as romantic.)  The subway cars would eventually get bombed with graffiti as appears here, but the stations themselves, I'd wager, were always relatively clean.  (An inside joke to New Yorkers.  Of course, they're dirty. but never as dirty as portrayed in movies like this.)

4. Guy in major label AR Department name drops the band Suicide ... in 1973?  Did Suicide even exist then?  Would a major label AR man be name-dropping them?  A guy in this position at that time wouldn't even be name-dropping Television, who started it all.  He'd be doing this two years later. (Reader Andy S. has indeed let me know Suicide existed at the time, even played the Mercer Arts Center.  But did not put out an album until 1977 and were only a live entity at the time ... and a deeply unpopular one to gather what the band members and people on the scene have noted in books and articles!)

5. The AR Guy mentions a recording session with England Dan & John Ford Coley.  Again, did they exist in 1973?  I recall 1976.  England Dan was Dan Seals, brother of Dash Seals in Seals & Croft, who were huge at the time.  A simple Wikipedia search reveals these guys got a major-label shot in the early 70's with A&M that went nowhere, they disappeared for five years, and came back big in 1976.  They weren't recording in 1973, and no one would have thought to name drop them as an inside joke to how they were wasting their time with them in a recording studio.  A better choice would have been Barry Manilow.  He was New York born and bred, made his name playing gay bathhouses backing Bette Midler and was just starting his solo career. Same cultural effect as England Dan & John Ford Coley, more accurate and more likely to have actually happened at that point in time.

6. I know Led Zep covered Gene Vincent's "Something' Else" in a BBC radio concert.  (Reader Andy S. corrects me: Eddie Cochrane.)  Would they open a show at Madison Square Garden with that song?  Did they ever play this song on any American tour?  If so, I can assure you, they never opened a show with a cover.  (Sidenote:  I'm well aware that it costs a small fortune to license Led Zeppelin's music for movies or TV.  Crowe's movie Almost Famous is a bit of an anomaly in that it features Led Zep tracks, probably because he knew them personally for years after interviewing them as a teenager.  Any reason they couldn't have picked Bad Company? Then again, how "cool" would Bad Company be to younger viewers who've been raised to believe Led Zep and Pink Floyd were the only two rock bands in the 70's?)

7. The street scene with the black crowd listening to R&B played by a DJ on a turntable and speakers set up outside a project.  Did this happen in Manhattan at all, i.e., where the record company head was traveling his car?  This was a Bronx thing that historically started happening later in the 70's.  Not anywhere in Manhattan, and that's an important distinction to make.  A record executive traveling to gigs at night at major venues would not have been taking detours to travel by projects in the South or Central Bronx.  His driver would have been freaked out taking any street that wasn't the Grand Concourse or Jerome Avenue.

8. Receptionist tells record company head: "Lester Bangs returned your call."  Really?  An American record company head merging with a multi-national German corporation would be calling a rock critic working mostly for Creem?  I don't think so.  I'd buy an AR man or publicist calling Lester Bangs, but not the head executive of a major label.  You can read Clive Davies' and Jac Holzman's autobiographies to see how much time they spend talking about music critics, i.e., virtually none.

9. "Where are we with The Good Rats"?  the executive asks his AR crew.  Come on.  Were The Good Rats ever really discussed by major label record executives?  They were big in the NYC area and had that vibe about them, always.They might have brushed against a major label at the time, but that was it, they were never a going concern at that level.  More than likely, an AR guy from Queens was raving about them, they signed a deal for one album with a major, it got put out, sold 100,000 copies, 75,000 of them in the NYC tri-state area, and they went back to their indie label home, where they belonged.  I could see an executive asking: "Have we dumped The Good Rats yet?"  Someone working on the script was a teenage fan at the time.  There's a much better reference to The Good Rats in the movie Roadie, where the aging Blue Oyster Cult roadie reminisces with his teenage crush in his old bedroom to an old (and good!) Good Rats song, which makes perfect sense for two Queens kids remembering the 70's.

10. Classic Scorcese or tired cliché?  Two grown men beating the shit out of another to a pop song, in this case Hurricane Smith's "Babe What Would You Say?"  Didn't we see this one before, better, in Goodfellas, where two grown men kick the shit out of another to the tune of "Atlantis" by Donovan?  Which goes all the way back to De Niro fighting off a gang of thugs in a pool hall in Mean Streets to The Marvellettes' "Please Mr. Postman"?  I would suggest that in a Martin Scorcese movie if you hear a song like "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jacks or "The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace ... someone's in for an ass-beating.  Because Scorcese thinks it's funny to score extreme violence to frilly pop music.  It was funny the first few times.

11. The whole "Nasty Bits" British punk thing is fiction and completely out of place with anything going on musically with NYC and/or major labels in 1973.  It just didn't exist.  The one or two little-known NYC alternative bands essentially going nowhere at the time were in no way British and did not have that British punk vibe that these tracks clearly impart.  This is putrid stuff, so wrongly out of place that any serious rock fan has to reject the premise.  Which wouldn't matter, save I gather this band is going to be a running, major theme in this show, since Mick Jagger's son is cast as the singer and he's one of the producers.  Purposely derailing a show historically just to appease one of the show's producer's is a bad move.

12. Did the Mercer Street Arts Center building collapse really go down like that?  While the band was performing so that the band, in effect, "rocked" the house down?  Of course not.  If it had, there would have been a few dozen corpses and hundreds of people injured. 

This show is off to a bad start.  Times being what they were, I guess we're going to be getting into "the birth" of disco in gay clubs, the downtown classical/experimental Philip Glass scene that was exploding at the time,  places like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's.  I can only guess at how wrongly these will be portrayed by people who know better, but must think their artistic license is somehow better than the already intriguing reality that existed.

A much better and more interesting show would have been a loosely-based fictional show on Bruce Springsteen's early days in Asbury Park, New Jersey, especially tied in with the race riots going on around that time and the issues of urbanization and (at the time, lack of) gentrification that started in the 70's and spread outward.  But what do I know ... it seems easier to juggle history in ways that serve no purpose other than to appease egos during writers' meetings.


Andy S. said...

Bill, I too watched the two-hour premiere and had a lot of the same issues as you have. I did check into the Mercer Arts Center collapse. It happened in August of 1973, in the afternoon, before the evening's performances were to begin. The building is portrayed accurately from the outside, but I remember the main stage as being smaller. And indeed, many of the patrons were rock fans like myself (although I did not see the Dolls at Mercer; I saw them at the old Academy of Music - later to become the Palladium - in 1973. It was about 1/3 full, if memory serves.)

Led Zep was covering Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" as early as 1969 - see the BBC Sessions CD - but I can't say if they were still playing it in 1973.

Suicide did exist then; they were also regulars at the Mercer.

The whole Nasty Bits storyline is total bullshit. As you said, no British punks, if they even existed in 1973, which they didn't, would have been coming to America. The first true British punk rock bands were playing England in 1976, and only the most well-known of those - The Sex Pistols - would have come across the pond by 1977.

"Classic Scorsese or tired cliché?" I'm leaning heavily toward tired cliché. The camera gimmicks have been done to death, and much better before. The scene at Buck Rogers' house, where Richie and his "promotion" guy beat Rogers (played by Andrew Dice Clay) to death, was so gratuitously ugly and pointless that I nearly turned it off right there. But I guess they had to set up some drama for Richie down the road, with the homicide hanging over his head.

I found the whole thing a colossal, over-amplified mess. There are no interesting characters, no one you remotely care about here. Cannavale, an actor I've enjoyed in other things, feels wrong for the lead. He's neither bad enough when he needs to be bad nor good enough when he's supposed to be good. The whole thing has a contrived, slapdash feel, as if the producers are trying to throw as much as they can into the mix without consideration for coherence.

What I'd love to see is a series based on "Please Kill Me," but that would probably not have broad enough appeal for HBO.

buzzbabyjesus said...

It all sounds "Super Heavy" to me. Mick is showing that his tone deafness extends beyond music.