The Debut Episode of ‘Vinyl’ Misses a Step With Punk

By fudging the timeline, this paean to the dangerous analog thrills of '70s New York's musical underground threatens to become Boardwalk Empire.

It’s easy to see what’s grabbing the attention of cocaine-dusted record exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) at the concert that bookends the two-hour premiere episode of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s HBO series Vinyl. First, he’s watching the New York Dolls, slashing and burning their way through “Personality Crisis” at the downtown firetrap Mercer Arts Center before a crowd of rangy and be-glittered kids with the look of fervent religious converts. Second, although his company, American Century, seems to have once had a few hits, it’s now creatively irrelevant laughingstock (nickname: “American Cemetery”) that he’s trying to unload to a cabal of clueless Germans before they realize just how cooked the books really are. His life is unraveling, and his juices are dry (more on that in a minute). The guy needs a fix. Rock and roll is there to save him, for the first time in far too long.

Richie’s a stand-in for American music and culture at large in the burnt-out end times of the early 1970s. What was left of Woodstock’s musical and life-changing promise has long disappeared into a haze of drug casualties and curdled idealism. On the horizon? Mass audience behemoths like Abba and Led Zeppelin; both are nodded toward in the reference-heavy premiere.

As with most white rock and roll mavens of the time, Richie got into the business by dint of being a hardcore blues nerd, the kind of guy who pretended to be Bo Diddley in the mirror and could probably rattle off Chess label pressings like the alphabet. Scorsese, as the episode’s director, pays clever homage to those influences by seeding in impressionistic scenes with vaguely recognizable blues and R&B performers from the past performing in full glory, like the echoing strains of the jukebox in Richie’s head that he so desperately wants to regain. That’s where the New York Dolls come in. Just as Richie has run dry, the Dolls are there to remind him of music’s brutally beautiful promise and Dionysian release.

Also like much of the country, Richie needed to dry out a bit, which is why once the episode dials back five days from the frenetic opener with him snuffling up coke on a crumbling, bum-strewn downtown street, we see him in a slightly more sober pose. (Of course, there’s only so sober that a live-wire performer like Cannavale can ever truly present as; his natural state is that of aching crisis and near collapse.) Everybody around Richie tentatively acknowledges that sobriety, from his employees at American Century — where junior A&R girl Jaime Vine (Juno Temple) keeps a drawer full of pills, blow, and joints — to his nervous and semi-estranged wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) watching over the kids up at their place in Connecticut.

This being an HBO show in the new millennium, we know that Richie will fall, and fall hard. We’ll also not be surprised that an easily predicted dark deed that he performs later in the episode, as well as some haunting decisions from earlier in his music career, will set him up as yet another anti-hero who’ll probably spend the remainder of the show’s arc huffing and puffing to keep himself ahead of the justice, both moral and legal, that’s chasing him.

Given the signposts already laid out — like the fey, Nico-esque Euro-blonde who will likely be enticing Devon into (or back into) a Warhol-centered sideplot that will allow the show to set a few scenes at the Factory and Max’s Kansas City — we can assume that following episodes will track the evolution of this critical resurgence in New York music. Correctly, the premiere sticks a pin in the New York Dolls, whose primal take on glam helped cross-pollinate the raw intensity of proto-punk like the Stooges (who will likely make at least a cameo later on) with Bowie/Reed oddities and the dark strains of post-Velvet Underground art-performance into the first stirrings of what would become punk.

That moment, unfortunately, seems to be where Vinyl might be taking a wrong step. One of the premiere’s least convincing elements is Jaime’s interest in Kip Stevens (Mick Jagger’s son James Jagger), the singer for a British punk band called the Nasty Bits with whom she becomes enamored. The problem here isn’t so much that the dangerous romance between a pampered-seeming scenester on the make and a heroin junkie feels more mercenary than primal.

What rings so false about the whole setup is that having these ripped T-shirt and eyelinered Brits snarling through their three-chord set before an unappreciative New York crowd pretty much ignores the cultural anthropology that theoretically is informing the entire show’s story line. It wasn’t until three or four years later, after Richard Hell’s “No Future” gutter-poet-punk visual aesthetic and the Ramones’ sonic jaw-punch, that the British punk scene started sending its own variations on the New York sound back to these shores.

Even with acknowledging that much of punk’s history has been New York-centric, dispensing with such a crucial part of the timeline appears to signify a show that, like Scorsese and writer Terence Winter’s last HBO project Boardwalk Empire, will impatiently pick and choose particularly glittery bits of history that they will churn into a hyper-Technicolor operatic melodrama about money, power, and competing ethnic interests (already Mafioso have shown up to beat down a black blues artist of Richie’s who didn’t want to follow the program) with only a tangential connection to the real deal.

Certainly, Scorsese and Jagger — as well as the show’s music staff, like Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo — know the milieu that they’re depicting; Scorsese was an early appreciator of the Clash and knew enough about the city’s punk scene to use Bad Brains on the soundtrack for After Hours. The episode’s littered with spot-on references, from the music-label geek who opines that aggro-punk noise terrorists Suicide “are too niche” to Richie’s car floating past the sounds of a DJ scratching out an early hip-hop track. Fiction isn’t history, and the creators of Vinyl are under no obligations to be historians. But turning such a vibrant and crucial part of America’s cultural past into just another morally conflicted HBO anti-hero saga may not do it justice in the end.

RATING 6 / 10