Vinyl Paints a Sympathetic Picture of the Assholes Who Bought and Sold Rock

Vinyl
Vinyl
HBO

Vinyl’s two-hour series premiere opened with an apocryphal New York Dolls concert followed by director Martin Scorsese's trademark protagonist voice-over. But its gospel wasn’t uttered until the halfway point.

In the scene, the complicated, morally conflicted man at the show’s center, high-powered record executive Richie Finestra (a taut Bobby Cannavale), wades his way through a Plato’s Retreat–style sex club to meet with a business executive. It’s New York City in 1973, pre-AIDS, and amid the sea of dispassionately writhing bodies and coke-stoked carousers, radio station mogul Frank “Buck” Rogers (brilliantly played by Andrew Dice Clay) slathers out the show's message with one thick schmear: “Let me explain something, my friend, there’s always somebody bigger ... and that’s the money man.”

That’s it. That's all there is to it. The pieces of shit who’ve ruined your music for decades and who’ve tried to shove everyone from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to Nickelback into your ear canals are at the forefront of Vinyl’s greasy trip down Fictionalized History Lane. They may be men of wealth, but they are hardly men of taste. And they’ve got, like, problems, man. 

Finestra used to have taste, though. He used to have, as he explains in his opening spiel, “a golden ear” in addition to his “silver tongue, and a pair of brass balls.” Vinyl shows Finestra’s taste in a series of flashbacks, just so you know who you’re dealing with. A black blues man, Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), whose career Finestra eventually ruins, race-checks him when their first conversation reveals how adept Finestra is with obscure jump-blues acts: “And you say you’re a white man?”

This being Scorsese and Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) territory, with Mick Jagger producing, musical taste is clearly where the show shines. So while Finestra’s (Italian for “window,” get it?) story offers us a view into an era that most of us young whippersnappers never lived, it’s his cultural acumen, as a stand-in for that of the show’s producers, that matters most. From Sturgill Simpson’s opening titles, to nods to Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bo Diddley and that crucial New York Dolls bookend, they want to prove to us that they’ve still got it. They may be rich old fucks, but they’re not the tasteless "money men" above them.

In another crucial moment from the show’s opener, Finestra’s wife and friends fete him in their very un–rock & roll suburban Connecticut home. While she’s toasting him, his wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), cops to their darkest musical sin: They never went to Woodstock. But no one seems to care that much. They traded on that lie so long ago and now they’re so successful, who really gives a shit?

Still, it should be a telling reveal for anyone who still believes that the classic rock & roll reliquary is a sacred space filled with icons and hero’s-journey narratives of the best performers overcoming hardships to earn their place in the music pantheon. Even in 1973, all of those legends were thoroughly commodified and the very idea of rock authenticity had already been subdivided and sold. Now we’re in for a full series about the guys who bought and sold all of it — those greasy executives who started with doo-wop and '60s R&B and progressed to payola and bribery. The men who turned from “two Jews and a guinea recording a schwarze on a single track,” as Finestra opines, “to something unrecognizable.”

So it leaves us with Finestra’s simple story: a guy with uncanny musical discernment who rises through the ranks to become one of those big-deal greasy executives, to the point where he’s about to become an even bigger deal by selling his company, before he sees the Big Lie and tries to start over.

There is but one nod to L.A. and it’s a throwaway line that may actually foreshadow the show’s arc. Finestra’s secretary drops the line, “Lester Bangs returned your call, and David Geffen screamed something about a publishing check for Jackson Browne, and then hung up on me.” Is Finestra going to call back Bangs — whose career was bent on elevating the emotional authenticity of punk rock? Or will he call back Geffen, the even bigger asshole whose genuineness got flushed down some Laurel Canyon drain pipe long before but still represents the middle path?

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Clearly we’re headed into Don Draper territory. With punk rock on the horizon, will Finestra and his A&R assistant Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) buy and sell that whole new era? Of course they will. The ouroboros of suck will continue to the present day and the assholes who chattel music and musicians will continue to be nothing but a giant circle jerk of money-swapping, hand-in-everyone-else’s pocket orgy of flowing cash and influence peddling.

At least with Vinyl, we get one guy we might end up liking for a little while and we get a pretty-looking show, populated by talented people and a spectacular soundtrack to guide us there.


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