Like Vinyl, Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire regularly featured its fictional characters rubbing elbows with historical figures, so much that gangsters Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky were all part of the main cast. And that’s to say nothing of Bugsy Siegel, J. Edgar Hoover, and politicians such as Harry Daugherty and Warren G. Harding. Vinyl has kept its real-life characters more on the periphery thus far, resigned to bit parts and the occasional recurring role. So how come the historical-fiction conceit of tonight feels so out of place? How come, whenever a real musician begins interacting with someone made-up, the show starts to feel like Forrest Gump?
It’s sure not the performances. While Zebedee Row’s chauvinistic-peacock take on Robert Plant was ultimately cartoonish, Dustin Ingram brings a geekier realism to Alice Cooper in “Whispered Secrets,” drawing out the intelligence and Midwestern modesty the shock-rocker exhibited in his Wayne’s World cameo to an entire hour of television. Likewise, John Cameron Mitchell continues to explore the glimmers of humanity beneath the scaly exterior of Andy Warhol (not technically a musician, but certainly an important figure in music) during his interactions with Devon.
But despite the nuanced performances, Ingram and Mitchell both have a huge factor working against them: they’re playing non-fictional rock stars (one literal, one metaphorical), and non-fictional rock stars already have a lot of exposure. They get filmed a lot. They get recorded a lot. They get interviewed a lot, to the point where most people watching Vinyl already have an idea of how they speak and move. The gangsters in Boardwalk Empire were arguably just as famous during their heyday, but there isn’t a ton of footage depicting their speech patterns and public persona. There’s enough mystery to how Al Capone talked that performers as diverse as Rod Steiger, Robert DeNiro, and Stephen Graham can all put their own stamp on him without betraying any preconceived notions in the viewer’s mind.
Cooper and Warhol, on the other hand, are caricatures in real life by this point, and featuring them so heavily in an already expansive cast just feels off. Even worse, the writers present the fictional characters as having a profound effect on them, when it should probably be the other way around. Even though Warhol ends up helping Devon—whose finances and housing of a displaced Russian ballet company are taking a blow since Richie rejected the Polygram buyout last week—he’s doing it largely because she was one of his muses in the Factory days.
In Cooper’s case, his story involves Clarke trying to woo him away from his band by suggesting he keep the name for himself and sign with American Century as a solo act. For a while, Cooper plays along, until the final stretch reveals that he actually wants revenge on the record label because Richie stood him up at what could have been a watershed meeting a few years prior. He then expresses his loyalty to his bandmates before locking Clark in the stock of his guillotine. In the tradition of Cooper’s Grand Guignol stage show, the decapitation is just an illusion, and Clarke escapes with his head intact after being ridiculed by the musicians. But he’ll end up being more significant to the act’s legacy than he realizes in just two years. For it was in 1975 that Alice Cooper (the man, not the band) did do something similar to Clark’s suggestion and dissolve the rock outfit so he could adopt the name for himself and go solo.
Is it completely unbelievable, that Clark—a guy who can’t even be slimy and conniving when he tries—would be responsible for this, that he would plant the seed for one of the biggest business decisions Alice Cooper would ever make? No. But it does reek of the show continuing to give itself too much credit in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, continuing to desperately stake a claim for legitimacy by explaining the importance of all of this to the audience. It can’t just show Clark dealing with Cooper on a schmoozy business level—it has to show the two of them playing golf together as Cooper’s boa constrictor slithers around the A&R executive’s neck.
A similar instance of pop-culture force-feeding happens in the opening of the episode, when Maury Gold’s being honored with a lifetime achievement award by his peers in the industry. Before Richie’s record-company rival, Jackie Jervis (Ken Marino), presents Gold with his statue, he calls out several titans of the music world—Jerry Wexler, Berry Gordy, and Neil Bogart among them. Mark Romanek—himself known for directing several iconic music videos—goes to great pains to show each one of them in the audience, toasting the light ribbing from their younger colleague. Jervis’ routine does result in him revealing the abandoned buyout to the public, which ends up being the inciting incident for the episode. But the roasting, along with the visual cue of who all of these important men are, feels like overkill, a drawn-out way for Vinyl’s creators to swing their dicks and remind us how much they know about music.
I said this last time around, but I’m far more interested in the series’ surreal portrayals of how music affects people rather than how it impresses them. I’m far more interested in how music reflects the conflict within the story, whether it’s Lester listening to “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and envisioning a life of success he never had or Richie stewing over the mess he’s made—of Lester’s career, of his company’s finances, of his marriage, of everything—as the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf wails outside his window. Lester dopily grinning while an imaginary family flocks around him in pastel dress clothes, gold records glistening above them? That’s depressing. Johnny Thunders showing up for a badly wigged cameo that only shows the worst (and most archetypal) parts of his personality? That’s depressing, too, just not in a good way. Vinyl’s already got enough interesting characters to not worry about that kind of self-important starfuckery.
- This may have been intentional, but in the flashback of Richie and Devon looking at the painting, they seem just as falsely happy as they do in the present. It never feels like the leaps back in time are supposed to be the good old days, and I’m thinking maybe they’re supposed to.
- I was one of the few people who didn’t mind Buck Rogers’ murder in the first episode, as it appeared to be for character reasons, not plot reasons. It’s looking like I was wrong though, and if a criminal investigation of Richie becomes a huge plot point in the second half of the season, I can’t see how that’s going to tie into the musical element of the show in any kind of meaningful way.
- I’m not sure I buy how “raw and alive” (according to Richie) Nasty Bits are supposed to be. I mean, they win over the crowd by covering another punk band, and they don’t sound all that different from many of the other acts already mentioned by the show.
- Joe Corso really needs to brush up on his wildlife similes.
- “I mostly unclog toilets. Keeps me grounded.”
- “How many melons must give their lives to satisfy your ego?”
- The gents in white suits at the awards ceremonies are none other than power-pop powerhouse The Raspberries, playing “I Wanna Be With You,” as covered by Nate Ruess of Fun.
- Johnny Winter’s “Rock Me Baby” plays when Richie enters the American Century offices for the first time, followed shortly by Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” when he starts cutting the label’s roster.
- During the DJ’s funk medley, I caught Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” but I think I missed a couple others, including at least one instrumental.
- As promised by the first episode, we get to see England Dan & John Ford Coley recording an alternate version of their hit “Simone.” I know the original was released in 1972, so do any of you know what soundtrack they were supposed to be re-recording it for?
- And, in continuing the pattern of modern artists paying homage to their forefathers (and mothers) every week, the vocals on “Simone” are provided by Milk Carton Kids, who arguably got saddled with the worst cover of the bunch.
- Nasty Bits crap out a particularly mediocre cover of The Kinks’ “All Day And All Of The Night.” Hopefully this will make Richie realize how clueless Julie is.
- I can’t remember where it happened, but The Staples Singers’ “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” is in the episode somewhere.
- My knowledge of blues music is spotty, and I can’t tell if Lester’s listening to Otis Rush’s original “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” Willie Dixon’s version, or someone else’s.
- A handful of Alice Cooper songs tonight, including “Unfinished Sweet” and “I Love The Dead,” as sang by Andrew W.K. when the band is soundchecking.
- Howlin’ Wolf’s going to town on “Smokestack Lightning” outside Richie’s window, harp solo and all.
- When Richie meets with Maury Gold, we hear Thin Lizzy’s “The Rocker.”
- That Rocket From The Tombs song covered by Nasty Bits is “What Love Is.”
- The credits feature Loggins & Messina’s “Danny’s Song” performed by two different female vocalists. First comes the intentionally limp version plunked out by Joe’s one-off girlfriend, which then transitions into the Anne Murray version, as covered by Neko Case.
- For anyone wanting to hear all of this week’s covers in one place, Stereogum has ‘em here.