In October of 1972, CBS Records president Clive Davis arranged a $20,000 bar mitzvah for his son, with a guest list that included music-industry heavyweights. Later, when Davis was fired (and sued) by CBS, that party became a major point of controversy. Did he throw that lavish shindig to schmooze with his peers and promote the label? Or, as some alleged, did he invite a who's-who of fat cats so that he could charge a personal expense to the company?
About halfway through Vinyl's second episode, "Yesterday Once More," American Century's head of promotions, Zak Yankovic, walks through the ballrooms of a tony Manhattan hotel, where a party planner is showing his wife and daughter the options available to them for the latter's bat mitzvah — and showing Zak the hefty price tag. But Yankovic doesn't really have the option to pull a Clive Davis, even though he too is inviting every "record man" in New York. He's arrived at the hotel directly from a business meeting, where he just learned that Richie Finestra has decided not to sell his American Century label to Polygram. Zak is about to be a much poorer man.
The Yankovic bar-mitzvah scene is pivotal, for a couple of reasons. First off, Zak — played by Ray Romano — didn't get much of an introduction in last week's two-hour pilot. Here, he gets a whole subplot. As we get to know him more, Vinyl digs into a significant detail: A lot of the early 1970s record executives were businessmen first and foremost, not patrons of the arts. (Clive Davis was one of those guys too, at least initially. He was a corporate attorney who just happened to end up at CBS, where he pursued rock and R&B acts because that's where he saw the biggest dollar signs.)
And the other reason why the Yankovic scene matters? Because, quite frankly, the first half of "Yesterday Once More" is pretty lousy. Once the plot shifts away from Richie, the episode improves.
Blame this on the pilot. Last week, I raved about how the first episode ended with a symbolic rebirth that merely implied where the series was going to go. Showrunner Terence Winter (who gets sole writing credit for "Yesterday Once More") could've continued in that vein, skipping the whole "Richie explains his vision for American Century" scene and jumping ahead a few days — or weeks, or months — to show the new plan in action. Instead, Winter leans hard on the material he purposefully left out of episode one.
The first 20 minutes of this week's Vinyl pretty much consists of an annoyingly manic Richie storming into the office (after spending all night in a Times Square grindhouse watching Enter the Dragon), then bullying his partners and staff into accepting his new reality. The label will ditch most of its current soft-rock and easy-listening roster, and the current A&R team has two weeks to find fresh new talent — or else they'll be fired. Meanwhile, the boss rails against Yes and Jethro Tull, and demands the kind of songs that "make you want to call the radio station" to find out what they are. Richie makes some sense here, but he comes off as such a crank that he's hard to take seriously and even harder to like.
Even the flashbacks in the first half of "Yesterday Once More" are grating. As Devon Finestra cleans up her husband's mess from the night before, she thinks back on how they met at one of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable parties, where the Velvet Underground performed. The scenes with the Factory crowd are meant to give Devon a dimension she lacked in the pilot, but too much time is spent once again celebrating Richie's excellent taste, as he recognizes VU as "the truth," while one of his friends thinks they're "the musical equivalent of a soup can."
Gradually, though, after Vinyl's main man finishes berating his employees (in the present) and wooing Devon (in the past), the point of this episode comes into focus. It's not really about Richie — even though he's front and center in way too many scenes. It's more about the effect of Richie, and the many unresolved details he leaves behind while bulling his way through other people's lives.
Back in the ’60s, the future Mr. and Mrs. Finestra have rough sex in a bathroom; they're two free spirits, sharing a moment of passion. Then Devon gets pregnant, and that about wraps it up for her days in the in-crowd. Richie packs her off to the suburbs with the kids, and he gets to go on being Richie Finestra, Rock and Roll Puppet Master. In one of this week's best scenes, Devon has a little daydream in her car, set to the Carpenters' song that this episode is named after (with an actress playing Karen Carpenter riding shotgun). Then suddenly, she remembers that she left her children behind at a diner. And unlike her husband, she doesn't have the option to keep on driving, assuming that somebody else will cover for her.
"Yesterday Once More" suffers from being half the length of Vinyl's first chapter, which means that many of the characters, ideas, and plots introduced last week get shortchanged. Richie's first big musical find, Lester Grimes, only appears in the final scene (which is really just a tease for the next episode). The murder that Richie was involved in gets touched on briefly, when a cop shows up to ask the Finestras about a different crime. And the hint that our hero has had a bad history with drug abuse comes up just in passing, when one of his colleagues sees him snorting coke and says, "So we're doing this again?"
But then, Richie starts to come down from his New York Dolls/pharmaceutical-fueled epiphany. No one can stay high forever. And that's when the more promising version of Vinyl reappears. A lot of this episode involves other people reordering their lives because of Richie, whether they're sitting around in a conference room waiting for his signature on a contract, or they're gathering in American Century's bullpen to watch him make a scene behind the glass walls of his office.
The pilot received a lot of mixed reviews, and more than a few savage ones. Those critics' complaints weren't necessarily off base. Vinyl does seem to share its main character's semi-obnoxious and self-aggrandizing faith in the power of rock and roll. But Winter is a thoughtful writer, and he has a deep understanding of process. That's why it matters that "Yesterday Once More' includes a scene that shows Devon in the den that Richie trashed in the previous episode. That's also why it matters that we see Zak smash up his own car, so his wife will believe that he got into a car accident (rather than karate-chopped by his business partner).
It doesn't appear that Vinyl intends to ignore the damage that a spoiled idealist like Richie Finestra can cause, either directly or indirectly. This is what it really means to be a big shot. Richie makes the plans and everyone else makes the commitments.
It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)
- The week's other big subplot involves Jamie trying to convince American Century's head of A&R, Julie Silver (Max Casella), that Richie's interest in the Nasty Bits isn't some coke-fueled delusion. Julie's not impressed with the band. ("It's supposed to sound like you're all playing the same song at the same time," he snaps at them.) But he tries to help them out anyway, by suggesting that they learn how to play the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" well before they get back to doing originals. That's a solid tip right there. I once interviewed the English Beat/General Public frontman Dave Wakeling, who told me that the Beat had a hard time figuring out how to make music as a group until they started playing a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" as their tune-up at every practice.
- Good to see that the "musical performances as Greek chorus" motif will continue past the pilot. That's a stylistic touch that's going to set Vinyl apart from all of the other "powerful man has midlife crisis" dramas. Not many of those other shows would spend a minute or two showing a fake Jerry Lee Lewis singing "Breathless."
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer/star John Cameron Mitchell is an inspired choice to play Andy Warhol, though no impersonation of Andy will ever top the late David Bowie's.
- A passing American Century employee complains that Chicago's latest album is at No. 1 on the Billboard charts again. That would be Chicago VI, which stayed at No. 1 for five straight weeks in 1973, producing two Top 10 hits: "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" and "Just You 'n' Me." (And honestly, it's not so bad.)
- "Yesterday Once More" also briefly features footage of one of 1973's other big hits: the televised Watergate hearings.
- "Who's the black guy from Pippin?" asks one of American Century's junior execs. Should've trusted your first instinct, dude. It's Ben Vereen.
- As you may have heard, Vinyl has already been renewed for a second season, even though the ratings for the first episode were fairly weak. You could chalk that decision up to HBO's desire to maintain good relationships with Winter, Martin Scorsese, and Mick Jagger. Or it could be that the network expects an ongoing boon from the release of its weekly soundtracks.
Soundtrack to This Review:
Syd Barrett, The Madcap Laughs
The Frankie Miller Band, The Rock
Various artists, New Orleans: The Original Sound of Funk (1960-75)