When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the major rock critics of the era penned some of their most heartfelt, personal pieces, sizing up the magnitude of the moment. Dave Marsh dived into the dregs of Elvis's work, trying to make sense of how the man who'd so effortlessly fused pop, blues, and hillbilly music in the 1950s descended into schmaltz once he hit Hollywood. Lester Bangs wrote about a lost sense of community in rock and roll, ending with one of his most famous lines: "I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you." The strange career and sudden end of a cultural icon — who'd been taken for granted for the last decade-plus of his career — allowed a lot of great writers to crystallize their thoughts on fame, vitality, and American music.
I can't argue that this week's Vinyl, "The King and I," is as cogent or poetic as a Lester Bangs essay. For one thing, the episode frequently stinks of effort. More than a few scenes push too hard for profundity. Others take cheap potshots at American Century's already pathetic, hip-enough-to-know-he's-square Zak Yankovic. Sometimes co-workers take shots at Zak — like Andrea, who, during a staff meeting, says that she's going "to pick up [his] panty shields." Sometimes he rips on himself, like when he has a bad run at a casino and he says he's "busted like my sister's cherry on prom night." No matter who's delivering the jokes, though, they are thuddingly vulgar.
Still, after two straight weeks of Vinyl repeating the same flat, shrill notes, it's reinvigorating to see a plot with an arc that actually goes places. "The King and I" winds from New York to Los Angeles and back again, with a lengthy layover in Las Vegas. Zak and Richie fly out West, hoping to increase American Century's liquidity by selling the label's corporate jet to high-flying industry honcho Lou Meshejian (played by John Ventimiglia, a.k.a. The Sopranos' Artie Bucco). While in the air, the boys have a long-overdue conversation about their friendship and their partnership. Last week, I said this show needed more of these kinds of scenes between Zak and Richie, where they talk to each other, not yell. And while "The King and I" ultimately reveals Zak to be something of a creep — getting liquored up and angling for a threesome with two much-younger gals — the episode is anchored by a satisfying mini-odyssey, not unlike when Mad Men would send Don Draper off on a trip.
Then there's the Elvis angle. While Zak and Richie are at a swank Malibu party, they hear that Mr. Elvis Aaron Presley might be willing to jump ship from his longtime label RCA. So on the way home from California they visit Vegas, where Richie maneuvers his way past Presley's dictatorial manager Colonel Tom Parker (played by a perfectly cast Gene Jones) and has a late-night audience with the King (played by "Elvis tribute artist" Shawn Klush). As Richie pitches what American Century could do for Elvis — more stripped-down arrangements, and a moratorium on brand-cheapening cash-ins — it's like he's trying to convince himself that it's possible to be both middle-aged and culturally relevant.
The meeting with Elvis ties well into the episode's real target. In a bit of inadvertent irony, Richie asks Presley, "You're gonna die a rich man 50 years from now, but are you gonna die a king?" This is the same basic question he asked himself when he turned down millions, nixing that deal to sell his label to Polygram. Now he's realizing one of the ramifications of that decision. It's hard to be a king without being a rich man. All of Richie's big plans for American Century could be undone by an inability to make payroll. It's not very punk-rock to keep track of business expenses, but that's where he finds himself — counting pennies and selling off pieces of the label's history. (Before handing off the company plane, Zak reminisces that his wife picked out the color of the interior; it's one of Vinyl's most poignant and human moments yet.)
The episode's thematic preoccupations partially explain its twist ending, which is otherwise abrupt and kind of cruel. In a gambling mood after rolling the dice with Elvis, Richie takes the sack full of money that he got from selling his plane and bets it all on 18 in a game of roulette (because, as we see in a nifty flashback montage, that number kept popping up everywhere throughout the trip). When he loses everything, he tricks Zak into thinking that he lost the money to the two ladies he just drunkenly slept with. This is a bum way to end what had been a nice bonding experience for the two of them. Even worse? Richie falls back off the wagon on the way home, guzzling vodka, perhaps convinced that the clean living, responsible bookkeeping, and magical thinking of the previous few days had been a waste.
Ultimately, none of these folks are as savvy — or as blessed — as they think they are. Zak keeps insisting that he's got a better ear than Richie believes, but proves himself to be as shallow and shortsighted when he heckles Elvis for singing "Polk Salad Annie" — a Tony Joe White country-blues classic that's true to Presley's roots. (At least I hope that it's just Zak who doesn't get the song, and not Vinyl's writers … because the latter case would be a shame.) And when Zak sees Mama Cass Elliot at the Malibu party, he makes a crack to Richie about "get(ting) to the buffet before you-know-who," which is terribly mean.
Then again, Zak's just a person. And so was Mama Cass, who'd be dead within a year. And Jim Morrison, who "had his last three-way" on the American Century jet. And Gram Parsons, who runs into Richie at the party and raves about Joshua Tree, where he'd be found dead later that fall. "The King and I" is haunted by the ghosts of the newly dead and the soon-to-be-gone.
No future ghost, though, looms larger than Elvis, who by the end of his meeting with Richie is rubbing his arm, feeling the angina that'll overcome him in just a few years. Here's a wounded King, kept prisoner by a stingy colonel. That's an apt analogue for Richie, who thinks he's a visionary but can't see beyond his balance sheet. If the legacy of Elvis taught us anything, it's this: When people who try to make popular art can't live with compromises … well, maybe they just can't live.
It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It):
- A lot of the episode's "funny" dialogue didn't land, but I did laugh out loud at two lines during Zak and Richie's long airplane conversation: Zak saying he's never felt confident enough to attempt a three-way because "Why disappoint two women?," and Richie taking a beat after an angry Zak rant, then shouting back, "I partly see your point!"
- Clark gets more to do this week, starting over in the mail room with skeptical black and Latino co-workers. There's nothing all that special about the Clark scenes, but it's amusing to watch him struggle to be cool (including doing an unimpressive Funky Chicken) — and it's nice that Jamie tries to help. Here again we have a mini-arc rooted in the actual music business, with colleagues working together toward a common goal. More of this, please.
- "The King and I" also sees the return of Joe Corso, in a too-brief scene of him negotiating for airtime with a WABC programmer while a cop listens in nearby. In the summer of 1973, the grand-jury hearings into payola at Columbia Records started to become a huge story. It seems inevitable that this will become a major part of Vinyl in the weeks ahead.
- Richie meets Stephen Stills and gushes "Manassas? I dug it!" This may be typical label-exec schmoozing (or maybe a nod to Christopher Moltisanti shouting "Marty! Kundun! I liked it!" to Martin Scorsese on The Sopranos). But you know what? Richie should dig Manassas. The self-titled double album that Stills recorded with that makeshift band — which also featured the Byrds' Chris Hillman and CSNY drummer Dallas Taylor — is one of the underrated gems of the early '70s. It's a forerunner of the eclectic Americana of modern acts like Wilco.
- Speaking of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: We briefly see David and Neil roaming through the Malibu party, where Lou suggests that he should get all the boys back together for a tour. That's probably a reference to the blockbuster arena circuit the quartet played in the summer of 1974. At the time, those gigs — so huge, so indulgent, and so sloppily organized — were held up by critics as an example of California rock excess. But when the live album CSNY 1974 was belatedly released in 2014, it sounded fantastic. When it comes to pop culture, there are no eternal certainties.
Soundtrack to this review:
- Lou Reed, Rock 'n' Roll Animal
- Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now
- The Association, Birthday
- The Millennium, Begin
- Various Artists, Stars of the Grand Ole Opry 1926-1974