Remember that time back in 1973 when the Nasty Bits opened for the New York Dolls at the Academy of Music and they only got through one song before the cops shut them down? I heard Kip Stevens was so iced on heroin that night, Alibi Record boss Richie Finestra had to inject him with cocaine to wake him up for the show. Joey Ramone was there in the audience, and the Dolls watched every minute from the wings. Oh, man … it was like a torch being passed.
Of course none of that actually happened — outside of the fevered imagination of Terence Winter and his Vinyl writing staff. But it certainly could have. The Nasty Bits show is the kind of story that pop-culture mythologists tell all the time. Remember James Brown on The T.A.M.I. Show? Remember Hendrix at Monterey? Remember Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage? The great promise of Vinyl has been that it might create its own fictional moments of legend, shadowing the real ones. Then, like James Murphy in LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” all of us watching at home could say, “I was there.”
It hasn’t really worked out. Vinyl is a critical and ratings disappointment, to the extent that Winter’s been cut loose (or perhaps has self-severed) in advance of season two. That’s too bad, in a way, because this finale demonstrates what Winter’s team could’ve done if they’d been consistently on their game.
The Nasty Bits dominate “Alibi” to such a degree that anyone tuning into the show for the first time might mistakenly assume that Vinyl has been about them all along. In addition to that triumphant one-song show at the Academy — with its quick hook orchestrated by Richie, who called the cops to drum up free publicity from all the critics and DJs he invited — the episode deals with the aftermath of last week’s Kip/Jamie/Alex threesome, as the temperamental Kip threatens to break up the band before the Dolls gig. Meanwhile, the Bits’ album release is contractually held up by the belated realization that Maury Gold and Lester Grimes own a piece of the record’s opening track, which Grimes wrote while he was bound to Gold’s label.
The Bits business is Vinyl at its best and worst. At no point during the previous nine episodes did the show do anything to make us care whether Kip ODs or becomes an underground sensation. The only times he’s been remotely likable are when he’s goofing around with Alex. Even if the show’s trying to create a Television-esque Tom Verlaine/Richard Hell rivalry between the two guitarists, it’s not a great idea to sever Kip from the one relationship that makes him seem like an okay dude.
Yet at the same time, the episode’s overwhelming focus on one story line is dramatically satisfying, which hasn’t often been true with Vinyl. Tension builds throughout, right up to the moment when the Nasty Bits take the stage and slay. And the payoff to this all-too-rare bit of success? The main characters gather in American Century’s offices to end the season with a cathartic, celebratory spray-paint party set to the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
Well, all the main characters but one. It’s hard not to notice Devon’s complete absence in this season-wrapping episode — perhaps to make time for more of Clark touting Indigo in proto-discos, even though that was all pretty well covered last week. Add in Jamie’s humiliation as the cause of the Bits breakup, Cece’s fleeting “get me some coffee” scene, and the minimal presence of Andrea, and Vinyl goes out the way it came in: barely defining or even acknowledging its female characters.
Where Devon’s story should be, “Alibi” tries to bring some weak resolution to the tale of Richie’s incompatible debts to the Feds and to mob boss Corrado Galasso. When Zak stupidly tries to get revenge on Richie by conspiring with Galasso to oust his partner, the gangster humiliates Zak back at the American Century offices — and in the process reveals to the FBI wiretap that he runs a chop shop in the Bronx. So Mr. Yankovic gets another comeuppance when his criminal associates haul him into an empty warehouse to ask how the law found out about their stolen-car racket.
The mafia story allows for one funny moment — when Zak realizes mid-sentence that he probably shouldn’t be talking about The Godfather in front of Galasso — and one major plot point, as Corrado impulsively has Joe Corso killed, effectively ridding Richie of the key witness against him in the Buck Rogers murder. Vinyl is now free to minimize this subplot, which would probably be for the best, since it’s never led to much.
Had this season’s mob subplot been more about the payola scandals, that’d be different. Vinyl is at its strongest when it’s about music in the ’70s (as few shows are), and not about angry addicts who disappoint their loved ones (as too many shows are). For example, there’s no reason for Zak’s misadventures with the mafia to illustrate that he’s in over his head; the Xavier story line already does that job. While Richie’s ahead of the curve on punk — and, at the end of this episode, sitting in the biker bar that will become CBGB — Zak’s convinced he’s found the future in a musician copping glam and prog-rock moves that already seem dated.
That’s the real crux of season one, as Richie makes plain in his big closing speech about putting out music for “the lost kids.” Despite all the distractions and dead ends, Vinyl still could someday become the show that takes the power of music seriously and finds drama in the lives of the businessmen who try to tap into that power, both for profit and for their egos. “Alibi” isn’t a great season-ender, but when it’s clicking, it has a clear vision. This is how a corrupt business like the record industry inspires the world.
It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It):
- So what’s Vinyl’s future? Should there even be another season? I think the answer to the latter question is that there’s still a lot of creative and merchandising potential in a TV drama set among the various New York music scenes of the mid-’70s. (Haven’t you been inundated with ads for Vinyl iTunes soundtracks and branded gear?) My main hope for next season is that we pick up in 1975 or ’76, and not the day after the Nasty Bits show. I don’t know if I could take ten more episodes of these characters still having the same fights and struggles.
- Who knows if new Vinyl showrunner Scott Z. Burns will keep using theatrical, lip-synced performances of old songs as a kind of Greek chorus, but if if he does, director Allen Coulter certainly showed how to make it special with the way he visualizes an ersatz Tony Bennett singing “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The camera turns onto fractured reflections in puddles, creating a sense of dreaminess and distortion that complements both the song and the plot.
- I don’t think I’ve said enough about how great the sound mix is on this show. When the Nasty Bits are headed to the stage and the Stooges’ “Gimme Danger” is playing over the PA, the way the song shifts from echoing to muffled, depending on what’s onscreen, helps build the reality.
- As a one-time Nash villain and former Opryland employee, I was crazy-delighted by Kip’s Opryland T-shirt, seen beneath his jacket in one scene. You’d be forgiven for not recognizing the logo right away, but I saw that crazy guitar-shaped “o” every day for three straight summers of my teenage years. (I hope you had fun riding the Timber Topper, Kip.)
- Whatever the failings in Vinyl’s conception of Richie Finestra as a character, it’s hard to fault Bobby Cannavale’s performance. (Unless, that is, you think that Winter and Co. leaned hard into their star’s predilection for playing tough guys.) Just look to the terrific actorly moment in “Alibi” when the label’s staff are spraying celebratory booze, and Richie, the alcoholic, flinches from the mist. There’s also a moment at the start of the episode when the camera creeps up low on Richie in a darkened bar, his eyes sunken and vacant, mouth slightly agape. Until the next season begins, I will miss the dark beauty of that look.
Soundtrack to This Review:
- Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Bruce Palmer, Dewey Martin
- Loretta Lynn, Greatest Hits Vol. II
- Elvis Presley, He Touched Me
- The Platters, Encore of Golden Hits
- Jethro Tull, Thick As a Brick