What ‘Vinyl’ Got Wrong This Week: Writing Too Lazy for Wikipedia

Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB's in front of his famous music club November 29, 1993

Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB’s, in front of his infamous venue. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons.)

Disclaimer: My one-time mentor and protector at Atlantic Records, Danny Goldberg, was featured briefly as a character in this episode. I think you’ll find that this has not affected my ability to be a total asshole about relatively small mistakes in an otherwise excellent television series.

There was one big, fat and obvious objective error in the season finale of Vinyl (Episode 10, “Alibi”), and a couple of subjective ones. Now, an objective error is when you see something that causes you to drop your Fribble and go, “WhoooBoy, they sure got that one wrong!” A subjective error, on the other hand, is when something merely compels you to momentarily stop spooning the golden, frosty manna into your impatient gob and say out loud, “Uh…yeah, right, that happened.”

First, the objective error: The late, great Hilly Kristal wasn’t sitting around serving cheap drinks to cops when he suddenly got a light bulb over his head and announced, “I am going to put live music in this skid row bar, and I shall rename it CBGB’s!”

This kind of thing is straight out of the “Jackie, it is such a sunny day here in Dallas, let’s leave the top off the limo!” school of dramatic writing. It is corny, lazy and inaccurate. Vinyl uses this technique a lot, but rarely is it as misleading as this. Before the forest-dark and over-shellacked room at 315 Bowery was renamed CBGBs, it was called Hilly’s On The Bowery, and guess what? They had live music there.

Vinyl got one important fact about Hilly Kristal all wrong, and one 44-second visit to Wikipedia could have corrected it.

In fact, a number of acts who were formative in the gestation of the mid-’70s Bowery revolution played at Hilly’s, including the Stillettoes (who evolved into Blondie and the Sic F*cks), the Magic Tramps, and other overlooked artists who bridged the glammy post-Warhol Mercer’s/Club 82 scene with the streamlined CBGB’s future.

So Vinyl got that one all wrong, and one 44-second visit to Wikipedia could have corrected it. In other words, it was a dumbass error, and just the kind of revisionism that makes me set down my Fribble and go, “No, not today, my dear sugary and creamy companion. The world is too dark and ignorant a place to be lit up even by your gooey incandescence.”

Now, the subjective stuff—that is, things that are highly improbable (though not completely impossible).

In Episode 10, the Nasty Bits climbed on stage at the (faux) Academy of Music as the opening act for the Dolls, and two very, very improbable things happened: First of all, just halfway through their opening number (that tepid little “Radar Love” re-write we have spoken about elsewhere), they totally win over a previously hostile audience.

Listen, friends, I have seen a lot of gigs; I have seen more gigs than there are calories in a Fribble. And while it’s conceivable that a support act can win over a hostile or ambivalent audience during the course of a set, it is virtually impossible to do so before you’ve reached the halfway point of your first song. In the course of my gig-attending life, I know of literally only one—perhaps two—opening acts that could win over a hostile audience halfway through their first song; this is a very, very hard thing to pull off.

I have seen the feral and wire-biting Clash open for the Who and go over like Ted Nugent at a Bernie Sanders rally; I have seen serpentine young R.E.M. open for the Police, and get stared at impassively. Shit, I saw the Stooges, only recently reunited and hungry and fiery hot, get virtually booed off the stage while opening for Marilyn Manson.

Trust me, the freaking Nasty Bits and their Rubinoos-meets-Cheap Trick-dressed-as-Richard Hell FM-friendly rock would not have done the trick. So I call bullshit, big time. This was a third-rate Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland-ism, and Vinyl is better than that.

(For the record, the one act I know of that could consistently win over a hostile or impassive audience within their first song were the acrobatic New Orleans slop-billy pop band, Cowboy Mouth; the other act I saw pull it off with some regularity—but not as reliably as Cowboy Mouth—was the hyper-pop band, The Presidents of the United States of America. Both of these acts had some things in common: Extremely physical, airborne, very tight, somewhat unique stage set-up, and very chorus-driven; the Nasty Bits share none of these qualities.)

Secondly: I strongly doubt that circa 1973 any police would arrest a rock band on stage in NYC for using an obscenity in a song. There is certainly some precedent for that in other regions of the country (and prior to 1973), but if anything remotely like this happened in Manhattan as late as 1973, I would like to hear about it. This seemed like an incredulous plot twist, to say the least.

Also worth noting: The bit at the Alibi Records’ launch where Richie Finsetra encouraged the staff to spray-paint the office would appear to be loosely inspired by a similar incident at Saturday Night Live in 1981, when Michael O’Donoghue, on his first day as SNL head writer, attempted to rally and inspire the troops by defacing the premises (it failed horribly, but that’s another story). For the record, the late O’Donoghue is honestly one of the godfathers of modern comedy and we should all stop and say a silent and profane prayer in his honor, but that really is off topic, isn’t it?

I call bullshit, big time. This was a third-rate Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland-ism, and Vinyl is better than that.

And so ends, for a few months, anyway, our little visit to the highly diverting if consistently inaccurate land of Vinyl.

Here’s a few things we have learned:

1) If Andrew Dice Clay and Bo Dietl make completely convincing promo people, what on earth does that say about the music business?

2) Your father may be one of the last century’s most famous rock stars and your mother may be married to one of the richest men in the world, but next time someone asks you to take a part that requires you to do a working-class North London accent, decline politely and say, “No, if I do that, I will look stupider than Danny Bonaduce playing bass.”

3) This fine and diverting show would have been better if it had been based around a KISS-type band, not a horrifically transparent and chronologically oxymoronic Faux Pistols (thank you to Keith Hartel and Dr. Jennifer Jo Brout for separately suggesting that).

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Actor James Jagger attends the New York premiere of "Vinyl" at Ziegfeld Theatre on January 15, 2016 in New York City.

Ello’ Guvna’, fancy some tea ‘n crumpets with your anachronisms? (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

4) I would love to see an entire series based on pioneering record man and mob-associate Morris Levy, the real-life model of character Maury Gold.

5) An entire season and no mention of Blue Oyster Cult? Not good. At the very least, I expect Alan Lanier to show up on Patti Smith’s arm in Season Two.

6) Finally, you can’t just alter history to support the premise of a television show, especially if the events you are depicting are within the living memory of many of your viewers. Vinyl would have been so very much better if it didn’t have the ridiculous Nasty Bits—a group looking like a ’76/’77-style punk band playing ’96-style punk music in a show that takes place in 1973—sitting right in the middle of the narrative. This ridiculous error meant that anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of music history was essentially taken out of the show every time the Nasty Bits were onscreen. I mean, in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino may have invented the murder of Hitler, but he has the good sense not to set the film in 1929.

Let me conclude with a quote from the great Darren Viola: “Hopefully next year Richie Finestra charters a Convair CV-240 airliner for a Nasty Bits tour of the South.”

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