After watching the first two hours of the new Scorcese series on HBO, I realized it was really Boardwalk Empire Redux. Or maybe Bowery Empire. The first thing that hit me is the way innovators get pushed aside after the corporations take over. Glam did not start with the Dolls or Bowie, but in 1969 in Haight-Ashbury. Housing was really cheap in those days, nothing approaching the stratospheric heights of today and strangers suddenly found themselves living in Victorian mansions in total freedom. There was a lot of sexual experimentation going on and hang-ups and inhibitions were viewed as speed bumps on the road to happiness. Grace Slick was the dark diva everyone wanted to go home with, and possessed a mock torture chamber in her basement for fun and games. Listening to some of her lyrics, I get the impression she defrocked a few teenage runaways, while opening up their sexual imaginations.
In one of these Victorian mansions lived a highly eclectic group of artists, musicians and eccentrics some of whom were gay and the gayest of the bunch led the entire commune (which numbered over 40 people) into dressing and acting like flamboyant transvestites. Living that role all the time. The Cockettes got so big that in 1971 they were flown to New York City to meet Andy and the NY scene. So Scorcese left out the real beginnings, and, as usual the gay element involved in creating glam and punk seems strangely missing. If I was writing this story, it would have opened with 44 drag queens boarding a flight to New York City from San Francisco.
Terence Winter loves to take real stories and embellish them with fantasy details for maximum sex and violence. Me, I hate that shit and prefer scripts to remain as close to the truth as possible. I think we have enough violence worship and don’t need to add to the pile.
The central character in Vinyl is based mostly on Walter Yentikof, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who became a lawyer for a record company and eventually became the chief executive in charge, although he was in a drugged and drunken fog most of the time. Late in life he met a Catholic priest who reformed him, and Walter now spends a lot of time working with addicts in recovery. Another thinly masked character is Morris Levy, who also made several appearances in The Sopranos. In 1984, I was working on a script about Frankie Lymon and called up Levy’s office. Much to my surprise, I immediately found myself talking to Morris, and he was engagingly entertaining, nothing like what I expected. He didn’t really care some people thought he’d ripped off his artists, mostly on publishing rights, and had no apologies for anything. I don’t think Morris personally participated in any beat-downs like the one in Vinyl. But I could be wrong. I think The Sopranos got closer to the real Morris Levy.
Next up is the young Kip Stevens of the Nasty Bits, a character molded on Richard Hell. First of all, why does this dude have an English accent? This confuses everything because so many people think punk started in England based on the Sex Pistols being the first punk band they ever heard. And why is he not playing a bass guitar?
Richard is a key figure in many aspects, mostly for his song The Blank Generation. Putting a tag on your generation that sticks is a sign of a true artist. It was really a sort of redux of England’s angry young men. Richard, Patti Smith and Talking Heads were highbrow intellectuals compared with the band that created the punk sound, The Ramones. Will they make an appearance? One wonders.
I remember well the first time I bumped into Richard in the halls of Danceteria. He seemed like a dangerous character about to explode on stage, and most people in the punk scene were not exactly friendly to strangers, so I was amazed at how casually he started conversing with me, as if we were old friends. He made some witty observations on various people in the room and had me laughing out loud immediately. Richard also played a role in the hairstyles that were to follow, as well as the fashions. If only they kept him true to his real self. The brawl with the audience in Vinyl seems more Wayne County, or later, James Chance, than Richard Hell.
The collapse of the main performance space for this emerging scene, The Mercer Arts building, did not occur during a performance, but in the middle of the afternoon. And when Terence says the band on stage rehearsing escaped alive, he disappoints because he doesn’t realize four people lost their lives in that collapse. It was the collapse of Mercer Arts that led to CBGB’s taking the center of gravity.
But the single element that bothered me most was the scene when the record executive is driving around and stumbles across Sedgwick and Cedar in the South Bronx, apparently for Cindy’s birthday party, which is considered the birth of hip hop. But instead of this party being dominated by junior high school crews and remnants of the street gangs, it’s a bunch of middle-aged people, an old blues player, and a middle-aged stickup artist, and not any junior high school kids from the South Bronx, who would soon become known as Herc’s b-boys. And why isn’t Coke on the mic goin’, “you rock and you don’t stop?”