Things go better with coke
When I was an editor at Creem, I got a letter from a Coca-Cola lawyer advising we had neglected the trademark symbol and capitalization on a mention of his product in a recent article. He went on to explain it’s always capital-C Coke followed by a circle-R, but that they’ll let it go this time. The story, in “America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine,” was not about sugar water, of course, though the response perfectly reflected the cluelessness of corporate America in the Seventies. Which happens to be the same period catalyzed in real life and now memorialized in digital reel by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese.
But please note, Coca-Cola legal eagles, I’m not talking about soft drinks here. Not when I’m talking about Vinyl.
Created and produced by Mick and Marty, the series is a veritable Powder Ridge Rock Festival of a different kind of sugar. Cocaine®. Or coke, as we liked to call it in profiles of impossibly overbearing Seventies rock stars. And in Bobby Canavale, as an independent label chief, it has found its anthropomorphic apotheosis. Canavale is a walking coke spoon. For that matter, Canavale was a walking coke spoon in Boardwalk Empire, as the dominating, mad-dog gangster with a rabid taste, in his private life, for submitting to dog collars and other consenting acts that are accompanied by alarming howls and growls. But I’d bet Canavale is a walking coke spoon when he’s sitting down to din with the fam. You just can’t play that amped, without being that amped. And I don’t mean blow. I mean, naturally. And I don’t mean he’s not a good actor — when it comes to cokeheads, there are none better. And in Vinyl, it’s all coke, all the time.
That is to say, I think it’s the writing that’s a little one-note, not the star.
But I’m not complaining. I’m enjoying Vinyl way more than I expected, if in a different way. Considering the creds of the production team, I was expecting a magnum opus. The Sopranos of rock ’n’ roll. A knowing, intricately limned portrait of music’s lowlife that would be secretly high-brow. Kind of like great Seventies rock ’n’ roll. Like Exile on Main Street.
What I’m finding is a soap/coke opera that’s not really about the lowlife at all. It’s about the label bosses and their factotums, the downtown dilettantes and self-regarding avant gardists, the rich folks and Warhol satellites — and Andy himself — that Mick was hanging with, even lording it over, having achieved a new peak of fame and power as boss of his own label (Rolling Stones Records, with one of the world’s most recognized logos), as singer and composer of generational hits like “Brown Sugar” and of the aforementioned succes d’estime, Exile, not to mention as co-star of the image-denting-but-nontheless-image-buffing documentary Gimme Shelter and frontman for the Stones and their storied 1972 tour. Because nestled in the cushy belly of that tour’s private 727, alongside a glittering Mick and resplendently snaggle-toothed Keith (in Coke logo patch, no ®), high above, was the esteemed litterateur and society groupie Truman Capote, the winsome young bride of the Canadian prime minister (mom of the hunky current PM) and a bevy of coked-up Manhattan socialites without bras.
That was Mick’s milieu at the time, and the pathos that Vinyl tries to wring from it is that folks like Jagger, and Canavale’s fictional Richie Finestra, never knew the party was almost over. Punk was on the way. Meet the new boss. And because it is certifably not The Sopranos of rock ’n’ roll, I predict Vinyl’s ultimate point will be that the new boss is the same as the old. Just like the song says — the one that’s required by law to play behind every commercial on TV, ever since the Who willy-nilly crack-whored their rights a few years back.
In my version of the Seventies — admittedly, no more valid than theirs — it was cheap beer, cheap whiskey (sometimes mixed with actual Coke®), cough syrup, beat pot, a stray upper or downer (acid was old-school, heroin a specialty taste). Unless you found yourself on the town with an amenable rock star. Which happened, when you were an editor of Creem. Or you were hanging with a childhood pal who happened to marry a movie star (whose latest film, by the way, had been directed by Scorsese). No, if you were an editor for Creem or a freelancer for Circus or even Rolling Stone, let alone Gig or Phonograph Record, you were too broke for coke.
Though it was fun that both my fellow editor Lester Bangs and Creem got shout-outs, this was not the Seventies as it was lived in the trenches. Which is probably why the punk comes off so punk. Regarding the fictional punk avatars the Nasty Bits, led by Jagger’s son James, my son Hardie said, “Punk should fucking sue.” Then he’s still an idealist.
But amidst the melodrama, no matter how diverting, there have also been moments of transcendence. Some of them delivered by Ray Romano, a revelation, as Richie’s right-hand man — and as a dramatic actor. The rest by Andrew Dice Clay.
I can’t say enough about the once and future Dice. Looking like a million music biz scumbags, the hopelessly older guys who grew their hair grossly long (and prettily tied part of it back), who demanded to get high on everyone else’s drugs and booze and leched relentlessly after teenage girls, the man blazes across Vinyl’s second episode — and only, alas, its second episode — like the flaming apocalypse. The supernova of sleaze. If you enjoy fat, greasy, morally void, cokehead DJs with nipple-length hair who deserve to die, simply do not miss it. When on a four-day blow bender, Dice grabs our antihero by the Seventies lapels and maniacally urges him to “Face your fears, face your fears, face your fears, face your fears…” and on and on, for maybe 20 repetitions, I thought I was going to have a late-life orgasm. No, I don’t hate Vinyl. I don’t hate it so much I’m going to run home now and catch up on the episodes I missed.
It’s not what I remember, but can’t a guy dream?