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A Shot of Whisky, a Waste of Talent, and Vinyl

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The saying “I’d rather be someone’s shot of whisky than everyone’s cup of tea” wasn’t familiar to me until recently, though I think its application is wide and wise. Cliché or no, I’d apply it to most creative endeavors that manage to capture people’s imagination.

In fact, I’d argue that 90% of the most resonant art over the last two centuries has (at least) started out as someone’s particular shot of whisky—something very peculiar and personal—and that singular quality was something others noticed in due time, and then the thing took hold. I even believe it of the starting points for Damien Hirst, and Warhol and Picasso. The Bronte sisters, Scorsese (we’ll get to him in a minute). Patti Smith. These people had obsessions and predilections and dispositions that had them threading a narrow path of exploration. The charisma of the work itself was undeniable.

I was reading a recent advice column by a Kotaku contributor who goes by Dr. Nerdlove (I like advice columns; I love vehemently agreeing and disagreeing with the advice given. Dan Savage is never wrong, by the way,) and one memorable letter was from a young man with mild cerebral palsy who seemed entirely sane and sweet and charming and was wondering whether to disclose upfront his disability on social dating sites. (His palsy affects his walk.) Dr. NerdLove used the above whisky expression in his answer. I liked that. (“When it comes to online dating, you want to be fairly polarizing. You want the people who’re into you, as you are.”)

When I’m asked to talk to college art students about what it means to be in the art world, I often find myself saying again and again: Make work that turns YOU on. Follow your inner obsessive. The more specific and personal the work is, oddly, the more people will respond to it. Everyone’s cup of tea, in contrast, won’t inspire much passion; maybe some Instagram likes and a viral Vine that comes and goes in a blink, but that’s it. Tomorrow it’s over, or even embarassing.

Of course the idea boils down to our search for authenticity. We who make any effort in our search can smell the truth, we can smell integrity, we can smell complexity and, for lack of more scientific term, we can smell soul.

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When HBO announced it was coming out with a show about a favorite mascot-like lost place and era of authenticity, New York City in the ‘70s (specifically its disparate music scenes), I was stoked. That Scorsese was at the helm of this show, Vinyl, as executive producer was both promising and queasy-making. Let me put this out there though: If someone held a gun to my head (this is apropos) and made me pick my favorite movie director of all time, it might well be Scorsese. So I’m not coming at him with some angry bias. But I’ve been a hopeless, researching bedroom geek about ‘70s NYC since I was an adolescent, and it’s not like Scorsese wasn’t around then or doesn’t know 1973 New York, or how to make a stunning work about music.

HBO started showing the trailer for Vinyl months ago. It was obnoxious and macho and glossy and manic. I hated it. I feared the worst. I didn’t recognize much about it aside from the clothes and decor and a Stooges song. Turns out, there was truth in advertising: we’re now six episodes in and Vinyl is consistently macho and glossy and manic. It is not about the music. It’s about the industry. I hate-watch it. My best friend since childhood who’s a costume designer in New York texted me: “They Starbucks-ed it.”

In attempting to make the subject appeal to—who? Everyone? Bros in Arlington?—and that includes Scorsese and all the other grasping, wealthy and hungry cooks in Vinyl’s overcrowded producer kitchen—they’ve resorted to using an incredibly rich point in history as a mere prop for a tired drama about a boorish businessman with some bad habits and a failing marriage. They’ve also managed to make a series that commits the very crime it purports to rail against: the money-driven loss of the authentic soul of the city. It embodies that crime. It’s absurd. Vinyl is the new big shiny over-lighted CVS going up in the last unadulterated corner of Chelsea. HBO, the prestige, risk-taking channel that practically owns the best recent depictions of New York, said too many “yes”es to too many men who at this point in their careers never hear the word “No.”

This is Jagger's kid. Let's be clear: He is no Richard Hell.

This is Jagger’s kid. Let’s be clear: He is no Richard Hell.

The cast is good (really, mostly, except the kid who’s meant to be the front man of an unintentionally really, really boring band; he’s got the magnetism of a shoelace) and the show looks good. Scorsese himself directed the two-hour premiere. But in trying to be too many people’s cup of tea, this lukewarm pile isn’t going to resonate with anyone any more than any overstuffed nighttime soap. The treacly network show Nashville has more heart (and memorable songs) than Vinyl. 

I’m not interested in talking about how dirty and dangerous and abject New York was in the ‘70s and how useless it is to romanticize it. In that abjectness, amazing things happened on that small island and a couple of its other boroughs, and if you can play me a current four-piece band that sounds better than Television, I’d like to hear it. The social, economic, political and geographic circumstances of that place dovetailed spectacularly. The people who gravitated to it just did their thing, and look at how we still can’t let go of what they created. That rare occurrence deserves something much, much better than Vinyl. What a weird, expensive waste of potential.

If Vinyl had dared to be someone’s shot of whisky (most truly great TV shows are exactly that, as are most noble and memorable failures) then maybe a whole new audience would’ve come around to thinking about the kind of soul our world is losing day by day.

also by Christina Rees
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6 Responses

  1. Hills Snyder

    I haven’t seen any episodes of Vinyl and like you, I love Scorsese, but here is an interesting side bar for ya: Richard Hell has written some nice liner notes for the DVD package of Kelly Reichardt’s film, Meek’s Cutoff. If you have not seen it or any of her other films, I urge you to check them out. Meek’s Cutoff brilliantly replicates the pace and tension of nothing happening as covered wagon’s attempt to track a short cut off the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. The aspect ratio of the film, in intentional contrast to John Ford’s widescreen Manifest Destiny, is closed in and narrow, much like the viewpoint from within the bonnets worn by the pioneer women on the screen. The package also folds out into a nice little table top drawing show….

  2. Vinyl has taken one of the most important periods of recent creative significance and shat out a giant gob of stinking cornball cliche blah balony. I too hate-watch it, and I am not sure why. I keep hoping they will turn it around. But with every stupid snort scream of coke they depict (dammit idiots— coke doesn’t have that effect on anyone!!) they just get deeper into the mire of whatever that is living on top of poor Ray Ramono’s head. Yet the show has already been given another year by HBO— while today it was announced the sublime Duplass brothers’ show “Togetherness” has been canceled!!!

    It must be that the HBO lizards can not even whimper a mild “please nooooo,” about any part of the embarrassing show to Scorsese (who has not made a great film in decades) or to producer SIR Mick Jagger (ditto for a no decent album in decades). That SIR Mick stuck his extremely untalented son in a title role as the Nasty Bits lead wanker (spouting stupid cockney phrases machine like—you can tell the brat grew up in the poshest private upscale boarding schools money can buy) is further proof of the damage these old codgers have wrought.

    It is too bad, because this show could have been GREAT. So much material to mine, and the general public is hungry for it— it is our generation. The criminality of the business vs the creative heights of the period against the backdrop of Taxi Driver era NYC, ahhhh man. I want to SEE that show.

    If only Richard Hell and Patti Smith were the producers AND writers. Then maybe, we would get something worthwhile.

    Oh well, at least Louie C.K. is out there producing work that goes down as only his own endless “shots of whiskey” can. Thank god!!

  3. Ralf Ruben

    said too many “yes”es to too many men who at this point in their careers never hear the word “No.”

    Did you work get inspiration from being at City Hall or some art board meeting for that line? It couldn’t have just been an HBO show…

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