The biggest surprise in “Yesterday Once More,” Vinyl’s second episode, is that the collapse of the Mercer Arts Building that ended the pilot turns out not to have been a product of Richie Finestra’s cocaine-induced (and PTSD-from-just-murdering-a-guy-induced) psychosis – it really happened, and Richie stumbles back to the American Century offices covered in dust and rubble and covered in bumps and bruises – though not before riding out the rest of his bender at a Bruce Lee movie.
If you want to get technical about it, the building that housed the Mercer Arts Center really did cave in in 1973. But it happened at 5pm: the New York Dolls were not on stage, 300 people were evacuated before it fell, and the four people who did not get out were killed.
In any case, this is Richie’s story to tell, “clouded by lost brain cells and a little bit of bulls–t,” as he said in the pilot, and if he wants us to believe that it took a building falling on his head to shake him back to life, well who am I to let the truth get in the way of a good story?
“Yesterday Once More,” as its title suggests, is largely concerned with nostalgia: Richie’s, for the music lover and scenester he sold out in favor of signing toothless quick-buck acts like Donny Osmond (maybe ‘toothless’ isn’t quite the right word in that particular case but you know what I mean); Devon’s, for the adventurous and spontaneous life she and Richie had before they left the city; and Zak’s, for the more carefree life he had before wife and kids and insurance premiums to think about.
Rejuvenated by his near-death experience with the Dolls (and another pre-meeting round of Peruvian Marching Powder with Julie), Richie returns to American Century on a mission: to find new acts, to shape the culture, to reconnect with the primal feeling he got from rock and roll when he first discovered it – represented by a short interlude with Jerry Lee Lewis – and most importantly to kill the sale to PolyGram. He challenges his A&R staff – who are playing a particularly flutey, indulgent Jethro Tull track as he enters – to keep their jobs by finding a marketable, cutting-edge act within two weeks, a challenge that Jamie Vine, the sandwich/qualuude girl who discovered the Nasty Bits in the pilot, takes as an opportunity to join the A&R staff. Richie gallantly refuses her offer to go below and beyond the call of duty in order to move things forward with the band, but assigns her to work with Julie, Max Casella’s hirsute A&R head, to set up a showcase.
Richie also finally goes home to Devon, who in the wake of Richie’s tumble off the wagon is mourning the loss of her own former self, seen in extensive flashbacks to her time as one of Andy Warhol’s Factory girls. Looking back at the burgeoning acting career and the artsy photo-snapping times with Nico and the Velvet Underground she left behind – typified in her first meeting with Richie, which combined danger and intrigue and sex and surprise – she is so overcome she forgets her kids at a diner, driving off in a gauzy haze with Karen Carpenter singing “those were happy times and not so long ago” in the passenger seat. Shaken from the reverie (and after picking up her kids), she softens her stance on Richie’s bender, even pulling out her old camera to take a more artistic view of the path of destruction he left behind. The pilot set Devon up to be a stock nagging-wife character, so it’s nice to see that the show has bigger plans for Wilde, who is a very interesting actress, as Devon gets her groove back.
Zak begins the episode stalling for time with the Germans by telling a fun anecdote about a close encounter he had with Keith Moon, a television, and a hotel balcony, and it’s not hard to see his dismay at going from that kind of carefree, thrill-a-minute lifestyle to having to worry about being able to afford the massive bat mitzvah his wife is planning for his daughter because his multimillion-dollar corporate buyout fell through. Ray Romano is giving the best performance in the cast thus far, and though a suicide attempt is a bit of an overreaction to his troubles, Romano really sells both Zak’s frustration, his realization that he doesn’t have it in him to do himself in (coupled with hearing a song he likes on the radio – a song he may have put on the radio), and still needing to vent that frustration by beating on his car. I’d assumed that Romano would be mostly comic relief on this show, but he seems to be inhabiting a more human place here, and ceding the sillier stuff to Casella, who has been terrific as well.
The episode ends with Richie going to the Bronx to visit Lester Grimes, the talented blues musician who helped Richie make his name in the business even as Richie forced him to change his. So it seems that along with the effort to get back to where he once belonged, Richie means to right some old wrongs.
It seemed an odd choice to go with an over-40 protagonist for a show ostensibly about rock-and-roll, as there was no such thing as a 40-year-old rock star in 1973. But “Yesterday Once More” brings a little more clarity to that decision. As Roger Ebert once said, it doesn’t matter what a film is about, but how it’s about it. This show is “about” rock and roll in the ‘70s, but this episode suggests it’s going to trojan-horse themes of reclaiming lost glory, and the compromises of middle adulthood, into that sparkly, sexy vehicle.
“Jean Genie,” David Bowie
“Breathless,” Jerry Lee Lewis
“Sweet and Dandy,” Toots and the Maytals
“Venus in Furs,” The Velvet Underground
“Yesterday Once More,” The Carpenters
“Bad Moon Rising,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Higher Ground,” Stevie Wonder
“Under My Thumb,” The Rolling Stones
“Ride Captain Ride,” The Blues Image
“Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky,” Lee Dorsey