Martha Thomases: Vex & Comics & Rock & Roll


Every Monday my Facebook feed is filled with people kvetching about Vinyl, the new HBO series created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winters. Every criticism I see is valid (the pace is slow, the characters and the situations in which they find themselves are unbelievable), but I still kind of like it.

If you haven’t watched, you should know that Vinyl is about a record company struggling through the changes in music and culture in the early mid-1970s. I moved to New York full time a few years later, so perhaps some of the reason I like it is that it reminds me of my lost youth.

Bobby Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, the head of the company, a drug addict with no moral code (is that redundant?) who uses people in his pursuit of money and more drugs. We are supposed to believe that his love of rock’n’roll redeems him.

I love Cannavale. I love most of the actors in the series, with special shout-outs to Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano and Juno Temple. My problem with the series is that all of the characters are horrible human beings. I would not like any of them if I actually met them. Even Wilde’s character, Finestra’s wife who is struggling to break out of her housewife prison and be an artist like she was before her marriage (hanging out with Andy Warhol), just seems to me to be someone who has coasted on her beauty her entire life, now forced to adjust to middle age.

Richie is especially vile. If he wasn’t played by such a charismatic actor, I think we would all realize what a poser he is. He wants to go to the Mercer Arts Center and listen to the New York Dolls? He wants to sign a punk band? He’s an opportunist. I mean, that is almost his job description.

All of this was brought home to me when I saw CBGB, currently on Netflix. This movie covers the same era in the New York music scene, but from the perspective of Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman), the man who started CBGBs, the punk club on the Bowery. There is a fictional record company guy, Nicky Gant, played by Bradley Whitford, who may be similar to Richie but who is clearly seen as contemptible by everyone else.

CBGB isn’t perfect movie but, unlike Vinyl, it’s fun. And you know one of the things that makes it fun? Comics!

Comics were a huge part of the punk scene. For one thing, some people credit Punk Magazine with giving the scene its name. (Note: some people do not. This is a pointless argument. Who cares?) I’ve written before about how important I think Punk was (and still is). This movie agrees with me, giving John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil prominent roles. It’s clear that the creative people on the scene at CBGBs did not take themselves as seriously as the people on Vinyl. They love comics, too.

There is also a large, deep cast, with talented actors (Alan Rickman, Malin Ackerman, Donal Logue, Rupert Grint, Estelle Harris, Stana Katic, Freddie Rodriguez, just for starters) playing all sorts of people, some real, some fictional. Unlike in Vinyl, the female characters are defined by more than just their sexual availability (although most have sexual appetites because, like the male characters, they are humans). They are musicians and producers and journalists and business managers and fans. I’m not going to say that the punk scene was devoid of sexism (because it certainly was not), but this movie certainly sees it as an improvement over the rest of the world at the time. And, in some ways, it was.

In general, I’m happy to see my memories validated, because I won’t be truly satisfied until all entertainment acknowledges my importance.

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And Another Thing: If you’re going to this year’s MoCCA Fest in New York this weekend, stroll down to the Medialia Gallery at 335 West 38th Street and check out the exhibit, “From Panel to Panel: Our Voices,” featuring comic art from women and their allies, including Regine Sawyer, Sara Wooley, Kenya Danino and lots, lots more.