Vinyl kicked off tonight on HBO with a two-hour premiere episode. We’ll get more deeply into the series from Martin Scorsese tomorrow, but we wanted to quickly touch upon one of the more interesting aspects of the show: The way it mixes fact and fiction, much like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or Halt and Catch Fire. Set in the 1970s, it’s one of those series where most of its audience is too young to have lived through or unlikely to recall many of the specific details, which often leaves us wondering whether certain details were real or fabricated. I spent a good deal of time on Google during the opening episode trying to separate fact from fiction. For instance, we all know that the New York Dolls were real and that the Nasty Bits were not (though, it’s worth noting that the lead singer of the Nasty Bits is played by the son of Mick Jagger, who is also a producer on the series). Likewise, American Century Records did not exist, but Polygram did and it had a habit of acquiring other labels. Likewise, Led Zeppelin was obviously a real band in the 1970s, and during the year in which Vinyl was set, Zeppelin did its own record label, although it ultimately did so under their major label, Atlantic Records.
In other words, the series — which seems to be tracking the rise of punk through the Nasty Bits — seems to take a lot of events of the 1970s and fudge them to fit into their storyline. The collapse of the Mercer Art Center — depicted at the end of the episode — is one such instance. That building actually did collapse on August 9, 1973 and four people died. However, it collapsed at 5 p.m., and the New York Dolls were not present.
The building itself — which also housed a hotel — was famous in Greenwich Village. Leon Trotsky once hung out there regularly; an associate of Boss Tweed’s was shot and killed over a fight with a prostitute; and in the early 1970s, it had begun to book early punk bands, including the New York Dolls, who had played there, just not on that night. In fact, the Dolls manager, Marty Thau, discovered them at the Mercer Arts Center (and Thau himself has some similarities to the lead in Vinyl, Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale).
At any rate, the building had been evacuated 20 minutes before it had collapsed. It wasn’t a rock band that caused the destruction, however. As it turns out, a commercial tenant had removed a supporting wall in the basement without a permit, and that combined with the regular rumble of the subway eventually led to the building’s collapse.
The Mercer Arts Center was never rebuilt.