Twenty years ago this week, there was a rockabilly convention happening in Vegas, where one could experience the mecca of boomer-American gambling culture while surrounded by people dressed as a time warp.
As a semi-recent transplant to the West Coast, I’d never been to Vegas. Getting to the bottom of what gives people a rush, which was my new beat at the SFBG, warranted a trip to the Great American Gambling Pot with three beautiful and highly game girlfriends.
This vacation would be an action-packed, tightly-booked mayhem tour of Sin City for us, and a crash course in the press-pass, industry-favor, free-ticket hustle for me. The girlfriends came to love their plus-one status, and shared it like a co-op.
For Dilettante, I could cover whatever show on the planet I wanted to if I could get there. Waiting tables on the side a few nights a week earned enough extra cash to where meals, lodging, and plane fare were covered.
Since my column existed in this new place called “online” and not in the physical tree-paper, I had no editorial guide and no limiting word count either. The paper’s motto was “printing the news and raising hell,” so they didn’t care about this crazy little cyber-corner’s strict adherence to journalistic style.
Which meant I was free to go gonzo — an overused word now, but in the media world, it means writing yourself into the story, not just being an impartial eye-in-the-sky recounter of events.
Having been to Reno a few times and seen its honest skid-row underside coexisting peacefully with capitalistic towers of indoor sit-on-yer-ass entertainment, we girls expected Vegas to be a bigger version of the same. But it was not.
What we discovered was an architectural hodgepodge of human excesses, where most VIPs were physically crazy-looking altered persons whose primary focus and vision in life was to hoard vast sums of wealth.
Mostly on this journey, we girls were just wondering if the regular janes and joes around us from all over the world had come to this throw-money-down-a-hole tourist trap for the same reason we had — to be new to Vegas but to go IRONICALLY. To convince ourselves we’re only enjoying it because it’s stupid.
Of course, our sense of beatific wonder at the scale of Vegas spectacle hadn’t been engaged at all, because we were way too cool for that.
We weren’t rubes in the least, oohing and aahing at fountains and neon, because we were so in control of our emotions we could differently-like stuff, but not too much. Whereas the simpletons around us just got to experience plain joy. We envied their ease in entertainment. We had layers (of irony poisoning).
Scroll down or click through to read “Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part one of four,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on April 27, 1998.
Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part one of four
by Summer Burkes, 04.20.1998
OVER HALF a century ago, according to popular theory, mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel envisioned a profitable oasis of sin in the desert. He was offed for his efforts, but Las Vegas, Nevada blossomed from a sleepy town whose only claim to fame was its proximity to Hoover Dam, into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorra of fabricated entertainment.
Only four legal things happen in Vegas: gambling, glitzy shows, conventions, and weddings. As an East Coast virgin to the Bright Lights Big City on a three-night, four-day vacation, I was determined to experience them all.
What I did know about Las Vegas before visiting it was derived solely from pop culture: the scams, car bombs, and ball gowns of Casino, the seedy losers of Leaving Las Vegas, the bubble-headed, trailer-trash locals of Swingers, the ruthless, unctuous dancers of Showgirls, and the psychedelic, testosterone freakouts of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I knew that it’s a unique vacation spot where, from touchdown to takeoff, travelers come to throw cash at nothing. Retirees piddle their pensions away at nickel slot machines for days on end, pawn shops fill to bursting with cases of wedding rings, and stolen CDs are sold to buy just a little more time at the tables.
I expected greed, desperation, and failure to hang over the entire city like a slimy, neon-lined cloud. Not so.
What I didn’t know about Las Vegas was that, in the past 15 years, “the Strip” (Las Vegas Blvd.) has been almost entirely robbed of its sordid history and bought out by squeaky-image multinationals and investors.
It’s become Minor Uneasiness and a Little Bit of Discomfort In Las Vegas, a completely un-educational adult version of Disneyworld’s Epcot Center, devoid of the apparent Mafia influence that made it famous, and the glamour that (in the movies anyway) made it seem like a swank place to brush shoulders with Rat Packers and starlets.
Flight suits, tennis shoes, and baseball hats are the norm for men and women here. Anyone in dressy clothing without a cocktail tray or microphone in hand is suspect. (Here’s a fun experiment: walk along the Strip with your girlfriends in evening gowns and count the number of times mullet-headed Nerds Of Prey ask you “how much.”)
To my chagrin, the atmosphere in Vegas is faux-wholesome enough to convince middle-Americans that gambling may not be a sin just this once, and antiseptically shady enough for unadventurous frat boys who want to cruise the city like a landlocked Daytona Beach.
More to the point, Las Vegas is an irony-free zone, bereft of any culture, discrimination, finesse, or even self-knowing parody. But the architecture, from the outside anyway, is stunning.
Las Vegas is a tribute to humankind’s ego: while vacationers explore that part of their nature that believes it might beat insurmountable odds and get rich, architects and city planners try to re-create a giant pop-up book of the entire planet in a two-mile strip.
Egyptian pyramids and statues (Luxor) overlook a moated medieval castle (Excalibur); Rome (Caesar’s), the Riviera (Monte Carlo), and the Brooklyn Bridge (New York, New York) are all within a stone’s throw of each other; France (Bellagio) and Venice (The Venetian) are under construction.
Flashy ship battles between pirates and soldiers break out hourly at Treasure Island, and roller coasters adorn more than one casino. An immense Coke bottle fights for attention with the MGM Lion; the amount of neon and flashing bulbs is probably responsible for causing more seizures than Pokemon.
From the lavish buffets to the larger-than-life structures, Las Vegas is a town of excess and satiation. And once you’ve been stunned into entering one of these cartoon homages to civilization — judging from the way the interiors are designed you’re not really supposed to leave. Ever.
Everything about casino construction is intended to disorient the consumer into sensory-overload-inspired stasis. Rest rooms, routes to check-in desks, and exit signs are hidden behind gambling devices.
Additional oxygen is pumped into each heavily climate-controlled building, so that the level of alcohol in your blood is made more proportional to the unwise choices your brain is destined to make in such an environment. The musical entertainment is so overdone and uninspired that you’d rather lose money than pay attention.
(At the Excalibur, audiences were forced to endure tepid back-to-back renditions of “Conga” and “Hot Hot Hot” by a monkey-suited band with electronic drums; at the MGM Grand, when the Friends-cloned lead singer made hey-love-ya-mean-it eye contact with us while singing “We Are Family,” my homegirl nearly spewed her White Russian all over the table.)
Fluorescent lighting, luridly-colored and continuously-ringing slot machines, the aforementioned oxygen, 24-hour food and drinks (free or heavily discounted if you’re gambling), the complete absence of clocks, and windowless walls all make time stand still and keep bedtime at bay.
And even though millions of dollars are spent on building edifices, the interiors all look identical. What’s the point of exploring each casino on the Strip if all the themed grandeur outside is completely negated with droning, uniform gambling halls inside? Here’s a pretty building, now just sit down at the table or slot machine with the rest of lab rats and press the bar for the little reward. Sucker.
So, blackjack’s my game. I’m only down sixty dollars…
This is the fifth entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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