This week in 1998, some girlfriends and I attended the second-ever Viva Las Vegas “rockabilly weekender.” Guess what? It still exists — in fact it’s now the longest running music festival in Las Vegas.
The most recent Viva Las Vegas boasted 9000 attendees, a tattoo convention, weddings, burlesque dancers and pinups, and one of the country’s largest car shows, with 800-1000 pre-1964 cars and 20,000 visitors. If you lean towards ‘50s car culture and fashion, you might want to hit Vegas during VLV, which claims to be the largest rockabilly event in the world.
Hotel rooms sell out at the Orleans up to one year in advance, and VLV itself sold out for a decade. Promoter Tom Ingram has spent two decades anchoring global rockabilly culture with this meticulously planned and visually stunning tribal gathering.
So I guess I feel lucky to have seen the start of it all. As a nightlife columnist and music critic who had already attended hundreds of shows and dozens of festivals, I remember being impressed with Ingram’s politeness and organized venue-sorcery even then. Good promotion is an art.
(Also, admiring the perfect pinup girls at VLV2, I remember being painfully aware of how much of a messy-haired outsider I felt like. Awkward me, carrying around and juggling a camera, pad, pen, credentials, and a purse … lurking and surveying the festival like a chaperone, drinking a cocktail from a large boot and scribbling notes in a dark corner, high on adrenaline in my non-period-correct riot grrrl slips and Doc Marten boots.
Like a party nerd who can’t join in too much without wrecking impartiality or journalistic integrity. This would be my life for the next three years, and I didn’t complain then and won’t now. Life in 1998 was good.)
Scroll down or click through to read “Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part three of four,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on May 5, 1998.
Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part three of four
by Summer Burkes, 05.05.1998
CONVENTIONS are the silent moneymaker in Las Vegas and a “cover” for illicit activities – an excuse for Joe Husband to attend a heating-and-cooling-systems seminar while breaking seven or eight of the Ten Commandments in the process. Throughout my stay in Vegas, I wanted to pick a convention from the Visitors’ Authority’s roster and sneak into it.
I decided against the Limousine and Chauffeured Transportation Convention, the Sony Corporation, the National Association of Campus Card Users, and the Narcotics Anonymous Convention (although that one was tempting) and went to the first annual “Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender.”
As if it’s not enough of a shock to the system to be in Las Vegas, to be in Las Vegas with a bunch of old people and a bunch of people who look like those old people must have looked about 40 years ago is almost more than a body can handle.
The Gold Coast Hotel, host of the Rockabilly Weekender, is usually where octogenarians come to blow their nickels and bet on horses in a mellow, down-home, and countryfied atmosphere. At this convention, though, the regular clientele’s blast from the past went way beyond the geriatric house band’s old-school lounge music.
Amid a sea of pomade, penciled-in eyebrows, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks, I felt trapped in two time warps at once, a writer ex machina dropped straight down into a combo movie scene from Cocoon and The Wanderers.
The four-day Weekender, brainchild of British greaser Tom Ingram, saw the best bands of someone else’s generation come together to play all manner of authentic rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, barring any modern interpretation of the genre.
Ingram, music historian and longtime promoter for England’s Hemsby festival, knows how to pack the weekend full: car shows, dance lessons, record swaps, and vintage vendors fill in the time between bands. The attendance for “Viva Las Vegas” supposedly hovers around 2,500 – and on Saturday, 2,499 of them are dressed to the nines.
Yes, I’m a ’90s-clothed fish out of water at the Gold Coast, and I stand alone, but upon discovery of the bar’s giant six-shot shooter cocktails served in large plastic cowboy boots, I’m a happy (albeit not “period-correct”) girl.
Upstairs in the main ballroom, a DJ spins as the bands set up. Men in creepers and denim jackets pepper the dance floor, doing what seems to be a hybrid of the Riverdance and the Molly Ringwald thing from the Breakfast Club.
Those are the Brits, I’m told, and that’s the Bop. Limeys are easy to spot, apparently – they only dance to “record hops” (the Bop for boys, the Stroll for girls, and the Jive for partners); if bands are playing, they stand/hop up and down and watch. Americans, on the other hand, socialize during record hops and usually only dance to bands.
The small Japanese contingent, predictably dressed better than everyone else, seems hesitant to dance at all. The night I’m there, Big Boy Bloater and the Southside Stompers take the stage, playing an English interpretation of Bill Haley and his ilk. The floor shakes from the weight of swinging hepcats and kittens.
A tall man in khakis, a bowling shirt, and a turban two-steps with a petite brunette who’s got one of the Led Zeppelin logos tattooed on the back of her neck. (Busted! I knew these people didn’t dress this way in high school.)
Two gay Asian men with gigantic pompadours paw each other at one of the tables on the periphery; eight- or nine-year-old twin girls in poodle skirts fake-swing under the watchful eye of their gray-haired greaser dad.
The four girls sitting at my table, I notice, all have identical red hair and are wearing red shirts that say their names on the front and “Ruby Dolls” on the back. Brother-and-sister Rockabilly legends the Collins Kids perform their songs that everyone else now covers, backed by California-billies the Dekes of Hazzard. The British stand, the Americans dance, and I go downstairs to the $2 blackjack table.
A ham-fisted Latino rocker with tattoo sleeves sits down at the table beside me and places his bet. The belligerent old man who’d previously been hassling me about my hair asks him, “What’d you do, steal clothes from your father’s closet?” I wince at the potential scuffle, but the rocker jovially replies, as if explaining a difficult concept to a small child, “No sir, I went to a vintage store.”
I lose my money and make my way to the late-night record hop in the auxiliary ballroom, and a Gold Coast maitre d’ thanks me and the pack of conventioneers I’ve befriended for choosing his hotel. He says we’ve all got good taste in music and nice manners.
But 10 minutes later, as I’m getting another cowboy boot at the bar, a fight breaks out between two drunken, wallet-chained meatheads. An Arthur Fonzarelli clone in a wife-beater and cuffed jeans mumbles in passing, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.”
In a town that specializes in glitz, showgirls, neon, and sin, the entertained are often more entertaining than the entertainment. The irony may be lost on the Grumpy Old Gold Coasters, but not on me – or Fonzie.
This is the seventh 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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