Vegas, Baby, Vegas – part one of four
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 04.20.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro 04.25.18 here.


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.

a gluestick flyer collage

made a glue stick flyer collage to cheese up the cheese

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.

am I the only one who misread "ballys" as "balls"

am I the only one who misread “ballys” as “balls”

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.)

the "old" Las Vegas strip is the *real* Las Vegas. Nobody asked us "how much" down there. PS La Concha is now a neon museum.

the “old” Las Vegas strip is the *real* Las Vegas. Nobody asked us “how much” down there. PS La Concha became a neon museum

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 piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

Oh and ten years after this article, on 4.9.2008, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B previewed the same NASA rave we performed at with Cyclecide

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