What Happened in Vegas (and Hollywood and San Diego)

by earlkabong on March 2, 2011

So, where were we? Oh yeah, Fresno.

It feels like I’ve been stuck in a loop since then. I had to go back to Fresno to fix a Traipsemobile problem I didn’t even know I had. Apparently the inverter hasn’t been charging up correctly. The batteries recharge when I’m driving but when I plug into external power, they don’t take the juice. This could leave me in the uncomfortable position of not having enough electricity to watch TMZ. Not acceptable.

So, while I waited for a week for my next Fresno appointment, I drifted around California. Through Bakersfield, where I spent the night watching a blues band in the Doubletree Inn ballroom and then slept in the parking lot. Nice bathrooms.

I went to San Diego to watch a college basketball game (San Diego State vs. New Mexico) and, generally speaking, feel very very old. I used to do this for a living, of course, 25 years ago. I was comfortable in that world, drunk fans with painted faces, screaming cheerleaders, screaming coaches, screaming security guards (because I’d never wear my press pass where they could see it. Why? Because being a dick is my hobby.)

That’s the last time I lived full-time in a vehicle. The games weren’t the attraction, even then. I just liked the idea of seeing how many different teams I could see in a single season, whether I could get to the next town in time for tip-off. But I did love the energy of it, the bands and the lights and the roar of the crowd. I got used to living on press row, subsisting on concession stand sandwiches and wandering from arena to arena, until too many of them started to look alike. The same “curving concrete corridors to Hell” I may have called them. Seeing 160 games in a season turned out to just be too many. And I’ve attended very few games since.

But San Diego State is in the Top 10 this season, hadn’t been on tv much and that seemed like a good enough excuse. The game was officially sold out, but there are always tickets and, because it was a cold rainy night, the scalpers were anxious to unload their product as efficiently as possible. I paid $40 for a $25 ticket, a fair price for a perfectly fine baseline seat, about 25 rows up from the court.

It’s all like I remember it, more or less. The scoreboards are bigger and noisier. And there was a radio-controlled blimp, which seemed like new technology to me. But, other than that, not much had really changed. The squeak of the shoes during warm-ups, the grown-ups seeming way too invested in a school they probably didn’t even attend.

But there are more “brought to you” moments than I recall. Everything has a sponsor. The “Pepsi Long Ball” every time someone makes a three-point shot, a scoreboard commercial during every timeout. The game seemed almost secondary, as if the marketing is what mattered. I felt like I wouldn’t be allowed to leave unless I listened to a condominium sales pitch. College sports has always been about the money. But they didn’t use to make it so obvious. I miss the days when fans in the Palestra would throw rolls of crepe paper onto the court at the start of every game, a glorious colorful mess. They’re not allowed to do that anymore. No money in it.

I spent Valentine’s Day in Hollywood with my friend, Lisa who used to be Lucinda Williams’ roommate back in Austin. Lucinda was doing a special show at Club Bardot, a trying-too-hard retro club which is attached to the old Avalon right across from the old Capitol Records Studios, the one where Sinatra used to record. On Vine Street. Right off Hollywood Boulevard. Long lines and velvet ropes. VIP areas. That sort of thing.

Which was cool, except that Lisa, who has some mobility issues, uses a walker. Groovy places aren’t designed for people with walkers. There was no elevator, no ramps or special access. So she had to walk up 3 flights of stairs, very slowly, while I carried her walker and hoped she could make it. She did, because she’s incredibly persistent and wasn’t about to give up. She hadn’t put on her Valentine’s Day dress for nothing. I get frustrated just waiting in line at Starbucks. Lisa doesn’t have that luxury

Club Bardot

Lucinda Williams

Also, she can use that walker like a weapon. Which means when we finally did make it into the theater, we damn sure got  past the velvet rope, into the VIP area and cleared out a spot by the side of the stage, right next to Lucinda’s husband. It was very impressive. Lisa, I mean. Lucinda was pretty good, too.

I finally got back to Fresno, had the inverter fixed (allegedly) and immediately drove to Las Vegas, because that’s what people from Fresno do. You can only go to the raisin museum so many times. (Although the celebrity look-alike raisins were spooky good. The Elaine Stritch raisin will haunt my dreams.)

I went to Las Vegas even though I hate it. It’s a horrible, depressing place, no matter how much they try to pass it off as fun or naughty or a fantasy land. The first time I went, in 1975, I spent Christmas there, sleeping in a dormitory room at UNLV and having a 7-11 microwave burrito for dinner. Then, as now, the streets were full of zombies from Des Moines, small-town people pissing away their savings while they were distracted by all the dancing waters and flashing lights. It’s a town built for the express purpose of fleecing rubes. It’s fancier than it used to be – with it’s celebrity-chef restaurants and massive all-facade hotel theme parks. But it’s the same place its always been. Those sad-eyed people pulling at the slot machines, surrounded by cigarette butts and empty coffee cups, are the same ones who were there in 1975. Somebody back then, I wish I could remember who it was, explained it all in a sentence. “This is a town built on losing.” Exactly.

So I’ve only gone when I had work to do, celebrity interviews generally. So I’ve done some weird shit there. I went to see Siegfried and Roy with the Olsen Twins, when they were still young and adorable and whining because their daddy wouldn’t buy then another stuffed white tiger. I’ve been to the Boneyard, where they stash all the discarded neon signs, with Cameron Diaz, who fell asleep on my shoulder on the plane ride back. Which is why I can honestly say that Cameron Diaz slept with me.

The last time I was there was with Gene Simmons, when he’d just started filming his “reality” show. There was a VH1 Kiss tribute at the Mandalay Hotel and I accompanied him as he worked the backstage corridor, hung out at the Hard Rock Hotel and avoided Paul Stanley with a passion. They had adjoining but separate dressing rooms and a security guard’s only job was to make sure that no one from Simmons’ entourage (including me) accidentally crossed the invisible line into Stanley’s part of the hallway. I am not making this up.

The only reason I would go to Las Vegas without getting paid is to visit my friend, Louie Anderson, who I’ve known for 30 years, since we both lived in Minneapolis. He was just starting out as a stand-up, working a moderately-tough club called Mickey Finn’s and was clearly the star of the local standup scene. I wrote a story about the scene, focusing on him, which pissed off a lot of the other comics but made Louie a friend for life.

So I was backstage  with him in 1984 when he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, a life-changing event for him because Johnny Carson got up from the desk to shake his hand after the set – a blessing from the king that made Louie’s career. And I wrote a story about it for the Dallas Times Herald, chronicling the days leading up to that moment, that may be the best story I ever wrote.

I’ve been around for a lot of highlights and low moments since then, when he had HBO Specials, when he became host of Family Feud and, a few years ago, when he found himself in the headlines because a guy had tried to blackmail him (there had been sexual advances, apparently). Louie went to the FBI, who arrested the guy. But it made the papers. He lost Family Feud. Whether the two are related, we’ll never be sure.

So he’s been in Vegas the last few years and now he’s got his own showroom, The Louie Anderson Theater at the Palace Station Casino, just off the strip on Sahara. I’ve never known anyone with their own showroom before. I thought a visit was called for.

It’s weird to watch him work after all these years. We were in our 20’ when we met. Now we’re both in our 50’ and a lot of his material is about hospital visits “cardiac episodes” and how much his knees hurt. It still funny, still sad, which is how his best bits have always been. But when the audience isn’t up to the subtle stuff – and on this particular night they weren’t – he’s not afraid to go back to lines he was doing when I first met him. How there’s nothing more exciting to a Minnesotan than finding a pair of good gloves, how he can’t stay long because he’s in between meals. The jokes still work. They always work. Which is why he has his own showroom.

His best laughs, though, are the ones he gets without words. The way he imitates his mom, or his brother threatening to kill him. He makes a face, a perfect face, that tells a whole story. He’s not afraid to be quiet on stage, to lure the audience in. I love that about Louie.

We hung out some after the show and the next day in his apartment, which he’s about to leave because he found a cheaper – but no less luxurious  — place at the new City Center. He’ll be living at the Mandarin Hotel. He says it’s because he can get room service there 24 hours a day. I don’t think he’s lying about this.

While I was in Las Vegas, I slept in the Palace Station parking lot. As much as I can’t stand the town, it really is the perfect place for a guy living in a van – at least until it gets so hot that tires spontaneously combust. There are gigantic, well lit, security-patrolled parking lots in front of giant casinos that are open 24 hours a day. No one’s going to care that I’m there. Ever.

It just so happened that while I was in town to see Louie, my friend Dog was also in Vegas. He loves the place, because he has an affection for the tawdry things in life. He likes the sleazy hotels, the dark smoky poker rooms, the cheesiness of it all. He plays poker. He consorts with floozies. He rides the zip line down Fremont Street and bungee jumps off the Stratosphere Hotel. It’s his kind of town.

And, in his company, I actually enjoyed it myself. We didn’t gamble or hot tub with hookers or mug an Elvis impersonator or anything. But we did a lot of low-budget drinking and eating. He took me to the Peppermill, where they serve horrifically oversized breakfasts, a place with garish fake flowers, even more garish purple neon lighting and a back room bar with fire and water that is his go-to make-out spot. We did not make out. Still, I appreciated it.

As I did Frankie’s Tiki Room, where the rum drinks are listed on the menu with accompanying numbers of skulls according to their potency. I had a three-skull something or other. Dog had a Fink Bomb, I think. Five Skulls.

We went to the Hot and Delicious crawfish joint, where you dump your big, messy, spicy crustaceans all over the table (which is covered in garbage bags) just the way you’re supposed to. Later, he’d go to the Hash House A Go Go, where they serve pork cutlets the size of hub caps. This is not an exaggeration. It is a frightening thing to see.

We ended up at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, an uncharacteristically classy stop for us, because The Black Keys were playing in the Chelsea Ballroom. Again, it was supposedly sold out. But we walked up, found guys with a couple of extra tickets, insurance salesmen in town for a convention, I think, and bought them for face value.

The ballroom, with grandstands set up in the rear, probably holds 5 or 6,000 people and it was jammed. Lots of guys in knit caps. And a couple in top hats and tuxedos. Vegas, baby.

It was kind of perfect, sitting in the back, watching the throng. The Black Keys have probably gotten too successful for their own good. The music, intense as it is, has a hard time occupying such a big room. Better to see them up close, to be overwhelmed by the sweat and the noise and the rawness of it all.

But that’s not what Vegas is about. Rawness is kept at a distance here, hidden behind Theme Park boulevards and garish illuminated signs. And from a distance, driving in on I-15, it looks like a real city now, with a real skyline.

But the closer you get, the more you realize that the skyline is mostly hotels designed to look like other places – Paris, New York, Steve Wynn’s bathroom. And the real buildings are half empty, half-constructed. Mostly the skyline is scaffolding, unfinished towers, unfilled holes. They probably won’t ever be finished. The girders and the cranes will sit there until they rot. Vegas might have reached its limits. It turns out there just weren’t enough rubes.