May 1997
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Jack Smith

Lost Vegas

Las Vegas looks better in the movies. I come to this realization sitting alone at a blackjack table in the Rio Hotel two hours after my arrival. Sent by SMUG to report on the hipster flavor of Sin City Central, I was disappointed at the lack of hipness of Vegas these days. I'd been to Las Vegas once before but just briefly. So, I was a bit anxious to don my tux, hook up with a couple of gorgeous prostitutes, and hit the craps table. I quickly figured out that the best I could hope for was some free well drinks and a lap dance from a plain but good-hearted eastern European cleaning lady with mall bangs.

En route, I boarded my connecting flight in Minneapolis and took my seat near the back of the plane. When I looked to the front of the plane, all I could see was blue hair peeking above the tops of the seats. Vegas midweek is a sea of oldsters.

Spending their Social Security checks and our inheritance, the geezers hog multiple slots while sipping gin drinks and chainsmoking generic cigarettes. I can tell you that when I feel the reaper breathing down my neck, I won't be spending my last days plugging nickels into a slot machine on Fremont Street. (They have better odds, you know.) My last meal won't be the Foods of England buffet at Ballys. I'll end my life by sitting on the porch of some nameless retirement community in Florida drooling on myself and muttering "Urkel" with glee every few minutes, only getting my thrills everyday at 11am when Nurse Helga gives me my café au lait enema.


The whole Vegas mystique had gotten to me through the movies. I've seen every Las Vegas movie ever made from Viva Las Vegas to Casino and my imagination ran rampant. From these films I got a sense of history that began with the old west. It was lawless. This charm cranked into high gear when Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel in 1946. The mafia moved in and everything was cool. Sure they were skimming money off the top, but at least they dressed well. Sure they killed a couple of people, but I know a couple of people I'd like to wax but there just aren't any good deserts around here where I could dispose of the bodies.

The downhill slide started when Howard Hughes began buying up real estate in the '60s and paved the way for the big corporations to move in. He purchased tons of land and opened the Desert Inn in 1966. He lived out his later years living at the top of the Desert Inn watching old newsreels of himself and practicing the hygiene habits of a Russian heavy metal band.

As a kid, I remember seeing that famous picture of the rat pack standing outside the sign at the Sands and thinking Vegas is the place that all the hep cats need to be. The thing about Vegas is this: it has been mythologized in the movies as having a connection to the past. But Las Vegas is the one place that I've been with no history at all. What history that is there has survived much to the dismay of the chamber of commerce. Most of the locals and the carpetbaggers want to forget about the past. They want to downplay all the seediness that ever occurred there. The one thing that intrigued me about Las Vegas was no longer there.


Tear Down the Walls

In 1993 Steve Wynn blew up the Dunes making way for the marketing of Las Vegas as a family vacation spot. Now, you've got the Mirage with Siegfried und Roy. In the few years they've been there, according to the Mirage propaganda, Siegfried und Roy have grossed close to a quarter of a billion dollars with a bunch of white tigers that jump around and growl. But at 75 bucks a pop I expect to witness a few Christians being eaten. Besides, when I want to see a couple of old queens who live with a houseful of kitties, I'll visit my friends Kenneth and Steve.

You've got Treasure Island with its sinking ship and swashbucklers. And the MGM Grand with this bizarre Wizard of Oz Emerald City in the casino. And how can we forget the Secrets of Luxor? I rode this three part trilogy ride. I can report that it makes Midwestern housewives throw up and, further, vomit stains don't come out of linen trousers easily with the soap provided in the men's restrooms at Luxor.


The most sickening part of the trip was the Fremont Street Experience. In an effort to compete with the strip hotels, Vegas built a canopy over the street with 2 million lights. This totally ruined the ambience of old Vegas. The cowboy no longer swings his arm and the cowgirl at Glitter Gulch no longer kicks out her leg. It's basically a gyp draw to get you away from the glitz of the strip.

The Fremont Street Experience has 3 different shows on the hour. I was "lucky" enough to see the country music one. Lots of buffalo and cover wagons moved along this great lighted canopy to the tunes of Alan Jackson and Garth. I'd much rather have heard Scud Mountain Boys' "In A Ditch" or George Jones doing "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" while Leone-esque gunfights played out on this overhead canvas.

My friend Greg, in town for the National Association of Broadcasters convention, won 150 bucks in a slot machine at the Golden Nugget while we were on Fremont Street. The best I got was being turned away at the door of Glitter Gulch. No topless women for me. I had to be Henri Cartier Bresson and have my camera in tow.


Between the Hard Rock and a Hard Place

No trip to Las Vegas is complete without a visit to the Hard Rock Hotel. Surely there were some hip folks there, I thought. When I walked in with Greg, they were playing the Doors' "Touch Me." And then there were the old people. Sandwiched between the Nikki Sixx Harley and Jimi Hendrix slot machines were septuagenarians like I'd never seen. The few young people who were gambling appeared to be in town for some sort of concrete pourers' convention.

I quickly spotted a drum kit from Stone Temple Pilots' drummer. I was all ready to hop up and start jamming "Tom Sawyer" until Greg pointed out the Nirvana "exhibit." Behind glass there were a few guitars and whatnot from Kurdt and the boys. The casino patrons had taken business cards and tossed them into the "exhibit" through a crack between two pieces of glass. I spent the next hour betting Greg that I could land my Fearless Media business card between the E and A strings of one of Kurdt's old Fender Mustangs. Greg was up another 50 bucks.


Dukes of the Stratosphere

After the Hard Rock, we headed over to the financially troubled Stratosphere. I wanted to get a view of the city at night. We rode with an elevator full of Germans to the top. The view was spectacular. I thought about all the folks buried out there in the desert past the grid and lamented that the old signs were gone, all the '60s architecture was gone, and most of the seediness was gone. The oldest things in Vegas were the tourists.

Looking down on the city it all looked so clean. The new landmarks stood out. Luxor. New York, New York. MGM Grand. All these great monstrosities of the late '80s and '90s were there where there was nothing 75 years ago. I didn't take it personally that my Scorsese illusions about Las Vegas were shattered and I promise not to hold a grudge against the Vegas developers on one condition. When Siegfried und Roy have outlived their usefulness and Steve Wynn decides to blow them up, please let me throw the switch.



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