Now off the escalator and into the casino, big crowds still tight around the crap tables. Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last- minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
Vegas isn’t Sin City; the whole notion of a city of temptation misses the point and gives the impression that there must be a Virtue City somewhere. If there is, it must not have people living there. Vegas is like the ancient cities of Teotihuacan, Karnack, Cairo, Memphis and Thebes, and the Greek Acropolis. These were places that the country bumpkins came after their harvest to spend whatever they could spare. I know that the historians and archeologists try to tell us that these cities were centers of profound religious belief, but the Aztec ball games, gladiators, chariot races, and the Olympics weren’t that much different from the Super Bowl. And, where there are sports, there is gambling, prostitution, shopping and alcohol, except in Saudi Arabia, where they are stuck with hashish. This is why Caesar’s Palace and the Forum look like the Vatican. In ten thousand years when the archeologists excavate Las Vegas, they will state that it was a religious center that was frequented by thousands each day, and that the religious fervor was so great that visitors were known to pray in front of slot machines at the airport, in the hotels, in special rooms of worship called “casinos,” and next to their restaurants.
Like most of the incoming tourists, we stayed on the south side of the strip, just minutes from the airport. Although these places are connected, you can take trams from the Mandalay Bay, Luxor, and Excalibur. After that you can walk to New York New York, the MGM Grand, the Monte Carlo, Paris, the Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace. But it´s all pretty much the same: gallery after gallery of video-slot machines, large screen televisions, bars, restaurants, and tourists wondering if this was going to be their lucky day. It’s hard to describe the immensity of the place: the Book room, the place where you can bet on sporting events, is as large as a drive-in theater, and you can put down a wager on everything from miniature golf to which major league manager gets tossed out of a game.
What the first time tourists don’t see any more is the old Vegas, the casinos built in the ‘50s. Although the last of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo came down in the ‘90s, the Fremont, Four Queens, Golden Nugget and Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel still have enough electric lights to be seen from 39,000 feet in the air. But they are in the old part of town. What becomes obvious is that nothing in this place is what it is; Vegas is a city that is made up of other places: Monte Carlo, New York, Paris, Venice and Rome, anywhere that speaks to decadence and excess. Nothing speaks to decadence and excess like the Mandalay Bay; this hotel is a freak of nature. It has its own private beach and an “ocean” that takes a million and a half gallons of water to fill. Moreover, despite the fact that it’s in the middle of the desert, the hotel has created its own sandy beach, for the thousands who come to sun bathe. In all, there are three pools, a machine that creates a wave at two-minute intervals, a lazy river pool with a waterfall, and a so-called European-style pool where women can go topless. But this is the point: like the Tower of Babel, Las Vegas is there to prove to God that we Americans can do what he couldn’t do.
Because we crossed time zones, we missed lunch. So, by the time we got unpacked, we were ready to eat something, but where. The concierge at the hotel recommended that we walk across the casino to the House of Blues; one of the so-called fine eating establishments located next to the gaming areas. But it was only then, did I grasp how large the damn place was. If you can imagine a place the size of Sam’s Club dedicated to gaming, you might be able to visualize it. But then, you have to multiply it by ten or twelve because every hotel has at least one gaming area. Everywhere there are machines with bright lights that say, “Give us your money.” This place will beat you like a mule, if you’re not careful. And, if you are slow to hand over your cash, they can set you up with foot-long margaritas, double daiquiris, vodka-spiked milk shakes, 16-ounce beers and a host of mixed drinks. You’re inundated with subliminal messages telling you to ingest copious amounts of alcohol, and give the dice a roll. If craps isn’t your game, there is plenty of shopping that runs from up-scale to Harley Rat-sex, and all of it will suck you into the vortex quicker than a sleazy-soap opera.
People say that the go to Vegas for the shows. There are probably also some people who also read Playboy for the articles. But the shows aren’t different from Vegas; they are part of the pagan spectacle. It never was really about the dream or the fantasy of hitting it big, but rather it is about the religion of pleasure: the mind-bending parody of pure pleasure. What was on the show bill? There is always the Mind Freak, the Lion King, Mamma Mia, CSI, and the Titanic, but there was something new. The newest fetish show makes the Chippendales look pretty sedate. It’s called “Bite,” the best metaphor for Las Vegas itself. It’s a topless-vampire show: eternal life and predatory sex, all on the high trapeze. The actors wear corsets, black leather shorts and brassieres; they brandish whips, chains, and a mean set of fangs. Like several of the other shows, apparently random members of the audience are abducted by cast members and drawn into the show. In this one, however, they are bitten by vampires and are turned into the hominis nocturna. And, when you think about it, it’s not a bad way to go: a coven of scantily clad undead prey on the living, luring them into their clutches and granting them powers. The show devolves into a circus, high-wire erotic act, and pure fetish: fear and attraction, desire and repulsion, the vagina dentada, sex and death. Sounds like a vacation to me!
But getting back to the insanity thing, nothing brought this out more than the elderly couple that were excited about the Richard Clyderman concert. They were looking forward to an evening of low-intensity piano music, the kind your dentist plays when you go in for a root canal. Clyderman had made it big playing weepy favorites of Middle America. His songs were the backbone of the elevator versions of Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Shubert, and even Lennon and McCartney. A few years back he played the background music to Titanic, and the Pat Boone crowd was instantly hooked on his all time favorites: Feelings, the Theme to Love Story, Moon River, Volaré, and Romeo and Juliet. But this couple didn’t know what kind of animal they were dealing with. Clyderman was a classic Dr. Jekyll and Hyde; he was known in the business as the Keith Moon of Easy Listening. His all night orgies and cocaine binges were legendary on the strip. He even lost it a couple times on stage. The most famous one being in Bangkok when a poorly tuned piano caused him to snap like a rubber band, and in front of a stunned audience, he took a fireman’s axe to the legs of the Steinway until the damn thing collapsed. The Thais figured it was part of the show and applauded respectfully until he dropped his pants and mooned the crowd.
To be continued…