This is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Extremely menacing vibrations were all around us.
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
I had to maintain for another day and a half; a large dose of Advil and a few beers would help. After I was mildly bent, it occurred to me that there were two things that disturbed me. It wasn’t that prostitution sent me over the edge into a moralistic rant. When I was a teenager, I ran with a friend whose dad ran a cat house. As the wheels man for the crew, I was in on a number of pick-ups and drop-offs. One time we picked up a girl that was a few years younger than I was who had been “entertaining” as many as five or six depraved scum bags. When she got into the car, a big wad of cash fell out of her jacket on to the seat, and she didn’t notice. I picked it up, and handed it to her, telling her to be careful and not to lose it. She was speechless; stunned into silence. I don’t think she had ever met anyone who hadn’t tried to rip her off. She kind of clung to me for the rest of the evening and, even though she was kind of cute, I never had a hankering to “give it a go” as they say. I’ve always figured that if you had to pay for it, you didn’t really deserve it. What really bothered me about Vegas was that pleasure was reduced to factory line production; it was like McDonald’s had cornered the market on sex, as if people’s lives were so shallow that they needed the whips, chains, and props to experience something, who knows what? There is something to be said for that segment of society that after 20 years with the same partner can still sit down, enjoy a pizza, a glass of dago red, and have nice steamy sex, a shower and then fall asleep watching TV.
We had two more activities before we headed out to the airport to catch a flight to San Francisco, the last leg of our travels: the Bodies exhibition and the Cirque de Soliel show entitled “O.” The exhibition was being held at the Luxor; the black pyramid that sits next to the Mandalay Bay hotel. It’s a hotel in itself and the rooms line the inner walls of the pyramid as they ascend. The venue has four or five shows going on simultaneously: Chris Angel and Carrot Top are the anchors. The Bodies exhibition was billed as educational. They ostensible purpose of the damn thing is to “celebrate your body’s inner beauty in ways you never dreamed possible.” What they don’t tell you is that dissected and preserved bodies are nothing short of disgusting. Yes, you can get a deep look into the skeletal, muscular, nervous, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, circulatory systems, but the whole freeze-dried operation is next-level gross. The Bodies looked like slabs of cured bacon and reminded me of the soup bones I use in the kitchen. What was worse was the ventilation system brought in a strong smell of the deep fryers from the restaurants on the first floor.
It also freaked me out that these bodies used to be people, walking around, eating, laughing, and living. Now, they’re split open,–testicles dried like cheap leather–, stripped of anything resembling dignity, and placed on display to satisfy God knows what voyeuristic fetish the public calls for. I knew that this was someone’s fantasy, but not mine, which don’t involve corpses and plastic. But fantasies all appeal to some kind of lack: was this one the fear of death, of disappearing, of not being? Or, was it just the staging of someone’s need to be looked at for eternity? So, one shouldn’t be taken by the whole educational bit; it’s all very much Vegas. Right next door to the Bodies Exhibition you can also watch the all-white women strip show, complete with silicone implants. This isn’t too different from the desiccated cadavers sealed in hardened plastic. In both cases, the key concept is plastic.
When they first explained to me that the Cirque de Soleil show was based on synchronized swimming I had visions of Ester Williams floating around in a pool with twenty others making large flower formations. For this to work, I needed to get seriously bent before we headed to the show. Being that we were in the desert, peyote became the mind-altering substance of choice. Now the one thing about eating dried cactus is that it tastes almost as bad as dried lemon peel wrapped in gritty sand with the mild aroma of desiccated turtle. There are a lot of theories about how to best take peyote: some grind them up in little pieces, others boil them in water, and some tough it out and eat them whole. They all end up vomiting at some time or another. But this is no problem in Vegas: because of the high levels of alcohol being consumed in Vegas, there is no shortage of people with their heads in the john. Hell, a peyote eater will fit right in. Discretion is the better part of valor, though.
Peyote doesn’t kick in like other psychedelics: acid and mushrooms will turn you into a giggling fool within an hour after you eat them. Peyote, however, has a delayed effect: invariably you figure that the stuff isn’t working and that you got ripped off, and then it hits you like a thousand pound shit-hammer. Wammo! Suddenly, the walls are breathing and you’re in the middle of a fire-storm of lights and sound so intense that you’re convinced that you’re receiving the secret knowledge of the universe. By the time we got our tickets for Cirque de Soleil I was zonked; it really hit me right after we got our seats. Then, the place filled up with clowns. I had weird thoughts; you can never trust a clown!
The name of the show was “O;” the title was derived from the French word eau, meaning water. The show begins when a roaming band of street performers are turned loose on the audience. The fat man, the tramp, beggar, hobo, and the chimney sweep invade the audience, pushing them out of their secure space, and making them part of the show. The fat man tries to find his seat, the skinny guy tries to guide an enormous inner-tube along the rows, another sets out to clean the theater with a squirt bottle. The circus is a metaphor for life as a free-for-all, striped of the idea that some higher force is watching over it all. As they say, “le monde est fou,” it’s a psychotic, a terrible mismatch of parts that together make absolutely no sense; incongruity is the norm.
Getting back to the peyote, I had a serious buzz coming on hard and fast. The walls were pulsating, breathing, and the curtains were growing like vines in the canopy of the rain forest. The theater is massive; it looks more like a Roman coliseum than any other place in Vegas. It seats almost 2000 people, and it sits above a swimming pool that has over a million gallons of water in it. The damn place was cold, too. They have elaborate climate controls under the seats; otherwise the humidity would turn the place into a giant Turkish bath. It is hard to tell what the swimming pool really looks like because the floor is movable; it sinks and rises depending on what is happening on stage. It takes on numerous shapes, silently changing and adapting to the aesthetic needs of the show: the water for the boats, horses, synchronized swimming and it’s also a net for the trapeze.
The clowns get the whole thing started by grabbing a guy from the audience and dragging him up on stage. There was talk about him representing a Sicilian boy who was carried off to Wonderland, but I’m not sure how they came up with that idea. A girl, dressed in white, tossed her handkerchief to him before being stolen away, and the boy spent the rest of the show trying to get her back. The stage was also full of other characters that were somewhat recognizable: the Sage or Guide that is there to show us that nothing lasts forever; the Organ Grinder who marks the passage of Time; the Transvestite, –like the ones haunting the bars of Vegas–, is there to remind us that appearances can be deceptive; and then, there is the Graceful Goddess, the one who makes all desires possible. The stage is also full of sexy nymphs and satyrs, the thieves and clowns, and even a poor slob that they set on fire.
The problem with psychedelics is that they cut you a big slice of the Now and impair your ability to connect one minute to the next. Some people just go goddamn catatonic. But I see this all as potentially enlightening, because most of us spend too much time thinking about yesterday and tomorrow, and sometimes it’s just best to deal with whatever it is you have churning in your head in the Here and Now. But in terms of following the story line, you might as well forget about it. It’s damn-near impossible to find the logical connection from one instance to the next because, Nothing is really logical and –face it–it’s a goddamn circus, literally. One minute there are dancers who dive into a pool that wasn’t there a minute ago, and the next horses descend from the sky. It’s the stuff that makes for a lot of “oohs” and “ahs,” but it is never exactly clear what the hell is going on. By then, I figured what the hell: there was no way I was going to be able to follow the story line anyway.
The story line, however, isn’t the point of the show. The nut of the matter is the visual image: the colors, the lights and the sound. It is supposed to carry you away. The music is an eclectic selection of Western beat and World music instruments. Some audience members thought they were singing in French, but lyrics are little more than gibberish. The music was good, though. It had fire; it moved. The two vocalists in the glass booth could wail like banshees, and the music almost brought me to my feet–I hadn’t danced at a concert since the last time I saw the Grateful Dead –, but I realized that I was in the geriatric section and our seats were so damn high up that a few of them needed oxygen. But the whole point was to ride the flow of the sound: let it take you and see where you ended up. The sounds were like those you hear in the main plaza in Marrakech or Jaipur– a half-naked man sitting in front of a basket playing a pungi before a dancing cobra—backed up by a chorus of chanting Berber women praying for rain. It was smoking!
The show is a kaleidoscopic feast for eyes; the only thing it’s missing is pyrotechnics. The costumes are also electric, psychedelic: a cross between a Venetian carnival and Fat Tuesday in New Orleans. One of them is completely white with concentric circles on it. If you are really bent, it looks like the damn thing is pulsating; ripples on water, but these images are the only things that make sense. Coherent, the show isn’t. No one really seems to know what the hell is going on stage, but it looks cool. It was when the trapeze flyers fell from the sky into the water that I began to worry about my own state of mind. Was it too much? Was I going to crack? Was I going to snap and scream out “what is the point of all of this?” But then it occurred to me that the peyote I ingested was bubbling up a hell broth of bile and stomach acid.
To be continued…