The ‘97 TC Tour: Beer and Writhing in Las Vegas

Previous issues of TC have chronicled trips to both east and west coasts of America, but rumours persisted that there were some bits in the middle, between California (movies/sun/earthquakes) and New York (shopping/pizza/er, more shopping). To test the validity or otherwise of these reports, a two-week expedition was planned, sponsored, albeit unwittingly, by the Halifax, and the other nice building societies who decided to hand me a wodge of free shares. Having just safely returned (well, most of me, my brain would seem to have been held up at Customs. Jet lag, doncha just love it? All of the problems of being drunk with none of the pleasures. What time is it? What day is it? Which continent is this? Who am I?), I feel a need to get the (ir)relevant details committed to paper before the need for outright fabrication exceeds EC permitted levels.

When you cross off all the bits of America that lie next to oceans, one destination stands out like a beacon in the middle of the desert — precisely because it is a beacon in the middle of the desert. I mean, of course, that Disneyland for adults, Las Vegas. It’s a place that not only meets expectations but passes way beyond them: it is even more crass, commercial, garish, naff, flashy and shallow than you imagine. But yet, just as a bad movie can become a source of great pleasure, so Vegas transcends the tackiness which infects its very essence, and is perhaps the best place on Earth to spend a weekend. No more than that, mind, for it will chew you up and spit you out like a piece of used gum – except probably with slightly less personal wealth.

The first experience of the city was driving along the Strip from the airport. Luckily I wasn’t driving, having been met at the airport by TC-er Chris Fata, who had kindly agreed to see me through the first wave of culture shock. This was undoubtedly a Good Thing: I’d have managed about fifty yards, tops, before provoking a gawp-induced accident, since my mouth was so wide open it would have severely interfered with the brake pedal. The city has to be one of the Seven Artificial Wonders of the World (alongside Pamela Anderson): where else can you see the Court of King Arthur, comfortably nestling – if any building a hundred yards in each dimension can be said to nestle – between a large-scale replica of the New York skyline, and an F-sized pyramid made of black glass?

Nikater, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Said pyramid was my destination, the Luxor hotel, decorated throughout in appropriate decor — even the shampoo came in little plastic obelisks. It was undoubtedly the coolest place to stay, since it was the only one that looked good both during the day and at night. The Excalibur next door was a fairy-tale castle after dark, but the sun revealed it to be a ghastly multi-coloured pile of precast concrete. The Luxor was immensely cool during the day, and vanished completely at dusk, making it the world’s first Stealth Hotel. Or rather, it would have vanished, if it wasn’t for the beacon on top which shone up into space, for no apparent reason beyond being visible from 250 miles away. And that was after they’d toned it down because it was screwing up jets as they approached the airport…

If any city can be said to have a purpose, it’s Las Vegas: it is dedicated to the painless removal of wealth with a single-mindedness which would have impressed the Spanish Inquisition. This is despite the fact that, thanks to competition, the average house margin is tiny: on most slots, it’s a mere 5%. It says something about the sheer volume of cash flowing through them, that this 5% is enough to cover all the capital costs; subsidise the shows, food and drink; provide spectacles like pirate battles; and still leave enough left over to turn a healthy profit and make Las Vegas the fastest-growing city in America.

The appeal is simple: everyone thinks they can beat the odds, and win the startling jackpots on offer. To anyone used to ten quid machines in pubs, the prospect of winning a Harley-Davidson bike, a car, or simply $7.7m in cash is difficult to grasp, but the lure is obvious. Needless to say, I did not win any of the above: I topped out at thirty dollars, though I did come delightfully close to winning a thousand on one delirious occasion. Personally, however, I got the same buzz out of playing the dime slots, and with the good payout rates, you could play for ages without losing too many Halifax shares.

The hotels are designed to be self-contained. The punter should not ever need to leave them, and probably will never want to, as it’s rather warm outside, even at the end of September. Between the restaurants, shops, thrill rides and IMAX cinema in the Luxor, it’s quite possible to spend a fulfilling trip without seeing natural light, as I proved on my second day there, though I did cheat slightly and took the air-conditioned walkway to the Excalibur for King Arthur’s tournament. This is horse-riding, jousting, sword-fights and so on, in a central arena, while the audience eats a meal with their fingers, Just Like In Medieval Times. Two millennia of civilisation has brought us the freedom to throw it all away and regress. But in its defence, a) they’ve been restaging Arthurian legend since the 15th century, and b) it was pretty good fun, especially the fighting, though I could probably have done without the musical numbers. On balance, however, I’d have been as happy with a couple of Xena episodes and a kebab.

The individual casinos have slightly different personalities; one will perhaps be more family orientated (Circus Circus), the next might contain a good video arcade (New York New York), a third has tackier entertainment — the Mirage wins hands-down here, thanks to the presence of the amazingly camp Siegfried and Roy and their white tigers, not to mention the volcano in the front lot which actually erupts. Every 20 minutes. Despite this, they all blur together eventually into one cacophony of flashing lights, ringing bells, and clattering cash. Not only are there no windows or clocks, which might alert the unwary gambler to the passage of time, but exit signs are few and far between. Once you get into the middle of a football-field sized array of gaming devices which reach to head height, retaining your orientation is almost impossible. It’s easy to imagine stumbling across the skeleton of a Japanese tourist who took a wrong turning on the way to the bathroom in 1979.

Eventually, the appeal of the casinos will fade, and you will then realise that there is actually little else to do in Las Vegas. The downtown area is worth a visit, for the stunning light-show that happens every hour in Fremont Street: a massive array of computer-controlled lights above your head depict everything from the Amazonian forest to a fighter fly-by, in typically vivid and hyper-real Vegas style. But once you’ve seen that, and gone up the 108-storey Stratosphere Tower [actually, they’re only virtual storeys, as it’s a concrete pillar with nothing in the middle hundred or so], what else is there to do?

Er, well…there is perhaps one other thing. Think Showgirls. Think Kyle McLachlan and Elizabeth Berkeley. No, not the bit in the swimming pool with the spouting dolphin — what visit to Las Vegas would be complete without a lap-dance? I’d solicited advice on the subject from slightly more knowledgeable sources and opinion was that the best establishment was Olympic Gardens. So, armed with a fistful of dollars, I went to experience a lapful of bimbo.

The layout at the Olympic had several small stages, on which a steady procession of girls disported themselves, between which were armchairs and sofas in which the lap-dances themselves occurred. Oddly, it seems that city regulations prevent full nudity and alcohol from being served up in the same establishment, so the girls never went further than G-strings, although these appeared to be made of dental floss. And the artistes themselves were, without exception, quite stunning. However, mere beauty was not enough. What I needed was someone with whom I could connect on a higher level. And then I saw Darlene — or rather, the Hello Kitty lunch-box in which she was stashing her tips. How could I possibly resist a fellow student of Japanese pop culture?

The experience itself was undeniably very pleasant, even beyond the obvious level (my, what is the Stratosphere Tower doing here in my underpants). You know how it’s an ego boost if a pretty girl smiles at you? Well, think what it’s like when the girl is writhing over you like a nymphomaniac, not so much with ‘come-to-bed eyes’ as an entire come-to-bed body. And my ego is not so fragile as to be bothered by the fact that it cost me twenty dollars — the Sisters of Mercy song, Lucretia, My Reflection, will never seem the same again… Sweetly, she was perfectly willing to hang around afterwards and chat without demanding I buy another dance (I did, but that was entirely of my own free will – or what was left of it): she seemed a genuinely nice person, a fan of Beverly Hills 90210 who lived in California, and worked part-time at Olympic Gardens. All told, I was happier to have spent my money on her, rather than giving it to one of the casinos.

Clearly, though, it’s not the sort of thing you could cope with on a regular basis, and as mentioned previously, Vegas burns you up fast. You just run out of astonishment. As an example, on my last night, I had planned to go to the Mirage for their exploding volcano, but when the time came, I simply couldn’t be bothered. I had succumbed to an overload of excess. It was time to move on.

I was heading for Phoenix, but since the route there took me within inches of the Grand Canyon, it seemed churlish not to pop in. At least, it looked like inches on the map. I’d forgotten this was western America, where most single states could swallow up Britain, with Ireland for afters, and so the journey necessitated both getting up at 5:30 a.m. and an overnight stop on the way. But it was undoubtedly worth the effort. Neither words nor photographs can do the scale of the Grand Canyon justice, so I won’t bother much. I’ll just say:

© Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons

It is enormous.

I was amazed, and I was somewhat ready for it — imagine what the reaction of the first people to see it must have been; ‘Grand’ doesn’t do it justice, but I guess ‘Fucking Huge Canyon’ would have been vetoed by the cartographers. I envisaged something U-shaped, yet it actually has incredibly crinkly edges (I think it was one of the bits of Earth designed by Slartibartfast): this doesn’t come across in photos, which inevitably portray only a narrow section. It’s the closest you can get to flying with both feet firmly on the ground, and is stepped, which somehow makes it seem deeper; rather than one inconceivable drop, you get half-a-dozen slamming off into the distance. Combined with the different shades of colour in the rock, it looks like a chocolate layer cake attacked by a hungry but discerning pack of mice.

Speaking of layer cake, I have got to mention the quite incredible meal I had that night in the Arizona Steakhouse at the Bright Angel Lodge. A 16-ounce steak was so delicious and fresh you could almost sense the bovine bewilderment – “Hang on, where’s the meadow gone?” – and was followed by the most awesome slab of chocolate layer cake, doing much the same on my tastebuds as Darlene had done on my crotch. Altogether, it has to rank among the top five meals I’ve ever experienced. The total cost, including soup and drinks, was under twenty pounds. Things like that make me seriously contemplate shipping out to America permanently.

One of the problems which always stood in the way of this possibility – the lack of decent beer – has largely been solved since my previous trips, when the choice was limited to Bud, Miller and, if you were lucky, Molson. The incredible rise of the micro-brewery has meant that every area now has a plethora of entirely palatable choices, available in all but the most backward establishment. The only problem is that these are only distributed locally (Samuel Adams is a notable exception), so when you move somewhere else, you get a totally different selection, and have to begin the sampling process all over again. What a pity…

I want to say a few words about the bus journeys from the Canyon down to Phoenix, which was in two parts. For the first, Grand Canyon-Flagstaff, I had the bus to myself, so sat up front and chatted to the driver, who was a nice guy. This was great fun, and I was quite sorry to see the journey end, not least because his views, which had started off on innocuous subjects like the weather, were notably drifting into “how immigrants are screwing up America” and I’d have liked to have seen how long it took before he started to advocate things involving fertiliser, fuel oil and Federal buildings. But he was at least polite and friendly.

Perhaps this was an omen for the second leg, the Greyhound from Flagstaff to Phoenix. The bus station was bad enough; I scanned the low-life scum inhabiting it, trying to work out who was the psychopath, as my subconscious gleefully played scenes from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The worrying thing was that everyone looked a perfectly viable candidate… For let me dispel absolutely one myth about American life, maliciously propagated through adverts for Wrigley’s gum. Attractive women do not use Greyhound buses. Those who do fall into three categories:

  • Recently returned ‘Nam veterans, now retraining to be mass murderers.
  • Their mothers.
  • Students.
  • Better make that four: naive tourists who really should know better.

But as a general rule there is absolutely nobody with whom you would want to want to share air, let alone your chewing gum. As a rough idea, imagine a rush-hour National Express coach with less gun control.

[Down in Phoenix at last, to my immense relief, I was met again by Chris — who deserves a formal tip of the TC hat for efforts that go well beyond what was expected, and without whom, I would have seen and experienced a great deal less. If every tourist to America received the same level of personal service, there’d be nobody left in Britain. For showing me the most delightful sights possible, and for tireless work not just as chauffeur, but in every other position, I am utterly grateful. End of fulsome praise, before Chris’s head swells excessively!]

Scottsdale, where I was based for the next three days, is a sprawl of a city, in which a car is not a luxury but an absolute necessity, not least because the ferocious heat makes walking any distance an ordeal. Mind you, having said that, my first day there, the populace were running in all directions as the media did a striking impression of Cassandra over the tail end of hurricane Nora, allegedly about to sweep across the state, bringing death and destruction in its wake. Much filling of sandbags by the nervous later, it finally hit, drenching Phoenix in a torrential… er, 0.03 inches of rain. I was distinctly unimpressed, although the lack of any drains in the road meant a surprising amount of surface water.

This was encountered that evening on the way to ‘Rawhide’, a pseudo-Western tourist attraction on the outskirts of Scottsdale featuring gunfights, saloons, etc. While hugely entertaining in a deeply shallow sort of way, the highlight was the restaurant where I chewed down on another new breed of dead animal: deep-fried rattlesnake, complete with backbone on the side to prove its origins. Tasted like chicken more than anything else. Despite the irony present in sinking my fangs into something which would happily reciprocate given the chance, the day was a salutary reminder that life in America is not entirely without peril, especially on the natural side of things: hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes are something with which we just don’t have to contend. And we’re a bit short on animals that endanger your health as well, unless you count things coming off boats from the Caribbean — such as West Indian fast bowlers. But even they pale into insignificance beside venomous snakes, spiders, ants and scorpions: one of the best souvenirs I picked up was a plastic paperweight containing an especially evil-looking scorpion, lurking with sting poised. To add the final touch of trash value, the entire thing glowed in the dark…

The time in Scottsdale was so laid back as to be near horizontal. While undeniably just as entertaining as Vegas, it provides little true tourist action on which I can comment in these pages. I was pleased, however, to see that American talk shows continue to plumb the sort of depths to which we British can only aspire. A personal favourite was Jerry Springer, who has since acquired a cult following on ITV. If you’ve not seen him, he favours deep and searching topics like “My Teen Worships Satan”, and derives both guests and audience from the sort of trailer trash beloved by John Waters. A typical show might have a couple, with the woman revealing to the man that not only has she been cheating on him, but with another woman. Turns out he’s been unfaithful too: either with a) the same woman, or b) a man — I only watched a week’s worth, and saw both. This is roadcrash television at its very best.

One day, however, we headed North (indeed, almost back to Flagstaff) to see Sedona, which is a bunch of rocks — in the same way the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground. These were red and eroded into the most remarkable, fluffy cloudlike shapes. Slartibartfast must have had some help from Salvador Dali around that corner of the world. On the way back, darkness fell, revealing the sort of shimmering sky I had forgotten existed after ten years living in the South of England. We pulled off the highway and just bathed in the splendour of it all: stars, planets, meteors, satellites and our galaxy, sweeping majestically across the sky like a spilt tin of condensed milk.

10 titles from Spy Headquarters
1. Build Your Own AR-15
2. Everybody’s Knife Bible
3. Home-Built Claymore Mines
4. Improvised Explosives
5. Ragnar’s Guide to Home and Recreational Use of High Explosives
6. Pipe and Fire Bomb Designs
7. The Butane Lighter Hand Grenade
8. Successful Armed Robbery
9. Execution: Tools and Techniques
10. Kill Without Joy

I must also mention two shops in Scottsdale — I hadn’t actually intended to do any real purchasing until I got to New York, but this pair both succeeded in talking me into some fairly drastic plastic action. Zia Records had the biggest selection of second-hand CDs I’ve ever seen. Now, compact discs are cheap enough in America anyway, so the opportunity to pick up ultra-recent titles for $7.99 was certainly not to be sniffed at. I don’t think anyone had ever asked them for a shopping basket before. The other one was Spy Headquarters. There are a couple of similar places here in Britain, but they pretty much stick to tedious stuff like bug detectors, for legal reasons. No such problems in Arizona, and the main delight of Spy HQ was the delicious publications on offer [see side-bar], as well as the chance to purchase signs that read “Warning: Trespassers Will Be Shot. Survivors Will Be Shot Again” and “Nuke Their Ass and Take Their Gas” bumper-stickers. Needless to say, I loaded up; I’m grateful that airport X-ray machines don’t show up books…

With sadness, I waved goodbye to the friendly natives of Arizona, and headed down to New Orleans. This was the part of the trip I was least certain about: I had a fairly good idea of what I was going to do the rest of the time, but New Orleans was something of an enigma. I’d seen plenty of movies set there, but on reflection, most were definitely on the dark side: Angel Heart is hardly a promotional device for the local Tourist Authority. My first encounter with the city seemed to confirm my worst fears, as I walked along the world-famous Bourbon Street, only to find it combined the most unpleasant aspects of Ibiza and the West End of London. Hideously touristy, powered almost entirely by alcohol, and with any jazz drowned out by the thumping disco beats from the numerous night-clubs which line its length. How long did I have to stay here? Three days. Er, is there any chance of changing my flight?

It has to be said that once you get away from Bourbon Street, the city improves beyond all recognition. It’s the only place in America I’ve been to that has any significant sense of history i.e. it has buildings built before the war — and the Civil War at that. Since I was brought up in a house which dates back to 1815, nothing younger provokes much in me, but the French Quarter has a timeless quality which makes it very pleasant to stroll around. [Slowly. Very slowly. Any activity beyond that causes immediate metamorphosis into a puddle of sweat] I didn’t bother going out of that area, apart from a bus tour, having heard dire stories about murder and robbery. I suspect, like most things, a certain amount of exaggeration has taken place, since dead tourists make good tabloid fodder — if you just exercise a modicum of common sense, as you should do anywhere, I don’t think you would have problems.

In the end, I had no trouble finding things to keep myself occupied, and indeed, there were a few that I wanted to do but had to miss out — would have liked to head out to the zoo and find a black panther to kiss, in the vague hope that it’d turn into Nastassja Kinski. [‘Cat People’ is another fine advert for the New Orleans Tourist Board] I also, sadly, didn’t get to see the musical version of Pretty Baby which was on at a local theatre… Instead, the highlight of the time in New Orleans was not the palatial homes in the Garden District, or the paddle steamer trip down the Mississippi to the site of the Battle of New Orleans (where the Americans kicked British ass — I suspect if the opposite had happened, it might not be getting quite as much tourist traffic 185 years later). The last night, I took a walking tour round haunted houses of the French Quarter, and the guide told some quite hair-raising stories. Naturally, these have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the best of these is worthy of early Clive Barker, and concerns one Madame Lalaurie who…hell, I’ll give the story the space (and font) it deserves.

Madame Lalaurie: She-Wolf of New Orleans

In 1830’s New Orleans, Madame Lalaurie had a certain odd reputation, despite being one of the leading lights of contemporary society. Her slaves were notoriously jumpy, flinching whenever you went near them, and there was also the mysterious, unexplained death of one girl who ‘fell’ from a third-floor balcony in Lalaurie’s house at 1140 Royal Street, a block down from Bourbon, an accident for which the owner was merely fined.

Then, one fateful day in April, 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchens. It rapidly spread beyond what the slaves could handle, and the fire brigade arrived, eventually bringing the blaze under control. As was required, they checked the house for trapped people and smouldering embers, and came across an attic room, sealed by a heavily barred door. They broke through, only to be sent reeling by a stench which, though hideous, was but a mere appetiser for the room’s contents…

To quote a contemporary newspaper, “Seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated, were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other…These slaves…had been confined by the woman Lalaurie for several months…merely kept in existence to prolong their sufferings, and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict”. Some of the slaves, of both sexes, were fastened to the wall; others were tied to makeshift operating tables. Organs and severed body parts were scattered around, and also kept in rows of jars on shelves. Most of the slaves were dead, but those still living were barely recognisable — one woman had all her limbs amputated, and most of the flesh removed from her skull, reducing her to a human caterpillar. Another woman, confined in a cage, had so many bones broken and reset, that she looked more like a crab than a person. On one wall was hanging a male who had apparently been the victim of a crude sex-change operation.

Reading Tom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When word got out, an angry mob gathered at the house, but Lalaurie and her husband burst through them in their carriage, headed for the Mississippi, and fled, never to be seen again. People took to crossing the street rather than walk past the house, as some claimed to hear screams, moans and cries for help coming from the deserted residence, and it remained vacant for forty years. Eventually, the house was taken over by a group of Italian immigrants, lured by the cheap rent, but they were driven out after encounters with a white female phantom swinging a blood soaked whip, and ghost slaves bound in chains. Another future tenant, a furniture store owner, found his stock mysteriously ruined by a torrent of muck and filth; he waited, that night, with a shotgun for the vandals to return. The next day, the replacement goods were ruined, and the owner was teetering on the edge of lunacy. He didn’t stay around either.

The final, chilling edge came in the 1960’s; redevelopment work dug up the floor of the ballroom, on which many leading lights of New Orleans had danced in their day. Under it, lay corpses, numbering in the dozens: more victims of Lalaurie’s insanity. Worse still, scratch marks on the underside of the floor indicated she had disposed of her household before her departure, by the simple method of burying them alive. Those people who said they heard voices from the house, calling for help, had not been mistaken…

Leaving New Orleans with pleasant thoughts of hideous medical experiments going through my head, I flew on to New York. This in itself was something of an experience, as part of the trip took place on the smallest plane I have taken on a commercial flight. To someone used to bigger craft – I went across the Atlantic on a Boeing 777, the largest passenger-plane in service – the sight of…well, propellers, was a throwback to an earlier era. It was reminiscent of the fan in my New Orleans hotel room, positioned right above the bed, which ran with a pronounced wobble and gave the distinct impression that it might crash down onto the bed at any moment. The plane sat only three abreast, and had less than a dozen rows — I almost expected the air-hostess (singular) to hand out flying helmets and goggles before the flight. Had a nasty moment, as we taxied out to the runway with only one engine running, the propeller on my side staying resolutely still. I was just working out how I should bring this to the attention of the stewardess (“Excuse me, miss, shouldn’t that be going round every now and again?”) when the pilot realised he’d forgotten something and turned it on…

I like New York. It’s somewhere else I can see myself living, apart from London, as it possesses the same degree of life and intensity – there’s always something going down – and it has the same cosmopolitan mix of people. Not quite living together like ebony and ivory-y-y-y, but it’s a city that seems to work despite the inevitable deficiencies and problems, like the bumblebee which flies because everyone has forgotten to tell it that it can’t. [Actually, that’s a myth, but why let scientific truth stop a good simile?]

Eagle-eyed readers may notice a) the roller-coaster and b) the turrets of King Arthur’s court. Yep, this is New York, Las Vegas style..
Max Richard, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There isn’t much to add about my time in New York, since I spent more time in Virgin, HMV and Tower than anywhere else. I had wanted to take in a baseball game, but the end-of-season playoffs had just started, and I never did quite work out how tickets were sold. Still, watching them on television had a certain decadence, sprawled on the bed of my tiny hotel room, with a six-pack of beer, eating cheese and crackers, like some low-life from a Martin Scorsese movie. I also got to see Michael Gingold again, whom I’d met the very first time I visited the city, when he was then doing Scareaphanalia. He’s now deputy editor of Fangoria, which is rather more career progression than I’ve managed over the intervening years. Beers were consumed, more excellent food eaten, and vast quantities of scurrilous and (probably quite unprintable) gossip discussed.

The flight back was notable only for the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered — so bad that they had to stop serving dinner and strap the stewardesses in. [Lino, stop drooling!] We’re probably not talking anything really significant – the odd spilt glass of wine, perhaps – but what would have been minor on a roller-coaster takes on a great deal more significance at an unsupported 30,000 feet. I was more than mildly relieved when we came out the other side of the storm.

And so to Tulse Hill, pondering on how gravity is a lot stronger in Britain than America — what else can explain the massive apparent increase in weight of my luggage between JFK and Heathrow? It was a quite superb fortnight, with more jaw-dropping experiences than on any previous trip: while generally, you get maybe one or two per holiday, I was closer to one per day, especially in the first week. It had been a while since I’d been to America, but on the basis of this trip, it’s not going to be very long before I return once more.