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(July 19, 2006)

          What is happening now in Las Vegas requires new words, cliches. "Bizarre," "excess" hardly cut it. Perhaps an eloquent Brit could capture things with characteristic understatement, but I can’t. This is hypertrophus elephantiasis insanitus.
          First of all, it looms. Not a lot of things loom anymore. Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, and death, and Dolly Parton’s knockers. But you drive over that Martian landscape desert pass and there’s that cantankerous Vegas skyline, jutting as Bush’s forehead, rising from the sand and dust. Fantastically, threateningly. Dare you to come here. Dare you not to come here.
          I had not seen the place in 20 years and a couple dozen building implosions, and, well, who would have ever imagined that the Vegas of the ‘70’s, 80’s---let alone the mythologized Rat-Pack ‘50’s and ‘60’s---could look quaint? The Strip has always been adult vice wonderland, but this. . .this. . .words fail me.
          I am left to hurl clichés: it’s other-wordly, it’s like a dream. Yes, it’s like one of those sweaty dreams you have after a couple of late-night peanut-butter sandwiches, a dream of a place chaotic, misshapen, oddly angular, hard to apprehend, like L.A. was in “Blade Runner.” I was in Vegas for only three days, but I was starting to feel as if there was no other reality, the way you do in dreams.
          This is true: everywhere I walked, while outside, I smelled something. Couldn’t identify it at first, then it finally hit me, as I stood outside Jimmy Buffet’s cheezoid Margaritaville: sulphur! No kidding. Hell's ventilator shafts open in Nevada! (I think this was actually metric tons of cigarette smoke pumped constantly out of the casinos.) Invoking the Hades metaphor is hackneyed, of course; the guy with the red suit and widow's peak would envy the minds that conceived and executed the new Strip.
          This one-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard has been turned into something so beyond caricature that it is almost novel. Even the winking notion of having an immoral good time is official billboard slogan: “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” They’ve made sin original again.
          Yet is it sin? The town is overrun with “good Christians,” 24-7, smoking, hiring hookers, throwing dice, throwing up. This is what tattooed, T-shirted humans seem to most want in the world today: an opportunity to indulge in cheap, unbridled gluttony, razzle-dazzle entertainment, bestial sex, gambling. To swagger around, drinks and cigars in hand, belching, feeling like high-rolling hotshots. Monty Python’s gustatory gargantuan, the ever-regurgitating Mr. Creosote, anticipated 21st Century Las Vegas man. This is Un-topia. Even radical Islam could not resist it. Several of the 9/11 hijackers had their last fling in Vegas. To sneer at western cultural decay? Oh, yeah. And Bush can pronounce “nuclear.”
          Just the physical shape and scope of the place is beyond my adjectives. I resort to the digestive system of owls for an adequate metaphor. After a nice dinner of field mice, snakes, lizards, what-have-you, owls vomit up the parts they can’t digest, leaving behind skeletal rearrangements that are like abstract sculpture. The designers of the Strip did something similar. They feasted on world iconography, and vomited up rearranged remains: New York’s skyline, the Eiffel Tower, Venice canals, Greek statues, Egyptian pyramids, volcanoes, fountains, giant bronze lions---all glommed together. Fellini might have conceived this place, though I’m not sure even he had a sufficiently perverted imagination.
          Penn Gillette made a valiant attempt at explaining Vegas, uttered in a documentary that played incessantly on the tube in my room at the MGM Grand (now a second-tier joint!) I don’t recall the exact words, but he basically said that it’s all about shrimp. Shrimp, he said, has long been thought of as “classy” cuisine, and Vegas has long been known for cheaply had shrimp. If you were dining on shrimp, you were living large. Yes, shrimp was “classy,” Gillette said, but. . .thinking that shrimp is “classy” is not classy, and that’s what Vegas has become.
          I don’t think Gillette goes far enough, though. Shrimp Theory applied twenty, thirty years ago. I think the better metaphor today is Wayne Newton’s teeth, at least as seen on mobile Strip billboards where they are about ten feet high. Take a look at those choppers. They are so white you can’t believe it. They require an expansion of the spectrum; this shade can’t exist in nature.
          Yes, Wayne’s mammoth white bicuspids, flashing at hordes of hobbling hedonists toting two-foot-tall cocktails, sucking down sulphuric vapors. . .this somehow says it all. Wayne’s teeth are the shiny thing that attracts human crows, the mystery stuff of the cosmos that compels all fascination. Wayne’s teeth. People want to be near them, to feel their power, their glow, their radiance. When Wayne smiles---when he shows you those gigantic, clean, bright mastication devices---you have somehow connected with The Force, with absolute fabulousness.
          Of course, Wayne is an antique now, a holdover who commands attention because he managed to buy the Aladdin. I like him, though. After all, he once called on a mobster to protect his daughter when the local cops said they couldn’t. Nothing Margaritaville about that move. Wayne is the last link to the good old mafia days when honest crooks owned the town, before titanic corporations threw out the old slot machines and suffocated it with “shopping experiences,” family shows, turning the Strip into an adult Disneyland that happens to also have gambling.
          Threw out the slots? That’s right---no more music of jingling, cascading coins! It’s like Bush without an incomplete sentence, China without chopsticks. Some of the machines have levers, just for old time’s sake, but everything is done with receipts and buttons now, and the games have names like “Demented Lumberjack Beaver.” Someone figured out that it was much easier, faster, and more profitable to push a button than it was to take all that time to deposit a coin and pull the lever, and that was that. So now the obsessive-compulsive old ladies with sunglasses, jangly costume jewelry and endless Irish coffees do not even have the illusion of active participation as they suck cigarettes, tap their glass three times, crack their necks, and hope that the digital armless bandit in front of them spits out a chit for $250.
          I used to visit Las Vegas fairly often, as my father spent his last years there, and I thought about him often on this trip, especially one of his signature philosophical statements, “It’s all bullshit.” I think he loved Vegas because it so unapologetically and spectacularly validated this delicate sentiment. As for me, I generally try to steer clear of bullshit, so it took a lot to compel me back to Bullshitus Maximus. I mean a lot.
          I was invited to attend the premiere of the new Cirque du Soleil show, “The Beatles’ ‘Love,’” at the Mirage.
          The symbolism is punishing, of course. The Beatles are all but a mirage now, relegated to film, tape, photo. Did all that stuff ever really happen? And love? Well, love is the greatest mirage of all.
          Yet there it was, in the middle of the 105-degree, $29.95 buffet desert, as preposterous as an actual mirage: a brand-new production of Beatles music, reconfigured and rescored into a smashing, shimmering new suite, coupled with a crazy-quilt circus act---all intended to, as former Beatles producer and “Love” music director George Martin said, remind the world of the endlessly uplifting energy of art, and love.
          Love? I felt like I had come to the 7th circle of hell to find it. A hero’s journey.
          Next week: The show and post-show party.

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