BY Dave Hickey in Features | 02 JAN 00
Featured in
Issue 50

Double Or Quits

In defence of Las Vegas

BY Dave Hickey in Features | 02 JAN 00

What can I tell serious art people about Las Vegas? Just this: you should not worry about it. Vegas is a nice town - bland as a biscuit in the sunshine, pastel and dreamy at the edges of the day, and the absolute, incarnate, dazzled heart of earthly promise under the stars. You can gamble here, of course, and glamour is not illegal, nor is the night, but otherwise the ordinary laws and customs of cosmopolitan society are genially in place and tolerantly enforced. As a consequence, only Mecca has more visitors every year. I have lived here for a little over a decade and call it my home because I genuinely like it. I like the weather, the palm trees, the tables, the show rooms, the music, the bars, the restaurants, the fountains, the airport, the house, the people, the pace, and, most of all, I like the lights. In truth, I like nearly everything except the traffic and the unctuous air of social concern exuding from the junketing culturati whom I encounter on a regular basis. 

During the past twelve months, I have spoken to 40 journalists, minimum, all here on assignment from icy climes - journalists from New York, Auckland, Prague, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Montreal, London, Minneapolis, etc. They all insist that they have come because they are 'interested' in Las Vegas but they are not. They are worried about Las Vegas. During the same period, I spoke with easily a hundred 'serious' architects, recently flown in from climates comparably frigid. They claim to be 'interested' in Las Vegas, too. They are not either. They are even more worried than the journalists, and I don't understand this. I mean, are people being trained to worry about Vegas at the Fun-Police Academy, or is it, perhaps, a self-selecting vocation? It's a mystery, for sure, but lately I've been thinking that maybe it has something to do with the millennium, because, earthly virtues aside, Vegas does have its eschatological moments.

I remember a blue, summer evening about a week after my wife and I came to town. We were cruising down The Strip listening to loud music on the car radio when, kaboom! this operatic desert thunderstorm exploded all around us. The rain crashed down in sheets, engulfing everything. Light from the setting sun continued to banner in over the mountains, spangling through the plunging water. The Strip seethed and sizzled around us like a neon flash fire, colours bleeding on the windshield. Mile-high lightening trees crackled down the blue-black curve of the southern sky, and then, as if to summon up the dead, this heart-stopping clap of thunder... magically synchronised with the opening chords of Pink Floyd playing 'The Wall' on the car radio. That, I can assure you, was pretty apocalyptic and pretty exciting, too, but I didn't get worried about it. All I though was 'Home at Last!'

But that's just me. Other cultural speculators, I've found, invariably come to Vegas for a reason other than gambling, dining, drinking, dancing, smoking and, hopefully, wandering through the rose-coloured dawn with a roll of hundreds in one's shirt pocket and a cocktail in one's hand. These dudes have documentary projects, research grants, and magazine assignments. That's what they tell you, although I am virtually certain that each of them fears that this is not the real reason for their pilgrimage - that they are, in truth, being lured into the neon cauldron by some deeper and possibly fatal attraction, as Gladstone was drawn to the whores. They step onto the Strip as Gladstone stepped into brothels - hysterically en garde. They will not gamble and they will not tip, because gambling and tipping are voluntary and, after their first act of volition, well, you know: le deluge! Soon they become annoyed that not-gambling and not-tipping is their responsibility - that they could be gambling and they should be tipping and they would be if only... and this flicker of temptation initiates worry about their money. They imagine it flying away, evaporation, but this embarrasses them, so they start worrying about other people's money - the money of those less en garde who are good-naturedly gambling and tipping all around them. Then, they envision all humankind betting on a tumbling die. Then, they start worrying about Las Vegas.

Twenty minutes later, I meet them for a drink, but the payoff comes late in the evening. We are standing around over at the Hard Rock as a Nine Inch Nails concert is letting out, or a Ray Charles concert, or an Eric Burden concert, even. People stream around us in noisy bunches, laughing, lighting cigarettes and sloshing drinks. Wired and fairly bouncing, they wade out into the casino floor like a boarding party of pirates, yanking out their wallets and ready to win a fucking bizillion at the tables. When the surge of the crowd has passed us, dispersing into the fête, my visiting scribe from the North looks solemnly at me, seeking eye contact. When I look back, he shakes his head wistfully and, almost on the verge of tears, says: 'it's a kind of despair, isn't it Dave?' I just say no and suggest this place that has great calamari.

Visiting architects, I should note, are desperate creatures themselves, so that they do not harp on despair. They wring their hands like my great aunt Florence and exclaim, 'it's so distracting! It's so distracting!' They always say this twice for some reason, and I always say, 'from what?' although I know: Vegas distracts them from the comfortable, narcissistic state of inner contemplation that is the human's spirit's last refuge from the Arctic deprivations of 'serious architecture' - but what the hell, that's okay too. Certainly, it's preferable to the visiting art student from Berlin who actually burst into tears as the Dunes exploded in front of her, crying out plaintively that she was in Hell! Hell! So here's what I have in mind: since I take no pleasure in the distress and worry visited upon fellow members of the cultural community by the experience of mi barrio, I have prepared some observations and suggestions that may save you worry and, possibly, a trip.

First, be assured that you do not have to gamble to have fun in Las Vegas (although you really should tip). If, however, you are not, in some sense, a gambler, if you take no pleasure in risking something of value on the chance of something more still, Vegas will be totally opaque to you so you should probably stay home. Vegas is a gambling town. That's all it is, from edge to edge and top to bottom. Its laws are normal laws but its rules are gambling-town rules, which I share with you as they were enumerated for me by Dr. Herb 'Speedy' Newman, a retired smuggler and 'sports investor' with whom I breakfast occasionally at the Bagelmania Deli down on Twain. Speedy was 81 last month, but he is still bright as a minnow, sharp enough to make a living betting hoops, and he loves Las Vegas.

'And Vegas' he told me years ago, 'got just three rules: No Sissies. No Dummies. Full Accountability. By which, I mean, if you want to swim in this pond, you got to have the cojones to bet, you got to have the brains to bet right, and you got to have the honour to pay off when you lose.' Speedy refrains from mentioning the unspoken rule - the one that underpins his practical axioms. He doesn't mention it because one refrains from mentioning the name of God, but it accounts for his lightness and brightness at 81. That rule is simply this: you have to believe in the future - because the future is always what you're betting on. You calculate the odds, take the chance and pay your debts because gambling is an optimist's vocation, and tomorrow is always out there in the filigree of statistical alternatives with a brand new shuffle.

That's why I live in Las Vegas. After languishing for 30 years in the cultural ghetto, breathing its miasma of wan pessimism, absorbing its rhetoric of inevitable decline, moral helplessness and ineluctable historical logic, I just wanted to hang out where people actually did things on their own dime, right or wrong, brave or foolish. So here is my best advice: if you don't like the action, go to Boston. Don't come out here to Vegas and whine to me about global warming, existential despair, creeping totalitarianism, and proliferating late Capitalism. I see the same world you do, so if you want to swim in this pond, take your measure, quote me some odds, pull out your bankroll and let's fucking bet. I may lose, but if I should win and we're all still here tomorrow, we can bet again. That will be exciting.