Saturday, 23 May 2015

New Orleans After Dark: A Journey Into Southern Decadence

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“This decaying city has a hypnotic aspect that leads me through its streets ...” City of Night. John Rechy, 1963

“I was drawn to New Orleans’ decaying beauty, ripe with overgrown vegetation which both blossomed and rotted in the very same breath ... spellbound by the decadent architecture, the elaborate sprinkling of wrought iron balconies ...” Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. Lydia Lunch, 1997

A riot of revelry, romance and roaring laughter seen mid historical hotspots in the city that care forgot - New Orleans! (Note: this blog represents the second installment of my April 2015 US trip, picking up the action from my earlier Viva Las Vegas 2015 posting) 

Monday 6 April 2015

I arrived in the torrid voodoo realm of New Orleans ‘round midnight, sun-baked, dehydrated, chap-lipped and hung-over. My friend Kevin met me at the airport and drove me to his place in Mid-City. My first glimpse of New Orleans was by night, the car zipping past ghostly Southern Gothic architecture, weeping willows and moon-lit tombstones. I crashed-out on Kevin’s sofa and slept like a corpse straight through until Tuesday morning.

Tuesday 7 April 2015


New Orleans ... After Dark!

Kevin shares my affection for Liz Renay - burlesque performer, B-movie actress, naive outsider artist, gangster’s moll, authoress of trashy volumes of memoirs like My Face for the World to See and My First 2000 Men and all-round super vixen. She’ll forever be remembered as the petulant lesbian murderess Muffy St Jacques in the 1977 John Waters film Desperate Living. Kevin has her full literary canon. (Check out his atomic-era chrome and formica kitchen table!) /

During the day Kevin took me sight-seeing by car, exploring neighbourhoods Mid-City (where he’s based), the Treme, Faubourg Marigny, Garden District, Uptown and the French Quarter. New Orleans’ humidity made me swoon like a southern belle. (Rest assured I channeled the demented melancholy of a Tennessee Williams heroine the whole time I was there).

Sampling New Orleans’ unique regional cuisine was a priority. The first thing I ate in New Orleans was dense, smoky Cajun jambalaya (with a side of fried pickles – as addictive as hits off a crack pipe) at local diner Liuzza's by the Track in Mid-City. I was practically purring with pleasure. (One of the waitresses was drinking a Tab. I haven’t seen a can of Tab since the 1980s).  


New Orleans ... After Dark!


From there we drove past the stately, gracious old-money historic mansions in St Charles Avenue and Esplanade Avenue. Some even had pillars in the front, like Tara in Gone with the Wind. But even New Orleans’ more modest architecture is distinctive and fascinating: I want to live in a lavender, sea shell pink or sea foam aqua house. Even the shotgun shacks looked alluring to me.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Me gurning amidst the crypts of Lafayette Cemetery. (In every single photo taken there, I'm chewing a wasp. Seriously. This was the best one) /

What else to wear when prowling amidst decaying crypts but a Vampira t-shirt? (Ed Wood’s working title for Plan 9 from Outer Space was Grave Robbers from Outer Space, after all). This is the historic Lafayette Cemetery No 1 in The Garden City - famous from the LSD hippie freak-out scene in the film Easy Rider (1969). (A quick Google search now verifies I’m wrong and that scene was filmed at another New Orleans graveyard, St. Louis Cemetery No 1. I was invoking the spirit of Karen Black nonetheless). Kevin pointed out to me the “voodoo offerings” left on some of the graves. How fascinating! Authentic voodoo rituals in twenty first century New Orleans! When I asked who actually practices this, his disillusioning reply was, “Mainly white women” – which conjured images of fried Courtney Love or Steve Nicks-style hippie mamas with perms wearing tie dye sundresses.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Catholic kitsch at Lafayette Cemetery No 1 /

Speaking of voodoo, back in Mid-City, I bought some candles at F&F Botanica, an authentic Puerto Rican voodoo emporium. I will be officially converting to the Santeria religion next.  (My Brazilian ex-boyfriend used to tell me about Candomblé, the Brazilian variation of Santeria). I yearned to take a photo of the spectacular display of giant kitsch plaster of Paris statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Yemoja that greet you as you enter, but was afraid of seeming disrespectful. This is a place for genuine voodoo practitioners, after all. The friendly sales assistant behind the counter complimented my Vampira t-shirt and he and Kevin quickly established they both know horror author (and long-time New Orleans resident) Poppy Z Brite (who now lives as a trans man, re-named Billy Martin). In retrospect, he probably would have let me take a photo.


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/The voodoo candles I bought at F&F Botanica in New Orleans on the left. The skull glass is a Viva Las Vegas souvenir from a few years ago (everything tastes better drunk from a skull) /

Afterwards we knocked-back late-afternoon beers at Pal’s Lounge, a nicely atmospheric and laid-back little Mid-City dive bar. At one point the sassy female bartender referred to me as "sweet tits” (while asking me to flip the sign in the front door from “Closed” to “Open”). Thus christened, I felt like I had truly arrived in New Orleans.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Exterior of Pal's Lounge just before it opened for the day /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ The men's room of Pal's is entirely papered in vintage Russ Meyer-esque Playboy centre-folds. I liked Miss October best! /

That night we had dinner and cocktails at the mondo exotica BeachbumBerry's Latitude 29 Tiki lounge at The Bienville House Hotel in the French Quarter. My potent Mai Tai arrived with a sprig of mint and a hibiscus flower floating on top.


New Orleans ... After Dark!


En route to Latitude 29 we cut through the tourist trap end of Bourbon Street which the travel guides urge you to avoid. Talk about squalor! I caught a glimpse of a wino with a sun-dried scabby face weaving down the street towards me. He was shirtless and had scrawled on his stomach with a black Sharpie “Can you suck this?” with an arrow pointing crotch-wards. Hey, sometimes the direct approach works. Vive le sleaze!

We explored the French Quarter on foot, Kevin pointing out the apartment building where Tennessee Williams once lived. (Williams called New Orleans his “spiritual home” and of course many of his plays are set there). We downed more beers at punk-y bar and music venue One Eyed Jacks. I loved the black velvet “nudie cutie” paintings in gilt frames, flocked crimson wallpaper and vintage brothel-style decor.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Above and below: bordello decor at One Eyed Jacks /

New Orleans ... After Dark!


From there we well and truly sampled New Orleans low life at The Double Play and The Corner Pocket (both known to be personal favourites of John Waters when he visits New Orleans – is there any higher recommendation?). Sampled? “Luxuriated” or even “wallowed” would be more apt. I like my low life low and both places lived down to my expectations. The Double Play is a stark, hard-edged dive bar straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.  Its clientele is primarily trans prostitutes, junkies, teenage male hustlers in the Joe Dallesandro Trash tradition and the chicken hawk older men who love them.  Try to imagine where the present-day versions of Tralala or drag queen prostitute Georgette from Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn would cadge drinks. In a jaw-dropping understatement the website Gay New Orleans.com describes The Double Play as “a rather "wild" neighbourhood bar that is frequented by every kind of person imaginable. Whatever is your scene, you'll find companions here.” Sweetly, the mature white grandpa making out with a mocha-skinned black kid straight out of his teens had certainly found his kind of companion. The tough-as-nails characters and anything-could-happen atmosphere at The Double Play was enthralling. If I lived in New Orleans, I’d be there soaking up the ambiance every weekend.


New Orleans ... After Dark!


The Corner Pocket was reportedly the inspiration for the squalid gay bar The Fudge Palace in Waters’ 1998 movie Pecker. If you've seen that film you’ll know what to anticipate: a stable of cute rough trade gay-for-pay / heteroflexible tattooed go-go boys in their underwear “dance”, crotch-thrust and twerk on the bar-top with their candy jiggling right at your eye-level.  The tradition is to cram $1 bills down the waistband of the dancers’ underwear and enjoy a quick grope in the process. (It’s bad etiquette to sit at the bar and not do this). I didn't actually witness any tea-bagging, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was on the menu.  A hardboiled Corner Pocket regular seated next to me filled me in on the ropes: the boys’ shifts finish at 3 am. If you want one of them to leave with you before then, slip the bartender $30. The going rate to spend the night with a Corner Pocket go-go dancer is $200. You can find their online profiles on rentboy.com. Anyway, the semi-naked guys (a wide variety of types, some perhaps a bit stoned) were friendly and adorable (why oh why hasn't Bruce Weber swooped down to shoot these beauties for an edgy homoerotic L'Uomo Vogue fashion shoot or a Boys of The Corner Pocket calendar? I would buy it!) and The Corner Pocket is a deliciously rancid good time. Photography is understandably strictly verboten there but check out the Corner Pocket’s regularly-updated Facebook page for shots of the dancers.


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/ Typical view from the bar of The Corner Pocket: I swiped this pic from their Facebook page. I definitely remember this diminutive Mohawked heartthrob from when Kevin and I visited /

At both The Double Play and The Corner pocket I felt like I was living John Rechy's novel City of Night and I reveled in it. The French Quarter gay bars Rechy cites by name (The Rocking Times, Les Petits, Sandy-Vees’s, Cindy’s, Les Deux Freres) are lost to the mists of time, but otherwise the New Orleans gay scene is remarkably unchanged since he chronicled his restless beatnik bar-hopping, S&M hustling misadventures and transvestite encounters in 1963.  In 2015 in London every last vestige of sleaze have been well and truly stamped-out. It was gratifying to see proper old-school filth still thrives in modern vice city New Orleans.

Wednesday 8 April

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/ I suspect this Eric Stanton illustration depicts documentary realism of what New Orleans looks like during Mardi Gras /

On my second full day in New Orleans I wilted in the sun and got fed-up with throngs of slow-moving, mouth-breathing bovine tourists in the French Quarter. (Yes, I know I'm a tourist, too - but a fast-walking and impatient one!). Kevin warned me the annual French Quarter Festival would begin while I was in town and to anticipate a crush of people arriving. He wasn't kidding: when I got on the streetcar on Canal Street it was groaning with people and the Quarter was much more difficult to negotiate.  The French Quarter Fest is relatively small-scale – I can’t imagine how New Orleans residents cope during Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ French Quarter architecture /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Above and below: ultra-kitsch window display at Head Quarters on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter. (Think: The Lipstick Beauty Salon in the John Waters film Female Trouble). Kevin gets his hair cut here /

New Orleans ... After Dark!


I’d intended to eat lunch at the historic Napoleon House in the French Quarter, but it was packed-solid (a coach load of senior citizen tourists arrived just moments before me) so I gave up. Starving and annoyed, I backtracked to The Clover Grill to drink some black coffee and eat French fries to tide me over in the meantime. A kitsch Jayne Mansfield-sugar-pink-hued retro diner (operational since 1939), Clover Grill is open 24-hours and a regular haunt for drunk and hungry late-night gay clubbers craving grease and carbs.  The list of requests in menu - “We don’t eat in your bed; please don’t sleep at our table”. “No talking to yourself.” “Keep both hands on the table” - hints at the raucous behaviour of their average patron.  Sadly, there were no tipsy drag queens still wearing last night’s make-up while I was there: just an average mid-Western looking family at the next table.


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/ The Clover Grill on Bourbon Street. (I didn't take this shot myself! Got it via ) /

A friend recommended I drink at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in the French Quarter. The history of the tavern is certainly fascinating: the building – a low-ceilinged brick cottage – dates back to the 18th century,  is one of the oldest surviving structures in New Orleans and is reportedly one of the oldest operating bars in the US.  It was cool and dark in there, but the ultra-straight crowd wasn't terribly inspiring and the loud 1980s mainstream rock music (U2, Guns’N’Roses) meant I couldn't finish my beer and depart fast enough.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Interior of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop /

Next I sank another beer just a few doors away at the much more simpatico Cafe Lafitte in Exile. It’s a pretty unexceptional middle-of-the-road gay bar today, but it’s also an LGBT historical landmark: the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the country. The likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were regulars in the 1950s. Apparently the balcony is beautiful, but when I was there it was daytime and it was shut, unfortunately. Big video screens above the bar play pop videos: judging by the content (“No More Drama” by Mary J Blige, Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love”) the playlist hasn't been refreshed in at least fifteen years. No matter: the bartender was friendly, the patrons were boozy and mellow and the beer was frosty.

Re-tracing my steps, I finally managed to eat my first muffuletta (to a soundtrack of soaring classical music) at the elegant shabby-chic Napoleon House. It was orgasmic and worth the wait. When I was paying the bill the waiter clocked my accent and asked where I was from. Weirdly, when I explained I was Canadian but a long-term UK resident, he suddenly turned lascivious and started aggressively inquiring what Canadian girls and British girls are like. Yikes! I politely made my excuses and split.

New Orleans ... After Dark!


/ Muffuletta sandwich (a New Orleans delicacy) at the historic Napoleon House in the French Quarter /

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/ Hoochie mama! Chris Owens in her youth /

Burlesque showgirl, chanteuse, nightclub proprietoress and plastic surgery enthusiast Chris Owens – still sporting hot- pants and kinky boots and crotch-thrusting  onstage at 83-years old – has been a local celebrity and fixture in New Orleans since the early 1960s. Kevin and I contemplated going to Owens’ club in The French Quarter where she still regularly performs but didn't make it unfortunately. Her website (which looks like it hasn't been updated since the 1990s) shrieks in upper-case some pretty remarkable claims:  “CHRIS OWENS is a SINGING AND DANCING INTERNATIONAL SENSATION! Her performance is the MOST ELECTRIFYING ONE-WOMAN SHOW ON THE ENTERTAINMENT SCENE today, set to such musical genres as jazz, blues, rock, country western, top 40 variety and international, to name a few. She is a DAZZLING, TALKING, SINGING, DANCING, SPARKLING, EXPLOSION OF PERPETUAL MOTION. Her glowing personality and high-energy performance sweep the audience right into the tempo of the show. Those that have been entertained by CHRIS OWENS never tire of her and KEEP COMING BACK FOR MORE, NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, WEEK AFTER WEEK!” Who could possibly resist that? Apparently Owens sprinkles her Vegas-style lounge act with covers of Lady GaGa, Shania Twain and Jennifer Lopez songs to keep contemporary. I’ll make investigating it a priority if I return to New Orleans. But I did snap this wildly idealised statue of a maracas-wielding La Owens at the New Orleans Musical Legends Park. She’s in good company, surrounded by statues of luminaries like Louis Prima and Fats Domino.


New Orleans ... After Dark!


That night Kevin and I went to Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge in Uptown. We were joined by Pete, the brains behind superb vintage homo porn tumblr blog Cultural Dictionary of Dick (do not click this link if you're at work!). When I learned he was based in New Orleans I grabbed the opportunity to hang out with him (and pour some beers down his neck). Snake and Jake’s is surely one of the world's greatest dive bars. For one thing - it's located in a dilapidated shack! It's permanently pitch-black inside, lit only by red fairy lights. (In fact they’re Christmas tree lights. There are Christmas decorations up all year, hence the name). Snake and Jake's looks just like something out of Mortville, the derelict criminal shanty town in John Waters' 1977 lesbian punk film Desperate Living.  (Snake even boasts a raspy-voiced, swear-y butch female bartender in the Mole McHenry tradition). It's actually situated in quite a nice and affluent residential area - the neighbours must be horrified by it. The smoking ban is only just now taking effect in New Orleans so that means Snake and Jake’s patrons will basically be standing around and smoking right in residents' front yards until the early hours - which might prove awkward. As you can see from above pic, the exterior looks tiny (and bear in mind I'm only 5'6"!).  But once you're inside Snake and Jake's it doesn't feel exceptionally cramped or low-ceilinged. The graffiti-scrawled men's room was like something out of CBGBs.


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Me outside Snake and Jake's Christmas Lounge by daylight (before it had actually opened) /

New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Me inside Snake and Jake's - truly one of the happiest places on earth /


New Orleans ... After Dark!

/ Canine customers at Snake and Jake's /

Thursday 9 April

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/ Atomic-era vintage sleaze on Bourbon Street. I would love to have caught "The Cat Girl" Lilly Christine's act! /

By my last full day in New Orleans I had indulged in so much day-time bar-hopping in the French Quarter I was starting to recognise the faces of the winos, wizened barflies and rent boys when I passed them on the street. (I spotted one particularly cute scruffily-bearded, sandy-haired young hustler I'd seen playing pool at The Double Play on Tuesday night walking past Cafe Lafitte in Exile holding hands with a man old enough to be his grandfather- truly another City of Night moment).

Committed to ticking New Orleans culinary specialties off one-by-one, I ate gumbo at Eat New Orleans on Dauphine Street. It was heavenly. (By then I'd already devoured a shrimp po'boy. I left New Orleans having never managed to eat red beans and rice or a beignet or drink a Sazerac - another reason to come back!).

Afterwards I sank a beer at trashy compact gay bar The Golden Lantern (dubbed “The Golden Latrine” by locals).  It’s known for hosting drag performances by night. Of course I was there in the daytime – but I did pass the sparkly little stage en route to men’s room. I also paid one last visit to the Double Play – nicely shabby and peeling by daylight.

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/ Above: this campy homoerotic poster hangs in the men's room of The Golden Lantern, probably intact since the 1970s or 80s. Weirdly enough, this picture cropped up on my tumblr feed a few weeks later / 

That night Pete and I went to Paulie’s Pub and Restaurant, a weird little queer punk bar where they were blasting surf music at ear-splitting volume. (In my dreams Paulie's would have made an ideal Lobotomy Room venue).

Friday 10 April

I flew back to London that afternoon.  En route to the airport the affable cab driver confided his life story. He came to New Orleans from Pakistan thirty years earlier and now couldn't imagine living anywhere else. He was displaced by Hurricane Katrina but returned as quickly as he possibly could. He swore to me I’d revisit. “Once you've been to New Orleans, you’ll definitely come back.” He may well be right. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

Las Vegas Grind! Viva Las Vegas 2015

Viva Las Vegas 2015 flyer by Vince Ray


To paraphrase Jake Gyllenhaal in Broke Back Mountain, “Viva Las Vegas – I wish I knew how to quit you!” I've been attending the annual rockabilly weekender off and on since 2003. This was my first time there since 2013. Every year I vow it will be my last. The cost is prohibitive.  The hours of travelling and jet-lag is grueling (Vegas isn't a major flight hub, so the plane tickets alone are ruinously expensive and there are no direct flights).  I've also gone so frequently over the years by now I can argue I've well and truly done the Viva Las Vegas experience and really should be exploring new unfamiliar cities. And yet – when the time rolls around again, I find I can’t resist the siren call of Viva Las Vegas. The bands, the pool parties, the car shows, the beer-fueled revelry, the garish neon-lit kitsch appeal of Vegas itself and its sun-drenched weather.  And best of all, reuniting with the American friends I've made over the years that I only see at Viva Las Vegas. It’s freaking irresistible!

Thursday 2 April 2015

I arrived in Las Vegas late Wednesday night (the night before Viva Las Vegas) and collapsed in my room at The Orleans Hotel and Casino (the venue for Viva Las Vegas itself. The rooms sell out a full year in advance). Arriving in Vegas it’s always intriguing to see the huge ads promoting the dimly-remembered washed-up pop acts headlining at the casinos: The Osmonds, Olivia Newton-John, comedians like Andrew Dice-Clay and Carrot Top. Vegas is a weird parallel universe where has-beens are still in demand and make a lucrative living.

Viva Las Vegas 2015

/ My friend and “travelling companion” New Orleans-based journalist and bon vivant Kevin from and I at the Hooch and Smooch bathed in shocking pink lighting. Don’t we look just like Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon in the ultimate modern Las Vegas movie, Showgirls? /

Thursday was low-key, catching up with friends at the Hooch and Smooch gathering in the Bienville Room. (The Hooch and Smooch pre-VLV shindig is organised annually by the vivacious Sweetpea, Seattle’s doyenne of rockabilly). VLV is people-watching heaven: you see the best and the worst of rockabilly looks (it’s a good reminder what a broad church rockabilly is in the twenty first century). At its best, imagine John Water’s 1990 juvenile delinquent musical Cry-baby bursting into to life. Striking tattooed Russ Meyer-esque super-vixens straight out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! stride past while the more generously-proportioned big girls evoke Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad or Divine as a young Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble.  One particularly striking guy we kept bumping into over the weekend was a cadaverously pale and wolfish Lux Interior-type clad in black PVC fetish wear. Afterwards Kevin and I agreed we regretted not striking up a friendship with him.


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/ Dance-floor action with Sweetpea /

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/ Mitch from NYC with the amazing steel-grey hair and I /

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/ Fun couple: Natelle and Sharon from Vancouver /

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/ Heather from Hawaii and Kevin (photobombed by Rich). We decided the platinum blonde Heather was a dead ringer for Karen Black in Day of the Locust /

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/ Rich from Seattle and I /

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/ My official "Vegas Face": for the record, I'm not wasted here - it just took ages for Rick to take the photo and then the flash went off in my eyes /

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/ With Sheilah from Seattle at The Orleans' Mexican restaurant. Note the Tura Satana lookalike seated at the table behind her /

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/ Glamorous redhead /

Wiped out by daytime drinking and the trans-Atlantic time difference, I was asleep by about 12:30 am.

Friday 3 April 2015

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/ Three troublemakers: Coffee with Little E (from San Francisco), Sheilah (from Seattle. Check out her vintage bakelite bracelets) and Kel (from Australia) /

It’s got to be said – the vendors at this year’s Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend were a bit disappointing.  One of my priorities was buying a new biker cap from My Baby Jo. I bought my current dark charcoal grey – almost black – one from them in 2013. This time I wanted a pale grey cap like Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One. The My Baby Jo stall wasn't even there this year!  On the plus side it saved me a lot of wedge! 

One of my best purchases was this Vampira t-shirt. Mysteriously emblazoned with the word “GET”, it features a blood-dripping self-portrait by morbidly beautiful 1950s horror movie hostess Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) herself. Definitive glamour ghoul Nurmi (1922 – 2008) originally designed these and sold them at personal appearances in the early 1980s when her notorious Ed Wood Jr-directed 1959 film Plan 9 from Outer Space was re-discovered and she was being embraced as a cult figure by punks, Goths and psychobillies. Obviously this t-shirt was pretty hard to acquire in the first place and by now has long been out of circulation – until now! Lance Thingmaker has lovingly reproduced it and I was able to snap one up at VLV. 

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/ Youthful Lux Interior of The Cramps (with Poison Ivy) wearing his original Vampira t-shirt circa the early 80s /

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/ My new reproduction of the Vampira t-shirt /

It’s physically impossible to see all the performers who play Viva over the weekend. The best bands are the ones with interpretive skills who bring an edge or distinctive twist on rockabilly. God save me from “musicianship” or tasteful blues rock or too many guitar solos (or drum solos. Or bass solos). Particularly disappointing was The Chop Tops playing their last-ever show at Viva. They’re not a band I’m terribly au fait with but after twenty years together their farewell performance was obviously a momentous occasion. Perversely The Chop Tops opted to pad-out their set with lacklustre special guests. Mario Valens (brother of Ritchie Valens) and Chantilly Lace Vincent (granddaughter of Gene Vincent) definitively demonstrated that charisma and musical talent aren't inherited genes. Bobby Brooks Wilson (son of the late soul legend Jackie Wilson) had earlier proved that separately as well.

My personal favourites this year spiked proceedings with a snarling, hungry punk edge: Little Mo and The Unholy Four. Nashville’s Hillbilly Casino. Werewolf-sideburned Liverpudlian teddy boy trio Furious. Sean Coleman and The Quasars – the front man’s feral rasp sounded like he was gargling razor blades.

All of us who saw Hillbilly Casino Friday afternoon were blown away. It felt like a genuine aggressive punk gig overlaid with a white trash trailer park aesthetic. (Bizarrely, the VLV schedule summarised Hillbilly Casino as "Where Elvis meets Van Halen"!). At the end their stand-up bassist (a burly guy with a tattooed neck) urged us all to buy their new CD: “I have four children – and they need cigarettes.”

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/ Nic Roulette of Hillbilly Casino /

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Hillbilly Casino’s wired, roaring front man Nic Roulette looked like he’d stepped out of a vintage Athletic Model Guild beefcake photo shoot and was totally commanding onstage. But what a piece of work! Some background: for years Viva’s main sponsor was Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. More recently it’s sponsored by Budweiser instead. Onstage Roulette angrily gestured at the gigantic Budweiser backdrop behind him, went into a tirade about how much preferred Pabst and made a big display of cracking-open a can of Pabst from his own personal stash and swigging from it in defiance. A day later I bumped into him in the men’s room (I was coming in as he was going out). I made the mistake of saying how much I liked his set. Roulette glared at the can of Budweiser in my hand and sneered, “You liked it? And you’re drinking that can of shit?”  I was taken aback by his rage and was waiting for him to say he was joking – but he wasn't. Lost for words, I shrugged and said, “Yeah, but Bud is cheap!” Roulette screamed, “Pabst is only $2.00!” and stormed out. Kevin pointed out later that in fact Pabst wasn't even on sale at any of the VLV bars all weekend – the only reason this guy was drinking it was because he’d snuck in his own. Anyway – what a wackjob. But that doesn't stop Hillbilly Casino from being my favourite new discovery of VLV 2015.


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/ Kevin, Rich and Sheilah /

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/ King of Kitsch: The Charles Phoenix Vintage Slideshow is always essential. You can't see it from this shot, but he's on roller skates here /

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/ The suave Patrick and I /

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/ Patrick and beehived friend /

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The kitsch curiosity of VLV this year was an appearance by former child star Aileen Quinn - the erstwhile curly-haired moppet who played the lead role in the sugary 1982 musical Annie. Now in her forties, in recent years Quinn has apparently re-invented herself as a redheaded rockabilly chanteuse, backed by a band called The Leapin' Lizards. We all made a beeline for her set at Brendan’s Irish pub. 

Quinn couldn't have been sweeter or more gracious when we ambushed her for photos before she went onstage, but it’s got to be said that – in spite of her powerful belting voice - she seemingly doesn't have much feeling for rockabilly and her grizzled veteran musicians weren't terribly engaging. We split after about three songs. 
  
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/ Gingers unite! Aileen Quinn and I /

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/ Aileen Quinn onstage with her Leapin' Lizards. Photo by Sheilah /

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/ Rafael and Lisa: It was great having a reunion with Lisa, who's re-located from San Francisco to Los Angeles since I've last seen her /

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/ Lisa, Rafael and I. I had misgivings about this low "double chin special" angle Kevin was taking in this shot. He said he was going for a Cramps-style vibe /

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/ Lisa (channeling Veronica Lake) and Patrick /

Saturday 4 April 2015

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/ Prime kitsch for sale at car show vendors /

The day of the car show equals instant sunburn. I was quite literally a redneck for the rest of Viva Las Vegas. I’d be lying if I claimed to know anything at all about vintage cars, but they sure are pretty. The VLV car show is probably the biggest and best in the world and the impeccably restored titty pink (sorry, Jayne Mansfield pink) Fifties convertibles with sharp fins exert a mesmeric attraction.

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/ Elvis impersonator at the car show (performing wedding ceremonies!) /

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/ More car show kitsch: Mexican Day of the Dead Elvis /

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/ This baby doll customised with Dolly Parton tits is just so wrong /

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/ Cadaverous hand peeping out of car at car show: someone called CSI: Las Vegas! /

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Grotesque Marilyn Monroe mannequin with her arms seemingly wrenched out of their sockets /

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/ Me knocking back a zombie in the gloom of Frankie's Tiki Room /

After the car show Kevin and I jumped into a cab and headed downtown. For me, cocktail lounge Frankie’s Tiki Room has always been heaven on earth and virtually worth the cost of the plane ticket to Vegas alone. Visiting it is always one of the highlights of the Viva Las Vegas trip. I love the exquisite atomic-era bamboo Tiki decor, the dim mood lighting (so dark it takes your eyes a moment to adjust when you first enter), one of the hippest jukeboxes in the world (think mondo exotica, surf instrumentals and punk) and potent tropical cocktails. My blood pressure instantly lowers just thinking about Frankie’s.

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/ My zombie /

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/ Kevin's Three Dots and a Dash /

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/ Bamboo Tiki decor at Frankie's. I didn't capture the painting very well: it depicts a devilish Vincent Prince knocking up a sinister cocktail /

Feeling considerably refreshed (I drank a zombie and Kevin had a Three Dots and a Dash), we weaved blinking back into the sunlight to unsteadily explore downtown “old Vegas”. After years of neglect, the neighbourhood has had an injection of cash and a pretty dramatic face lift.  Hip little bars and restaurants have suddenly proliferated and it feels lively and thriving. We kept it old school by eating lunch at the historic El Cortez Hotel and Casino, the oldest continuously-operating casino left in Vegas. Considering how keen Vegas is to erase every last vestige of its history it’s miraculous the El Cortez has escaped the bulldozers (it’s been intact since 1941. At one point one of its owners was Bugsy Siegel).  With its slightly threadbare decor, slow pace and hushed, preserved-in-amber old folk’s home vibe, the El Cortez is far more interesting than the huge, soulless modern casinos.  As we split the El Cortez, we glimpsed withered senior citizens and aggressively tattooed twenty-something hipsters drinking and gambling side-by-side – very much the ambiance of Old Vegas now. I approve!

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/ Downtown Las Vegas /

Re-visiting Atomic Liquors and Cocktails for the first time in years was less rewarding. From my first time at VLV in 2003 onward I always used to swing by for a few drinks when in town. (Back then you had to ring the buzzer to gain entry – to keep the crackheads out). The sixty-year old bar shut in 2011 when the owners retired – but then re-opened under new ownership in 2013. Glad as I am to see it operational again (and that the spectacular original neon sign is intact), sadly the new management went way too far renovating the interior.  What used to be a seedy, hard-boiled dive bar straight out of an Edward Hopper painting or a Charles Bukowski novel is pretty anonymous, generic and atmosphere-free now. I wish them luck, but think I prefer to remember Atomic Liquors the way it was.


Atomic Liquors

/ I took this shot of the original grittier Atomic Liquor and Cocktails in 2006 /

That night Kevin and I (accompanied by Mitch) went off-site again for Pia Zadora’s one-woman cabaret revue "Pia Reloaded" at Piero's Italian Cuisine for an evening of unadulterated old-school Vegas show biz schmaltz. The 61-year old queen of terrible, terrible movies beloved by John Waters belted and purred jazz standards clad in tiny black leather hot pants (she wrapped herself in a feather boa for “The Lady is a Tramp”). Virtually every song climaxed with a triumphant Shirley Bassey-style fist-in-the air finale. It could have been the compulsory two-drink minimum (my Negroni sure packed a kick), but Pia’s between-song banter was hilarious and so, so wrong. Surveying the plush surroundings of Piero’s, Pia rhetorically asked, “Doesn't this place take you back to the Old Vegas of Frank, Dino and Sammy?” Um – no? In fact Pia never missed an opportunity to drop Frank Sinatra's name. "Many women have opened for Frank, but I actually opened for him in concert!" she giggled. She invited us to drink up – “don’t worry; Bill Cosby didn't mix the cocktails!” Reflecting that The Riveria casino is the latest casualty to face the wrecking ball, she admitted, “How could I not admire an erection that’s lasted sixty years?”  Pre-show we spotted the compact, kittenish and apparently ageless Pia wandering around the restaurant greeting friends and conferring with Piero’s staff, looking distracted. Kevin had brought a DVD cover for her to autograph (and even his own Sharpie). All three of us were poised in a state of cat-like readiness to pounce for a red-hot photo opportunity with her. Sadly the hoped for post-show meet and greet with Pia never materialised:  her set just seemed to go on and on. After over two hours of Pia breathlessly re-interpreting the great American songbook and with no end in sight, we capitulated and headed back to VLV. Ah, well. Gossip columnist Michael Musto recently called Pia “spunk personified.” She is indeed Zadorable.

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/ My shot of Pia belting it out /

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/ Kevin's shot of Pia. Those hotpants are virtually lederhosen /

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/ Mitch and I at "Pia Reloaded." That Negroni got me smashed. Note the (faux?) Warhol portrait of Pia behind us /

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/ Back at VLV post-Pia: Andre and Jr from Los Angeles and I /

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/ Veteran rockabilly diva Marti Brom. She sang a great cover of Patsy Cline's "Never No More" /

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/ Sharon and Natelle /

Sunday 5 April 2015

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/ Beefcake ahoy! Rich, Little E and Patrick modelling their vintage cabana suits /

Drinking spicy Bloody Marys at the shimmering, sun-kissed pool party was a dreamy way to ease into the last day of VLV. The soundtrack of deep, rumbling ominous surf-noir was courtesy of Canadian band The Cavaleros.

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/ Little E and Sheilah /

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/ Mitch. Check out those gams! /

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/ Bathing beauties in gold lamé /

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/ Kevin and I /

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/ Patrick's Easter bunny ears /

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/ The mighty surf instro band The Cavaleros  /

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/ The glamorous Kel /

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/ This sassy Ruben-esque redhead and joyous Jayne Mansfield-style exhibitionist had the best bathing suit at the pool party. My shot doesn't do it full justice: it's mostly flesh-coloured mesh and from a distance she looked virtually naked, especially from behind! /

1960s garage punk legends The Sonics headlined Sunday night and were a decidedly mixed bag. When they played mediocre new “classic raaawk” songs from their recent comeback album This is the Sonics (their first of new material in almost five decades) Kevin compared it to Bob Seeger or a tired bar band. But then they’d savagely tear into their furious 1960s gravest hits (“Psycho”, “Strychnine”, “Have Love Will Travel”, “Boss Hoss”) and it was spine-tingling punk perfection.  Gerry Roslie’s shredding screams on “The Witch” made my eyes water. I was shuddering in ecstasy!

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/ The Sonics /

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/ Official last photo of Viva Las Vegas 2015: Mark (front-man of awesome Liverpool teddy boy trio Furious) and I at Brendan's Irish pub /

Monday 6 April

The day after VLV was pretty much a downer.  My flight for New Orleans wasn't until that night so I had almost a whole day to kill (on my own, because almost all my friends had already split). I had breakfast with Mitch.  Read by the pool (it was sunny but windy so not very tempting to linger). Hit a few bars in “the fruit loop” (Vegas’ pretty desultory gay district) and drank a beer at the nicely dingy graffiti-scarred punk dive / "clubhouse for the lunatic fringe" The Double Down Saloon. My next ripped-bare installment will pick up from torrid New Orleans.

Further reading:

Blogs from my previous Viva Las Vegas weekenders: 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013

See all the photos from Viva Las Vegas 2015 (yes, there are more!) on my flickr album

Follow me on tumblr for all your rancid kitsch, sleaze and vintage homo porn needs!