Sunday, 29 April 2012

Las Vegas Grind 2012! Viva Las Vegas ... Followed by a Few Days in San Francisco

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I’m only now finally getting around to blogging about my trip to Las Vegas (for Viva Las Vegas, the annual rockabilly weekender at The Orleans Hotel and Casino) and San Francisco while it’s all still vaguely fresh-ish in my mind. I returned to rain-lashed London on Saturday 14 April, went straight back to work and DJ’ing, been wiped out with jetlag (and then a cold) pretty much ever since. So these are just rough, random musings. (Because you know, otherwise I’m usually so eloquent and articulate. Right? Right?).

Anyway, Viva Las Vegas 2012 was an absolute blast, mainly because I got to hook up with loads of American friends (some of whom I haven’t seen since 2006!) and make lots of new ones.

Viva Las Vegas 2006
"The gang" in 2006: me, Asher, David and Mitch. Everyone in this photo but Asher made it this year

The same group in 2006, this time including Rusty

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Pretty much the same group of people, six years later! Thursday 5 April 2012. Left to right: Patrick, Mitch, David, Rusty, Jim and I at Ellis Island Restaurant. Compare the 2006 photo to chart our ageing processes!

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Black T-Shirt Convention: Sharon, Natelle, Gary and I

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Sweetpea from Seattle in Mexican Wrestler's Mask

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Me, fabulous babe (and go-go dancer/burlesque artiste) Miss Kitty Baby (the Queen of Las Vegas!) and Rusty

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Gary and Sweetpea

This VLV, therefore, was more about reunions with people and just hanging out – I saw shamefully few bands this year. One particularly noteworthy exception, though, was the mighty Royal Rhythmaires from Texas. They boasted a young female singer whose powerful blues shouter voice evoked great mid-century R&B female divas like Ruth Brown and LaVerne Baker.

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Speaking of great female singers, I’ve somehow never managed to catch a full set by Vicky Tafoya, but she intrigues the hell out of me. In 2011, Tafoya and her band performed in Brendan's Irish pub (one of the more intimate venues at The Orleans) but it was filled to capacity and the security guard wouldn’t let any more people in by the time I got there. This year, she joined the pool party band one day as a guest vocalist for just one song: a sultry rendition of “Misirlou.” She has a belting voice, but it's her whole persona I find fascinating: raven mane of hair teased into a high pompadour, heavy white almost Kabuki face powder, and false eyelashes so thick they’re like black tarantulas on her eyelids. I can’t begin to do her justice –Vicky Tafoya is like an escapee from a John Waters or early Pedro Almodovar film.

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Vicky Tafoya: Didn't manage to get a single decent shot of her because of the positioning of the mic stand. Still, you get the idea

Found this clip on Youtube! Vicky Tafoya singing "Misirlou" at the pool party

In terms of sojourns away from The Orleans (the casino/hotel where Viva Las Vegas is held), I was saddened to learn one of my all-time favourite “Old Vegas” dive bars (the sublimely sleazy Atomic Liquor) has permanently shut its doors in the meantime. It had apparently been a fixture there since at least the 1950s. I miss being buzzed through their glass front doors (extra security to keep out the local crackheads) to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon in the gloom, eavesdropping on conversations from the tough-as-nails barfly regulars straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel.

Atomic Liquors
Atomic Liquor and Cocktails looking derelict by daylight in 2006

Me at Atomic Liquors
Portrait of me drinking at Atomic Liquor in 2006

Viva Las Vegas 2007
Photo of the neon Atomic Liquor sign looking far more beautiful at night, taken by me in 2007 (the last time I visited Atomic Liquor)

I feel a rant coming on: Every time I go back to Vegas, one more mid-century historical landmark has been torn down to make way for another monstrous, soulless modern “mega-casino” (other recent-ish casualties: the Elvis-o-Rama museum,the Liberace museum, The Stardust where I saw Ann-Margret perform in 2005). Vegas is ruthlessly unsentimental in a misguided/short-sighted way, indifferent to its own glittering history. For the most part, the decadent Sin City “Old Vegas” playground of the Rat Pack, Marlene Dietrich, Liberace, Elvis and the Mob simply doesn’t exist anymore. The first time I went to Vegas (in 2003) I stopped by The Algiers (at the time one of the oldest surviving casinos on The Strip, directly opposite Circus Circus) for a drink. My memory of it now has a shimmering dream-like quality. The ultra 1950s pink stucco Algiers could only be described as David Lynch-ian: everyone in the place seemed to be a shuffling geriatric, giving it a senior citizens home vibe. The bar and pool area were eerily quiet, the pace was dreamily slow and haunting, seemingly soaked in seedy history, and the drinks were strong. The following year, I yearned to go back, but in 2004 it was demolished!

OK, diatribe over. I still happily sampled plenty of old school / atomic-era Las Vegas: meeting the guys for breakfast in the cafe of the Ellis Island casino (there's a great online review of the place: someone's cab driver warning them not to go there, it's the hang-out of choice for prostitutes and drug dealers! To me, that's a recommendation); cocktails and steaks at The Golden Steer; I got a tantalisingly brief glimpse at the intoxicating Frankie’s Tiki cocktail lounge. We were running late for dinner reservation at the nearby Golden Steer so we couldn’t stay long. I need to return to Vegas in 2013 just so I can properly experience Frankie’s! (Apparently if you wear a Hawaiian shirt to Frankie’s, you instantly get a 50% discount on cocktails, so you can guess what I’ll be packing. I can taste those Mai Tais, Stingers and Blue Hawaiians already!).

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Frankies Tiki Room: I'll be back ...

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My Lemon Drop cocktail at The Golden Steer

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With my two suave dining companions Mitch and David. Re Mitch: Yes, Rohypnol really does work!

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Sleazy does it! This elegant portrait really captures the Viva Las Vegas 2012 vibe: Chris, Tami and Patrick

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Gary and Miss Kitty Baby having an intimate moment

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The gorgeous Marisol from Los Angeles. At this year's VLV each of the bars at The Orleans were selling limited-edition souvenir glasses shaped like bowling pins or cowboy boots, etc. Needless to say, we went straight for the skulls!

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My official Viva Las Vegas 2012 portrait! My skull contained triple Jack Daniels and Coke, by the way

Living in London, we’re starved for sunshine so the sun-kissed pool parties are always the highlight. In fact, even if Viva Las was just four days of pool parties, it would still be worth crossing the Atlantic for! Drinking potent spicy Bloody Marys in the balmy sunshine (switching to icy cans of Pabst Blue Ribbons when I couldn’t afford Bloody Marys anymore), surrounded by friends, to a soundtrack of live rockabilly, was sublime.

Viva Las Vegas 2012 Pool Party
Saturday 7 April 2012: in this photo, you can see Mitch and David (shielding their eyes from the sun), Sweetpea (in purple dress, sucking on a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon), me (desperately reaching into my pocket for something -- or, more likely, reaching for my camera) and Anne Marie in the foreground (brunette with yellow flower). I vividly remember the kid in front of me and his zoot suit

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Lisa and Patrick: they entered the couples's vintage swimsuit competition -- and won!

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Heather and I at the pool party (her rum cocktail was good)

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Pool party refreshments

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Sean Law (from Canada) and Anne Marie (from The Netherlands)

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Beefcake shot of Rusty

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Cheesecake shot of Miss Kitty Baby

Sunday pool party VLV 2012
Patrick (in one of his dazzling cabana suit combos) and I

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Wifebeaters unite! Scott and Jorge. (When I say "wifebeaters", I mean the Stanley Kowalski / young Brando white vests they're wearing -- I'm not implying they beat their wives!).

Other high points I didn't necessarily document with photos: the car show, the jiving contest and the Charles Phoenix Slideshow. Once again this year, I somehow managed to miss seeing Big Elvis (see the photo of Big Elvis and I together at the top of this blog, from 2010) and going to the punk bar Double Down Saloon -- yet more incentive for returning next year.

I’m so glad I organised a few days in chilled-out, bohemian San Francisco after Viva Las Vegas instead of heading straight home. It’s one of my all-time favourite cities in the world, and I hadn’t been there since 2007. It was sadly obvious the city has been ravaged by the recession since my last visit five years earlier: even more crazies, winos and crackheads wandering the streets pushing grocery cars and muttering to themselves (and there were already a lot) and some of my favourite burrito places are gone (RIP, Mariachi's Taqueria on Valencia Street. I never got to tell you how much I loved you).

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San Francisco in 2012!

Mercifully (and most importantly), most of my favorite bars were still intact: the punk dive Lucky 13 (just up the block the ultra-basic but affordable Twin Peaks hotel where I always stay, situated just between The Mission and The Castro); Esta Noches in The Mission; Trax in Haight-Ashbury, and the scary but reliably excellent The Hole in the Wall in Folsom. In fact, it was in atmospheric nasty biker bar / sleaze pit Hole in the Wall I hung out with (and got quickly plastered over beers and shots of Jägermeister with!) the wonderfully affable rockabilly musician Kacy French (You might know him better by his professional name Damon Dogg. Do yourself a favor: Please do not Google “Damon Dogg” on your work computer!).

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Kacy and I at Hole in the Wall

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Portrait of Kacy at Hole in the Wall

Other highlights: happy hour post-work drinks with Little E, dropping a bomb of money buying CDs and DVDs at Amobea Records in Haight (where I almost got to catch an intimate acoustic set by my punk idols John Doe and Exene of the punk band X -- but didn't!), eating cheap and authentic Mexican food every day, a nice reunion with my old pal AJ. I didn’t make it to North Beach at all this year (so no book shopping at City Lights) – I’ll rectify that in 2013.

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Window display of vintage boutique in The Mission

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Tiki-inspired window display of vintage boutique in Haight-Ashbury

See more of my photos of Vegas/San Francisco (there's loads more!) on my flickr page

Feeling nostalgic? You can re-read my reflections on Viva Las Vegas here and 2011 here


  1. What a fun trip!

    Why has everyone aged while you've seemingly stayed youthful?

    I suspect vampirism.

    On a side note I could have completely outfitted the entire crew in vintage swimsuits.

  2. Photos are deceptive! I'm haggard and faded, really -- but thanks! Sounds like you need to come to Viva Las Vegas 2013 and enter the men's vintage swimsuit competition.