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.

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/ 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.

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/ 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!


  1. I always enjoy you're recap of the VLV event, especially the pictures.

  2. How lucky of you to meet Aileen Quinn! I’ve watched and loved her performance in Annie, so I’m amazed to see her all grown up. Anyway, it goes without saying that all of you had a blast in this event. And I see why, given that everything from band, drinks, and companies rock! Thanks for sharing, Russel!

    Walker Harkins @ King Street Public House