Monday, 26 August 2019

Las Vegas Grind! Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender 2019

2019 was the year I learned that age is not just a number. I’ve been attending the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender off and on since 2003 and now – aged 49 – it genuinely felt like a struggle to keep up. (Plus - as I’ve written elsewhere - I've been suffering with ongoing intermittent nerve pain).

It didn’t help that this year I had a punishing epic flight via AeroMexico. It was the cheapest option available (travelling over Easter equals ultra-expensive peak prices), but it meant flying from Heathrow to Mexico City – about 10 ½ hours – with a painfully long stop-over in Mexico, then a roughly four-hour flight from there to Las Vegas. I never fully recuperated from the flight, my body clock never quite switched to American time and trying to manage the late nights (when the red-hot action was!) was a battle. Frustratingly and bafflingly, the organizers of this year’s Viva Las Vegas scheduled some of the best bands – the ones I most wanted to see! – at crazy times like 2:30 am (including Los Straightjackets and The Rip ‘Em Ups). There was no way I could stay up that late. Speaking to fellow VLV veterans who’ve also hit middle-age, I wasn’t the only one finding it a challenge this time. What was it The Rolling Stones once sang? “What a drag it is getting old!”

So rather than attempting to cram everything in, the emphasis was on simply hanging out and catching up with friends. Anyway, here is my wild, wild Viva Las Vegas round-up / scene report. I took significantly less photos than usual this year (my geriatric digital camera has pretty much bit the dust) and the ones I did take are desultory. And really, it’s taken me so long to cobble-together this post, my memory has gone misty (I suspect I’ve forgotten loads of stuff). This will probably read like disjointed bullet points.  For better or for worse, here is my Viva Las Vegas scene report.

/ That's me (in the black sweatshirt) checking-in at The Orleans. Photo by Sean Law, the mogul behind Vancouver-based independent label Rockin' Records /

I arrived on Wednesday morning and promptly crashed-out in my room at The Orleans. I wish I’d seen Pachuco Jose y The Diamonds – but they were on at 1:30 am and I just couldn’t rouse myself from my jetlagged stupor!

/ Sheilah, Kevin and Ritch and The Hooch'n'Smooch /

/ Sharon, Patrick and Natelle at The Hooch'n'Smooch /

By Thursday my friend Kevin from New Orleans had arrived (as per tradition we were splitting a room). The first official day of Viva always means Sweet Pea’s ice-breaking Hooch’n’Smooch shindig: the ideal way to ease your way into the weekend and an opportunity to greet everyone. Later that night: the premiere LGBT meet-up in the Deluxe Club. Kudos to my friends Jr and Andre from Los Angeles for doing such a brilliant job organizing and suavely hosting this soiree. This was the first official LGBT club on the Viva Las Vegas schedule: I’m one of the elites who used to go to them when they were informal parties in Jr and Andre’s hotel room! Anyway, the event was a triumph and it was divine to hang out and have a few drinks with some some queer “fellow travelers” on the rockabilly scene.

/ No idea what day this shot (of Kevin, Sharon and I) was taken, so I'm sticking it here /

We made a point of catching The Desperados. I’ve raved about this ferociously rampaging sexy young quartet from Santa Ana, California before. To me The Desperados neatly exemplify what modern rockabilly should be – they attack their songs with the fervor of a punk band.

 / Kevin and I /

Friday: Visiting the sublime Frankie’s Tiki Room when in Las Vegas is always de rigueur. We wound up having a nice long afternoon drinking session there with Canadian friends Sean, Natelle and Sharon (who smuggled in a Canadian delicacy unavailable in the UK: ketchup-flavoured Pringles. One bite was Proust-ian, instantly conjuring-up my 1970s Canadian childhood). Of course, I sampled Frankie’s impeccable signature Mai Tais – and then tried my first Sea Hag. My head was swimming by the time I emerged from the gloom of Frankie’s blinking into the sunlight. (We didn’t make it to The Golden Tiki this trip).

/ Above: my Mai Tai and Kevin's Two Dots and a Dash /

/ Sharon - with a Canadian delicacy! /

/ Above: photo by Sean Law /

/ Above: my first-ever Sea Hag /

/ Above: Kevin /

/ Sean Law and I (I'm always chewing a wasp, in every damn photo) /

Then, back to The Orleans for the first slideshow presentation of the weekend by undisputed Ambassador of Mid-Century Americana Charles Phoenix. (He always does two). Damn, Phoenix knows how to work the room (as a raconteur he ranks up there alongside John Waters) and his lovingly assembled slideshows are pure catnip for aficionados of atomic-era kitsch.  

Speaking of John Waters … the people’s pervert and perennial filth elder was one of the emcees of the Burlesque Showcase later that night. He received the rapturous hero’s welcome you would anticipate from the attendees of Viva Las Vegas. I wish I could have recorded or taken notes during Waters’ introduction, because the Pope of Trash was on lacerating form. Clearly knowledgeable and passionate about the history of burlesque, he had loads of hilarious and insightful points to make. Waters was especially eloquent reminiscing about The Block in Baltimore – the notoriously tawdry neon-lit district of East Baltimore once synonymous with porn shops, peep shows and burlesque houses. He recounted how lax those establishments were with checking IDs and how in the 1960s he and Divine used to routinely sneak in as underage teenagers, illicitly ogling iconic striptease queens like Tempest Storm, Lili St Cyr, Irma the Body and Baltimore’s own Blaze Starr. Inspired by Viva Las Vegas, he free-associated a soliloquy about rockabilly luminaries moonlighting as male strippers, asking us to imagine being “tea-bagged” by Elvis, Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran. And everyone roared in agreement when Waters declared, “The best strippers are old strippers!” Which made me think of that great Peaches video featuring the likes of Satan’s Angel (RIP) and Kitten Natividad. The ensuing burlesque performers themselves were the absolute crème de la crème and sensational to watch, but I was keeping track of the time on my watch because I knew that Messer Chups were playing in the Piano Bar …

Look, I know it’s still painful to accept, but voodoobilly royalty The Cramps are gone and they ain’t never coming back. Lux Interior, Bryan Gregory and Nick Knox from the definitive line-up are dead. Now 66-years old, surviving member Poison Ivy is as reclusive as Greta Garbo and hopefully enjoying a serene retirement. In that spirit – all hail Messer Chups, heirs to The Cramps! Seriously – the time is now to embrace the Russian surf trio as the 21st century Cramps. Messer Chups were by far the biggest musical revelation of Viva Las Vegas 2019. Suffice to say, Kevin and I were both awe-struck.  The name had always been on my radar and I’d given some of their tracks a cursory listen online but seeing them in person was mind-blowing.  

/ Above: Kevin and I watching Messer Chups. Photo by Sean Law /

/ Above: the only decent shot I took of Messer Chups /

A brief history: hailing from St Petersburg, Messer Chups have been around since the early 2000s and undergone multiple incarnations. Their early work is more experimental, featuring copious Theremin and snatches of sampled dialogue from horror movies – interesting, but markedly different from what they do now. Present-day Messer Chups specialize in minimalist deeply twang-y, menacing surf-noir played with real aggression and imbued with a profound and impressive comprehension of old horror and exploitation movies and low-brow trash culture.  (Viva Las Vegas always features surf bands at the pool parties, but both were underwhelming this year. Thank god for Messesr Chups).

Full credit to exemplary musicians Oleg Gitaracula (guitarist) and Rockin Eugene (drummer), but the undisputed focus and breakout star of the band is impossibly magnetic and inscrutable ice princess bassist Zombierella (real name: Svetlana Nagaeva). Call it sangfroid or froideur, Zombierella positively exudes it from beneath her Bettie Page bangs and no one could tear their eyes from her. She even got to sing a few times (although you wouldn’t describe what Zombierella does as “singing”. She delivered the song “They Call Me Zombie” with frosty aplomb, shuttling between a hiccough and a shriek). Kevin and I were exclaiming, why isn’t this woman a star? Why isn’t her pin-up on every available wall? Weirdly, just as Kevin queried, “When is David Lynch going to discover her?” Messer Chups lashed-into their surf version of the Twin Peaks theme! (Their interpretation is entitled “Twin Peaks Twist”).

Saturday at Viva Las Vegas means the car show. Top tip: the car show is the my favourite venue for shopping, and you find more interesting bargains than at the pricey indoor vendors.  But what do I know? I’m usually hunting for black t-shirts with skulls on them. 

/ My t-shirt haul: Vampira, Siouxsie and Elvira! /

Later, Kevin and I made a point of watching some of Aileen Quinn & the Leapin’ Lizards’ set. We’d first encountered Ms Quinn in 2015. Yes, she is that Aileen Quinn – the former moppet who starred in the 1982 film adaptation of the perky musical Annie directed by John Huston. So she has major kitsch appeal. Which compensates for a lot: I’m trying to pick my words diplomatically – she takes a kind of suburban soccer mom approach to rockabilly, and her stage school jazz hands are still very much in evidence. But she radiates genuine sweetness and enthusiasm (and plenty of people in the crowd clearly loved her). And once again, when we ambushed her for a quickie photo session Quinn was the epitome of graciousness. And later that night Kevin and I re-visited another camp icon …

When I attended the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender in 2015 my friends Kevin, Mitch and I made a religious pilgrimage to see diminutive 1980s exploitation movie sex kitten-turned-credible and resilient jazz chanteuse Pia Zadora’s one-woman cabaret revue in an Italian restaurant called Piero's. It was a riot! Clad in hot pants, she belted jazz standards like “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “The Lady is a Tramp” in front of a Warhol portrait of herself. Zadora strode past our table several times that night pre-show, but never made eye contact and we never plucked up the courage to speak to her.

Flash forward four years later. When Kevin and I went to Viva Las Vegas again in April 2019, we made another trip to Piero’s, this time Pia did make eye contact – and the pictures speaks for themselves! She said hello, introduced herself, pulled up a chair, hung out with us – and was charm personified. The adorable Zadora happily consented to photos and even introduced us to her husband and son. I informed Zadora her old pal John Waters was in town and she gasped, “He is? He didn't tell me! I’m going to text him!” (Kevin pointed out it’s likely the Viva Las Vegas team flew him in and out just to emcee the burlesque showcase). She regaled us with anecdotes about the making of Hairspray (did you know Waters originally intended her for the part of Amber von Tussle?).

/ Below: Pia Zadora pouting through the pain in Lonely Lady (1983) /

Now a preternaturally youthful 66, Zadora has weathered the vagaries of fame (or should that be infamy?), the kind of bad press and horrendous reviews for her notorious flop films like Butterfly (1982), Lonely Lady (1983) and Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984) that would devastate anyone else, shrugged it off and re-invented herself as a durable jazz diva. A truly wry, witty and self-deprecating tough cookie, whether joking between songs onstage or shooting the breeze with us, Zadora displayed impeccable deadpan comedic delivery. (Shame that quality was never properly exploited in a film). Anyway, meeting Pia Zadora was truly one of the highlights of the trip and I think I have a crush on her now!

/ "When I'm high, I am Odetta. Let's get naked and smoke!" Pia Zadora as Beatnik Chick in John Waters' Hairspray (1988) /

/ Liza Minnelli and Pia Zadora - together at last! Could it get more Las Vegas than this? Yes, Liza dropped by for a guest appearance the night we saw Pia. This is actually superstar female impersonator Sammy Gonzales, one of the featured performers in Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas revue. Don't you love how they coordinated their black sequined outfits? /

Sunday was, of course, the pool party. My expectations are always high for the Viva Las Vegas party – they’re usually a highlight. This one felt a bit tepid – maybe because the weather was overcast and the surf bands were disappointing. But I was just happy to stretch out on the Astroturf drinking Bloody Marys and talking to friends. 

/ Above: me at the pool party /

/ Above: Ejole and Chris /

/ Glamazons at the pool party on Sunday /

We split in time to see the second Charles Phoenix slideshow of the weekend (another killer set). The rest of the day was spent zig-zagging back and forth between the ballrooms watching bands. By Sunday night, I was ready to stop partying. After guzzling can after can of beer all weekend, it had become like aversion therapy and I literally couldn’t take another sip. It was time to go home!

/ Above: Charles Phoenix rocking the house /

/ Stylish couple /

/ Treasures at the vendors /

/ Last minute bargains at the vendors on Sunday! /

Monday: I flew back that morning – to do that agonizing AeroMexico journey in reverse!

Further reading:

Blogs from my previous Viva Las Vegas weekenders: 20102011201220132015 and 2017.