Viva Las Vegas

It's 4:30 in the morning, and I'm in a hotel room 37 floors above the ground. Thirty-seven floors into the sky, with the promise and the jagged crash laid out before me like the busted dreams of everyone whose ship missed the shore and ended up in shards on the rocks. But from up here, it just looks like a rolling carpet of rhinestones against midnight blue velvet --churning and undulating away from me, away from my fingers and into an ever after that is suspended between how it is and how it might be.

Las Vegas. The Radio Music Awards. Lee Ann Womack -- of the 11 weeks at #1 on the Adult Contemporary and 6 weeks on top of the Country Radio charts, of the Grammy, Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Awards for Song and Single of the Year for "I Hope You Dance" -- to be dressed pretty and sent out to present an award for Top 40 Act of the Year. Lee Ann Womack who proffers potential and the capacity to make it everything one can wish for, who believes in the quality of the music and the power of song.

And so I am here, and I am awake, and I am thinking about all that I saw as I swam upstream in a river of whatever you want. Viva Las Vegas and a black velvet Elvis and billboards that make the kinda now and the once were larger than life once again, in a state of suspended superstardom that's never real, but yet indisputable. Great restaurants serving food beyond many of the consumers' palates. High end retailers taking the money of those who don't understand the value of the price, merely the sizzle of the name.

And the mid-to-low-end sellers who give people a little more than they could normally buy into, but they get a reprieve from their grooved-in price point from a good couple hands of black jack or one lucky pull on a slot machine. This is the short-term, nominal pay-off on the no impact American Dream -- the I-want-and-it-should-be-mine, which has most likely supplanted the work-hard-for-what-you-want mandate that once drove this nation.

Now we're a land of lotteries and scams and quick fixes. It's about Aqua Net and SUVs, Versace fantasies and the promise of notoriety. When N Sync named their latest recording Celebrity, it had the opportunity to be a commentary on fame from the tongues of five Fabians currently being consumed and defined by it. Talented young men? Perhaps. But that's not where they derived their voltage and their value.

For we've become a nation where fame has surpassed art, celebrity is the new medium of defining expression -- and we're not sure what to make of insight into the human experience or emotional content. Now it's sizzle and rage and shock. We're about being hot or how it looks. And for every Bob Dylan or Rodney Crowell or Lucinda Williams, or even Lee Ann Womack and Patty Loveless -- two women with their hearts in their throats, the true center must be massaged with some sense of flash, some promise of momentum. <p>It's odd what we've come to value. If Madonna celebrated sexual liberation for us girls and the genius of changing the personna, what does Britney Spears represent? Lolita with a low IQ and the willingness to strip and flip and dance for us? Is she all promise AND an empty, non-threatening delivery? If Madonna reputedly cruised the seedy neighborhoods looking for Latino boys to rough ride the ridge with, would Britney -- America's turbo-virgin --ever do that? If one was a wildcat -- capable of more sexual bravado and libido and teeth gnashing arrival, is the other more of a tame housecat capable of all the machinations but none of the thrilling terror of beyond this one explosive moment?

No danger, just a beautiful stranger in a nude bejeweled body suit who will come and writhe and cum and leave without a whimper. There is no fall-out from Britney Spears, just as there's no pushing the flesh or the envelope. This is a two-dimensional automaton of sexual iconography that won't scare, won't impose, won't intimidate. She will be a "Tiny Dancer," a pocket princess to take out and put away on one's whim who's happy enough to be there -- and that is exactly what we've become: a nation of "do ME, baby, then fade to nothing, not even black." <p>It makes me think of Buck Owens and Gram Parson and Emmylou Harris -- hillbilly idols who understood that emptiness isn't nondairy whipped topping that froths and giggles and tricks you into thinking it's lots of fun. For them, emptiness is the echo of regret, the knowledge of what shouldn't have happened, the ghosts of every bad decision and sideways reality that chase you through the lost hours, the buzzing glow of motel lights and the barely humming white noise that is the fringe where the disenfranchised move like the waking dead in the lost hours.

"Sin City" is the anti-"Viva Las Vegas." With it's keening melody and plangent harmonies, it turpentines the illusion, leaving a rough streaky truth that is anything but flashy veneer. It is splinters and age and a brittle wood that threatens to bust apart if roughly handled. It is neon that's blinding and neon that's zzzz-zzz'ing out. It's show girls in their sequins and feathered head dresses turning into baggy eyed, aching feet women who just look tired and need to figure out how to fill the gap between child support and what they need now that the BIG STAR ship hasn't come in.

Here everything can be had for a price here. Thick steaks. Prettier women than you'll ever find back home, who want to run their fingers through your hair and call you "Big Daddy" and make you feel like John Holmes on holiday. Gold watches. Diamond rings. Italian suits and custom leather. Fine shoes. Every kind of fur. Suites that're larger than most houses. Whatever one desires, it can be created. It can -- as long as the winnings hold out -- be tangible and real.

Except, of course, love and happiness -- which come from within and can't be brokered at a baccarat table or through the rounds of a keno girl. Which make them so precious, they flicker beyond the pale, spectres that may not be real -- so why put one's faith there? <p>After all, for a moment or string of moments, Vegas' promise and occasional delivery is more than plenty. More than you'll get back home. And they keep coming back on the promise of what might be. But this town ain't built on winners…and the dreams are even less than the dimestore baubles another generation embraced, long before "Dynasty" and "Dallas" showed us how the other half lived and upped the aspirations of the M-Generation, a generation where material replaces spiritual and what we have substitutes for what we need.

Unless you're one of the lucky ones, the ones who surf the moment and blink as the human tide rushes past. Last night, it was a merging of three pretty dominant divergent worlds, creating a surreality that would've made Fellini proud. For not only is Las Vegas a place where a faded someone like Wayne Newton is a big draw and a powerful presence, an electrifying constellation holding down the mainroom and the incoming horde, but it's a place where the bulked-up steroid-thickened Mister and Miss Universe candidates bench their competitive edge as the Pro Bull Riders reach for their 8 seconds of glory and the rockers and the poppers and the gold-roped hip-hoppers wait for word of just who the Radio Music Awards deems the best of the year.

They're all out there, these icons in their respective worlds and aspirants stretching for their own grasp of the brass ring, mingling and drinking and playing a little five card stud -- taking in the pleasures and promises. These people have other mandates, but why miss the glory of Vegas? Why lose sight of what makes this town a destination? And they're here with their bravado and their entourages -- relatively pumped up companions, girls in roper boots with heart-shaped asses and little kids in matching cowboy hats or stringy handlers dripping black, squawking into cell phones about limo calls and missing shoes. <p>Does a bull rider have a crew? Does a weight lifter need an posse? And what about Bob and Myrna from Kansas City in their flannel shirt and her over-processed bubble perm? Maybe they're just having a little fun. Not seeking the big cash-out. Catch a show -- "THAT Clint Black. Now THERE'S a star!" -- eat some shrimp, toss back a couple watered down drinks comped from your run at the $5 table. Tell a few tall tales and to the folks back home, you're a high roller.

Because compared to the fuzzy gray of back home, this is technicolor. Oz, or at least ahhhhs, to the flatness of Kansas. Oooooh, Las Vegas. It's written in flashing lights, outlined in maribou and set against jet black velvet for maximum pop. Back home, pop is something sitting in your refrigerator waiting to be sucked down -- and if you don't look too close, Vegas isn't a pop, but more a BANG! waiting to suck you in and perhaps suck you dry, strangling you with your own dream of being a big guy for a moment. But, oh, until it does. . . <p>Buck Owens understood that when he wrote the bittersweet "Big In Vegas," a song about hope derailed and hope redefined and accepting what was left on the table. It may be his saddest melody, but it was also one of his truest moments. For while Buck was the happy guy in the Hee Haw overalls, mocking his pain with the superstar pay-out of "Act Naturally," he also defined the California country insurgence with Merle Haggard and Buck's personal Sancho Panza guitarist Don Rich.

Vegas for so many is the end of the line … the last, perhaps only, place to feel more than alive. As the movie of Mikal Gilmore's book Shot Through The Heart, about the final days with Gary Gilmore, the brother he barely knew who became the first American to be executed under the reinstatement of capital punishment in the U. S., playing on the t. v. and still no threat of dawn, I think and I type -- just like so many nights. <p>Somewhere in this same hotel, Lee Ann Womack sleeps. Last Sunday, she sang "I Hope You Dance" and "The Preacher (Won't Have To Lie)" for Nashville's concert to raise the spirits of a country demoralized by Sept. 11 and some money to aid the clean-up. They were simple, true wishes -- and they spoke volumes about the little things that truly define us.

Or do they? As someone who's always believed in music's power to inspire and elevate, who was heartened by the crossover success of a song about "still feeling small when you stand beside the ocean" and who wants to think when people are ready, they will hear, I'd like to believe there's still room and validity for this other kind of truer truth at our cheaper, faster, harder, now NOW table. <p>Walking through the corridors of Bellagio's shopping concourse and Caesar's Palace's Forum shops, I'm not so sure. Though surely we've not come to believe that a painted sky that never dims is truer than the stars and the sun and the moon. As long as we can walk outside and look up, we can know the difference -- and maybe that's what we need to cling to so we don't get -- as the prophet Springsteen once wrote -- "lost in the flood."

I don't know, but as there's still no threat of dawn -- here where we sleep off the losses both fiscal and emotional -- I may as well step outside and look at what's left of the night. Maybe I'll catch a falling star...

-- Holly Gleason