VIVA LAS VEGAS!
They say the classic way to arrive in Las Vegas is by road at night, getting the full blast of the neon glow in the desert. But flying in daytime is hard to beat. After hundreds of miles of baking wilderness and badlands, within a circle of bone-dry mountains, rise the glinting ramparts of Sin City, a collection of giant playthings tossed out on to the desert floor.
I flew in with Virgin and Elvis on their historic first direct flight from London to Las Vegas, Wedding Capital of the world. My son was to be married by Elvis and I was feeling emotional.
Even without my personal agenda, Vegas is a transfixing experience. It's like the first time in America over again, stepping into an unashamedly weird movie set you've known for years. It's grown-ups' Disneyworld. Themed hotels create cartoon worlds - Caesar's Rome, the Pharoahs' Egypt, New York's New York, a full volcanic eruption, a gondola ride along the Grand Canal in Venice, a view from Paris' Eiffel Tower over elegant Tuscan dancing fountains.
A coach guide said proudly "Where else in the world can you see Paris and Rome and Venice and medieval England?" Someone grunted "Europe?" "Yes, but all in one place. "Can't argue with that.
This time we stayed in the nouveau gentility of the Four Seasons, promoting itself as a casino-free haven of peace for the discerning.
Far from Savoring the Serenity I was overwhelmed by it as I hit the elevator. Whisked up serenely to the 39th floor in a golden box that whispered like a desert wind I couldn't stop myself breaking into Gram Parsons' apocalyptic "Sin City" -
"This old town's filled with sin, it'll swallow you in
If you've got some money to burn
Take it home right away, you've got three years to pay
Even Satan is waiting his turn. "
I relished the final fitting lines
"On the thirty first floor, a gold plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain. "
Went down well with my wealthy elevator chums. For all its serenity, the Four Seasons has a back door into Mandalay Bay's casino. With hard to find exit signs, no windows and no clocks it is easy to lose yourself, your sense of time, and your money in the casinos. They pump them full of oxygen to keep you awake. They bring you free drinks whether you are on the high roller tables or the nickel slot machines. So you stay bright enough to lift your hand and throw your money away and drunk enough not to care. Brilliant.
In Rio's casino a Carnival salsas away in galleons sailing over your head as you mindlessly feed the slots. I've never won at gambling. Last year I backed the loser in a two-horse race. But in Casino Capital of the world I had to check my luck. I heard that the slots in Paris paid the best but I never made it out of Binion's in time. They cleared me out in three hours. Still, it took me downtown to see the Fremont Street lightshow and the classic old Vegas neon Cowboy, more the real Vegas than the theme park arrivistes down the Strip.
There are two ways of eating in Vegas, in expensive restaurants or in the fabled buffets. As you might have guessed, Vegas is Buffet Capital of the world. Round Table buffet in Excalibur, Pharoah's Pheast in the Luxor, these are massive affairs with mountains of everything from sushi to Mongolian hot-pot, fantasy food, shrimp the size of your fist, steaks as big as your head, four kinds of melons, twenty kinds of berries. You can eat yourself stupid for $9 to $14.
Me, I like the oxygen bars like Breathe where you strap on nasal cannulae for higher-than-casino levels of God's own energy. Sometime I'd like to see a dark ages disease resort called The Plague with the Consumption Buffet where staff would harass and importune guests wearing festering makeup and plastic scabs.
Vegas is also Statistics Capital of the world, some more meaningless than you could imagine, like two talking camels in the Luxor pyramid who said "If you unravelled all the telephone wires in the Luxor, they would stretch to the moon. "Can we believe this?
One statistic is indisputible. Forty million people came to Vegas last year, many like my son Mat to get married. No wonder there are Wedding Chapels round every corner, in every hotel. No wonder you can get married in a helicopter over the Strip, down the Grand Canyon, in your car in a drive-through chapel, or sky-diving, hurtling desert-wards with a para-minister.
June is Wedding Month of the year. White-veiled brides are ducking through the hotel casinos. Rebecca insisted the only way she'd marry Mat was by Elvis in Vegas.
So here we all were with the happy couple and little Duncan, nearly a year old, packed into the white superstretch limo, duded out in serious pink and black polyesters and sky blue Crimplenes. We were ready for the young peoples' moment of destiny with The King, the Elvis himself who had married Oasis' Noel Gallagher. Our package included limo and video, three songs and twenty four poses by Elvis. We went for white Vegas flared rather than black leather Elvis. More matrimonial. More apt.
The Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel sits by the Thunderbird Motel. Outside was the pink Cadillac convertible with Elvis number plates. Our man was taking no prisoners. Suddenly Elvis was there. He was a great, if skinny version of megacolon burger boy of the later Vegas years. He is Ron De Car," the most sought after soloist in the Las Vegas wedding industry". With a fine black quiffed mullet, state-of-the-art Elvis jumpsuit and a big mouthful of orthodontics Ron couldn't lose.
"Thank you very much," he kept saying to the previous party in rich Elvisian tones.
After a run through we're ready. Now, you readers may cavil about dignity and suchlike, but let me tell you there is nothing more inspiring than walking my boy down the aisle, both in contrasting pink and black - Elvis's favourite colours - with gold Elvis shades and Elvis up there singing -
"Wise men say
Only fools rush in. . . "
You see, pertinent again, fools rush in. Vegas always on the button.
Aptness Capital of the world.
Rebecca looked gorgeous and Duncan in black and pink passed between them during the ceremony. Elvis was unfazed. He started flying with the wedding vows "You promise never to wear your blue suede shoes in the rain And to be each others' Teddy Bear"
"I'm gonna tear it up, Elvis" said Mat.
"And you promise never to spend a Blue Christmas apart"
Elvis was rocking. Smiling and sneering simultaneously, he broke into an unsolicited version of Hawaian Wedding Song. He seemed to enjoy his rich baritone as much as we did. His leg shook. We were swaying along, shouting encouragement to him and the young couple. After the vows, Elvis did his two-pronged stage point at each of them, passed the rings, and then uttered the magic words
"By the powers invested in me by The King,
Uh, I now pronounce you man and wife, man. "
This moment transcended its own virtual reality. My gold shades moistened from inside. Suddenly Elvis lashed into Viva Las Vegas, and everyone danced and sang mightily round the newly weds. In the Bridal Room a real minister rattled off a forty second " by the powers vested in me" wedding and Mat paid her with a five dollar tip.
"You tip ministers here?"
"You do in Vegas" smiled Mat.
Elvis sidled over to me with a free wedding cake, a frothy confection of white, peach and green. "I want them to have this, sir. Thank you very much. "I thanked Elvis for his cake and posed with him by the Cadillac.
We lucked out for the reception. Rebecca's friend is daughter of a high roller who let us use his stupendous suite at Caesar's Palace which had just been savagely downsized to five jacuzzis. It was perfect Vegas opulence, just like a movie set. In fact it was a movie set and was the "Rainman" Suite. But when you're rich everything is free, so he wasn't paying a penny for this extravagance. As a valued high roller, $20,000 a pop, he was an R F B, paying for no Room Food or Beverage, pampered by Caesar's Palace to an imperial extreme. I squared the Las Vegas wedding circle in the Rainman Suite by sitting on Elvis's cake. The green icing looked particularly good on my candy pink pants, and my ex-wife symbolically cleaned my bottom for me.
Two vast billboards on the Wedding Capital's Strip caught my eye.
"Vasectomy Reversal -- Money Back Guarantee"
"Free Viagra: Consultation $4. 95"
Apt again. All covered.
Vegas doesn't disappoint, but words are meagre, insipid things to describe this madness. Drumming my fingers between my lips and burbling would better cover it.
I'm going back.
Nothing can be as emotional as this weekend but there's much more to see. I've always maintained "It's better to have bad taste than to taste bad". Vegas makes this flesh. Vulgarity's heart is sanctified. Wet 'n Wild water park poses the quintessential Vegas question "Ever wonder what it feels to be flushed down the toilet?"
Their answer is a huge 45 mph salad spinner whose centre opens and sucks you out.
They call it the Royal Flush. Says it all.
© Hank Wangford, 20 June 2000
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