Letter From America
There was boozing, levitation, cowboy fantasies… oh, and a wedding
‘Now we could live the dream and still be back in time for Elvis’
We were drinking long gin and tonics at the rooftop bar of the Mandalay Bay — Americans take their gin and tonic like Melania Trump, tall and icy — and admiring the glowing shambles of Las Vegas as the sun set over the desert, when I recognised the background music.
‘Isn’t that you?’ I asked Gary the bass player.
‘It is,’ Gary said. ‘With the Karminsky Experience.’ He winced, as if from too much ice. ‘They paid me 50 quid.’
The last time we’d had this conversation was in the pub near Jay’s studio in Balham. I don’t see enough of the musicians from my days as a jazz guitarist in London, now that I’m a writer in America.
So when Jay said that he and Rachel were getting married by Elvis in Las Vegas, and that the other band members – Gary, Jay’s brother Dom, and Diamond Geezer – were going to be there, I bought a ticket, picked out my best Fredo Corleone outfit (flowery shirt, brown pinstripe threepiece by Mr Eddie, wide-banded porkpie hat) and prepared for what Dylan Thomas’s coroner called an ‘insult to the brain’.
I flew Southwest. There are no frills on Southwest, but plenty of rhinestone and tattoos, and a reassuring sense of safety. In August 2000, a man flying Southwest from Vegas to Salt Lake City kicked open the cockpit door. Eight other passengers jumped on him, beat him up, and then throttled him to death. That was a year before 9/11. Try that now on Southwest, and you’d be beaten, throttled and dismembered, then flushed down the loo.
That sort of thing can also happen on the ground, especially in gambling cities. In 1997, the South China Morning Post reported that, after guests had complained that the toilets at the Hotel Presidente in Macau were backing up, sanitation workers retrieved ‘three nail-varnished fingers, a breast, plus intestines and other organs’ from the hotel’s waste pipes.
The line that ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ isn’t strictly true, either. Lots of people have been killed there, then driven outside the city limits, to be dumped or buried in the desert.
We were paralytic before the stretch limo took us from the Mandalay Bay to Caesars Palace. Once, we would have gone on stage in that state. Now, we made an exhibition of ourselves in Sushi Roku, throwing back cold protein and hot sake until we had reached a condition of delirious vulgarity. As this was Vegas, no one noticed. Below the windows, the Strip stretched away into the black desert. It was like being in a submarine.
We went back to another bar at the Mandalay Bay, which was subdivided by panels of ornate, Chinese woodwork, each with a porthole at its centre. Dom’s wife levitated horizontally over our table by climbing headfirst through the porthole.
Moments like this remind me of why I came to America. This is the only place where you have a legal right to do whatever you want, and with a clean conscience, too. The pursuit of happiness is not just a phrase in the Constitution.
The next morning, I felt less like Fredo than Moe Greene after he had been shot in the eye. I found Gary eating the free rib-eye dinner for breakfast. Neither of us are gamblers; so the incessant pinging and ringing from the thousands of slots just made us feel sad. We wandered through the forest of machines, each with an addict chained to its crank.
Our audience with the King wasn’t till four in the afternoon. A leaflet on the reception desk caught my eye: ‘Cowboy Trail Rides at Bonnie Springs’. It was fate. A couple of years earlier, we had pioneered a new musical genre, a fusion of funk and country music called South By Southwest. (Gary the bass player and I had done what is known in the business as ‘bits and pieces’ with the Karminsky Experience – two DJS with a vast collection of samples.) Now we could live the dream and still be back in time for Elvis.
The ranch had even been used as a movie set, like the Spahn Ranch where Charles Manson set up his cult. We rounded up Jay and Dom, saddled up an olive-green Hummer, and drove past half-built subdivisions to the wastes of Red Rock Canyon.
It was 100F outside, and none of the horses had air-conditioning. We weren’t dressed for poking longhorn on the Chisholm Trail, either, but they gave us boots and helmets at the ranch. Thorns tore our trousers, the helmets poached our brains, and Gary’s ride spooked Dom’s by leaning forward and biting his testicles. We returned saddle-sore, filthy with red dust, awash with gin-and-sake sweat, and perhaps a little bit late.
Rachel was waiting in the lobby in her white gown as Jay tottered in, bowlegged and fixin’ to die from the chafing. She sent him to his room in disgrace and ordered us to clean ourselves up.
We got them to the chapel in the end. If you could have bottled our Elvis, he would have been Château Presley 1972: white jumpsuit with visible thong line, jewelled boxer’s belt, big dark glasses, and just fat enough to look ludicrous when, having pronounced them ‘man and wife, ah-huh’, he did a karate kick.
The wedding breakfast was a rib-eye dinner at the Top of the World, on the 106th floor of the Stratosphere, 800ft above the Strip. The bride was radiant, and the groom smelt like a horse.