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Cocaine, porn stars and dissing Mariah

Weekly writer Richard Abowitz looks back at 10 years of Sin City memories

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Paris Hilton at the Palms opening in November 2001.
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

1

My first day of work at Las Vegas Weekly was July 8, 1999. Two colleagues and I were to meet with the people at the Arts Factory to hear their plans for the future. But it rained.

The local media would dub that day “the 100-year flood.” According to a federal report commissioned after the flood resulted in the Valley being declared a disaster area: “Floodwaters from these thunderstorms caused damage to public property amounting to $20,500,000 and damaged or destroyed 369 homes. … Also attributed to the floodwaters were two fatalities.”

The area around the Arts Factory had realized—perhaps for the first and only time—the wildest fantasies of local scenesters: Vegas resembled one of the most cultured cities in history, Venice. It was amazing that our car parked at all, as a few minutes later we would have literally needed to dock. For a while, we counted car accidents, and then there was too much water for cars on the street.

Later, I drove home from work on back roads. Warned that “rain in Las Vegas falls mainly in the right lane,” I saw many drivers without the benefit of that wisdom sitting on their car roofs or standing by the road. A car slid into an intersection and almost hit me.

Which is how I learned, on my first working day in the desert, about the paralyzing effect of what in the end was only 1.53 inches of rain. Don’t worry if you missed it. A 1999 study concluded: “Given the unique geology and orography of the Las Vegas valley, it will remain vulnerable to flash floods through the foreseeable future.”

2

The dot-com crash had not quite reached Vegas in October 1999 when Pixelon.com, a company that promised “the first full-screen, TV-quality” Internet broadcasts, debuted its service with what was reported to be a $13 million concert for the world to see and hear. (In reality it was a show for locals who were sold ridiculously cheap seats to keep the place full.)

The Who at iBash '99

The Who at iBash '99

Musically, the iBash was one of the most incredible concerts ever staged here: Kiss, Tony Bennett, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, the Dixie Chicks and a reunion of The Who. At the time, it was said The Who had been given a potential fortune in stock options to perform. Singer Roger Daltrey dodged the question when I interviewed him backstage,

Of course, the rest is history, as no one, Pixelon.com included, figured out how to send video over old-school telephone lines. The special technology did not, of course, exist. Pixelon.com’s founder turned out to be a convicted swindler and fugitive working under an alias.

The Who eventually released a DVD of the performance with a title hinting at both the con and the motive behind the reunion: The Vegas Job. That night I watched the band getting fooled, even as it played “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

3

If aliens had landed at Bellagio on February 28, 2009, they would have been confused by what they saw—a well-heeled crowd, many in tears, watched as two men appeared onstage, wearing masks. One limped and seemed physically frail. After some cabinet illusions, the performance ended with the masks coming off. It was Siegfried & Roy, posed with a giant cat. Of course, the aliens would recognize Siegfried & Roy, everyone does.

Siegfried, Roy and Montecore, February 2009.

Siegfried, Roy and Montecore, February 2009.

It was an indelible moment, thanks not to the magic but to the simple presence of Roy Horn. He had not appeared onstage since being savaged in October 2005 by one of his giant cats, Montecore.

As with most things Siegfried & Roy, many in the media, including me, raised questions afterward. Horn’s miracle recovery has been heavily promoted for years, and details of the attack have always remained in dispute. So there was skepticism about aspects of their “farewell performance.” Was the cat really Montecore? Was Horn really onstage for the entire 10 minutes?

But magic is about illusion, and the fact that Horn was capable of participating in a performance, of even having these questions asked, after an attack that most thought should have killed him, was magical.

To most of us the facts of Roy’s success at physical therapy are impressive enough without hype. But one thing you learn covering Vegas: Celebrities have personalities that work at a higher volume than the rest of us. There has always been a bit of performance to Roy Horn’s recovery. I have seen Horn leave his wheelchair to walk a red carpet and then be met by the wheelchair at the other end. Up close, you see how hard it is for Horn (once I watched an assistant on a red carpet tuck his sunglasses behind his ear for him as he leaned on her). It is inspiring—not even his doctors thought he would walk again unassisted.

Where illusions end and reality begins has always been hard to pin down with Siegfried & Roy. That was true of their career and the attack that ended their show, so it was no surprise it was the case for their farewell performance. But Siegfried & Roy ended their career that night with a script they wrote rather than a tiger attack they spun.

4

When I arrived in Vegas, the hottest nightclub was Utopia, and the hottest afterhours was Spearmint Rhino. It was not a mistake that neither was located in a casino.

For good reason, the casinos were nervous about bringing nightclubs into their gaming resorts, even as they were tempted by an entity that could attract young people with money to burn who stayed up partying into the wee hours. I did an early story for Weekly where I traveled with some club kids for a few days. One night, the driver ran some red lights. He was “rolling,” I was told, so I thought “rolling” meant running red lights—until someone explained the driver was on ecstasy.

Certainly there were already clubs in resorts in 1999: RA, C2K, Club Rio and Studio 54. But they were not marketed like shows. No one had yet discovered the glories and cash potential of celebrity hosts and bottle service by the summer of 2000, when my favorite nightclub story took place.

A nightclub promoter picked me up in his luxury car at the Weekly offices on a hot day to take me with him to meet the owner of a casino. He told me the two of them were going to discuss the resort building a multimillion-dollar nightclub that he would run. This megaclub was the future of Vegas, he said. This was a crucial, deal-making meeting that I was going to get a behind-the-scenes story about.

On our way to Summerlin, the promoter handed me a mint case with white powder in it. “Someone told me you never did cocaine before,” he said. “A present.” A few minutes later the police pulled us over. It turned out the promoter only had a learner’s permit. I was scolded for letting him speed. The cocaine was in my hand when we were pulled over, but I quickly if stupidly jammed it in my pocket. I smiled and nodded silently at the officer. The nightclub promoter was charismatic and charming, and the officer let him go with a warning, despite the fact that he had been going a good 30 miles per hour over the speed limit. The officer seemed to blame me for that.

The final surprise was the casino owner—he turned out to be the teenage son of a major stockholder in the casino. The kid could not get into a nightclub, much less negotiate the multimillion-dollar construction of one. I went to a bathroom and washed the drugs down the sink.

This bizarre day was typical of many of my encounters in the early times of the Vegas nightclub scene. It would be years before resorts began to embrace clubs fully. The promoter was right about megaclubs, but he was years too early for the party.

5

There has been no greater change in my life stemming from my move here than that caused by covering adult entertainment. Before, I had no familiarity as a consumer with the adult business. That has now changed so completely that national media routinely call on me for research, background and phone numbers when they’re working on adult-entertainment stories.

From my dating life to my friendships, covering strippers, hookers and porn stars has changed me. Yet I have had very little professional contact with the product itself, sex as commodity—being teased in the topless bars, going to brothels or even the fantasy of porn, none of it appeals to me. But there was still such distrust and distaste in the local media for coverage of the adult as entertainment that I saw a huge opportunity. Adult Vegas is a tiny part of what I have covered here, but it is what I am most asked about when I speak to readers.

Brothel Chicken Ranch sign

Brothel Chicken Ranch sign

I have been offered free sex by a brothel owner (performed by one of his workers) as a bribe, and I have been offered “thank you” sex with an 18-year-old porn star by a director who thought I gave her career an early boost. I turned those offers down. But I have fallen in love with an actress in the business. Still, I have never watched an adult movie. Readers get the sex part, but they are curious about the people.

I could see that the Vegas tourist corridor, the entertainment mainstream of this city, was going to move in an ever more adult direction from the moment I arrived. Indeed, Vegas has become the spot where mainstream entertainment and adult entertainment merge.

Some significant moments: There was the arrival of the mega-strip clubs like Sapphire and Treasures, which looked more like resorts than topless bars. They began pulling customers away from the Strip in ways that old-school Cheetahs and Olympic Garden did not.

In 2003, Cirque du Soleil opened its first adult-themed show, Zumanity. A short time later, pornographer John Stagliano pushed the envelope with his S&M dance show Fashionistas, based on his hardcore movie of the same title. The AVN Awards, the porn Oscars, is now a ticketed event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Porn stars have become common guest hosts for nightclubs and are regularly mentioned in celebrity columns by Vegas media.

In short, the question has changed since 1999. It is no longer will adult go mainstream? The question now is how much more adult content will be acceptable? Will there be a topless bar in a casino? Will brothels be allowed in Clark County? A few years ago, these were not even legitimate questions. But the recession and the need to draw new customers has both of these ideas getting serious consideration. Puts a new spin on Sin City.

6

I never covered a red carpet before moving to Vegas. Other than at the Oscars, I thought they were simply metaphors: You get the red-carpet treatment if a place does a really good job of customer service. Since then I have learned the complicated social dynamic of the red carpet.

Nightclubs in particular will invite photographers to a media check-in an hour before an event so that potential customers think something important is happening. That is rarely the case. Recently, I watched the cast of Peepshow head to Prive to walk a red carpet into a charity event. But after the walk none of the half-dozen dancers entered the nightclub. They went to dinner.

Shakira being interviewed on the red carpet.

Shakira being interviewed on the red carpet.

Vegas will toss down a red carpet for almost any occasion. I have been to red carpets for casinos, production shows, restaurants, nightclubs and special events. I have even been to a red carpet for an opening of McDonald’s.

Some favorite red-carpet moments include Leonardo DiCaprio running down a Vegas red carpet, attempting to outrun the flashbulbs; and Judd Apatow telling me he liked my questions best before busting my tiny ego bubble by praising another best: the universally panned and short-lived Hans Klok magic show.

It was at a music awards show at MGM shortly after I arrived in Vegas that I made my worst red-carpet blunder. I had been given a list by the magazine I was on assignment for, Rolling Stone, of which celebrities they wanted interviewed. Jennifer Lopez was on my list, and Mariah Carey was not. These days, thanks to Google Image Search, I am much better at knowing what celebrities look like. But that night, I just saw a beautiful diva surrounded by an entourage.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Jennifer Lopez?”

The response was icy and swift: “Don’t you know she’s fatter and I am whiter?” She did not slow her gait to say it. I fled.

Recently, Carey hosted a birthday party for her husband. She held the party at Pure, and like a true diva kept the media waiting for over an hour. But if she did not care about her husband’s birthday enough to show up on time, why should I? One great thing about Vegas is there is always something else to cover. Walking off the red carpet because my time was too valuable felt great.

7

Covering Las Vegas, you meet a lot of celebrities, and I am often asked what they are really like. I have no idea. They usually talk through me, to you, via my tape recorder. I do know this: Carmen Electra is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful woman I have ever interviewed.

For my job I got to go indie-record shopping with Thurston Moore. I met up with Kid Rock on one of his first dates with Pamela Anderson, as he bounced her on his knee, singing David Allan Coe’s romantic ballad "I Want to Fuck the Shit Out of You." I briefly befriended and then lost touch with LeAnn Rimes and Artie Lange. You see, celebrities want to be liked not just by audiences but also by people, and when you are new to covering them a lot of what they say is a check that can’t be cashed.

My first major lesson was after a great phone interview with Ray Charles. He invited me to come backstage at the Orleans. After the concert, I went to the stage door and announced I was there to see Ray Charles. Not only was I not on the list, there was no list—he’d immediately left the venue. I have interviewed Paris Hilton, who is always friendly, almost 20 times. Yet we start over again each time we meet.

Not everyone is that way, of course. The late Robert Goulet allowed me and my date to join his very happy family for his mother-in-law’s birthday party. Elvis Costello, with whom I had a poor interview by phone, nonetheless invited me to a meet-and-greet. My date got him to give me his autograph. She handed it to me: This hand that wrote so many of my favorite songs writing his name for me to keep. Getting that special bit of paper is one of my favorite Vegas memories So what I if I no longer have it? For me, Vegas has always been about the memories, not the souvenirs.

8

It is hard to remember now how rare TV cameras and celebrities under 60 used to be in Vegas. In those days, cameras made casinos nervous, and celebrities hardly thought of Vegas as hip.

Then George Maloof opened the Palms on November 15, 2001. At the time the Vegas economy was still reeling from the terrorist attacks a couple of months earlier. The Internet bust had also eliminated the young stock-option millionaires Vegas was expecting in large numbers. You could not have picked a less auspicious time to open a casino.

But the Palms opening is a night no one will forget. Parking took an hour on the one hand, but on the other, the movie theater gave away free candy. The dark talk that night was not about the economy but speculation about what many older casino executives considered a huge error that Maloof had built into his casino. I am, of course, talking about the now infamous Real World show being taped in a special suite the size of six rooms on the 28th floor.

The view among the old hands was that the MTV series would at best cost a fortune, with the Palms gaining little in return for a short run on television; at worst, the combination of edgy young people and cameras everywhere would likely earn Maloof problems with the Gaming Control Board.

Instead, The Real World season at the Palms was a hit. Within a few years, the Palms outpaced the Hard Rock as the coolest spot for the Los Angeles hipster crowd. Soon, the Strip hotels began to imitate the Palms, from its nightclubs to its courtship of celebrities.

The day after the opening, Vegas was abuzz about the relatively unknown hotel heiress who was with Maloof that night, wearing a dress made of casino chips: Paris Hilton.

9

You don’t cover entertainment in the Entertainment Capital of the World for a decade without seeing some true artistic heights. Some I haven’t mentioned:

Lou Reed’s Vegas debut was a truly nutty concert. Ticket sales were so poor that Hard Rock employees went table-to-table giving tickets away. When Reed performed a new song—the quiet, death-haunted “Vanishing Act”—he interrupted himself to storm offstage, upset over the noise (at a rock concert). The Rock & Roll Animal then apparently demanded that the back bar at the Joint be closed. After his demands were met and a third of the audience had left, Reed returned to the stage and played “Vanishing Act” again—in its entirety and even slower. It was the perfect night to be a Lou Reed fan.

Clint Holmes’ show at Harrah’s over the years became one the most unique offerings in Vegas. His likeable personality and easy rapport with audiences made possible a long show with no breaks—and, by the end, almost entirely original material. His older and conservative audience never understood how radical his show had become, as he added opera, jazz and a band unequaled on the Strip.

Only in Vegas can a self-confessed former male prostitute and junkie turned punk legend and political activist host an event like Perrypalooza. Perry Farrell turned 50, with everyone from Billy Idol to Tom Morello there to honor him. Out by the Mirage pool on a beautiful night, the evening finished by reuniting Farrell’s bands Porno for Pyros and Jane’s Addiction.

Guns N’ Roses New Year’s morning at House of Blues in 2001: The finest U.S. performance by one of Axl Rose’s most amazing incarnations of the ever-revolving GNR lineup, including ex-members of the Replacements and Nine Inch Nails, plus guitarist Buckethead. It was loud, and it was great. You can’t compare this to the garage rock of classic GNR. But this was stadium rock at its finest, only a decade too late in a room too small. We were all lucky to be there.

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