SEARCHING FOR AMERICAN SUPERSTARS
When you think of Laughlin, Nevada, you think of: Slots! Blackjack! Dice! Drinks! Action! And Girls! Girls! Girls! But that's not all there is in Laughlin, Nevada; I have two words for you:
A fake Roy Orbison, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Charlie Daniels, Blues Brothers (not to mention the Lovely American Superstar Dancers), all live onstage twice nightly at the Flamingo Hilton. "The number one stage production in Nevada," according to the Laughlin Preview. Would the Laughlin Preview lie?
I had to find out.
But believe me, this was to be no pleasure trip. I was going to do my damnedest to get to the heart of the American Superstar experience, to try to divine the true meaning of the "tribute show" and its psychosocial place in the vast spectrum of human entertainment. I wanted to observe the nebulous smoke screen between reality and illusion, perhaps even to talk with the stars of the show who faithfully mimic their fellow countrymen, those risen to the rank of "Superstar."
But I was not going alone. In the journalism game, where there are words, there must be pictures, and the person behind the camera at New Times is a man named Tim. We would go to Laughlin, get steeped in superstars, then drive into the woods somewhere near Happy Jack, Arizona, so he could take pictures of nudists. For another article. All in a day's work.
We picked up a rental car the Hertz guy said would be green, but it looked more like light turquoise. It was the kind of sleek Japanese thing you'd see a babe emerging from on a made-for-TV movie about high-class hookers, complete with a gale-force air conditioner. It had the interior frigid all the way from Sky Harbor, way up Highway 89 until I turned off the ignition in the dirt parking lot of a gas station/store in a town called Nothing. A store that is the town of Nothing.
We went in to buy water and got to talking with the grizzled old guy behind the counter. He was thin, his hair was sticking up, he had something like three teeth and one of his eyes kept looking somewhere else. He was a friendly sort, name of Brucha. "I just work here a couple days a week. Live over there in the miner's shack," he said, gesturing over there. "I'm an artist, I'm getting a gallery started next door."
An artist? A gallery? We bit, and he led us into a dilapidated structure filled with his work. Paintings, sculptures, mixed-media collages--and not half bad. I found two things I liked and offered $25.
Brucha thought about it for a while and countered with, "How bout $22?"
Another old guy came in with a WWII Vet hat angled on his head, knocking back what he said were aspirin with a can of Bud. His name--no lie--was Les Payne.
Les was no art connoisseur, but Brucha's work had opened his eyes. "When I used to go to a museum, I'd head right for the stuffed animals. I never understood why people in museums stood there like this looking at paintings," he said, cocking an elbow and tilting his skull. "But I love this stuff, now I get it!"
We loaded up the sex machine with Brucha originals and peeled onto the blacktop again; we had a date with some American Superstars to keep.
@body:Finally, the majestic vision of Laughlin loomed up out of the desert, a monument to man's ability to just, well, build something in the middle of nowhere. Drive down the main drag in this town and one thing becomes apparent real fast--there's nothing here but casinos. I didn't even see any bail-bond offices. But there was a bigger shock in store. American Superstars was not the only tribute show in town! Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, lots of hotels had em. Right next to the Flamingo I saw a marquee advertising "The Mop Tops as the Fab Four." And those guys weren't even American.
Now, I know you've all been in gambling resorts before; we've all tasted the swingin' life at Vegas, Reno or Tahoe, the places where paychecks go to die. But there's no denying the wonderful, sick rush you get when the huge revolving lobby doors swish you from the boring, ugly world of God's own desert and into the glitzy neon miasma that is a casino!
It was like walking through Night of the Living Losers, blank zombie faces dripping cigarettes drifted by in search of the magic slot or the lucky table; others were perched on stools in front of machines, like stuffed icons to protruding stomachs and polyester clothing.
Standing there surrounded by colored lights, suffering the noise of jackpot bells and one-armed bandits regurgitating quarters, I was overwhelmed by the whole sad, pathetic and sickening scene. In disgust, I slotted a quarter, pulled the lever, waited for Tim to finish checking in. And then: BAR-JOKER-BAR-BAR came up and 50 cents came out.
What had I been thinking! A 100 percent profit, the first time out! Instantly, I realized what a great place this was, surrounded by winners like myself and plenty of money, there for the taking.
Before you can say, "Throw the bags on the beds and start gambling, dammit," we'd thrown the bags on the bed and started gambling. Dammit. But we wanted to ease into the whole thing, so we hit the bar for a little refreshment. And guess what--the thoughtful Flamingo people had installed video poker games at every stool! I started winning big on an investment of $1.25, had 12 bucks in quarters in front of me in no time.
The bartender knew we were serious players, he knew to treat us right; he plopped down a couple icy Michelobs, on the house. Tim, who, unlike me, had been dealing poorly with the intense pressure inherent in video poker, suddenly looked like he'd won the lottery. "Free beer!" he gushed, and who could blame him? Just then a full house netted me another big payoff, as we toasted our new lives. Forget American Superstars! Forget our crummy journalism gigs! Luck be a lady tonight!
Ten minutes later, the beer stopped flowing, and we'd lost our wads, so we hunkered down and trudged across the room to the stage where the Superstars would be doing their thing.
I met a man named Bobby Gino, musical director for the show. He was standing outside the room, gazing at the action on the casino floor. And that's exactly what he looked like he should be doing. Bobby was pit-boss cool, in sort of a Bob Guccione way. Tan as hell, slightly graying hair, pleated white pants, striped shirt open a few buttons, firm handshake. Maybe I've seen too many movies, but I had the overwhelming sensation that I didn't want to fuck with this guy. Bobby hooked us up with tickets for the late show, and while we stood there talking, an attractive black woman walked by. "That's Janet Jackson," said Bobby G. Yes, the first Superstar sighting. Okay, she really looked nothing like Michael's little sister, but what the hell? Janet Jackson probably doesn't look like Janet Jackson when she's walking through a casino in Laughlin, Nevada, either.
We were about ready to go in and find seats, when Roy Orbison strode past. And this guy really looked like Roy Orbison. Clad in black from head to toe, dark shades, Iron Cross around his neck, a bit paunchy. Excellent, late-period Roy.
Really, it was a guy named Terry Ray, who's been doing Roy for three years. We grabbed him, and Ray graciously gave me a little background on what it's like to make a career out of someone else's career.
"It's like a calling," Ray/Roy said. "I never sang before, I was a drummer. I was tested, and I found out I was a tenor with a five-octave range."
But you look just like him, too, I told him. "Well, I accidentally shaved my mustache off and that's how it happened. I didn't look like Orbison at all before, but I was trimming it one day, and I got a bald spot in it, and I couldn't do anything with it, so I started looking like the guy."
How'd you get into this? "A friend of mine that does Ricky Nelson introduced me to Bill Medley [one of the Righteous Brothers], and he's the one that started my career."
Do the impersonators all get together and party, just like the real stars?
"I hang out with everybody but the Elvises. I've done shows with 206 different Elvises."
Are they weirder or something?
"Oh, man . . ."
Do a lot of impersonators take it too seriously?
"Sometimes, and I find that the ones that do are usually the ones that don't have very much talent. They gotta hide behind it. I'll be backstage at a show, and people will be staring at themselves going, 'I am this person,' trying to psych themselves out. I just go out there and be myself, and I come across as Roy Orbison. I try and separate between impersonators and re-creation artists. An impersonator has to work really hard at what they do; with a re-creation artist, it all comes very naturally. They happen to look like the person and happen to sound like the person."
I asked Ray what he was going to do after the Orbison thing, and he said he wanted to record a country album and make it on his own unique talent. Which, one would think, might be kind of hard to establish, after looking and sounding like someone else for so long. But no, Ray insisted.
"This is my own thing. I don't try and sound like Roy, this is just the way I sound. I think people identify me with Roy because of the way I'm dressed. People listen with their eyes more than their ears. You can listen to me and listen to Roy on a tape, and there's no comparison. I don't sound like Roy Orbison."
@body:And then I'm at ringside, the only person sitting right up in front. The room isn't too big and not too full, about 50 or 60 people, young, old and in-between. But then, this show offers a galaxy of superstars for all ages.
The stage is filled with billows of fog, just like in a bad video. I glance at the band, and--yes--there's my man Bobby G., tux-clad and picking out the intro to "Pretty Woman." He throws me a wink, I feel like somebody. And then Terry Ray, knee deep in fog, walks out onto the stage.
But it's not Terry Ray, it's Roy Orbison! He begins to sing--sounds just like him. It's a hell of a re-creation, a tribute, an impression, whatever. Terry doesn't have to do much besides stand there. Ol' Roy wasn't the most athletic act in rock history, but that's where the Lovely American Superstars Dancers come in. Talk about truth in advertising. These are showgirls, Vegas-style, and they cavort about the somewhat avuncular Orbison with the grace, precision and finesse of professional dancing brick houses. Terry runs through the hits, the crowd loves it, and he's off.
Hold on, though, cause now we're going all the way to Houston--Whitney, that is! And Ross Scott, Whitney or not, can really sing. Only thing is, she looks more like Millie Jackson than Whitney Houston. And she talks more like Millie, too, at one point urging the crowd to "drink up! Everybody drink! Have a shot of tequila, a shot of whiskey--pretty soon I'm gonna look like Elvis!"
Perhaps this isn't Houston-correct, but Ross is great fun. And so are those dancers, masters of the quick costume change, now boogie-ing down in skimpy, fringy outfits that look like Flintstone negligees.
Sorry, but the next guy I just didn't get. In real life, he's Johnny Potash, Nevada State Fiddle Champion since 1984, but 12 times a week he's Charlie Daniels. He can play a mean fiddle, and has a waistline to rival Daniels', but who wants to see a Charlie Daniels impersonator? Charlie's not even dead or anything.
But that's just me. I don't even want to see the real thing doing "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Thank God those dancers finally came out, this time inexplicably dressed in Dallas Cowboy cheerleader suits. Modified with thongs.
Don't you just love show biz?
More fog onstage, and there's Janet Jackson, the same one we saw earlier out in the world of lost money and free drinks. Well, she may not look much like Janet, but she actually sings better. This is Delona Simon, who, in the pre-Jackson years, sang back-up for Wayne Newton and was a member of the Playboy Girls of Rock and Roll. Whatever that was. She looks out at the audience, spots an aging guy with shorts and black socks pulled up high, arms crossed, untouched pink drink with umbrella protruding in front of him.
"Are you a nasty boy?" Janet purrs. He looks at his wife, shrugs, as the lady onstage locks into Ms. Jackson's monster hit.
I don't know if you've been keeping track, but the only American Superstars left on the bill are, is, the Blues Brothers. This should be good. These two guys, Dennis "Dogwood" Wycklendt and Dave "Snake" Hurley, have been playing together for 16 years, and doing the Brothers shtick for three.
A movie screen at stage right comes to life with a montage of the big car-crash scenes from The Blues Brothers movie, apparently to prime us all for the fun just ahead. And here they are, Snake and Dogwood, doing that ants-in-the-pants, pseudosoul dancing that Belushi and Aykroyd did back in the old days. They're doing "Soul Man," the band is tight (all wearing shades, natch) and the Belushi guy--or Jake guy--perfectly executes a few cartwheels. His partner is blowing harp, blowing Aykroyd's harp blowing away.
They're good. Real good. But that's the problem--they're better than the Blues Brothers. Too pro, too polished. At the end of the set, they introduce the band (Bobby! Bobby!), and the entire cast of Superstars returns to the stage to mime along with James Brown's "Living in America." Even Belushi and Orbison are chiming in, apparently from beyond the grave. And the dancers are back, now offering a star-spangled display of T and A.
But it's all good, clean fun, and I feel like a patriot. I live in a country where I can see people imitate superstars, and damned if it's not more fun than seeing the real thing. I wouldn't want to see most of these acts in the flesh anyway, and I sure wouldn't be able to get a seat this close.
@body:The audience files out, satisfied and anxious to start donating money to the Hilton again. I stay behind, and it pays off in a private audience with Dogwood and Snake, still sweating from the big show.
I have the cosmic question ready: I want to know whether they're doing Jake and Elwood, or Belushi and Aykroyd doing Jake and Elwood. "Neither," says Dennis/Dogwood. "We're just Snake and Dogwood. Everybody sees what they want to see, it's kind of like magic. One of the things I like to say is any similarity to Belushi and Aykroyd is coincidental and unintentional."
Huh? This guy is sitting in front of me in a black suit, black shades and a black porkpie hat, after just coming offstage where he did a carbon copy of the act the boys from Saturday Night Live created. Like I might just confuse them for Shields and Yarnell? But the man has answers for everything.
"When we put it [the act] together, it was a desire to have rhythm and blues music and do it for fun. We decided on black suits because they're a pathos thing, a genre. There's a lot of insinuations; the Dragnet, Joe Friday feeling. Kind of mysterious. "What we do is ourselves. We've always been Snake and Dogwood, the Booze Brothers. It's not our intention to be copycats or act like them. We're similar, but we've always been rhythm and blues musicians, and we've always been doing music. It's been a love and a passion."
Like Roy/Ray, these guys have hopes of shedding the tribute skin and making it in music as themselves. "Getting into the mainstream music world is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We have a reputation and respect and have entertained a lot of people--big people--but to get into mainstream recording, taking it to that level, that's a matter of all this coming together."
Okay. Tim nods. Back to the casino.
@body:With the bright Laughlin dawn, there came a renewed sense of responsibility, for (if you will remember from the start of this tale) we have another mission: Get the nudists on film. The nudists were having their very own Olympics somewhere in the forest near a place called Happy Jack, down the road from Flagstaff.
Tim had been instructed to stop by on the way home from Laughlin, hit the thing around two o'clock or so. No problem, since we had also been instructed that Flagstaff was "about an hour from Laughlin." Well. Figuring there was plenty of time, we hit the road at noon and decided to cruise through Bullhead City, right across the river from Laughlin. BHC seemed to be designed for those into serious water sports. The kind of beautiful people you see on commercials, flinging themselves into lakes from rope swings and jet skis, emerging with prize-winning grins and dripping bottles of fire-brewed, genuine ice draft lite beer.
But then we saw it: Shameless Hussys. A detailed, effective painting of a curvacious dame adorned the wall; the place was irresistible. Think of it--a stripper bar that didn't push the entertainment as being classy, clean or even professional. They told it like it is. The place was filled with shameless hussies!
Actually, it was filled with a few old guys hacking away in the dark, almost-empty pitchers of beer in front of them and cigarettes piled in overflowing ashtrays everywhere.
Undaunted, we scrambled back to the car and began our leisurely, 60-minute journey to Flagstaff. After an hour, we were in Kingman. Stopped at an am/pm minimart to get directions and be made fun of. In this case, an aging but spry woman finally was able to blurt out--between guffaws--that Flagstaff was another three hours away. Three hours. Away.
But there was a shortcut, she said. If we hung a left at Andy Devine Drive, we could pick up Old Route 66 and ride it for 99 miles at top speed (no traffic, no cops) to Seligman, then hop on 40 to Flag. What the hell, we were suddenly in a state of severe panic. We'd try anything.
She was right, there was no traffic or cops, and with hope in my heart, I began to enjoy some of the scenery. Maybe we'd make it before the nudists suited up and went home. Maybe Tim could get the shots he needed. Maybe everything would be okay. @rule:
@body:"Oh, God. My stomach."
I was sitting shotgun. I looked over at Tim. One hand on the wheel, the other over his gut, face stern, eyes locked straight ahead down the endless nowhere blacktop line of Old Route 66. "I think I need a bathroom." This was not good. Funny, yes, as it wasn't happening to me, but not good. We pulled over, onto the couple feet of highway that existed before the road curved straight down for two feet or so into flat sand and scrub that extended into the distance. No trees, no large desert shrubbery, not even an old rusted roadside hulk of something to hide behind. Natural and compelling scenery, yes, but nary a shred of privacy for a man in need.
I grabbed the keys from Tim, now wearing a bowel-defying, Mount Rushmore game face, hopped behind the wheel and gunned the thing in search of, what? A dirt road, at least. And there it was. I hung a severe right, peeled into the sand Starsky and Hutchlike and sped into the American desert.
I slammed the brakes on--still no coverage in sight--and Tim leaped from the car and hobbled a few feet away. Dropped his orange-and-black-striped shorts, and made good on Darwin's theory. We are all animals.
"Is there any paper in the car?" came his choked plea. I glanced down at the floor of the rental. Nothing but Slim Jim wrappers and Wrigley's foils. Looked under the seat. Not even an old receipt! Hell, this was a rental, for God's sake; the thing was clean! Then it hit me.
There was an extra reporter's notebook in the trunk. I tossed it to him. He just kept repeating, in a strained but calm voice, "This is pathetic. This is pathetic."
I decided to take this serendipitous opportunity to check out the majesty of Arizona nature--also to let Tim retain some iota of modesty--and I wandered off into the desert. There were small types of plant life, opaque bits of quartz, tiny, wind-formed hills of fine sand; things you miss cruising by at 80 miles per hour. But I made one mistake. Sheets of reporter's notebook paper, when flung to a strong wind traveling over a flat surface such as, oh, the desert off Old Route 66, can attain one hell of a velocity. And I was downwind of the action. Suddenly, a wretched scrap of paper sailed into desert weed just to my left, then another caught. I spun my head 90 degrees. That's when I began running. There was a swarm of three-by-seven-inch pages bearing Rorschachlike smears closing in on me as I took off, dodging snake holes and hurdling tumbleweeds.
What a way to go! I knew at any minute I was going to land knee-deep in a bed of maddened rattlesnakes, and they'd find my sad, bloated corpse plastered with Tim's butt litter. But that didn't happen. I maneuvered through the ersatz TP storm and watched it flutter off into the horizon, not exactly a Remington Western tableau. I found my way back to ground zero, where Tim was now a relieved, happy boy, we got in the car and headed east. When Nat "King" Cole sang "get your kicks on Route 66," I doubt if this is what he had in mind. @rule:
@body:This is one heck of a great big beautiful state we live in, and I can tell you that because on this stupid trip, I got lost in half of it. So I'm no Magellan, I admit it, but nine months ago, I lived someplace where all you had to do was get on the subway to cross state lines. After a couple more stops at places that had actual bathrooms, we pulled into Flag at around 5:30. Spent the night--nothing exciting--and hoped there'd be a few nudists still hanging around on Saturday.
Riding on a nice, early start and primed to make a beeline for the top-secret site of the nudist Olympics, things seemed wonderful. Lush forest, crisp morning air, no hangovers. We stopped at a really fine McDonald's at Camp Verde, made our turnoff and figured about a half-hour to go.
Two hours later, we were crisscrossing backroads looking for some goddamn place called Clint's Well. We were supposed to turn there, the directions said, but there wasn't even a sign.
Nothing was easier to find than this place.
We stopped at a gas station/cafe to eat corn dogs and pull ourselves together. As we sat there, the oldest couple in the world walked in. They were thin, frail, could barely get the door open. They sat next to us and Pops wheezed out an order for two Cokes. It took my mind off the situation, it pulled at my heart strings, how inspiring. The lady seemed to be listening to us grumble about the mysterious Clint's Well. She slowly turned her head toward us, and dribbled some Coke out of her mouth. I think she was smiling.
We got out of there, and back into the nightmare.
Tim, who at this stage was a quivering wreck, a man convinced he would soon be unemployed, bounded from the car, begging hints and clues from anyone who happened to be stopped at the side of the road. Which, out there in Happy Jack land, is not a lot of people.
We tried a cowboy, hooking up a horse trailer. A guy playing trombone next to his car. Finally, a biker: "I thought I saw some o' them nakeds down there on horseback a while ago," he gestured vaguely. "But there's a ranger station up the road, though."
It may be hard to understand why this was such a big deal, but bear in mind we'd been sitting in this car for hours, driving on deserted roads, embarrassed, crazed, mystified idiots. Looking for a bunch of nakeds. Was it all a big joke? We found the ranger, and, of course, she knew exactly where the Olympics were going down, but, she said, "They swore me not to tell anyone." Uh-huh. Our insistent pleas and abject whining finally got it out of her, and this fun bit of information, as well: That gas station/cafe was Clint's Well. Unbelievable. Cute old couple? That hag had been mocking us!
The secret dirt road that would lead us to the naked sportsters finally appeared, two miles of axle-reaming potholes and ditches deep enough to swing a dead cat in. And bury it when you're finished. But we were getting warm. A car passed us going the other way; it contained two guys with nothing on.
I have never been so happy to see two naked men.
Then in a clearing up ahead we saw the first flash of skin. And there it was, our deliverance from evil, our manna from heaven, a gaggle of naked people playing volleyball. Which may not sound like much to you, but . . .
Tim began snapping away, I sat in the grass and read a book. It's amazing how dull it was watching this whole tableau. After all, it wasn't the same crowd you'd find lobbing and spiking in Hef's backyard. I'm sorry, but the idea of seeing people who look like, say, Jerry Garcia or Bea Arthur in the raw is not my cup of tea. But we did what we had to do, then got back into our reliable, filthy vehicle and headed south.
So what's the moral? Where's the payoff to this whole thing? When we finally got back to Phoenix and got out of the car, my wife grimaced and said, "You look really burned out. And Tim looks like he's catatonic."
Burned out? Catatonic? Ha! I'd been audience to the Superstars, walked among nudists, witnessed a natural, moving experience in the desert and seen all of Nothing itself. Now that's what I call a weekend. That's what I call America.
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