The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
I told a publicist friend that I would be spending 10 days in Las Vegas, and his response said it all: “That’s, like, 10 days too long.”
You don’t even have to have ever been to Vegas to get the joke. The city’s reputation precedes it. Sin City. What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas. Brandon Flowers.
But the thing about Las Vegas is that most people have the same experience. It is the experience you’ve been sold by television and movies and songs. The Hangover and Ocean’s 11 may not have that much in common besides a setting, but they all preach the same vision of Las Vegas: You’ll lose money gambling. You’ll drink too many free drinks from bars that never close. You’ll lose track of whether it is day or night in casinos with no windows. You’ll eat too much from cheap buffets. You’ll blow money on strippers and cocaine and boxing matches.
I’ve been there, I’ve seen that Las Vegas, and yeah, more than a weekend is asking for trouble.
The first couple times I went to Las Vegas, it was with a rock of crystal meth, bags of coke, ecstasy, downers — all the indulgence you’d expect from a guy with a Gonzo fist tattooed on his arm. But this time would be different. I am 10 months sober, my longest run since, well, since before I ever drank or used drugs.
I spent 10 days in the city, one for every month I have been sober. Staying sober wasn’t hard. I spent two weekends at a music festival, Rock in Rio, and every day in between going to see music. I saw Mariah Carey on Mother’s Day, Britney Spears’ Pieces of Me performance, entered the Blue Man Theatre, and even caught “Weird Al” Yankovic mid-way through a five-night stand at Planet Hollywood. On my only day off, I headed to the suburbs to see The Avengers 2 on IMAX 3D, which came with a free game of bowling. Keeping busy like this is a good way to stay sober, because drinking or doing drugs is never really a temptation.
Where I felt the sobriety most — and maybe this is part of what fuels the city’s infamous indulgence — was simply in the loneliness of traveling. For 10 days, I didn’t spend much time with anyone that was more than an acquaintance. Most people I came across were jaded from dealing with tourists every day of their lives. Why try to connect with strangers that are going to disappear from your life in the time it takes for a door to open or close?
It isn’t hard to empathize with why the inhabitants of Vegas seem closed off to strangers, but it is interesting that so many artists choose this environment to set up shop. Britney Spears and Mariah Carey have chosen to play in front of tourists in lieu of traditional touring at this point. Other artists that have made similar choices range from Celine Dion to Rod Stewart. There isn’t even a model for the type of performer that settles on a Las Vegas residency. Spears and Carey aren’t at the same point in their career, with Carey having a decade of experience on Spears. But both have clearly found solace in the stationary life, performing to people on vacation rather than coming to them in their hometown.
And truth be told, the stationary life suits Carey, as the joke about her performing style is that she hardly moves at all. This of course isn’t true of her four nights a week at The Coliseum at Caesar’s Palace; it’s just true that she isn’t a dancer. But in Vegas, performing in front of an audience of mostly couples that spanned from young to old, some content to remain seated and some holding firm to the need to dance, Carey gave a nostalgic performance that steered clear of feeling stuck in the past.
For Carey, the evening was framed as a choice, with her supporting a new release, #1 to Infinity. So, in a sense, by performing all of her number one hits (and her new single), she was supporting a new release. But this also allowed her to hit on many folks’ favorites, whether it be a power ballad like “Love Takes Time” (one of the most beautiful songs written by anyone, ever) or her hip-hop-influenced tracks like “Honey”. To cap off the evening’s love affair with familiarity, many of the songs were decorated with bits from her music videos, whether that meant performing in front of a lighthouse or on a wave runner.
It is easy to see where some might criticize Carey’s vocal performance, particularly her cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”, where she wasn’t able to match her old heights. But that was recorded more than 20 years ago, and faulting someone’s voice for aging seems unfair. Maybe best was that Carey knows how to sing around the parts she can no longer hit, employing backing singers or crowd sing-alongs to help with the moments that time prevents her from matching.
One thing that Carey has on Spears is that at least she tries to sing. Where the knock on Carey is that she can’t move, Spears put her movement in the forefront. Her singing is a minor part of where her fame hinges, so instead, we got Spears delivering a stage spectacle worthy of the arena-show atmosphere created at Planet Hollywood’s Axis Theater. We got Spears picking a fan out of the audience and subjecting him to S&M mayhem during “Freakshow”. We got her hovering above the crowd as an angel for “Everytime”, making it appear to snow. We got elaborate dance numbers that made her recent fall and sprained ankle seem even more random, as the physical requirements for her nightly performance are highly demanding. To close, confetti rained down on the crowd. In fact, at almost every show I witnessed in Vegas, confetti rained down on the crowd. Weird Al seemed like he just didn’t give a fuck in comparison because he didn’t have confetti.
Both Carey and Spears delivered engaged performances, never seeming to be going through the motions for the same show they deliver multiple times a week. But the nostalgia built into their sets is a tricky game when you are a recovering addict. Most of my memories bring me back to a time before I was sober, before certain choices weren’t so cut and dry for me, where a part of me always had to keep guarded. Creating new musical memories is important, and also remembering that even though I’ve always loved music, I wasn’t really happy before I was sober.
After the Britney Spears concert, I went to a bar at Planet Hollywood with Hugh, another music writer, and Hugh’s brother, who helps protect tortoises from developers. We met a lesbian couple in town from LA to see Weird Al and had pleasant conversations while all of them drank (there was a two-drink limit to even sit at a table). We were served by women in their underwear while other half-naked women danced on tabletops. Despite the less than ideal setting, it was the closest to real human interaction that I’d experience in 10 days, and still I had to leave early as the cocktails started flowing and my hangout companions got looser. That’s a big part of staying sober: knowing when you have to leave, knowing when the environment is too conducive to a slip up.
Las Vegas tries to be this environment. The city wants people to make poor decisions. Almost every aspect of it, from the taglines to the shotgun wedding chapels to the gambling halls and 24-hour bars, it’s all stacked in the house’s favor. The only way to win is to abstain.
Maybe that’s what makes the Blue Man Group such an ideal Las Vegas destination. There is a moment toward the end of the set, when the confetti (of course) falls along with streamers to the point that everyone in the audience is covered in trash, and you can turn around and look at the face of children, of adults, of grandparents in a state of pure bliss, like they were having a religious awakening or sexual discovery or were stoned out of their mind. It is almost creepy unless you can lose your self-consciousness for a moment and realize that this kind of happiness is possible sober.
I’m sure they sold beer at the Blue Man show, and the colorful and textural nature of the show would be great on a head full of hallucinogens, but in reality, the 7 p.m. start time made the experience wholesome. Plus, the show demanded a certain level of respect. There was some audience interaction involved and enough concentration required on the part of the performers that a rowdy or intrusive audience wouldn’t make sense. And best, there was nothing about the Blue Man Group that attempted to reach outside of the four walls of the building. For most, their experience with the troupe is limited to Tobias’ foray into their world on Arrested Development, with nothing striking the chords of nostalgia. From a sober perspective, nothing feels as safe as this, when you don’t have to differentiate between before and after narratives in your mind. You can come to it as who you are now and not have to reconcile that with who you were before.
For me, “Weird Al” Yankovic hit a similar sweet spot. When his tour rolled in to Las Vegas for a series of shows at Planet Hollywood, I didn’t relate to the majority of fans, who recited Al’s parodies back to him, many old enough to have followed the comedian from their childhood to adulthood. Others, still young, were discovering Al in his later career, delving headfirst into his deep back catalog.
But I never went through a Weird Al phase and was only truly familiar with his MTV crossovers, like “Fat”, “Amish Paradise”, and “Bedrock Anthem”. Yet because so many of his songs are a reimagining of popular favorites, the night always felt familiar, with very little past connection to him necessary to appreciate the humor. As effective as the performance were the video montages that played while he and his long-time band changed costumes, showing a laundry list of Al appearances and references in pop culture. Coming to Al completely separate from him also didn’t allow for a before and after narrative. I was able to enjoy the strong performance in the present and never needed to reconcile who I was with who I am.
This kind of thinking, of who I was before when I would come to Vegas and who I am now, is easy to get bogged down in. It is easy to dwell on. Rock in Rio sold booze in giant, plastic guitar-shaped containers. If guitars weren’t your scene, they had saxophones and champagne bottles, too. Any walk down the strip meant passing countless young people with open containers. And inside the casinos, it wasn’t hard to look people in the eyes and figure out what kind of trip they were on.
Even though it was my assignment and intention to face these demons while traveling, the truth is it doesn’t work like that. Even only 10 months sober, it is difficult to get back into the frame of mind I had in Las Vegas before. I remember stumbling around a dingy casino in the middle of the night five years ago, not having slept for days, a pair of couples mocking me because I looked like such a crackhead. That memory has bothered me ever since, but never enough for me to get sober — just enough to try not to be in public that uncomposed, knowing that it is impossible to blend in with the darkness that I felt so real inside.
In the end, it wasn’t being in Las Vegas that made me face my substance abuse issues, but just being alone. So much of addiction is used to combat loneliness, and traveling opens those wounds. From in-flight cocktails to hotel bars, booze and drugs are placed front and center to the traveler, knowing full well that isolation is a scary thing for a lot of people. Las Vegas is just a city that gives plenty of options for medicating isolation. But for me, trying not to cure my loneliness feels healthy. Having experiences with a clear head, letting the moments of sadness and joy happen naturally, being okay on the drive home alone into the black of night, knowing that tomorrow is full of possibilities — the last 10 months have felt like I’m finally living life in a way where meaning is possible. Ten days in Las Vegas is nothing but a reminder of how much happier I am now.