Monday, August 27, 2007

We are 'Billy!

by Jack Ruby Murray

Even for Las Vegas standards “The Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender” (VLV) was wild. VLV is an international gathering of Rockabilly culture that now sees Punk, Psychobilly, and Burlesque mixing amongst Elvis loving Rockabilly purists. But as much as they come for the music they come to party. Las Vegas never closes and for four days a crowd of 18,000, carousing and drinking, leaves famous “Sin City” tired, deaf and exhausted.

Rockabilly music is the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s a type of 50’s music that alongside Doo Wop and Rhythm and Blues and Country became the background for all Rock and pop music. It gave us Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. But most of all it gave us attitude. The Rockabilly lifestyle, certainly in American terms, has become an umbrella for people with an interest in Mid twentieth century music and culture. Sometimes it is called ‘Retro’. These days It has absorbed elements of Punk, Goth and Lounge or swing culture.

In fact Tom Ingram the organizer of VLV says:

“To call it a Rockabilly weekend is not technically correct. There so much more than Rockabilly music played there and there’s much more that goes on, a car show, the pool party, the Burlesque show these are things not connected to Rockabilly music but they are connected to the Rockabilly scene.”

The bands are from all over the world such as Big Sandy from LA and Ruby Ann from Portugal. The best of them are some of the best musicians you’ll see play on the scene.And it’s not just strict Rockabilly. Other associated genres play here too 60’s garage and surf band the Dynatones played a marathon set every afternoon and evening in the lounge at the Gold Coast. And one of the most well attended shows of the weekend is the the Stars of Rockabilly show that gave old timers like Billy Lee Riley and Sleepy LaBeef a chance to prop their Telecasters up on their walking frames for just one more song. This is the Rockabilly social event of the year and the crowd is a heady mix of men and women primped and preened to the highest standards.

Walking through the incessant chatter of the slot machines in Gold Coast Hotel and Casino it’s the women you notice first. They are influenced by 1940’s and 1950’s fashions. If you can squeeze through the crowd to the bar, you can rub shoulders with a heady perfumed mix of Rockabilly royalty. Vixens and vamps with Bettie Page pin-up style cool - in corsets, pencil skirts and heels – exchange MySpace addresses with innocent and charming looking Grace Kellys in full crinoline skirted ball gowns complete with beehive hairstyles. The ‘New Burlesque’ has been a big influence on the way women dress in the last few years. At VLV , in a pretty much a male dominated Music scene (Ruby Ann’s excellent performance on Sunday night was an exception) there’s now an event where Women perform. And it gets one of the biggest crowd of the weekend.

Ingram agrees:

“Its caught me off guard.’ Tom says, “We had a Burlesque competition as a bit of fun. But it’s now become one of the major events on the Burlesque calendar, and theres a lot of credibility goes with winning it. I didn’t realize it was such a popular event until this year.”

Burlesque is ironic nod to the pin-ups and sleazy side cabaret of the 50’s and 60’s.

“It’s stripping but not stripping!” says Ingram.

Done with a sense of humor and a panache that makes you laugh out loud it’s titillation for a hip crowd who know their ‘cool’. And the costumes and styles of that era have worked their way down into the crowd. There’s as many eye popping leopard print bra tops and tassels in the audience as there are on stage. That maybe because it’s easier to look cool these days without wading thorough Thrift stores and charity shops for vintage clothes.

Richard and Nanette McNamara are in their late forties they’ve been married for 20 years and they traveled 2,000 miles from New York City to attend VLV they say people on the fringes of Rockabilly or “entry level” can look pretty cool by shopping online. There are a lot more manufacturers ‘re-popping’ clothing - that is producing reproductions of vintage clothes – My Baby Jo is a good example.
Nanette says:

“There’s lots of people not happy about putting on a another person’s dress. They want new clothes.”

They live this life and have made nine of the ten VLV events. They come to VLV to meet up with friends and like-minded people. Collecting vintage clothing for over ten years, that dedication is also reflected in other aspects of their life.They have vintage furniture and collect original records. But not everyone lives like Rich and Nanette.

Rich continues:

“Most of our friends that we meet (at VLV) have period correct furniture. Art work etc., They date their purchase of a home - which is a significant purchase around here (in New York) – on something that’s mid-century.”

He goes on to say:

“It’s part of the thing that attracts us to Las Vegas (VLV) you start talking to someone you never met before and you find they collect the same things as you and understand what that’s all about. There’s never been an instruction manual, y’know? We all tend to gravitate to the same things, it’s remarkable. We’ve met people from Japan and they have the same kind of 1950’s Bakelite clock and they can’t believe it. We’re kindred spirits.”

And there seems to be no common denominator in these peoples’ outside lives:

“VLV is as diverse a group of people as I’ve ever met in my life: some are school teachers, some mechanics, someone’s in medical school.”

Rich says:

“The reason that Tom’s got VLV to the point that it is is there are a lot of people that say ‘I would much rather go to Vegas for a week in April than Rome or any place else because these are all people that are just like me.We live in the greatest city on the Planet (New York City) and there’s nothing that you can do here that touches on VLV ”.

The men look deadly too. Tattooed all over clutching beer cans and cocktails they maintain a ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ cool while talking music and cars with thrift store Sinatras. Blue jeans and T shirts is the prevailing styles or the men, with chains hanging from belts and clumpy biker boots or Converse All-Stars.

Other styles can be sourced to the lounge culture explosion Of the early 1990’s. Sharing roughly the same historical time period as Rock ‘n Roll they draw they’re influences from Rat Pack and from the hey day of Las Vegas itself. Loungers idolise The Rat Pack - a group of movie stars and singers and their hangers on that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin Sammy Davis Jr. They immortalized the Jet Set lifestyle of the 1950’s and 60’s - they were cool. These gents forgo jeans for vintage ties and suits, sometimes custom made in either the big shouldered styles of the forties and 50’s or the slim lapeled suits with narrow ties that showed up in the sixties. They all have one thing in common though. Hair. Whether greased back or teased up, the quiffs pompadours are the crowning look of any self respecting weekender.

Carl Schreiber is attending VLV with his fiance Betsy. He bears an uncanny likeness to a young Liberace sporting a hair sprayed pompadour that rises 6 inches above his scalp. Betsy is demure with a simple orange blossom above her ear, long hair falls on her face in bangs, “It takes me 30 minutes to do my hair. Which is ten minutes longer than it takes Betsy!” He says.

‘E’ , 29, is from San Francisco and was the winner of Jive competition one year,

“I’d love to DJ too but it wouldn’t leave much time for Dancing!”

He meets up with friends this time of year every year for the past eight VLV’s:

“You get hooked on it and it has become a big deal. For me it’s as big as New year. Growing I loved the music particularly I listened to the music my parents did. I don’t exactly know when it took off for me but when I started buying my own clothes I looked for the clothes the musicians wore - and eventually I was combing my hair certain way and looking for anything related to the music and it sort evolved into this monster!”

Up the escalators from the Casino floor and turn right in the Arizona ballroom where some of the best music and dancing goes on turn right into the market where clothes new and old and records and CD’s are for sale.

Some travel from all over the country with pre-1960’s American cars stripped down and restored, modified and tuned so that their original owners wouldn’t recognize them. If Joe Q Public saw the family station wagon he bought brand new in 1954 and washed lovingly every Sunday as the kids played around him, he might drop down dead if he saw it now. Adorned with flames painted over the hood and huge silver pipes belching from under the undercarriage, it now sits only two inches from the hot Vegas asphalt, it’s definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile.

It is very much a West Coast scene perhaps because of the music business in LA. And more and more it has become a destination for other music fans. There are elements from Punk here too. In fact look carefully and you’ll see some of the older Punk crowd have gravitated to VLV as Punk splintered into elements that drifted away form their roots. Nic Alberico from San Francisco describes himself as an ‘Old Punker” he’s 44 and says,

“My first Punk show was Blondie in ’77, and I was amazed there were other people like me at the show. I suddenly felt part of something. VLV is a bit like that now. Punk as it was is gone but there’s a roots rock ‘n’ roll energy to that I identify with. VLV is celebration of real Rock ‘n’ Roll music.”

But why Las Vegas? Tom Ingram puts it simply:

“With all the entertainment in Vegas most of it sucks! VLV is known for being an event in Vegas that’s a break from the norm. All these people who want to go to the 24 hour Vegas environment to party but are put off because there’s nothing for them, realize that VLV is the only entertainment there is. I mean who wants to see Celine Dion over dinner?”

Rich McNamara agrees:

“We live in the greatest city on the planet (New York City) and there aren’t that many things that come even close to VLV. It’s 24/7! It’s non stop action!”

In the huge casino Chris Lopez sits at a slot machine with his girlfriend Celeste Torrez in the casino of the Gold Coast he is dragging a half finished 12 pack of beer around with him, he says:

“I love this place they let you drink beer on the street!”

If you’re twenty-one, in Las Vegas you can play all night. And you don’t need to leave the venue. Ingram block books 600 rooms of the 711 available. Susan Essex, director of sales at the Gold Coast says:

“It’s our biggest single event of the year. They’d take more rooms if we made them available. We love these guys!”

And there’s more to it than that even. though it’s billed as a “weekender” official events start on Thursday and end on Monday. People come to VLV come on vacation. And with a half days drive you can be at the Grand Canyon or downtown Los Angeles.

One couple from Croatia and Slovakia showed up in a wedding gown and tails,turns out they got married! at where else? The Graceland Wedding Chapel. Happy Easter - Elvis

No comments:

Post a Comment