Viva Big Elvis: An Account of a Trip to Las Vegas without a Single Mention of Gambling

Until a few weeks ago I’d never been to Las Vegas. And when I told people I was going, their reactions weren’t always predictable. A trainee rabbi laughed happily as he remembered the place. A liberal – apparently tolerant – friend angrily dismissed it as a moral vacuum. And these were people who’d actually been there. There were others who hadn’t, but who offered up comprehensive views anyway. Would anyone critique Helsinki or Lille without going there? And then there were those who didn’t tell me what they thought of Vegas, but told me, instead, exactly what I would think of it.

Why, I was wondering, were people so involved?

Possibly because they weren’t actually talking about Vegas at all. Weren’t they really presenting themselves as they’d like to be seen? In some cases, as moral individuals who frown on greed and superficiality, on dancing musical fountains and morbidly obese Elvis impersonators. And in others, as people who get it, whose highly developed senses of humour shine ironic light on seven-pound burrito eating contests, and indoor recreations of Piazza San Marco.

And if Vegas really does represent a scale on which we can all be judged, I might as well tell you that before I went, I really liked it there. But now that I’m back, I like it even more. For me, Las Vegas is all about emotion. Yes, it’s built on gambling and sex and extortion, and, yes, it only smiles on those who can pay. I was told – more than once – about the people who follow their shiny dreams to the city only to finish up living in piss-soaked tunnels underneath it. “Some people say they like it here,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson, “but then some people like Nixon, too.” Vegas wastes natural resources to the point where brushing your teeth in the morning feels wrong. But I loved it all the same. I’ve never been anywhere that’s had me so close to tears so often. And I never cry.

One of my first experiences – and I recommend it as an introduction for any visitor – was an old-style Vegas show called ‘Jubilee’. It’s full of showgirls in feathered headdresses with make up so thick I wondered for a while whether some were men in drag. But they weren’t because they all had breasts, some bigger, some smaller, all bouncing freely around the stage. And when they disappeared off at the climax of a George Gershwin medley, they were replaced by a startlingly detailed recreation of an ocean liner. For the next ten minutes I sat astounded as the showgirls (and showboys) returned to act out the sinking of the Titanic. They played shuffleboard, they panicked at the sight of an iceberg, they hummed ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as the ship disappeared into the churning Atlantic. And then the breasts (which had been covered up – presumably out of respect for the dead) returned for a Cole Porter tribute. It was all so sincere, so funny, so naive, so enthusiastic – and so moving. Yes, moving. Lots of ingredients come together in Vegas to create a currency of emotion, and the machines pay out if you’ll let them.

I was moved the next day, too, watching Big Elvis, the above-mentioned medically obese impersonator. The thing is, he’s not just obese, he’s also terrifically good. And that combination of talent and tragedy mirroring Elvis’s own, plus the fact that Elvis is a religion in the States, (Vegas being his Medina, if not his Mecca), plus the nicely down-home atmosphere of the bar in which he sings three times a day, makes Big Elvis another emotional experience. At first I felt like laughing as Midwesterners wept. Thirty minutes later, as he begged Dixieland to look away, I was crying myself. And I never cry.

I could go on. By the end of the trip I was moved by an impeccably dressed Pee Wee Herman impersonator posing for visitors’ cameras on the strip. Nobody was paying him much attention so I gave him a few bucks. He was very grateful. Hell, maybe he was Pee Wee Herman. Of course by this time I’d have been moved by my own reflection in a puddle. (I should add that a combination of jet lag and excitement meant that I was barely sleeping; this could be another reason for my vulnerable state. I should also add that I was only ever going to be staying for six nights. A lifetime in Vegas would be something else altogether…)

So there we are. Am I telling you that I loved Vegas to impress you with my highly developed sense of absurdity? Maybe. To alert you to my unusually empathetic and amiable personality? Probably. But don’t you see? You’ll love it there too.

Really. You will.