Wednesday, April 05, 2006
In 1971, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, drove to Las Vegas, Nevada where Thompson believed he could find “the American Dream.” Hunter had been mulling over the myth for years; letters to his agent, publisher (Random House), and various magazine editors reveal a man obsessed and oftentimes overwhelmed by this daunting project. Eventually, Sports Illustrated agreed to send Thompson to Nevada to cover “the mint 400 motorcycle race”; although the magazine never received its requested report, it did acquire a huge expense bill, which Thompson later acknowledged, might seem “unreasonable” but was “all in the interests of Journalistic Science.” Thirty years later, Thompson’s “savage journey to the Heart of the American Dream” still resonates. Regrettably, much from the good doctor’s Las Vegas assessment is, now, nothing more than a romantic, yet wonderfully poetic, picture of a time long ago.
Las Vegas has changed, and with it, Thompson’s original perception of “the American Dream.” Today, Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t cruise down Freemont Street. Vegas’s “Original Strip” is now blocked off from traffic and covered (like tree limbs overhead) with a large canopy of small pixilated lights. Six times nightly the sky over Freemont explodes into a bizarre and surreal light show that fully captures the true simulated essence of this hyper-city. Why is this here? Why is this happening? This does not make sense! The same street, Thompson once sped down while on an Ether binge, is today full of wandering tourists snapping cell-phone pictures of a neon cowgirl while sipping Starbucks’ lattes. Admittedly, Las Vegas has always been a hot-spot for tourists; however, Thompson could never have foreseen the super casino resorts, luxury hotels, and shopping malls that now line the “new” digitized strip.
Thompson describes “Circus-Circus [as] what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazi’s had won the war.” Today, Circus-Circus seems small, quaint, and almost out of place. More like some failed Disney-prototype than a fascist threat. No doubt, Circus-Circus will one day implode sending the whole wild, absurd, totally ridiculous casino up into the air as a smoking cloud of plastic and dust. From this void will tower yet another behemoth more audacious and monstrous than the last. Of course, Las Vegas is a place without history; buildings are not built to last -temporary structures for a disposable culture. Like cards tossed out onto the blackjack table, each building (and all the hollow beings packed inside) is only significant for that fleeting winning-moment, and then, the next hand is dealt. The “Reich” now controlling the strip is less concerned with circus antics and more with building and securing an empire of opulence and greed.
The colorful skyline of Las Vegas is speckled with large, moving cranes that are busy building forty-fifty story towers that will soon be inhabited by a populace of risk-taking gamblers and minimum wage workers. The extremely wealthy, soccer mom suburbanites and low-income trailer trash are all represented equally here “humping the American Dream.” Las Vegas is not blind to one’s economic standing; accordingly, hierarchical social structures are prevalent: “The High Rollers” section, penthouse suites, and five-star restaurants still manage to partition royalty from surfs. But wait, this is no monarchy, this is America! People here only need to “Dream, [they’ll become] the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.” In America, anything can happen.
The Desert Inn, which Thompson described as “clearly a high-class refuge for Big Spenders” is gone. “Bob Hope’s turf” is now replaced by the new turf of capitalists Steve Wynn and Donald-Ivana (one word) Trump. Luxury giants like The Belagio, The Venetian, Wynn, and Trump International shed dark shadows down onto a vast landscape of urban sprawl and gated golfing communities. I couldn’t help but wonder what Thompson –or his knife wielding attorney for that matter—might’ve said to the jackbooted thugs who waved us into The Venetian. Would it have been something like “How dare you fuckers! As if we hadn’t already received enough heat from the swine at the airport?”
The nation of debt built on credit is developing a city where one is encouraged to waste money through play and chance. Funds are frivolously tossed onto the casino, as if one moment of fortune could somehow pull any individual up from their lifetime of failure. It isn’t surprising to see what has changed about Las Vegas and what has remained the same; after all, this is a town with no real history. Vegas must reaffirm the existence of the “winning moment” and all those heavy promises associated with it to make a huge profit. Vegas must also reaffirm this idea through the very winners and losers of its own architectural landscape. One side of the street competes with the other; each new building is just another attempt to outbid the last developer’s bet. Towers continue to stack up like chips on a roulette table. Go ahead, take a spin, and “get used to losing.”
Although much has changed, some things remain true about Hunter’s original trip. For instance, “with the right kind of eyes…you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, …[to] almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Indeed. If Thompson went to Vegas to find the American Dream, he found it, but realized it was fleeting. That crest of the 60’s truly did break in the early 70’s; now, those same forces of freedom and democracy that struggle against the forces of ignorance and evil have been sold to the lowest bidder. Any hope for future change through some “freak power” revolution (as Thompson envisioned) has been replaced by the anxiety, fear, and general apathy associated with politics and social change as only a game. From this receded wave’s path appears a confused and scared people who can only dream those dreams designated to the casino resort or from an age (like the late 60’s) long gone.