Out of the Jar: Luck, Chance, and a Tale of Two Cities
It wasnt until a two-hour layover in the Newark airport that my Vegoose experience had finally started to settle in. Sleep deprivation, cigar smoke (a weak-willed compromise) and a few beer-slamming sessions the likes of which hadnt been seen from me for ten years had tangled my neurons. After a few hours in the air, however, it was evident that the damage wasnt permanent. Theres nothing like a four-hour flight at 30,000 feet squeezed between an airplane window and a fat man in mustard-stained overalls to clear ones head. What had finally started to settle in to the tiny cracks left of my personal space was a new species of confusion.
The inaugural weekend of what promises to be an ongoing Halloween tradition was a musical dream come true, and my veins were still pulsing with exhilaration. Not even at Bonnaroo had I moved with such speed and dexterity from tent to tent, nor seen as many acts. In the summer of 2004, the hot, humid Tennessee countryside had punished my then twenty-eight year-old body more than anything since JV basketball practice. The souths unique climatic combination of sweltering sun and blitzkrieg thunderstorms had led me to resent Bonnaroos attention-deficit formula, and after an eight-hour wait in traffic and a lousy nights sleep next to a pack of rowdy high schoolers, I was done by Friday night.
Las Vegas, on the other hand, like no other city in the world, can sustain its guests in total consciousness within an atmosphere of luxurious comfort and ease. Rather than navigating the coma-inducing monotony of interstates at night, a restless but restorative airplane nap had prepared me for the weekend. Crystal blue desert skies, warm days, cool nights, and pitch black hotel rooms assured adequate rejuvenation, regardless of how many hours one spent in actual sleep. On paper, Sin City would seem to be the ideal destination for an outdoor music festival.
What, then, was this guilt that had crept under my skin? Flipping through the channels on Saturday morning, the apocalyptic images had slapped me out of my surrealist jollity. Giant dumping grounds in the middle of New Orleans looked less like news and more like a scene from a Mad Max movienothing like a little reality to spoil a good time. Like any good American, however, I promptly changed the channel and forced my nagging conscience to the back of my mind. Afterwards though, my brief jaunts up and down the Strip were irreversibly tainted by guilty stains of selfishness.
The idea of Las Vegas as an egocentric orgy of the senses is nothing new. The citys entire marketing campaign relies on our familiarity with it. What stung more, and continues to sting, was the inescapable sense that Id gotten a raw deal.
Suddenly, this plastic city, whose chief attractions are mock-ups and cheap imitations of authentic cultural centers like New York and Paris and whose musical roots run no deeper than Wayne Newton and Celine Dion had laid claim to the musical crown previously worn by New York, Nashvilleand New Orleans. While our American traditions lay rotting in the rich Delta silt, we had had all eagerly flocked to the musical equivalent of a suburban strip mall.
Now that Black Friday has come and gone, I can understand why. We are products of an instant gratification society, and Vegoose had promised exactly that. Regardless of what you may have read, Vegoose was not about social consciousness or warm, fuzzy, neo-hippie activism. Just like those 5 a.m. megasales, Vegoose was about being there and gettin while the gettins good.
Las Vegas means a lot of things to a lot of people, but the one thing that ties every visitor and resident together is the same thing that ties us together everywhere else: that sense that anything is possible. Vegass constant sensory reminders merely make that feeling more palpable: the blinging of slot machines, the cheering of the crowds gathered around roulette and craps tables, the omnipresent neon reminders that this is a city arbitrarily risen from the desert sand roots of a small highway stop to become the very embodiment of the word possibility.
Im not talking about luck. Luck is finding a five dollar bill in your pocket. Luck is catching your train just on time because you just barely made it through three yellow lights on your way to the station. Chance, on the other hand, is something that only affects you when you put yourself at its mercy. Like luck, it can be bad or good, but it is not arbitrary. Gamblers know that the man with his money in his pocket cant win. To hit it big, hes got to put his money on the table.
The music fanatics who converged upon Las Vegas this weekend put their money down, shelling out hundreds on plane tickets, cab rides, hotel rooms, cheap buffets, and putting themselves at chances feet in hopes that for once, in this place where possibility hovers in the air like the smoke over a casino floor, chance might bless them with that singular moment when possibility becomes reality, and lives are changed forever in the transformative spaces between rhythm and melody.
By most accounts, we came out aheadbut at what cost? Despite my newfound adoration for this newborn tradition (and to make things perfectly clear, I do adore itall things considered, it was the most rewarding musical experience Ive had in years), I cant help but wonder what will happen to our other, more established traditions. As a society, weve become notorious for our short attention span and lack of determination. When something becomes too hard or too boring, we simply throw it away and buy up to the newest model. Strolling past Vegass roadside monuments to consumerism and impulse, I shivered at the possibilities.
In the end, however, it seems we do have some nobility left in us after all. Relief and pride raised the hairs on my arm when I read the news that The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival would go on as planned this spring. While Vegoose was a hell of a time, it is manufactured and artificial, built out of the thin air of capitalism and marketibility. Jazzfest, on the other hand, seems to have been born out of the very soul of New Orleans, a city that has given without question without ever asking for anything in return.
In the end, Las Vegas never gives anything. From time to time, luck blesses some random pilgrims hand with the right cards or blows a quick breeze over the rolling dice, but chance makes sure that the house always wins. Just think of those two magical days at Sam Boyd Stadium as comped. One can only hope that on New Orleans road to recovery, some of that luck will roll off those riverboat craps tables and into the heart of the city itself. As our attentions turn to Christmas, and later to the next crisis at hand, shell need all the luck she can get, because much of America will be taking its chances elsewhere.