Some of those details in my last blog post, about my life in Vegas in the late ’70s, awakened some long-dormant memories. I’d forgotten a few of them, especially the ones involving powerful hallucinogens and large-bore firearms, but they came rushing back last night when I was posting. Baby, I was so money back then.
Actually, I didn’t have a lot of money, because I worked for Tower Records. Nor did I have a lot of common sense. What I did have was a lightning rod for weirdness, along with a head full of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 classic, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which I’d read when it was originally run as a two-part installment in Rolling Stone magazine. When I left Stockton (which was Thompson’s middle name) in 1978, to get away from Central Valley hay fever, a couple of crazy ex-girlfriends and a bunch of angry shoplifters I’d busted when I’d gone over the top in Starsky & Hutch mode at Tower, I figured Vegas might be a great place to get my act together.
This, of course, turned out to be a terrible misconception. Las Vegas is a great place for a careening out of control young person to get grounded and embrace positive change in the way that pouring gasoline on a conflagration is a great way to extinguish flames. To this, of course, I was utterly clueless; I had fantasies of scraping together enough gelt to buy a used late-’60s Cadillac convertible and a wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts, and soon I’d be sweet pals with every fine erection-popping showgirl in town, riding around top down, swilling cold beers with my new bevy of sweethearts, with nothing but Dino and Frank crooning from the deck. Hell, my Uncle Wendell had showed up in Vegas in the late 1940s or early ’50s, and he’d ended up with a pretty good gig with Nevada’s employment development department. He loved the place. And I figured I might, too. I was enamored with the coffee-shop modern architecture morphed into a burgeoning Flintstones metropolis lit in garish neon, I was dialed into the whole Rat Pack aesthetic, I never had any kind of gambling problem and could give two shits about blowing money at the tables, and something about Vegas appealed to my sense of humor, or at least the darker side of my funnybone.
There were two problems, however — my multiplying entanglements with alcohol, which were starting to get me into cop and bouncer trouble, compounded by my attraction to certain hallucenogenic compounds, which upped the intensity factor by a magnitude order of, oh, 10, 20: whaddaya got? Make that three problems: Las Vegas is a police state, which doesn’t occur to you until you’re out one night with a head full of NorCali greenbud, languidly grooving on your own personal magic carpet ride on a gently caressing desert wind, and suddenly John Law is overhead in a helicopter barking at you through a loudspeaker and blinding you with klieg lights: “Get off that bicycle and wait for the next available ground unit!” So you stop, wait, and when the cherry top rolls up, and some red-necked fuckstick threatens to toss your ignorant ass into jail for not knowing the ground rules, which expressly prohibit California hippie stoners from pedaling around on bicycles while checking out the stars. Which you can’t see in Vegas, anyway, because of all the ambient light pollution, unless you’ve enhanced that view with certain chemicals.
My weirdest night in Vegas came a couple of nights after me and Davey and Mike the journo from my hometown had done some vitamins and hit the casino, and I got stymied by the rotating carousel lounge at the Circus Circus and set two shots of Wild Turkey aflame on the bar, then screamed at burnoose-wearing Arab sheiks at the MGM Grand to “fuck this money-humping gibberish” while getting dragged out by the armpits by gorillas in suits after I’d grabbed the microphone out of the hand of a lounge singer who was pointing at me while singing a Randy Newman cover in which she’d changed the lyrics to “tall people got no reason …” and then I’d stormed the stage and grabbed the mic and snarled at her: “Listen, bitch, you’d best not be making fun of tall people, because I’m high on drugs and I might get crazy,” and then later, after my friends ditched me, I lay in the reflecting pools in front of Caesar’s Palace looking up at the stars. Bug me later and I’ll tell the story sometime.
No, anyway, I think this was after the day me and Davey tried to rent us some wheelchairs so we could roll into the Jerry Lewis Telethon all scribbled on psychedelics. We’d gotten a bit of an edge from the vitamins that mere cocktails wouldn’t cut, so we went by this coworker Debbie’s house, because Debbie always had blue Valiums falling out of her pockets like Hershey’s Kisses on Easter Sunday, and we needed some. Unfortunately, Debbie’s boyfriend Gary dealt, and there on the brownlawn instaghetto cul-de-sac where they lived, he was right in the middle of an apparent transaction with a bunch of swell chums on big roaring Harleys, and it was the sort of adrenaline-ganked standoff that makes prudent people dive behind large, immovable objects for safety. We, however, were clueless and stupid, and we walked right up. “Hey, man, what’s happening?”
Apparently, we almost got killed. “Get in the motherfuckin’ car!” Gary yelled, waving his magnum toward a beater Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the driveway. We wordlessly complied; Davey in the back and me shotgun, because of my long legs. The bikers got on their scoots and roared off and Gary got into the driver’s seat and threw the Monte Carlo in reverse. “Gotta get Debbie a scrip,” he growled, and off we went to the White Cross Drug Store, in that skanky part of Strip real estate north of Sahara and south of downtown.
I went in with Gary. Davey sat in the car. As soon as I got into the store I realized why; the place was crawling with scabby junkies and other lowlifes from the human-arachnid continuum. I sat on a broken leather and duct-taped stool at a lunch counter, between two self-professed “fur trappers from the Yukon,” just as the vitamins shifted from Spielberg to Fellini. The dumber-looking of the duo had a string of translucent onion strings dotted with liver bits dangling from his mouth, which had turned into writhing snakes; his buddy supplied the narrative. By this time, words were salad, and what I think he was talking about was me drawing all my money out of the bank and driving him and his partner back up to Whitehorse or wherever the hell they’d come from. I was watching the snakes and trying to process the words and all of a sudden I saw Gary out of the corner of my eye and he was screaming: “You motherfuckers want a beef?!? I said, you motherfuckers want a motherfuckin’ beef?!? He was waving his pistol again. “Get in the car!” he shouted. I grabbed the big grocery bag he’d dropped and edged out, and he followed me.
Gary clunked the Monte Carlo into gear and we peeled out of the parking lot onto the Strip, heading south. He reached into the bag and pulled out a half-gallon jug of Jack Daniel’s and the biggest bottle of blue Valiums I’d ever seen; I unscrewed the bottle and grabbed a handful of pills, washing them down with the Daniel’s and passing the bottles to Davey. Gary slowed about 50 yards shy of the stoplight, rolled down the power window on my side and tossed me the gun. “Go for it, podna,” he urged, motioning with his head toward the light. I was so fucked up it made perfect sense, and I pointed the pistol out the window space, aimed and squeezed of a shot: “Blam!” The kickback nearly tore my arm off, but I took the light out. At the next light, Gary grabbed the gun and took it out with one shot before gunning the motor. Davey shuddered from the back seat: “You assholes are crazy.”
After taking out a few more lights, we ended up on Warm Springs Road just south of the airport, swigging off the Daniel’s, popping more pills, smoking dope and trying to shoot the lights off the tails of incoming jets. How we avoided getting arrested or killed is an utter mystery to me. How I survived that night, or living in Las Vegas, is another. I must have one hell of a guardian angel, capisce? —Jackson Griffith
Jeebus, when things go sideways, well, maybe it’s just time to go for a few cheap laughs. Like the time I took my grandfather’s Oldsmobile 98 for its final airborne ride off the levee at Ladd’s, west of Stockton. I punched the 371-cube J-2 Golden Rocket engine and felt the sixpack roar into afterburner mode just as my buddy was lighting my bong, with a quart of Colt 45 malt liquor between my legs, and the Olds, a ’57 model that looked like a big chrome catfish, sailed off the road into a cornfield, with the Allman Brothers Band’s dope’n’roll epic “Whipping Post” blasting from the eight-track. Wheeee! Good times.
Some days are just crummy. You get up, you realize you didn’t get enough sleep. Then, things just go all dog’s breakfast from there. You break things. You realize you don’t have the dough in your pocket to get a good, satisfying meal, and you’re probably not going to get paid for a few days, and people are calling you who want money. You scrape together change, get coffee. Some random cop type sits at your table and gives you the flinty eye. You feel like a total bindlestiff, figure you might try bumming some money to get enough ingredients to cook up some hobo stew for the unruly crew in the empty lot at 20th and P, but then better sense prevails.
Once I got into trouble in Las Vegas. I mean, I got into trouble lots of times in Vegas, chemically enhanced trouble, like the time me and my pal Davey saw that they’d changed the signs for Paradise Boulevard to “Jerry Lewis Telethon Boulevard,” so we drove his Corvette Stingray to Abbey Rents to rent us some wheelchairs so we could roll into the telethon and talk to Jerry with a head full of Owsley’s finest. Not that time, but weeks later, around Halloween, when we dressed up like Bootsy Collins in made-up “Funk Funk” Devo suits and went to a party at the Epaminondas disco, and I kept shooting my plastic ray-gun spinner and hitting the waitresses in their tochises, or nay-nays, and they got pissed off and locked me in some sort of “Sadie Hawkins Day” wooden jail, which was not a good place for a guy with a head full of, well, you know, trouble. So I panicked and busted out of the jail, demolishing it, and they 86ed me for life, from all Epominondas discos and Eppie’s coffeeshops, too. Good times.
Yes, I can be an idiot at times. I’ve been clean and sober for, um, it’ll be 18 years at the end of the summer, so I can tell war stories with impunity. I do go to those “meetings,” but I don’t tell the great stories anymore, like when I was in this band called Death’s Ugly Head for about five minutes and change, and we would take a map with Stockton at the epicenter and draw concentric circles around it; Sacramento, at 45 miles, would be be inside the “our drummer’s wobbly and doing a lot of fills, but he’s still kicking the beat” circle, and San Francisco, at 90 miles, would be inside the “our drummer fell off his stool and is curled up in a foetal position next to his kit, so we’re rockin’ without a timekeeper” circle. Most of us didn’t get famous, but he did; made the cover of Spin and everything.
I’m generally well-behaved these days. I mean, I don’t get all scribbled and walk up to random women in bars and babble stuff like “Baby, you make me extremely conscious of my heterosexuality, if you know what I’m talking about and I think you do.” Believe it or not, that line worked a few times. I still talk to women, but the conversations are on a more even keel. Generally. But I still love to hear stories about people who really lose their composure and do amazingly funny and stupid stuff. Like this golden oldie. Um, not safe for work:
Damn. “I don’t know why I’m like this.” Um, I do, Pat. I’ve been zigged to the eyebrows like that, so chemically tumescent that enough blood was drained from my brain to make me seriously stupid and deranged, just like you! And thanks for the laughs, because when I hear phone messages like that, no matter how crummy I’m feeling, it’ll pull me out of my torpor in a jiffy. How can you continue a bad mood after that? I sure can’t. —Jackson Griffith