Vegas, Old Friends, Britain and Rod Stewart at Caesar’s Palace 3/22/17

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*photo taken by your intrepid blogger

Despite the ethos of BourbonAndVinyl celebrating fine, strong drink and rock and roll, and my general sympathies to all seven of the deadly sins, I’ve never been a fan of Las Vegas, aka Sin City. I do love the song “Sin City” by AC/DC, but that’s another matter. However, my Corporate Overlords require me to travel to LV twice a year for “conferences.” It’s like being trapped in Biosphere… I enter the casino/hotel I’m staying at and I usually never see the sun or sky again for a week. Thus was my fate last week. Even inside the casino, the air is so dry in the desert the skin on my hands makes it feels like I’m wearing tiny gloves the entire time I’m there…

There are few things that get me motivated to actually leave my conference hotel and walk up and down the strip to another casino or to a bar or restaurant on the main drag. The one thing that can get me out of my barricaded hotel room is the presence of an old friend. In this case, it was the intrepid Arkansas Joel who lured me out of my room. I met Joel during my exile years, right after graduating college, when I lived in Ft Smith, Arkansas and later Fayetteville. Ah, those heady Arkansas days. Joel was married with an infant child and I was an enfant terrible, something that hasn’t really changed. We were full of youth, piss and vinegar, the young lions come to conquer the world.

I still remember the first time I met Joel, when I was staying at a Ft Smith hotel, the Five Seasons, which is an odd name if you think about it, where they had a free breakfast buffet for anybody who was staying there. They also had a Happy Hour with free beer at end of the day. Joel had dropped by the Five Seasons at the orders of our nefarious manager to, “meet the new guy.” Joel was wearing the same corporate uniform I was: dark suit, white shirt, red tie. With his thin frame and my then beer bloated body, we looked like Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues. Joel, who has been a breakfast enthusiast since I met him (“may I have some more plain, white toast please”), enthused, “this is a great little happy hour buffet thing.” All I heard was “happy hour” and responded, “Yeah man, free beer for two hours tonight!” Joel smiled knowingly and just nodded his head. He’s been taking care of me, pretty much ever since. Our friendship, which has lasted 30 years, is the only good thing that ever came out of my Arkansas days.

Joel happened to be attending the same conference that I was in Vegas last week. We grabbed a burger and talked about the old times, while we drank a few beers. It’s fun to get together and think that we’re still the young lions we once were. Although the reminiscing quickly turned to more current concerns. As usual with Joel, the conversation turned philosophical and utterly fascinating. We talked about how our perspectives have changed over the years since we met each other. Joel was always a solid family man, I was always a gypsy. It was truly a great conversation but after one post-dinner drink, I knew I was done. I had to go barricade myself in my room. Joel headed off into the night to meet some other folks. So much for being the young lion any more, at least on my end. But it’s weird, just seeing Joel, my old friend, and hanging out for as briefly as I did, made me feel that way. There will always be a positive buzz I get when I see him. I just sort of feel better spending the evening with him.

Unfortunately, the gears of work caught hold and I was off and running with customers and employees the rest of my time in Vegas and I didn’t see Joel again. I was running around the casino, from customer lunch or dinner to internal meeting and back again. I was pretty fried by Wednesday night. At the conference, Wednesday night is typically concert night. Last week’s show was the Zac Brown Band. I don’t know a lot about the Zac Brown Band, they’ve got some descent tunes. Although, I have to say, what little I’ve heard, they seem to combine “new country” with a jam band/Dave Matthews ethos, which to me is combining all the worst elements of music in one sound experience. After a dinner with customers, where I begged off on the show, I decided to get some fresh air and walk back from New York New York to the Bellagio, where I was staying.

It was out on the streets, amongst the meandering crowd (you never walk anywhere quickly in Vegas) when I saw the giant Caesar’s Palace sign up in the distance. And, under that sign, I saw the bright neon advert for none other than Rod Stewart. When I was in college there were 5 of us who lived in a tiny house just off campus. Rod’s ‘Never A Dull Moment’ and all of the Faces LPs were in high rotation in that tiny house. Talk about the young lions…those were some of the greatest days of my life and Rod’s music was the soundtrack. I thought… why not… I only had an hour til showtime, and I couldn’t get a cab. If I could make the walk in time, I’d give ol’ Rod a shot. I got to the box office with 3 minutes to spare. When you walk up that late, they’ll cut you a deal on tickets so instead of nosebleeds, I was right up near the front, where I took the pic above. The place was packed to the rafters.

When the curtain came up, after the warm up music, Rod comes out and sings “Love Train” the old O’Jays tune and I thought, “Fuck, Rod has gone all Vegas, this sucks.” I was justified in thinking this, as he had a baker’s dozen of backing musicians on stage with him. There were three ladies singing back up and three other whose reason for being on stage was unclear at first. I thought, well I won’t stick around… but then suddenly the band launched into “Some Guys Have All the Luck” and I realized, Rod is really singing the shit out of this tune. He was all over the stage. This was no Elvis, roll you out on a dolly after the buffet to sing the same set every night, Rod was fully invested. When they launched into “Young Turks” from Rod’s New Wave period, I was thrilled. The three gals on my end of the stage ended up each being multi instrumentalists – violins, harps, banjos, mandolins… talented women indeed. By “Forever Young,” where Rod walked out through the crowd and right by yours truly, the crowd was going bonkers.

Rod announced that he plays the hits but he also likes to mix up the set list every night and slip in a few tunes that are more obscure. He then launched into “Love Is” a great mid tempo, gaelic flavored tune from his last LP, ‘Another Country,’ and said, “It was a fantastic album by the way…” I found myself smiling. He dedicated the song, “Rhythm of My Heart” to all the policemen and military out in the world and acknowledged the horrendous attacks in Britain, which had only just reached me in Biosphere, I’d been that cut off. It was a nice moment. My heart, like Rod’s goes out to my British brethren.

A true highlight for me was when he brought the band to the lip of the stage for an acoustic set. They did, “Downtown Train,” “You’re in My Heart” and two real highlights for me – “Oo La La” from the Faces which he dedicated to Ronnie Lane, a “beautiful spirit,” and “The Killing of Georgie Pt 1 and 2,” which was pretty amazing. He said “Georgie” was banned by the BBC, “but they play it now…” He had promised that he would play songs that were particularly popular in Britain to honor the fallen in his home town, London. It was a special evening. The only moment I wished the Rock Chick was with me was during “Have I Told You Lately,” our song for the first dance from the wedding reception.

The last part of the set started with “Maggie May,” with Rod saying, “Now the party starts…” He then did his second Faces track, “Stay With Me.” I was in heaven. Rod then said, “We never play this song in America, because nobody fucking knows it, but this is for Britain,” and launched into the beautiful ballad, “Sailing.” I think “Sailing” was actually the official song of the Royal Navy for a time. It was a moving moment. The show ended with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and the encore was some Guy Lombardo cover that I scooted out during…

As I walked away, I couldn’t help but think what a great evening it had been. Yes, there are aspects of the show that were very Vegas, especially the costume changes and the encore. But over all, Rod was very engaged and still rocks. He certainly has a lot of infectious fun during the show, laughing and racing around the stage. He still kicks soccer balls into the crowd and can still reach the upper balcony. His band was competent if not stunning. Rod, like myself, may not be the young lion he used to be, but I couldn’t help think as I escaped into the night… I just sort of felt better spending the evening with him, like I felt when I left my old friend Joel. I’ll never know Rod Stewart, but he feels like one of my old drinking mates from the old days. God knows, his music was always present when I was partying in those days… There will always be a positive buzz I feel when I see Rod Stewart…

If you’re stuck in Vegas and want to kill a great rocking hour and 45 minutes… you could do worse…

The Vegas Odyssey for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon with Arkansas Joel

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I am occasionally, like all professional types, required to go to Las Vegas a few times a year for various conventions in my industry. I’ve always hated Las Vegas. I once said to my old friend from Arkansas, Joel (*named changed to protect the guilty), that when I die, if I wake up in a casino and hear the bells and whistles of slot machines going off I will know I’m in Hell. Conversely, I remember mentioning that when I die, if I awake in a beer commercial, on a beach somewhere surrounded by bikini clad young women, that I’ll know I was in Heaven. As my only devout Christian friend, Joel was a little underwhelmed by my world view.

This last winter I was once again forced to go to Vegas for some training and then a customer convention. I was in Vegas so long I was beginning to worry I’d have to register in Nevada to vote. I was absolutely miserable. I was about to lose my mind when suddenly I got a text from my old friend from Arkansas, Joel, alerting me that he and his wife were heading to Vegas the next day. I met Joel over twenty five years ago when I lived for a brief time in Arkansas. I consider those my years in “exile”, like Dante when he was kicked out of Florence. While I was unhappy in Arkansas, the people were nice, and I made a friend for life in Joel. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll and bourbon guy just like me. Joel had a young family at the time, a wife and two young boys, but he always managed to find time to step out for a drink or two with his shiftless exile friend, namely me. He was the only person I knew who could quote scripture and Radiohead in the same conversation. I imagine it was a lot like drinking with Johnny Cash or maybe Dylan post-Christian period.

After I moved back home, Joel and I stayed in touch. At one particularly dark period in my life, Joel came to KC and we were out drinking. I was lamenting something and he asked me if I knew the story of Esau and Jacob. I remember saying, “Joel, the only biblical story I seem to recall goes something like this: “God said to Abraham, “kill me a son”/Abe says “Man you must be puttin’ me on/God say “No”, Abe say “What?”/God say “You can do what you want Abe, but next time you see me comin’ you better run/Abe says “Where you want this killin’ done?”/God says “Out on Highway 61.” My photographic memory of Dylan songs aside, Joel was not impressed. He went on to tell me about Esau selling his birth right and compared it to me. He said I was taking my eye off what was important. It was a good story and it’s stuck with me for years.

While I was excited to see Joel and his wife, Tiffany (*named changed to protect the innocent), they were getting in at a really early hour in the morning, but I was still required to attend the conference I was enrolled in. I had meetings scheduled. Joel and his wife were meeting with U.S. Customs at McCarren AirportĀ and would be free by lunch. My advice to Joel was that he should nap, while I did my conference and we’d meet later in the early evening. My phone started ringing around noon, it was Joel. He was apparently ignoring my advice about the nap. I let the call, (then the calls as he kept calling every thirty minutes) go to voicemail.

Finally, around mid afternoon, I relented and answered the phone. “Kenneth, it’s time to roll… Tiffany is taking a nap, but I’ve stayed up, drinking beer.” This was a bad sign. I wasn’t going to be able to put him off much longer. I begged off for another hour but we made arrangements to meet at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan. I ordered a Stella, which apparently irritated him even more. Once a decade Joel turned into what we both describe as “Hostile Joel”. This was heading that direction. “Bubba, when you’re in a bar like this, you don’t order a beer, you just tell the guy to mix you up something special with bourbon.” I was impressed that he actually ordered in that vague way and the guy brought him what looked like an Old Fashion. I killed my beer quickly and ordered “what the gentleman from Arkansas was drinking” but had to almost chug the Old Fashion as Joel had an odyssey of sorts in mind.

“Kenneth, I want you to take a journey with me. It’s going to be long and arduous, we’ll have to walk quite a ways, but in the end, we will find some treasure.” Who was I to argue, Joel was hammered and this sounded like fun. We left the Chandelier Bar and headed toward Caesar’s Palace. Joel seemed to know the way by heart. He had several gift shops and lobby bars he knew about on the route we were taking, so we were able to refresh our beers about every 100 steps. Outside the Caesar’s theater, we ended up hanging around in the gift shop. Elton John and Rod Stewart both do residencies there and they were selling CDs, t-shirts and other memorabilia. I held up a pair of leopard spotted lycra tights and asked if I should buy a pair and wear them the rest of the day. I have a vague memory of singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to the amusement of the shop clerk.

We ended up having to circle back to the Cosmopolitan when Tiffany woke up and called. She was hungry. At the rate we were drinking, I figured a little food couldn’t hurt. When we got to the Cosmopolitan, Joel announced that he was going to share one of Vegas’ greatest kept secrets, known only to the initiated. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I saw a flash of Hostile Joel when he said, “I don’t think you’re prepared for this. You’re not worthy of this kind of insider information…you’re not showing the proper reverence.” I thought of Esau, I needed to keep my eye on the prize. I tried to act contrite. We ended up walking down an unmarked hallway and discovered a hidden pizza joint and it was awesome. We took the pizza up to the hotel room and met Tiffany. Joel quickly bolted for the lobby to grab a six pack of beer, since he considered the mini bar prices to be outrageous. I’ve never really known Tiffany that well and was worried about what to say, when she plopped down on the couch across from me in the living room, and blurted out, “You know I always hated you back in Arkansas.” Jeez, first Hostile Joel and now Hostile Tiffany. Where was this evening going?

“Joel would disappear on weekends to go drinking with you. I couldn’t stand you. Of course, I didn’t know you back then, and knowing what I know now, I think you’re kind of a funny guy. I wish I’d known back then, what I know now. I was just a young mother and you were a threat. But, I’ve learned a lot since then…” she said wistfully. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d learned that had changed her opinion of me. I always got this from the wives and girlfriends of my pals. I was the single guy. It’s so much easier to get pissed at the drunken friend than the boyfriend/husband, and I was always the target. I was hanging on every word, hoping for some real wisdom, when drunken Joel burst back into the room with a six pack. Saved by the drunken bell it appears.

Finally, after hours of drinking and eating pizza, we managed to make it over to the Venetian. One of the bars off the lobby was apparently the location of Joel’s promised “treasure.” Unfortunately they were doing a private dinner for Home Depot or some other retail outlet. Joel bribed the hostess and we slipped into the bar. I quickly hit the bathroom and when I got up to the bar, I realized why we’d taken this long odyssey in the first place. Sitting on the bar, in front of Joel, were two glasses and a bottle of the infamous, rare and hard to find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon – Do I think you’re sexy, God damn right I do. The bar actually had the 15 year, the 20 year and the 23 year bottles. The 23 year was $250 a shot, so that was out of the question. We did a shot of the 15 year followed up by a shot of the 20 year. Bourbon, served neat. I was in Bourbon Heaven. I’d never had Pappy Van Winkle but now I am a big fan. It may be the best bourbon I’ve ever had. The difference between the 15 year and the 20 year was amazing. I can only wonder in awe what the 23 year was like. It had been a long, drunken, crazy day with Hostile Joel, but it was worth every moment to taste the nectar of the Gods… Pappy Van Winkle. There were many moments during the day I thought of bailing, but unlike Esau, I hung in there… Although I must admit, I wish I’d bought the Rod Stewart leopard-skin tights. It would have been a great picture for Instagram…