Interior of the main hall at Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas
Las Vegas is not known for the arts.
The closest one comes here to a world-class symphony orchestra or a Tony Award winning musical is a time clock-punching seventy-five minute show at one of the major casinos on the Vegas Strip. Even though the greater Las Vegas valley is home to more than a million residents, a bona fide home for cultural events and the arts did not exist — until now.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened last year to great fanfare. The performance hall was constructed just a few blocks away from Fremont Street, in Downtown Las Vegas. Bringing a first-class center for the performing arts to what for decades had been a long-neglected and underutilized downtown business district was the brainchild of former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who bucked the odds and made urban revitalization one of the cornerstones of his two terms while in office.
The Smith Center is named in honor of Fred and Mary Smith, who headed a foundation with the mission to create a world-class symphony hall for Las Vegas. The Smiths not only helped raise millions of dollars in donations to fund the center, they also personally gave one of the largest charitable gifts to the arts in history.
No band or artist in modern music history has influenced more people on earth than The Beatles.
It’s astonishing to think that four common men from Liverpool, England created the sum total of 275 original songs that were all essentially written and recorded within only a six-year period — between 1963 and 1969. Six years! That basically means The Beatles pumped out a new song about once a week. Some of them even sold a few copies. Imagine that.
To put this into perspective, think back just six years ago, from 2007 to the present. Now, try and think of any musician who’s posted 20 number one hits and composed several dozen classic songs. Within a six-year time frame. Moreover, give me any artist who revolutionized modern music more profoundly — the way songs and albums are composed, packaged, marketed, and performed. In short, there was before The Beatles and there is after The Beatles. What took place during the last half of the 1960′s at Abbey Road Studios in North London was nothing short of a seismic global shift in music and culture.
Unfortunately, greatness sometimes begets saturation. And ultimately boredom. Most of us have heard every song they recorded — hundreds if not thousands of times. Nothing seems fresh anymore. In fact, some of the music that once had teenage girls fainting in the aisles may be considered stale in the same way many people may now doze off while listening to Mozart. The comparison fits. Indeed, during his day Mozart was what The Beatles were to their time. Now, his greatest compositions have been reduced to background music played in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices. No doubt, the same sad fate awaits The Beatles and all other masters.
If the city has a sound, it’s the shrill of the saxophone.
The sax is a wailing cry amidst the cries, a screech of spirit amongst the dispirited.
That day, a familiar tune echoed within the concrete caverns two blocks off Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. This wasn’t the carnival street of cotton candy and salt-water taffy immortalized in the postcards. Nor was this a good day to be outside. A feverish grey fog blanketed the city, shivering in a cold rain.
The moment of melancholy was made even more so by completely deserted streets, save for this lone visitor spending his final day in Atlantic City and the source of that marvelous pitch of the sax. Someone was giving the gift of a song. And my insatiable curiosity mixed with genuine conviction that any such a gift and personal sacrifice should be honored, motivated me to deviate from my path and discover who it was playing that saxophone.
Indeed, this would turn into my mission.
As I jogged through the falling raindrops and neared one of many cement alcoves fixed between two parking garages, the lost tune filling the air became more familiar. Finally, the song found a home in my state of conscious. It was Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
What an odd tune to hear on this dreariest of days. This wasn’t a place of rainbows. Nor was this a city of hope. It’s a song that implies tomorrow can be better than today. It’s a song which suggests the step ahead will be better than where we’re now standing. It’s a song of eternal hope and optimism.
Perhaps the surrounding made this moment all the more surreal.
The cold and bare concrete walls amplified what’s a beautiful song and made it glorious. The sound of a solitary soul blowing his heart into a musical instrument before no paying nor even listening audience was profoundly more powerful than the most celebrated symphony orchestra. This was someone who was playing music purely for music’s sake.
Writer’s Note: This is a follow up to the February 22nd column, HOW TO AVOID A SHITTY RESTAURANT.
After getting burned by the lousy barbeque joint, the following night I head over to the Thai place just across the street.
Good food. Excellent service. Very affordable. Just like every other Thai restaurant on the planet. I have this conspiracy theory that the food in every Thai restaurant actually comes out of one giant kitchen somewhere over in China (hell, everything’s made in China). I also think the staff are robots. I always seem to get the same 25-year-old skinny waitress with a flower in her hair and perfect skin who speaks broken English and never gets the “spice scale” right when I order a “4.”
However, no one warned me about the vault of horror that I’d experience towards the tail end of my dinner. No one dared to inform me of the musical trigger of indigestion following my main course. Like a random act of terror, it just happened. Like an explosion out of nowhere. And I couldn’t do goddamned thing to get out of the way.
Question: What’s the most nauseating thing you can think of while dining inside a restaurant? Seeing a bug scurrying across the floor? Hair in your food? A karaoke machine? No, much worse than that.
Think real torture.
Think “Guantanamo Bay” kind of torture.
Well by now, you’ve probably figured it out.
I’m talking — Asian guy singing “You Light Up My Life.”
The great Axl Rose and I have many things in common.
Consider the following: We both turn 51 today.
Fifty-one years old — which means we’ve each been alive for more than half a century.
On the bright side, I’m just “8″ in dog years.
I’ve never meet Axl. However, I’ve seen him in concert a few times. He’s best known as the legendary voice of Guns N’ Roses.
Come to think of it, Axl and I share far more than just having the same day and year of birth. Is it possible that we were separated at birth?