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Posted by on Apr 12, 2020 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas | 1 comment

My Thoughts on Live Casino Poker Returning in the Shadow of COVID-19

 

CV19 Proof Poker Table

 

MY THOUGHTS ON LIVE POKER RETURNING IN THE SHADOW OF COVID-19

The main reason why poker will struggle in Las Vegas and elsewhere after reopening isn’t about safety. It’s because the games will suck.

 

1. Let’s ponder the reasons why most people play casino poker. The two primary reasons are:

(A) To make money and

(B) To socialize.

2. Now, let’s take a look at the prototype that’s been “trial ballooned” in the gambling media as just one of several possibilities for a functional poker table in the post-CV19 era. It’s a standard table with glass (or plastic) partitions. Presumably, this design will reduce the chances of contamination and/or infection spread between dealers and players and each other. Similar designs have surfaced elsewhere, and a few are reportedly being used now as some casinos begin to reopen.

3. Aside from the many questions as to whether this table design is truly safe to consumers and provides an acceptable level of protection while in the midst of a global pandemic that has infected more than a million Americans, even under a best-case scenario, how “good” will poker games be?

4. Returning to the original point raised in #1, will live poker games played in the shadow of CV19 be either (A) potentially profitable and/or (B) sociable? My conclusions are — no and no.

5. When Nevada casinos reopen, poker tables will reportedly be played with a maximum of four players. Now ask yourself this:
What kinds of poker players will play under these highly unusual, short-handed conditions? Pros and semi-pros? Yes. What about more casual players? Probably not. What about weak and inexperienced players? Absolutely not. Prediction: Standard four-handed games will be terrible. They will be virtually unbeatable, with only a few exceptions, noted later.

It will be like a pond of sharks feasting for any sign of a juicy morsel, all but impossible to find.

6. What about the social aspect of these games? Four-handed poker with dividers might be an interesting conversation piece for a few minutes but will quickly become very annoying. Partitions where players might have trouble speaking, not to mention problems with glare, will kill any prospects for fun and spirited games. Let’s face it: Live poker was already becoming unsociable, almost robotic in nature, *before *the pandemic and crisis. Smartphones and iPads had all but destroyed casual table conversation leading up to the events of early 2020. Now, remove half the players at any given table since seats are reduced from 9/10 down to 4 and set up dividers, and the social attraction of poker is obliterated.

7. So, games will be terrible in most situations. What’s the fallout of all this? Simple. Table draws/seating position will be so paramount to profit that managing the room will become far more difficult. Smart players will scout the room and try to find seats with weak players, which will be few and far between. However, a small number of players — primarily short-handed specialists — might enjoy a significant uptick in profit. But this will be only a small number. The vast majority of marginally-talented players who were grinding out modest profits before will instantly become break-even or even losing players. For virtually everyone, certainly in poker markets with tougher and more experienced players, the games will become unbeatable. With players’ portion of the rake likely to increase, as well as the occasions for tipping dealers (fewer players means higher percentages of pots won), this will only add to the stress of trying to earn a profit.

8. A very small number of locations, games, and players will benefit from the new conditions. Some markets do have broader skill disparities between skilled and unskilled players, and the better players will win more money faster. However, this could also be dangerous for losing players who might go broke faster and not be able to replenish funds. If they bust, who will take their places? So, even the winning players in the short term could end up suffering in the longer-term, especially if short-handed play is the norm for a while.

9. As for attracting new players to the game, forget it. Casino poker was already intimidating before. However, full games will up to 10 players often allowed novice players to blend in and not be forced into as many decisions. Short-handed games with blinds racing around and faster action will fail to attract new players who are essential to the prosperity of any poker room.

10. Thus far, I have not touched upon health and safety. I’ll leave it up to medical professionals to offer their assessments. Nonetheless, no other casino game typically includes as much personal interaction with others and touching common items as poker. While video poker and slot machines can be sanitized frequently, one must wonder how healthy it will be to play poker for many hours in a session, which is typical behavior for most players. It seems poker is far riskier than other casino games and activities.

Hence, I conclude the games will mostly be unbeatable. Poker games will be less sociable. And games might even be unsafe.

Is there any upside or positives? Well, online poker should fare well where it is now legal and/or quasi-legal. I strongly suggest players gravitate to trusted sites where consumers enjoy some protections. Too bad that so many “poker professionals” did so little to advance online poker years ago when they had the chance. Now, the game will struggle, at least for a while.

Personally, I have no interest in playing live casino poker until there’s a vaccine or the threat of infection almost entirely disappears. And I certainly have no interest in playing ina four-handed game boxed into a cubicle that resembles a jail visit.

I’m neutral on the question of poker’s greater future. I just don’t know and can’t offer any projections, and this is from someone who spent a few years on all sides of the game. How might our recreational and gaming habits change if these social distancing guidelines continue much longer?

I’ll offer one more assessment soon in a future column on the prospects for dealers and staff, who I genuinely have concern for in the months and years ahead. As for poker pros, it’s probably time to go out and get a real job, provided you can find one.

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Posted by on Apr 12, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 12

 

Van Morrison Live

 

“I write songs.  Then, I record them.  And, later, maybe I perform them on stage.  That’s what I do.  That’s my job.  Simple.”

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THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 12

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DAY 78: Funny Van Morrison Stories

Today, here’s something a bit different.

The very last thing Van Morrison is known for is his sense of humor. He’s one of music’s biggest crabs. But given his introverted nature, his notoriously inconsistent live performances, and a deep distaste for fame or any of the trappings associated with being a rock legend, over the years many great Van stories have been told which are quite amusing.

To get the full effect of these stories you have to understand a few things about Van:

1. He does enjoy the occasional drink. Van has been through periods of self-imposed sobriety, but his love of liquid spirits won’t exactly diminish any old Irish stereotypes.

2. Second, Van is known for some astounding moments of rudeness, even to his own fans and audiences. This crabbiness bothers many would-be fans. It has certainly contributed to Van’s reputation as a curmudgeon. The way he treats fans, media, and even members of his own bad used to annoy me, but eventually, I came to realize he’s just on his own planet, sometimes and so I’ll forgive and instead try to relish the music.

That said, here are a couple of amusing Van tales of many I’ve come across: I’ll try to tell more as the series continues.

VAN STORY #1: Credit Gregory Runfeldt for his funny Van story….

“A friend of mine managed a bar in a hotel. One quiet evening Van walks in, sits at the bar and orders a whiskey, my friend makes a suggestion and Van excepts. My mate pours the drink and passes the glass across the bar. At this point my friend tried to describe the incredulous look on Van’s face (which my friend said didn’t really do it justice) as Van pushes the glass back across the bar, looks him in the eye and says….. “the bottle.”

VAN STORY #2: Credit John Norvell Greene….

“My brother went to see Van in concert in the mid-80s. Van was in poor humor, so bad that he sang his songs with his back to the audience most of the show. Between songs, a fan shouted, “Van–show us your face!” Van’s reply was classic: “You came to see me, I didn’t come to see you.” From that moment on, he was hooked onto his music.”

van-morrison
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DAY 79: “Only a Dream” (Soloman Burke Cover Version from 2002)

There are so many outstanding cover versions of Van Morrison compositions that it’s become impossible to cut them down to only a few.

Certainly, one of the most memorable renditions is by the prolific performer, pioneer, and legend Solomon Burke who was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His bluesy rendition of Van’s “Only a Dream” is the ultimate payback to the Northern Irish icon who was so deeply influenced by classic 50s and 60s R&B.

“Only a Dream” sounds very much like it could have been written 50 years earlier. But it’s actually a relatively modern track off Van’s Down the Road double album. Much of the rich collection is a throwback to the songs and sounds of his childhood, albeit with Van’s own soulful twist. As is typical, Van appears to be doing music for himself here, with virtually no regard for commercial prospects of success.

Indeed, this time it was one of the legends covering a Van song, instead of vice versa. Van’s music had been done earlier by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles. So, Solomon Burke certainly fits within that wheelhouse of musical giants. Van may have penned the melody and lyric, but Burke masters this tune and makes it all his own.

The cover appeared on the 2002 album Don’t Give Up on Me, released on Fat Possum Records. Not only Van, but Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, and Bob Dylan provided material for Burke’s sessions. But really it’s the standout quality of the songs and Burke himself, one of the most versatile and charismatic singers around, that make this album so special.

That album, considered the swan song of his lengthy career, won the MOJO Award for Album of the Year, as well as the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. So, once again — even though Van has never recorded a Top Ten hit, his work continued to reach new audiences by virtue of reinterpretation by other artists.

Addendum: Burke passed away in 2010. In one of his final interviews, he admitted serial infidelity during his four marriages:

“I was young. Girls were coming from every angle. I couldn’t love them all. But I tried.”

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DAY 80: More Van Morrison — The Crabby Curmudgeon

This series attempts to be a comprehensive overview of the music and career of Van Morrison. But there will be no sugar coating.

Over the past several weeks I’ve posted some awful live performances, outtakes, embarrassing moments, and baffling misses. To be fair, no musician in the public eye over 56 prolific years can possibly go without some blemishes (Van’s first hit was in 1964). However, Van has twisted obtuseness and made it his own art form.

Ask any rock critic or interviewer who has covered the music scene any length of time, and the worst interview on the planet is usually Van Morrison. He resents being questioned. He doesn’t like talking about music, opting to let the sound speak for itself and be left open to interpretation. He doesn’t like his lyrics deciphered, brushing away serious scholarly reflection as a waste of time. Most songwriters would foam at the mouth for such attention and to be taken so seriously. Van doesn’t care.

In an odd way, this makes him both cringeworthy and endearing, at least to his loyal fans.

Consider this 2-minute sit-down interview from 1987 when he was promoting the Poetic Champions Compose album and tour. Imagine for a moment, you are the unfortunate journalist forced to sit there and ask these questions and then try and spin Van’s dismissal of the entire songwriting process in a matter of seconds. Indeed, you’ve just landed one of the rarest interviews in the music business, and this is the torturous dregs you’re left to work with.

Rarely have I witnessed something so painful to watch, yet so genuinely hysterical.

“You gotta pretend that you are searching for something, so you have something to write about, otherwise you end up with a blank piece of paper.”

Just brutal. This interview is obviously the last place on earth Van wants to be, and it shows!

Enjoy.

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DAY 81: “Crazy Love” (Van Morrison with Ray Charles)

Ray Charles had as profound an influence on Van Morrison’s music and songwriting as anyone. Van grew up listening to Charles’ soulful recordings in the 1950s. He took an important lesson from the singer-pianist who had shocked audiences in 1962 when he temporarily detoured away from his R&B roots opting to record a country and western album, which shattered barriers on race, culture, and music. Such a thing wasn’t done in those days, but Charles was a pioneer. That willingness to depart comfort zones and take new chances in new musical arenas later became a defining trademark of Van’s career, which has covered nearly every musical genre. But it really began with Van’s mentor, Ray Charles.

Continuing with our series on the greatest cover versions of Van’s songs, let’s examine the 2004 classic, “Crazy Love.” The song originally appeared on Van’s 1970 album Moondance. Charles heard it and played it so often that it became widely misunderstood as an original composition. But Van wrote it as an acoustic guitar track. When he discovered his icon Ray Charles decided to perform it (and later record the song), he was uncharacteristically thrilled, perhaps as emotionally-satisfied as from any career peak.

In 1993, Van was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. True to his crusty reputation, he didn’t even bother to show up for the induction. “It meant nothing to me,” Van recalled later in an interview so typical of his distaste for fame and ceremony. But a decade later things would be very different.

Sometime in 2003, Van was informed he’d be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Unlike being etched into the rock pantheon, this honor really meant something to Van. So, he was inclined to attend and accept the trappings of the induction. When Van learned Ray Charles would be present to perform, well, that was the deciding factor. “Yeah, I went because Ray being there really meant something,” Van stated in an expose on that aired on CBS Sunday Morning.

So, in this short clip, Charles begins singing the song Van wrote, and then Van comes out and performs a duet. It’s the only public appearance of the two legends together.

Shortly after the induction, it was obvious that Charles was in poor health. In the Spring of 2004, he went into the studio one last time for what would be his final few sessions. He recorded one final farewell album, what was titled Genius Loves Company. Fittingly, “Crazy Love” was the 12th and final song on the very last album.

Ray Charles died in June of 2004. The album was released posthumously. The swansong collection cracked the Top Ten, Charles first such feat in 40 years. In fact, Genius Loves Company became the best-selling album of Charles’ career.

Let’s have a look and a listen at this classic moment, an unrehearsed duet with the two masters, performed live at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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DAY 82: The Real Story Behind “Brown-Eyed Girl” (1967)

It’s the song we all know the words to and can sing along with. Word for word. Note for note. It’s a staple on classic rock radio and karaoke bars. Even those who don’t know the name “Van Morrison,” know his most famous hit song, “Brown Eyed Girl.” It’s his signature song.

But do they know the real story about how the catchy melody became Van’s first solo hit single?

Writer Tom Maxwell recounted much of the background story in a marvelously researched article, portions which were also relayed in Ryan H. Walsh’s joyous read of a book, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. Here’s my take and interpretation, melding the best details from each author along with my own insight.

In the spring of 1967, right after splitting from the Northern Irish band Them, solo Van Morrison flew to New York for the first time. He was rushed into a Manhattan studio and recorded more than 40 original songs. The three-day musical onslaught became known as the “Bang Sessions.”

Despite known for being difficult to work with and highly temperamental, record producer Bert Berns offered Van a recording contract. It was a fateful decision. Morrison signed the deal, which he later said he didn’t even bother to read nor did he consult with an agent, in exchange for the sum of $2,500.

By the time the Bang sessions were underway, Van was already on edge. He didn’t like the studio musicians assigned to the recordings. He argued with sound engineers. He got into spats with Berns and just about anyone who would subject themselves to his rants. Nonetheless, Berns and those who witnessed the musical carnage knew something spectacular was happening in the cramped cubicle of sound that was the sub-leased studio at A&R Records. Beneath the excruciating difficulties lay the heart, the soul, and the voice of a songwriting guru. Indeed, even his shitty songs were pretty good.

One of those shitty songs came together much better than the rest. Van, with no eye nor ear for commercial tastes, had written a song he titled “Brown-Skinned Girl.” Berns would have none of the scandalous trappings with racy lyrics about an interracial love affair. So, he is alleged to have altered the title to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Van disputes some of this but does agree “Brown-Skinned Girl” was the working title and genesis.

Wait, the story gets more bizarre.

Once the initial recording sessions were finished, and more than 30 original compositions were in the vault at Bang, Van returned to his native Belfast. Then, about six weeks later, a friend telephoned Van with some jolting news. The friend told Van he’d just bought a copy of his first solo album, Blowin’ Your Mind!

“But I don’t have a solo album,” Van reportedly shot back on the transatlantic call.

“Well, you do now!”

The gaudy album cover was a total travesty. It showed a colorized cartoonish picture of a pensive Van Morrison is on its cover, surrounded by psychedelic art and puffy lettering.

“I got a call saying it was an album coming out and this is the cover,” Van said years later. “And I saw the cover and I almost threw up, you know.”

Van Morrison was completely unaware of the album, or even that such a thing was possible. How could his record company and producer release an album with his name on it, and not even inform him?

Wait, now the story really kicks in.

“Brown-Eyed Girl” shot up the charts and reached #10 on Billboard. However, due to a badly-written contract, Van didn’t get paid. As DJs across America were spinning the catchy tune, Van flew back to the states and was in Bern’s New York office screaming at him for rushing out an album. Money might have softened the humiliation, but there was no money waiting for Van. The duo fought over royalties. Then, on December 30, 1967, the unthinkable happened. Bert Berns, the owner of Bang Records and the pillar in control of Van’s recording contract suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 38. Berns’s widow blamed Van for his death.

Incredibly, Van still owed Bang another round of songs. And so, Van delivered. He penned 31 throw-away songs. One of the song titles was “Ringworm.” In Van’s mind, none were ever intended for release. It was a farce.

What became known as Morrison’s “revenge sessions” was nothing more than trying to satisfy a contractual obligation. He had to make songs for the label, which had been taken over by powers that saw music as soda pop, something to be sold to the masses. “The album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label F-you’s,” wrote Maxwell. “Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently, that was the whole point of it: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers….Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.”

Van was only 23 at the time. But he’d already established himself as a terror to work with and deal with, some of the unpredictable bouts of rage entirely justified.

So, when Van is obligated to make his first national television appearance and sing his first solo hit on ABC’s widely-influential program, American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark, for the first time we see someone angry and rebellious, prone to fits of anger, pissed at the music industry, utterly broke despite having a hit single on the sharts, and his career in smithereens with no management and his music prospects null and void. Add the indignity of having to lip-synch a song Van didn’t even like due to the show’s technical limitations at the time, and we see Van utterly disinterested to the point of near revulsion.

That’s the real story of “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Sorta’ changes things and obliterates the joyful innocence, doesn’t it?

[Postscript: Right after Bang dropped Van, he rushed into the studio with Warner, and recorded his masterpiece — Astral Weeks.]

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DAY 83:  “Ringworm” (1968)

Following up on the previous article on “Brown-Eyed Girl”……

Imagine you’re the record company, and Van is obligated to provide X number of new tracks, and *THIS* acetate arrives in the office plopped down on the desk. The reaction for music company executives when they heard this must have been priceless.

It’s the greatest FUCK YOU! to a record label ever. Especially after the company put out an album without consulting Van or asking for his input.

Enjoy “Ringworm!”

[People ask me how VM has such a cult following. Well, it’s stories like this.]

DAY 84: “Big Time Operators” (1993)

Yesterday, we examined some of the root causes of Van Morrison’s bitterness at the music industry and hard-nosed reputation as being difficult to work with.

That resentment has inspired several vicious songs that weren’t commercially successful but certainly gave Van some deep-seated satisfaction with lashing out at those he’s perceived to have crossed him over the years. Fellow “Vanatics” have come to accept and even embrace this odd obsession with getting back at his enemies through his music. It’s become so frequent and so harsh that the lyrics from the famed curmudgeon are almost camp hysterical.

Take Van’s blistering attack on music producers, record companies, and agents in “Big Time Operators,” from the outstanding 1993 album, Too Long in Exile. Rooted in blues, jazz, and soul, Too Long in Exile is clearly one of Van’s most personal projects. He worked with his own musicians, most lifelong associates. He was also signed to a new record label which knew the combustible, yet unpredictable force of nature they were signing. One presumes they just turned Van loose inside the studio and let him roll. Accordingly, the album would be expected to be wildly undisciplined. However, the collection is remarkable even and consistently enjoyable from start to finish.

“Big Time Operators” is one of 15 tracks on the album. If you read the previous two segments of this series, you will better understand the song, which is entirely autobiographical. From the first lyric, “Well, they told me to come on over…..I made my way to New York,” we know what’s about to come. Indeed, one of the most interesting stanzas is Van saying they (the music execs) thought he was “on drugs” due to his introverted and often surly nature, but insists, “I was clean,” which was entirely true since Van had little or no experience with drug use, even though it was rampant in rock music at the time. Every lyric seems to come with a story to unpack.

After a string of pop-infused albums in the late 80s and early 90s, Van returns to his roots here in top form. Several tracks include him on saxophone. Interesting fact about the title is — Van was never in exile, apart from a nearly 3-year hiatus from recording and performing during the mid-1970s. This marks one of his most prolific periods. Perhaps Van was having some imaginary fun with lyrics.  A more grounded speculation might be that after write several pop hits, “Days Like This,” “Have I Told You Lately,” “Someone Like You,” and others he felt exiled from his musical roots, which is old blues and jazz.

Special thanks to Jack Ward for today’s recommendation. Now, have a listen to Van rip apart the music industry, he claims is ruined by “Big Time Operators.”

[ h/T Jack Ward ]

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PREVIOUS SEGMENTS/SONGS:
  • WEEK 1:  (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
  • WEEK 2:  (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
  • WEEK 3:  (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
  • Week 4:  (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
  • WEEK 5:  (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
  • WEEK 6:  (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
  • WEEK 7:  (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
  • WEEK 8:  (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
  • WEEK 9  (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
  • WEEK 10  (Caravan Live; David Letterman-with Sinead O’Connor; I’ll Be Your Lover Too; Hungry For Your Love; Irish Heartbeat; Sean Cullen Comedy Impersonation; Jimmy Fallon Comedy Impersonation)
  • WEEK 11  (Tell Me-unreleased; Take Me Back; Gloria by Patti Smith; Into the Mystic by Joe Cocker; Have I Told You Lately by Rod Stewart; Wild Night by John Cougar Mellencamp;  Madame George by Marianne Faithful)
  • WEEK 12  (Funny Van Stories; Only a Dream cover by Soloman Burke; Disastroud Van Interview; Crazy Love duet with Ray Charles; The Real Story Behind Brown-Eyed Girl; Ringworm-unreleased; Big Time Operators)
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Note:  Follow me on Facebook for the latest editions of the Van Morrison MasterClass, and more.
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Posted by on Apr 10, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 1 comment

COVID-19 in 2020 America: My Three-Month Projection

 

 

COVID-19 IN 2020 AMERICA:
MY THREE-MONTH PROJECTION

1. The fissure between the two primary camps with opposing agendas and clashing priorities will continue to rupture. This widening divide is exacerbated because opposing groups now align largely along political and philosophical lines.

2. Since mid-March, *health/safety* advocates have driven virtually all federal, state, and local policy. However, those who prioritize *economy/employment* have increased in number and in the volume of their discontent (i.e., 10 screamers are far noisier than 100 who remain silent). As public patience gradually wears thin, and many regions of the country seem (relatively) unaffected, collective anxiety will worsen.

3. Growing economic hardship caused by the shutdown disproportionally impacts the middle class and the poor. Flames of revolt, increasingly fanned by conspiracy theorists and the constant drumbeat of right-wing media, make current policies unsustainable. This means social distancing guidelines are now being relaxed as America begins to “reopen.” While this is a reckless public policy, and potentially catastrophic given what we know (and we don’t know) about the pandemic, it’s just as inexorable. Ordering people to prepare for a hurricane when they don’t see clouds and rain is ineffectual.

4. Unless some economic sectors are permitted to reopen, particularly those impacting small businesses and self-employed contractors (which number in the millions), acts of rebellion once considered unpalatable to most average citizens will increasingly gain support. Justified or not, resentment against social distancing has spread from a few extremists into the mainstream. Personal financial interests will prevail in the debate and will win easily in most communities. Largely shafted or shortchanged by the federal economic bailout, and eligible for only limited state relief, those at risk for losing their businesses will slowly trickle over to the other side of the debate. This has already happened in rural communities and is now occurring in suburbia. Aside from a few “hot spots,” even many cities will decide to take their chances. It remains to be seen if we end up paying a much higher cost down the road as collective impatience leads to compromises in health/safety.

5. Perceptions will be shaped by three primary factors: (1) Preconceptions (2) Source of Reporting (3) The Inevitability of Changing Attitudes

— Our preconceptions about the threat posed by the virus combined with our political affiliation will mostly guide how we react to future events, both good and bad. In fact, I expect these preconceptions will boll weevil disparate camps even further apart.

— If 200,000 Americans are dead by summer’s end, which is a quite plausible projection, is that good news or bad news? Your answer depends on where we get our news and how data is packaged. The Trump Administration will certainly spin this as good news. Anti-Trump forces will point to America’s death toll as the highest in the world (likely) as evidence of failed leadership.

— Our attitudes about risk, sickness, the aged, and even death are changing. Should you doubt this, think again. In war, the value of life becomes cheaper. What we never thought tolerable before, becomes not only acceptable but “normal.”

6. Perceptions about the elderly will be the starkest new reality. Older people will be viewed as more disposable, especially by the young and by a medical system that may be forced to make tough choices as to the priorities of health care (not just COVID-19 related, but overall as resources become stretched). Nursing homes disproportionally feeling the impacts of the pandemic will fade from crisis mode. But what would happen if the virus begins hitting nurseries and schools? Such a shift in the preponderance of victims would produce a radical shift in collective perception, and would certainly not be tolerated by any segment of the population. The key here is to watch which age groups (and racial groups to a lesser extent) make up the victims (minorities are getting harder hit at the moment).

7. Pursuant to #5 and #6 (above), I can’t overemphasize this enough. I’m deeply worried deeply about our collective de-sensitization. We are desensitized to lies. We are desensitized to corruption. We are desensitized to incompetence. We are desensitized to bullying. We are desensitized to suffering, especially the suffering of strangers. We are even becoming desensitized to death.

8. Note that outside of the Metro New York area, the number of COVID-19 cases (nationally) continues to spike. It’s not going down. The numbers are going up. Each day. Yet, restrictions are now being relaxed in most states. While some areas of the country are doing quite well given the overall threat, that’s not to say an outbreak isn’t possible just about anywhere. I project that as the vast majority of states do reopen and gradually lax social distancing guidelines, combined with some public resentment to restrictions, we will experience some shocking new hot spots. These outbreaks will almost seem random, like in meat-packing plants in the Midwest. As people return to work and socialize more, what’s next? Where? Who?

9. So, we are divided — politically and philosophically — which will translate into behavior differences, as well. We are desensitized. American deaths will soon spike over 100,000. We will increasingly come to accept this as a new normal. We insist that businesses must open. Sporting events must be played. Financial interests will guide our path forward and determine public policy. Now, the only question is — what impact will these decisions have? What actions are taken now and in the next three months will impact the remainder of the year, and beyond? Will 2020 be like 1918 all over again, where the first wave was only a small wave of the catastrophe that swept the nation in the fall, undoubtedly made worse by the reduction of precautions? Or, might COVID-19 slowly dissipate and eventually disappear as a serious threat? No one knows, of course. Our assessments depend on to what degree we are willing to sacrifice now to avert future possible disaster.

10. When looking at projection models, the most likely outcome rests somewhere in the middle of extremes. Those who insist the virus is contained or doesn’t pose a danger are terribly naive. However, those who insist on a national lockdown must also come to terms with the reality that such draconian measures are unsustainable, and could even lead to societal chaos.

Accordingly, I’m an advocate for a very cautious approach. This cautious approach must not be driven by extremists but rather by science and by experts.

Thanks for reading.  Comments are welcome here or join the discussion on FACEBOOK.

 

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Posted by on Apr 7, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 11

 

Van Morrison Bootleg

 

“I write songs.  Then, I record them.  And, later, maybe I perform them on stage.  That’s what I do.  That’s my job.  Simple.”

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THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 11

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DAY 71: “Tell Me” (1967 — Rare B-Side Recording)

Welcome to our 11th week! Each of you who has followed deserves a diploma! Since I can’t do a cap and gown ceremony, instead allow me to continue with the retrospective on Van Morrison’s music and career.

One of the fun discoveries of this project is uncovering gems that are mostly unknown. The hits and lesser-known songs are fun to write about and listen to. But what I really enjoy is the *creative process* and learning more about how art is made and refined.

Here’s a rare track from the Bang Sessions, recorded in New York City in 1967. This three-day labor in-studio spawned nearly 40 new songs and bore the fruit that would become Van’s debut album, Blowin’ Your Mind.

“Tell Me” is a lovely melody, with Van on acoustic guitar. There’s beauty in simplicity. I don’t know why Van didn’t take this tune, enhance it with strings, and then release it sometime later. Seems that it would have made for a nice song on a later album instead of an obscure B-side to a single.  Fortunately, YouTube is around to capture and preserve these rare recordings.

As I have attempted to reveal in this project, what really astounds me about Van is his extraordinary songwriting abilities and a keen ear for just the right instrumentation. I’ve tried to show that even Van’s rarest material is sometimes just as good as music by others that came out during the same period and turned into hit songs.

Van is stripped to his core and is his most vulnerable on this recording. Have a listen.

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DAY 72: “Take Me Back” (1991)

[Two Versions — First is the cover version by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh / Second is the original recording from the Hymns to the Silence album]

Hymns to the Silence is one of my favorite albums, a must-listen for any fan of Van Morrison’s multitude of soulful ballads. Composed and recorded during one of Van’s most introspective periods, clearly an era of personal and career transition, it also marks a creative pinnacle of songwriting as a 21-song double album packed with a rich mix of styles and tempos.

Disc One one of the album reflects Van’s inner demons, feeling frustrated and burned out. Recall a few song titles, including “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore,” oddly set to the melody of a sing-along. “Some Peace of Mind” and “Why Must I Always Explain” are both expressions of disenchantment, and even resentment with fame and the media. These ten songs smack of unfiltered melancholic honesty, which doesn’t make for good party tunes but is the perfect musical elixir for self-reflection.

Interestingly, “Take Me Back” is the final song on Disc One, bridges to a far more optimistic mood. Perhaps in order to move ahead, sometimes he needs to look back. It feels like Van is intent on displaying before-and-after sides of his own musical juxtaposition. Indeed, the 11 songs on Disc Two are far more spiritual, as Van explores religious themes without becoming preachy.

I opted to post the cover version first, which I believe is a testament to the power of the song which can mean many things to different people. Jennifer Jason Leigh starred in the 1995 film Georgia, which was very a personal project since the movie script was written by her mother. Playing the role of “Sadie,” Jason Leigh drunkenly performs the full nine-minute version onstage in a scratchy voice, totally oblivious to audience reaction. It’s very Van-esque in that way, and so I’m including here.

Van’s original version is far more pristine and musically satisfying, and certainly worth a listen, as well.

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DAY 73: “Gloria” (Live Cover by Patti Smith)

Let’s examine some of the greatest cover versions of Van Morrison’s original compositions. Several notable artists have taken Van’s songs and lyrics and stretched them to new heights. One of the very best examples of this is Patti Smith, who takes an old classic and obliterates all conventional expectations as evidenced in this live version of her 1975 cover that was included on her debut album, “Horses.”

“Gloria” was one of Van’s very first self-composed songs with enduring qualities. It’s been covered by hundreds of bands over the past 56 years.

In 1967, The Doors recorded what’s arguably the most successful rendition, which was unofficially titled “the dirty version” Van couldn’t get away with shocking song lyrics nor risky stage performances when the original was written a few years earlier. So, Jim Morrison and The Doors — after playing on the same lineup several nights along with Van at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles — made “Gloria” a part of their act and later included it on an album.

However, Patti Smith went above and beyond anything imagined by either Van or The Doors. She was a favorite in the NYC club scene spawned from the same string of venues that produced Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and later Blondie and The Ramones.

Some say it as the beginning of American punk. Smith’s first album took a lead pipe to rock n’ roll, gyrating something so entirely different than what came before that its influence continues to reverberate. Horses is widely considered by most critics to be one of the most influential albums not only in the history of the punk sound but also in the history of all rock and alternative music.

Smith performs Van’s classic here live, which is a raucous display of energy and self-confidence. One of the best covers of any Van song, ever.

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DAY 74: “Into the Mystic” (Joe Cocker Cover Version)

I’ve written this before which got me into some trouble with my fellow “Vanatics.”

Many of Van’s songs are much better when covered by other artists. Rod Stewart, Patti Smith, and Joe Cocker are but a few of the other artists who have taken Van’s original compositions and added their own creative interpretation. In fact, I’ll be doing a TOP TEN COUNTDOWN of the best Van Morrison covers of all time, coming ahead shortly.

Here’s the quintessential cover artist of them all, the great Joe Cocker. He’s the anti-superstar, seemingly a mess of a man immersed in an alternative reality. Check out this cover version of “Into the Mystic” by Cocker performed in Germany, with a shirt drenched in sweat. Cocker looks like a psychotic panhandler.

Oddly enough, Cocker even named one of his mini-CDs “Into the Mystic,” released in 1996. I think his studio version is better than Van’s — more blasphemy.

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DAY 75: “Have I Told You Lately” (Cover by Rod Stewart)

Van Morrison isn’t known for writing love songs. Yet, he’s written and recorded two of the most popular romantic ballads of the past half-century, both composed about 18 months apart.

“Someone Like You” was a minor hit from the 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose, which has enjoyed a long afterlife as a favorite at weddings and anniversaries.

The 1989 album Avalon Sunset produced an even bigger hit, not so much for Van when he initially recorded it, but rather a few years later when English rocker Rod Stewart belatedly added the song cover to his 1991 album, Vagabond Heart.  That memorable tune was “Have I Told You Lately.” Stewart’s raspy-voiced rendition reached #1 on the charts in several countries (peaking at #5 in the US) and remains more closely associated with the punk haired showman than the person who composed it.

To Stewart’s great credit, when I saw him perform this song during his Caesars Palace engagement about six years ago, he acknowledged Van Morrison as the writer to the audience. It irks me when artists fail to acknowledge the actual songwriter when performing, especially when it’s a well-known counterpart. Kudos, Rod Stewart.

“Have I Told You Lately” is pretty simple both rhythmically and lyrically, which is what makes it so widely appealing. Although it’s considered a love song, a little-known fact is — there’s strong evidence Van wrote this as a religious tribute. That’s reflected in the lyrics — most notably….”And at the end of the day, We should give thanks and pray, To the one, to the one….” — which makes for quite an oddity. Indeed, religion and spirituality are the dominant themes on much of Avalon Sunset. In interviews since, Van has never set the record straight on the actual inspiration for the song, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for him to be enjoying the royalty checks from the misinterpretation of lyrics that were intended for something quite different than is commonly understood.

Regardless of the basis of inspiration, “Have I Told You Lately” stands up well over time. Long after Van is gone, it’s likely to be sung and performed for decades to come at more weddings and romantic celebrations.

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DAY 76: “Wild Night” (Cover Version by John Cougar Mellencamp)

Continuing with our focus on Van Morrison songs covered by other artists here’s “Wild Night,” performed live on The David Letterman Show (1994).

“Wild Night” debuted on the 1971 country-folk infused album Tupelo Honey which initially peaked at #26 on the Billboard charts. More than two decades later, singer John (Cougar) Mellencamp covered the song on his Dance Naked LP. The re-make was a surprise hit, reaching #3 in the USA and topping the charts in several other countries, including Canada.

Interestingly, Van recorded the song as early as 1968. The song is heavily rooted in the familiar Stax sound, with layered horns punctuated with thundering bass guitar. Van’s original is far more brassy, whereas Mellencamp strips away the horns in favor of more pronounced vocals. In short, Van’s voice is merely one of the musical instruments, whereas Mellencamp’s rendition places the Indiana-born so-called “heartland rocker” at center stage. Both recordings share a similar spontaneous quality, with little or no post-production.

Mellencamp was hugely popular in the 1980s. He enjoyed a string of hit albums and singles. Four songs reached the Top 5 (most notably “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane”).

“Wild Night,” which was his last mega-hit single. Mellencamp was also one of the co-creators of FARM AID, an annual concert that benefits small farmers and workers. “Wild Night” is performed at virtually all the shows.

Here’s Mellencamp’s debut performance of the song, just as his 1994 album was being released.

….you’re walkin’ down the street
when the wind catches your feet
and sends you flyin’.

What a great lyric.

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DAY 77: “Madame George” (Cover Version by Marianne Faithful, 1995)

Continuing with the best cover versions of Van Morrison-written songs by other artists…..

British-born Marianne Faithful is one of the seminal icons and voices of the 1960s, the cookie-cutter, perfectly cast personification of the flower child. She was Mick Jaggar’s girlfriend for five years, inspired several songs by the Rolling Stones (note the Beggar’s Banquet period), flew off for three months with The Beatles to spend time with the Maharaji, and later crashed and burned due to heroin addiction and anorexia. She also sang a number of hits, several of which charted.

Known for her whiskey-casked voice, raspy from years of chain-smoking and hard-living, Faithful also appeared in several movies and television shows. In 1995, she starred in an Irish film drama, Moondance, with the entire soundtrack provided by Van. Indeed, Van was tasked with re-arranging some of his most mystical compositions, including “Madame George,” the 10-minute long freewheeling poetic recital from his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Filmmakers wanted a condensed version, down to under five minutes, and shockingly, Van complied with the request.

And so, Van re-wrote the lyrics and provided this arrangement which appears on the movie soundtrack. Faithful does an outstanding job with her interpretation. In fact, “Madame George” does lend itself to a female vocal rather than Van’s original, sang and released with when he was only 23.

“Madame George” has widely been reported to be about a drag queen, which Van denies. Nonetheless, as of 1974, he called it the best song he’s ever written. In an interview with rock journalist Ritchie York, Van said of the original version of “Madame George”….

“Madame George” was recorded live. The vocal was live and the rhythm section and the flute too and the strings were the only overdub. The title of the song confuses one, I must say that. The original title was “Madame Joy” but the way I wrote it down was “Madame George”. Don’t ask me why I do this because I just don’t know. The song is just a stream of consciousness thing, as is “Cyprus Avenue”…”Madame George” just came right out. The song is basically about a spiritual feeling ”

Marianne Faithful’s version is divine. I should also note the great Phoebe Snow covered Van’s song, which is right up there, as well.

Have a listen. One of the best comments I’ve heard on Marianne Faithful: “Her voice might be the strongest argument to take up smoking.”

[Special note of thanks to Benjo DiMeo who was consulted on the best cover version of this Van classic.]

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PREVIOUS SEGMENTS/SONGS:
  • WEEK 1:  (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
  • WEEK 2:  (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
  • WEEK 3:  (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
  • Week 4:  (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
  • WEEK 5:  (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
  • WEEK 6:  (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
  • WEEK 7:  (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
  • WEEK 8:  (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
  • WEEK 9  (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
  • WEEK 10  (Caravan Live; David Letterman-with Sinead O’Connor; I’ll Be Your Lover Too; Hungry For Your Love; Irish Heartbeat; Sean Cullen Comedy Impersonation; Jimmy Fallon Comedy Impersonation)
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Posted by on Apr 7, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal | 4 comments

Remembering the Castaways

 

Castaways

 

The Castaways Casino was open from 1963 to 1987. Here’s my recollection of that forgotten slice of the Las Vegas Strip before it was demolished to make way for The Mirage, which stands in its place today.

 

It was cramped.  It was smokey.  It was hot.  It was dusty.  It was ugly.  It was a hellhole.  And, it stank.

But none of that mattered at age 21.  None of those things were important when visiting Las Vegas legally as an adult for the first time every bit as capable of debauchery and degeneracy and depravity as the rest of America’s mad herd of merry gamblers.

I can’t identify what exactly it was that made the Castaways so damned appealing, so fun, so interesting, so compelling, and — now 36 years later — so memorable.  The Castaways wasn’t luxurious like its Haute neighbor Caesars Palace, next door.  It wasn’t famous like the Flamingo, down the block.  It wasn’t known for world-class entertainment like the Sands, across the street.  It wasn’t Ballys.  It wasn’t the Aladdin.  It wasn’t even in the class of run-down mobbed-up Dunes, soon slated for demolition.

The Castaways was a cramped square-shaped casino that resembled the inside of a bus station.  And it was loud.  Outside, the parking lot was too dark.  Inside, the casino was way too bright.  There was a small hotel, with 100 rooms, the quality about equal to a Motel 6 about five years too late for renovation.  There was a restaurant on the premises rumored to be pretty reliable, serving a truck-stop like menu 24/7 with prices starting at 99 cents for a full continental breakfast, including a tiny glass of artificially-flavored orange juice.

I made at least four trips to the Castaways between the ages 21 and 25, sometimes with $300 in my pocket and once with about $7,500 — my fate the same on each and every trip.  My final visit was in 1987, only a month before it closed down and was bulldozed to the ground to pave way for Las Vegas’ first giant mega-resort called the Mirage, which opened two years later in 1989.  The Mirage is a gorgeous hotel to look at and it ushered in what’s known as the modern era of Las Vegas with 4,000-room resorts being commonplace, famous TV chefs, circus acts, and showrooms of shopping and more shopping.

But I do miss the old Castaways.  Yes, I do.  Yeah, it was a dump.  But it was the dump where I liked to hang out.  Like an old pair of shoes or the girl you first fell in love with or a cheap can of beer, it all just seemed so real, so authentic.

castaways casino

 

The Castaways never established its own niche until perhaps it was too late and the times had changed.  Maybe that’s why some of us connected with it so easily.  As a casino, it was the orphan.  A stepchild.  More of a black sheep.  It was the ugly offspring that struggled and always had to borrow money from rich parents and brothers and sisters.  It was an oddball and an outcast.  And it eventually ended up as rubble, the spot where it once stood obliterated to the dustbin of history by a fake volcano.

Nothing seemed to go easily for the Castaways from the day it first opened.  In 1963, the casino was themed as a Polynesian Resort, with Tiki torches and palm trees surrounding the exterior.  The hit television show Gilligan’s Island with its own set of castaways couldn’t even save the casino, which struggled financially.  Things were so bad, the casino had to close its doors by the final day of 1964.  Unconnected to organized crime that was so pervasive throughout Las Vegas at the time, skimming apparently played no role whatsoever in the casino’s floundering finances.  Fact was, the Castaways was just a very poorly run casino positioned at a horrible spot on The Strip.  It sat next to a Mobile gas station.  Who would want to gamble at the little place with palm trees across the street when the Flamingo and Sands were packed with pretty people and the greatest live entertainment of the 60s?

The original owner was an oilman and he realized seven wasted figures deep that there was more money buried under the ground than above it.  So, the Castaways was sold in 1965.  The new owners invested $300,000 and redesigned the outer structure, installing a colorful motif in front which was far more alluring than the simpler facade with thatched roofs made of faux-straw.  They also put in eight fresh gaming tables, plus 70 state-of-the-art slot machines.  For the next two years, the casino didn’t make much money.  But it didn’t lose money, either.

Progress.

Howard Hughes changed the Las Vegas casino landscape forever when he went on a wild spending spree during 1968, taking full control over at least five major properties.  Included in this grand acquisition towards so-called corporate legitimacy was the Castaways.  The selling price was reported at $3 million — a tidy sum which included the land, a huge parking lot, the casino, a hotel, a restaurant, and the gaming license.  Hughes might as well have stolen the property given what was later to come.

Hughes didn’t survive much longer, but The Castaways did.

It outlived Hughes by more than a decade before a new suitor came along.  His name was Steve Wynn.  He had a grand idea to tear down the Castaways and build a new casino resort, the likes of which Las Vegas had never seen before.

castaways casino

 

The Castaways was a pioneer in at least one aspect, and that was sports gambling, and this was all due to the wit and wisdom of the late Sonny Reizner.

For someone widely considered so old school, Reizner was in many ways actually a modern maverick.  He one of the most important transitional figures in the history of legalized sports betting.  Around 1976, Reizner opened up one of the city’s first sportsbooks located inside a casino, which was housed at the Castaways.  Up until then, horse racing and sports betting were thought of as far too labor-intensive and not profitable enough to dedicate proper casino floor space.  Hence, racebooks and sportsbooks in Las Vegas were tucked inside smaller OTB-style storefronts that looked like strip malls.

sonny reiznerReizner saw the future and in some ways even manufactured it.  He knew that a well-managed outlet for sports gambling could attract new customers.  So, he manned a small sportsbook called “the Hole in the Wall.”  It took bets on sporting events only.  No horse racing.

By 1978, Reizner recognized he could create and then corner a new market when he launched the first-ever NFL handicapping contest.  It cost $1,000 to enter.  The winner was declared the handicapping “world champion.”

In 1980, Riezner was posting odds on things like “Who Shot J.R.?” from a popular television show.  His novel idea of a publicity stunt even created controversy as he issued tickets on the outcome, but the gaming commission stepped in and ruled wagering wouldn’t be permitted on entertainment-related events.  He put up numbers (later, for amusement only) on where the Skylab Space Station would crash when it fell back to earth.  Indeed, Reizner was a master of generating free publicity, and his home base of operations was the Castaways.  The Las Vegas Hilton, the Stardust, and the Union Plaza also caught on to this market and helped foster it, but the Castaways was the kickoff, the tip off, and the ground central, all encased in a cubbyhole containing two betting windows, a few telephones, and a large whiteboard with the latest odds scribbled in colored magic markers.

Long after Reizner passed away (in 2002), and the Castaways was but a memory, the football handicapping contest, and parlay cards, and other fun promotions created by the sports gambling maverick have become staples inside every major casino sportsbook.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Sonny Reizner.

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And now, the final chapter, and my own story and recollections.

I don’t have any big scores or life-changing moments from the Castaways.  What I remember was a horribly run-down and painfully uncomfortable casino which was the greatest place in the world to hang out.

There were some blackjack tables, a craps table, and slot machines surrounding the parameter walls.  Two poker tables flanked the casino floor, separated by rails crammed with barstools.  Every seat seemed to be filled each time I went inside and it didn’t matter if it was 4 pm or 4 am.

The Castaways was super player-friendly.  Free drinks, never a hassle.  Helpful sports betting clerks.  But the dealers and pit bosses were what I remember most fondly.  They welcomed card counters.  They encouraged new players and even helped them place bets.  I even saw dealers and supervisors openly tutoring players on “21” basic strategy.  You’d never see that anywhere else.

Oh, everyone seemed to be talking and the noise was unbearable.  Back then, all the machines used coin in, which meant dirty buckets were pawed by eager gamblers, dropping silver dollars, quarters, dimes, nickles, metal slugs, and even pennies — one at a time, making the cling-clang down the shoot — and then to really get the full effect, multiply the echo of coins by 50 or 60 or 70, and add some bells, and the occasional scream from a lucky winner or furious addicted loser — and the place sounded like a cross between a tin can recycling plant and a hospital emergency room.

Then, there was the smoke.  The smoke inside was so thick it was blue.  Like a lava lamp hanging permanently in the air, gyrating until it melded with billions of other particle-toxins until it became one giant fucking ashtray the size of a casino.  The smoke was so thick it was nauseating.  Like burn your nostrils and water the eyes — thick.  But no one complained or even cared because no one thought about smoking and non-smoking and second-hand smoke back in 1987.  It’s just the way it was.  Hell, back then you could smoke on airplanes.

And I remember the poker, played by scary-looking people.  Old ladies.  Cowboys.  People who looked like they were part of the Mafia.  They all looked like professionals.  Cigs dangling in their mouths while they played, and while they talked even, the ash burning down and getting longer until there was actually a faint glimmer of suspense at wondering just how long that crooked ash from a burning Pall Mall could hang off and extend the butt, before crashing onto either the distorted green table felt or the shirt bib of the smoking poker player who was utterly oblivious to the ash and toxicity of what amounted to working inside a Kentucky coal mine, let alone concerned about the strategic position of the closest ashtray stamped in the Castaways logo.

I can’t forget the beer at the Castaways, either.  I’ve tasted lots of cold beer in my life, but the beer at the Castaways might have been the coldest.  It was always brought by a smiling waitress in those really thick red glass bottles, where the weight of the container was much heavier than the actual contents.  Longnecks.  Budweiser longnecks.  Ice cold Budweiser longnecks.  Goddamn, that beer was cold and it was good.

It was at least 105 degrees in Las Vegas on my final visit.  Or, it could have been 110.  The black tar burned your feet through the soles.  When you pushed that swinging glass door that never seemed to close because people were going in and out all the time, it just went back and forth on its hinges, faintly cutting the hot air outside from the blue nicotine of air inside, as an outdated AC system basically said “fuck it,” that was, if it could talk.

Funny thing was, the Castaways made lots of money during its last few years.  Every spot around it was much bigger and fancier, but lots of people must have also loved slumming around in the cheap place where no one ever paid for a drink, where the beer was cold, and cigs weren’t necessary if you smoked.  All you had to do was step inside, and inhale.

I lost my last $5 chip at a blackjack table, the last shred of anything of value on my person, but I still ordered another cold beer and took it out the door at an ungodly early morning hour I don’t know since there were no clocks on the walls and time didn’t matter anyway, and I headed back to my freezing hotel room at the Flamingo Hilton, which had luxury rooms shoehorned on the backside on the other side of the pool.  When I left that summer night in June 1987, I didn’t realize that was the last time I’d see my old friend.  I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

The Castaways shuttered its doors just a month later, and by fall, the parking lot was no longer burning hot but the asphalt was buried in busted concrete and broken glass, surrendered to greater powers and in the shadows of steel girders rising in the near distance.

 

Note:  There were two casinos named the Castaways.  This location is not to be confused with the casino that opened later on Boulder Highway and torn down in 2003.  Despite the same name, there is no relation.

 

Further Reading:  For more information on the Castaways, I highly recommend visiting “The Perlowski Files.”

 

Special thanks to David K. Li at NBC News in New York for prompting me to write this story.

 

Castaways Las Vegas

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