Part 2: Listening Las Vegas

Elvis Is Everywhere: If you visit Las Vegas, you’ll need highly sensitive technology to count the nano-moments that will pass between arrival in the area and when when you first hear music by Elvis Presley. Chances are your airplane will play it upon landing.

Elevator Music: The elevator in the hotel played Elvis and only Elvis, 24 hours a day, and very few of his hits. The selection emphasized his range: show tunes and rock’n’roll, gospel and Hawaii-tinged exotica. Matters of canon reminded me that the first time I ever visited Las Vegas was to serve as best man at a friend’s somewhat impromptu wedding, which took place at one of those chapels where an Elvis impersonator performs the service. Before the ceremony, the bride and groom were asked which song should serve as the centerpiece of the event. The groom selected “In the Ghetto,” which required the Elvis to rifle through his cardboard box of karaoke CDs. I remember the sound of those plastic CD cases banging against each other more clearly than I do his rendition.

Moiré Muzak: This was my second Las Vegas trip of 2011. During the earlier one I stayed at a hotel that played heavy metal and hard rock through recessed speakers just outside one of its many front doors, 24 hours a day. The hotel this time around had no outdoor music, but pop radio favorites were a constant in the casino part of the lobby. Often the songs were barely intelligible over the beeping machines. And as a friend pointed out, in large portions of the floor the lobby tunes did battle with other music: at one end with the elevator Elvis, and at the other with a Starbucks’ overtly tasteful soundtrack. These unintentional overlays were the sonic equivalent of architectural sloppiness, just as poorly considered as a banister that doesn’t extend the full length of a staircase.

8-Bit Impressionism: When the Luxor hotel was new, it was a uniquely stark presence on the Las Vegas strip. Now it is merely part of the strip, and newer, starker monuments have supplanted it. The Wynn hotel and its sibling, Encore, are sky-high curves of gold-tinted glass. Despite being documents of monolithic reflection, they lack the admonitory glare of modernism. (Perhaps the curve renders them “organic”?) Each of those windows, for all their collective seeming perfection, has a distinct affect, a blur or bend in the glass, and thus the clouds reflected in them take on an effect very much like 8-bit pixelation. You can hear the Mario theme music playing in your head. Clouds move slowly across the desert this time of year, so the effect of motion is really just an illusion as the car makes its way down the strip. Planet Hollywood has a not dissimilar effect, putting aside the garish latter-day post-modernism of its outer edges – maybe due to the relative size of the panels, or the grade of the glass, the Planet Hollywood image transformation is less 8-bit and more impressionist.

Room Tone Service: What was the last movie or TV show that did justice to just how loud a hotel can be? Not loud when the scene happens to take place in the hotel’s boiler room, but loud from arrival to departure, that space-station hum that is considerably thicker than industrial carpet.

BBQ D’Ameublement: We dined one night at the home of some friends who had recently moved to the Las Vegas outskirts. The desert suburb was quiet after dark, especially in the backyard, little more than chattering insects and the occasional passing car. The friend tending to the steaks explained why he had come, in his decades-long refinement of the art of grilling, to use a cast iron skillet as part of his process. He said it had little to do with flavor or cooking time, and everything to do with the sizzle. To bring the steak from the grill to the table in a cast iron skillet that has spent as much time on the grill as the steak is to bring the sound of the sizzle to the table.

Sonic Exhaust: The rental car had a unique attribute: it didn’t remember when the ventilation was set to only circulate internal air. Each time the car was turned on, it reverted to the default, which was to allow for external air, the smog of the Las Vegas Strip, to enter the car. In time the sound of that switch being clicked from external to internal came to be associated with two entirely unrelated types of relief: not only the air conditioning kicking in, but the fumes' odor dissipating.

Dead City: The sun that lords over Las Vegas is just as bright and strong as conventional wisdom would have it. This sun bleaches out daytime life during the heat of summer, especially off the main Strip, leaving much of the midday city devoid of pedestrians, devoid of life. The sun bleaches out color, motion, dimension. The absence of people leads to a relative absence of sound, which means that when someone has hung an 80-pound pig over an outdoor fire, the crackle can carry for blocks.

The Dampened Casino: I found myself in numerous and varied casinos. The one we boarded in is a standard corporate chain that adjusted to its environs (“When near Caesar’s …”) by placing a bunch of slot machines and card tables in its wide lobby; these artifacts of gambling looked about as natural as did the "What Happens in Vegas …" T-shirts on elderly vacationers. I visited the Bellagio to see how its famed art gallery fit in with its overall presence. There was, for example, a massive Dale Chihuly glass piece hanging from the lobby ceiling, not unlike the one at the San Jose Art Museum, just busier, denser, and more colorful. Overall, the casinos I visited were much quieter than I recollect as the norm from visits to the city a decade ago. I know that when I was in the now defunct Debbie Reynolds Casino in the mid-1990s, the volume level was just this side of a Tokyo pachinko parlor – and for reference a Tokyo pachinko parlor is just this side of a Slayer concert.

Hearing Double: Simulacra are so prevalent in Las Vegas that you come to expect the second-hand, the replica. Elvis waits by the city entrance, charging to have his picture taken. Marilyn Monroe is seen entering a gas-station mini-mart. If a sign announces that Barry Manilow or Celine Dion is performing, suffice to say that they are in fact the ones performing, but those signs appear amid countless other signs, including one for a Motown revue featuring none of the original musicians, although it bears Smokey Robinson’s imprimatur, and for a Purple Rain tribute, featuring someone who bears only a passing physical resemblance to Prince. The culture of Las Vegas is not fake; fake is simply part of its culture. There is a live theatrical show that pays tribute to the TV show CSI. The pervasive aura of the replica begins to influence one’s perceptions. One afternoon at a Whole Foods, I found myself convinced that the music on the in-store radio was all cover versions of hits. I was so mentally prepared for hearing whatever the pop-music equivalent of the Paris hotel or New York, New York, hotel were, that I was actively listening for fakes, expecting fakes. At one point I felt obliged to use the Shazam app on my cellphone in order to double check what I was convinced was a cover of a song by the Who. But it was the original.

Standby Me: Our two-week trip was almost over. The return flight to San Francisco from Las Vegas wasn’t terribly late for takeoff. After all the baggage-handling and lunch-wrangling, time remained for some casual RSS-scanning, web-browsing, and email-attending-to. An email alert from The New York Times popped up maybe 20 minutes before the flight was due to leave the ground: Jerry Leiber, co-author with Mike Stoller of such Elvis hits as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” had passed away at the age of 78.

All photos taken on my cellphone with the exception of the one of the Wynn, courtesy of (published under a Creative Commons license), and the one of the farm game, courtesy of its manufacturer’s website.