What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas. Right?
That's where I left a temporary commitment to sobriety on an airport tarmac in 1982. Time to finally spill the beans on my surreal history in Sin City--but don't get your hopes up too high. This isn't about late night gambling binges or freak sex with expensive hookers. You save all that for the midlife crisis.
This is about a smokin' hot lifeguard getting fired over nothing, an LA punk band making a bizarre appearance on national television and me watching a room full of baffled old people hanging on for dear life.
The set up: My post-adolescent years were spent as the son of the Southland Corporation VP of Public Relations. The company owned 7-11 at the time, and one of the projects my father worked on was the yearly campaign to raise money for the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy Association. Part of Dad's gig was walking onstage every couple of hours and handing Jerry the big oversize check on behalf of the company; I still remember thinking to myself that checks for that large of an amount of money were required to be that size. (I had never had a checking account up until that point, so I didn't understand the concept of credit. Plus I was really into mushrooms and Salvador Dali.)
Rip Taylor, with Liles' dear old dad.
Working with dad was a particularly sweet deal, though, because it included my own suite at Caesar's, all expenses paid by the Slurpee people. I was 20 years old and fresh out of two-and-half-month bid in the Unit II Drug Rehab Facility.
A normal stay for this program was four-to-six weeks, but I'm pretty sure that I broke the record for longest stint by any patient there. This trip to Vegas was meant to be a reward for completing the rehab program. In reality, I had merely outlasted the available funds from my medical insurance policy.
First afternoon there, and it's straight to the pool. Right off the bat I made friends with a beautiful lifeguard. I'm listening to a cassette of the new X album Under the Big Black Sun on my Sony Walkman. Perfect day. Don King and his entourage were coolin' out in the next cabana over. I'm workin' that Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil and woofing the greenery from an orange Zig-Zag. The lifeguard comes over and jokingly suggests that maybe I should be a little more discreet. I asked her if she wanted to come up to my room later and get high.
"Sure, I get off at five."
The next afternoon, my Baywatch beauty was unemployed. I guess they have a rule about the lifeguards not hookin' up with the guests in their hotel rooms and shit. Apparently they have lots of cameras in the halls and elevators at Caesar's Palace. I knew I shouldn't have trusted those mirrors on the ceiling.
She didn't seem to care about it one way or the other. All I knew is that I really liked her style. She was up for anything: This woman was confident and fearless. (Or maybe I was supposed to give her money or something? I was too young to know how all of this shit works. How do you act in a city without laws? Is everybody a hooker?)
The next day, the MDA Telethon was in full swing. Jerry Lewis had been on the air for 12 hours. Various elderly performers dropped in to sing a song and emote for dough. Old school vets like Rip Taylor and Don Rickles were cutting up with the corporate sponsors backstage in the Green Room. I didn't really know these people, but the food was free and I was baked.
The studio audience was made up primarily of senior citizens decked out in plaid Bermuda shorts and polyester jumpsuits. To keep things fresh, a different geriatric mob was shuffled in every couple of hours. I lasted a half-hour before it was time to head back to the pool and look for my girl.
John Doe and Exene Cervenka (pictured, left, as photgraphed by Vern Evans) were still a couple at the time, and they had a very distinctive way of harmonizing with each other. Zoom wrote punchy riffs that buzzed like a chainsaw. X were the Real Deal.
After rinsing off the Hawaiian Tropic, I went over and knocked on their door. The band members were busy getting dressed for their appearance. I introduced myself and related how much I looked forward to seeing their spot on the show.
X at the Hot Klub in Dallas, 1982. (Jeffrey Liles)
I got there early enough for their sound check and we went to grab some Mexican food before the show.
X's performance that night was great; the band was totally on fire. No punk rock lip-syncing here, yo. They let me stand on the stage during the set, and I burned through my only roll of film in about ten minutes. The mosh pit during "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" was frenetic and intense. "Los Angeles" was the highlight of the set.
The term "punk rock" means a lot of different things to different people. To the members of X, for a weekend anyway, it meant having to perform for a room full of Carol Burnett fans on the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
At the Hot Klub, they were comfortable in their element. This weekend, they're back on their home turf; first with a Saturday club date in LA, then two nights in San Francisco. Doe looks forward to wrapping up a year that saw the original line-up kick off a tour at SXSW back in March.
"The shows this weekend will be great," he said. "It should be a really emotional experience for everybody. I'm really looking forward to it."
Most of us didn't even have a driver's license when X first got together 31 years ago. That's probably why their music still makes me feel like a kid. When the band came back to Dallas in 2003 to perform at Trees, the audience was filled with familiar faces from the early '80s Dallas punk scene. Hundreds of us were simultaneously revisiting that precious moment 20 years prior, when X had so succinctly defined our youthful experience and perspective.
In an odd coincidence, Captain Kangaroo died that same day.
There's no business like show business, kid. --Jeffrey Liles