“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride … and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well … maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
- PHOTOS BY GLEN STARKEY
- FAMOUS FRANKIE’S: We start our fun in Frankie’s Tiki Room with two couples—Kim and Jason from SLO Town, and Gilbert and Esther from Guadalupe.
I don’t have to buy the ticket, because I have a couple press passes, so it’s Wednesday, March 27, and my wife Anna and I are off to Las Vegas for the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, a four-day extravaganza of all things rockabilly: the music, the fashions, the cars. As soon as I convince the big chiefs at the paper that this would be a great cover story (ha ha, suckers!), I put the word out on Facebook that I want to hook up with some Central Coast locals while we’re there.
My pal Nadal Kim is the first to reply. She and her man Jason are heading out there with Gilbert Robles and his wife Esther. Gilbert owns the Ninth Street Barber Shop in Guadalupe, and the four are bringing out a couple classic cars for the car show.
“We’re driving out early Wednesday morning,” Kim says. “You should meet us at Frankie’s Tiki Room. You’ll love it!”
After we settle into our room and stock our fridge with Pabst Blue Ribbon, natch, we get dolled up in our rockabilly finest and head out to meet the gang. True to its moniker, Frankie’s is tiki central! Dark lighting, rum drinks in tiki mugs, lots of bamboo, and wall-to-wall hipsters. It’s the beginning of a long strange trip.
Go soak your head!
Do you know how you meet people in Vegas? Two ways. You’re either in line with them, or you’re sitting in a Jacuzzi with them. The first people Anna and I meet are from Philly, but they work in New Jersey at a prison. Brad’s a guard, and Tanya (“pronounced TAN-ya, like Tanya Tucker,” she tells me) is a dispatcher.
Brad is all tatted up, his whole arms, right up onto his neck and down to his hands. And part of his legs. And his back.
- DO IT UP RIGHT! : Martina Godwin of San Luis Obispo-based Hep Kat Clothing & Beauty Parlor does up Los Angeles resident Grace Chavez’s hair in the vendor area at Viva Las Vegas. The Hep Kat gals did between 50 and 60 do’s a day, and Hep Kat owners Terry and Brittany Brown sold a ton of clothing.
“I’m surprised you’re allowed to have tats on your hands, working at a prison and all,” I say.
“As soon as I made sergeant, I went for it,” he says. “They didn’t say anything.”
We also meet Gary, a coalminer from Manchester who just bought a 1949 Chevrolet Fleetliner fastback, which he’s having shipped back to the U.K.
“Not many of those back home,” he says, revealing he bought it for $17,500 and that it cost $5,000 to have it shipped. “I’ll drive it maybe 20 times a year.”
It becomes pretty clear Gary is something of an overachiever. He’s also a competitive dancer, and for fun, he bought some $500 plans for a Sam Maloof rocking chair, which he built using his cabinet making skills, even though he’s not a cabinet maker.
“He made rocking chairs for all your presidents,” he explains.
We also met Lizzy, a hairstylist from London, even though she grew up in Vancouver. After discussing the American health-care system, she bid us farewell.
“I have to start on my hair before the shows tonight,” she says, adjusting her leopard-print bikini as she pops out of the warm water.
- PHOTOS BY GLEN STARKEY
- SHOP TILL YOU DROP : This vintage glasses retailer bought up an old Central Coast business, Retrospectacles, to avoid the competition. They sold NOS (new old stock) as well as used vintage glasses.
Sarah and Jenny are besties from Nashville, and wow do they love to talk about their cats and Jenny’s remodel on her house. We tell them about Frankie’s Tiki Room and discover their room is just down the hall from ours. Sarah and Jenny sightings are frequent to say the least.
I gotta say, one of my favorite hottubbers is Brian Holden, another Vancouver resident who, it turns out, is an old school rocker. He’s also a teamster and drives trucks for the movies.
“Hollywood hates us,” he says, noting that it’s much cheaper to produce films in Canada—even Vancouver, which is an incredibly expensive place to live.
Brian is an awesome R&B artist, and tracks from his album Holden are currently playing on the radio in Canada.
- HARD CASES! : While waiting in line for the shuttle, we meet (left to right) Care Bear, Pork Chop, Chooch, and Sue from The Stilettoes, the oldest nostalgia club in Detroit.
“They’re on those Adult Album Alternative stations,” he reveals, slightly chagrined, but his horn-filled retro sound would work great, say, on the SLO Blues Society shows.
While in line for the shuttle to The Orleans, I run into a couple guys who look like they’re straight outta Central Casting. Youse need some mobbed up guys? Dees are dem, see?
“I’m Pork Chop and this is Chooch,” says a guy who looks like James Caan’s brother. “Do you think they’ll let me in The Orleans with this jacket?”
Jim “Pork Chop” David is rocking a black motorcycle jacket emblazoned in red with “Stilettoes, 50’s Detroit,” and in silver with a couple of crossed switchblades, and The Orleans has a sign that says, “No motorcycle colors allowed.” They’ve had brawls in the past—in fact, on Saturday morning at 2:30 a.m., a melee breaks out between a couple of other car clubs—but Pork Chop looks too affable to get hassled.
“We’re part of the oldest nostalgia club in Detroit. Chooch [aka Terry “Chooch” Heim] is our president. This is Care Bear and Sue,” says Pork Chop, introducing us to their ladies.
- DEAD ZED’S CHOPPER! : Hailing from Lompoc, Dead Zed’s Chopper—from left to right: King Cat Kev Martin (upright bass), Mike Holliday (lead vocals), Doc Campbell (drums), and 15-year-old Philip the Kid (lead guitar)—blew the crowd away at Brendan’s Sailor Jerry Pub.
Over the course of the weekend, we meet a lot of Scandinavians, Brits, Japanese, and some Australians. The event, now in its 16th year, has grown from 1,200 in 1997 to 20,000, so it stands to reason people would come from all over, but clearly some countries have a massive rockabilly and car culture scene, and this event is the place to be.
Dead Zed’s Chopper rules Brendan’s Sailor Jerry Pub!
It’s Thursday, March 28, the actual first day of the festival, and we’re meeting Kim and Jason and Gilbert and Esther at Brendan’s Sailor Jerry Pub in The Orleans, where at 10:45 p.m., Lompoc band Dead Zed’s Chopper plans to rock the house.
Anna and I get here early and stake out a couple barstools and listen to a band called Roy Rapid & Rhythm Rock Trio. The place is packed with retro cowboys, greasers, hipsters, rockabillies, and lots and lots of dolls dressed to the nines. A rotund Samoan-looking fellow in high-waist pleated slacks and a tucked-in Hawaiian-print shirt is spinning ladies around the dance floor. Listen up, less-than-handsome men: If you want the ladies, learn to dance! Smoke is forming a layer of haze across the room, making me miss all the SLO- Town anti-smoking ordinances.
Soon Lompoc band Dead Zed’s Chopper is setting up. The band features Mike Holliday (lead vocals), Philip the Kid (lead guitar), King Cat Kev Martin (upright bass), and Doc Campbell (drums). Philip is Kevin’s son, a 15-year-old high school freshman baseball player and ripping guitarist who had to get special permission to play in the 21-and-older club and bring his high school buddy Dalton into the club as well.
“We have to leave as soon as we’re done playing,” he told me earlier when I met him—where else?—in the Jacuzzi at the Gold Coast. As soon as they leave on Sunday night, Philip, who plays junior varsity baseball at center field and pitcher, will travel with the Cabrillo High School varsity team, where he’ll pitch three scoreless innings, giving up three hits but no runs. The kid’s got skills.
Kev and Philip started the band in 2010, added Doc in, and then found Mike in the jazz world and convinced him to come over to the dark side.
The band hits its downbeat and some sinister, swampy, syncopated sounds emanate from the stage—all reverb and delay. It’s an instrumental written by 15-year-old Philip. Just as quickly, Mike shifts into crooner mode and delivers a stirring rendition of “Blue Moon.” Next up is a walking country tune. The crowd is digging it!
“We sometimes play three or four hours,” Kev says after the show, “and we do a lot more rockabilly covers, but for a short set like this, we wanted to do all originals and a few covers we thought no one else would touch. I mean, an old Elvis tune, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent—with this crowd, they might hear those songs 30 times this weekend.”
Finally Kim and Jason show up. She’s got on some wicked wedges, a pencil skirt, and a fitted jacket—hot, hot, hot! Jason’s rocking some jeans and a plaid long sleeve, topping it off with a Mac cap. It doesn’t take them long to get jiggy on the dance floor. Esther is in a fitted navy dress with white piping, and Gilbert sports pleated pants and a sweet two-tone dress shirt. Yeah, baby, the Central Coast is representing!
The band rips into the Ritchie Valens classic “Let’s Go,” and it’s standing room only in this joint. Then the band morphs “Let’s Go” into the Ramones classic “Blitzkrieg Bop”—“Hey ho let’s go!” Mash-up! The crowd loves it! They’re freaking out!
“Actually, a friend of mine who’s seen us play a few times, every time we did that ‘Let’s Go,’ he’d say, ‘Go to run it into “Blitzkrieg Bop,”’ and finally I brought it up to the guy, and yes, seems like a good idea, so we practiced and worked really well.”
My favorite moment of the show is when the band plays David Bowie’s “Modern Love” rockabilly style! These guys will not be pigeonholed!
“That absolutely came from our drummer, Doc Campbell, who’d been pushing us to throw in an ’80s song,” Kev says. “He got on this huge Bowie kick, going Bowie mad, engulfed in the whole Ziggy Stardust. ‘Modern Love’ has a cool rock’n’roll riff, so we agreed to do it. My son jumped on it right away. The only hitch on that whole song is key-wise it’s really a struggle for Mike to sing. Usually it’s easy to transcribe into another key, but the song was pretty complicated. Once we learned in the original key, we were kind of locked in, so we asked Mike, ‘Please, can we keep it in this key.’ I think he does a really good job with it.”
- VA-VA VHROOM! : The old fashion burlesque show had lovely ladies galore and a hilarious emcee.
Even though Kev’s been playing in bands for years and years, this show and this crowd were different.
“I was more nervous than I‘ve ever been for any show, but the most exciting thing for me—after I settled into it—was the crowd being absolutely into it,” he says. “Once I got past the nerves, knowing it was going to be over really quickly in the grand scheme of things, I started looking around at the audience, at the guys on stage. I thought Philip charged from the start, and as soon as Philip started playing and being so animated, it got the rest of us going. It took our game to another level.”
When it’s over, the crowd calls for more, and the band delivers an encore. Take that, Vegas! Lompoc rules!
Dead Zed’s Chopper next plays on Saturday, April 20, at New Cuyama for a fundraiser for the 8th grade class. It’s part of a car show sponsored by Hoods Car Club in the high school parking lot, and the band plays from 10 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m.
Cars, cars and more cars!
It’s Saturday, March 29, and Anna and I leave the air conditioned Orleans and head out into the muggy heat of Las Vegas, where in a nearby parking lot sit row after row of pre-1963 classics, period hotrods, and some rat rods and motorcycles, some of which look barn fresh. All told, there are 1,000 or so cars here. What can I say about so many cars? How about, I want this one, and this one, and this one … .
On Saturday, March 30, three burlesque shows are scheduled at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., and though they’re free with our festival wristbands, we have to line up to get seat vouchers at noon. We get there at 11 a.m., and the line is already looooong! Once it gets moving, however, it goes quickly, and later that evening at 7:20 p.m. we arrive at the Show Room and a lumpy usher with a limp guides us to our seats.
It’s pretty awesome to gaze out across the 700-seat theater and see nothing but hipsters. I start wondering if there will be photo restrictions, so I see another usher—he’s maybe 70 years old and frail—and I tell him I’ve got a press pass and ask him if there’s any photo restrictions.
“Not that I know of, as long as you don’t get on stage,” he says.
“I’ll try to restrain myself,” says I. “Why, does that happen?”
“You’d be surprised,” he says, “and not just the press.”
“Okay, well, I wanted to make sure you and your partner over there weren’t going to try to tackle me.”
Soon the emcee comes out on stage and tells us his name is “Dr. Sick,” and after some funny patter, he welcomes the first dancer— “a bulletproof blonde,” he calls her—who starts her routine as a live jazz band plays on stage. It feels like the ’50s in here, like I could turn around and see Frank, Dean, and Sammy sitting at a nearby VIP table.
All told, seven dancers come out, one emerging from an oversize oyster shell—no sexual innuendo here! There’s a girl named Stormy Gayle, another named GoGo McGregor, another named Athena. And they’re hot! So hot, in fact, that Anna starts to get fed up with all my photo taking from the foot of the stage.
Eventually, all good things must end, and we leave the theater and wade into the throng of rockabilly cats.
Pool party bingo!
Two days in Vegas equals fun! Three days equals good. Four equals growing discomfort. Five equals ”Get me the hell out of here!” It’s Sunday, March 31, and my sinuses are killing me from the air conditioning and smoke. My back and neck hurt from the hard bed and oversized pillows. And why is it so hard to find healthy food in Vegas?
It’s the last day of the weekend pool party, so I grab my camera and head over there while Anna does some shopping at all the vintage vendors. There’s a ton of exposed tattoos and so many awesome vintage bathing suits I almost can’t stand it!
I’m cruising around the pool snapping photos when I spot Gary Ellsworth from Sink or Swim, an Arroyo Grande tattoo shop. He’s hanging with three other SLO locals, R.C. Kelly, another artist at Sink or Swim, and Carlos Esquivel and Lisa Bukowski—both stylists as Tigerlily, the SLO-Town hair salon that Gary’s wife Larella owns.
“Is your wife here?” I ask.
“No, she couldn’t make it,” says Gary, who tells me this is his 12th time at Viva. I’m only on my third! Good lord, man!
They decided to come sort of last minute.
“We were sitting at McCarthy’s and I was telling these guys about it, and we decided, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ So I got out my phone and made reservations on the spot,” Gary says.
“This is my first time,” Carlos says. “Gary’s always talking about how fun it is, so I was like, ‘I’m there!’”
What does Lisa like about it?
“The music, the fashion style, the cars, the good-looking people, the drinks—what’s not to like?” she says.
Yeah, Viva Las Vegas is pretty awesome, but Anna and I aren’t leaving until 6 p.m. on Monday, April 1, and that’s no joke. Six days in Vegas? I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy!
I opened with a Hunter S. Thompson quote, so it seems fitting to close with one: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.