Muslims have Mecca and Angelenos have Vegas. But whereas Muslims make the Raj once a year, wonder around a rock several times and pray, we Angelenos take multiple trips (to see the likes of Tom Jones, Mike Tyson or, in this case, the opening of U2's world tour), drink heavily, gamble recklessly and pray only when the we find ourselves broke and sprawled on the bathroom floor as it spins. Vegas is to Sodom as Los Angels is to Gomorra. The fact that the Founding Fathers of Vegas were Angelenos who wanted to have fun with immunity goes a long way to explain why U2 chose the city to open their tour, particularly when Vegas now vies with Los Angeles for the world title of the city where the sins of excess -- consumerism, gambling, prostitution, beauty, entertainment -- are celebrated, packaged and sold as culture. Culture, make no mistake about it, in this case means Pop culture, and with a 30 foot martini olive, a silver lemon, the world's largest video screen and the promise of spectacle matched only by the Rumble in the Jungle, I gleefully donned my electric purple velvet shirt and went to Vegas a willing buyer.
Before I recall the concert, I need to stress that we sometimes make trips to Vegas after the second cocktail on Friday night when the weekend does not offer much more than grading the latest implants (both men's and women's) at the local lounges. This is because on any given weekend in Vegas you can find the strange and unusual. For example, a friend of mine who actually lives in Vegas called me recently and suggested that I meet him to go and watch the UFO people taking acid out at the air force base. All of this is to say that Vegas is a party every night, but when there is a real event it turns into a bash -- and the U2 concert, for southern California and Nevada, was exactly that.
Vegas is the end of line for so many people and perhaps that is why U2 had Rage Against the Machine open for them: one band celebrating the excess of pop culture and the other one lashing out at it -- and lash they did. Zack De La Rocha drove powerfully through People of the Sun, a moving song about persecution. Rage's set included most of the songs from the Evil Empire and they were more than a little impressive. But, they were the opening band, which means that they did their job, whipped the crowd into a near frenzy and then were promptly removed without encore. This night belonged to U2 and it was clear that the promoters did not want people to like Rage too much.
While this was at first annoying it was about this time that we ran into two Irishmen who had flown into Vegas for the concert. They were revved and I have to stay that I was happy for them, for on this night they were proud. Besides Fiona, Aideen and [wait for it...] Louise Ferguson the Irish have not exported much worthwhile in this century except for Guinness. The two Irishmen informed me that U2 was well known for crowd building and that the concert would inevitably begin late -- which of course it did. It was about this time that the lights dimmed and the disco version of Lemon started emanating from the bank of orange speakers positioned at the apex of the 80 foot tall golden arch that centered the stage.
The last time that I saw U2 I was 18 and they were playing on the Amnesty tour with Peter Gabriel. For the last ten years I have purchased every album they have put out although I do not consider myself a huge fan. Nevertheless, I realized how much their music had been a part of growing up. As they started singing I remembered vividly my junior year in high school and the large poster that I had on my wall of the album cover of War. On this night, however, the band was not particularly tight: they screwed up several times and had, in the case of discoteque, to completely start the song over. I have to say that I did not care, for a mediocre night for U2 is great night for most other bands.
Everything about the concert was big, bright, shiny and awesome. The concert is a spectacle and the music is but one piece -- granted the most important -- of an impressively choreographed show. It is Hollywood, Broadway, and MTV wrapped into one. What is most astonishing about the concert is how successfully it succeeds. This success has much to do with the design of the stage and the 100 foot by 300 foot video screen that serves as the backdrop for the stage. Whoever designed it and the visuals that occurred throughout the concert deserves awards. The visuals were spectacular and the choreography masterful. To take but several examples: There is one series of panels where prehistoric man makes progress to ape man and then to a highly sophisticated consumer complete with shopping basket; and another sequence where Keith Haring figures do the dance of love. In addition, there are multiple sequences of psychedelic flowers and hermaphrodite dancers.
I could ramble on about the show and no doubt I will if I see any of you. So I will end by writing that U2 wants to reinvent themselves and their choice to embrace -- no, revel -- in pop culture is a sign of maturity -- maturity in the sense that what pop/ disco music provides is an avenue for U2 to reflect ironically on themselves and on a culture that dominates not only the West but increasingly the world. The question that U2 poses is can you find meaning in disco? Their answer is yes. But in order to find out about it you probably should go and see the show for yourselves and maybe then everyone on the SAIS web page might be a little less depressed.
I love Southern California. Nowhere else in the world -- not even in
New York or San Francisco -- can you watch a shootout with full body
armor and automatic weapons that is straight out of the movies; and then
find 39 people commited enough to the belief that they would arrive on
the space craft hidden behind Hale-Boob to take fatal doses of
Pheno-Barbitol in what is the Beverly Hills of San Diego. Now I grew up
with lots of psychos (Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing being but two
examples) but no one from the middle west -- not even my friends on
drugs -- would think that for five dollars, a pair of Nikes and, if we
were really committed, a good castration job, that we could hitch a ride
on the mother ship to the other dimension. I am needless to say beginning
to feel at home in LA.
SAISers like to think of themselves as above all the nationalist harangues which fill
newspaper pages and free of the shackles of stereotypes. So it is with some
embarrassment I admit that it took travel across a political border to realize that hey,
Chinese are people too.
That's an exaggeration. But separate trips into China have proved interesting forays
into one of the most misunderstood--and most important--countries in the world. I don't
have a solution for Clinton's foreign policy team but I did eat some excellent food,
dance with pretty girls and hear a good Mao joke. Maybe that's more important than
"engagement v. containment" anyway.
I entered Guangzhou (Canton) the old-fashioned way, by boat up the Pearl River, and
stayed in a quiet hotel on Shamian Island, the historic concession to the first
western traders in China. The island musters what little charm Guangzhou boasts. Its
colorful colonial buildings are gentrifying and the island is home to a number of
outdoor cafes and a few western-style bars. The rest of the city is a sprawling grey
mass of huge highways, narrow alleys, buzzing commerce, huge and ugly glass towers and
puffing smokestacks. Although many people still get around on bicycles there are plenty
of automobiles and the streets are a free-for-all. Traffic lights--the few that
exist--and painted lines in the roads go ignored. I took three taxi rides, and each I
believed would be my last on Earth. I survived unscathed, but twice I witnessed nasty
The chaos on the roads is a function of Guangzhou's overriding feature, population.
Southern China, Hong Kong included, is absolutely swarming with people in a way that
even a Manhattanite could not relate to. I recall the first time in Hong Kong when I was
overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. That was maybe my second day here. It did not
faze me, however. I was in the city center and everyone knows that there are 1.2 billion
Chinese and they've got to be somewhere, right? But as I explored more bits of Hong Kong
I found that there was no end. In fact, what I had initially considered overcrowded was
in fact a moderate level. There are places in Kowloon that are the densist in the world.
When you see so many people at once they really do "swarm." Like insects.
Another function of Guangzhou's overpopulation is the pollution. Hong Kong's air is
horrible but much of it comes from China. In China it is worse. Exiting my boat upon
arrival I could smell the river. It reeked of oil. In places it has stopped flowing, at
least on the surface, which has been reduced to thick, black sludge. There is no such
thing as a clear day in Guangzhou. No one seems interested in tackling China's vast
environmental problems. I hope that China continues to grow wealthy so that it can feel
like it can afford to clamp down on pollution. I have no idea what the human toll of
this steady poisoning is, but I suspect it is massive.
Plenty of foreignors have been to Guangzhou, as well as to Shenzen, which is a brand-new
city right across the Hong Kong border. Businessmen travel there during the week, and
students and people teaching English live in Guangzhou. Nonetheless westerners receive
plenty of stares. For the most part this is benign curiosity. A lot of people will flash
a shy smile or say "hello" as they dart past. If they are at a safe distance, say in a
bus, they will stare at you until you look back. Some return waves. I hear that
westerners are a real show in the more remote parts of the country. The children,
perhaps unburdened by history, are particularly friendly or curious.
To my delight, Chinese women are very easy to chat up. Partly because westerners are
rich, partly because it's probably hip to talk to them. Or maybe it's my breathtaking
good looks and fathomless charm. Guangzhou is changing at an amazing pace. One of my
travel companions had been through town two years ago and says that places like "Africa
Bar," a nightclub a good distance from the foreignor-friendly Shamian Island, did not
then exist. Africa Bar is as good a nightclub as they come, with a funky d.j. spinning
hep grooves, cheap Corona beer (with a wedge of lime) and lots of beautiful people. One
girl taught me how to order a brewski, which is about the extent of my Cantonese so
far--about all I need, right? I don't know much about sexual freedom in China but if it
ever left it has returned. There were even a few gay couples dancing. I'm not saying
Guangzhou is the next SoHo and I imagine Africa Bar is not a common scene. But I get the
impression places like Africa Bar are new, another piece of zaniness in a city bursting
at the seams.
Guangzhou seems uncontainable and it has a reputation for lawlessness. But China is
still a military dictatorship, marked by a paranoid and control-happy government. My
visit to Shenzen occurred only a few days after Deng's death, and I came upon a giant
mural of the Paramount Leader which was featured in many newspaper photos in the event.
A large crowd stood before the mural and a steady stream of people passed by the mural
and its many wreaths of mourning. I saw a few people taking pictures so I figured it was
all right to do the same. As soon as I raised my camera, however, several soldiers
descended upon me. They thought I was a reporter (well, I AM a reporter...), demanded my
passport and for a minute I thought my mother's worst fears would be realized. The
soldiers didn't confiscate my film or throw me in jail, they just told me to get lost,
which I promptly did. Just how this government will continue to manage what seems like
an unmanageable environment is, as we all know, one of the Big Questions the world faces
at the close of the century.
Oh yes, the Mao joke. I had heard it before but coming from a Chinese woman the joke had
a grimmer humor. Bear in mind Mao was a dictator with a large harem and a poor grasp of
English, and the joke goes: Nixon is visiting Chairman Mao. Nixon says, "I had an
election last year. When was your last election, Chairman Mao?" Mao thinks for a moment
and replies, "Why, I had an erection just this morning."
Chinese people with a sense of humor! Who knew!