Vegas. I conjured up the dark side when I lived in Vegas for several years. Most of that grind seemed like an ephemeral dream. I wrote a book about living in Vegas during the peak of the online poker boom and sometimes a friend will read the book and ask me about some of the crazy things and many epic stories which I purposely left off the pages. Maybe I'll write another book about Vegas one day, but the Phish trips will definitely make the cut. I saw Phish play Halloween shows in Las Vegas in 1998, 2014, and 2016... and the shit that went down anchored three of the Top 25 craziest weekends of my life. It goes without saying, things got so weird in Vegas when Phish and the psychedelic circus blows through town, that Phishy Halloweens were among my Top 5 all-time decedent weekends in Vegas.
When I lived in Vegas, I almost died in a car wreck. That Moth story is for another time. But for now, all you need to know is that I was one of the lucky ones. I beat Vegas and I got out alive. I lost so many friends and colleagues to the dark side that I lost count. Some of the sordid tales are cliched stories of washing out and going broke, other deviant tragedies will break your fucking heart in forty million pieces. Some good souls are still stuck on the dark side. Others infected with the "sickness" will never get out of Vegas. I'm one of the lucky ones because I had the ability to move in between realities: Vegas and the real world. I can dive back in and sneak out without getting sucked back in. At least... I had hoped so.
The last Phish Halloween run in 2014 got tainted by personal reasons because I had mixed feelings about returning to the crossroads of my mortality. I had limped away a winner and didn't want to press my luck, but I couldn't miss a Phish Halloween show. That was the only thing that pulled me back into Vegas. I survived the Haunted House madness in 2014, had oodles of fun but it came at a cost because I was an emotional wreck. In a good way because needed to confront the demons of the past and accept the new path I had embarked upon.
Halloween was the first night of a three-night Vegas run in 2014 followed by two more shows. By the last night, I was mentally drained after being up for almost four-straight days raging with the Joker and lost my cookies.
This time around, I left all the crazy head trips behind. Plus the scheduling was flipped. The 2016 Halloween show would finish off the four-night run and cap off the entire fall tour. Each night in Vegas would be building up to the next. In its own way, the decadence increased exponentially each night culminating toward the Halloween blowout...three sets plus the musical costume that was heavily rumored to be David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust.
For the first time in a very long time -- in almost 12 years -- I could enjoy Las Vegas like everyone else. Like a tourist. Except, I held an edge as a former resident; I could properly rage without being an easy mark. Vegas loves revelers on a itchy-nosed mission to get absolutely obliterated because it makes it easier for the casinos to squeeze the last dollar out of your pocket and charge last cents of available credit from your plastic. Like the record industry in the 1960s, the mafia ran Vegas with ruthless efficiency. All the old-school mobsters with Italian names got ran out decades ago and today faceless mega-corporations run Sin City. Post-Modern Vegas is controlled by a different type of mob. These faceless logos won't threaten you with violence if you step out of line, but the goal is still the same: pilfering and profits. Those slimy fuckers don't have names like Vinny the Nose or Tony Two-Times. Instead those unscrupulous banksters minding the store wear suits, have 401Ks, and armed to the teeth with Ivy League-educated litigators.
Phish is full-blown corporate these days. It's the only way to preserve their sanity. The boys from Vermont try to put on a good show, keep everyone in the crowd happy, while satiating their own artistic needs, and cashing fat-ass tour-ending checks that exceed our entire lifetime net earnings. Phish and Vegas have many similarities. In the end, they're going to acquire every last cent you own, but try to give you the best time of your life in the process. In these mercurial political times, depending on where you live, you have to go back underground and hide the freak flag otherwise get stomped by the unenlightened masses. Yet, Phish is one of the few places you can let it all hang out. So, when you host Phish in Vegas, you're inside a 24-hour vacuum where aberrant behavior is expected. Anything goes when Phish blows through Vegas and no one will give a shit what the fuck you do short of killing someone else.
Phish tour = anything goes.
Vegas = anything goes.
Phish + Vegas = nuclear anarchy.
Vegas trips should never last more than two days because the human body gets besieged by sensory overlord and your brain gets scrambled. You begin to accept insane behavior as normalcy and start to do weird things once you've been inside casinos for three and four days. Let's not forget what happened in April 2004 and that was only a three-show Phish run in Vegas. I'm shocked Phish pulled off a three-night run in 2014, let alone a four-nighter. But I guess Trey is back to being a Jedi and can handle doing somersaults at the gateway to hell. Then again, in 2016 the phamily was wise enough to keep Trey away from temptation and booked him a bungalow out at Green Valley Ranch (where your grandma degen'd it up on penny slots) in the burbs.
Plus, nothing spiritually positive and morally good ever happens once you've been up for 40-straight hours and hell-bent on staying up for 50 or 60. The worst decisions of my life have either been made in Las Vegas after being up for a couple of days, or partying waaaay past the 40+ hour mark and marching like a schwilly zombie into the nefarious 50-hour territory. If you combine both situations.... being up for 48 hours partying in Vegas... you insta-flush your dignity away and your cactus pride. You significantly increase your odds of incarceration, blackmail, getting rolled by a hooker, an embarrassing neck tattoo, picking up an STD from the swing-shift hostess at Denny's, knocking up a club girl, getting swindled by con artists, losing a combination of your marriage/house/car/kid/savings/job, and most of all...your sanity. Plus in this tech-heavy day and age of instant gratification with nonstop social media, you're gifting divorce attorneys, local law enforcement, and Big Brother oodles of data to use against you in the future.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but the eye in the sky sees everything. And the NSA caches everything.
I flew into Vegas on Thursday night. My bud Mr. Funk (aka @LVcabchronicles) picked me up at the airport and made sure I didn't get long-hauled on the freeway! We both had blogs about Vegas during the height of the short-lived blogging trend in the mid-00s and shared a common fondness for the Grateful Dead and Phish. Mr. Funk told me he was taking his wife to her first show at the MGM Grand Arena during the four-night run in Vegas. Meanwhile, my tour wife had to work in LA on Friday (busy corrupting minds in Hollywood), and could only make the other three nights. I would be raging solo to start the trip with friends from Colorado, California, and Seattle slowly trickling in.
On Thursday at peak tourist hours, I got sucked into playing a low-limit poker tournament on the Strip with a combination of drunken conventioneers from fly-over states and sad-sacked locals who spent too many hours chasing flushes and three outers. I outlasted Colorado friends in the tourney, made the final table, but finished in seventh place. Bad beat too. I wanted to jab my fingers into the eyeballs of a dipshit-donk in seat four, but it's also been a while since I questioned my existence at a poker table on the Strip. That's when a saw a familiar face on the rail: my old business partner Michalski. He showed up drunk as a skunk with a former colleague from London, who was in town representing a major European casino. They were both getting hammered on a expense tab and it had been a while since I got shitty on someone else's dime. It felt like it was 2007 all over again and I was being wooed by gaming fat cats to pimp competing online poker rooms. After we shut down karaoke, waved off a consortium of emaciated working girls, I walked down Las Vegas Blvd. and forgot that the lowest common denominator of humanity was well-represented on the Vegas Strip at 3am. I got tickled by fond memories, while other places triggered mixed feelings. And the newly-constructed sparkly things just confused me.
Vegas is a city that's in constant flux. Build. Destroy. Rebuild.
On Friday morning, I loaded up a few bets at the sportsbook with Wildo. I crushed Eggslut at Cosmo with Carrie Sparkles. Johnnie Salami arrived and we hit up a dispensary. Out-of-state medicinal card holders got to shop at Vegas dispensaries and we checked out the locally-grown goodies. Not as cheap as Colorado, but on par with San Francisco prices. I loaded up on White Fire OG and headed back to the MGM to host the pre-party for the Denver/Boulder crew and my old Vegas pal Dr. Nacho Picante.
Extra tickets were going for as low as $6 on Stub Hub for behind the stage. I saw people selling PTBM lower levels for $50 in front of the Game of Thrones slots. Johnnie Salami and I found a spot a few rows up in Sect 200s dead center in back. Fun section with mix of complete noobs and pro ragers looking to lock down a row for their crew. Johnnie Salami chatted up cute cokefiend millennial ladies from Boston all night, while I got stuck next to two schwasted girls who had to leave and pee every other song. They were the personification of LCD Soundsystem's Drunk Girls. I didn't have to ask because I knew they were from L.A.
Show kicked off with some of 2014's Halloween shtick and Martian Monster, a theme they'd tried to carry through on all four nights. Almost. No Man's got shit cooking early. Friday night Set 1 was highlighted by a trio of unexpected bustouts with Dog Stole Things, Beauty of My Dreams, and Destiny Unbound. All in a row. I wished DST was in rotation and the Destiny's jam was impressive. Fishman was an octopus on Limb as per usual. Thought set would end with Cavern, but Trey kept it going with Walls of the Cave.
Fishman was a beast all set, but he was spent by the end of Walls. It was okay though...this was Vegas after all and he had a vast team of massage girls of all shapes and sizes to work on all eight of his appendages and his crank as well during the set break. In Page's baller dressing room, he had Jim Murphy sipping champagne and DJing a remix of Claude VonStroke while a harem of EDM raver girls diddled each other with molly-Fireball soaked tampons. Gordo had a tall, stern, laconic Swedish manservant named Hans waiting for him in his dressing room. Everyone thinks Hans is Gordo's boy toy, but he's more than that. Hans is a combination yoga coach, fashion consultant (come on Gordo didn't acquire that Euro-slick, eclectic, scarf taste himself), masseuse, intellectual peer, and ping-pong partner. And Trey? Trey took off his shirt and sat alone in his dimly lit dressing room. Just himself and his bible. He turned to Paul's Corinthians and silently read while he whipped himself with a belt (Gucci retail $279) for flubbing Walls of the Cave.
Second set kicked off with Crimes of the Mind from the Dude of Life. Another bustout. Another curveball. Kinda put me off kilter for a few minutes until they tore up the last couple of minutes. Then it happened. Golden Age. Might have been the high-water mark of Vegas. The chorus/versus/chorus is just foreplay. Like taking out your Tinder date for sushi before you knock her boots into Pluto. The Golden Age jam is why I go see Phish. Twenty minutes of deep space exploration. Shit got weird. Shit got real. Shit got cosmic. Bowels were moved. Vaginas were soaked. Penises rose and fall. Even the handful of asexual heads started doing unusual things with their private parts in utter jubilation. That Golden Age jam had a couple of multiple orgasms, a couple of peaks and explosive moments. You figured Simple would be short and sweet after that insane Golden jam. Instead they stretched out the Light jam and tested those outer limits. Twenty Years Later is the obvious buzz kill for all of you full-throttle heads, but every once in a while the lyrics resonate with you once you go north of 40 years old. Vegas 1998 was a high-water mark in my relationship with Phish and it's amazing to think that epic run with Senor and his brother was nearly 20 years ago. Sorta surprised to hear Blaze On and No Man's in the same set, but this was Vegas...they had something cooking. Regular Coil to end the set (no Gordo bass solo like at Dick's...glad it was a one time thing). Yeah, we got a Bouncin' encore and I scurried off to the pisser before the Hendrix cover of Axis: Bold As Love. Leo slays those covers. Always.
Page McConnell is a first-ballot Hall of Fame Panty Dropper. Only Frank Sinatra pulled in more tail in Vegas than Leo. If you don't believe me, ask Leroy the shoeshine guy at the MGM. He's been in Vegas for 53 years and told me, "Sinatra is the all-time best. But your sandwich boy, Leo? His elephant trunk dug holes the size of the Lincoln Tunnel into those half-nekkid butterfly girls. Paramedics had to take them out on a stretcher. Two at a time. Hadn't seen that much damage since Sinatra at the Golden Nugget in 1982."
One down in Vegas. Three to go.
* * * *
Phish Vegas Part 1: All These Dogs Just Want To Play
Phish Vegas Part 2: Page EDM
Phish Vegas Part 3: The Latch Was Left Unhooked
Pauly is the author of Lost Vegas. Check it out.