Las Vegas; March 1996
I knew this was my idea of Hell when I first emerged from the plane at Las Vegas airport. There were poker machines in the arrivals area. I could gamble before I’d even collected my bag.
I was there as a correspondent for Fairfax newspapers. I had two assignments. First, Kerry Packer and gambling – he’d hit the headlines making and losing small fortunes at casino tables. He was known as a “whale”, because of the size of his bets. Second, a heavyweight boxing match between Mike Tyson, the champ, and Frank Bruno, the British challenger. I’d been seduced by the literary credibility given to a barbaric sport by the likes of Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. I’d always found Muhammad Ali an intriguing figure. I knew Tyson was a thug, but a heavyweight fight seemed like something I had to experience. (It was a farce. Tyson won within two rounds. I saw fear on Bruno’s face.)
The venue was the MGM Grand Hotel. I would stay there for the first few nights, then, on the day of the fight itself, move out of town to a motel in the Nevada desert. The Grand itself, and most of Las Vegas, had been booked out by an influx of gangsters, pimps, high-rollers, celebrities and hangers-on. I suspect the reception clerk at the Grand took pity on me. Noticing that I would be checking out on the day the rest of the world was coming in, she said brightly: “You have a honeymoon suite”. Even though I was alone.
It remains the most splendid accommodation I have ever had. Also the most depressing. My room, high up, was excessively big. And ornate. And in bad taste. The perfect place to feel lost and far from home. This was long before iPods. The internet and email were in their infancy. I barely used either. I was the last Fairfax correspondent without a mobile phone. I liked the idea of NOT being in constant touch.
For music I had a portable CD-player, a handful of discs (I’d agonise before every trip about which ones to pick), and a pair of tiny speakers. The room must have had a stereo (as it had everything else, including a shower to fit seven), but I never found it.
I’d joined a CD club, seduced by the introductory deal – 10 FREE CDs and then ONLY two per month… or whatever it was. I struggled to make up my 10 after ticking off the five or six I’d really wanted. And so, in Las Vegas, as well as some oldies, I had two I hadn’t yet got into: Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball and something completely different – a two-CD recording of Puccini’s La Boheme, featuring Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. I’d decided it was time to get into some opera. In my eyrie at the Grand, grappling with stories about gambling and boxing, neither of which I cared for, I discovered that opera can be inexplicably relaxing. Often I’d lose the thread of whatever I was writing or reading, swept away by a high note or glorious tune.
But it’s Wrecking Ball that became the soundtrack to that stay. I’d never owned any of Emmylou Harris’ records; always thought that ‘Emmylou’ was like a caricature of a country singer’s name. But I’d loved her backing vocals for Bob Dylan on Desire and read the respectful reviews for Wrecking Ball late the previous year; reviews that made it clear this was more than ‘country’. I’d noticed, too, the people with whom she had collaborated – including Neil Young, Steve Earle and Daniel Lanois, who was also the producer.
Lanois’ production style divides people. He and Bob had a fraught relationship making Oh Mercy in 1989. The first time I played Wrecking Ball I wondered if the disc was bung: everything sounded muddy, distorted. But this is how Lanois meant it to be. I grew to like it, especially as it gave Harris something to soar high above with her clear, expressive voice.
In time, a Lanois song stuck with me: Blackhawk. Some of it remains a mystery. There are plenty of names I don’t fully get: St Clair; Dofasco; Liberty Station; Lake Bear. And is there another chorus, anywhere, that mentions leather boots/ pointing up into the sky? None of this matters. It’s a song to conjure a mood. It’s about remembering, and loss, and how things once were and can never be again. It played in my head when I ran at night along a dead straight road in the darkness of the Nevada desert, which was as real as Las Vegas was fake.
Years later, I ran into a friend from my uni days, now over 30 years into the past. One of those people you know with whom a hint of possibility never becomes much more, leaving always the sense of something unfinished. Somehow we got onto Wrecking Ball. God, she said, that song… Blackhawk. Play it loud.
© Alan Attwood.