Friday, April 14, 9 p.m. At White Plains High School in 1996, there was just nothing cool about swing dancing, wearing vintage bowling shirts, listening to swanky lounge music and talking about the martinis you would drink in 1999 when you turned 21. That is, unless you were a member of Theater Unlimited, in which case you were totally cool in my eyes. After all, I was president.
Though the phases and fads of the time are generally regarded as terminally un-hip, I was not entirely unfamiliar with them; I've suffered through most of them: '80s, hippie, rock, goth, grunge ... But my favorite by far was swing, which thanks to the 1993 movie Swing Kids, hijacked my teenage years and had me declaring any boy who looked remotely like actors Robert Sean Leonard or Christian Bale as "dreamy." And after 1996's Swingers, it's really no wonder that 10 years later, I'm living in Las Vegas and celebrating Viva Las Vegas weekend. I have once again found my kinda crowd.
Thankfully, the rockabilly subculture is one of inclusion, not exclusion. Its tenets dwell in a gray area somewhere between the 1940s and 1960s, between Southern hillbilly rock and country, and somewhere between Bettie Page and James Dean. A rockabilly shopping list might include custom cars, short bangs, tattoos, leopard print, hair grease, martinis, Pabst Blue Ribbon (can, please), an upright bass, all things tiki ... I could go on and so could the list.
But my overall rockability is questionable tonight, sitting at the far side of Downtown's Art Bar for the tail end of the Java's Bachelor Pad Cocktails & Cheesecake party. On stage, two curvaceous slices of the evening's cheesecake are emceeing. I'm unaccustomed to starting my night at 6 p.m. so I've arrived well past 'tini time, missed the saucy burlesque revue and pulled into the bar's tiny parking lot just in time to catch the last licks of Brian Jay and the Rockin' Jesters. "This one's called 'The Devil Drives a Hot Rod'," someone I assume is Brian Jay purrs into the microphone. Sweet!—I mean, "keen!"
All around me are pinups, greasers, cats and kittens, smoking and doing what hipsters do, which is talk about cars, smoke some more and admire each other's authentic vintage-ness. The men are pompadoured to perfection, Brill-Creamed dandies in American Western wear (think Johnny Cash or Billy Bob Thornton) or tatted and greased with their jean cuffs turned up. The ladies are either belted and polka-dotted or squeezed like injection molding into skintight cocktail dresses. Each is a powdered and beauty-marked vision of femininity, even those with full sleeves of tattoos emerging from their satin. I'm wearing Old Navy, daddy-o. Dig?
On Saturday, I decide to dress the part and join the party: a cherry pout, a full skirt, boat-neck top, high-heeled Mary Janes and a tiki purse. An antique pearl chain clasps a dainty black cardigan over my shoulders. I swap my contacts for thick black frames and suddenly, I'm a vision from Peggy Sue Got Married.
But as it turns out, I'm more Rebel Without a Clue. Though I have found my people, I seem to have temporarily misplaced them.
The Miss Exotic World burlesque bash I hoped to attend turns out to be a full month away; I leave the Celebrity Theater with modern rock ringing in my ears. And the Beauty Bar may very well be cloistering my rockabilly friends in its back-lot stage area but tonight they're charging a hefty cover and that's a definite buzz kill. I am determined to stay Downtown, though, unbeknownst to me, the real hipster shindig is raging down at the Gold Coast Casino this very minute. Instead, we hole up at Triple George, sipping dirty martinis and hoping that somehow by the power of Grey Goose, I will have an epiphany—but I don't.
Ah, well. There's always next year, the tickets for which go on sale Monday at
www.vivalasvegas.net. That gives me 361 days to plan my new outfit.