My Pop Life #235 : You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor


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You’ve Got A Friend   –   Carole King

close your eyes and think of me

*

I wrote this diary excerpt when I was hitch-hiking around North America with my friend Simon (referenced in My Pop Life #130).   We celebrated my 19th birthday in Santa Fe with tequila shots, salt & lime til dawn, a reasonably appropriate celebration I think, then hitch-hiked for a couple of days through Navajo Nation and the stunning red rock towers of Monument Valley eventually getting to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we pitched our tent.  Then a wonderful moment happened.  The VW camper van next door had two lovely American fellas our age.  Darrell & Sam struck up conversation.   They were going to Las Vegas too – but via Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon.  Four wonderful days and nights, backgammon and weed and music as I recall.   Across the desert.  Then we finally got to Las Vegas.  No indication of the drama which was to unfold.  Now read on dot dot dot

*

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Thursday July 2nd 1976 9pm

So here we are at last – in the gambling capital of the world. Everything is open 25 hours a day, and there’s only one thing to do – spend money.  Characteristically, Simon and I decide to avoid doing that, and manage fairly well.  We arrive in Las Vegas mid-afternoon and check into a hotel on the Strip which offers us “casino packages“.  You can find these deals all over the city and for 100 miles outside – free meal tickets, free drinks, free chips and nickels and free souvenirs – like miniature one-armed bandits (I shamelessly acquire one).

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After a magnificent cold shower, we brave the heat – 110 in the shade – and armed with hundreds of “good deals” we move out.  Fourteen hours later, we stare blankly at one another from our beds, shattered and amazed.  Now I really know what it’s like to have a night on the town, and watch the orangey-pink dawn at 5.30 in the morning over Sunrise Mountain.  I know what the town is too.  The whole of our stay here is like a dream – Vegas is a very unreal and surreal place, a neon city which becomes very beautiful at night.  The Stardust, Caesar’s Palace, Sahara and The Dunes have the most spectacular 100-foot neon displays on the boulevard advertising their casinos.  And inside, the sight that hits you between the eyes is also out of a dream.  In the large casinos there are literally acres of fruit machines, rows of blackjack tables, roulette, craps and baccarat.  Watching it all go on is an entertainment in itself – the people here are incredible, ranging from very rich, slick tuxedos and evening dresses through middle-aged T-shirts and fat women mindlessly feeding machines, to scruffy jeans and sneakers.  They’re all here to feed Vegas in one form or another with their money.  The fruit machines which surround everything and populate every bar gobble up nickels, dimes, quarters & silver dollars, and occasionally, with a loud noise, spit some back.  It is noticeable that the machines are very noisy when they pay out, and very quiet when they’re emptying your pockets – thus if a casino has enough machines, somebody somewhere will be winning noisily giving the impression that the machines are constantly paying out.

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The noise inside a casino is unbelievable – there are six or seven different layers -soft music, bells, chinking coins, rattles, dealer’s calls, very loud weird noises and the constant sound of money.  Money is the only criteria here – the only one. You are either rich, or poor and that is it – you are not good-looking, nice, friendly, nasty or affected – just rich or poor.  We are poor.  But we have a great time.  Although it is an entertainment watching the types of people and the neon and the roulette, you can only watch for two minutes then it sucks you in and you are not in control.  Luckily we have enough free nickels & tokens to play with and we spend very little of our own money.  And in fact, we do very well, walking into a casino, getting a bunch of free tokens, winning, and then walking out two bucks up, resisting the urge to gamble with it.

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We get a free stew and endless beers at Mr Sy’s, a hot dog and coffee at Foxy’s, nickels at The Sahara, nothing at Honest John’s, champagne and tokens at El Morocco, and nickels and endless champagne at King 8 which is connected to our hotel and thus gives us Good Deals.  The casinos own smaller casinos, hotels & snack bars and also have deals going with gas stations so that the whole city is a web which catches you wherever you happen to be in it. But I love it and I am definitely coming back here with some money.  [And I did – see My Pop Life #230 deja vu country songs in Vegas].  What better way to lose money – it is basically worthless stuff anyway – and the attitude of play the game easy come easy go is a healthy one – it is how money should be treated.  What a place !

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By midnight we are totally blammed on champagne from King 8, where we have been insanely giggling for two hours, imagining going back to the hotel for our traveller’s cheques and gambling everything, being in the limelight at the centre of the game at Caesar’s Palace for half and hour, then thumbing back to DC to stay at the Furth’s while we wait for September 19th, broke.  We imagined the story :

Well, we got as far as Las Vegas…

And believe me, it would be so easy to do. We are tottering along the Strip towards Caesar’s harbouring the sexy rich lady fantasy when we are picked up by two girls in a jeep, unattractive and poor [who need us with our fake IDs to go and buy whisky for them the legal age being 21].  By now however, we are helpless and “nobody knows” – that is to say the conversations are

“Where do you want to go?”       ” don’t know”

“What do you want to do?”        “don’t know”

“What’s your name?”             “don’t know, etc”

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We smoke some grass and find ourselves in a kiddies playground on slides and climbing bars.  The stars are stupendous.  We decide to go for a swim, yet upon reaching a pool everyone denies that they agreed.  We head once again for Caesar’s Palace.  It is enormous inside, very plush and attractive and fairly crowded even though it is by now about 2.30am.  We then go to The MGM another enormous casino with fountains and mirrors in the ceilings and tuxedoed croupiers.  Trying to park, we crash into a brand new Porsche and subsequently spend the next hour in the MGM car park arguing with a reactionary bastard from Denver, waiting for the police, and pouring whisky onto each other’s heads. [None of the drivers present were sober it has to be recorded].

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We eventually get into The MGM at 4am and walk about zombie-like, staring with blank faces at the glitter and cash around us. We go all the way to the back of the casino and there is a huge shopping mall with very expensive diamonds, minks of orange hue, fox-furs and absurd paintings.  These shops are where you spend your winnings, all owned by the casino, so naturally they get all your money back.

Of course!

After an hour or so of total surreal weirdness (we are here, now, doing this…) we become aware of a sensation within each one of us that we identify as hunger. Breakfast!

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We stagger into yet another casino as the dawn spreads over the pinkish sky above Sunrise Mountains, and the neon sign outside The Dunes is switched off until the next sunset.  A 77 c breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon and coffee is eaten in total darkness because the electrical operators are going slow – giving the casinos half hour blackouts every now and then : naturally we have arrived in that half hour.  I am at the stage where I could believe anything, and frequently do.  Still mindlessly tipping whisky down our throats we decide again to go for a swim, so everyone changes and meets at the pool in the girl’s hotel.

The night ends badly though as one of the girls falls off the diving board onto the concrete and is badly bruised, and I come as close to death as I have ever been, or will ever be likely to without actually dying.  In 9 feet of water I suddenly lose confidence and my muscles refuse to work.  I sink like a stone, don’t touch the bottom and come up, gasping for breath and immediately sink again, swallowing water.  With horror I realise that I am now drowning and there is nothing I can do about it.  Some distant memory of “when you go down the third time you don’t come up“.  I come up for the second time and Simon recognises that I am in big trouble.  [Later he tells me that he forgot the diving girl’s name and rather than shout “OI” which he felt was rude, he dived in to get me himself].  I see him swimming towards me through mouthfuls of water and gulps of air as my arms and legs are thrashing about – I don’t want to drown, I really don’t.  It seems to take Simon hours to reach me and then I immediately grab him somewhere, anywhere and we both go down, me for the third time, him for the first.  For one horrible moment I am so close to dying that I can feel it, a cold presence, a ghastly sensation.  I see angels I see a coffin flying back to England on a plane,  a school assembly where my name is read out, a funeral But this is not my time and we both come up, and somehow Simon takes me to the edge.  I cling gratefully to the side, gasping painfully and fast, but alive.  We are both in a bad state of shock, and the girls drive us back to our room, once we have partially recovered.  We eventually sleep at 11am, through til 7 in the evening when we get up, go and eat, and return.  It is now 10pm in the evening – we plan on leaving very early tomorrow to avoid the ridiculously hot weather, thumbing to Los Angeles.

The last 30 hours are a blur, a dream, an unreality lit by neon and flashing lights, a whirl of chinking coins, rolling dice, aces, jacks and queens, oranges and plums, tuxedos diamonds champagne and a brush with death.

*

Simon saved my life I have no doubt about that.  Rather odd that I didn’t write that phrase into the diary at the time.  Shock.  Even two days later, writing about the day – I reckon this was written once we’d arrived in Los Angeles at Nick Carr’s parent’s place in Monterey Park.  The part I missed is the part I almost always missed in the diary of that road trip – the sexual exploits.  Once we’d got back to the hotel it was decided that Simon and Diving Girl would take the room, and Ralph and short-haired girl would wait in the Jeep. I think we kissed for a bit but that was it, we didn’t really fancy each other.  After two hours I got to crash out when Diving Girl came out and the girls drove off waving.   We never saw them again. 

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I’m writing this on Monday 20th April 2020 in Brooklyn, the epicentre of the coronavirus covid 19 pandemic with death all around us, hundreds of people every day pass over, old people, young people, nurses, cooks, cleaners, bus drivers, policemen and women, grandparents, asthmatics, care-home workers, immigrants, musicians, retired insurance brokers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, physios. 

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Jenny my wife is asthmatic and doesn’t go out at all.  She isn’t taking any risks.  I do the shopping and the bins, the prescriptions, the bread, the cheese the oranges.  We have both become obsessed with oranges.  I have disposable gloves and a mask which purports to be N95 but actually isn’t I don’t think.  I can smell weed when I cycle past the youth.  We line up outside Trader Joe six feet apart and go into a quiet supermarket walking gently around sourcing our priority produce, then pack out bags ourselves and walk the Citibike back home with the absurdly heavy shopping, remove shoes before entering, unpeel vinyl gloves into the trash, wash hands thoroughly, take bleach wipes and disinfect every single item as it comes out of the shopping bag, disinfect the handles, the taps, the phone, the glasses, the mask, my eyeballs.

We’ve been back to Las Vegas numerous times since then, but I never seriously took up gambling as a past-time.  See My Pop Life #230.  I still live a charmed life, and have at least one other serious near-death experience to relate.  South Africa 2010.  I’ll do it next. 

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The LP Tapestry by songwriting genius Carole King (Natural Woman, It Might As Well Rain Until September, The Locomotion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Up On The Roof, Will You Love Me Tomorrow) is one of the greatest ever made, and this – You’ve Got A Friend – is the stand-out song for me.  Many have covered it – notably Donny Hathaway & James Taylor, and I have chosen Mr Taylor’s sweet cover since that was the song Simon and I would have listened to in 1974-5.   It helps I guess that when I met Jenny and we started dating, one of the things that made me fall in love with her was that she could sign the lyrics to this song, and still can.  But today this song is for Simon, my closest friend, my dearest companion, my life-saver, my brother.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rob
    Apr 21, 2020 @ 09:43:27

    Fondly recall my first time in Vegas. It was ostensibly an ‘exploratory’ trip, with the view of arranging to be married there. When it became clear people couldn’t come, we kept the trip anyway and man, am I glad we did. It somehow felt like getting married anyway.

    Also here in asthma jail, relying on deliveries, and struggling when I do have to venture out with just about-therapised OCD, which has been ‘robustly’ challenged. But still, I have family on the literal frontlines knee-deep in the death but critically, the love as well.

    Stay safe and happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. magicman
    Apr 21, 2020 @ 13:32:38

    Thanks Rob. Las Vegas seems to me to be the American Dream/Nightmare in full neon colour – run by gangsters, both literally and metaphorically, Disneyfied in the 90s and where you hate yourself for enjoying it so much. I think we’re all OCD now though aren’t we? Stay well !

    Like

    Reply

  3. Rob
    Apr 21, 2020 @ 19:23:04

    Yes indeed. A fever dream writ real and in your face whether you choose to go along with it or not, so you may as well.

    We’re not gamblers, but it still connected to bon vivant sensibilities nonetheless and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

    You think ‘I shouldn’t like this’ but what the hell, I did. I do.

    Never did take the route to LA from there. I should.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  4. Trackback: My Pop Life #236 : Superman ft. Bucie – Black Coffee | Magicmenagerie's Blog

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