Culture | Music
To play the King Elvis Presley’s story tells us something about fame: worshipped at first, stars end up sacrificing themselves to their myths
By Yo Zushi
What happens after the high? One afternoon in May 2011, the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas closed its doors for the final time. “Thanks for 59 years!” shouted Sam Nazarian, the chief executive of the hotel’s parent company, as his guests shuffled out of the building. The Sahara had been one of just three casinos running continuously since Sin City’s mid-20th-century heyday – a 1,750-room relic of what, three years after the global economic crash, already seemed a mythic era of untrammelled excess. The Rat Pack had stayed here, as had the Beatles, but history and glamour couldn’t make up for the banal reality of financial losses. So the gambling floors were cleared, the doors shuttered. Somewhere in those 85,000 square feet was a cautionary tale – maybe several. But what did they warn of? No matter, for within a few years, the building would reopen, rebranded to deliver “style, luxury and service” to a new generation of pleasure-seeking rich.
“We didn’t have a home,” says Angie Dickinson’s Beatrice Ocean in the 1960 film Ocean’s 11, part of which was filmed at the Sahara. “We had a floating crap game.” That’s how she describes her marriage to Danny, a warhero-turned-casino-robber played by Frank Sinatra, yet it would equally suffice as a summation of the domestic lives of many of our biggest rock stars, who, like the most compulsive gamblers, choose instant highs over conventional happiness. Or, perhaps, it’s conventional happiness that rejects them. In 1986, a bitter Bob Dylan told the British journalist Christopher Sykes that fame was lonely. “It’s like you’re passing a little pub or an inn, and you look through the window and you see all the people eating and talking,” he explained. “But when you walk in the room, it’s over. You won’t see them being real any more.”
If we find it hard to be “real” in the company of stars, it’s because stars are unreal to us. Indeed, they’re at once more than real, and less than it: as Richard Dyer wrote in his 1980 book Stars, they are walking “representations of people”, carrying with them their public personae, mediated so comprehensively that the individual who embodies them is easily occluded. Stars are larger than life – literally, in the case of actors whose faces we see projected on cinema screens, every facial expression magnified not only in scale but in import.
With singers, of course, it’s the voice that counts – what they do with it, but also the grain of it, and whether we believe what it tells us. I thought about all this as I listened to the 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis, riding the train from London St Pancras to Rochester. Elvis was the star of
New Humanist | Spring 2019