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Cynosure: Poetry and World

02unboxedxlarge138. Hotel California

The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe–the Hawk balances about the clouds–that is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes the Amusement of Life–to a speculative Mind.

–John Keats, Letters

And she said, we are all just prisoners here of our own device. . .

–Eagles, “Hotel California”


A huge room crowded with hundreds of slot machines produces a peculiar sound, like Philip Glass on Quaaludes. I recognized it, after awhile, as a kind of music, quite distinct from the sounds the people in the room were making, of far greater magnitude and yet unobtrusive unless attended to, like a great elemental sound, but thoroughly and obviously synthetic when approached and examined, tuneless and yet somehow orderly, like a dust devil or a cloud.

Not a habitue of casinos–my last foray had been fifteen or so years before, under peculiar circumstances–I was mildly surprised at how familar the scene was. The machines had changed a little; they looked more futuristic and more obviously computerized than the last slots I had seen; they still had slots, but there was little if anything left of the machine these devices evolved from. Beyond that, it was as if I had never left this room, though I had never been in this particular establishment before. The people were exactly the same: intent but distracted, staring at the whirling ideograms the slots deployed; they seemed semi-comatose and yet thoroughly alert to some inner vision of which the screens before them were the projection. As John Keats said of a stoat encountered a field: “The creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”

Not only was my presence at the casino unusual, I had entered via a route that was, for me, peculiar. I had parked my car and was making my way across the parking lot when a security vehicle pulled up beside me. A guard rolled down his window and said, “Are those instrument cases you’re carrying?” I was to enter, then, not through the front door but through the employee entrance on the side of the building. When I approached, the same guard was waiting for me. “Let’s see what’s in those,” he said, and I opened each case for him. It took me three trips to bring everything in, and all the cases were examined: soprano, alto, tenor, bari sax, plus flute. His examination of my gear was not as thorough as an airline’s security but it was close. His disinterest in the contents of the cases was as complete as his scrutiny was professional (how can you not be at least vaguely interested in an object as peculiar as a baritone saxophone?). He gave me his approval and passed me on.

I entered the main cavern of the casino from the back, through a nondescript corridor and an unmarked door, and made my way across the casino floor to the bandstand, easing my way around the clientele with my wheeled bari sax case in particular, which is the size of a small coffin (you could easily bury a medium-sized dog in it). I had to pass through several rows of gamblers in my journey, and it took me three trips to move all my gear; the experience was thoroughly anonymous, almost like moving among creatures of a different species who were unable or unwilling to acknowledge my presence. Hardly anyone noticed me as I passed; even the middle-aged man whose foot I ran over looked away from his slot only long enough to scowl at me and respond to my apology with a grunt.

The casino was about to be replaced. The Pima Reservation, at the southern border of Phoenix, Arizona, operates several such establishments, all prospering; difficult economic circumstances, perhaps, feed the gambling business. This facility hardly seemed in need of replacing–the fixtures all seemed in reasonably good shape, well frequented but not worn out–but some of the amenities obviously were not all one might hope for. The situation for the band, for instance, was not ideal. Music here, the bandleader had told me, was an afterthought; the new casino, which would open within a few days, had been built, in part, with entertainment other than gambling in mind, but this one had not. The band played on a temporary bandstand made of risers shoved against a wall near the bar; there was no separation between the horde of slot machines and the band.

“Sorry the stand is so small,” the bandleader told me as I started unpacking. Small it was; the keyboardist had to set up off to one side, on the floor. My cluster of horn stands barely fit at center stage, in front of the drum kit. It took me awhile to figure out how best to arrange things  reasonably conveniently; in the end the big baritone sax had to sit offstage, on the end opposite the keyboardist.

The band I was working with that night was assembled for the sole purpose of working the Phoenix casino scene, which is mid-level bread and butter work in these parts. Phoenix’s culture of working musicians, as I have come to know it, is much like similar cultures elsewhere; within certain strata one comes to know everyone sooner or later. Of the five musicians on hand, I had worked with four in other configurations; the fifth (the aforementioned keyboardist) was new to me, but everyone had worked extensively with the bandleader, and most with one another elsewhere; some had been colleagues for years. There had been no rehearsal, but for purposes of casino work none was needed. Everyone was thoroughly professional, and we shared a broadly eclectic musical vocabulary. The whole point of casino work, from the musician’s perspective, is pragmatic: the money is decent; the demand is that the band be prepared to please anyone who cares to listen, to take on requests with good humor and a reasonable chance of being able to reproduce pretty much anything anyone wants to hear, and not to disturb the surfaces of things too much. One might well wonder, surveying this scene, why they bothered with music at all; the casino’s clientele did not come here to listen to music. Somewhere, in other rooms, people were playing poker, shooting craps, throwing their money down the vortex of the roulette wheel; all of that was elsewhere. The band shared the room only with the slots, and the band was hugely outnumbered.

Playing a few scales quietly to warm up my instruments, I began to attend more closely to the sound the room was making. I had my back to the casino, pointing my saxes toward the wall behind the stage so as not to bother anyone with my purposeful noodling. The room, I realized, was noodling back–uninsistently, aimlessly, and yet tonally, the room was musical, and seemed to be warming up for something just as I was. There was nothing melodic in it, though here and there I could pick up scraps of phrases emitted by this or that slot nearby or at a greater distance; some of them played similar riffs, some were weirdly divergent; there was no regularity to any recurrence or variation. Tonally, the effect was bell-like but artificial; the multifarious heartbeat of the room was a synthetic chiming. It was not loud, exactly, but it was pervasive, impenetrable, like a thicket of brambles.

How in the world, I thought, will we play music in the same room with this music?

“It’s in C,” the bass player muttered. I didn’t quite hear him the first time; he might have said “It’s a sea,” or “I’m asea.” But I immediately knew what he meant, because I had noticed it too. Part of the smothering power of the sound of the room came from the fact that all the slots were in the same key. Had it not been so, the effect would have been off-putting, perhaps even unbearable; as it was, it enfolded the gamblers like a cocoon. This was a casino in the key of C major.

*

The band wended its way through its precise mosaic of tunes. A B.B. King number went by, a Journey song, one by Elvis. The keyboardist sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (she had Leon Russell chops on keys, but also knew her Floyd Cramer, and her voice did country as well as rhythm and blues) and I played a Boots Randolph-flavored solo; the bassist sang Tower of Power’s “Down to the Nightclub”; the drummer sang “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which turns out to be an excellent vehicle for baritone sax; the bandleader/guitarist did a Santana tune followed by a George Strait hit. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas passed through our sound system, Howlin’ Wolf, and the Dave Matthews Band. “This is sonic wallpaper,” the bandleader had said, and so it was; we were not there to chart out the future of American music, but to deliver a central core of its recent and not so recent history to folks who didn’t want to have to pay too much attention. We were there to fulfill the contract and make a little money; subversively, we were also there for the pure pleasure of playing music with musicians who knew what they were doing. That pleasure is both well documented and indescribable, and I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice it to say, it worked; each tune created its own logic, its own fate, and everyone on stage understood. “Just like in rehearsal,” the bandleader said, laughing, after we landed an especially complicated ending that none of us had ever done together before. The musical telepathy was online; we were all hooked in, and it pleased us.

It is just here, though, that we might begin to regard the casino gig as a kind of microcosm of art and audience. Why were we there? For whom were we playing? If we were only there to please ourselves, we were falling into one trap; if we were only there for the money (playing, then, for management) we were falling into another. The key in each proposition is the word only. It’s impossible not to play, in some sense, for yourself and for your fellow musicians (“Poets,” the familiar refrain goes: “they only write for other poets”); and, if you accept the terms of a gig, you cannot escape playing for management, especially if you ever want to work again. There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with any of that, as long as you escape the only.

The casino was full of people. Almost none of them had come there to listen to a band; they were there, in various degrees, to gamble, to drink, to smoke (the casino was the only venue I had visited in years in which smoking was legal everywhere), maybe to eat. Gambling, of course, was the main point; and, in terms of what confronted us, playing the slots was the core of the experience that brought people in.

It is always dangerous to generalize, but it’s fair to say that the slots cast a peculiar kind of spell, one that has been well analyzed by people who know more about it than I do. I have not spent much time with slot machines, but I can understand their attraction; there is a mesmerizing monotony about what they do mixed with a tantalizing promise: one is hypnotized and seduced simultaneously. The screen of a slot machine (and it is a screen, now, not the workings of anything remotely mechanical) pretends to be a window into the heart of the universe. Hazard is all. You watch the repetitive images go past: you might be staring into the penetralia of a particle collider, or your mother’s womb at the moment of conception, or into the core of the sun. That’s an illusion of course; the whole room is, within the confines of the law, governed by the casino’s algorithm: how much taken, how much given back? But for one of a certain metaphysical mindset, that too is how the universe works. The player has no control over what happens; the player merely puts money in the slot, sits back, and hopes.

Hope in one hand and shit in the other, my grandmother used to say, and see which fills up first. Needless to say, Grandmother was not a gambler.

Beneath the illusion, of course, there sits a pure material fact: money in, money out. The slot’s screen is a window not into the mind of God, but the ebb and flow of capital. The gamblers sit on their stools in various degrees of being hypnotized by the motion of money. It’s in there somewhere; you can see it moving. You can hear it breathing. It breathes in a nonlinear, amelodic chaos, all in the key of C major.

After the first set, the bass player leaned over to me. “We’re doing OK with the crowd,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked him.

“I’m watching that woman over there,” he answered, nodding toward a stool beside a slot in the middle distance of the room. “She hears us. She’s dancing on her stool.”

I understood, then, the schematic within which we were working. The sound of the room, that C major bog, was a bubble like an atmosphere within which the gamblers played. I had worried, before we began, that it would muffle what we were doing, or interfere with it, or–if we were in a dissonant key–destroy it. I need not have worried. The casino’s bubble was soft and malleable. Our music created a bubble of its own, that pushed the other back to its strong perimeter and held it there for the duration of each song we played. While we were playing I was completely unaware of, unable to hear, that other sound; from time to time I listened for it, but it was banished from the circle we made.

Some of the people in the casino entered our circle. We were next to the bar; some people came to sit and drink, and when they did, they were wholly within the circle of the music. If they were so inclined, they listened. Many did (some even danced). Some came, it seemed, to get away from the casino’s weird atmosphere for a few minutes and then return to it; some seemed to find a refuge near the music, and they lingered, some for hours. People tapped their feet; people applauded. Requests came in. “‘Freebird!'” someone inevitably shouted. “Sorry,” the bandleader said into his microphone, “we don’t know ‘Freebird.'” “No,” the bass player said behind me, off-mic, “we don’t do ‘Freebird.’ On purpose.” “‘Mustang Sally!'” somebody else yelled. Can we stand to do that warhorse again? Well, OK; it’s worn out but there’s still a good song in there. “‘Margaritaville!'” All right, but only if we make fun of it while we play it, something that particular song makes it generously easy to do (“Where’s the salt, where’s the salt, where’s the goddamn salt” everyone in the bar sings along; they know the joke in advance). And so on. So the room separated into a core of people who were inside the circle of the music and another (doubtless much larger) core of people who were outside it, those who were simply not interested, or were too far from the bandstand to know that a band was even present, or were too deep into the hypnosis of the machinery of the place to be drawn away from it. You could run over someone’s foot with a bari sax case and he wouldn’t even know it.

But to really understand how well the gig was going, where you had to look–the bass player knew this before I did–was at the boundary of the music’s bubble. Out there in the middle distance there were people who were close enough to hear the band, but far enough away that the music did not entirely envelop them. Once I began to pay attention, I could see the pull and counterpull of the two bubbles in the room. The woman the bass player mentioned danced on her stool all evening; at the end of the last set, she came over and put a twenty dollar bill in the tip jar. “That’s all my winnings for the night,” she said. “You guys did a great job; thanks!” Here you could see someone suddenly noticing a favorite song and looking away from the slot machine’s glowing window–you could see him virtually tear his attention away to listen, to a riff or a chorus or a solo or a whole tune. There you could see someone intent on the whirling images nodding in rhythm to the bass drum. Those were the people whose reactions counted. There was–symbolically if not actually–an edge of distortion out there a certain distance from the band; some people were caught on the cusp of it, and drawn to change the nature of their attention. They were the ones we were really playing for. To break the hold of that other realm, even for a few seconds; to bring people out of the room’s bewitchment: that was an achievement. If someone danced on her stool, even without looking away from the riveting screen, that mattered.

Near the end of the evening, a man who’d been gambling for hours on a stool with his back to the band stood up and turned around. Up until then I’d only seen him from behind, and had scarcely noticed him. Now I saw that he was a handsome young Latino man, beautifully dressed in a dark blue suit (sartorial choices in the casino are weirdly mixed, from shorts and baseball caps to Armani suits and evening gowns, and everything in between). He chose his moment carefully. His voice was not loud, but it carried across the room to the bandstand between tunes.

“Can you do ‘Hotel California’?” he said.

“Jesus,” said the bandleader. “The Eagles. I haven’t played that in a long time. Can we do it?”

“What the hell,” said the bass player, “I think I can sing it. Can I remember the whole thing? I’ll try. What’s the worst that can happen?”

We did it, and we did it well; the whole thing laid out as if it were inevitable. Through it all, the young man who’d requested the tune stood in front of his slot machine facing the band; as we played he whole countenance changed, softening: clearly, for whatever reason, he loved this song; it meant something to him. And he knew the song completely. He mouthed the words; at a couple of points he might even have cued the singer. The guitarist played a flawless ride; I crafted a suitable tenor sax solo. He stood there virtually at attention, as if we were playing the national anthem. For the duration of the song his consciousness changed. His eyes were bright with purpose: a new purpose.

When we finished, he applauded loudly, turned around again, and sat back down.

“Wow,” said the bass player, “I think my cerebellum is lying on the floor in front of the stage now; I can’t believe I remembered the whole song; it’s like a bleedin’ novel.”

*

Later, on my way out, I found a new security guard posted at the exit, a large young woman. “What’s in your cases?” she asked. I had my gear on a dolly now; she didn’t have to inspect anything that was leaving the establishment; she was simply curious.

“Saxophones,” I told her.

“You have four of them?” she asked.

“I do,” I said. “And a flute.”

“Interesting,” she said. “What’s a saxophone?”

Rim shot.