Back in ’86, I sat down one evening on the Patagonia, about 50 miles up the coast from the Magellan Strait, to watch live boxing matches that were taking place in an open air ring behind Caesars Palace. Between the undercard bouts and the main event,1 the broadcasters favored me with the sight of the sun setting behind Mt. Charleston. To see something so familiar as it was happenning seven thousand miles away produced unanticipated longing.
Last year, when Sister Mansfield was tapped to present Mormonism to some middle school social studies classes, and she asked her seminary students if there were any Mormons in the public eye that youth would be aware of, they brought up Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Killers. Not knowing anything about the Killers, she asked if mentioning him would be a good thing. “It would be a very good thing, Sister Mansfield.” For the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing bits about Brother Flowers that have passed my way because of our shared Mormon religion. I asked “So this fellow is our Jack Dempsey for the 21st Century, but noted for music and sexual ambiguity rather than 50 KO wins?”2 However, the Times published an interview3 with the Killers this month that really got my attention. I had heard that the band was out of Las Vegas, but lots of musician move there, so I hadn’t thought much of it. As it turns out though, the Killers don’t just work out of Vegas. Those guys are Nevadans.
Ronnie Vannucci, drummer/songwriter, is always happy: “The desert makes you feel like a cowboy!” And Brandon Flowers, singer/songwriter/keyboardist, [. . .] loves the desert so much he’s just bought a piece.
“I bought some land,” he smiles, all enormous American nuclear-white teeth. “I love the city too, but people don’t realise the beauty in the ancient dirt. I try to capture that in our songs, how I feel when I’m looking at the sunsets in the mountains. Have you been to Los Angeles? Well, our sunsets are better!” They say Flowers is a competitive man. So much so, indeed, he’s even competitive about sunsets…
Flowers, meanwhile, is far happier looking back, now leafing through a book of black-and-white photographs documenting Vegas through the years. “Look,” he smiles, pointing to a large, twinkling casino hotel, the Frontier, the 1942-built, western-themed legend that hosted Elvis’s first-ever Las Vegas show in 1956, the final-ever performance by Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1970 and was demolished in July 2007.
Only one artefact remains: its outdoor, freestanding, tourist-attracting sign, last updated in the 1960s, a colossal vertical column with the word “Frontier” horizontally bolted through the middle. This iron-and-neon icon is 190 ft tall, as tall as a high-rise tower — and Brandon Flowers is about to own it.
“The people who owned it said they’ll give me the sign for free,” he blinks. “So I’m going to put it on my land I was telling you about. I only have to pay them to load it onto my land. So I’ll light it up at night and it’ll say ‘Frontier’ in the desert. But it might be too big. Look how big it is! It’s ridiculous! But it’s so cool.”
In an earlier interview4, Brandon Flowers’ discussion of the band’s influences ended where a Nevadan’s thoughts might tend to go:
A lot of people say that we’re the best, you know, British band ever not to come from Britain. But I guess, you know, people look at the Stones as the best American band ever not to come from America. So I mean there’s different ways to look at it. We definitely have a lot of English influences, but we love a lot of American bands. . . We’re happy to be from Nevada, and that’s about it.
“Sam’s Town” is the title of the Killers’ second album, a name that means nothing to almost everyone, but that’s the place my friends and I would go for bowling on a Friday night and it was where some of them chose to go play slots on a senior-school-year ditched afternoon.5 I started wondering which high schools the Killers went to. Vannucci is a Las Vegas native who went to Clark and Western, and Flowers and Mark Stoermer went to Chaparral.6 Brandon Flowers is a native in a very native way: “His parents grew up on the same Las Vegas trailer park, started dating when they were around 15 and have stayed married for 45 years, with six children.” David Keuning moved to Nevada eight years ago.
Their music is appealing. (I hope I’m not cursing them with the approval of a middle-aged man.) It isn’t particularly regional, though “Somebody Told Me” sounds right for a Vegas night, and “Tranquilize,” or “All These Things That I’ve Done” would be just the thing for a bleak, sun-blanched afternoon with an uncomfortable breeze blowing the porch windchimes. Some of their videos feature nice desert landscapes, but a couple stand out for their particular Clark County quality. The “All These Things That I’ve Done” video may seem surrealistic to some, but it looks like home to me, even the YESCO boneyard and the little burro in front of the mobile home; I had one friend in Las Vegas with a donkey that I could hear braying a half mile away, and another had a buffalo that got out of its pen one Sunday morning and rammed a car. As Ronnie Vannucci put it, “Y’know, we all don’t come from much. We don’t come from a lotta money, we come from everyday families, and so all of a sudden to be on the map as far as rock’n’roll goes, and how people treat you, it’s an adjustment.” Dutch director Anton Corbijn did a good job getting Las Vegas. To represent Las Vegas without showing a casino, the trailer park and desert patches used in that video do the job well. The fight scene location could have been the desert I used to walk through going home from school.
The video for their Christmas single “Don’t Shoot Me Santa,” though, amazed me with its depiction of Santa’s trailer among the creosote in a bruised, unsublime desert.7 I was sure its director had to be a Nevadan, and sure enough, he is—very much so. Matthew Gray Gubler is the son of Marilyn Gubler, former chairwoman of the county and state Republican party and grandson of Maxwell Kelch (1911-1977) who built Las Vegas’s first radio station in 1939 and operated it for four decades, and Laura Kelch (1912-2004). The old scout service center by UNLV was named for Mr. Kelch. These days Marilyn Gubler lives in Sandy Valley, population 1,804 (also home to Bo Gritz). Matthew Gray Gubler’s paternal grandfather, V. Gray Gubler (1910-1986), was Clark County DA in 1942 and president of the state bar in 1958.
If the name Gubler sounds familiar, then you are either from Nevada or Utah, as a map of the frequency of that name indicates, or perhaps Thurgau canton. Swiss brothers Casper (1835-1917) and Johannes Gubler (1818-1897) converted to the LDS Church and migrated in 1857 and 1860 respectively, and both died in Santa Clara, Utah. Besides directing, Matthew Gray Gubler is also an actor. In the series “Criminal Minds” he plays an investigator who also happens to come from Las Vegas. I stumbled upon an episode of the series focusing on Gubler’s character’s background in Las Vegas, and kept watching because of the setting. As I sometimes tell people, growing up in Las Vegas was a pretty normal thing, and that TV episode was somewhat remarkable for approaching Las Vegas as a place where normal people live that just happens to have slot machines in the airport and the supermarkets. I wonder if Mr. Gubler was involved in writing it. According to the Review-Journal “he comes home at least once a month. ‘I work in L.A., but I live in Nevada,’”8 and on his unusual, and unsearchable, web page one of the seven “Things That I Love” is Nevada. (Also, cashews and taking baths.)
The Killers and Mr. Gubler are much younger than me, so it is comforting to find that their Nevada is still recognizable as the one I once knew and loved, though also a source of jealousy that they’ve managed their success without leaving their home behind—except for the Iowan, but this is a post about Nevadanness. If the Killers take cover requests, I hope they will consider recording “Home Means Nevada.”
Going back to Brandon Flowers and his religion, it now makes a lot of sense that the Killers might have a Mormon in the band. Put together a dozen people from Las Vegas, for bowling at Sam’s Town say, and there will probably be a Mormon in the group. Mr. Flowers, with his son named Ammon and his cigarettes and drinks at parties, reminds me of people in Las Vegas I knew fondly who were firmly connected to the Church and loyal to it despite problems with activity or keeping the standards. It is hard to keep that kind of connection in places where our density is so low that ongoing incidental contact vanishes without church attendance. If I were in Brother Flowers’ ward, I would hope for him to take his wife to the temple some day and baptize his son when the time comes, and the hope wouldn’t be altogether vain, because those kinds of changes have come into the lives of many Nevadans I knew and waited on for years.
2. “I’m proud to be a Mormon. And ashamed to be the Jack Mormon that I am.”–Jack Dempsey
3. “Can the Killers take the heat?” The Sunday Times, November 16, 2008. (Thanks for link, Marc Bohn of Times and Seasons.)
4. Artisan News Service, at 0:50 on YouTube video.
5. When I was six, my family moved to Miller Plaza, a completely new 70-unit public housing complex a quarter mile north of where Sam’s Town would be built a half dozen years later. Our apartment was on the north edge, adjacent to empty desert at the time, and most days I would go out to play in the desert and wait for a sip of that sweet Mojave rain. (Just kidding about the sweet Mojave rain.) We moved out a year later. Already the place was falling apart to vandalism; the laundry room was unusable. A report on community policing initiatives said of Miller Plaza in 1997 that “calls included reports of illegal shooting, stabbings, burglaries, vehicle thefts, vandalism and other disturbances. There also was an increase in drug and gang activity. The officers realized the problem was not restricted to a single shift. Supervisors from all three shifts met and decided that a station wide effort would be conducted to see if calls for service could be reduced.” In 2004, Miller Plaza was demolished, and Yahoo Maps currently shows it a bare dirt patch.
6. “The Killers just regular guys from Las Vegas: Two band members reflect on high school, songwriting and being on the road,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, January 18, 2005.
“Walking Tall: Vegas’ the Killers are breaking on two continents at once,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 30, 2004.
7. Watching the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull set on the Nevada Test Site, my wife, who grew up in New Mexico, turned to me and said, “That’s New Mexico.” Which, indeed, is where that movie’s “Nevada” scenes were filmed. Thanks for nothing, Mr. Spielberg.
8. “Las Vegan Gubler enjoying his accidental acting career ,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, January 29, 2007.