Reno: Gateway to Gambling, Tributes, and Vomit
"Reno, Nev," as Sinatra would say, may call itself the biggest little city in the world, but its real claim to distinction is an astounding propensity for nostalgia. The Chamber of Commerce might well add the word "tribute" to its slogan.
The town regularly hosts rallies for 1950s cars and antique airplanes. The Nevada Club casino's "Bomber Club" bar displays World War II-era machine guns and helmets, and the nose from a vintage warplane protrudes from one wall. Outside Sammy's Room in Harrah's is a wall of items from the life of, that's right, Sammy Davis Jr. In the Silver Legacy casino (whose ads are saturating the Bay Area), a three-story replica of a silver mine shakes and rattles for tourists every hour on the hour. And American Bandstand's Dick Clark has a '50s doo-wop trinket store (and at Harvey's in Lake Tahoe a live revue based on his TV show, hosted by ... a video version of himself). Next week, the town will see Rod Stewart look-alike Rob Hanna and the Guess Who, an apparent tribute to the original band, most of its members having moved on years ago. And don't forget the town itself. The continued boom in new casinos, arcades, and housing developments is rapidly turning Reno into a citywide tribute to Las Vegas.
Tonight, Christmas 1996, the Eldorado Cabaret room is the scene of the ultimate tribute show: Rubber Biscuit, a tribute to the Blues Brothers, an act that was originally a tribute to Chicago blues musicians. What better mirror of America folding in on itself than a tribute to a tribute? And one that's staged at a medieval-themed casino, modeled after a European castle, right down to the turrets shooting up triangles of neon fire.
The band plays a few warm-up tunes, and then it's time for "Jake" and "Elwood" -- the chubby one entering on a cartwheel, just like the original act! This is obviously a tribute to the Blues Brothers as they appeared on SNL in the late '70s, and not today, because the Dan Aykroyd character is rail-skinny, and the John Belushi one is alive.
"We had a great Christmas," says Brian "Jake" Poirer (the plump one). "I gave Elwood a blowup doll!"
"I gave him a case of condoms," says Marten "Elwood" Benatar (the skinny one).
Their set ranges from "Mustang Sally" to "I Feel Good," "Do You Love Me," and other oldies, as "Jake" and "Elwood" do their best versions of the Aykroyd-Belushi cocaine shimmy-dance. "Elwood" stops for a quick impression of tennis pro John McEnroe on his wedding night: "IT WAS IN!!!" he screams.
The two do the best they can with a Christmas evening crowd of pooped-out couples in their 50s, and to the band's credit, most of the folks waddle to their feet and do "The Twist." Credible versions of "Rubber Biscuit" and "Boxcar Full of Blues" follow, and at the finale, they dance offstage to the strains of the Blues Brothers theme. As the curtain closes, it snags on a stage monitor.
Poirer has a few minutes after the show to chat. The 38-year-old has been doing Belushi for 15 years. He once played with Bay Area thrash bands, and, in another lifetime, had a job delivering this very paper. Rubber Biscuit are one of 10 Blues Brothers tribute acts in the country, and have toured for five years on the state fair and casino circuit. They've even played Aykroyd's House of Blues in New Orleans. Has the original band ever seen the act? "Their limo driver said, 'You're a crazy fuck!' "
Their black jackets are $69 from JCPenney's Towncraft, the white shirts $6.99 from Mervyn's, ties and shoes from Goodwill. Poirer is unabashed about the heavy cheese factor required to pull off shows for casino crowds, but he acknowledges that tonight's show was slow: "We're usually pouring beer over our heads, sitting on women's laps."
It's easy to mock the glassy-eyed patrons idly pulling on the slot levers, to fall down laughing at the sheer volume of prime rib advertised, eaten, and thrown away each day. You could say Reno is for people who don't have the breath to make it all the way down to Vegas, as you see a guy wander through a casino, pulling a little oxygen cart behind him. Poirer calls the town "Concord with tits."
But taken as a whole, this city is a perfect embodiment of the twin American spirits of frontier restlessness and gluttony. Where else can you find a sign in a jewelry shop that reads: "We welcome barefoot browsers, shirtless smokers, customers with food/beverages, children/pets. Whatever your style, we appreciate your business." Where else can a bus driver warn all his passengers: "Good thing you're smiling now, 'cause you won't be when you leave. ... If you make a thousand dollars, stop and get the hell out of town."
Reno means paying gigs to Rubber Biscuit, but it would be nice to book some dates closer to San Francisco. "We'd love to play the Paradise," Poirer says.
The next day the ersatz Belushi and I take his Jeep to Stead, Nev., a small trailer-home community five miles outside Reno, to visit his guitarist, Bob, who used to play with Eddie Money. As Bob's girlfriend, Lois, chain-smokes on the sofa, nursing a hangover, Poirer and Bob reminisce about the casino circuit. Conversation turns to the number of rock stars each has seen vomit onstage. Poirer once witnessed the singer for Molly Hatchet blow chunks in between verses of "Flirtin' With Disaster." Bob remembers watching Joe Cocker spill cookies into a bucket, back in the '70s. But the most recent occurrence was during their band's final show at the Eldorado the previous night. In addition to performance butterflies, "Elwood" had been suffering from the flu. Immediately after finishing singing "Rubber Biscuit," he ran offstage and threw up into his hand.
"I felt sorry for him," says Poirer. "He throws up probably once every eight shows." The group's first CD, a collection of both Blues Brothers material and original party tunes, will be out in a few weeks.