The DTLV Playlist: The High Llamas, ‘Checking In, Checking Out’

High Llamas Story

I’m assembling a 21-song playlist in Spotify, song by song, week after week. Read about previous songs here. The full playlist will be shared in Spotify once it’s completed.

“If funny looks don’t get you down,
you could get on in this town.
The drivers crawl along the curb.
The thought of walking’s quite absurd.
The dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

In late 1994, my friend Josh Abbey gave me a copy of The High Llamas’ Gideon Gaye LP. He did this for the most classic and (sadly) atavistic of reasons: because he thought I’d like it. Of all the shit we left behind in the 20th Century—rotary dial phones, deep shag, Han shooting first—I think I miss music sharing most of all. It’s different than file sharing, which takes little more than a texted link or an email without a subject line. When you handed someone a cassette or CD, you felt the value inherent in the exchange. That gifted music had some weight to it and some thought behind it.*

Anyway, Josh gave me Gideon Gaye because I was on a major Steely Dan kick at the time, and he heard some of that band in the English band’s hooks and harmonies. (Oh, don’t judge. At the time, Steely Dan was enjoying the kind of post-ironic comeback that Lionel Richie is now.) But from the moment I alighted on “Checking In, Checking Out”—Gaye’s first track—I heard something a bit beyond a Steely Dan wannabe. I heard a song that spoke directly to the impermanence of life in Las Vegas:

“Checking in and checking out.
Why be shy when you can kick the can and shout?”

The second verse of the song doesn’t really fit our town. (“The living church must move along. The Carmelites could use a song.”) But there are other bits of “Checking In, Checking Out” that I can apply to Downtown Vegas with minimal effort. I wholeheartedly agree that Vegas’ “gifted artists need respect,” and the bit about being “on the fun run” makes me sneer a bit, thinking of how often Downtown’s streets are closed down by fun runs. Taking it further, I used to call the Downtown Project’s brain trust “the High Llamas,” before I met some of them and discovered that their whole llama thing is kind of an in-joke that got out of hand.

You might think “Checking In, Checking Out” doesn’t fit Las Vegas at all and has no place on this playlist. (I imagine the band itself would be puzzled by this, and quite possibly appalled.) To that, I say: Listen to the song again and imagine the kind of place you want Downtown Las Vegas to be. The town described by the song is an agreeable and contented place, despite the funny looks and ideological differences. The residents of “Checking In” know that the world is wrong, but they won’t let each other be wronged by it. Second verse, continued:

“Help the hopeless in their need.
They don’t need this kind of sleaze.”

No, they don’t. No, we don’t. No one should face the sleaziness of this town without some kind of hope in their heart, whether it’s a hope for making this place better or getting the hell out of here. And if Las Vegas is to stay a city with a revolving door, the least we can do is ease the shock and discomfort of each other’s comings and goings. Though goddamn it, we need more shade trees on the street. The very thought of walking more than a couple of blocks here in the heat of summer is worse than absurd.

*A Spotify playlist is no substitute for owning music outright. For the most part I use my account to preview bands, or to play CDs I don’t feel like digging out of boxes. It’s no substitute for paying cash money for a single or album, and seeing to it that an artist gets what they’re owed. Spotify could become that, but it has a long way to go.

Next week: A drive-by.

Vegas Seven