Musings: On Sam’s Town, Las Vegas, and 10 years of being a Killers fan

 

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Mark Stoermer, Brandon Flowers, Dave Keuning, Ronnie Vannucci

 

If you know me at all, even just a little bit, you probably know The Killers are my favorite band. And if you’ve known me over the past 2 months, you know that I am incredibly excited to be attending the Sam’s Town Decennial Extravaganza this weekend where The Killers will be playing 2 shows in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of their second album, Sam’s Town. And yes, incredibly excited probably a bit of an understatement.

October 3 vividly stands out from most dates of 2006. I was a college sophomore and had spent all summer extremely excited about the upcoming new album, and finally, on this day in October, the CD was to be mine. A couple of friends wanted to go to dinner for IHOP’s half-off night for students, and I managed to squeeze the trip to Best Buy (they were selling a deluxe CD with bonus disc containing B-side tracks!) before dinner. I still remember the exhilarating feeling from zooming down the street in my blue VW beetle while enjoying the guitar solo of “When You Were Young” for the first of many times while en route to our cheap but delicious dinner. I knew Sam’s Town would become a favorite.

I listened to the album obsessively for the following months. Being an autumn release, Sam’s Town typically invokes memories of walking down the leaf-strewn sidewalks of the mall on East Carolina University’s campus  or cool nights driving around in my brother’s borrowed, beat-up Landrover. The music video releases of “Read My Mind,” “Bones,” and “For Reasons Unknown” keeping up the momentum–especially “Bones,” given its significance as the first music video that Tim Burton directed.

This album obsession culminated in a trip, a “pilgrimage” if you want to be dramatic about it, to Fairfax, VA where The Killers were playing at George Mason University’s Patriot Center. At the time, I considered it my first real concert, even though now I correct past Shay’s limited line of thinking with that it was my first stadium concert.  Now nearly 10 years later, my memories of the concert feel like images flipping through on an old-timey slide projector: The Silver Beats, a Japanese Beatles cover band, warmed up the crowd as the opening band. The Captain (AKA Ryan Pardey), who would later make his debut as Santa Claus the following December,  came out and chatted with us from the stage. I proudly wore my t-shirt reading “The Victims,” the Killers’ recently-started fan club. My friend Wesley decided to buy a pair of TK panties for his girlfriend and don them on his head. Our new friend John allowed Wes to climb his shoulders during “All These Things I’ve Done,” although security was quick to reproach this panties-clad boy off of our new friend’s shoulders. Every song was practically perfection: they played Hot Fuss favorites of “On Top” and “Andy, You’re a Star” and practically almost all of Sam’s Town with not one, but two, encores rounding the show out.

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Sam’s Town, as you may or may not remember, was not nearly as well-received as Hot Fuss. For many, it was the fact that The Killers were completely different than their pre-2006 incarnation. Their look had completely changed—”guyliner” and svelte blazers traded for Brandon Flowers’ so-so attempt at a mustache and bolo ties—and instead of tunes awash in synth and glamor, Sam’s Town gave us B.Flo getting in touch with his American side, especially given that Hot Fuss earned The Killers the moniker of “the best British band to ever come from America.” In short, Sam’s Town was very, very different from Hot Fuss.

Reviews were mixed. Many deferred to the much abhorred “sophomore slump.” It also didn’t help that Brandon was so proud of the album that he made the statement that Sam’s Town was one of the best albums in the past 20 years. Critics didn’t seem to take kindly to that confidence, probably somewhat rightly interpreting said confidence as arrogance. Uproxx recently published an article that details the “bad media narrative” from which Sam’s Town suffered. But the review that seemed to have the most impact was Rolling Stone’s. I still hold a mild grudge against Rob Sheffield for his review that laid into the about-face in style and aesthetic, declaring that through Sam’s Town, “the Killers leave no pompous arena cliché untweaked.” You actually can’t read this review on Rolling Stone’s website anymore. Huh. Interesting. Could it possibly be that Rolling Stone no longer stands by Rob Sheffield’s whinings that The Killers were in “Springsteen clone-mode?” Who knows!

Lest you think I’m 100% biased, I have indeed read both of Sheffield’s books and was affirmed of my perception of a pompous critic whose taste in music did not align with the pretentiousness that pervades his reviews. But who cares what a scrawny white guy with a different taste in music writing for Rolling Stone thinks? Sam’s Town, unequivocally, is my favorite album of the past 20 years.

I’ve thought long and hard why this album takes up a large part of my heart. I could say it’s Brandon Flowers’ lyrics, but honestly, he has greatly improved as a lyricist since Sam’s Town. Or could it be his non-auto tuned vocals? Nah, he’s since taken voice lessons and TK’s 2012 album Battle Born and his solo albums demonstrated how much he’s grown as a singer. No, if I’m completely honest with myself, it’s because Las Vegas is my favorite city and Sam’s Town affirms that. After all, Sam’s Town is undeniably a Vegas album. It is right in the name, with “Sam’s Town” being another nickname for this city nestled in a Mojave desert valley. Born in Enid, Oklahoma(!), Sam Boyd eventually made his way to Vegas and became a pioneer in the casino and gambling industry. Per a 2006 interview in NME, Brandon Flowers says the album title comes from the fact that he used to live across the street from Sam’s Town, the casino.

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Outside our Mimi’s house in Vegas neighborhood, The Lakes

I was introduced to Vegas at an early age (age 8, to be exact) when my family piled onto an airplane and visited my mom’s family–my aunt and uncle had been there for a few years already, and my Mimi had just moved there from Denver. When Brandon Flowers sings “Have you ever seen the lights?” on the opening track, I think of Shay, age 8, transfixed by the lights as seen from the tiny window of the airplane. My memory’s fuzzy on whether this was the arrival or return flight, but either way, I’ve seen ’em! Honestly, I sometimes wonder if my feelings would have been different had Vegas not been one of the first major cities I visited. Vegas was so completely and utterly different from any other place I had ever known. The extent of my family’s traveling was either to Oklahoma, Vegas, or beach trips. It’s easy to grow attached when you don’t know much of anywhere else yet.

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Visiting Lake Mead where we saw a bighorn sheep on the shore!

For my 16th birthday, my parents allowed me to bring my 2 besties along for a weeklong summer excursion to Vegas. We had a great time, walking the Strip and lounging at my Mimi’s neighborhood pool, despite Vegas not being the place you’d typically associate with being the ideal vacation spot for teenagers. But I remember being indignant when my teacher wrinkled her nose and said “Why would you go to Las Vegas? Your parents shouldn’t be taking you there!” when I recounted my summer activities between sophomore and junior year of high school. Ok, regardless of Vegas’ reputation, my grandmother lived there! My aunt, uncle, and cousin lived there! Of course I was going to visit, jerk teacher. (Side note: I do not miss the overly judgmental atmosphere of a private Christian school).

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Besties at The Venetian

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Vegas was my hook into The Killers. In 2004, “Somebody Told Me” was everywhere, and my friends were abuzz from the band from Vegas. But it was not until a few years later in 2006 where The Killers demonstrated the affinity for their hometown, and it was through Sam’s Town that I felt known in this supposedly strange affection for Las Vegas, Sin City, Sam’s Town.

But my affection for Vegas is far more than just casinos, alcohol, and endless entertainment. It’s a place I have family to visit, as I’ve described above, but it’s also a place where I am captivated by the surroundings. Every time I drive through Vegas, I’m struck by the gorgeous mountains that surround this city. The sunsets, the gaping wide sky, yes, even the dry heat. There’s something about this city that just feels right to me, even if I can’t pinpoint it beyond this sense of place. During my 21st birthday trip, rather than getting letting loose and getting crazy drunk, I insisted we (we being me, BFF, and my Mimi) pay homage to my favorite Killers album by making our way to Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall just off of Boulder Highway. Sam’s Town was a hybrid of the two places I knew best outside of North Carolina: the revelry of Vegas, the cowboy-ness of Oklahoma. It was new but yet felt completely familiar. Naturally, I’ve made repeat visits to Sam’s Town over the years.

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I don’t listen to Sam’s Town as often as I had 10 years ago, mostly out of not wanting to play the album to absolute death. But ever since word of the Sam’s Town Decennial Extravaganza hit, I’ve happily revisited this album. Listening to Sam’s Town again been a whirlwind, returning to old memories and yet applying this album with where I am in life now. It was teenaged Shay who heard herself the titular track’s lyrics “I’ve got this energy beneath my feet / like something underground is going to come up and carry me / I’ve got this sentimental heart that beats / but I don’t mind that it’s starting to get to me now.” I so badly wanted to be a “real adult,” to get a start on my life. 10 years later, I know that notion of “real adult” is silly, but I’ve done the things I was dreaming of back in 2006: moving out of North Carolina, building a career for myself, learning how to truly be independent. And listening to Sam’s Town now, 10 years later, I still relate to Brandon Flowers’ lyrics, but in an entirely different way. It’s cliche, but I’m older, a dash wiser, and dare I say it, matured. Songs like “When You Were Young,” “Bling (Confessions of a King),” and “This River is Wild” resonate with me in ways they hadn’t 10 years ago. Some albums and bands I loved as a teenager no longer appeal to me as an adult—it’s only natural to grow out of your initial tastes. But it’s safe to say that for Sam’s Town and everything this album means to me has grown with me instead.

The night of September 30, 2016 will fulfill a long-held goal of mine: seeing The Killers play in my favorite city. and I am incredibly thankful that it’s the occasion to celebrate my favorite Killers album (Also, if we’re talking incredible thankfulness, shout out to my dad who helped make this trip happen for me and my sister Tabitha!). I’m no longer a college sophomore, wondering what the future had in store for me. I live in Oklahoma now, a place I hadn’t really considered (and remember I spent time visiting OK too!) until the job search took me here. My career as a librarian has kicked off, and I currently have a pretty good gig as a department manager in an academic library. When I’m feeling in the mood for something Killers-esque, I’m not limited to the handful of albums as Brandon, Mark, Ronnie, and Dave have put out albums for solo work and/or side projects. These are note proper Killers albums, but I’m definitely appeased. Who can blame the guys if they want to branch out and work on other projects inbetween Killers albums? (But note: they are working on album 5 as of 2 weeks ago!)

The Shay of 2006 and the Shay of 2016 may be two entirely different women, but if anything has stayed the same, it’s my love for this band from Las Vegas. Thanks, Brandon, Mark, Ronnie, and Dave, for the great music and memories as well as letting this girl feel a little more known in her unabashed love for Sam’s Town.

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Tabitha and I are ready to see The Killers!

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