Arts feature

Geoff Dyer on the poetry of motels

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

It’s to be expected. You take photographs in order to document things — Paris in the case of Eugène Atget in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the shacks of the American south in the case of Walker Evans in the 1930s — and these documents then acquire a quality of elegy. What is extraordinary is the speed with which this happens, the brevity of the ‘then’. As soon as the images emerge in the developing tray — even, conceivably, the moment the shutter is clicked — they are imbued with how they will be seen in the future.

The photographs in Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas were commissioned in the mid-1990s in order to record the signage of once-thriving motels on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Frame and brief were later expanded to include the motels themselves, many of which had fallen on — or were in the process of falling into — hard times. The pictures were exhibited in 1997 but the 22 years — almost a quarter century’s worth of future — between that show and the publication of this book have lent a neo-archaeological dimension to the undertaking. It’s consistent with the larger tendency whereby components of modernism become a source of lament.

The first motel opened in California in 1925 but the heyday of these hotels for motorists coincided with the post-war period of American prosperity. In the 1960s especially the motel became an architectural extension of something that appears almost inconceivable except in retrospect: Las Vegas glamour. Vegas was a wonderland, and the faithful who flocked to it needed accommodation. Motel signs were a way of meeting the humdrum necessity of providing shelter without breaking the spell of the magically boozy kingdom of the Rat Pack. The essential element in this was neon: the light of pure promise (‘VACANCY’) that, if all else failed, could be filled or underwritten by naked guarantee (‘STRIPPERS’).

We still believe. If you are walking down a street in any city after dark, the sight of neon suggests night life even if, up close, it turns out to be a sign for a cobblers. And then there’s the smeary poetry of neon in the rain, as captured in Saul Leiter’s lyrical images of New York. All that is solid melts into a humid blur of puddly reds and foggy greens. If nothing is lovelier in the rain than neon this does not mean that neon is never lovelier than in the rain. In Vegas, in the parched south-west, the neon blazes sharp and dry as bone. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the angular fever dream and curvaceous swirl of motel/casino names brought together an explosion of technological possibility — rocketry, atomic power — with a range of cultural allusion that extended from the home-grown wild west (‘Bonanza Lodge’, ‘Apache’, ‘Purple Sage’) to the exotic lure of the orient: ‘Sahara’, ‘Dunes’.

The landscape on which these illusions perched lent itself perfectly to the Vegas dreamtime. The city is as flat as the highway you drive along to approach it. In the 1960s the car you were piloting may well have been adorned with the tail fins of a jet or a low-flying spacecraft. At night that space is not the obscure article of faith that lurks, sight unseen, above our cloud-shrouded island. Drive out of town for a couple of miles at night and there it is, in all its astronomical and star-spangled splendour, light years away but apparently within touching distance of the desert floor. Motels like the Starlite, Desert Moon or Star View typically consisted of two storeys but in the larger story or narrative of Vegas the sky’s the limit. In economic terms this means that the cost of staying at the Jackpot or Par-A-Dice was not just within reach; it was irrelevant compared with the fortunes aching to be made at the tables and wheels.

The allure and status of neon has been subtly changed, possibly even enhanced, by the advent and spread of LEDs. It so happens that the greatest light show on earth also takes place in Nevada, a couple of hours north of Reno, the state’s other gambling mecca. The lights of Black Rock City, home of the annual Burning Man festival, are overwhelmingly LEDs these days. They’re utterly stupendous but, here and there, you spot a few ghostly vestiges of neon, palely loitering, bathing the desert twilight in a calm and quiet glow. Neon, in this context of cutting-edge technological illumination, feels like a refuge: a source of quiet contemplation.

Back in the fallen world of motels such as the Blue Angel, meanwhile, it’s tempting to go parodically semiotic and rush into the realm of pure sign, floating free from its signifier! Maybe it was different half a century ago, but the motel fruit seemed pretty stale when I got round to tasting it at about the time these pictures were made. Romance shrivelled the moment you entered the room. The smell, overwhelmingly, was of masking: scented cleaning products designed to hide other smells, though there usually lurked a kind of mildewy under-odour that seemed connected to the icy rattle of the AC. (Back in the golden age the cover-up must have required even more chemical-industrial might in the diurnal struggle to start afresh by erasing the stale linger of cigarettes.) If the nose was quick to adjust, the eye took longer to come to terms with the bedcover, the moulded sink, the downtrodden carpet — all in merciless view by virtue of lighting which was the opposite of neon. Tom Wolfe pointed out that the defining architectural feature of the motel — no need ‘to go through a public lobby to get to your room’ — ‘did more than the pill to encourage what would later be rather primly called “the sexual revolution”’. But the lighting in those rooms was so functional as to be at odds with the explicit goal of the revolution: recreational or non-functional fornication. If anything the rooms, with their minimal soundproofing, seemed designed for over-hearing other people going at it. All of which left one with a profound indifference to the promises and possibilities alluringly displayed by the neon outside. The experience ended up being so life-denying that if you heard someone being murdered in the room next door your first impulse would be to complain about the noise. The second would be to kill yourself instead — ideally, like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, by drinking yourself to death.

Obliged, then, to speak of the broken promise of motel neon it makes perfect sense that many of the signs in Sigman’s photographs have since gone belly-up. Daylit shadows of their former selves, they were condemned to a boneyard of dead light where they could be plundered for parts used to bring other ailing signs flickering back to life. In a real sign of the times Vegas now boasts a museum of neon, a glowing cross between the V&A in London and the V of K (Valley of the Kings) in Luxor — the place in Egypt, I mean, not the casino-hotel. It’s well worth a visit, and it’s good to know that a place of displayed rest in the afterlife has been found, in the darkness on the edge of town.

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