I don’t need much of an excuse to visit Atlantic City. The Borgata – that glorious, golden monolith rising out of the Back Bay – offers enough distractions (without the comic relief) to make me smile. Yet this past weekend, comic relief was being offered in the form of Russell Brand, that confusing English dude (or is it bloke?) married to that very famous and fabulous Katy Perry. Some article pointed out how Mr. Russell was worth a piddling $5 or $6 million, while Katy was making gazillions.
How could this mere pauper snag the richest prize in tabloid land? What could he offer to make up for this huge monetary disparity? Well he always seemed real cool to me and funny and all that, from what I had seen of him on the tube and at a couple of clubs. He seemed to be alright, maybe even real. I hadn’t gotten tired of his self-effacing shtick. I like the guy and was worried he couldn’t stand up to the challenge of stand up. When he opened his act, Russell instructed the Jersey—or as he eloquently put it “Joisey’ crowd—on the differences in his King’s English and the one I learned growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens. He then went into a bit about the similarities of masturbation between apes and men and how it bothered him that the techniques were so similar. I was worried. I like Russell Brands’ brand. The bumbling, witty, charming English rock star rap has made me giggle and guffaw before, but I had no idea what to expect at this show. I was just hoping that there wouldn’t be too many uncomfortable moments. I was hoping he wouldn’t bomb.
Russell Brand’s act was a triumph. Not only did we laugh at him but we all fell in love with him. Charisma, charm, wit, cleverness, and accessibility drew us in and left us limp. We all understand why Katy with her monetary and mammary advantages chose him. He was a whirlwind of gut-hurting antics and insights. Of particular brilliance was the part about the things he would have said at the VMAs if Kanye West hadn’t stolen away those four and a half minutes. His retrospective on how lucky he was to not say the things he might have said about the Twilight series and its cast blew us away. Kanye saved him from scorn and humiliation. He then garnished belly laughs from reading the Atlantic City Weekly and on the way bringing audience members on stage for spontaneous fun. He called some poor girls’ mom from her cell phone and had another success with a gal who turned his mile long mic chord into a lasso.
He was everywhere: on stage prancing around, climbing up and down seats, and running up and down aisles. The funniest bit was the part where he compared Katy’s sweet loving tweets from fans, then just moments later excerpts from the same fan cursing him with a swarm of “fuck you’s” and “you don’t deserve her you fuck fucker.” We were dying. The whole thing was being shot by discreetly placed handhelds but Russell pointed out that they couldn’t shoot the audience as many of the attendees might be with someone significantly other than their significant other. The sex ads in Atlantic City and the infamous sleaziness that is a passenger to any Atlantic City conversation were fertile material for his act.
Russell Brand has always seemed to be a one act pony riding that drunk rock star gimmick for as far as it will run. He even referred to it by saying that he will do it, he will basically play himself, in movies for as long as people will pay him for it. The waters on the stage stool suggested that he is getting a hold of himself. He seems to have gotten his act together in so many ways.
The billboards were everywhere, screaming about the upcoming second season of Boardwalk Empire, that historical HBO drama that takes us back to the glory days of AC. Borgata is far away from the heart of Atlantic City, the famous Boardwalk. It is a non-Boardwalk Empire self sufficient, and all inclusive. Still, the lure of the ocean and the trappings of the old strip are irresistible. The hookers are still there, easily spotted because of their wardrobe malfunctions and their nonexistent smiles. The sleaze still sleeps in the corners like lint. Peddlers and pawn shops linger like old stains refusing to go away in the wash. Billions have poured in, yet the surrounding areas remain so poor. It is a tale of two cities, the musings of another ancient Englishman.The Borgata with its fine wines and restaurants and pools and spas and the old world that balks against becoming new, clean, sanitized, wonderful and then the low life city of fame and some fun lives down by the Chelsea Hotel and the other monoliths that grace the ocean. The shops at Caesars and the Tropicana are better than they were a few years ago. Here, the crowds have improved and less lint is visible. There is some improvement everywhere. I could walk where no man would walk before. Yet while those places improve by inches, the Borgata has improved exponentially and rather than rest on its laurels, it will renovate its 2000 plus guest rooms.
Atlantic City is not Las Vegas, although everyone strives to compare the two cities. Atlantic City has the beach and its own feel. I could stay there for a week and be excited every day. Vegas bores me to tears after a weekend. Atlantic City has soul. It comes from the Capone bootlegger days and the Boardwalk and the years of rot and grime and crime. It comes from the lint in its corners. Vegas has no soul and doesn’t seem to want it.
The Borgata showed us a good time. We dined at Bobby Flays where a steak and everything that goes with it slayed me. Fornelletto offered us fine Italian fare the next night. We visited pool after pool and had nimble fingers rub the New York out of our muscles. I even got shaved real close. You would think by now I would be over close shaves. Greg Coyle, who books the entertainment, was everywhere. There must be 2 of him, I thought, then realizing that he’s a one of kind guy. We visited DJ Rashida at Mur.Mur and were awed. She is so smooth. The crowd moved heatedly to her down tempo mixes then rushed up to meet her as she raised the bar. Bedazzled headphones and a Prince association add to the allure. Her set was not a play down to the crowds at the Jersey Shore but an intelligent, hip mix. Greg escorted us over to see DJ Ruckus at Mixx. He was blasting the huge crowd into a frenzy, at one point picking up his CD player and playing it like Hendrix on a guitar. The crowd went wild. He talks to them, scratches, sniffs, does anything to keep the energy up but took time to offer me his hand and his famous huge smile. We left Atlantic City just a little limp… sated and pampered and entertained. I guess that’s why they built the place. I have been going to Atlantic City since before the first casino was built. Back then I was seeking out the corners where the lint gathered. Nowadays I want the lint there but don’t much get involved with it. The crowd at the Borgata is well aware of how far it has come, how far it has carried Atlantic City. Jerry Seinfeld was playing the large room and his fans, dressed for the success they enjoy, streamed through the Casino floor mixing with the hipper Brand followers. The energy, the action was everywhere. Gamblers won and lost and people hooked up and entertainers entertained and here we were on land that just a few years back was home only to Snowy Egrets, Herons and other water fowl. Somebody threw some large dice some years back. Someone saw a swamp and envisioned a paradise, a place where locals and visitors from Philly and New York and a thousand etceteras could behave elegantly and maybe a little badly.
A few years back the crowds were not as sophisticated as they are now. I touched on that yesterday when I discussed their wine program and how it was meeting the need of an audience that demands world class services and goods. The Aces train was half full on my last trip down. This time it was sold out. In Boardwalk Empire last season Nucky Thompson argued, bribed and threatened a Senator to get roads built from Philadelphia and New York to his Atlantic City. Nucky was, among other things, a visionary. He knew the importance of easy access to this promised land. Aces trains offer that convenience. The Borgata was just a theory just a few years back. A billion plus dollar gamble away from the Monopoly board Boardwalk and the streets around it, for better or worse. Borgata was a vision of a city on to itself, close enough and far enough away from Historic AC. That vision has been fulfilled. Borgata is wonderful and keeps getting more wonderful.
I don’t know about you, but my world is a scary place. The tube and funny papers scream at me every day about how bad things are and they always seem to be getting worse. There are times when keeping my head above water requires a little help from my friends. I’m no chicken little but once in awhile I need to take a deep breath. Borgata washed it all away and made me feel a bit more whole, a bit more capable to fight the good fight and thrive rather than just survive. Back in 1859, another English dude described the world he lived in. The words Charles Dickens used to describe his universe seem so relevant today:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Maybe a hundred years from now those words will ring as true. Maybe the fundamental things do apply as time goes by. Borgata understands the fundamentals and provides them in style while most joints exploit or cater only to the excesses. There is its success. The bookings of world class acts were pasted on billboards promising excitement and relief. I’m coming back to see Duran Duran and maybe Frankie Valli—you know, of the Four Seasons. Like Frankie I’m a four seasons kind of guy and so is AC. I’ll be returning this fall, all winter long, and into the Spring if they’ll have me. Borgata provides respite and not just during the summer season. I didn’t shout it from the audience as so many did, so here I go, “Russell Brand, I Love You.”