Day Nine: The Stratosphere (Comped)

Interviewing cab drivers — unless one is actually writing a story about cab drivers — is the last refuge of a hack. I fully admit that. And yet, I have to relate a conversation I had yesterday. With a cab driver.

The cab driver and I had been having a friendly chat after he realized that I was British, and I gathered he was Polish. Brits and Poles have a special relationship: similar to that between Americans and Mexicans. Every year, armies of Polish people move to the UK and eagerly snap up a whole host of jobs — cleaners, plumbers and factory workers — that British people are too snobbish and lazy to do. By way of thanks, British people bitch and moan about how — hypothetically — if we wanted to do the kinds of jobs that Polish people do for us, we’d be unable to do so because the Poles have “stolen” them. It’s a bit like blaming the nanny for the fact that you don’t spend enough time with your kids.

So anyway, yes — me and the Polish cab driver were chatting about the state of the world when, without meaning to, I accidentally did some journalism. “What brought you to Vegas?” I asked.

Instantly the man’s demeanor changed. He sat up a little taller in his seat, pressed his foot down a little harder on the gas pedal and, with a proud, certain voice, announced…

“Destiny. It was my destiny to come here, and make my fortune.”

Imagine that in a Polish accent. It’s pretty awesome.

Things got even more interesting when the cabbie explained that he was destined to make his fortune by winning the California state lottery. Once a month, he explained, he makes the short drive over the border to California and buys a fistful of tickets — “40, maybe 50” — at a buck a pop and then drives back to wait for lady luck to call.

“And has she called yet?” I asked.

“Nearly! Last week I got two numbers and the “Power Ball” — three more and I would have won two hundred million dollars!”

Oh, Lady luck, you tease. “But why come to Vegas?” I asked (Nevada doesn’t have it’s own lottery) “Why not go to California?”

“Because Vegas is where people get lucky!”

Which brings me to Matt Goss. Every Friday and Saturday night, surrounded by beautiful showgirls (“the Dirty Virgins”) and standing beneath a huge sign welcoming guests to “The Gossy Room”, Goss performs a two-hour set of rat pack staples and his own compositions.

Like me, Goss is a Brit — and so when my friend Julia — another Brit, but who now lives in Vegas — suggested we go and see the show, I eagerly accepted. Not least because she had free tickets. “It’s a pretty amazing show,” she said. And so it was — albeit not perhaps in the way Goss intended.

“Ladies and gentlemen… Maaaaatttt Gooossssss!”

Depending on where you grew up, your reaction to hearing those words is likely to be very, very different.

If you’re an American — and assuming the name means anything to you, it’s likely to be along the lines of “Oh, yeah, Matt Goss, I hear he’s really big in the UK. He’s like a British Sinatra. I really want to check out his show.”

This is what Matt Goss wants you to think.

If, on the other hand, you’re a Brit, you’re probably thinking something different. Something more like: “Wait — what? Matt Goss? From Bros? He has a Vegas show? How the fuck did that happen?”

This is not what Matt Goss wants you to think.

And yet, to any Brit over the age of 30, the name Matt Goss will forever be associated with the 80s boyband “Bros”, which as Wikipedia sardonically tells us is “pronounced to rhyme with ‘dross’”.

Along with brother Luke and spare-wheel Craig Logan, Matt was one third of the group which can best be summed up as a slightly less successful, British New Kids on the Block. Bros had just one number one single — 1988’s “I Owe You Nothing“ — but still went on to sell millions of albums. And then, as happens with boybands, the dream ended. The band split up in 1992 as their fans (“Brosettes”) moved on to the Backstreet Boys and puberty.

To say that Matt Goss is “famous in the UK” is like saying Jordan Knight is famous in the US. And yet, to read the press around Goss’ show — and to hear Goss onstage proudly boasting that “I was the youngest performer ever to play Wembley Stadium” you’d be forgiven for believing that Matt Goss has always been a suave, chart-topping solo act, as opposed to one third of a successful boyband famed as much for their torn jeans as for their one big record.

According to people familiar with the situation, here’s how the reinvention of Matt Goss went down. A few years back, still bobbing along as a solo performer, Goss decided he missed being really, really famous. And, like my Polish cab driver friend, he decided that his destiny lay, not in California, but in Las Vegas.

With the help of some savvy publicists, and some willing journalists (most journalists is Vegas are willing; much of the entertainment reporting here is basically indistinguishable from pillow talk), Goss concocted a legend. Back in the UK, so went that legend, Matt Goss is known as “the voice”, which of course also happened to be Sinatra’s nickname.

Let me be clear on one point: at no time has Matt Goss been known in Britain as “the voice”, except in answer to the question “what function did Matt Goss provide in Bros?” And yet, having failed to do any due diligence whatsoever, the Vegas entertainment machine bought the legend hook, line and swinger.

Goss was quickly booked for a string of dates at the Palms, where he garnered rave reviews. I didn’t see that show, but those who did say he deserved the raves: Goss had replaced his 80s hair and battered denim for grown-up jeans and waistcoat; his voice had matured into that of 42-year old man — and he knew how to use his Britishness to make American girls swoon. So far so good.

And then Caesars came calling — which is when things got really weird. Realizing that no-one ever went broke in Vegas by evoking Sinatra, Caesars decided to push Goss’ “voice” schtick to breaking point. The one-time teen idol was reinvented as a full-on British Sinatra, with his own lounge (“the Gossy room”) and a classic Vegas wardrobe. Throw in some showgirls and a gigantic video screen looping Rat Pack footage and the branding was complete.

Which is to say, complete nonsense.

For a start, Matt Goss’ ‘signature’ look — comprising a tuxedo and an artfully cocked hat — is not so much Sinatra-goes-to-London as Jason-Mraz-goes-to-a-wedding. The misplaced-positioning is magnified a billion-fold by the giant video screen, relentlessly bombarding the audience with its horribly cynical loop of images: James Bond, Sinatra, The Italian Job, Sinatra, London, Sinatra.. Sinatra, Sinatra.

By about half an hour in, I felt like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, eyes pinned open, being slowly brainwashed into submission: THIS MAN IS THE BRITISH FRANK SINATRA. BRITISH. FRANK SINATRA.

There are so many problems with that message, it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, Matt Goss is not the British Sinatra. His voice is good — great even — particularly when he stops doing the American Idol quiver — like two hummingbirds mating on a vocal chord — and just sings the damn song. When performing his own compositions — most of which seem to be about being unlucky in love, or fame — he owns the stage. But then he drifts back to staples like “Luck Be A Lady” or “I’ve Got The World On A String”, and suddenly we’re so close to tribute act territory that I half expected Simon Cowell to interrupt and tell him that he wasn’t going through to the next round. (By some weird twist, Nigel ‘American Idol’ Lythgoe was actually in Saturday’s audience).

Another problem with the idea of Goss-as-Sinatra is that there is nothing less Sinatra-like than a performer busting his ass trying to mimic someone else’s style. The whole thing that made Sinatra so attractive was the fact that he wasn’t trying to be anything other than himself. Bluntly put, Sinatra didn’t give a fuck. Matt Goss demonstrably gives a fuck.

And therein lies the real tragedy of Matt Goss’ show. If Goss just relaxed, and had the confidence to be himself, he’d probably be a superstar, at least on the Vegas strip. Las Vegas is littered with Rat Pack tribute acts: the Riviera has one, the Wynn has one, the Clarion Hotel & Casino has one. What it desperately needs is something new and fresh: say a million-album-selling, handsome, talented Brit who, in defiance of F. Scott Fitzgerald, has chosen Vegas for his second act. Correctly packaged, that guy who could sell some serious tickets, and keep selling them for years to come.

For a while, The Palms had that guy — and with his accent, his waistcoat and his good-to-great voice, audiences couldn’t get enough of him. He even made a brief reappearance on Saturday night when Goss performed a brilliantly reworked version of his old Bros hit, “When Will I Be Famous?”. It was by far the stand-out song of the show.

If Caesars would allow Goss to drop the Sinatra crap and instead put that guy on stage every night, there’s no reason that he couldn’t very quickly become a true Vegas superstar, as opposed to a decently talented lounge act. Maybe one day singers will even try to position themselves as the American Matt Goss.

If, on the other hand, Goss insists on stretching his South-London-Sinatra schtick until it snaps, then — like my Polish cab driver — his big Vegas reinvention might never make it beyond the Gossy Room. A run of good numbers, but not quite enough for the big time.

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