The Church of Phil
Photo by Denise TruscelloPhil Shane is ministering to the lovesick, the aged, the hip and the drunk. From atop his high stage, he bends down for the laying on of hands: in this case, a slow, tender kiss (sans tongue) for a giggling blonde who pretends to faint and then snatches his long white scarf as a pilgrim's relic.
The Celebration Lounge at Las Vegas' Tropicana Hotel and Casino is spacious, with high ceilings accented in copper and teal. Low, comfortable bucket chairs in what seems to be black pleather surround tiny tables littered with the remains of margaritas. The stage is roomy enough for his rack of sequined jackets, which he swaps according to his mood or song list.
This is neither Santa Ana's crusty Fling—equal parts groping 70-year-olds and pierced kids, where Shane sings from behind and sometimes atop the C-shaped piano bar—nor Dana Point's graying and wealthy Harpoon Henry's. It is not Fullerton's slightly creepy 2J's—a fun dive with just a whiff of speed freak—or the crowded, literally underground La Cave. It is none of the OC spots at which Shane has been gigging since 1972. Thirty years. And after 30 years, this, baby, is Vegas, even if his slot is in the middle of the afternoon.
At 5 p.m., the small crowd is still slumped into its seats. To our right is a quartet of cute folk in their very early 20s, possibly even late teens. The girls are pretty if not flashy, and their companions are dorky Midwestern guys. All are sullen for a while. But soon they understand the program: Shane will sing every song they throw at him, smiling like Stevie Wonder all the while. And if he doesn't have the request on the minidiscs he switches during the set—this is professional karaoke, hon—then he will pick up his guitar and play it. "Copacabana"? Certainly! A little Creedence? He'll get on it next! Right now, he's gonna do a little Tom Jones. Are there any Tom Jones fans here tonight? He leads us through "Delilah" and "What's New, Pussycat?" Like Jones, Shane's black pants are so tight that if he were a woman, he'd be sporting a cameltoe. I didn't think that in this environment, he'd come so close to touching his unit, but indeed his hand is mere millimeters away. Aw, yeah!
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Shane will work so hard tonight, taking no breaks, pouring gallons of sweat and affixing a smile to his face every second he's onstage—but it's never, ever fake. Indeed, he would work equally hard if there were only three tables full. All he wants, God willing, is for people to enjoy themselves and have a little party. He just wants to be loved.
By 6 p.m., to the rollicking strains of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good," the girls talk the boys into dancing: though goofy, the boys try their best, undulating clumpily while the girls shake their buns with sexy grace. Later, two much cockier young men in caps and baggy jeans (they look like Irvine guys trying to be Huntington Beach thugs but unwilling to commit to the tattoos) will come and hover over the girls until the Iowans are banished. Vegas is a soap opera, and we are glued to it.
But when Shane puts on his white, studded Elvis jacket and silly, big sunglasses, the interlopers have not yet appeared. Iowa is still happily in the game, and the quartet whoops and hollers.
A break is enforced at 7:30 p.m. so that a big spin of big prizes can commence. Shane, as any of his Orange County fans will attest, does not take breaks, but this is Vegas, and he's not going to make waves. The spin is lame: nobody wins the $1,000 top prize or even the $100 prize. Instead, each of the spinners is granted dinner at Calypso's (the Trop's coffee shop) or tickets to Rick Thomas, who, judging by his publicity still, is a lonely Siegfried and Roy knock-off without the aid and comfort of a big-haired partner/longtime companion. A lovely showgirl with a face straight out of 1934 (Clara Bow lips and porcelain beauty) points to stuff, her gut sucked in every second of her shift. Her teal thong looks terribly uncomfortable to the feminine eye, but the men in my party are oblivious to her pain. They are cruel and demanding in their love.
Every Tuesday through Saturday Shane's set begins at 3 p.m.—an uncivilized hour in Las Vegas, Nevada—and ends by 8:20 p.m. The Trop management actually wanted him to do sets that ran slightly shy of an hour, with breaks in between. But Phil Shane does not do that to his fans. And by 8:20 p.m., everyone is a fan: old, mean Danish ladies will be stealing any seat that's left unattended for even a moment.
In his silly glasses, grinning like a moron, Shane sings the Elvis classic "Love Me." I climb onto my date's lap and sprawl there, overcome. The quartet are no longer wry, laconic sneerers. They sway, enthralled and touched. They understand now. They get it. They have joined the Church of Phil. And watching over it all, enthroned at a table surrounded by Orange County friends and gazing at him with an omnipresent shy smile, is Phil's wife of eight years, Michlene. Love him? Oh, she does!
Treat me like a fool/Treat me mean and cruel/But love me/Wring my faithful heart/Tear it all apart/But love me.
Phil Shane was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1949. From the stage, he looks like a young-hearted 44, but as soon as he steps off it, his age shows. It's uncanny: the distance is the same, but all of a sudden, he's 52 and really sweaty. He has never held another job. Not waiter or dogwalker. From the age of 13, he has made his living playing in the band.
Until the mid-'60s, Mississippi was a dry state. But Tupelo's sheriff had a supper club outside town: the Chicksa Lodge. Jerry Lee Lewis played there. Singers came from Nashville and Alabama, even Florida. And from the time he was 13, Shane played there, too. Back then, he was on bass; the karaoke machine had yet to be invented.
"This is kind of personal," Shane says in his low, rich Southern voice, but he doesn't say the magic words "off the record."
"My dad had a terrible gambling problem, and he actually lost our house in a game of dominoes. My mom left him that same day. I think I got out with my clothes and my record player."
For this reason, when I take him to shoot craps later in the evening, Shane has no idea how the game works. He simply doesn't gamble.
His mother was a bookkeeper for a dry cleaner, and though they were never lacking in food or shelter, making ends meet in Mississippi was hard to do. The money Shane's gigging brought in helped immeasurably. Still, his mother's brother, a minister, made Shane's immorality the subject of his sermon one Sunday. He called him out by name, said Phil was going straight to hell, working as he was in a place rife with booze and loose women. Shane still hasn't gotten over the embarrassment and the injustice of it.
"He knew I was helping my mom out," he says. "He knew my dad wasn't there."
He married young, a next-door neighbor, and together they moved to Orange County in the early '70s. Why OC? That's where Disneyland was.
Shane and his wife lived in an RV parked out behind Reagan's (now Patsy's), a Mission Viejo bar where they sang.
And then in 1988, Michlene came into the picture. Michlene was the mother of nine-year-old twins, and her husband had passed away. She was stunned by Phil's talent, and she "tried really hard to like his wife, too," she says. But he was married, and though she had very strong feelings for him, Michlene decided she had been put into his life for another purpose. She would be his manager. She would serve his talent. She would make him go places, no matter how many obstacles he came up with.
"It's 'I-can't-because,'" says Michlene, sounding as dismissive as her sweet voice can. "'I-can't-because.' I don't want to hear, 'I-can't-because.' I asked Phil, 'What do you want to do?' and he said he wanted to play the Dana Point Harbor, but he couldn't because . . . Well, I got him into the harbor and asked, 'What do you want to do now?'" Eventually, Phil was sneaking into Michlene's bedroom window. In '92, he moved in. He divorced his wife, and in '94, Phile and Michlene married.
Now I'll say it: Michlene and Phil look positively bizarre together. Phil is 5-foot-3 (and a half), and has a puffy Neil Diamond pompadour that on a good day takes 10 minutes to blow-dry and on a bad day . . . "You don't want to be in the same house on a bad day!" says Michlene.
Michlene is 5-foot-8 (and a half), and to speak plainly, she's a lot of woman. Her dark hair is gelled and country-big. Her nails are long and red. Her stunning blue eyes are thickly lined; it's easy to get lost in them. In fact, she resembles Elizabeth Taylor. But however mismatched they may at first appear, their devotion is so palpable it can incite a melancholy envy.
There she sits in the back with her friends. Does she go to all his shows? "He likes to have me with him," she says softly. And now she is with him in Vegas, skipping home on Mondays and Tuesdays to check her P.O. Box—she's a theatrical manager for performing twins with her business, Carbon Copies—and then heading back to the bright lights of the Celebration.
Ten years ago, she wouldn't have been able to, but heck, she's got a cell phone; she can conduct her business wherever she is. Before every show, she sews four white scarves for him to hand out to other ladies. She makes fans from construction paper, a cartoon Phil photocopied on each one. After Phil's set, you will see Michlene helping him transport his many jackets. If they were home in OC, they would cap off the evening in their aquamarine and redwood hot tub. "It's our favorite thing ever!" Michlene says. And what does she love most about him? She thinks for a moment. "His passion for everything that he loves," she says, and she pulls herself up to her full height and speaks with quiet pride. "Including me."
Phil Shane is making his long-overdue Vegas debut because Michlene made it happen. There was no "I-can't-because." So now the glittering Tropicana is giving him an extended tryout, running through May 5. Michlene, ever the optimist and businesswoman, has signed a six-month lease on an apartment there.
"It's only $469 per month, and it's a write-off!" she says. "Even if he doesn't get it, well, we'll have a place to stay when we come here for the weekend!" Of course, not for a second does she believe he won't be offered the job. She doesn't believe in won'ts. I ask Phil what he loves most about Michlene.
"She's the most positive person I've ever met in my life," he says. "If she has a negative thought, she just throws it right out."
If Phil belongs in Vegas—and he does—she will see to it. She will make it happen. And they will be together, preferably in a hot tub.
The same positivity Michlene brings to the business end of Phil's career, he delivers to the audience. Let's face it: the act is dorky. He sings Neil Diamond and "God Bless the USA," backed up not by a band but by a machine. His outfits are full of sequins. He's really short. But as God is my witness, the love he projects from that stage is given back to him a thousandfold. I ask him if he's ever had a bad show. "Well, sure, I guess," he says. "When I was sick."
He once played a New Year's Eve show with strep throat; his doctor assured him that though it would be painful, it wouldn't damage his vocal cords. And he sang through the pain, caring only that the audience had a good time. "I didn't want people to know I was feeling bad," he says. "I wanted it to be a party!"
The people of Orange County have felt the love. Debbie Bartz, a Shane friend for 25 years, is the president of his fan club, which boasts 35 or 40 members (the $5 dues cover postage for the photo and newsletter). Two years ago, she got his face tattooed on her back. "It started out as a dare," she says, "but then I thought, I've known him and loved him for a long time." A few years ago, when Debbie's daughter got married, it was Phil Shane who gave away the bride.
While Shane's been playing to the bluehairs at Harpoon Henry's for quite a while, as well as to the seedier variety of bluehair that inhabits the Fling for four years now, Robert Williams (of Big Sandy fame) was responsible for introducing him to the scenesters who adore him so persistently now.
"It was at Big Sandy's Christmas party that all the kids saw me for the first time, I think," Shane tells me. "Weren't you at that party?" In fact, I was. That was in 1998, and until this Vegas trip, Shane and I have never so much as said hello, but he remembers nonetheless.
"That's the thing," Robert says. "When you walk in, he takes a minute and looks up and smiles. He's so happy to see you. Even when he doesn't know you, he makes you feel like a personal friend." Robert pauses, trying to find the right words. "You can tell he truly just loves what he's doing. I've gone to see other lounge singers . . ." He trails off. What he means is that some lounge singers are hacks. And Phil Shane is not. He smiles every second he's onstage because he's in love every second he's there. I ask Michlene if he's always like that.
"Oh, he gets moody!" she assures me. "But never when he's onstage. I want to build him a stage in the house, and whenever he gets grumpy, I'll tell him, 'Go get on that stage! Right now!'"
Back at the Tropicana on this Saturday night, we yell out from the crowd for "I'm a Believer." "Oh, that's a great one!" says Shane happily. "Neil Diamond wrote this one, recorded by the Monkees. I don't have it on disc, but I'll play it for you!" He picks up his guitar, slings it over his shoulder, and starts strumming wildly. He looks up toward heaven—or, in the Tropicana's case, toward the gilded ceilings—and I swear his face is lit with a heavenly glow. At that moment, we are all believers. We all ache for love.
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