He couldn't have been more than five feet tall. I guessed him to be around 50, taking into account that Asian men often look much younger than they are. The music began, a flattened sound I imagined could only have been created by an orchestra playing from within an enormous tin box. He gripped the microphone with white knuckles and, when his cue came, he sang, "Are the reeves are budown! And the sky is guday! I went for a wok! On a winter's day!" After the first two lines, he fell out of sync with the words flashing by on the large TV screen above his head. His voice was loud in spurts, for a known word or part of the chorus, but mostly it was soft and quiet -- mumbles through a foreign verse, a few disconcerting squeaky noises during the instrumental break. The karaoke jockey (KJ) was visibly agitated, his arms flapping in frustration as he tried to lead the confused crooner back to the right lyrics, the right pitch, the right tune, and, at one point, even the right song. The singer, however, looked as though he was having a great time. A minute into his performance, he politely stepped aside to allow a waddling old white man with a beer belly the size of twins into the unisex bathroom behind the "stage." There were no more than 20 people in the small bar, but it was enough to make the place look crowded.
I had thought it would be funny to drag my posse to a place named after an amused fish for one of its many karaoke nights. Little did I know that this random idea to entertain myself while annoying my friends would lead me straight to the underbelly of a thriving San Diego subculture. The Tickled Trout in Mission Valley became my doorway to this underworld's inhabitants -- the Karaokians.
During a break between singers, I stared at one of three television screens on which the KJ was playing a scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
"Have you seen a small CD case?" I looked to my left to find a woman who resembled my high school PTA president -- middle-aged, short and stocky, tight brown curls framing her bulldog face.
"No, sorry. Nothing was on this table when we sat here," I said politely. Then I turned back to the screen.
"It was right here," she said, pointing emphatically at the empty spot next to my Guinness.
"Listen," I said calmly, now giving her my full attention. "When I arrived at this table, there was nothing on it but a napkin. I hope you find your CDs, I really do. But they aren't here, and no one here would take them. Okay?"
She didn't believe me. This became obvious when she began circling our table, looking underneath it suspiciously, then back up, as though she might catch one of us passing off the stolen goods. Finally, she turned back to her table, where she proceeded to accuse each of her three companions until one of them produced her case from the spot where she had hidden it before she went to the restroom. In the CD case were her cherished homemade karaoke discs.
Karaoke, defined as "a music entertainment system that provides prerecorded accompaniment to popular songs that a performer sings live by following the words on a video screen," was introduced in Japan in the late 1970s. "Karaoke" directly translates as "empty orchestra," or more loosely, "without a band." No one can be sure exactly where this phenomenon began, but a popular story places the beginning in a snack bar in Kobe City.
According to this widely believed tale, a guitarist was suddenly unable to perform at the bar; in an attempt to keep his patrons entertained, the proprietor prepared tapes of the music from prior performances and invited volunteer vocalists to sing along.
There is one man, however, who is credited with inventing the first karaoke system (8-track accompaniment tapes and custom-built 8-track player) -- Daisuke Inoue. Though we can thank (or curse) this drummer from Kobe for kicking off the karaoke craze, his failure to patent his invention has kept him from reaping the rewards. He first leased out his karaoke machines in Kobe in 1971, but Inoue did not actually try his own invention until 1999, while celebrating his 59th birthday.
In 2004, when he was 64 years old, Inoue received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for "providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other." As a token for the humorous award, which is a pun on the word "ignoble," Inoue was gifted with a medallion made of tinfoil. If he had filed his patent in 1971, he'd be a billionaire.
Soon after Inoue's invention, manufacturing companies picked up on the idea and began churning out better systems. Ten years later, with the help of laser disc technology, lyric sheets were thrown away and words were displayed on TV screens. After that, it wasn't long before someone added graphics to accompany instrumental breaks (those cheesy beach scenes and photos of lovers walking hand in hand).
Today, wannabe singers (like the bulldog I encountered at the Tickled Trout) can make their own CDs that they can cue up in modern karaoke systems found in bars around the world.
Before embarking on my karaoke quest, my experience with what I thought was a silly pastime was limited to three hazy memories. The first time I tried karaoke I was 21. It was 1998 and my date, a tall gangly thing I met in Pacific Beach, brought me to a dive in East County. After he bought my third margarita, he persuaded me to take the stage. With liquid confidence, I belted out the words to "I Feel Lucky" by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Later that night I learned that my improvised "meow" and growl had delighted the roomful of middle-aged men, who, at the time I sang, seemed nothing more than a sea of flannel and denim.
The second time I stepped up to the mike was at a place on Melrose in West Hollywood where people didn't just sing, they auditioned. I wasn't interested in that -- I wasn't delusional enough to think I had the talent it takes to be a rock star -- but I was out with a handful of friends and I craved a moment in the spotlight.
Conveniently, two of my friends were weekend Vegas showgirls and part-time dancers at the gentlemen's club in Beverly Hills. To deflect some of the attention (I wanted the spotlight, but I feared its intense heat on me alone), I asked my girls to dance behind me as I sang Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn." I'm not sure what they did behind me, but it worked. Of all the singers that evening, I received the most applause.
I should have stopped at two. I'm humiliated to report what happened the third time. A week-long training seminar brought me and other new employees from the southwest region of our company to Irvine. The bar was located across the parking lot from our hotel.
My first mistake was to drink four sweet, strong, fruity boat drinks. With not one inhibition left to my name, I thought it would be a great idea to sing some Tori Amos tunes. The KJ plugged in my request, and in two seconds I had gained the attention of the entire bar with my off-key screeching and tone-deaf impersonation of my idol. When the song was over, I insisted on singing another. At the time, I didn't know that I was breaking one of the karaoke commandments -- thou shalt not sing two songs in a row.
But I didn't stop there. When the next person in line -- a coworker from another office whom I had met only that morning -- tried to take his place onstage, I hit him in the head with the microphone. Repeatedly. Despite my abuse, or perhaps because of it, he followed me back to my hotel room that night. At our meeting the following morning I couldn't decide what was most embarrassing -- my frequent vomit-visits to the bathroom, my questionable singing ability, or the fact that everyone knew exactly why I was avoiding eye contact with what's-his-name.
The Charcoal House
"Come on," I whined. "We don't have to stay all night. I just want to see what it's like." With each word, my partner David received a poke in the arm. Finally, he looked me in the eye.
"Fine." Though the word came out as blunt and forceful as a hammer to the head, it was good enough for me. As much as I wanted to check out the karaoke contest that evening, I couldn't get up the nerve to go alone.
I had heard about the contest being held at the Charcoal House Restaurant in La Mesa from Linda, who would be competing. The seven-week contest, sponsored by the restaurant and a local radio station, would bestow upon the winner a professionally produced CD and the chance to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a Padre game at Petco Park.
"I always practice my songs before I go out," says Linda, who has not one but two karaoke machines in her home. "I try to actually memorize the words so I don't have to look at the screen. I try to be a performer and be interesting. I look at the audience, but I usually never lock on to their eyes, because I realize sometimes that can bother a person -- they can feel challenged -- so I look in their direction, ten o'clock, two o'clock, but I rarely lock in on them unless I know the person really well."
I met Linda through my piano teacher, Frank. Every time I've seen Linda she was wearing something flashy -- a red scarf, matching cheetah-print leggings and top, a white pantsuit with a brightly colored floral-patterned jacket. On her toes she might be five foot two, but you wouldn't know it to talk to her. Linda's presence is ten feet tall.
Karaoke is Linda's passion. She told me how, last year, she wowed judges with her version of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary." "I sort of became Tina with a Linda twist to it. I had a wig on, a short dress, and did some of the Tina-like moves. But I really love to moonwalk, so I threw in a moonwalk all the way across the stage, and the audience went nuts." Linda won that contest, the "Best of the Best" at the Viejas Casino. The Tina Turner 'do is one of 15 wacky wigs in Linda's 400-square-foot costume closet.
The Charcoal House was already packed when David and I arrived almost an hour before the contest was scheduled to begin. The large barroom was located to the left of the entrance. I chose a booth in the restaurant directly to the right, which granted me a clear view of the stage across the way. Reminiscent of my high school choir performances, the red curtain behind the stage was adorned with giant stars and treble clefs cut from a yellow fabric and covered in glitter.
A woman named Leslie was letting contestants warm up. While David and I picked our way through overcooked chicken and soggy veggies, the bar, populated mostly by white people in their 40s, was alive with the sound of "music." Soft rock seemed to be the popular choice, and I was surprised at how many songs I knew by heart.
I was excited to see the name "Dido" appear on one of the screens, but my feeling was soon one of torment as the woman onstage proceeded to destroy everything I loved about the song. She mesmerized me, though, because I could tell by her stance and facial expressions that she believed she was nailing it -- standing there screeching, this woman thought she was Dido. This was my first glimpse of the impressive Karaokian ego, which I had yet to experience in its maniacal, delusional entirety.
David and I paid our dinner bill and took our place in the standing-room-only bar, where we ran into Linda. She had already warmed up with a country song I didn't recognize (I don't think there are any I would). Linda had been animated during her warm-up. She left the elevated stage for the dance floor (making it difficult for most patrons to see her), boogied back and forth and, more than twice, waved the microphone in the air as though twirling a lasso.
Before Linda performed her song for the competition (a slow LeAnn Rimes number called "Blue"), we watched a man who couldn't have had more than three teeth in his skull jabber his way through another tune I didn't recognize (probably a country song). Despite the sentences rolling by on the screen above me, I couldn't understand a word he said.
A skinny little woman followed next with a frighteningly accurate impersonation of Céline Dion. Then, just as I was beginning to drift mentally, a young guy took the mike. His voice was a salve for the auditory abrasions inflicted by the string of people who sang before him. His was a slow R&B song that I later learned was first performed by Luther Vandross. The singer's appearance was jarring in this environment; he wore an oversized jersey, and his dark hair was pleated in tight cornrows. I couldn't guess his ethnicity, maybe an Asian and African-American mix. When he finished his song, he put his hands to his face as if in prayer and thanked the cheering crowd. Tony T. was his name, and he is well known by Karaokians throughout the county.
Neither Linda nor Tony T. placed in the contest that evening. That prize went to another young man with an excellent voice who sang the top-20 hit "I'll Be" by the Goo Goo Dolls. "I'm going to come back every week until I win," Linda said. "This is political bullshit," said Tony T.
The following week, Tony took first place for the evening after singing a popular Bon Jovi song. Unfortunately, no one would win the seven-week contest. After a few weeks, it was inexplicably canceled.
Earlier in the evening, one man caught my eye when he sang during the warm-ups, and then again later when he chose not to compete. He was tall with shaggy blond hair and looked like a retired surfer, but when he sang, he was a dead ringer for Frank Sinatra. When I asked him why he didn't compete, he said, "I've never entered a contest. The people that enter them are the people that work the circuit. I feel contests are designed by bars to bring people in to spend money. It's not really about finding the best singer. It's about a bar owner who says, 'Hmm, we're slow on Wednesday nights. We'll offer a $300 prize, but we'll have six weeks of first rounds, three weeks of second rounds.' And every one of those nights people who are in the contest have to come back and they're supposed to bring their friends to cheer for them and, you know, it's just a big contrived thing to bring people into their bar. And then you're down to who's judging you? Who picks the winner? How much does this person know about music or performance?"
This was Mike, a rare breed of Karaokian, one of the few who think karaoke is supposed to be fun and that people who take their karaoke hobby too seriously are missing the point. If the Dalai Lama were to be reincarnated as a fortysomething surfer dude with a passion for karaoke, he would come back as Mike. I wanted to know what this point was that so many others were missing, so I met up with Mike at his weekly KJ gig -- a volunteer position at a retirement community.
"At this point, I don't consider anyone there elderly," says Mike of the 700 senior residents at the Orchard in Point Loma. He first showed up four years ago to volunteer as part of an assignment for a class at Mesa College. When the assignment was over, Mike continued his free Friday-afternoon gigs. "Those people make me feel good. In a bar, I turn off the music at the end of the night and everyone's drunk, nobody notices; the jukebox is turned on and I'm gone. But these people really appreciate it. I mean, these people are my friends."
This venue is open to the public. "The more the better," urges Mike. "The people that live here get to see new people come in and sing -- it's entertainment for them -- and the people who come in from outside places get to see a new place." Not to mention that at the Orchard, unlike at a bar, the audience is seated, quiet, and attentive. I greeted Mike as he arrived in the parking lot. Before he made it to where I was standing, two older men, reminiscent of Statler and Waldorf (the old guys in the balcony on The Muppet Show), called out from behind his truck, "Open the damn door!"
Mike obeyed, and as soon as he unlocked the back of his truck, the two old men rushed his equipment into the building like expert stagehands. "If we can get this set up now, we might be able to get in one more song!" one of them shouted.
At the tender age of 28, I was the youngest person in the room. The excitement was palpable, or maybe the weight and buzz I felt was some sort of chemical reaction to the density of perfume and pain patches.
"Welcome back, Annie!" Mike said. "Hey, Richard, how's your wife?"
"Not good, Mike. Her hip is broken. I want to sing first because I need to take her to her doctor's appointment." Richard was one of the men who had been waiting in the parking lot for Mike to arrive.
Then it hit me: Mike was not simply these people's friend -- he was family. He knew every name, alluded to stories and experiences shared. Like a son returning home from abroad, he was the cause of the excitement.
Richard took his place before the giant television, in front of expectant, smiling, and attentive friends and neighbors, and sang "Blue Bayou." At one point in the song, he did a little dance, turning and shaking his octogenarian booty at the audience, inciting cheers from the group behind me who had proclaimed themselves hecklers.
Ninety percent of the songs performed were written before 1950. Half of them were love songs. Old people singing about love is apparently one of my emotional triggers. Staring at a wrinkled, life-worn face, I found myself wondering, Who were you with when you first heard this song? How much heartache have you suffered in your many years on this earth? What joys do you remember when you mouth these words?
When Ray got on his knees to ad-lib during "Rock-a-Bye Baby," making the room erupt with laughter, I wondered if he had been the class clown 60 years before. They danced, they laughed, they crooned with the raspy voices of those whose vocal cords have long surpassed their warranty. They were having more fun than I'd had at any nightclub.
I laughed through most of the songs, as was the obvious intention of those who were singing them. Then Mike called the name "John," and an old man shuffled his way to the microphone. His calm presence quieted the room, and we waited in silence while Mike cued up his song. John focused his gaze somewhere far away -- another time, another place -- and he began to sing "The Rose," ever so slowly, his pace bringing new meaning to these lyrics I knew by heart. After he whispered the last two words, "the rose," he smiled sadly, nodded, and returned to his seat.
Aside from his Friday-afternoon appearances at the Orchard, Mike doesn't KJ anymore. In 1989, at the El Torito in Mission Valley, Mike experienced karaoke for the first time. "I had never seen it before in practice. Having always been a singer and musician, it was easy to embrace it." In 1989, karaoke was still on laser discs. "I wanted to get into the technology of it. At the time, I was way into computers.
"Karaoke has become like pool and darts and cocktails -- a lot of bars have it," Mike says. "Working in bars just doesn't pay." Currently, Mike's main source of income is from DJ-ing weddings and corporate functions (www.garage-records.com). "Used to be standard, five years ago, a good host with a good selection could make about $150 a night for four or five hours. Now it's down to about 100 bucks."
Mike attributes this decrease to the ubiquity of karaoke machines. "In the last five years, karaoke went from just being in bars to being in homes. A lot of people that like to sing and want to be part-time karaoke hosts have daytime jobs, and they'll go in and say, 'I'll run karaoke for you. I've got 50 discs, and I'll do it for 50 bucks because I just love to sing!' So what you're getting is a semiprofessional host, because the bar owners want to pay minimal amounts of money." Mike's karaoke collection boasts over 28,000 songs, efficiently organized on his computer.
As a host, Mike lived and breathed among Karaokians. "Karaoke is supposed to be entertaining," he says. "People go to enjoy the good singers or to laugh at the bad singers. If you have too much bad karaoke, though, people singing off-key, then your show starts to suck."
Mike has ways to help the poor, unfortunate, and tone-deaf. When he's at the Orchard, it could be something as simple as turning up the music so that a singer can better hear the key. "There's not much you can do if they're really dying. At times I've 'accidentally' shut off the song and blamed it on me, like, 'Oh, sorry! Computer malfunction!' People are scared to go out and do it. They have their own insecurities about how good they're going to do. I can say, 'Hey, come on, take it easy.' "
But hosts like Mike don't sympathize much with the pompous breed of Karaokians. "The people that go up there but maybe don't have quite the level of skills they think they have, the people who are trying to do a good job and for whatever reason can't, those are the hardest ones to watch. A lot of people go up there treating it as a joke and jerk around, and your heart doesn't go out to them -- they're joking around, they know they can't sing, they're a little buzzed, and they go up there and they're just doing their thing and that's cool. But the pros...when they bomb, you don't have as much sympathy as the middle-of-the-road person who was trying to do a good job and might have been scared."
"In my opinion, these people take themselves way too seriously," says Mike. He says many Karaokians have the "Tony T. syndrome." When Mike used to host, he saw a lot of Tony T. "He just believes that he is the freakin' shit, and he sits there basking in the glory from all the women out there who just heap praise on him. That guy, he's on the extreme end."
Mike laughs as he remembers one instance in which a singer walked up to the microphone and said, "Dude, give me some more reverb, man, put some bottom end on there." But, according to Mike, once the guy began to sing, "the first notes out of his mouth were wrong."
Most Karaokians follow ten unspoken rules that are best summed up in Mitsui and Hosokawa's Karaoke Around the World: (1) Do not sing while you are drunk, (2) Do not sing too loudly, (3) Do not abuse the echo effect, (4) Do not monopolize the microphone, (5) Do not sing songs written for the opposite sex unless you want to surprise the audience, (6) Do not sing songs composed by very gifted writers (because they are usually too difficult for lay persons), (7) Do not be too narcissistic (the most commonly broken rule), (8) Do not sing two songs in succession, (9) Do not sing the same song that someone else has sung, and (10) Applaud after others have finished singing.
After Tony T. cited numbers 7, 8, and 9 as rules that no good karaoke singer should break, he shared with me the following story: "This guy was trying to get a job as a Neil Diamond impersonator, and he brought a cameraman with him because he was taping his performance. I guess they greased the palm of the karaoke host so he could sing, like, two or three songs back-to-back at the beginning of the show. He looked like an older version of Neil Diamond, had the sequined blazer, the helmet hair going on, and the rings and stuff. He was one of the few people I ever showed up at karaoke. I had to show him up."
Tony went on to explain how one should sing a Neil Diamond song. "The thing about singing Neil Diamond is, Neil Diamond has a high voice but he has a gruff, he has a depth. Unless you can hit that, don't try it. This guy comes in with his whole entourage thinking he's just that and a bag of chips. And I understand he was doing it for a purpose; he wanted to get a job as a Neil Diamond impersonator, and he looked the part for the most part, and he didn't sound too bad, but I felt the urge to knock him down a peg because when he sang, he didn't sound anything like Neil Diamond. He had this high, velvety-type voice, but the gruff and the depth just wasn't there."
Tony greased the palm of the karaoke host, which meant he slipped him around $5. According to Mike, no good host should have let Tony do what he did next, which was to sing two of the same songs the impersonator had just finished performing. "I got up and I showed Dude how you sing Neil Diamond," said Tony. "I think he felt bad -- he looked like somebody done shot his dog."
Tony is not modest when speaking of his singing talent. "My voice kind of does whatever I lend it to. I can pull off George Strait pretty all right in karaoke. I've heard people tell me I sing better than Jon Bon Jovi. Some people say I sing better than George and Garth [Brooks]. I mean, they've got multi-platinum records all over their walls and I don't have anything, but I mean..." At this point, Tony began to sing some Barry White, which turned the heads of all the coffee sippers in the Kensington Starbucks.
"There are people [who] sing karaoke, and they are people that say, 'Oh, it's just karaoke, it's just for fun.' But when you work hard at something, when you really work hard at something, I mean, that's where the delineation between the two-fisted drinker and the real singer comes into play." Tony sings karaoke in public six nights a week. Tony, like Linda and every other serious Karaokian, does not drink alcohol when he's singing. "Alcohol can irritate the cords in your throat. Real singers drink lemon water."
"How far are you gonna go being serious about karaoke?" wonders Mike. "You can't become rich being a karaoke singer. American Idol is about as far as you can take it. Kelly Clarkson was a karaoke singer." So why do Karaokians become so obsessed? "I think they just like the spotlight," says Mike. "They can't go walk into a bar that has a band and say, 'Can I come up and play with you?' because it's a different animal. With karaoke, everyone has a chance. They also probably have a good deal of ego to themselves: they feel that everyone wants to be seeing them and that they're doing people a favor by singing for them.
"Guys like [Tony T.] are nothing but entertainment for the host," continues Mike. "He'll be working the room and getting his adulation, but he's playing at, like, Joe's Grease Pit, with eight people there. He's strutting the room and making mistakes, singing the wrong notes, and Tony T., he's been working, like, eight years now to do this. I mean, six years ago, when I was [hosting] full-time, every night he'd show up at whatever bar I was at; he'd bust in expecting me to throw him right into the rotation because he's a 'big star.' " According to Mike, all Karaokians "are in some level of Tony T-ism."
Mike prefers karaoke environments where everyone is having fun. "If it's a family event, all of a sudden the grandparents want to see the grandchildren singing, everyone just wants to see each other having fun doing something. It's so different in a bar. If you have eight people, we'd have fun because if someone in our group sang -- good or bad -- we'd be supportive; or if they sing like shit we can give 'em hell. But when you get a single guy walking into a karaoke bar at 11 o'clock with his discs, I can read him right away -- he probably doesn't drink, because he's driving from bar to bar, doesn't spend any money at the bar; probably thinks he's going to walk in and I'm gonna put him up and he's going to kick ass and leave. I'd do the same thing, want to get put up and sing, but I drink like a fish and tip."
One Saturday night Mike stood in for a friend as KJ at Champs on Clairemont Drive. At first glance, Champs appeared to be the antithesis of the Orchard. The average age was under 30. Maybe it was the bar owner's intention to keep the place brightly lit, juxtaposing the show-all, sober environment with its drunk, hazy-eyed patrons. Whatever the reason, after the dart tournament ended, the place remained illuminated for the rest of the night.
Mike always opens the floor by singing a song. "Mainly as a sound check, to make sure all the equipment's working right. And it breaks the ice."
People drank, talked, laughed. What they didn't do was pay attention to the man singing in the corner at the far end of the bar. A young woman named Chelsea belted out Aretha Franklin's "Respect" -- Chelsea was the only person at Champs that night whose skin was more cappuccino than strawberry-vanilla.
It took me a few minutes to find the next singer. I could see the words to one of my favorite Tracy Chapman songs moving on the screen and could barely make out someone mumbling along with them in a flat tone, but no one was standing on the "stage." Searching for the source of the disembodied voice, I followed the microphone cord along the floor to where it disappeared behind a veil of blond hair. The girl singing, if murmuring can be considered singing, sat with her back to the room. I wondered why, if she was as shy as she seemed, she would want to sing in the first place. Well, I thought, if you're going to break out of your shell, this is a good place to do it. Sitting off to the side with people going about their drinking and socializing as if you don't exist is the next step up from singing in the shower.
There were no Karaokians at Champs. Scanning the room, I could not find one person who had brought his or her own discs. When Chelsea performed her next song, "Me and Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin, people paid attention. Outgoing and full of attitude, she was a natural performer, and she drew in the otherwise oblivious audience. She was the best karaoke singer I'd seen thus far.
One of my favorite things about karaoke is how it indirectly forces us to pay attention to song lyrics -- something about seeing the words as I listen to someone sing them lends depth and meaning to what was previously just a catchy tune.
A twentysomething guy with short, bleached-blond hair took off his jacket to reveal chiseled biceps. His rock-hard abs and a large tattoo across his chest that read "Clairemont" were visible beneath the thin white cotton of his wife-beater. His black shorts were riding low, and his white socks were pulled up over his shins.
Gripping the mike tightly in his fist, the young thug tried, unsuccessfully, to keep up with words he obviously didn't know. Then the chorus came, and in the classic rapper stance -- one fist pumping high in the air and the other cupping the mike -- he shouted the words: "So hold me when I'm here, love me when I'm wrong, hold me when I'm scared, and love me when I'm gone. Everything I am, and everything in me, wants to be the one you wanted me to be. I'll never let you down, even if I could, give up everything, if only for your good!"
Suddenly I had the urge to hug him. He's not a thug at all, I thought. He's just a vulnerable kid singing the same old love song to a different tune. After he bumbled his way through another unknown verse and belted out the chorus a few more times, the song was over and the vulnerable thug said, "Yeah, I suck," into the microphone and returned to the bar where his friend, who could have been his twin brother, was nursing a Heineken.
Mike had a beer in his hand and a smile on his face. This place was more like the Orchard than I'd thought -- everyone here seemed to be having fun, and more importantly, no one was taking himself too seriously.
Karaoke Korean Style
I wanted to have fun too, but I lacked the confidence that drugs, liquor, and exotic dancers had given me in the past. I looked through songbooks everywhere I went, but I could not get up the nerve to throw my name into the rotation. Mike has a recording studio at his house. One day I went there with Linda, who was trying to persuade me to perform with her.
At Mike's studio, I learned that I am incapable of singing Queen or George Michael -- my voice kept cracking on the high notes. But then I stumbled onto a song in one of Mike's old books that I knew very well -- "I Don't Know How to Love Him," a ballad from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I've never seen the show live, but I grew up listening to the soundtrack.
Mike cued it up. Linda grabbed the second microphone to sing along. But I knew the song much better than she. I knew it the way one knows the contours of a lover's body. Every intake of breath, every syllable stressed, every vocal sigh -- it's impossible to know how many times I stood in the middle of my room with this song playing on my stereo, drawing all of the energy in my body up through my vocal cords until it filled the air around me. I'm not saying I was good. I'm saying it felt good. And once I was able to forget Mike and Linda, I lost myself in the familiar old tune.
"Hey, that was great!" said Mike. "See, you just needed to warm up a little." I felt less nervous, more relaxed, as though I could bring myself to have fun with my friends without that fear of feeling stupid.
I searched for a venue to which I could drag some of my peeps. The Lamplighter didn't make the cut. I used to go there a lot, but I was looking for good old-fashioned fun, and screeching drunk girls being hit on by dopey drunk boys just wasn't the scene. I heard that Scolari's Office was hosting its version of karaoke on Wednesdays, but I wanted a relaxing atmosphere rather than one filled with angst-ridden punks and hipsters.
Wasn't there any place we could go without having to encounter strange faces in the audience? My friend Grace, a Korean-American, saved the day when she suggested we try one of the Korean karaoke joints on Convoy Street, where we could get a "private room." A quick Google search led me to Arirang DJ Karaoke, and I booked a room for eight for the following weekend.
Saturday night we gathered on the strip mall sidewalk in front of Arirang. After checking in with the manager, we were escorted through a dingy bar/restaurant whose decor would make Roberto's look like a four-star establishment. At the back of the building we were shown to our room. Only, it wasn't a room, it was a storage closet. Literally. In two corners, cases of beer were stacked to the ceiling. In a third corner was the television and karaoke equipment, complete with a colorful, electric disco light display, and near the fourth corner was the door. Eight of us wedged ourselves around the small square table. Bottles of plum wine were ordered and downed, along with sake and imported beer. I didn't mind the fact that the plum wine tasted like Robitussin; the medicinal effect both warmed and comforted.
The "VIP Room," as our storage closet was referred to by restaurant employees, seemed to be the only one of its kind in the place. The front room was mostly empty, save for one interracial couple and a group of Korean men smoking cigarettes undisturbed while they watched music videos playing on a karaoke screen. Ensconced in our private nook (so small that even a real estate agent would be hard-pressed to call it "cozy"), we passed around the folder containing the list of songs available, but not one of us wanted to be the first to sing.
The only way to break the ice was to share the shame -- Jennifer and I sang Madonna's "Like a Prayer" together, inciting jeers from our companions. At first I was horrified; were we really that bad? Then I realized it was the incredible echo effect in the small room that was driving everyone but Jennifer and me insane.
We summoned an employee to show us how to adjust the electronic boxes in the corner. Three of us had to wiggle our way out of the VIP room in order for the Korean man to reach the machinery. Before he could extricate himself from the miniature obstacle course, Jennifer grabbed his arm and asked, "How do you say 'sex' in Korean?"
Grace looked horrified. She began speaking rapidly to the man in Korean, apologizing for her friend's brazenness. Then, to Jennifer, who has been harassing Grace for years for the answer to this question, she said, "That is totally, completely culturally inappropriate a thousand times over! Even wondering about it would be totally, utterly shameful and disappointing to our families. My parents never even told me how to say it!"
Jennifer held the employee's arm tightly. Underneath the flashing disco light, it appeared as though he was blushing. He looked to Grace for guidance. "Fine! Go ahead," Grace said. But then she added, "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry for my friend," and continued speaking to him in Korean again. Jennifer laughed and finally let the poor man go.
You can learn a lot about your friends while trapped inside a small closet with plenty of booze and a karaoke machine. The microphone in our little room was warmed up, and the boys, who had been drinking and mocking us, decided to give karaoke a try. Kip sang "Paradise City," surprising everyone, including his wife, with his accurate impression of Axl Rose. While singing "Lust for Life," Ron cracked up as the words "Well, that's like hypnotizing chickens" appeared on the screen. For the rest of the week, this would be our phrase to describe everything from washing the car to dining out.
But the pièce de résistance was yet to come. I stumbled across the song accidentally. Once I saw it, I was compelled to act. Without a sound, without a gesture, using only my eyes, I captured Ollie's attention. Ollie -- the heavily tattooed curmudgeon who hates the idea of karaoke, who was convinced to come this evening only because it was Ron's birthday. Pretty soon, everyone would know what I knew -- Ollie is a sucker for passionately sung female-vocalized songs. And he doesn't just like to listen to them -- he likes to sing along.
I raised my brows, and Ollie gave me a questioning look. I looked down at my finger, pointing to our song, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," and he followed my gaze. A few years ago, this song came on the radio while Ollie was riding with David and me to a party. David hates the song. In an effort to annoy him, I turned it louder and sang along. Ollie joined in on the fun, and we were having such a great time, I didn't even think to question how Ollie had come to know every word. After that night, whenever we felt like teasing David, we would begin singing. But we were doing more than annoying David -- we were practicing for this night, in this tiny room. Finally, our moment to shine had come.
We knew our roles. Ollie kicked it off and belted the chorus, and I sang the quiet, serious parts solo.
"Every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you're never coming round."
"Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears." His next "Turn around" overlapped the word "tears," and just as quickly, I followed up with "Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by." Our voices climbed until they reached the stained ceiling of our little room. I forgot about the possibility of embarrassment, and Ollie let his tough-guy image fall around him as he raised his head to belt out the next line, "Turn around, bright eyes," and I practically cried, "Every now and then I fall apart!"
The laughter that accompanied each previous song had stopped. Our friends were listening to us, riveted, enjoying the show. We impressed them with our devoted adherence to Bonnie Tyler's style and voice. When the song was over and we came back to the room, our friends were clapping and cheering. As if to prove that he still had a penis, Ollie chose to sing "Anarchy in the U.K." next. And by "sing," I mean "scream." Ron was happy to join in with the second microphone until the rest of us had our hands on our ears in an effort to protect our precious drums.
I thought of all the Karaokians I'd encountered, the venues, the attitudes, and the solemnity with which some approach this pastime -- a recreation that was invented as a way to involve and entertain the audience so that everyone could be a star, at least for the length of one song. My friends didn't have their own discs. No one in my group was serious about singing. No one worried about being better or worse than anyone else. And like the small Asian man at the Tickled Trout who sang "Are the reeves are budown," we were just having fun. Isn't that supposed to be the point?