• Otter Views: Bad Karaoke Flashback

    by Tom Stevens

    This time, for no reason I can credibly defend, we’re in a smoky neighborhood tavern on karaoke night. The year is . . . I forget. But long enough ago that people were still smoking and singing in taverns. Before “The Voice,” in other words.

    It’s cold sweat time tonight; hold ‘em or fold ‘em time. On all sides of the nightclub, 80 pulses pound as one. Butterflies boogie in 80 bellies. The same question knots 80 foreheads.

    To sing, or . . . not tonight?

    Our hostess Kathee, a songbird blessed with what we shower singers call “gorgeous pipes,” has already killed “Like a Virgin,” so scratch that one off your playlist. Now this sharp-looking dude Kevin saunters onstage. Smiling easily, he plucks the mike from the stand and casually arm-whips the cord aside – the mark of a karaoke black belt.

    Kevin joins Kathee for a note-perfect duet on “Always.” Their voices harmonize effortlessly, interweaving, twining, soaring skyward like larks ascending to heaven on a shaft of golden light.

    Scratch “Always.”

    Grumbling in admiration, the rest of us flip through our song binders. In each are 35 pages, 12 or 14 songs to the page, 478 titles in all. Most genres are represented, from gentle folk music to head-bashing death metal. Once you pick your tune, the hostess punches the title into her console, the song’s familiar intro surges up, and you try gamely to follow the bouncing ball.

    This should be easy. No stone has been left unrolled to make it easy. We flip through our books. With nearly 500 songs, there must be something in here we can fake. Surely one tune for the tone-deaf shower Sinatra, the rush-hour Ronstadt?

    “Stardust?” Get real. Hoagy Carmichael couldn’t even sing that, and he wrote it. “Summertime?” Too languid, with far too many held notes – a virtual La Brea Tar Pits for the untrained voice. “My Funny Valentine?” No way, Torme – that high C on “smiiiiiiiile with my heart” will crack you like the Liberty Bell.

    On stage, Kevin and Kathee crescendo to thunderous applause. Now Cookie pops up, and she doesn’t crumble. Her flawless rendition of “You’ve Got It All over Him” shames the original. She bows theatrically and arm-whips the mike back onto its stand. In due course, Ronnie, Cheryl and Marc take the stage for a sensational Motown medley.

    shower singer       Is there anybody in here tonight who doesn’t sing like an angel? With each stellar performance, we “pretend singers” scowl darkly and slump a little deeper into our leatherette booths. Finally a couple of novices step up, prodded forward by Demon Rum and laughing friends. Once in the footlights, they watch the wall monitors for their cues, then launch into “For the Good Tines” and “People,” respectively.

    We pretend singers perk up. These voices are mortal – one fatally flat, the other piercingly shrill and gargly, like steam venting from an undersea volcano. We are encouraged. We could do that!

    Karaoke (say “kahda-o-kay”) means “empty box” in English. The word and the popular bar pastime it describes are Japanese, the legacy of a long-faced nation whose lugubrious laments make even the most suicidal American country-western ballads sound as cheerful as The Chipmunks’ Polka Party.
    This authentic Japanese karaoke is not to be confused with its American stepchild, usually pronounced “Keeeery-okie,” as in “Hey gude buddeh, le’s do a boncha tham Jell-o slammers ‘n go ‘n fand us summa that-thar keeeeeery-okie!” No indeed. The karaoke at the neighborhood tavern tonight is not for every sunburnt yahoo-in-a-Wrangler. This karaoke is for svelte song stylists.

    And they’re out in force tonight: roguish men with Italian sunglasses and raw silk jackets; slinky women swathed in polka dots and moonbeams. Gleaming BMWs and Honda Accords prowl the parking lot. Inside, heads turn to check out each new arrival. Hmmmmm. Great sweater. But can he emote? She’s foxy, yes . . . but can she do “Blue Bayou?”

    While a fair amount of sizing up is endemic to any karaoke scene, the crowd tonight strongly supports any brave heart who takes the stage. Once. Even twice. But unless you’re a Kathee or a Kevin, three times might be pushing your luck.

    “We don’t use a hook or a gong in here,” a waitress explains, rolling her eyes. “Unfortunately!”

    Finally I choose my debut song: “She’s Not There” by The Zombies. It’s a tune I’ve sung in 50 showers worldwide. I figure I’ll kill that tune, buy a raw silk jacket, and go out on the karaoke circuit myself.

    Just one more guy, then me. He steps up on stage, smiles, arm-whips the mike cord aside, and begins:

    “Well, no one told me aboooout herrrrr, the way she lied . . . “

    How could I know?


    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 31, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views


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