Mar 07, 2019, 06:28AM

This Week in Karaoke

At rock bottom, some people find god. I don't know why, but I found karaoke.

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MY PANCAKE RECIPE: My pancake recipe requires bleached flour, bags of it. Like bulk bags of malts stacked in along the rails of some startup microbrewery. Like bags of white rice stacked in the aisles of the H Mart out in Catonsville.

Milk. Jugs of milk. Whole or skim makes no difference.

Eggs. Cartons of eggs—12 LARGE WHITE GRADE A EGGS—like the cartons stacked next to the piles of unpaid bills and broken piano keys, hoarded in the hallway of this historic and dilapidated mansion in historic and dilapidated Reservoir Hill.

Across the road, stands another historic and dilapidated mansion, styled Queen Anne revival and patched with thick creeping ivy, colloquially known as the “house of spite.” When Captain Isaac Emerson, the Bromo Seltzer King, divorced his first wife, Emelie Askew Dunn, in 1911, he moved out of 2500 Eutaw Place and built the Emersonian next door. He designed the apartment building to tower over Dunn, blocking her view of Druid Hill Park. That same year, the Captain remarried and moved into the top floor of the Emersonian, where he could look down on his ex-wife in proper cruelty.

I lived in a closet-like space in the back of the third floor, in a wing of the house I assumed was once relegated as servants’ quarters. Maybe I’d have some privacy back there, I thought. Instead, I was distracted by thirtysomething drug addicts and nightmare hippies nesting restively in every nook and cranny of the grand four-story home built in the very late 19th Century, when acoustics must have been either unknown or not taken into consideration. Every turn of a doorknob, every footstep reverberated through the halls like ghosts floating down the Mississippi River. A cat’s sweet meow turned into a hideous caterwaul; a whisper grew to a menacing roar. One morning, a few days after I moved in, I woke to shrieks and howls. One of the tenants in the attic above me had overdosed. The other tenant, a close friend, had just discovered the body.

Typically, after another Groundhog Day at the same garage I worked in when I first left Baltimore in 2009—same garage, same pay, but more responsibility—while driving back in my ’87 Civic Hatchback, which was 87 percent broken, a sense of dread would overwhelm me, sometimes escalating into a panic attack. Not able to fathom returning to the haunted mansion, I’d detour to a sports bar on Charles St. guaranteed to be empty at that time of day, sit in the back booth, order a burger and stare at the wall.

My pancake recipe requires syrup. Maple syrup in plastic with curves.

Rubbermaid. One of those hole-in-the-bucket 32-gallon Rubbermaid trash cans found on my wraparound porch.

One human.

T. invited me to screen videos at the Crown, an upstairs night club bifurcated into two post-Lynchian lodges (the Blue Room and the Red Room) inside the Hyundai Plaza, a former indoor Korean mini-mall four blocks north of Penn Station. I accepted his invitation, but for whatever reason, I felt that simply showing my videos, which were basically vague abstractions, wasn’t enough. So, I’d turn myself into a pancake.

I hit play on the remote control and climbed into the Rubbermaid to cover myself in pancake batter. First the milk, and then the eggs. Then I ripped open a bag of flour, which, from my point of view, looked lovely as the powder fanned out like a chalk dust storm and twinkled under the kaleidoscope of stage lights. A diamond effect.

The Rubbermaid’s bottom thumped against the laminated floor in clumsy rhythm, but rhythm enough to have a shamanistic effect on me. I lost myself in the brain-dead catharsis and confusion of live performance, an act of stupid self-hypnosis. In bullet time, I worked in slow motion while my heart rate accelerated.

Now the maple syrup. The next short video scanned by in seizures of light, dark and oversaturation, at a breezy pace when compared to the weird congealed mess that was slowly oozing and thickening, beginning to cement and cake on my body as I thought, “Why am I doing this?”

Call it performance art, I guess, or comedy, though the mostly seated crowd of 15 to 20 people didn’t seem amused.

The wrong video started playing. I fumbled for the remote control, but my hands were coated in the sluggish mix and had become as dexterous as Mickey mitts. Instead of pressing fast forward, I pressed the off button. The screen dark, Red Room silent, except some scattered coughs, shifting of a bar stool, a draught glass clinking the rail.

The audience is bored. I’m bored too.

My energy level drops, heart rate slows, and my sense of time and space returns. From across the hall, in the Blue Room, a pack of wild animals, humans, are getting carried away with karaoke. The lead singer, if there is one, is buried in a mix of gang vocals, mania and unhinged laughter. They sound happy.

I look up and make eye contact with the audience.

“I wish I was in that room.”

I wander across the hallway, all battered up, and enter that room without an exit plan.

MAN IN THE BOX: One night, I get too drunk at Austin Karaoke and can’t find my credit card. On my way to the restroom, I stop to listen to the clashing waves of voices crash together in the hall.

This place has got a nice set-up. There’s this light switch on the wall. Back from the restroom, I flick the switch and a miniature disco ball starts spinning. Our room’s rigged up with some laser-tag LEDs. The reverb levels are so easy to adjust. There’s this comprehensive laminated songbook, mostly not English, and an oversized remote control, mostly not English, adding to my confusion, an essential component for proper karaoke. The walls are thin. The sectionals are tacky, hard to get my hand up, but I can howl.

I take a seat on a less sticky corner of the sectional. What is it? Leather? Vinyl? Plastic? I’m not good with fabrics and it’s late, dark and I’m still drunk from three minutes ago. I lounge back and enjoy the karaoke singer, my fiancée. She’s doing a rendition of “You Don’t How It Feels” by Tom Petty, and for some reason is wearing a Stetson, shades and has a painted-on mustache. We’re on our first date, though we’ve lived together for a few months and will soon elope. We will repeat this routine at home often in the years to come.

I know I’m not the only one whose hide’s been saved by the gracious spirit of karaoke. Daisuke Inoue, arguably the founder of karaoke, writes: “In Japan, the 70s were not a good time. Companies went bankrupt, many people lost their jobs and many businessmen committed suicide. There were 35,000 suicides in Japan in 1971—the year we started placing our karaoke machines. But as karaoke caught on in Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo and finally throughout Japan, it seemed that people started to enjoy life a little more and were able to forget some of the stress.”

Inoue and I have a couple things in common. Both of us gave up the ghost on drumming: Inoue at 28, me at 30. And both of us see the value in singing along to prerecorded music. The similarities end there. After putting down the drumsticks, Inoue invented the Juke-8, a coin-fed machine with a microphone and a repurposed car stereo that played eight tracks. The amplified diversion spread like wildfire across Japan and made him rich and famous. After I put down the drumsticks, I didn’t invent anything. I didn’t get famous. I didn’t make millions. I started singing karaoke.

If Inoue’s the pusher, then I’m the user. And what does it mean to be a user of karaoke? In a sense, you forfeit the title of musician. There’s something peasant about karaoke singing. At least, Simon Cowell thinks so. Dilettante or not, a karaoke singer reveals as much of their soul as any one of the Three Tenors. Adept singers train themselves when to show and when to shroud their nudity. Amateur karaoke singers are almost always nude and vulnerable.

I learn a lot about people by watching them sing.

This one time, all the karaoke boxes were rented in Providence, and we were almost out the door, when we recognized a voice wobbling from one of the five rooms at the Boombox. Coincidentally, our friend E. was singing “Sussudio” in a suit for some of his friends and family. The wedding party was more than happy to have the six or seven or 11 of us crash their private session and listen in on E.’s strange and incredible rendition of the brassy Phil Collins hit.

I’m relying on words like “incredible” and “strange” because words fail to do justice to his bizarro vocalizations during that number. With tie loosened, brow sweaty, glasses off and eyes closed, he somehow managed to sing ahead of the song lyrically, but behind the beat only by milliseconds. To add more mystery to his rhythmically confounding interpretation, the standard Sussudion melody was nowhere in sight. In its place was an original melody that E. made up on the spot and in a different key. Close but no cigar. Remarkably, he stayed in tune and on pitch, at least within his own musical universe.

In those rooms, there are heroes. One block away from the Mississippi River, we turned a giant and mostly vacant warehouse into a late-night competition, one of my favorite games called “Last Man Standing,” named after the Bruce Willis flick, I guess. Each person takes a turn singing songs until he or she gives up, passes out or drops from exhaustion. Well, J. was that night’s winner. I remember dozing off into a half-dream state while he performed “Break My Stride,” pepping it up with about three times as much zest and bounce as Matthew Wilder’s original. About an hour or so later, J. clocked in at the antique shop and worked a double shift. My hero.

And villains. After a house show near Jamaica Bay in Far Rockaway, M. took his turn with a cocky Lou Reed number, singing “I’m just a gift to the women of this world” with such sincerity and impudence that he shocked himself by his own arrogance, cut the song short and quickly retreated upstairs.

While karaoke affords a certain amount of freedom, some folks like to play the rules. Knowing he’d have to sing “Big Shot” in front of people, R. practiced at his rehearsal space in the weeks leading up to the big gig. When a visitor popped in on him unexpectedly, right at that Transylvanian moment where Billy Joel goes “No-No-No-No-No-No you had to be a beeg shot, deedja?” he yanked the power cord out from the wall, caught red-handed.

Further along the spectrum of karaoke personality types, there are those tricksters who like to sing the most obscure or abstruse song they can pick. These are the people I learn to stay away from. Opacity is for the art set, and one-upmanship has no place in such an egalitarian atmosphere. Deep and long album cuts from Bright Eyes, Tom Waits, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer… my hair stands on end while the voices still echo in my head.

Then there are just some damn good singers. D.’s elegant “You Only Live Twice” (Nancy Sinatra). E.’s heart-rending “Seasons in the Sun” (Terry Jacks). D.’s hilarious “Walk On” (Pantera). Z.’s a capella “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places,” where he rounded up any willing participants randomly off the streets of Toronto. T.’s rambunctious “Sex (I’m A)” (Berlin) that landed her a night in jail. C.’s reckless “Seek & Destroy” (Metallica), at the conclusion of which, instead of a mic drop, she flipped an entire table full of personal belongings and bottlenecks over. Show’s over, folks.

My go-to pick is “Big Time” (Peter Gabriel). No clue what that says about me.

I prefer a private room to karaoke night at a bar. You can cram a lot more songs in without having to wait around until your name comes up on the list. You hear fewer versions of “Creep” and “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On.” You hear your friends sing over and over again. You get to know people.

In the box, songs are cheap—spontaneous performances come and go like shots of rail liquor. There’s no stage, no celebrity, no pressure, no performer, no audience, no gatekeeper, no list, no control. You can really let your guard down.

Like a town hall meeting, a good group of singers can really work up an atmosphere and pepper it with bona fide American values: Individuality, expression, democracy, freedom, flagrancy, profligacy, rowdiness, lawlessness, boorishness.

Before an energetic exchange, before it’s filled up like monkeys in a barrel, I like to get a good look at an empty room, because an empty room reminds me that karaoke translates to “empty orchestra” in English. Emptiness implies possibility. Something close to the beginning of things, the eternal.

NO MORE PIN THE TAIL: About one week after my pancake revelation, I was on the road with A. I didn’t mind playing my set, but truthfully, I was waiting for the after party. Immediately after our performances, A. and I would host an impromptu karaoke night with the scattered remains of the audience. This would last as long as the venue would tolerate it. Only twice did we break the karaoke routine, and on both occasions, we were severely punished by the gods of karaoke.

In Akron, Ohio, we decided to play party games with supplies purchased from a dollar store. That was the first and last time I will ever play “pin the tail on the donkey” with a basement full of drunk punks.

In Boston, Santa Claus showed up to the record store unexpectedly. While I tried my best to engage him in a holiday edition of karaoke—aka Christmas Caroling—Santa wasn’t having it. He lifted up his suit and showed me his gun, mumbled about how he used to be a homicide detective, and growled, “Trust me, you don’t want to hear this Santa sing. It ain’t pretty.”

Instead of belting out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” he threatened to sue everyone in the room if nobody confessed to hiring him or explained to him why the hell he was there. Since nobody had hired him or knew why he was there, he stuck around a little too long. At one point, he led my friend into the alley for a private interrogation. When my friend returned 20 minutes later, alive and unscathed, I sighed in relief. After bad Santa finally hightailed it, the record store owner worked me into a corner where he pummeled me with hours of factoids swimming around Phish. So, no karaoke in Boston that night.

The thing is, it’s a crazy world, with ex-cops in Santa suits lost in their delusions showing up unexpectedly in some jam band dungeon. It’s not as if karaoke is any crazier than the real world. It’s just more contained, controlled. A self-quarantined form of chaos.

After our two mishaps, A. and I decided it best not to let an evening go by without a karaoke session. If anything, karaoke served as a sort of buffer, a way of emceeing social connections and filtering out unwanted signals.

The audience was particularly unruly in Atlanta. The promoter, a young bard with a beard, could hardly contain the crowd of strangers that had gathered in his living room, which was lined to the ceiling with smart books and Seinfeld DVDs. The strangers were not in his living room to see live music but to seek and do drugs. A. and I didn’t have any drugs, but we did have “Cheeseburgers in Paradise,” a song which we sang a few dozen times in a row. That helped clear the druggies out, leaving the remaining handful of partygoers to do what they had really come there to do: Sing karaoke. We were charmed.

At rock bottom, some people find god. Or sports. I don’t know why, but I found karaoke.

Last call at Long John’s Pub in Remington, and it’s my turn to sing. My Honda Civic parked out front between frozen mounds of shoveled snow. I choose “Fightin’ Side of Me” and give it my best. The bar cheers. The house lights go up. A month later, I will leave Baltimore and move to Texas. And while geography can’t change perspective, karaoke can.


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