The View from Away: The pride and joy of karaoke

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Recently I overheard my son use “karaoke” as a code word for “lame.” But here’s the thing: Bob and his prep school friends are wrong. So was I for years.

Karaoke was an alcohol-fueled joke, a pastime for wannabe Sinatras, Billy Idols and Lady Gagas. Until the night my writers’ group dragged me out to experience it first hand. That’s when I discovered the dirty little secret of karaoke: despite (partly because of) all the “spreading the news,” White Weddings and Bad Romances, it’s one of the great audience participation sports. You can embarrass yourself for the price of a PBR. A club soda with lime if you’re a lightweight like me. Or watch others embarrass themselves, as I did that first night.

Doing stand-up, I logged untold hours onstage. I even did some dinner theater, so I’m no stranger to singing onstage. The difference is, when you’re doing stand-up, you’re you; in a musical, you’re a character. When you sing a song made famous by Elvis Presley, the Beatles or Mick Jagger, you’re standing in the shoes of giants. They’re great. You’re not. You know it, and so does everybody else (no wonder so many karaoke singers have had a few pops first). That knowledge and the hubris to think anybody cared kept me off the stage that first night. A guy in my group did “Gimme Two Steps,” though, and even though he was no Ronnie Van Zandt, he seemed to have a great time. The hook was set. I returned alone a few nights later.

I think my first song was something by Journey, whose lead singer’s high end is audible only to dogs. A stroke of genius for a baritone. Not to put to fine a point on it, I sucked. I had sucked when I started in stand-up, too. I kept at stand-up because it was a calling. I kept at karaoke because I needed a release. I was writing my graduate thesis, an emotional archaeological dig though a life I hadn’t been that crazy about experiencing the first time. Knowing I had a way of blowing off emotional steam got me through a lot of writing days.

My first karaoke home was a tavern in the Old Port. The manager, an erstwhile hockey goalie and referee with a freakish gift for hip-hop made me and my club soda welcome. The bartenders, the wise, wise bartenders, complimented my singing. I discovered Barenaked Ladies (I’m old; sue me). I rediscovered the singles scene, as a spectator this time. Seeing how little it has changed was both chilling and entertaining, but I wanted to sing, not watch the mating ritual through a keyhole. So reluctantly I left in search of grounds more fertile for singing than, well, fertility.

I wandered, learned a few lessons. Sound systems matter. The microphone should be louder than the karaoke track. Karaoke lyrics tend to be written phonetically by people who don’t speak English. If you’re doing karaoke in a sports bar, you’d better love “Sweet Caroline.”

One day, on the way to my daughter’s riding lesson, I drove by a sign: “Sat.: Karaoke Contest.” Contest? A chance to sing and compete? Who do I have to kill? When I showed up ready to kick ass and take requests, I learned I had to wait for the next contest, but I had found karaoke Portland’s major leagues. Grownups who were serious about their singing, maybe too serious. Some brought cases full of karaoke CDs in case the disc jockey didn’t have their song.

Unlikely. The DJ claimed over 140,000 songs, so he probably has a pretty good selection of Gregorian chants. The regulars looked at me a little sideways until I proved myself on stage, but they have turned out to be the most accommodating of all the places I’ve been.

Not that I interact with them. At heart, I’m still a stand-up. We’re not joiners. The stand-up world was a loose aggregation of complainers and chronic malcontents who lived in their moms’ basements and viewed the world and each other with suspicion. Those are my people, not a group with the generosity of spirit to support enthusiastically singers who appear to be either tone deaf or stone deaf.

Another carryover from my stand-up days is the ego/anonymity dichotomy. I feel compelled to perform, but dread attention (it’s crazy I wasn’t more successful in show business). If there were a curtain onstage, I’d stand behind it. Doing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy,” I often face the wall during the 25-bar guitar solo. I stare at the floor and lift an arm half-heartedly as retreat from the applause.

Yes. The applause. Not just the polite “hey, he did it” kind. I figure the only explanation is, despite a reclusive persona, when a person sings “Roadhouse Blues” better than Jim Morrison ever did, there’s no disguising the talent. Or self-delusion.

I always get those two words mixed up.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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