The note read “I lost my voice. You’re number three.”
Frank, the k-jay smiled his broad toothy grin as he sashayed back up to the stage. Gone were the days of him shooting me a look laced with small steel blades. Last time he had hugged me as we began waving goodbye. Christmas lights twinkled in the background and in the foreground a girl shimmied and swayed her hips while rapping along with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. I sipped my grapefruit sparkler and waited. A group of young hipsters made the space between the stage and my table into a dance floor, letting their hips show solidarity with the performer. In my hands, I held the fat book of songs listed by artist, thumbing my way from AC/DC to Yes! Hoots and hollers commenced as the rapper’s song died down. She welcomed the next performer, a regular named Chrissy, up onto the stage.
“Frank, what did you pick for me this time, hmm?”
Her face congealed into an expression of intensity accented by dramatic eyebrows. She dipped down into the low notes and scooped up to match the high notes of this Kelly Clarkson standard. Behind her, lights flashed as if in collusion. She stood her ground, looked out at the audience, at us, to the blue screen perched high above the plot of tables filled by an office holiday party, singing along.
A friendly face showed her ID to the bouncer, waved and waltzed into the main room. Elizabeth arrived hours after our celebratory lunch led into this celebratory evening outing.
She asked, “Do you know what you’re going to sing yet?”
“I put in a song already. I’ve never sung it here before…”
Kelly Clarkson finished her song and as the audience cheered, she bellowed, “Coco, come on up!”
I scooted my way to the stage, two parts indecision and one part sheer moxie as strains of Lindsay Buckingham on guitar began to wash over me. Verse one into “The Chain” down solid and then came the guitar solo, a mere 23 bar measure break.
Let’s just say this chain is not meant for karaoke.
A few more friends, Kenny and Alan, found their way into the room and the party officially had kicked off. As soon as I saw Alan enter the bar, I walked the song request up to Frank while a man sang a spirited version of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” Followed by another regular, an older Asian man best known for selecting Old Blue Eyes songs. Tonight he opted for a John Lennon tribute and sang “Imagine.”
Before long, Alan and “Coco” meandered their way onto stage and into the arms of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time.” His rich tenor welcomed my mezzo voice as we hit the chorus in harmony and musical gesticulations. At the close of the song, we began whispering “Time after time” all well rehearsed from years of practice. Beyond the gratification of time spent with friends came the joy of surrendering to a melody and then working into a harmony. There is something so scintillating about singing.
In a time quite far from the present and not so distant in the past, this stage had been my stomping ground. Walking to the bathroom, I waved my hellos to regulars seated at the far end of the bar away from the people we lovingly had called “the tourists.” Back in the day, we would get off work and head over to karaoke, knowing if we showed up early enough we could sneak in a few extra songs before the hipsters arrived. Tiffany would croon her soulful selections of jazzy R&B while the other Tiffany would ready her latest Chaka Khan performance of “To the Limit.” Frank would sometimes grab the mic and sing.
We knew Frank to be very discriminating in his affections. If he liked you and your performance, he might turn on the “flames” to the sides of the stage, small orange-hued banners that lit up from inside and would sizzle up from small fans at their base, just like flames. If he really liked you and the song’s rhythm made people want to move, he would turn on the strobe light and pulsing colored lights above. He could just as easily try to help the inebriated work their way back into a tempo that had gone awry or roll his eyes at the group of girls who only knew two lines in the chorus of “Real Slim Shady” and fell mute the rest of the song. Frank is the k-jay king.
And in this kingdom of karaoke, there was a little bit of everything. A twenty-something shyly walked on stage and stayed glued to his small plot of stage, eyes never leaving the television prompter. His version of “You Say It Best When You Say Nothing at All” really said it all. Adele seemed to be the singer most emulated in a place usually clogged by Journey and 80s songs. Two hipsters sang “I’ll Be There” and mocked the song but showed singing chops even in their mockery. Kenny described singer A as a “karaoke shark” and sure enough, her version of “Rolling in the Deep” later on got the bar’s attention. A couple sang “I’ve Got You Babe” in a pitchy duet with a force of confidence.
After the bust of “The Chain” earlier on, I held up two other songs and let Frank decide. Coco made a reappearance on stage in the guise of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” and much later, because Frank is the quintessential k-jay, was called up for a song I hadn’t turned in but he remembered as the other song I’d been considering.
Up, onto the stage Coco became Ann Wilson as a synthesizer streamed overhead. Sinking into the first verse of “Alone,” I became the coquette toying with the heartstrings of the audience and then in time for the chorus, I let go of the audience, wailing. By the end and the final bridge of “alones” I found myself happily alone as I do every time the song nears this point- my voice, the synthesizer, the pull of a five letter word punching the air and then slowly tapering into a ribbon blown away by the quieting wind.
We noshed on gluten free gingerbread cake with chili infused chocolate frosting. We drank another round or three before the evening culminated in friends going separate directions. A taco truck emerged from the darkness out front and my rumbling belly soon found satiation in a shared chicken burrito. Onto “Strangelove” by Depeche Mode and Alan’s opus of “Open Arms” only later to hear Alan say he’d been “out-Journeyed” by a man who blew us away with his rendition of “When You Love a Woman.”
Children sing without the pretension of perfection and at some point this came naturally for most of us. Under the guise of Girl Scouts or Disney films, even tone-deaf singing was smiled upon. It occurs to me now, that beyond church or temple, the shower or the car, there is no forum for letting a song rip right out of you acceptably. Try singing out the lyrics to “Deejay Got Us Falling in Love Again” when you’re walking down the sidewalk in the financial district. You might get a few or more likely a lot of sour looks.
In the karaoke underworld, it’s a different story.
You go for the gusto because you can. You check your inhibitions at the door. You sing the sad F.M. song because it’s what your soul is beckoning to hear aloud. You can almost hear the karaoke stage raise its anthem: “Give me your pitchy, your tone-deaf, your passionate. Give me your jilted auditions, unrealized dreams and bad days. Give into the moment, the music and melodic imperative.” Sometimes that verve of karaoke, that joy of living in the moment translates to the kitchen. Sometimes, you hanker for something that’s equal parts pragmatic and party-inducing but doesn’t really belong on a typical dinner plate. And in those moments, consider making meatballs in blackberry sage glaze, while listening to something that gets you singing along with great abandon.