House Party (Singing West Virginia, #27)

The West Virginia stop was one of those that was on the way to nothing; a two-day drive to put a checkmark by a state. After months of chatting online and sharing schedules, Joe waits for at the Elks Lodge #198 in Parkersburg – so were his assistant, Kristy, and his mother. He and his mom wore matching blue Joe-E-Okie T-shirts; she had no teeth. Not to worry, though, as her dentist was simply on vacation, but it did require her to pass on the corn on the cob that came with the steak dinner. Every Friday is steak dinner and Joe treated both of us – he had already promised my dinner was on him, and Dave benefitted from the fact that his girlfriend decided not to order one back to the house after all (she was home watching their 8-month old). Dave, Joe, and I ordered it rare, and mom got medium. The dinner also came with a baked potato as big as a house; luckily, the Lodge ran out by the time our dinners were served, so I “only” got half of one, splitting a spud with mom. The four of us sat together in a booth and exchanged small talk during bites. Sometimes the talk grew, though, as we learned about mom’s ex, Joe’s time in the Marines, and the juggling of blended families. A “Don’t Tread on Me” sign hung on the wall above us.

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Time for steak dinner!

The corn was a bit mushy but still farm sweet, and the steak was cooked just right, but was about half fat; Joe complained about it to no one in particular, then cleared our plates and started the show. He had gotten there early to set up, so that he could have dinner with us.

Joe opens and Kristy follows with matching CCR tunes. Kristy normally opens with Crimson and Clover, and Lodi is her second song, followed by Cathy’s Clown, but she mixed up her typical order so that they could match up nice. Two lights and a disco ball make a crazy display of color throughout the room. Shows here get to be about 8-12 singers long (I think this includes them) so no matter what, the KJs get to sing a lot, too. It’s pretty much a steady string of regulars every night here, though last week for Joe’s birthday there was a larger crowd – 21 singers that night. The Elk’s Lodge simply doesn’t ever get packed, they say and that’s fine by me, though I end up singing a lot more than usual. Coming up with songs can be challenging at times, and when there are a lot of choices to make it calls for extra brain power and creativity that I simply don’t always have.

First song up I choose Rhiannon; I sing a lot of Fleetwood Mac, but this is a first for me. Mom tells me I sound better than Stevie Nicks when I sit down. A huge compliment for sure, but extra special for me, as in high school I was tempted to get a heart tattooed on my ankle with “S.N.” written inside. One of the many dreams I had back then I’m glad never manifested themselves.

After a couple of rounds of singing, Joe buys me a shot. He first offers a “little beer” which I decline because it has cream as a float to look like the foam – I don’t like dairy with my booze. Then he keeps recommending shots with Red Bull in them; I tell him I can’t do caffeine; plus, I think to myself that Red Bull tastes like cough syrup – I hate that shit. I tell him that straight Jaegy is fine, and no, not in a bomb (that means with Red Bull). He orders the shots, and we clink glasses at the table together. I take mine down in a few gulps, as I’m not one to slam anything. Later on, Becky the social manager of the Elk’s Lodge offers to buy me a drink, but I say I really shouldn’t have any more alcohol tonight. She seems disappointed, but I was already a beer, a G&T, and Joe’s shot in, and was staring at a full G&T. Linda Lou, the bartender, pours a stiff drink and sings a mean Susan Tedeschi in a perfectly gravely voice. Joe says she sings a lot better when she’s drunk, but I have a hard time imagining her any better.

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Joe, me, and Dave under the crazy Elks Lodge lights

Joe records me for his YouTube channel and it’s time to decide on a song. Not sure whether to play it safe and choose more Fleetwood Mac or go big; Dave encourages big and Somebody to Love is recorded. During the song, I sense every missed note, every missed opportunity to amp it up a bit. My scat at the end feels off, and I’m painfully aware that I have no stage presence during instrumental breaks. Still, I have a good time. I awkwardly wave at the camera when it’s all done. The patrons cheer and the one black man yells “Who Let the Dogs Out?” which seems to be his signature phrase for a job well done. His friends try to get him to actually sing the song, but he says no way – his amazing voice is reserved for the likes of Tracey Chapman and R. Kelly.

Even though the show started out super slow, it fills by 9:30 – we’re at about 15 singers during the peak singing time, which is a pretty nice balance between getting to sing and just hanging out. Many others are here just to have a cheap drink and hang out with friends. At 11pm, we stop and the traditional Elk 11 o’clock toast is conducted to honor all absent members. After the break, someone sings Welcome to the Jungle. Joe leads the song by saying he won’t come knocking if there’s a jungle, then mutters something about the carpet matching the drapes, until he settles on the line “It better be a hardwood floor.”

Joe and I close with the duet, Stop Dragging My Heart Around — another Stevie Nicks first for me. We listen to once out front while he smokes to remember it; I don’t think I’ve heard that tune in at least a decade. Normally Joe opens and closes the show, but this time I get to share the honors with him to end this night. We do OK, all things considered. At a tad after midnight, there are no more songs to choose; everyone hugs me goodbye or shakes my hand and wishes me well. I hope these people all fare well, too. They made the long drive totally worth it.

The basics:

  • Location: Elks Lodge #198, Parkersburg, WV
  • Miles traveled: 554 Miles
  • Songs sung: Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac), Like the Weather (10,000 Maniacs), It’s Raining Men (Weather Girls), Somebody to Love (Queen), I’ll Be There (Jackson 5), Walkin’ After Midnight (Patsy Cline), Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty).

The Laker Club (Singing New Jersey, #26)

The evening was more about reconnection than karaoke. An odd group of folks, bonded mostly by our shared high school experience, growing up in a small town in New Jersey. A place that thrived on strong community, which stifled me as a teen, but helped me build a foundation of loyalty and commitment to those who are a part of my direct and indirect circles today.

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Our Middle School, where the Principal wouldn’t allow us to wear shorts until it hit a million degrees, and my friend Amy got sent home for wearing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt.

 

Our gathering was more like the Breakfast Club than a group of friends getting together. We didn’t share the same class in any sense of the word – then or now. Two long-standing couples, one covered in tattoos and dealing with grandparenthood, the other more clean-cut with their first going to college. A mayor and a man helping his family rebuild after the death of the father. A pharmacist and an older sister who was proclaimed “the best baby sitter in the world” by another at the table. Someone who came from hundreds of miles away, dropping back into our lives unexpectedly, after only being in them briefly way back when. All brought together through the past, with a little present thrown in.

The KJ wanders over to our table and passes out microphones as he cued up Piano Man – a song typically seen as the death of karaoke. Perhaps it was to the rest of the bar (my condolences to the other patrons), but for us it was a bond. As he accompanied us on his harmonica, we all began to sing. Those who shy away from the microphone and the stage in general, and those of us who embrace it. I have a vague memory of Senior year when we all got together one week before graduation for some random event. The class musician played that song as good as Billy Joel ever did and we sang together. Never did I think it would happen again. A repeat of the past, with thirty years in between to shift us all so that no moment can ever be the same.

Brenda and Peter
“Son, can you play me a memory…”
Marie and Susan
“…And you’ve got us feeling alright.”

Dear 1980s,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Wednesday night in a bar because of where we grew up or who we love. We have a few common threads, but we think you’re crazy to have us recreate who we were. That would be to see us in the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions. As people who refused to grow.

But what we found out is that we have changed, but also stayed the same. That each of us is a singer, and a mayor, and a baby sitter, a griever and someone lost to distant memory. What do you think of that?

Sincerely,

The Laker Club

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Almost all of us that night.

 

Thanks to everyone who came out and made the evening such a memorable one.

The basics:

  • Location: Rockaway River Barn, Rockaway, NJ
  • Miles Traveled: 307
  • Songs sung: Long Train Running (Doobie Brothers), Piano Man (Billy Joel), Don’t Stop Believing (Journey)

Location, location, location (Singing Ohio, #17)

Happy Canada Day! I order a large Labatt and sit at the bar. Everyone calls everyone “honey” here –customers and the servers alike. It’s clear that once again I am walking into a group of regulars, or at least people who know each other from around this tiny town. Although we are only 15 miles outside of downtown Cleveland, it feels like the middle of nowhere – my friend says we are in a “small historic town” as opposed to a suburb.

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This sign does not belong in a suburb.

The bar is also in a weird sort of limbo; it’s not located on Main Street along with the rest of the commercial establishments, but in a house in a residential neighborhood. As one person walked in, he said he “didn’t know whether to knock or ring the door bell” in order to come in.

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Would you knock or ring the doorbell?
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Home, sweet, home.

Throughout the night, I make conversation with another solo patron; he’s originally from Italy, and has the accent to back that up. He also lived in Switzerland for a time, but says that this is the best place in the world to live. I silently disagree. After I talk to him about my reason for being here (“Very unusual,” was his reaction), the Italian and I talk about singer-songwriters; he thinks a good song has a good story to it and tries to get me to sing Piano Man or something by Harry Chapin. I agree those songs are excellent stories, but try to figure out a way to tell him there’s no way I would sing any of that because they are karaoke show-stoppers. Instead, I tell him those songs are out of my range and deflect the conversation by throwing Bob Dylan into our conversation as another amazing singer-songwriter. I don’t sing him, either. The Italian says he doesn’t sing himself, but likes to listen to karaoke because “Karaoke is homey. It’s relaxed and comfortable. Not like a night club…homey is the only word I can think of.”

As a small group in their 50s/60s come in, a loud woman in the party yells “We’re here!” and my heart warms a little. That group never ends up singing, but does quietly sing along with most songs. Two young couples sit at the bar alongside me. They get carded as one of the young women asks, in a squeaky voice, for a “flat” beer, meaning no foam. Her friends mock her terminology. Both the younger and older group talk about their high school days. The loud woman went to high school with the KJ; everyone here has probably known everyone else since they were born. Though there is a mix of ages, the music selection is mostly older stuff. A young man sporting a backwards baseball cap and reddish blonde beard sings Frank Sinatra. A clean-cut skinny guy sings The Beatles. A young woman dressed fancier than the rest sings old Billy Joel. Some crooners get up to sing standards as well – songs actually from their time. I sing a song by Queen released in 1980 – one of the most modern songs of the night. When I make my way to the bar, I see that someone stole my pen. I announce that fact to no one in particular when I sit back down, but turn to the Italian to see if he has any information. He’s no help. The bartender tracks my pen down for me and returns it from her co-worker who was using it to close out tabs.

“Here you go, honey.”

The basics:

  • Location: Eastland Inn Restaurant and Tavern, Berea, OH
  • Miles traveled: 375
  • Songs sung: Run to You (Bryan Adams, in honour of Canada Day), Sex and Candy (Marcy Playground), Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Queen)

Family reunion (Singing Michigan, #14)

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Friendly people and food out front…

I wasn’t sure if I belonged. For the longest time, I was the only white person there. No one made me think I shouldn’t be there, but I felt I was intruding – that I was crashing someone else’s party. The scene was both a large party and an intimate gathering – a family reunion. When I went up to the KJ to request a song, I felt like I had to explain myself; I said I was from Portland, OR. I babbled that I had been in Detroit less than an hour and was already loving the place. Then, I sat down and wondered if I was ever going to get a chance to sing – so many people getting up and sharing their amazing voices with the crowd. The KJ did call my name eventually, and when she did she let everyone know I was new in town; I received a warm welcome. Then I sang, and people clapped along, and at the end, just like they did for everyone. I was another singer in the group, another person enjoying good music in the sunshine.

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….friendly people and singing out back.

I only sang that one time; I was enjoying myself too much to sing again. I shared a table with people who welcomed me to Detroit, then left to get out of the sun; there I talked with some others who found shade at the side of the building, but were still able to enjoy the show.

So many words describe this day. Magic. Happiness. Comfort. Joy. A large gathering of people in a back parking lot, singing, dancing, laughing. Amateurs like me baking in the sun, while most knew better and brought umbrellas or event tents. People setting up and settling down, because they were there to stay. I went for a walk, then came back to hear the music. When I left again after 8, they were still there. I want to believe they are always there.

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I love me a good street mural.

The basics:

  • Location: Bert’s Marketplace, Detroit, Michigan
  • Miles traveled: 316
  • Songs sung: Still the One (Orleans)

Do it now or forever wish you had (Singing Wisconsin, #7)

Eau Claire put on its best show. The weather was perfect at dusk. Streets were lined with art and jazz music was piping in through corner speakers making the whole town feel like a living room. I romanticized the idea of bundling up and heading out to a bar to watch a Packers game in the middle of winter. I could have walked the street all night and part of me wanted to instead of sing that night. I was afraid to go into Scooters, the local gay bar. I was afraid because I wasn’t sure if I belonged, if it was right for me to enter a sacred space so close in time to the Orlando shooting.

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Street art in Eau Claire

I’m nervous as I enter the bar, but this journey is a time for risks. Pat, a grizzled older woman is bartending. She’s the kind of woman who seems damn tough and probably is, but underneath, there’s a softness that draws you to her. She pours me a Spotted Cow, a local lager and I sit at the bar alone. Then Jake, the KJ, introduces himself by warmly shaking my hand. They ask what brings me to their place and I tell them about my journey. As Pat’s shift was ending (she works days, and is thankful for it), she placed her hand on my shoulder and wished me good luck.

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“Do It Now Or Forever Wish You Had.”

There are peanuts on the bar and a show starring David Duchovny on both televisions. Game 6 – possibly the final Game of the NBA season – is nowhere to be found. A group of men occupy one corner of the bar. Around 9 the place begins to fill;  A large group of women come in, order drinks, and adjourn to the patio. A couple pulls up stools next to me, engaged in focused conversation. I’m hurting even though no one else around me seems to be. There’s an air of comfort, not fear or sadness. It’s OK to be here. People strike up conversations with me about allergies, the weather, and recent breakups.

The singing begins and everyone but me seems to be a regular. I’m uncharacteristically nervous as I get up to sing my first song, but the negative emotions wash away as soon as I begin. I feel at ease. Later, a man so drunk he stumbles up to the mic (stumbles all over the bar, really), tries to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Jake wanders over to where I sit to let me know he does this every week. Throughout the night, people get up to do their thing, but no one claps afterwards except for me. This seems out of place with such a friendly environment. My dollar bill is the only one I see in the tip jar. Everyone just doing their own thing I guess. Some here for the singing, others for the company, maybe others for the stiff pours. I have no idea if there are thoughts of Orlando; I don’t hear any, and everyone seems happy to be there, among family.

The basics:

  • Location: Scooters Bar, Eau Claire, WI
  • Miles traveled: 330
  • Songs sung: Heart of Glass (Blondie), Long Way Home (Supertramp)