Lazy Sunday (Singing Colorado, #43)

We went on an urban hike to get to the karaoke venue, making sure to stop at a different watering hole every mile to break up the exercise with decadence — not a bad way to get a 4.5-mile stroll in on a Sunday. I need to figure out how to incorporate these sorts of outings when I return to Portland (who’s in?).

By the time we arrived in downtown Denver, the lines to the clubs were long and the roof-top bars were packed. But as luck would have it, our destination was the emptiest place around. Apparently karaoke isn’t a huge draw around these parts.

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It’s hopping in here!

The lack of crowd suits us just fine, and we continue our conversations and laid-back evening in the comfort of a cheesy faux-leather banquette. The karaoke set-up, however, implied that there are nights when things get a little crazy here. First, when I got on stage to sing my first song, I found the microphone firmly taped to the stand. Therefore, I sung with a fixed mic for the first time ever. It wasn’t as hard as I imagined; in fact I liked it quite a bit. I’ll probably give it a go again if I can figure out how to raise and lower the thing; it just happened to be at a great height here :-).

Second, there was a a commercially printed sign listing all the rules of karaoke here, including: (1) Don’t drop the mic (pretty damn difficult to do now); (2) Only put in one song at a time (the KJ said this quite a bit while we were there); (3) Duets count as a solo, and; (4) No line cuts for anyone for any reason (among those listed: showing body parts, having a great personality, a birthday, and, my personal favorite, going through a divorce). I’ve seen rule signs before, and have heard KJs run through their rules before, but this was the most extensive list I’ve witnessed.

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Dig the artwork in this place!

Then one guy complained about his place in the rotation and the KJ basically called him out on it and threatened to get him tossed if he didn’t shut it; it didn’t seem like this was the first time she needed to give that lecture (He stayed). After a couple of hours the crowd grew, which was our cue to leave. Maybe the rule sheet would need to be busted out more as the night continued into a true “scene”. No matter — an evening with a childhood friend and her husband is the perfect way to experience a state; karaoke was just a bonus.

The basics:

  • Location: El Charrito, Denver, CO
  • Miles traveled: 523 (including the walk!)
  • Songs sung: Heaven Knows (Donna Summer), Wonder (Natalie Merchant), Edge of Seventeen (Stevie Nicks)
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Seriously, the artwork in here is amazing.

 

Celebration (Singing Texas, #41)

August 30th. My dear friend Roman died 21 years ago today. One friend posts Dead Flowers by the Stones on his Facebook wall in memory, and I give it a listen as I sit in my hotel room in Mineral Wells, Texas. Twenty-one years ago, we buried the CD that bears the tune at the base of a young olive tree at Stanford as a tribute to our lost friend. A friend reports that it’s now bearing fruit. When I saw it five years ago, I was surprised it was not only still alive, but thriving as it stands in anonymity; I’m not sure if we intentionally left the tree unmarked since we never asked permission to plant it on campus, or a plaque was simply an oversight on our part. Dave and I throw our stuff into the car, and make our way to see others who loved Roman, which seems only fitting, though entirely coincidental. Their uncle died unexpectedly the day before, so they warn it will be “chaos.”

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Welcome to Texas!

We have dinner together, but previous obligations and the late night prevent them from going out to sing. We make it to another friend’s place through the horrible Austin construction traffic; an accident is slowing things down further, and I see a bloodied man being propped up by an emergency crew, a stretcher on its way. Arriving safe and sound, we cut through the wet grass of his apartment complex to get to the bar. On our way, Dave gets a text that says his mother in the hospital. I get a little panicky about what the hell is going on.

Canary Roost is large, divey, friendly, and cool; it’s great to be back where there’s no smoking inside. I’ve been tired all day, fighting allergies and/or a cold and the fresh air on the walk and the clean AC inside feel good. The KJ is flocked by regulars who hug her as they walk in as she’s setting up; she kicks off the show by announcing the drink specials, then launches into Major Tom. Throughout the night, she wanders around from table to table during songs, doing bright green shots and socializing with the patrons. People sit next to her at the controls to find a song, even giving some a pre-listen before committing to a choice. I bet I’m the only unknown person here, but that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. I’m called when it’s my turn, and kept in the rotation even when I didn’t put in a song in advance.

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Smokers need to stay outside. The logo looks like a not-quite-right Peep.

It only seems fitting that I sing the song I haven’t been able to even listen to yet without crying — I still miss Molly too much. It’s not a good song, but that’s not the point. It’s not really a grieving song either, but its young melodramatics allow me to belt it out with fear. This song was her song to sing when she still could, and now it’s my turn. I smile as others sing along from their tables; apparently it’s not such a bad choice for the general public after all. When I’m done, people clap as they have been for everyone, but tells me I “Nailed it” and I overhear another say it was “Haunting.” I may or may not add it to my occasional rotation. I choke up as I sit back down, but feel a bit more cleansed and whole after my emotional release. Dave’s mom texts him to say she’s OK.

I thought I was going to be able to stick around for a karaoke game where you put your name into a jar and pull out someone else’s. Then, for that person, you choose a song by a “K” artist and give it to the KJ and it will be a surprise to them until they get up on stage. However, the third round of singers grew long and I was too sleepy and drained to continue. At quarter to one, I went up to the KJ and apologized for not being able to make it for the final rotation of the night; she apologized back for all the new singers. I told her about my quest and that her show marked off state #41, and she said she was “honored” I chose her bar. A few other KJs have said something like this before; I wonder if they think I end up in a location for reasons other than convenience. As I wave goodbye, she lets me know that I would have sung Celebration by Kool and the Gang.

The basics:

  • Location: Canary Roost, Austin, TX
  • Miles traveled: 456
  • Songs sung: Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat, and Tears), Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus), Heart of Glass (Blondie)

Symbolic Passage (Singing Oklahoma, #40)

There was nothing special about the bar or the singing in Oklahoma, but my time there brought me two milestones. Though I have eight more states to sing in on this trip, I have now officially sung in the 48 continental states in my lifetime. I have also spent at least one night in 49 of the 50 states since I’ve been an adult (You’re in my sights, Alaska!).

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I sang here.

So, here’s to Oklahoma! A rather unremarkable state in my eyes, but one that brings me to semi-completion of my goals.

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Sexist humor abounds in these parts (this is the sign to the restrooms).

The basics:

  • Location: Nancy’s 57th Street Lighthouse, Oklahoma City, OK
  • Miles traveled: 780!
  • Songs sung: Too Much Time on My Hands (Styx), Please Mister, Please (Olivia Newton-John)

 

Not a creature was stirring… (Singing Tennessee, #39)

It’s pretty darn smoky in the double-wide trailer that serves as a bar off the beaten path of Nashville. Cans and bottles of beer are the only drinking options, and the food menu is a few microwavable items scrawled on a piece of paper stapled to the wall. Cash only. Karaoke started an hour ago, but the only patron here is a trucker with a beautiful, deep voice singing country music ballads. It’s unclear how long he’s been there, but his presence seems natural as if he’s been there for a while. He sits next to the stringy KJ with long hair, and the two of them lean over the computer monitor, debating on what song to choose next. The trucker sings a couple more as we’re getting our beers and settling in, and asks if it’s OK to do one more before he has to hit the road again; he’s got 15 more minutes on his break and “singing is a good way to keep this trucker happy and sane.” Unlike him, we have all the time in the world, so he entertains us with some Waylon Jennings. Then the bartender sings something from a lesser-known country artist and the trucker asks him about the artist. They discuss him and other good country options to try in the future.

It’s clear the trucker isn’t in a hurry to hit the road again, and so he goes back to the stage and asks us if we knew Wildfire; two of us do. He lets us know somewhat apologetically that he’s never sung it before, and it shows a little, but he chose it because the song “makes me weep like a baby when I’m alone in my cab.” As I listen along, I realize the tune is also more unfamiliar to me as I would have thought.

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The lonely trailer

I decide I’m ready to sing, and the trucker sticks around to listen, then shakes our hands, and leaves. His hand is at least twice as big as mine, but his grip still gentle. The only ones left are the three of us and the people who work there. I mention to the KJ that he should sing more, but he said that last night was slow as well, and he had to sing a lot, so tonight he’ll be taking it easy. This leaves me and the bartender as the only ones singing. I put in another song, and follow up with another while I’m up there – songs that aren’t a usual part of my rotation. I fumble through parts of them out of unfamiliarity but it doesn’t matter at all. Slow nights lend themselves to slow songs and experimentation.

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Keeping up with the theme of the place.

An hour later and still no one else is here. A group of three women did come in while I was singing and exchanged words with the bartender – no idea what it was about, but Dave heard him say “That’ll be a thirty-five hundred dollar fine if you do that,” as they walked out the door.

I promised a friend I would sing Barry Manilow while I was on this trip, and tonight seemed like the only time I would actually live up to my word. I sat on the stool, and then apologized into the mic for what I was about to do. I sang, and laughed as both Dave and Steve filmed me for proof and probably later blackmailing purposes. A couple of others walked in during that song, of course. While it wasn’t pretty, it was good fun, and I always feel better when I follow through on what I say, no matter how small or silly. As we get up to leave a bit later, one of the patrons is standing out on the balcony. He waves goodbye and compliments my “bold song choice” for the evening without knowing the back story. I thought about explaining myself; instead I thanked him as we drove away.

The basics:

  • Location: Santa’s Pub, Nashville, TN
  • Miles traveled: 424
  • Songs sung: Desperado (The Eagles), The Theme From Mahogany (Diana Ross), The Name of the Game (ABBA), Weekend in New England (Barry Manilow).

Why we sing (Singing Arkansas, #38)

Before starting this trip, I knew there were karaoke contests because I’ve seen signs advertising them on bar marquees: “Karaoke Competition Tonight: Win $50!” or “Sing and win $100 every month. See inside for details.” But I didn’t know that there were serious competitions – such as the Karaoke World Championship – yet here I was, in Arkansas, meeting the Champion from 2014, Anthony Montius Magee.

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Coach Scott and Anthony, sporting his WKC medal.

We had been in touch online for a couple of months, and the flow of conversation always seemed natural. Then, when we finally met face to face, Anthony’s hug was warm and genuine, like one from a long-lost friend. The night at Little Rock was another time that someone has gone out of their way to set up a party for me – a huge act of kindness that I simply wasn’t expecting when I started this journey.

I met the rest of Team Arkansas as they came in – these were the rest of the folks that were going to be in Seattle next month for the World Finals. One of the members came in second last year.  It’s clear that Anthony is proud of this group; they are his family.

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Team Arkansas!

Conversations that night are primarily about karaoke competitions, and how the judging works. I learn about the four criteria upon which contestants are judged –voice (being on key), technique (breathing, etc), stage presence (connecting to the audience and making it a performance), and artistry (making a song your own). I’m more than a bit curious about this because most of the contests I’ve heard about base their winners on crowd noise – clearly not a criterion for something as organized as this. As they discuss the different merits a karaoke singer needs to excel, I’m aware I do OK in the first two (the actual singing stuff), but know I lack stage presence. As far as artistry goes…I’m not sure. I think I sing to the song itself, try to conform to the original. The idea of making a song my own takes karaoke to a level I really don’t consider.

But the most important thing to consider when choosing a song for competition, Anthony says, is to choose a song you care about. Don’t try to choose based on what you think the judges would like: that is a mistake. If you choose a song for anyone other than yourself, then the song “won’t have passion, won’t have your stamp on it.” I break this rule so often (including my first song choice of the night), but it’s something I’m beginning to realize myself over this trip – karaoke is about singing what you want. I still think that mantra still needs to be within reason, however. No sense bringing a crowd down or totally changing styles. But maybe that’s part of why I choose what I do: because I want to please the crowd (I realize this is a sort of warped way of saying I choose songs for others, but I’m leaving it this way for now).

Anthony next asks what I like to sing best, and I’m somewhat hesitant to answer. People ask me that question all the time, and I still struggle with how to respond. I think it’s coming down to Stevie Nicks and Olivia Newton-John, though Donna Summer is still a hell of a lot of fun, and so is Billy Joel.  I mention those to him, leaving off the one-offs of What’s Up and It’s Raining Men; I still don’t think my Somebody to Love will ever be polished enough. Anthony wants to hear Magic, Roberto, another judge, prefers Xanadu (something I sing often) – I “practice” each for a couple of seconds in the bathroom to figure which one I want to sing. I think about “getting a chance” to sing Magic which is back to the point: sing what you want when you want. I go up to the KJ and commit to the slower song I rarely do but enjoy instead of one that I consider one of my standards (though I do remember singing it poorly once at Scott’s goodbye party. At least it didn’t feel right that night). I’ve sung Magic one other time, at Amy’s bachelorette party at her request. So, in a way, this song I love I’ve never sung for me. Some other time and place, this may happen.

For now, though, I will continue to thrive in karaoke community as opposed to performance. Team Arkansas clearly has both, but if I were to chose one over the other, I will stick with the former.

The basics:

It’s all OK (Singing Florida and Alabama, #34 & #35)

I hit a wall: feeling tired. Tired of planning all of this and having it not go right. Afraid that one thing is going to mess up and hold the agenda back for days. I’m trying and it’s weird to see this as hard, but sometimes it is.

When I called a couple weeks ago, the people at Seville Quarter said the karaoke would start at 8. When I called them back the next week, they said 8:30. Then the guy at the door of the venue said 8:30 or 9. Then when we walked into the bar a little before 8 (mostly to avoid the cover charge that would be imposed later), the server said karaoke would start at 10 and I almost lost it. Changing my plan that day in order to fit two states in one night and then it all seemed to go to hell. The karaoke did start at 9, and all was fine. But how was I to know? I still fear the worst instead of believing things will work out. And things always work out.

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The bar was in a crazy complex of bars and nightclubs housed in a building from the 1800s.

When my name is called, I’m so tired and confused I tell the KJ the wrong song – One Things Leads to Another instead of One Way or Another. When he references the Fixx, I change it, though at this point I would have laughed if the wrong song came up. All I need to do is sing and it counts. The entire audience consisted of Dave, some staff, and three bored looking 20-somethings, staring at their phones.

We say goodbye to the super-nice staff and Dave drives the 45 minutes to get to Foley, Alabama a little after 10. Two guys wearing confederate flag caps are singing a country duet. One of the guys is also wearing a confederate flag leather vest a confederate flag chain wallet pokes out of his back pocket. A woman flicks her cigarette ash onto the carpet. A sign on the wall says that a drink consists of 1 ¼ oz of “liqour” unless otherwise specified.

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This way to Alabama karaoke!

Everyone here is very friendly; it’s just not the kind of place for a deep conversation. This is how I imagined a lot of my karaoke experience to be – sitting side by side with many whose politics and life views are completely different from mine, but still managing to have a good time.

As we get ready to go, we chat with the KJ about my journey and he is excited we chose Foley as our Alabama stop. He says he also has a bucket list to sing in all 50 states, but is only up to 9 right now. A drunk woman wanders over and tells us to “call the Google” to make sure the roads we want to take to Louisiana aren’t closed due to the flooding. I take her advice and am glad I did. Most of the southern route is shut down, so we cut up north the next day.

The basics:

  • Locations: The Seville Quarter, Pensacola, FL; Scuttlebutt Pub, Foley AL.
  • Miles traveled: 335 to Florida, 28 to Alabama
  • Songs sung: One Way or Another (Blondie, in Florida), Queen of Hearts (Juice Newton, in Alabama).

Who knew? (Singing Georgia, #33)

Never did I imagine I would…

…Karaoke to church organ music – in a choir robe;

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Lyrics (not sheet music) are in a big binder, sometimes in the right order!

…Participate in a group meditation at a bar;

…See a 1970s Olivia Newton-John album cover on a wall in downtown Atlanta;

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As if this wasn’t amazing enough, the organist sang “Physical” later that evening.

…Be a part of a karaoke group photo;

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Group bonding.

…Hear a guy from the UK sing Milkshake – thick accent and all;

…Witness the KJ/organist refer to Kegel muscles, crabs, and miniature menopausal women in polyester pantsuits;

…Sip sangria while sitting on a plastic sofa that matched my dress a little too well;

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The sangria was delicious!

…Laugh and cringe at so many things on the wall;

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…Lose my place in a song I know so well – and expect it to happen;

…Feel so comforted in a bar whose slogan is “fuck fear;”

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…yet I did all these things at Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium.

Amen.

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The clouds as the sun set over Atlanta that night.

The basics:

  • Location: Sister Louisa’s Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, Atlanta, GA
  • Miles traveled: 182
  • Songs sung: Only the Good Die Young (Billy Joel), It’s Raining Men (The Weather Girls)