Sausage Party (Singing South Carolina, #32)

We stepped into a true college bar, right across the street from Clemson. It’s one of the top 40 college bars according to Business Insider, and the place proudly displays a plaque to prove it. The whole place is decorated in wood which is decorated in graffiti scrawled onto any surface possible using a sharpee, knife, or pen. At the bar the largest text reads “Were (sic) those drunk bitches that signed a wall.”

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A quiet night at one of the best college bars in America. Anarchy rules.

We’re served gin and tonics in a plastic pitcher. On one side, it’s decorated with the bar logo. On the other is an advert for a DUI defense lawyer. I’m called up at around 10:45 and I’m the first to sing. It’s the first time I’ve opened a place up – not even the KJ sings first. Feels weird, but at least I knock another state off the list. It’s to the point where I can feel the end. Only 16 more to go.

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Our classy pitcher which may or may not currently be in my hotel room.

The next guy comes up and sings Tom Sawyer. He looks exactly like a guy who would sing Tom Sawyer from 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2012. His skinny arms and greasy hair thrash about during his air drum and guitar solos. He sounds great. Then no one sings. For a long time; instead the KJ fills the silence with music. Then the singer gets back up on the stage to sing some Boston and performs beer guitar during the instrumentals. I get up again and sing some more classic rock. We sound like a generic radio station I listen to when I’m in the car.

Slowly, others start to get into the action. There’s some Back Street Boys (just like last night), some country, but mostly it’s classic rock. Men singing classic rock – solo, in pairs, and groups. Other than a woman who sings along with the Tom Sawyer guy, I’m the only female who gets up there. Finally the KJ (also male) sings. There’s a mad dash to the books to get in a song during the last hour of the night. Kids half my age singing the songs I grew up with, but never a woman solo, at least not before 1 when we left.

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A friend from high school and some graffiti.

The police come in – two of them – even though the bar is pretty quiet; classes start tomorrow, which I would have thought meant a packed house, but apparently these students need to make it to class on the first day. The two uniforms spend some time in the booth next to us but I can’t really tell what’s going on. My guess is underage drinking and ID checking. They leave alone. I see the guns and worry about someone getting shot; it’s just that time of year. Of America.

A country boy with a can of Busch Light takes the mic and sings Patience with a southern twang. Ball cap pulled over his eyes, blond curls peeking through. Black t-shirt and jeans. He sounds good and I know I would have had a crush on him during college. I was always a sucker for a good voice.

My last song is Pinball Wizard and a drunk college kid gets up on stage with me and asks if he can sing too. I say yes and up he stumbles, beer in one hand, trying to share my mic. I provide him with his own. Not sure if he doesn’t really know the song, or if he’s too drunk to really sing, but it’s fun sharing the stage. At the end, he says “We could go on tour. We’ve got something good here.”

The basics:

  • Location: TD’s of Clemson, Clemson, SC
  • Miles traveled: 288
  • Songs sung: Heartbreaker (Pat Benatar), Separate Ways (Journey), Pinball Wizard (The Who)

Don’t give a f*ck (Singing DC, Bonus track)

We sang in a bar located in a hotel basement in downtown DC. Tom, a friend since college, had called around to find a place within walking distance that looked promising for a night of karaoke. This one just happens to be considered one of the best dive bars in DC, and it’s smack in the middle of downtown — a weird contrast to the fancy roof top bar featuring a live Casanova band where we had our first drink.

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Down here for great singing!

We walked down some stairs and a weird hall. The bar itself was covered in off-white faux rock walls. The basement-tile ceiling was falling apart and full of water stains. The bar offered no cell service or wireless, but I manage to connect to Red Lion business center’s network.

There’s also no Olympics. Instead, the two large screen TVs show an NFL pre-season game and the CFL. That’s the Canadian Football League, folks. This bar is showing the Montreal Allouettes vs. the Edmonton Eskimos over women’s gymnastics and historic swimming moments by Michael Phelps and Simone Manuel. The KJ sits behind the first TV, barely visible to the crowd as he announces both the next singer and who’s on deck. The karaoke started at 7:30, and was well underway by the time we got there a tad after 8.

Within minutes of us getting there, someone gets up to sing Bohemian Rhapsody and invites anyone to join him, so I do; he seems perfectly content to have a stranger join him on the stage. He takes the lead then points to me when he wants me to sing, which is primarily during the high notes. The song is long, and complicated to the point that the singer refers to different parts as “chapters.” Rarely do I ever hear Bohemian Rhapsody sung in karaoke, and if I do it’s at 1am, not just after 8. And usually the crowd is less than enthusiastic to hear it. In fact, one KJ in Toronto I sung with a few years back had it on a list of songs that, in order to sing, you had to pay him $50. Other songs on that list included Paradise by the Dashboard Light and anything by Celine Dion.

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Singing Bohemian Rhapsody with a stranger while it’s still light out.

My nachos were sub-par, but Dave’s gyro was pretty good – not surprising since the owner, who introduced himself to us as we sat down, is named Cos (I believe short for Cosmo). We get our food and eat in silence. It’s already too loud to talk, but then again we are all pretty hungry.

The KJ first comes out from his cave to sing I Just Called to Say I Love You. Later, he performs I’m Not in Love by 10cc – another song I don’t hear in karaoke probably due to its slow, plodding pace and oveall high cheese factor. The KJ is unapologetic with his choices and does an excellent job, though sadly he never whispers “Big boys don’t cry.”

Everyone here is a singer in spirit whether or not they take the stage. No one is taking things seriously, and many sing along from their chairs. The main focus at Recessions is to entertain and amuse more than to impress. There are some good singers, and some not-so-good, but all are here to have fun and bring others along with them. A tall, hefty white guy sings Gangnam Style in Korean, dancing around the stage the whole time. Then some guy – tall, long hair, 90lbs soaking wet, sings Major Tom and Tom runs up to the second mic to do the countdown. Pure entertainment, this seems like a place where people experiment with songs. Or perhaps the talent is just that mixed. For sure it’s not a serious place. A group of people get up to sing American Pie, the death song of all karaoke. And they don’t know it, except for the chorus. People sing from their chairs, but overall it’s a painful 8:31 (but who’s counting). Another person sings I’m On A Boat completely uncensored.

Our group swells to 10, as some from the rooftop bar join us for one more drink. That drink is a 28 oz beer named King Kong. They arrive just in time for me to sing What’s Up; I chose this song for here because although I knew I wasn’t going to repeat my Otters moment, I knew I could sing it with my complete self. This is a place where I feel safe not to hold back, not to care about what others think. I didn’t feel the need to choose a song to “fit in” with others. People sang along and swayed, just as they did with every other. A good chunk of the bar has left by the time we get up to sing Time Warp, but our group gets into it, sharing mics, distributing parts, and dancing along.

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Let’s do the Time Warp again…

Toward the end of the evening, someone in my group tells the KJ what I’m up to and he calls me over behind the large TV (now just showing pre-season NFL news). He says, like the guy in Virginia, that I’m “Living the dream.” When he learns I’m from Oregon he says it’s an “honor” to meet someone from there, as it’s his dream to visit Eugene because he’s a huge Duck fan. His friend, and Indian guy with horn-rimmed glasses and a King Kong, thinks it’s funny that he loves Oregon so much and heckles him about it “You’re just so straight! Why would you want to go to Oregon?” The KJ doesn’t drink or smoke, so the friend says: “Why go to Oregon if you don’t do those things?” Still, I give the KJ my contact details and tell him to look me up if he ever makes it that far out west. He says he prays he does.

The basics:

  • Location: Recessions Bar and Grill, Washington DC
  • Miles traveled: 182
  • Songs sung: Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Rapture (Blondie), Don’t Go Breaking My Heard (Elton John & Kiki Dee), What’s Up (4 Non-Blondes), Time Warp (Rocky Horror Picture Show), I Touch Myself (The Divinyls)

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).

Gratitude (Singing Vermont, #24)

My time in Vermont happened because of two kind strangers named Steve. Steve runs a website, Karaoke Across America, where he lists shows around the USA. He does this for free, during his spare time, juggling a full-time job and family. Steve introduced me to Steve – Cowboy Steve – a man retired from the military, who now spends his days living on the road, singing in different states as it pleases him. Cowboy Steve just happened to be back in his home state of Vermont, helping his mother run the local Bluegrass Festival, and said he would help me as well – it’s hard to find karaoke in Vermont. We messaged back and forth about dates, times, and towns. He messaged venues and friends to create an event. Then, it was show time.

We sang in an American Legion Hall, in a large back room with tables and a dance floor. Outside was a tank and sign that advertised Bingo on Thursdays and dinner on Fridays. Cowboy Steve brought his own equipment and friends – some from as far as 40 miles from the north, and 20 from the south. The group was small, but everyone came to sing. So we did – mostly country (modern and old-time), but also Jimmy Buffet, 80s love songs, and even a rendition of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” complete with interpretive moves. During slower songs, a couple would take the dance floor and hold each other. I tried my best to find country songs that I could make my way through and offer my sincere apologies to Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline.

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Tank!

I have no idea what my Vermont experience would have been like without the Steves. There still would have been amazing scenery, delicious beer, and maple-syrup tasting. There would have been karaoke, probably somewhere in one of the larger towns, as opposed to one where the population is under 4,000 and singers need to be imported to make an evening. And the evening would have lacked the community and friendship I felt and still feel. The Steves made Vermont more than about singing; they made it about people going the extra mile for a stranger. Given the general tenor of the US right now, that means a lot.

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Me and Cowboy Steve

The basics:

  • Location: American Legion Post #55, Brandon, VT
  • Miles traveled: 420 (over two days, and indirectly from Stockton Springs, ME)
  • Songs sung: Have a Heart (Bonnie Raitt), Jolene (Dolly Parton), BAck on the Chain Gang (The Pretenders), Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline), Leather & Lace (Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty).

Home away from home (Singing Nebraska, #10)

I’m not sure what to say about my Nebraska experience, except that I enjoyed the bar quite a bit. I could see going there on a regular basis. The KJ was a little older than me, a current/former hippie with a beard, dark-rimmed glasses, and a rope necklace. He has a beautiful voice and sings country music unfamiliar to me. Most of the singers are my age, and choose non-obvious, but familiar songs — Voices Carry by ‘Til Tuesday and Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nillson. For the most part, they have really good voices.

Some singers are gone by 10, and others replace them. It’s a small but steady crowd with almost everyone either singing or there to accompany someone who is. I’m as comfortable here as I would be in my hotel room so I stay to watch the baseball game, and appreciate the show. I get the KJ to do a duet with me, which is always fun — I like singing with others, but rarely get the chance to do so.

As I get ready to leave, I say goodbye to the KJ and we chat for a bit. He said he used to KJ at a karaoke bar, but to him this bar is more like a bar that has karaoke. Sure, people come here to sing, but they do other things. I think I understood what he meant. Even though most people put at least two songs in, they also phased in and out of focusing on karaoke to go about their business– watching the game, chatting with friends, shooting pool. There wasn’t really a sing-a-long, but there was always clapping. A relaxing Monday night in Omaha.

  • The basics:
  • Location: Moe & Curly’s, Omaha, NE
  • Miles Traveled: 168
  • Songs sung: Keep on Loving You (REO Speedwagon), Gloria (Laura Brannigan), Leather and Lace (Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty)
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Obligatory shot of the bar.