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)
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Beyond the song (Singing Virginia, #29)

We walked over to the karaoke place less than a mile away from where we ate – a Vietnamese restaurant. It was the first time in a while where I’ve been singing in a place where I would trust the ethnic food. The walk was nice after filling my belly with Bún chả; bugs louder than I’ve heard in a long time, the weather perfect. The cobblestones that make up the sidewalk in Alexandria are uneven and I wonder how many women stumble and sprain their ankles thanks to a combination of high heels and cocktails. Even in my sensible sandals, I had a hard time keeping a steady path.

We get to the bar a bit ahead of Stefanie, a friend I hadn’t seen since high school, and bit ahead of the music. The Olympics are on TV; I think about how Molly and I used to watch them together and feel a pang of sadness. Summer or Winter, there was always an open invitation to sit on her couch every night and I often took her up on it. Sometimes there were snacks, sometimes wine, sometimes both, and occasionally neither. But there was always her company and the Olympics. Always the joy of seeing winners light up, and the support of other athletes around them. During the Olympics, everyone seems to support each other. Later that night, I would have my first dream of Molly, us talking about everything and nothing all at once.

Stefanie arrives and we hug. It’s really nice to see her and I love feeling instantly relaxed around those I haven’t seen in decades; one of the benefits of this road trip is the reconnections I’ve experienced and I’m grateful for each one. The bar is large, so it looks empty but by the time the karaoke starts at 9:30, there’s a list of people ready to sing. The song choices focus on classic rock and adult contemporary. For the first time since I’ve started this journey, the singers are racially diverse, which is reflective of where we are – outside our nation’s capital, in one of the larger cities in the US.

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Diversity lives here

I go up to the station to put in a song and introduce myself to Jerry, the KJ, and tell him about my journey: “You’re living the dream,” he says, and then gives me advice on where else to sing including a bar in Hollywood, CA he just came back from (Brass Monkey). He’s right, and not the first person to say this, but I’m never sure what to say when that happens. I feel guilty and embarrassed at the luxury I have to be able to do this.

I sing Walk Like and Egyptian because Dave likes that song and I think I can do it. I lose my place a couple of times during the fast-paced lyrics, but overall not too shabby – I will try again for sure and add it to my repertoire. I get high-fives as I leave the stage; one guy sort of holds my hand a little too long, though, and I need to tug free as I pass by. Stef says people at the bar were clapping along.

There are a lot of strong singers here; one of the best singers I’ve ever heard sang this night, belting out an incredible I Never Loved a Man. The woman on the stage was Aretha; you didn’t even need to close your eyes to believe it. When she was done, I went up to her and told her how amazing her voice was, and she thanked me warmly. I realized it was the first time I’ve ever gone up to someone to compliment their performance; it feels weird to do, but of course it’s appreciated. It happens to me quite often, yet somehow I’m still too shy to do it myself. Something I would like to change.

My final song is Sister Christian and I sing it while the men’s 400 meter freestyle relay is going on. I’m just as interested in the race as the rest of the bar, occasionally stumbling over the lyrics as I watch the wrong television screen as opposed to the monitor. Michael Phelps wins his nineteenth gold medal and people cheer for USA during my song. I smile, finish, and watch the replay, wishing I were on Molly’s couch.

The basics:

  • Location: Rock it Grill, Alexandria, VA
  • Miles traveled: 55
  • Songs sung: Walk Like an Egyptian (the Bangles), Summer of ’69 (Bryan Adams), Sister Christian (Night Ranger)
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Alexandria smells of money, but not for everyone.

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)

Self Care: Singing Toronto (bonus track!)

I was grieving, and doing my best to distract myself. My mind was south of the border. Like so many, I have been reading news of violence, racism, a nation falling apart. Article after article, I kept reading in hopes of finding an answer to it all – my feelings, systemic racism, gun control, fear. The more I read, the less I believed in anything. I had little motivation to return to the US. It was time to stop.

I recognized my privilege and expressed gratitude for it. Then, it was time for self care. I took a nap. Then, I painted my toenails a bright purple and put on a brand-new dress reminiscent of something my grandmother would have worn. I even put on a bit of makeup for the first time in a while. Earlier this week, I got my hair cut, completing my look for the evening.

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Fancy! At least for me…

First, out to dinner with family, at a place owned by family. We sat outdoors and shared small plates. At dusk, we walked back from the restaurant more than sated – grilled romaine with hazelnuts, smoked trout croquettes, a full-bodied dry rosé. A brief rest at the condo, then it was time to sing. I hadn’t sung in a week, and it was time again. Time to do the thing that brings me the most joy.

A storm was coming as I walked to the bar. Small drops fell as I walked quickly, beating the downpour by minutes. I ordered a Labatt 50 and watched the rain from a corner table. I sang the songs I wanted to sing, not caring at all about where I was or other song choices. I sang about society then and now; I sang songs that make me happy. I didn’t think about fitting in this night. Thankfully, I didn’t really think about much at all.

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I forgot to take a picture of the bar, so here’s some nearby street art instead.
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The skyline and the impending storm

The basics:

  • Location: Jekyll and Hyde, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • Miles traveled: 310 (a week ago)
  • Songs sung:
    • Takin’ it to the Streets (Doobie Brothers)
    • These are Days (10,000 Maniacs)
    • One Things Leads to Another (The Fixx)
    • Dreams (Fleetwood Mac)

Alone time: Singing Montana (#4)

The drive through Northern Idaho and into Montana was beautiful. Hills full of green and smatters of purple, mauve, violent, and the occasional splash of bright yellow. For lunch, I had two boiled eggs and some fruit. The rest stop smelled like pine and apple tobacco, thanks to a kid sitting on the lawn with his friend, smoking a pipe. Their license plate said they were from Texas. At the stop I walked six laps around the grounds, interrupting some ground squirrels. Baseball games kept me occupied for the rest of the drive, when there was radio reception. When there wasn’t, I thought about Mohammed Ali’s eulogies I listened to on Friday and how quickly the Orlando tragedy happened after that. Friday I was full of hope that upon a great man’s passing there were so many speeches about love and respect for diversity. Two days later, hate prevailed. I looked out at the beautiful landscape, the snow-capped mountains and quiet, abandoned barns, and wondered how a country so breathtaking could sustain so much ugliness. I get to my hotel room just in time to watch Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Sharks lost, despite me wearing my lucky earrings.

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Perfect scenery for contemplation

Haps Bar & Depot Laundromat is only a mile away, so I walk. I go through residential areas of trailers and manufactured homes. It’s after 8 on a Sunday, and many are still out and about, mowing or watering lawns. I get to the bar and see Sydney Crosby hoisting the Cup in victory. I don’t feel like singing today. Apparently no one else does either, for though I arrive well after the established start-time, nothing is going on.

The KJ worries her left eyebrow, then goes over to swap stories with the local bartender. When she gets back to her station, I put my song in and we chat. Her best friend died from cancer yesterday. I ask what she’s doing here and she explained that this is a small town, and there isn’t anyone available to sub, and a lot of people pay good money to drink in order to sing, not just shoot pool. Then I let her know that I understand – the same thing happened to me in February. She says she feels like she’s in a daze. Of course she is.

The singing starts at 9:20. The KJ says “I appreciate everyone’s patience today,” before singing Journey’s “Lights” (“Well my friend, I’m lonely too”). It’s clear she’s in the beginning stages of grief, or perhaps I’m just extra sensitive to it. A pair of 20-somethings sing “I Love Rock and Roll” together while holding their pool cues and giggling. Then I sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and a couple of people come up to me while I’m singing to tell me how much they love that song. An elderly man follows me with “Pink Carnation.”

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This place has been around since 1935!

The bartender asks what brings me here, and I tell her about my 48-state karaoke goal. She shares her goal of driving around Montana to try the top 20 pie slices in the state. The KJ hands her the mic, and she stays behind the bar to pour two stiff Jack and Cokes while singing “Blame it on Your Heart” by Patty Loveless. I like this place a lot.

Part of me wants to stay, but I’m learning that I need to pace myself. It’s after 11 and a pretty big crowd comes in. On my walk home I pass three different people working on their cars and a small group of deer grazing. All of them go about their business as I walk by.

The basics:

  • Location: Haps Bar & Depot Laundromat, Helena, Montana
  • Miles traveled: 315
  • Songs sung: Dreams (Fleetwood Mac); No Souvenirs (Melissa Etheridge)