Metal and hard rock music was playing incredibly loudly when I walked in. It took me a while to figure out the entrance since the glass door was replaced with an old piece of particle board, making the entrance look boarded up. I sit myself at the wooden bar; the top is sticky.
One bartender looks like a big goofball and wears a Hawaiian shirt with only one button done up over his large belly. He says that no one else got the memo that it was luau night; I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. The other bartender is female wearing a shirt that says, “Go Fuck Yourself.” She clearly didn’t get the memo. I order a club soda with lime and it’s handed to me in a red Solo cup. I go to the bathroom and one of the toilets is clogged. I won’t go back in there unless I really have to.
The bar is decorated with dark wood paneling and there’s a thick layer of dust over all the bar decorations. A group of four women come in to sing and order a round of Fireball shots. Another group walks in and the male bartender (who is also the KJ) yells, “Holy Shit!” into the microphone loud enough so I jump. As people stream in, he hugs pretty much everyone – clearly this is a spot for regulars. He starts the night off with “Under the Boardwalk” and the women from both groups start dancing. I hop off the bar and sit at the tables to be closer to the action.
I go outside to take a picture of the bar and a drunk guy is sitting on a bench outside, smoking. His T-shirt reads “Whores, Sailors, and Tattoos.” We try to make small talk, but in his condition, it’s difficult. I retreat inside. He comes back in just in time to sing his song, but first announces “Sorry: I’m really drunk and this is what happens.” He screams into the mic, which was appropriate for his heavy metal song choice.
I sing a song, and am followed by one of the regulars who goes by “Sissy;” she’s wearing comfy pants that could double as pajamas. When she’s done, the in-between music automatically kicks in; it’s still too loud, but the KJ/bartender is busy crawling around on the floor trying to fix the pool table to call up the next singer. Meanwhile, Sissy asks me to join their table and I do. It’s nice to be part of a group for the evening.
I share my story with Sissy of what brings me here and as she gets ready to sing her next song she announces, “This next song is dedicated to Molly, who just passed from lung cancer;” it’s “Ironic,” by Alanis Morissette. The Fireball women get up and sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” then leave — their shot glasses and Solo cups littering the table; the KJ cleans them up.
Sissy lets me know they are going to be singing again at the Dubliner – a place in downtown Kansas City that is much nicer than this place: “They have a stage and a great sound system.” It sort of puts me off of my schedule – leaving me with a long drive the day after – but I say I will probably see them there. After all, these are the first people I’ve made a connection with since I’ve been on the road and it feels good to be social.
The next evening, I arrive at the second bar ready for round two in this area. The bar is located in the hip, fancy area of downtown, the Power and Light District, a little square in the center of the city that’s full of bars and restaurants. It’s been around for around ten years, but everything still looks pretty clean and sort of fake. A city you would find inside a Vegas casino. The bar is huge – brand new, but made to look like it was built in the 20s with hex tile floor, a grand, wooden bar, and high ceilings. It’s well-lit and designed for larger crowds. I don’t recognize anyone in there yet and I wonder if the gang from last night will show. Even if they don’t, I figure I will still be singing in Missouri. Therefore, my mission will be accomplished.
Soon after, people I recognize come trickling in and once again I’m part of this group for the evening. This time Sissy is dressed to sing wearing makeup, a beautiful flowy top and super high-heeled sandals. I ask the woman sitting next to me, who wasn’t there last night, how she met the people at the table; she was a stray in a bar once too, and Sissy asked her to come over, in the same way she invited me.
We order food – me some coddle, which is an Irish stew, and a Dunkel. So much for BBQ while in Kansas City. The KJ sets up his sound system on the stage in front of the bar. There are no public monitors to encourage sing-a-long participation – the only one is small and faces the singers so the effect is that you are performing for an audience as you take the stage. Sissy tells me that there is a speaker on stage that allows you to hear yourself so you can tell if you are on key or not. I’m not sure if I really like that idea or not, but others in the group insist it’s a good thing.
When it’s time for my first song, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” I find I don’t really notice the extra speaker, or the improved sound system. I’ve always been the kind of person who is happy to listen to her favorite song on a tin radio. But it’s clear that this set-up – and the environment it’s in – is a lot classier than where we were last night. There are parts of that I like, and parts that don’t. I miss the more homey feel of a dive bar, but since the people I’m with are pretty much the same, there’s a level of comfort I experience here that I might not have otherwise. The crowd and group are supportive, but superficial, and that’s OK. Friendly people welcoming a stranger into their midst.
As the end of my night was nearing, I ask the KJ to do a duet with me and we sing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” As he’s cuing up the song, he says into the mic “This is all Velveeta, folks.” I tell him I use that phrase, too. He turns to me and asks “Are we best friends now?” I say sure, and we sing. Soon after that I leave, thanking everyone for their company. I’m off to Illinois in the morning.
So many faces in and out of my life
Some will last, some will just be now and then.
Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes
I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again
— Billy Joel, Say Goodbye to Hollywood
- Location: The Red Balloon, Overland Park, KS
- Miles traveled: 303
- Songs sung: Voices Carry (‘Til Tuesday), Down on the Corner (CCR)
- Location: The Dubliner, Kansas City, MO
- Miles traveled: 15 (round trip from the bar to the hotel; also and extra 45 or so being a tourist that day)
- Songs sung: Say Goodbye to Hollywood (Billy Joel), MacArthur Park (Donna Summer), Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Elton John & Kiki Dee)