“Ladies and gentlemen!” boomed the karaoke deejay guy from corner booth. “Welcome to Club Karaoke! (The bar was actually called The Lamplighter—but whatever.) “Okay, all you Elvises and Arethas out there! Let’s get this party started! First off, please welcome, doing his version of ‘Get Down Tonight,’ Burt Melton!”
A balding, pudgy Burt Melton stepped onto the small stage. Still wearing his day’s ensemble from Mervyn’s “Office Worker” collection, he stood staring into the blue glow of the monitor before him, where the lyrics to “Get Down Tonight” would soon appear. They’d also show on the huge screen behind him. If Burt flubbed the words to “Get Down Tonight,” we’d all know it.
The whirling, stringy opening of K.C. & The Sunshine Band’s disco mega-hit filled the room. And Burt started singing! (The first words to “Get Down Tonight,” by the way, are “Baby, baby!”—not, as I’ve been assertively singing for some thirty years—”Bango, bango!”) Suddenly, Burt was K.C.—or, at least, if K.C. had a job selling photocopiers, or working at the DMV. And that’s exactly the kind of job K.C. would have ended up with if ol’ Burt Melton had been there to snatch the Disco King crown off his shaggy-do. Singing with almost frightening exuberance, and daringly filling in the music-only parts of the song with dance steps reminiscent of how impossible it was to even walk in disco shoes, Burt’s rousing call to “Get Down Tonight” was a pelvis-thrusting testimony to what it was about disco in the first place that compelled people just like me to drop out of high school and start taking drugs. When his moment in the sunshine was finished, Burt reassumed his unassuming persona. But we knew his truer self. For verily, had he gotten down tonight.
Next on the stage was Louise, a hard-living, middle-aged barfly. In her gauzy white peasant’s shirt, Jordache-style jeans, and pronounced mall bangs, Louise was proudly proclaiming to the world, “It’s 1982! Deal with it!” In keeping with the precedent set by her opening act, Louise also chose a rousing disco number, the iconic “I Will Survive,” by Gloria Gaynor. The moment the song began, Louise lurched into a highly interpretive and almost disturbingly provocative dance. It was immediately clear that one of the keys to this hip-swinging, arm-flailing disco mama’s survival lay in her maiming those around her. Cool! Stayin’ alive! Along with her flair for wildly erratic body movements, Louise regaled us with a voice that left little doubt but that it sounded awesome inside her head. When this enthralling songstress was through, I don’t think there was a person in the place who wasn’t entirely convinced that, like Louise, they, too, had what it took to successfully weather even the most devastating emotional trauma.
The next performer was Bob Somethingorother. Bob brought us right up to almost modern times by choosing for his number, “Baby Got Back,” by Sir Mix-A-Lot. Bob’s rendition of this endearing rap classic, while heartfelt and at times even inspired, suffered from the unfortunate effects of Bob not being a speed reader. And as many a would-be karaoke gangstas have discovered, rap waits for no man. The lyrics to the song scrolled by at a pace that would have left famous speed-reader Evelyn Wood choking on her tongue. Too often poor Bob was forced to improvise. He got most of the “Baby got back” parts right; but where Sir Mix-A-Lot, for instance, sings the poetic, “My anaconda don’t want none/unless you got buns, hon,” Bob, doing his best, belted out, “My auntie Rhonda don’t have none/but she’s got hot cross buns.” As he sheepishly slunk off stage, it was clear that Bob had let himself down. I was going to seek him out to share with him that I thought he should consider playing to his strengths, and maybe hit the karaoke circuit as Sir Mixed-Up-A-Lot, but instead I got too caught up in the excitement of the next act.
This was the bartender’s girlfriend, Sam, singing Madonna’s “Material Girl.” If anyone had predicted that I would ever consider Madonna a fine vocalist, I would have pitied that pathetic prognosticator before beating him about the head with a stick. But Sam immediately helped us to recall that talent is relative. The moment Sam started enthusiastically caterwauling, we in the audience were torn between almost desperately wanting to gag her, and not wanting to hurt her feelings. In no time we hit upon a strategy both self-preserving and supportive: We started loudly singing along with the song. But almost simultaneous with our hitting upon this happy solution, Sam began to have trouble keeping up with some of the apparently complex rhythm patterns of “Material Girl.” This left us, the now-bellowing audience, wondering whether we should sing along with the song as it was originally recorded, or instead try to follow Sam’s erratic lead. About half of us chose to sing along with the radios in our head, while perhaps the kinder among us tried to cleave to Sam’s version of the song. Together, we created a cacophony that before too long too many of us were too clearly finding funny. Sam was not among the amused. Rising to the challenge, she did the same thing the real Madonna does whenever the attention of her fans begins to wander: she started forcefully screaming the song at us. This assault, combined with the less-than-endearing lyrics of the song itself, proved too much for many in the audience, who, still mindful of Sam’s feelings, began to quietly pelt her boyfriend, the bartender, with beer nuts. This seemed to bring a measure of satisfaction not only to the more demonstrative among us, but, once she saw it was happening, to Sam herself. Proof yet again that the karaoke experience provides a satisfactory outlet for the full range of human emotions.
Next to bound onstage was Larry, a middle-aged man with scraggly, shoulder-length, yellowish hair. Larry was sporting a brown trucker cap, orange cargo shorts, and a weathered, unbuttoned lumberjack shirt over a faded turquoise wife-beater.
“Yeah!” yelled the colorful Larry, pumping his fist in the air. “Whoo-hoo! Rock ‘n roll, baby!” In its way, Larry’s palpable commitment to the moment was downright stirring.
For his song, Larry chose Creedence Clearwater’s Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.” As you probably know, a great part of this song’s appeal lies in John Fogerty’s improvised, bayou-drenched grunts and growls. As you are of course less likely to know, a great part of Larry’s appeal lies in his being the ultimate California stoner dude. So where, for instance, Fogerty sings, “Born on the bayou—huh, huh, huh,” Larry sang, “Born on the bayou—heh, heh, heh.” It changed the whole flavor of the song, from Fogerty’s Tortured Guy with Soul Communing with Marshes, to Larry’s Torched Guy with a Bowl Communing with Martians. Also, whereas many karaoke performers tend to flounder during the all-music parts of their song, Larry really came into his own when it was time to whip out his trusty air axe. It seemed clear, in fact, that the primary reason Larry had chosen “Born on the Bayou” was due to its extended guitar solo. Compared to Larry the Stoner, Jimi Hendrix strummed his guitar while gently dozing in a bean-bag chair. What passion Larry displayed! What emotions! His many, suitably intense guitar-soloing faces were wondrous to behold. And his hair? Larry used it in a way that would bring tears to the eyes of even the most opportunistic chiropractor. When his song was over, every single person in the audience was convinced: say what you would about Larry, but he definitely had minimal brain cells left. But the ones he did have left were very clearly connected to the imagination part of his brain.
And who among us, really, needs more than that?