Stumbling into someone else’s karaoke bar

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” my friend Dave wrote at the head of his birthday invitation. Karaoke, wilds of Brooklyn, at a place that was decidedly un-hip. The Carriage House. Sounded more like a place to get married — and how wild could the wilds of Brooklyn be if we were still talking Park Slope?

My karaoke nights have been mixed, but I keep going back for more. For years we preferred the private rooms on Avenue A — celebrated more friends’ birthdays there than I can count — but the pricetag’s always a bit high. Plus those nights without fail devolve from single-person performances to group singalongs, one more rousing chorus of “Sweet Caroline.” To preserve the line between singer and audience, and for convenience’s sake, we’ve taken more, lately, to Winnie’s, in Chinatown, a couple blocks from where we live. Winnie’s broke most of us of the fear of singing before perfect strangers; it’s not uncommon, though, for me to see my own students there, which can dampen things. So an annual trip out to Brooklyn bars — decidedly unhip ones, especially — is more inviting than not.

Approaching the Carriage House — corner of 8th St and 7th Ave — we realized that only the name was quaint. How long had it been since I entered an establishment that was flanked with sports pennants and inflatable footballs? The lighting was too bright, the bar backed by TV screens, the smell of deep-fried bar food and stale beer stuck to the walls and hanging over the smallish crowd the way smoke used to, before it was outlawed. A longhaired, heavyset DJ was setting up at one end of the room, and a few folks who gave off the feel of being regulars were already rifling through laminated catalogs, scribbling song codes on their slips.

No, we weren’t in Manhattan anymore, and we certainly weren’t in Williamsburg or Greenpoint. Even the South Pacific charm of Winnie’s has nothing on this place. The regulars, greeting one another as they arrived for the 10 o’clock karaoke kickoff, looked something like the cast of NYPD Blue after hours, an impression hammered home by the presence of a 40-something Dennis Franz/Andy Sipowicz lookalike, the back of whose tucked-in T-shirt proclaimed in enormous letters: “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK.” He wore green pants (they appeared to be sweatpants) pulled up high. I knew if I looked him in the eye he would drag me outside and beat me senseless with a piece of pipe. A few minutes after we arrived a fellow walked in with all the confidence of Foghorn Leghorn and all the sexual bravado of Meatloaf. His hair hung over his shoulders in a thin, glossy waterfall, and if it had been platinum he would have looked a little like Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. When he arrived he was greeted by a few cheers from the women at the regulars’ tables. Less distinctive than their male counterparts, the women also looked a little younger. I imagined they were my age. Feeling snarky — or maybe just filled with unconscious self-pity — I said to someone, “That’s what my age looks like in the real world.” Not that they looked old. Just older.

We sidled up to the bar, which of course is the only way to do it. The friends I arrived with — Jason and Nicole — ordered beers. Hers arrived in a pint glass, his in a much smaller plastic cup. They cost the same, which suggested the barmaid took care of her ladies. After that Nicole would order for Jason. A few minutes after we got there Lane walked in, surveyed the scene, breathed in and sighed dramatically: “Old Brooklyn,” he said, glancing around the room. “This is what everything out here used to be.”

All well and good. But when the music started I panicked a little. The DJ was serious about his job, performed a couple early 90s power ballads to get things rolling. And the sucker could actually sing — made you wonder if he’d ever auditioned for American Idol. This wasn’t going to be the kind of place where you could stumble through a song and get away with it, and my ladyfriend, out of town for the weekend, wouldn’t be there for our standard duet on “Don’t You Want Me Baby,” a selection with broad enough appeal to win over all kinds of karaoke crowds. What in the world would I sing in a place that favored early 90s metal?

Nicole thumbed through the book, trying to decide between Madonna (“Lucky Star”) and Blondie (“Hanging on the Telephone”). In my mind she had less to worry about: one, she’s sexy, and two, she’s in a band. She must have faced tough crowds before. I flipped to “F” and ran my finger down the Fleetwood Mac column, figuring I could try for some feel-good points at least. The first performance of the night gave me a little hope: a Violent Femmes song, followed by a late Cure song — not even a good one. So we could get away with New Wave, I thought to myself. Maybe I’d try the Smiths — “This Charming Man.”

The New Wave turned out to be a false start, though, and it was back to early 90s pop metal and grunge. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” with the singer imitating even Eddie Vedder’s mic style. A very short girl in a Linkin Park T-shirt and matching Linkin Park hoodie got up and performed something by Linkin Park, followed by her boyfriend, who sang more of the same. The intensity of their devotion was sweet. Someone yelled “Linkin Park sucks” when her selection appeared on the screen, but it was hard to tell whether this was a friendly joke or whether there was real antagonism at play among the locals.

At some point the DJ took another number himself and laid out a disturbing, crisp version of Sublime’s “Date Rape,” a song I’m glad I’d never heard before and hope I never hear again.

“This Charming Man” would be too fey. But I needed something like it, something I knew the words to already, something pretty much part of my DNA. I flipped to the Ts, scratched down the number for Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” and sent the slip up with Nicole. I turned to A White Bear and Nicole and asked them to remind me how it started, but none of us could remember.

Meanwhile, things had been taken up a notch. The undisputed star of the show was Lucius Meatloaf Malfoy, whose squarecut jaw belies the nickname I’ve given him. He took the stage to cheers and served up a flawless rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” at top volume. It was quite possibly the most perfect karaoke performance I’ve ever witnessed. The room — which had steadily filled since ten and was now beginning to feel packed — burst into applause. This was a more serious game than I’d ever witnessed. Most of the crowd was clearly there to watch, not to get up and sing. As for the performers, we were talking about people who had honed their craft, spent countless hours in front of the bedroom mirror, memorized their lyrics.

When Dave’s party finally began to work into the rotation, we held our own. First came Tia, who managed to pull off the bouncy mouthful of words that is “Thunder Road.” Dave came next. If anyone doubted his song choice at first — “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” — those doubts were laid to rest fast by Dave’s genial, confident delivery, along with his perfect management of the key-change part way through. We had enough people in the crowd to defend ourselves from violence if need be, but Dave had clearly won over the vast majority of his listeners, though some of the hardcores still seemed perplexed by the genre shift.

After someone sang a version of Sinatra’s “My Way” that turned into a churning, early 90s metal rant part way through, the DJ finally called out my selection. Standing near the stage I heard one of the regulars — Sipowicz? — say “What the hell’s ‘Psycho Killer’?” and one of the women with them said, “You know, fa-fa-fa-fa,” in her best make-fun-of-mental-retardation voice. A White Bear pushed me toward the front of the crowd. Taking the stage, I removed my glasses, hoping to effect some sort of transformation from Clark Kent to Superman. Facing the crowd I still felt like Clark Kent.

But it turned out that in my moment of panic I’d been blessed. The track started and the first lines popped onto the screen. Those opening lyrics I couldn’t remember actually served as a bit of consolation, easing me into the role: “I can’t seem to face up to the fact / I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax.” When I hit the end of the first stanza, though — “Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire” — the heavens over Brooklyn opened like the day of Pentacost and I tried to imagine myself as possessed by the spirit of that Patron Saint of Lower Manhattan. I was already dressed for the part — black T-shirt, skinny jeans, Converse sneakers. Normally such an outfit blends me into my surroundings. Here I felt as awkward as Sipowicz or Meatloaf might if they’d stumbled into Indie Karaoke night at Studio B. Finishing my first round of fa-fa-fa-fas, I rendered my best David Byrne twitch, swung my arms and marched in place, then plowed on to the mariachi bridge, refusing to turn back. I gave the ai-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi everything my diaphragm could muster.

If the song has an Achilles’ Heel, it turns out, it would be the French lyrics in the middle. I don’t read French aloud if I can help it under normal circumstances, and here I could only grunt, sputter, and make a joke, but I made it through, and when I came down a perfect stranger — though not one of the regulars, as far as I could tell — patted me on the back and paid me a compliment. I don’t know what that crowd of regulars thought, but five steps from the stage I’d determined to learn those damn French lines and return to battle another day, Patron Saint in pocket.


19 responses to “Stumbling into someone else’s karaoke bar”

  1. Rachel says:

    Oh, this is terrific, Bryan. What a dead-on satire of the smug LES Manhattanite and his damning judgment of the sweatpants-wearing, outer-borough masses. Such Philistines!

  2. bw says:

    There’s no doubt, that’s a hard core scene out there, and I want to go back for more. Invoking Meatloaf above made me realize something from Bat Out of Hell would be perfect for this venue. I may have to get to work on that.

    I’m glad the satire came through. It should have been obvious that I wanted nothing more, in the end, than Sip’s or Malfoy’s or their ladies’ approval.

    I want to know what other people use as karaoke standbys. And I hope other partygoers speak up about other details. I missed AWB’s Al Green, I’m afraid, and Lane’s John Lennon.

  3. A White Bear says:

    That “My Way” was actually the Sex Pistols! Very fun karaoke.

    I love that place. The regulars are a bit suspicious of cool kids showing up and taking over, but they’re pretty friendly once they see you a few times. Getting a compliment from one of them feels a little like, well, not getting picked last for the softball team or something.

    Lucius Meatloaf Malfoy is something to behold. I sort of love that guy. Usually he does a lot more dark metal stuff—Danzig and all that—but he was on fire with those Journey tunes.

    I am told my Al Green went well, but I didn’t go on until near 3am, when everyone was pretty plastered, including me. I don’t remember fucking it up, but I made some pretty safe vocal choices, knowing I wasn’t exactly master of myself. If we go again, I’ll be sure to put in some tunes earlier.

    The genres were a bit more narrow than usual. There’s often a lot of country, doo-wop, and even a few showtunes. You really can’t go wrong at that bar. If you contact the KJ ahead of time, I hear he’ll even produce karaoke tracks of the song you want to sing, but that’s just a rumor.

  4. Sex Pistols! Of course! What an idiot I am.

  5. Dave says:

    Great post!

    I thought it worked really well when, in the middle of those French lyrics, you said something like “more fucking French” instead of singing.

  6. Missy says:

    Tammy Wynette is my karaoke standby. I can seriously blow off the back walls on “Your Good Girl is Gonna Go Bad” or “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ With Lovin’ on Your Mind.” (Sorry Dave, her version is way more fun, read shouty, than Loretta’s.) Cher’s “Dark Lady” is fun, because everyone stomps/clamps/pounds the bar at the chorus, but maybe that only works in gay bars. Dolly Parton is a big no no, unless you can belt and trill at the same time, which I can’t.

    At one always packed Boys’ Town karaoke bar there’s a regular we call Goat Boy who does a dead on Stevie Nicks (which is why we call him goat boy). Knowing that, no one else touches Fleetwood Mac. Which is to say, part of karaoke success is sticking with a venue long enough to know and respect the locals’ talents.

  7. Missy says:

    Er, I meant, claps, not clamps at the chorus of “Dark Lady.” But who knows, some of the clappers are probably wearing various kinds of clamps.

  8. Dave says:

    I have fun with “Jolene,” but it’s hard and I didn’t know how it would go over on Saturday. My second song of the night was “Cracklin’ Rosie” — Neil Diamond works well for my voice.

  9. lane says:

    Your tremelo was astounding!

    Jason and I turned to each other at the end of your song and said “What was all that French?!”

    “Does that song actually say that?!”

    You handled that section with great aplomb.

  10. I’m going to nail that French someday. It’s my new personal challenge.

  11. LP says:

    I never could find people to go to karaoke with in DC, or great venues to go to. But in LA, it seems there’s karaoke on every corner, every night. I’ve been lucky enough to find one nearby that’s got everything: a Cheers-like vibe, really fun hosts, a welcoming crowd of regulars and a good sound system. Every Tuesday night I’m there, singing mostly 70s numbers: lots of ABBA, Barry Manilow, the Carpenters.

    Because this is West Hollywood, there are lots of REALLY good singers. But everyone cheers the tone-deaf just as much. It’s one of my absolute favorite things to do here; there aren’t many activities I can think of where complete strangers are so willing to put themselves out there — and where people so readily applaud them for doing so. Ahhh, karaoke.

  12. AW says:

    You all might make a karaoke convert of me, yet.

  13. swells says:

    I’m so envious of this delicious night (and of the delicious prose that describes it). I’m a “Love Will Keep Us Together” girl myself, but Bryan, I’m afraid Scott (Mr. Loaf’s Biggest Fan) has you beat–you haven’t lived till you’ve heard and seen his poignant karaoke rendition of “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” He pours it on and he pours it out.

  14. I was thinking I might give “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” a spin sometime.

  15. LP says:

    Yes, Scotty McGodfrey is a singularly talented karaoke performer, it is true! And a dreamy duet partner.

  16. E. says:

    what about this woman… was she there, by chance?

  17. lane says:

    “he pours it on and he pours it out”

    Classic Rock!

  18. 14: i just read these comments over again and find myself wishing that we could do “love will keep us together” and “love will tear us apart” back to back. when’s the next time you’ll be out here? i’ve signed on to something in LA for the spring of 09, but that’s so far away!