The time I served up the full Mccartney on a rainy night in Ise
IT is a rainy night in Ise. I’m not exactly hovering by my suitcase — that was stashed some hours ago at a ramshackle ryokan — but I’m certainly trying to find a warm place to spend the evening in this Japanese country town.
The local mall is deserted and only the clang of railway bells stirs the air. I’m getting that lonesome me feeling; an outsider in need of a beer.
There’s a light on down a cross street where I slip through some slatted doors. Inside, two women of a certain age are prepping ingredients. They’re startled that a gaijin has appeared from nowhere, but since I’m their only customer they can’t claim there’s no room, an occasional strategy for fobbing off foreigners.
I mind my manners and am on my third drink when the kindlier of the two brings some special pickles. ‘‘Story,’’ she says abruptly. We establish that I’m from Australia (‘‘ Ah, koala!’’) and before long she transforms into an aunty and is whipping up comfort food.
Feeling the code has been cracked, I track down the source of some singing in an adjacent alley. A high, tremulous voice is making a meal out of a ballad. There’s a door ajar and I slide into a tiny bar. It would struggle to accommodate six people with two of them standing. The only other patron is a bloke sporting a cap and polyester leisurewear. He’s making meaningful eye contact with the woman behind the bar as he wrings the emotion from a song. He’s also halfway through a bottle of soju, the Korean distilled spirit that’s more like ethanol than vodka.
There’s some truth to the national j oke that Japan plus alcohol equals karaoke.
The woman fixes me a drink before having a turn at the microphone. She’s slightly more restrained than her male admirer but equally enthusiastic about melisma, a kind of pitch oscillation on key syllables. It can be tricky for amateurs.
What’s always been striking about karaoke since it emerged from Kobe in the early 1970s is how graciously the Japanese will applaud lousy singers. The worse the better, it seems.
I would generally prefer to poke my eye out with a chopstick than have anything to do with karaoke but I can feel my turn is coming.
I dodge for another couple of rounds. Then, sure enough, a catalogue as thick as a phone book comes out and at the back are the inevitable Beatles selections.
May I not rot in hell for choosing Yesterday.
The backing track is quite convincing. Whoever knocked it off did a good job. As I begin to sing, all the years I misspent playing in piano bars come flooding back. I’m on a roll and glide down the first day-e-yay-e-yay-e-yay like a trickling stream.
In my peripheral vision I notice my new friends turning pale.
But it’s too late to turn back and I serve up the full McCartney. The song ends and there’s deathly silence. Our gang has clammed up. Perhaps they think I actually am a Beatle. Either way there’ll be no more singing while I’m around. I don’t want to spoil the party so I leave.
At least the taxi driver is pleased to see me.
This is our third ride together so we’re almost old friends. Best not to reveal that his passenger is the dreaded Karaoke Killer, a toxic force at singalongs. All it takes is enough booze and an old Beatles song. Office parties beware.