Jen­nifer Goes to Things and Does Stuff

Jen­nifer Levin tries her hand — and vo­cal cords — at karaoke

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

I first sang karaoke in the sum­mer of 1993, in Chicago at the Bel­mont Street Fair. A stage had been set up in a blocked-off in­ter­sec­tion, and with brav­ery that seems out of char­ac­ter in hind­sight, I agreed to sing Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” as a duet with my room­mate, to a crowd of hun­dreds of drunken frat guys from DePaul Univer­sity. Years passed, and my next karaoke ex­pe­ri­ence took place at the bar at the Silva Lanes bowl­ing al­ley in Santa Fe, which doesn’t ex­ist any­more. I sang “Me and Bobby McGee” and ac­ci­den­tally sat down be­fore the fi­nal verse, dazed and con­fused by the dif­fi­culty of singing a Ja­nis Jo­plin song with­out her voice back­ing me up from the ra­dio.

A quick sur­vey of cur­rent karaoke spots in Santa Fe re­veals that you can sing your lit­tle heart out in pub­lic more nights of the week than not. Karaoke at the Cow­girl BBQ (319 S. Guadalupe St.) is Mon­days at 9 p.m. Box­car Bar and Grill (530 S. Guadalupe St.) hosts it on Wed­nes­days at 10 p.m., and at the Palace Restau­rant and Sa­loon (142 W. Palace Ave.), it’s 10 p.m. on Thurs­days. I opted for the fourth lo­cale: The ven­er­a­ble Tiny’s Restau­rant and Lounge (1005 S. St. Fran­cis Drive) where karaoke starts promptly at 8:30 p.m. on Satur­day nights.

I went with my hus­band, Wil­liam, and my friend Tantri. We stood at a counter near the bar with our drinks and watched the show on the lit­tle stage that was lit in reds and pur­ples, as if for a rock and roll band. I would sing even­tu­ally, but that first night was a re­con­nais­sance mis­sion. Would I be in­tim­i­dated or feel wel­comed by the crowd? I’d been to Tiny’s sev­eral times for the chicken gua­camole ta­cos, and I like the lo­cal, homey feel. It’s definitely a bar, but it’s also the kind of place that lets kids sing karaoke, if they’re there for din­ner with their par­ents, be­fore 9:30 or so. Af­ter that, Tiny’s can get a lit­tle rowdy.

There are many ways to be good at karaoke, and it’s not nec­es­sar­ily about clas­si­cal train­ing. Some peo­ple, like the guy we im­me­di­ately started refer­prac­tice ring to as the Zen Mas­ter, ob­vi­ously a lot. The Zen Mas­ter sat alone with ear­buds in his ears, lis­ten­ing to some­thing on his phone and tak­ing notes in a lit­tle book. Then he went up there and sang “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zep­pelin, note for note and moan for moan, with­out really mov­ing or chang­ing his fa­cial ex­pres­sion. This unas­sum­ing twenty-some­thing guy stood still and chan­neled Robert Plant like it was noth­ing. An­other stand­out was a woman whose name I didn’t catch but who could belt it out like her life de­pended on it. She sang a couple of power bal­lads. There were many power bal­lads that night, and a few oblig­a­tory coun­try tunes, some Ozzy Os­borne, Prince, Eury­th­mics, David Bowie, and many songs I didn’t rec­og­nize. Wil­liam and I found that we could en­ter­tain our­selves for hours just by look­ing at the thou­sands of choices in the thick karaoke song binders and suggest­ing them to each other. I begged him to sing me a Tom Petty song when we next re­turned, but he made no prom­ises.

Of course not ev­ery­one who sings is good, but with­out a doubt, ev­ery­one is en­ter­tain­ing. The trick is not tak­ing it too se­ri­ously — un­less you’re the Zen Mas­ter — and to have a good time. What peo­ple lack in tal­ent, they make up for in show­man­ship and en­thu­si­asm. But over the next couple of weeks, as I pon­dered what to sing, I was wor­ried about how I would sound. Though I can carry a tune, I can’t project and my range is lim­ited. I fi­nally set­tled on a song I’ve known since I was a kid: “My Life,” by Billy Joel.

The night we went back to Tiny’s, all but one wait­ress had called in sick, and there was a huge group of about 20 peo­ple hav­ing din­ner in the bar area. Though the wait­ress was ob­vi­ously un­der pres­sure, she kept her hu­mor and de­liv­ered prompt ser­vice — which was amaz­ing, be­cause she was also man­ning the bar. A guy I rec­og­nized from com­mu­nity-theater pro­duc­tions was on stage, ham­ming it up to “Beginnings” by Chicago. He was fol­lowed by a mid­dle-aged man with a thick han­dle­bar mus­tache who did a fan­tas­tic ren­di­tion of “The Devil Went Down to Ge­or­gia.” I saw that the Zen Mas­ter had ar­rived, so I asked him what he was go­ing to sing that night. He was shy as he told me his name, Matt, and that he was go­ing to sing “Sat­is­fac­tion” by the Rolling Stones. He said he’s been com­ing to karaoke at Tiny’s ev­ery week for over a year be­cause it’s “very down to earth” and “like fam­ily here.”

An older man named David sang Roy Or­bi­son’s “Pretty Woman,” and the dance floor ex­ploded with more peo­ple than I’d re­al­ized were in the restau­rant. Af­ter­ward, I asked David what he thought made ev­ery­one get out of their seats. “It’s an iconic song you can dance to,” he said, and went on to tell me that karaoke is “really wide open. You hear a va­ri­ety of mu­sic — Broad­way show tunes, bal­lads, dance songs. It’s all up to the in­di­vid­ual and what they’re a fan of. You might love Bette Mi­dler, so you get up there and sing one of her songs.”

Alysha — a trained vo­cal­ist who stud­ied mu­sic in col­lege — sang “Sum­mer­time” in the style of Ja­nis Jo­plin, per­fectly and all the way through to the end. She was with a group of women at a birth­day party. They sang many songs, in­clud­ing a rous­ing ren­di­tion of “Love Shack” by the B-52s, as part of a pri­vate karaoke bat­tle among them­selves. Soon enough, it was my turn. It went OK. I bot­tomed out on a couple of notes, but I kept up with the lyrics and a bunch of peo­ple at the bar sang along, which was a lit­tle dis­tract­ing but also nice be­cause they seemed very en­thu­si­as­tic about my song choice. And then Wil­liam, who had never sung karaoke be­fore, sang “The Pi­ano Has Been Drink­ing” by Tom Waits — and he was really good, treat­ing the song more as a the­atri­cal per­for­mance than a chance to show off his pipes. Tantri did not sing, even though ru­mor has it she has a great voice.

Around 11:30 p.m. a man in his for­ties, styled like an old-school ’80s punk, sang “Mother” by Danzig. The man’s abil­ity to scream-sing with the in­ten­sity re­quired to ef­fec­tively pull off true hard­core heavy metal was wor­ry­ingly good. We were mes­merHe ized. had so much en­ergy. And in the end, he threw the mi­cro­phone on the floor with an an­gry flour­ish. The en­tire au­di­ence went silent and the kind, white-haired karaoke host, who’d been help­ing the lone wait­ress bus ta­bles all night, grum­bled at him to leave.

“Call me a cab!” he yelled, us­ing the ex­pected ex­ple­tive as an ad­jec­tive mod­i­fy­ing “cab.”

In still­ness of the rapt crowd, the host shrugged and said, dead­pan, “[Ex­ple­tive] cab.”

A few sec­onds passed, and then we all burst into ap­plause as the man slammed out of the bar.

Af­ter that un­top­pable mo­ment, which Tantri de­scribed as “in­de­pen­dent-film good,” it seemed like the right time to call it a night, though Tiny’s karaoke lasts un­til 12:30 a.m. It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that I will at­tend karaoke at Tiny’s again, whether or not I sing. There are very few neigh­bor­hood-type bars in Santa Fe, which are the kind of bars I like, but Tiny’s fits the bill per­fectly. If you go, try the chicken gua­camole ta­cos, don’t stress about how you sound, and re­mem­ber to tip your wait­ress.

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