Crow is a rotten entree, especially for a true believer.
I had been so sure about singing. I would mildly berate people who shied from it, who claimed a tin ear (very unlikely), a terrible voice (can be trained) or consuming stage fright (for wienies).
It had never occurred to me that I might be wrong. After all, I had been a choral singer since college, and I had notched up some of my life's most satisfying moments on various stages with my vocal colleagues. Why, it's a natural thing to stand in front of people and sing, I would say with an irritating trace of smugness. It's glorious, exalting, liberating. . . .
There I was, sitting in the bar at Benihana in Newport Beach, staring at an empty stage and stirring my drink much too thoroughly. I had sung sweat-free for years, I was telling myself. So why do I feel like bolting for the door now?
Welcome to karaoke for beginners.
That was me. I had spent so much time singing big choral masterworks with lots of other singers around me but had never stepped up to the mike in a karaoke bar. I had resolved to change that in one Saturday night, making the rounds, belting out a few. A cinch, I figured.
First stop, J. Dee's Landing in Sunset Beach. I arrived about 7:30 and passed the karaoke stage on the way to the bar. A young woman was onstage with the mike, standing next to the karaoke DJ and working her way capably through a country song I didn't recognize. The place was small and cozy and had the feel of regulars about it.
I settled in, getting my bearings. I would watch a few, I reasoned, then step up myself and give it a try. A thin man in boots sang another unfamiliar country song in a strong, clear voice, and then a pretty woman stepped up and sang "The Rose" in lovely, pure tones. I hadn't touched my drink, and I was beginning to fidget. I was going to have trouble forcing myself to go next. But then the DJ himself took the mike, sang a confident "New York, New York" and said good night.
Reprieved, I asked him how one goes about requesting a song. He handed me a small slip of paper and said that next time I should write my first name, the song title and its catalogue number on the slip, hand it to him and wait for my name to be called.
Matters crystallized at my next stop, Benihana. Since the Japanese invented karaoke, I reasoned that I could learn most about it in a Japanese restaurant. I was right.
The bar was only partially full when I showed up about 9, and the DJ was doing some singing of her own to demonstrate, apparently, how the setup worked: Request a song, come to the stage, pick up the mike, watch a video monitor in front of you, and the lyrics will appear. Behind you, the selection will play, minus the vocal track. You supply that.
A table of four friends arrived and quickly snatched up four song catalogues. Good, I thought, guinea pigs. Within a few minutes, one of the men had stepped up, and the video display announced that he was about to sing the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." Which he did, enthusiastically, and got enthusiastic applause from the start from everyone in the room.
Next, a statuesque young woman who had arrived with her date a minute before stepped up. I thought she looked vaguely like Grace Slick. Sure enough, she sang the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Well. Even greater applause.
One woman from the four-friends group tentatively sang the Carpenters' "Top of the World," and the crowd loved it. Good room, I thought. Time to go in over the horns. I wrote down my name and the number and title of my selection, Blood, Sweat and Tears' "And When I Die." It didn't occur to me that the title might be prophetic.
As with the others, the crowd started clapping before I got onstage. I stepped up and immediately felt naked. Where were all the other singers I was used to? Where was that comforting sea of faces to hide in? The monitor glowed balefully. The faces in the dim room stared back. I fidgeted with the unfamiliar mike, immediately forgetting how the tune went. Then the music started.
Ah. Right. Memories of yowling out David Clayton-Thomas' country-gospel hit while driving my dad's VW to high school band practice came flooding back. Ancient reflexes kicked in, the bar crowd (some now decently sake'd up) applauded, and suddenly it was easy.
The world was kind, the bar bunch was the kindest, most generous, most perceptive, most wonderful collection of people on Earth, and together we would bring about world peace by singing karaoke until the sun came up.
Well, not quite that long. One of the four friends did "Yesterday," Grace Slick dissolved in giggles while singing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and I got in "Up on the Roof" before hitting one more stop, the Bombay Bicycle Club in Santa Ana.
That place was packed, and I had to wait nearly 45 minutes until my request slip came up and I could sing the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." I had forgotten the song was so short.
But the crowd clapped. Tomorrow, world peace. And maybe a shot at "Jailhouse Rock."