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SOCIAL CLIMES / UP ALL NIGHT

With Songs Like These, Who Needs a Voice?

June 18, 1995|HILLARY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's safe to say the entire history of the Farmer's Market has been leading up to this moment: karaoke. Finally the waves of Japanese tourists, the dapper but frayed old gents and the hipsters with goatees and baby-doll barrettes all converge, screaming, whistling and stomping in one beery, cacophonous orgy of style gone mad.

This could well be the end of the universe as we know it, the twilight revel that ends it all, just before the lights go out in Georgia.

The song list is impeccably suited to the venue, EB's bar. These aren't classics. Only a handful can be found by looking under "S" for "standards" or "Sinatra." For the most part, the tunes on the list are the kinds of songs that make you howl with recognition.

This is music to evoke memories of that long hot summer when you were 16 and had your first real job, working in the basement at Kmart, and all they could play on the radio were Muzak versions of hits by Mac Davis and the 5th Dimension.

But hey, you still know all the words, so go for it.

If you don't know the words, lyrics flash on a monitor in front of the stage. Everyone who performs is astonishingly good--maybe even suspiciously good. The music and the backup vocals are forgiving, easy to fade into, you can't go wrong. Or maybe it's just that it's virtually impossible to botch a song as profoundly bad as "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" by Barry Gibb.

The schedule reads 6 p.m., though the crew only begins to arrive then, setting up the stage and loudspeakers and the sign-up sheet for early birds. A woman named Jo knows the numbers of her songs by heart. "I've been doing this for three years," she says with an air of professionalism.

On one recent evening, the first performer, after the emcee warms up the crowd, is a woman named Nancy, who wears a white lace dress and belts out Helen Reddy's "Delta Dawn."

"I thought it was going to be really corny," she says. "But it's actually sort of addictive. I already have my next songs planned. Barbra Streisand's 'Stony End,' and 'A Different Drum,' by Linda Ronstadt."

Next up is Rob Campbell, making his karaoke debut. He does justice to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" and, tellingly, everyone in the audience seems to know the lyrics, singing along as if to do so were some strange, ritualistic compulsion. "It was that or 'Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,' " says Campbell.

It's best to call first or check the schedule printed on flyers available at the bar. A recent 7 p.m. trip proved futile. The bar was closed, and instead of karaoke there was a bearded man with a guitar singing children's songs while an audience of bewildered grown-ups wiggled their fingers over their heads like bunny rabbits.

High camp or summer camp? No one seemed able to tell.

It's just a theory, but it seems plausible that karaoke was invented by the Japanese right after they saw this very guy playing right here at the Farmer's Market. Where would we be now but for these important moments of cultural exchange?

*

Where: EB's--the bar located at the western end of the Farmer's Market, 3rd and Fairfax. (213) 933-9211.

When: Most Saturdays, 6 to 9 p.m. Erratic schedule--call first.

Cost: Draft beer $2.50.

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