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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
independent
bookseller
No. 25: 

Jeanette MacDonald among the Ruins

Editor's note:
For once, Carlisle's the perfect representative of his theme: weird subcultures. Each of the the following hand-picked titles provides an intimate portrait of an unusual, and fascinating, subculture.
Big If
Big If
by Mark Costello


One of the most talked about novels of the season is about the bizarre lives of a group of Secret Service agents charged with protecting the Vice President.

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Them
Them: Adventures with Extremists
by Jon Ronson

This is a hilarious and insightful account of Jon Ronson's experiences making friends with several groups of insane conspiracy theorists.

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Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women
Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women
by Alexa Albert


Alexa Albert spent a great deal of time interviewing the employees of the world famous Mustang Ranch, and produced this book to show for it. Sorry, no pictures.

Your Price: $14.95
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Have a Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks
Have a Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks
by Mick Foley


The best book about the bizarre world of professional wrestling ever written.

Your Price $7.99
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Blinded  by the Right
Blinded by the Right
by David Brock


Once liberal David Brock let himself be seduced by the far right he eventually became their main hatchet man. This book is his survivor's tale of the dozen years he spent as a conniving extremist.

Your Price $25.95
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Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America
Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America
by Eddy Joe Cotton


"Eddy Joe Cotton’s mesmerizing passion for the romance of roadside diners, hobo jungles, and clattering boxcars will make your heart soar." Alan Kaufman

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Confederates in the Attic
Confederates in the Attic
by Tony Horwitz


Few groups in the country are as flat out insane, or as genuinely charming, as the Civil War reenactors that Tony Horwitz so ably captures in this hilarious book.

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The Orchid Thief
The Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean's justly popular account of the obsessive world of orchid collectors.

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B oy, am I beat. I can hardly keep my eyes open, let alone concentrate. It must have been 2:30 when I finally put my head to the pillow last night. Fortunately, all I have to do today is get this column out. Each clack of the keyboard may feel like another bowling ball dropped on my head, but at least I don't have to talk to anyone. I don't think I could — my voice is completely shot.

I suppose I overdid it, but it was well worth it. As the sports bar set likes to say: I totally nailed it. But you don't even know what I'm talking about, do you? Why don't I pop a few aspirin and backtrack a little?

For those who don't know me well, I should begin by telling you that my passion is singing. I spend every weekday evening at one or another of Portland's finer karaoke establishments. There's the Kon Tiki, the Pink Purse, and the Cuff to name of few. Last night, it being Wednesday, I got off work and headed for the Brass Fern.

As always, I arrived at 7:30 to claim my favorite table. In the Brass Fern, that's a two-top in the back corner near the kitchen door where no one will pay attention to me — no one, that is, until I command their attention from the front of the room. I know none of the regulars would ever sit in my spot, nor I in theirs. There is an unstated code among serious singers. It's simple enough — never interfere, always applaud, and respect one another's turf — but taken very seriously, and rarely violated. Last night being a glaring exception.

When I arrived, the entire back row — including my table — had already been confiscated by a large group of moronic youths. You know, the ones who think it's a hoot and a holler to descend on karaoke bars en masse, get excessively drunk, and sing "Eye of the Tiger" and "Stand by Your Man" badly. They're wrong. It's neither hoot nor holler. It's just bad manners.

These increasingly common interlopers seem to derive pleasure from chemically decreasing their IQs as far as possible (to decrease them at all is a minor miracle) and then proudly demonstrating their accomplishment to as many friends and strangers as possible. They don't seem to care if, in the process, they ruin everyone else's fun. And the group last night was particularly ruinous.

When I arrived — at 7:30, mind you — they were already ordering tequila "shooters" by the trayful and filling out song requests in small stacks. My first reaction was to simply leave and call it a night. But I quickly thought better of it. It's high time we began standing up to these inebriate children, with their simian antics and overdeveloped sense of irony. It's time to take karaoke back from the philistines. I ordered a sherry and put in my first song request.

The members of this group had obviously planned their evening in advance. They had each dressed in a different period outfit. When the first one got up to sing dressed like Fonzie, I wasn't at all surprised to hear the opening chords of "Hound Dog" emanating from the sound system. Elvis. Predictable. But, harmless enough. When he was finished we heard from Vic Damone (in a ratty vintage suit) and Stevie Nicks (draped in scarves and pentagrams). Of course, they all sang terribly, but, with only two or three drinks in them, they weren't yet disruptive, just mildly obnoxious.

I took special pleasure, though, when one of the regulars got up and demonstrated the true art of karaoke. Though I've seen this same gentleman hundreds of times on countless evenings, I don't know his real name. Each of us comes here to be someone else for the evening, so we respect each other's anonymity. I think of this burly guy in the mutton chops and John Deere cap as Dan Fogelberg, for, night after night, that's who he's come here to be. He has worked long and hard to train his voice to inhabit the sweet melancholy of the "Leader of the Band." And he now delivered a heartfelt rendition of this signature song so sincere, so understated, so true to the gentle spirit of the original, it was impossible to remained unmoved.

Unfortunately, the back table was too busy slogging down shots and brewskis, they didn't even notice. Too bad. If they had any idea how much effort and talent are required to affect such a seamless transformation they might show a little respect.

As with any art, karaoke takes discipline and focus. It's no coincidence that the best karaoke practitioners have dedicated themselves to a single artist. To spread yourself thin among several personas would spell disaster. It just isn't done. For example, in the room last night, we had an apprentice Barry Manilow, a journeyman Joan Jett, and that curly-locked waif who has perfected the boisterous, boyish charisma of Leo Sayer.

Meanwhile, at our table of odious adolescents, the booze was beginning to take effect: intelligence quotients were plummeting rapidly, and the "conversation" was getting louder by the minute. But what's worse, they were demonstrating their complete ignorance of, or worse, their utter disregard for, the code: they laughed at Barry Manilow, sang along with Joan Jett, and actually got up and danced with a horrified Leo Sayer. I determined not to let them get me down. The KJ (that's "karaoke jockey" for you amateurs) had just indicated that my song was on deck, so I got ready to show them what a pro could do.

However, I still had to wait through one song. A young woman from the table of thick-wits stepped up to the mic. She was the Platonic ideal of Eighties Pop. Though button cute, with bird-fine features and a prepubescent figure, her get-up was a cross between Joan Crawford severity and the soiled innocence of a child prostitute: shoulder pads the size of anvils, lacey purple mini skirt, cherry red cowboy boots, and that short, feathered-back hair popularized by a billion Pat Nagel posters (and made possible by an abundance of cheap hairspray). She might have stepped off the set of a Human League video.

But then the first chords of her song began to play and my heart dropped to the indoor-outdoor carpeting. It was a Sheena Easton song. How dare she! She had no right! Everyone knows that I do Sheena Easton. And I was up next.

I had three and half minutes to size up my competition. The song was Sheena's first single and first hit, "Modern Girl." I had to admit, it was an excellent choice. Upbeat and catchy, it's a perfect opener. But I didn't really begin to worry until she opened her mouth to sing. I won't deny that she had an excellent voice: thin in timbre, but with a strong punch — like raspberries soaked in cognac. In fact, her voice sounded unmistakably like Sheena Easton's. I had to concentrate if I was going to find a weakness.

It didn't take long. First of all, she may have had all the right equipment, but she wasn't really prepared to make use of it. In fact, she was just playing around, emphasizing the wrong words and making suggestive hand motions in order to twist the song's meaning. She was mistaken if she thought she was funny. The way she distorted "An independent lady, takin' care of herself..." and "She's been dreaming 'bout it all day long..." was really quite shocking.

In the back of the room, though, they ate it up, laughing and catcalling throughout: "Sounds like this modern girl needs some old fashioned lovin'," and so on. The entire display was really quite vulgar. When she finished — finally — they all went crazy, like a pack of rabid dogs. As I glanced around the room, though, I was pleased to see the regulars pursing their lips in disapproval and clapping only as much as civility required.

Nonetheless, I took the mic with some apprehension. As you can no doubt guess, I look nothing like Sheena Easton, nor does my raspy baritone voice sound the least bit like her. I wasn't even wearing shoulder pads, just a simple plaid scarf around my neck in respect for Ms. Easton's Scottish homeland.

Nevertheless, I still felt confident. As Bob Dylan demonstrated decades ago, appearance and singing talent are superfluous. As many great artists have taught, to really breathe life into one's art, you have to live it from the inside. For a singer, this means digging deep into the lyrics, finding the song's story. For every song is just a stylized narrative, and every singer, at root, a storyteller. Miss Irony might make playful hay out of a line or two, but she lacked that hard-won ability, only possessed by a real artist, to locate and express the heart of a song. She hadn't paid her dues.

I had chosen for my first song of the evening, "Strut." This was a big hit for Sheena. Why? Sure, it's got a saucy, danceable beat, which never hurts. But in the hands of another singer, this magnificent song might never have run up the charts like the stars and stripes at a Republican convention. People around the world responded to Sheena's "Strut" because she understood — instinctively — the inner struggle out of which this song was born.

"Strut" tells the story of a beautiful young woman struggling with the vagaries of relationships. In order to get excited, her man needs her to "strut, pout, put it out." However, she feels demeaned that he wants her to pretend to be something she's not, that he can't simply love her for who she is: "Honey, I don't like this game, you make me feel like a girl for hire." Who can't relate to that? This poignant song expresses the deep currents of alienation and loneliness we all experience.

I had to sing this song many, many times before I finally penetrated its meaning. But today, I consider it one of the strongest in my repertoire. Yes, as I stepped up to the mic I had the jitters. But once I had begun to sing, I drew on my experience, and dug deep into the wide range of emotions expressed in the song. The crowd was silent throughout, but when I had finished the final, haunting line — "I won't be your baby doll, be your baby doll..." — they went wild.

The regulars were clapping appreciatively, lips unpursed. But those in the back were so stunned by the contrast between the two Sheena's they had just heard, many of them could only respond with laughter. One young gentleman in platform shoes, bell bottoms, and a wide-lapelled shirt with a metallic sheen actually yelled out, "Oh. My. God. Is he for real?" Yes, I am.

I felt triumphant. It was still early, but I had set the standard for the rest of the evening, and I planned to make the most of it. I ordered a second sherry, a double, and settled in. Over the next five hours, I sang through, as though on fire, my entire Sheena Easton repertoire, including "For Your Eyes Only," "Almost Over You," "Telefone," and, of course, Sheena's smash hit about the ecstatic joy of love, "Morning Train."

Miss Irony made no acknowledgment of her defeat. Instead she acted as though she had only intended to sing the one Sheena Easton song, and spent the remainder of the evening doing increasingly incoherent versions of songs by a variety of eighties divas: Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Pat Benatar, Laura Brannigan, etc.

I began to feel sorry for her. So when, toward the end of the evening, she stumbled over to my table, now quite drunk, and asked, "Hey dude, you and your scarf want to do a sing-a-long? We could do 'We've Got Tonight.' And since you're the Sheena expert, I'll be Kenny Rogers and you can be the Scots pixie. What do you think?," what could I do but agree.

I noticed that while we waited for our song to come up, she had two more tequilas, so when our names were finally called, I wasn't surprised to see her stagger up to the mic with visible difficulty. But the music had already begun, and since I had the first verse, I had no time to worry about her, and jumped right in:

I know it's late, I know you're weary
I know your plans don't include me...

When she finally began to sing, I was impressed not only by the strength of her breath, but by how slurred her speech had become. She was also now swaying back and forth visibly. Clearly, I was going to have to carry the song.

But then — disaster. I don't know what made her do it. Had she planned it all along? Was she simply lashing out against feelings of inferiority? Who knows? But about midway through the song, where she was supposed to sing, "And here we are / What do you say?" she leaned over, reached down the back of my trousers, grabbed my underwear, and yanked upward. She was trying to give me a wedgie.

Fortunately, she was so drunk, she lost her grip — and her balance — and sent herself to the floor instead. The entire back table, as if on cue, burst out in a fit of communal hilarity, which only increased when something besides laughter began to pour from my would-be attacker's mouth.

I was shocked and horrified, but what could I do? Like Jeanette MacDonald among the ruins, I held firmly to the mic and sang like there was no tomorrow.

We've got tonight
Who needs tomorrow?
Let's make it last
Let's find a way
Turn out the light
Come take my hand now
We've got tonight
Why don't you stay?

The decibel level continued to increase as people fell over themselves cheering and laughing. But through grit and determination I finished the song. I had single-handedly averted total disaster.

Clearly, the audience was grateful. When I finished, the entire back table began to chant in drunken unison, "Sheena, Sheena, Sheena..." One lovely waitress, apparently concerned for my voice, kindly suggested I "give it a rest for once?"

And on the way out, as the bar was closing, I overheard one young woman dressed as Rosie the Riveter telling her friend, "If only the real Sheena Easton were that entertaining." Though I felt conflicted at her blasphemy, I accepted the compliment gracefully, and, satisfied, went home to get a few hours sleep.

—Carlisle

     

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