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
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
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
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
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.