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Everywhere Around the World, They Love Karaoke

by Tim McMahan

 

When The Omaha Reader's Editor in Chief Max Sparber left a message on my machine asking me to write a story about karaoke, I blanched. I considered karaoke the lowest of the low in the music world. Not even music, really, but the act of imitating music, the bob and sway of pasty white middle- to lower-class Americans trying to pump life into tired old Neil Diamond songs, their fruitless efforts all sung off key. This wasn't an assignment, this was a journey into a hell inhabited by sweat-pants wearing tone-deaf bar hounds.

But after just one night in the All Nations Brew House, 1830 No. 72nd St., my opinion of karaoke -- and its people -- changed drastically and forever.

The first time I ever saw karaoke was in a bar stuffed in the bowels of the old, pre-facelift Westroads Mall in Omaha called "The Revolving Door." Ah, memories. The concept behind the bar was simple -- while your loved one shopped for that fancy new pair of slacks or tried on dozens of shoes, you could wait patiently over an icy cold beer and watch whatever game was on TV. But the real fun didn't begin until the evening, when large groups of soon-to-be-drunk revelers came in to test their vocal chords on the bar's fancy karaoke outfit. It was quite a novelty at the time, 10 or 12 years ago. The Revolving Door has since been replaced by a huge impersonal video arcade.

I hadn't even thought of karaoke for a decade when this assignment came along. So after combing through the dozen or so Omaha bars that feature karaoke, I bit down hard and made my way to All Nations.

I expected to see about 20 bored patrons smoking cigarettes and watching a ballgame. But it was a Saturday night, and the place was absolutely crammed. Not a single table was open. By 8:30, the show had already begun and the crowd was getting into it as some tall, lanky kid wearing a Skinyard T-shirt did his best to sell an utterly unique version of Sweet's "Ball Room Blitz," a version I've never heard before.

All Nations is your typical Midwestern tavern -- a long single room bordered on one side by the bar and the other by a fireplace and shuffleboard. It has all the accouterments you'd expect -- the beer banners, ceiling fans, crowded tables full of smokers and drinkers, TV sets and keno.

 

I pushed through the crowd to get a beer and asked waitress Barb Briest what this karaoke business was all about. "It's just what it's for, for entertainment," she said, leaning forward past a keno machine. "When they sing good, it's good. When they sing badly, you hope they're not singing a long song. The people seem to love it."

She was rather half-hearted in her review of karaoke, as was her bartender friend, Ray Svec, who has worked at All Nations for years. "When it started, it was big," he said. "Now it's kind of taming down."

Svec is yelling now over the noise of two young women trying to belt out an off-key version of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." The crowd hoots when they finish.

"Barb, you're next… Barb!"

Up walks a bleach blond women in her late 30s wearing a tight pink sweater, jeans and shit-kickers. The speakers begin cranking out the opening chords of Patsy Cline's (or more accurately, Barb's) "I Fall to Pieces." Her eyes lock in on a 12-inch monitor mounted to a pedestal pointed right at her, while behind her the words glow from a big-screen TV so everyone can join in, if they want to. Barb actually has a pretty good voice, but a poor stage presence, as her eyes never sway from the monitor, never rise from the screen to see if anyone is listening.

This whole form of entertainment is possible thanks to the karaoke machine, a wonder of technology. Doug McCulloch explained how it all works. He's a karaoke DJ who's also employed by Brian Hill Entertainment, the same karaoke company as tonight's mistress of ceremonies, Penny Lee. Just 19, McCulloch has been hosting his own karaoke show on Friday nights for the past three months at the Bellevue Eagles Club. "Penny's been doing it for years," he said, admiringly. The samurai-ponytailed guy with a goatee is a South Dakota transplant who used to be in a band called Black Sun that broke up shortly after he moved to Omaha. He says he took his karaoke job because he already knew the equipment and to keep his fingers in the music business.

If you've never seen karaoke before (a virtual impossibility), the concept is simple. Old-time favorites and standards are recorded minus the vocal tracks, which the swinging patrons fill in via microphone. The karaoke machine uses a compact disc called a CD-G. Each disc has about 17 songs and the digital files to display lyrics on the vocalist's monitor and the big-screen projector. Patrons can choose from a book of about 5,000 popular hits, everything from favorites by Garth Brooks, Meatloaf and Neil Diamond (the patron saint of karaoke), to Lenny Kravitz and the Offspring. But that's not all, singers also can choose from TV Tunes, MegaHits, even songs made infamous on South Park.

"This unit is one of our smallest," McColloch says of the All Nations' set up. "We have one that has a smoke machine, strobe and laser lights. When you rent it, you get two DJs and four dancers."

I ask what the dancers are for. "Well, they dance all night to the songs," he says, matter-of-factly. I am unable to visualize exactly why you would pay for that. "We only use the big set up for huge parties."

Karaoke was born in Kobe City, Japan, more than 20 years ago. The Japanese word means "empty orchestra." According to a karaoke website (and there are literally dozens of them), karaoke started at a snack bar that featured a strolling guitarist. Then one day, when he was too sick to perform, the owner prepared tapes of accompaniment recordings and let patrons sing to the tapes. Mass hysteria soon followed. The story is a legend, of course. Regardless, the long-forgotten Japanese snack bar owner couldn't have imagined that his invention would pack in sweaty crowds at Omaha taverns two decades later.

 

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"When they sing good, it's good. When they sing badly, you hope they're not singing a long song."


 

The tradition has been kept alive and thriving by people like Penny Lee. Lee, a kind-faced older woman in a red sweater and reading glasses, is a consummate professional. You can tell she has a heart of gold, that she loves what she's doing and that she's very good at it. It takes a special skill to be able to coax people to stand up in front of a drunken bar crowd and try to sing a song that they've probably heard a million times.

Some are nervous, shy, and downright afraid. Others look like they've sung in lounges all their lives. Still others take the whole thing too seriously, McColloch said. "They'll tell people to shut up while they're singing. It really brings the crowd down."

Lee said she's had instances where singers would be so frustrated by crowd noise that they've thrown down the microphone and stomped off stage. "Hey, you know what? This is a bar, not a concert hall," she said.

Then there are the ringers. "I know a lot of DJs who do karaoke who have problems playing favorites," Lee said, referring to the lounge lizard wannabes with better-than-average talent. "They tend to ignore the others who want to sing but aren't so good."

It's quite evident that Lee does nothing of the sort. She shows me the list of those already signed up to sing tonight, at least 60 or 70, enough to go well past the midnight cut-off time. Her job is to lead the applause. "Especially for the karaoke virgins, the ones who are up there for the first time," she said.

The guy in a Hawaiian shirt, glasses and 5 o'clock shadow trying his best to entertain with "Secret Agent Man" fits the descriptions. He struggles with the high notes on the chorus. No one minds. When he finishes, some of the crowd claps kindly, most just continue their conversations. Now it's Penny's turn at the mic. Her routine calls for her to do the night's opening number, then a number to start "the second set," and finally, a closer. She grabs the mic and kicks out a dead-on version of a Mary Chapin Carpenter song that I've never heard before.

You can tell she knows what she's doing. With a degree in music from Augustana in Sioux Falls, S.D., Lee says she's done more than her share of musical theater over the years. "I got tired of it," she said. "I got turned down for a lot of roles because I'm fat. I had one audition for Come Back Little Sheba where I blew the director away, but still didn't get the part."

 

She hands the mic to "John," a regular, who struggles imitating John Cougar Mellencamp on "Jack & Diane." Even Lee winces through a smile.

A spry older man wearing a blue T-shirt that says, "I'm 40 and I feel great. Feel for yourself," picks up the mic, grinning, and belts out John Denver's "Country Roads." Not bad at all. After the opening verse, he sits down on the floor in front of Lee and gives her an off-key serenade. The crowd eats it up.

Finally, it's McColloch's turn at the mic. He tries singing Neil Diamond's "Hello, Again." You can tell  that he was never the lead singer in Black Sun.

"Tom, you're up next. Tom!"

Tom swaggers up to the mic, a good ol' boy who looks like someone's dad or a truck driver in his jeans, glasses and boots. Tom says "here we go," right before he starts singing, Waylon Jennings-style. I never quite figure out the tune. "By the end of the night, he'll be slurring his word and pacing back and forth," McColloch said, sounding jealous.

That's when I started noticing something touching about what I was witnessing. Like in the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, when Grinchy heard the Who's in Whoville singing on Christmas day, my heart grew three times too big. Just like those Who's, these people were genuinely having a good time despite it all -- a rarity at bars these days.

This is your typical Midwestern crowd, nothing snotty at all. These are the blue collar people who do the work we all take for granted. Most wear Nebraska Cornhusker apparel, blue jeans and sweats. When a small cluster comes in the door, they're greeted with hugs, handshakes and how-ya-doin's, as if they all fought together in the war.

 

"Hey, you know what? This is a bar, not a concert hall."


 

The waitress, Barb, gets my attention from behind the bar. "You're in luck. We usually don't have this many good singers," she said.

This is not evident, however, when the two girls who sang the Joan Jett number earlier that evening begin belting out Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." Somewhere, Trent Reznor was having a seizure. The crowd hollered and hee-hawed when they got to the part that goes, "I want to fuck you like an animal," the dynamic duo punctuating each word with the proper gyration.

Finally, "Shaun" was called to the mic. Wearing maroon warm-up pants and a black Nebraska sweatshirt, the football-player-sized 20-something-year-old belted out a dead-on version of Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks." McColloch mentioned earlier that Shaun, a karaoke "regular," focused the majority of his skills on Diamond material. Penny said he has dreams of being a professional singer, "but he still has some learning to do. I think he could do it."

 

Could karaoke be this warm, kind and fun-loving everywhere? I left All Nations for the fabulous Brass Knocker, 3012 No. 102nd St., to find out. I used to live a couple blocks from the bar when I was in college. Back then, it looked like someone's basement complete with wet bar. Someone has since fixed up the place to resemble a hotel bar on the seedy side of the Las Vegas strip.

The atmosphere didn't seem nearly as warm and inviting as at All Nations. Everyone looked upset when I walked in. They stared relentlessly, trying to figure out who the new guy was. After I ordered a beer, they slowly turned back to their own drinks and to the DJ singing in the corner, who sounded like a pro. If anything, the quality of singers at the Brass Knocker was far superior to those at All Nations. Almost everyone was close to being on pitch. One guy even took turns dancing with a couple different women song after song. No one danced at All Nations.

But after a few tunes, I noticed that the same big, blow-dried, blond-haired guy had sung three in a row. He was a ringer, and everyone was just letting him keep on singing. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something odd. Tucked in the corner of the bar was the guy who sang the incomprehensible version of "Ball Room Blitz" at All Nations! A moment later, I noticed a woman who had also been at the other bar earlier in the evening. Were they checking out the karaoke action from bar to bar? Had I stumbled into some sort of karaoke cult?

I never had a chance to answer my own questions, as the crowd all turned to the staging area where a gray-bearded guy in full Husker regalia grabbed the mic and brought the place to a shuddering silence with an off-kilter funhouse version of Neil Diamond's "America."

"Everywhere around the world/They come to America!" he warbled with pride. It was the ultimate capper to an ultimate night of karaoke. A doubting curmudgeon had become a believer. There was power in Neil Diamond, I just needed to open up my heart and let it in. I never again would doubt the power of "empty orchestra."


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Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Published in The Reader Jan. 13, 2000.

 

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