by ARNO HOLSCHUH
IF YOU LOOK AROUND HERE, THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT KINDS of people," says Vicki Sleight as she scans the Thursday night crowd at Rumours, a cocktail lounge in Eureka. She's right: While most people in the bar are middle-aged women, there are also cowboys, professionals, older men and a stray college kid scattered across the tables.
"All walks of life and different professions come together for this one thing they all crave," Sleight said. "They crave to sing."
She sits back in her chair, looks at the woman struggling to sing Britney Spears' I'm "Not That Innocent," and adds thoughtfully: "And to hear themselves singing out loud."
That craving gets satisfied every night of the week somewhere in Humboldt County by karaoke. One of Japan's most successful cultural imports, karaoke offers participants a chance to star in renditions of their favorite songs that have been re-recorded without vocal tracks. You choose a song from thousands listed in a book, give that number to the host or machine that's running the show, and sing along to words that appear on a monitor.
Regular people with little or no vocal training can -- and do, for better or for worse -- replace Frank Sinatra on "My Way" and Al Green on "Let's Stay Together."
It's a chance to live out your fantasies, Sleight said. "You can really tell when they start dancing like the actual singers do in the videos," she adds. As we both turn and watch a mature Britney bumping and grinding away, I can see what she means.
LEFT: Rumors co-owner Val Morelli,
right, sings along with a karaoke star.
The sign outside Jon's Club in Fortuna advertises that it is "Karaoke Headquarters," and it has the schedule to prove it: Any night of the week, you can come into Jon's and sing along to a selection of rock or country.
In fact, the smoky barroom contains little more than a few tables made from giant slices of redwood, a pool table and a karaoke apparatus that takes up almost an entire wall.
"It cost us $15,000" to buy the machine, said Judy Coleman, who owns and operates Jon's with her husband, Tom. A rare coin-operated system, the machine plays a song for a quarter and is in use more often than not.
Buying the machine was a big risk, Coleman said. "When I bought this, the dealer told me, `Well, coin-op karaoke has not been known to work.' I said, `Well, I'm not the kind of person who takes that for granted.'"
"But we put all our eggs in one basket," she said.
The gamble has paid off. Coleman said karaoke "is the only reason we're surviving in the bar business now."
As if on cue, a customer came in, ordered a cup of coffee and stepped up to the machine. A karaoke regular, Dan Kennedy has a voice similar to Waylon Jennings with a little more gravel. He sang four songs in a row, then sat back down to his coffee.
Sam Kesler, a worker at the California Conservation Corps' Fortuna camp, said he comes into Jon's to relax.
"I come down here to have quiet time," he said, and promptly got up and sang a version of Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" so loud and off-key it would curdle milk.
When he sat back down to his beer, everyone clapped, and they weren't being facetious. Karaoke is the ultimate egalitarian art form: Gifted singers are appreciated, but no more so than rank amateurs. You can be off-key, off-beat and singing lyrics from an entirely unrelated song, and the crowd will still clap.
That's because it's ironically more entertaining to watch people sing badly than to sing well, said Matt Koelling, a Web designer at HSU who sings at the Alibi and, until recently, Marino's. I spoke with Koelling just after he finished a scorching, if slightly unorthodox, version of "Secret Agent Man."
"There is about a one-to-five ratio of good to bad," he said. "More often than not they can't sing, but I always cheer for them. It's more fun," he said.
"I love listening to the talent," said Val Morelli, owner of Rumours. "But I also like the non-talent."
Sean Macfarland, an HSU student and computer programmer who regularly comes down to the Alibi to watch but never to sing, said he found the bad singers fascinating.
"It's like watching lemmings run into the ocean," he said.
LEFT: Evelyn Doyle peruses the
karaoke selections. MIDDLE: Chris Clay sings a country ballad.
"Karaoke is a venue for people who want to sing but aren't professionals," said Sherry LeMond, who runs the "Makin' Music" karaoke service.
"It's for the guy who sings in his car or the shower."
LeMond is a self-described "KJ." She owns a portable karaoke setup -- music, CD player, microphone, sound system -- that she transports from one bar to another. With one of several assistant KJs, she sets up her system for others to use.
But she brings more than just equipment, LeMond said. The success or failure of a night of karaoke "depends on the KJ running the show," she said.
"If the people don't have a good time, I haven't done my job," she said. "If I sit there and nobody's singing and I don't do anything about it, you won't have a show.
"The KJ's job is to make it so fun that people want to sing."
Doing her job takes finesse and people skills, LeMond said. "You have to be able to read people," she said.
"If I see a guy at the bar and he says to me, `There isn't enough beer in here to get me to sing,' I have to figure out whether he's saying `Come back and tease me until I sing,' or `Leave me alone to drink my beer,'" LeMond said.
Subtleties like stage design can make a difference, too, said Judy Lewis, who puts on karaoke shows with her fiance, Richard Evans. The two KJs -- known as Karaoke Express -- put a string of lights down around the microphone to give the impression of footlights on a stage.
And then there are the props. Lewis said she places inflatable toy guitars and saxophones around the mic so that people "have something to hold on to if they get nervous."
LeMond said that one of the most important parts of karaoke was how a KJ interacts with the audience.
"I love to play the crowd," she said. If things get too slow, she'll call for a twist contest. If someone sings so well that it's intimidating others, she'll sing a song herself.
"As soon as someone arrives, I'll approach them," said Lewis. "I start talking to them, give them the book. I never want to make them feel like we're not approachable."
Evans and Lewis said a sure-fire way to get people fired up was to stage a karaoke version of the Gong Show. Contestants are given random songs to sing and judged on their performance. In the case of utter failure, a contestant can get "gonged" -- booted offstage. That works better than regular karaoke contests, Rich said, because it causes less animosity between contestants.
And karaoke rivalries can be intense, LeMond said. "I've seen people not speak to each other for months because of karaoke contests," she said.
Providing a good karaoke experience is about more than just a day's work, LeMond said. She sees herself as something of a karaoke ambassador, and she is responsible through her shows for giving it a good name -- after all, bad karaoke can have long-lasting consequences.
"If someone's been to a bad karaoke show, it'll leave a bad taste in their mouth. Then it's like pulling hen's teeth to get them to come back and try again."
"Pulling hen's teeth" aptly describes how difficult it is to get me to sing in front of an audience. But somehow, when Lewis approached me in Rumours and asked me if I intended to sing, I said yes. Maybe it was the pint of Budweiser; maybe it was a desire to experience karaoke from the inside. However it happened, I suddenly found myself being called up to the stage that night.
I had chosen Merle Haggard's "I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink," a great song and easy to sing. The music swelled, my heart leapt into my throat, the first lyrics appeared on the screen in front of me -- and a creaky, unsteady and unhappy noise came out of my throat. Terror struck me: I was unable to hit even a single note of the many that were being asked of me.
It sounded like someone was forcing me at gunpoint to sing an octave below what my vocal chords were capable of. I found myself staring at the screen, unable to meet the eyes of the poor people I was torturing with my tuneless attempt at a song.
I wanted to melt into the ground. I suddenly wished I had taken the time to drink seven Budweisers before I got up there. The song seemed like it would never end.
But then it did. Judy came up and gave me a warm, sympathetic smile, and I heard a noise behind me -- almost like rain, but more percussve. They were applauding me.
So that's what it feels like to be a star.
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