Karaoke Crazed

Nocturnal journeys among Seattle’s unknown stars.

Nine years ago, Seattle's lone honky-tonk, the Little Red Hen, decided to give karaoke a second chance. They'd tried it before in the mid-'90s, but it attracted "mostly an older crowd, and they didn't come out to drink and party," says the Hen's entertainment manager, Connie Robertson, whose bar normally hosts live country-music acts.But their redoubled effort proved different. Robertson plastered area colleges with flyers, and youngsters flocked. Before long, Wednesday-night karaoke at the Greenlake bar became "an institution," says Robertson, and lines to get in stretched down the block."It's been an extremely good thing for business," says Robertson, who adds that some karaoke regulars have taken a shine to the venue's more traditional live offerings as well. "As far as weeknights, Wednesday nights have basically been the bread and butter for a long time."In 2009, the Hen shattered its annual Wednesday-night revenue records, and added Monday-night karaoke to further capitalize on the success. The Hen also holds line-dancing lessons every Monday night, and there's been considerable crossover between the two crowds. Lead bartender Sunny Echeverria loves the confluence of clients, calling Monday her "favorite night in 20 years of bartending."A lot of nightlife fads have swept through Seattle in the past quarter-century, but karaoke isn't one of them. This (typically) drunken act of microphone mimicry is here to stay—and spreading like wildfire. Thanks to linchpins like the Hen, the Rickshaw, and the Mandarin Gate, the karaoke blaze burns brightest in the city's north end, home to Seattle Weekly's Karaoke Korrespondent, Jeff Roman, who files a field report every Wednesday for SW's music blog, Reverb. (Roman's columns can be found at blogs.seattleweekly.com/reverb/karaoke_korrespondent/.)Roman lives in the same Greenwood home he grew up in. Karaoke, he'll tell you, is in his blood. He's Filipino, for one, and was weaned on a cassette-powered karaoke contraption with lyrics on the printed page in his family's living room. He eventually went on to a brief but enlightening stint as the Baranof's karaoke host, back when the swashbuckling Greenwood lounge was populated mainly by all-day drunks who considered pop music to be pure cacophony.When singing, his artist of choice is Springsteen, although Roman is one of the most adventurous performers in the city. Not only can he carry a tune, but his dispatches often delve into the sort of technical minutiae that only the karaoke-obsessed can appreciate—and which the non-obsessed will find both educational and hilarious.Following are five of Roman's Greatest Hits, if you will—unforgettable nocturnal journeys rife with elation, frustration, inebriation, and the eternal quest for perfect pitch. MIKE SEELY * * * * *The only time I've ever been fired was when I hosted karaoke at the Baranof in Greenwood.My buddy Jason heard the Baranof (8549 Greenwood Ave. N., 782-9260) needed a KJ [karaoke disc jockey] and recommended me to Carole, the manager, who had been trying to make karaoke work there for a while. He thought I'd be a great fit because he knew I loved karaoke, and I literally had zero going on workwise at the time. When I interviewed, Carole made the gig sound simple enough: Come in Sundays to Tuesdays from 9 to close, announce the singers, change out the music, and attract as many friends as I could to come in and liven up the place.I started on a Sunday in September 2001. I came in early to check out the setup and meet the staff. They were still working off laser discs, which even for that time was outdated technology. The catalog had some selections crossed out because the previous host had taken a quarter of their library with him when he left. The bartender was a tall, husky, bald guy with a goatee and glasses named John. When I tried to order a beer from him, he told me he wasn't sure that was allowed and that he'd have to clear it first. I thought that was odd, but didn't want to cause trouble my first night.John was a very serious man and was not amused by my goofy nature. As hard as I tried to break the ice, whenever he talked to me, his face looked as though he was staring at the biggest jerk-off on earth. That was the first lesson I learned about being a KJ: Some people just aren't going to like you. Thankfully, I had all my friends in that night, so it was a fun start.My second day, I got to meet the regulars. John let me know it was OK to drink, but I could tell he was going to monitor my consumption. I decided never to give him the satisfaction of cutting me off, so I didn't ask for anything more than a couple of pints. Lots of faces come to mind when I think of my time there, but two people really jump out: a nice man named Rick and this prick named Jay.Rick was a friendly guy who was there every night. He was in his 40s, had dark hair and a mustache, and sang with a lot of sadness. He had a beautiful deep voice; I learned some great old country standards by watching him perform. Meanwhile, Jay was in his 30s, had CornNut teeth from chain-smoking, and always wore a shitty warm-up and adidas thongs. His face just looked dirty. I admit I haven't been nice to every KJ I've ever encountered, but the ones I did mess with at least gave me a reason. This guy had a hard-on for me like you wouldn't believe. Whenever I called him up to sing, he'd take the microphone, make some mean remark, and shoo me off the stage. He was friends with the previous KJ, and didn't like the way that person was let go—so he took it out on me. He also hated the fact that I could sing his dick into the dirt.There was no way I was going to take his shit. By my second week, we were at war. I stopped handing him the microphone. I'd just call his name and leave it on the floor for him to pick up, and when he was done I'd call up the next singer without asking people to clap for him. He would always request "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by Elton John. My favorite thing to do was sing it before he got the chance, which really chapped his ass. Eventually he stopped coming in.I was never able to come through with the crowd that Carole hoped I could bring in. Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays are really hard nights to rally people—and things got even tougher: My second Tuesday was September 11, 2001. When I came in and asked John if we were still doing karaoke that night, he took it as if I was trying to get out of working. The rest of the night is a blur, but one thing I do remember is how long it took us to find "God Bless the U.S.A." in the book.The following weeks I never had more than 10 performers a night. Some nights the scene was Rick and I trading off songs with five pissed-off old regulars ready to strangle me. I spent hours combing the catalog, trying to see if there were any songs I'd overlooked, but I mainly sang six: "Sweet Home Alabama," "At This Moment" by Billy Vera, "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" by Great White, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" by Elton John, "Look Away" by Chicago, and "I'll Be There for You" by Bon Jovi. When I think back on those moments, screaming obnoxiously into the mike to a room full of empty tables, it gets me so embarrassed I just want to ball myself up in a corner and sob. By mid-October, John sat me down and told me I could no longer sing, especially if the bar was empty, because I drove all the regulars out. Carole called me a week later and let me go.During my six weeks at the Baranof, I learned that KJing is one of those "be careful what you wish for" jobs, like an ice-cream taster or someone who watches TV to find clips for The Soup. On paper it sounds great, but eventually you realize it's nothing like you thought it would be. As the host, nobody on the floor could give two shits if you're a good singer; people just want to sing, or watch their friends sing. Every time I walk into a karaoke bar, I appreciate never having to deal with that aggravation again.I've been back to the Baranof a few times since, but it'd been a couple of years. They've had many different KJs after me, and finally decided to stage karaoke on weekends. I stopped in on a Friday to check it out. Some noticeable upgrades: a big plasma screen mounted on the back wall for the lyrics and a new KJ station moved off the stage. And they finally dumped some money into the sound system. I rushed up in excitement to see what they'd added to the book, but found the exact same catalog they had when I was there. I couldn't believe it—they are still using those beat-up laser discs. It turned out not to be that big a deal; none of the performers had any problems coming up with songs to sing. There was a great turnout and a lot of people were in costume (it was Halloween weekend).The crowd was mostly in their mid-20s to late 30s. People were having a great time, and the Baranof is known for serving good, stiff drinks. The night's most memorable performance was a guy dressed like Cher in the "If I Could Turn Back Time" video (the one where her bare ass shows through black nylons as she sings to the troops on the USS Missouri). He sang "Believe" and it sounded exactly like her. My buddy was beside himself at how good the guy was. I wasn't as impressed. The guy was a ringer; it was way too polished. He does that act for a living somewhere. It did get my attention, though; after seeing him, I really wanted to hit a home run.I knew I couldn't mimic the original artist as well as he did, but choosing just the right song is the best equalizer. While I searched through the book, someone got up and delivered an honest karaoke performance. He was a black guy in his 50s, dressed up as Harry Belafonte, who sang Joe Cocker's "Unchain My Heart." I'm not too big on that song, but for some reason he made it awesome. At that point I was inspired to deliver a performance that would squash every lousy moment I'd ever had in there, and I found the perfect song: Phil Collins' "Don't Lose My Number." I love that cut because it's super-catchy and I could sing it from memory.The KJ called me up 15 minutes after I'd turned in the slip. Halfway through the song, I looked down at the crowd and they were totally digging it. For some reason, Phil Collins' music just feels really good to sing. When I was done, I got a great ovation—and the Harry Belafonte guy greeted me as I got back to my table to tell me how great he thought I was. It was the compliment I had been waiting on for eight years. Redemption is sweet.Hanging out at the Atrium Bistro (11740 15th Ave. N.E., 365-2500, atriumbistro.com), a Filipino restaurant near Northgate, reminded me why I love karaoke so much: I'm Filipino. We live to sing, and karaoke has been a part of our culture for more than 30 years.The Japanese coined the term "karaoke," but it was a Filipino inventor named Roberto del Rosario who developed the first sing-along music system, called Minus-One, in 1975. It was a self-contained unit with a speaker and microphone that played cassettes with instrumentals of popular songs.In the '80s, my family had a system called The Singing Machine. In addition to singing along, you could also record yourself onto a cassette. Back then there was no screen—we had to read from a lyrics booklet, which sucked if you didn't know the song very well. Somewhere in my dad's garage there exists a recording of a 10-year-old me singing Van Halen's "Jump." That's where it all started.I got to the Atrium at nine. It's a wide restaurant with the bar in the middle that literally has an atrium overhead. The KJ station and stage are located to the right of the bar. The stage has disco lights above, and it's nice and cozy for the singers because there's a fireplace behind it. What makes this a true Filipino K-bar is that they offer San Miguel beer and appetizers known as pulutan. My dad tells me this means "food to munch on while drinking."It was a busy night, with a good mix of young and old Filipinos in the house. I've reached that perfect age (36) where the elders don't condescend and the kids don't try to act tough around me. I could just walk in, be myself, make friends, and hopefully get some good cheers from the crowd.Their catalog had great variety. I promised myself I'd focus more on delivering songs that would be appealing to the audience, but not here. In a room where the old-timers love the standards and youngsters are strictly R&B, I wanted to make it known I was a rock-'n'-roll man.Right out of the gate, the performers were total pros. An old man who looked like he was pushing 90 sang a very sweet rendition of Lionel Richie's "Hello." He was followed by a guy who did an on-the-money rendition of Neil Diamond's "I Am...I Said," and then this younger dude who did an awesome version of "The One" by Elton John. I got up and did "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers. It's one of my safe songs—nice and soulful and right down my vocal wheelhouse. I got a good ovation, but wished there were more single girls in the crowd.When I got back to my seat, a Filipino guy in his 40s wearing a ball cap and a Guns N' Roses T-shirt sitting next to me told me I did a good job. His name was Toto, and 10 minutes into our conversation he offered to come to my house and tune up my Honda. That is so Filipino—I felt very at home.By midnight, the bar started filling up with a younger, more diverse crowd from the neighborhood. The KJ popped on "The Electric Slide," and half the crowd got up to dance. I never learned it and used to think it was the cheesiest thing ever, but in the past few years I've come to appreciate the Slide. When done properly by hot chicks, it can be a thing of beauty.A couple times a week on my way home, I get the itch to sing classic rock. Who doesn't? Living on the north side of town, I have some pretty solid options. What I've always loved about the Mandarin Gate (10000 Aurora Ave. N., 527-0709, mandaringateseattle.com)—aside from their Almond Fried Chicken—is that I could always count on them to have space for me to sing when the Rickshaw was too out-of-control. It had been well over a year since the last time I was at the Gate, so I was excited to check out the Saturday-night scene.I arrived a little after 9, figuring things would be in full swing. Instead I found the lounge so brightly lit that I thought they'd replaced the mikes with late-night dim sum. Turned out they don't kick things off until 10 nowadays. This was not the biggest deal, but for me sort of a bummer. The best time for karaoke is that freebie hour from 9 to 10, when hardly anyone is interested in singing. You can stretch your voice, test songs you've never tried before, and maybe get three, sometimes four tunes in.A few folks were filling out slips when I walked in, so I dove into the catalog as quickly as I could to establish an early spot in the rotation. It was really refreshing to see a good supply of books available (more than enough to cover every table), all organized by artist. Nothing's more frustrating than needing a book when none are available, and when you finally get your hands on one, songs are listed exclusively by title. They have a great selection, too: It's about twice the size of Rickshaw's and was last updated in 2008, so there's a good balance of new and old songs. What I love the most is that there are no codes to fill in. All you need to provide is your name, the artist, and the song title.When 10 o'clock rolled around, the room dimmed and the stage was lit. Christmas lights came on, and I finally felt like I was in a North Seattle Chinese-restaurant karaoke lounge. The crowd was young and fired up, and the singers were all pros. There wasn't a stinker performance all night.Danny, the karaoke host, is as efficient as they come. On top of that, he's a saint. As the night went on, I tested him in ways that would normally upset and frustrate a KJ to the point of being immediately axed from the rotation: I jumped in on a duet that I hadn't signed up for, asked how long it'd be until I was up next, and twice requested that Danny change out my selection for one I liked better—and he did it without giving me the slightest bit of attitude. Most important, he kept the singers moving along. All told I got up four times, and it took less than an hour between each performance.Maple Leaf's Kona Kitchen (8501 Fifth Ave. N.E., 517-5662, konakitchen.com) is run by the actor Yuji Okumoto and his family. He's been in show business for 25 years, and is best known for his role as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part II. For me, his finest performance was in Better Off Dead, where he played a street racer who learned how to speak English by watching ABC's Wide World of Sports. Like many who grew up in the '80s, I've seen that movie well over a hundred times, and seize every opportunity to drop one of his Howard Cosell–inspired lines. To sing karaoke in his place was a huge honor.Every Friday and Saturday night, Yuji's lounge provides karaoke at about 10:30. I rolled in around that time. The restaurant area was winding down, with a few patrons bellied up to the bar. The stage faces out toward the lounge, and I found it a bit distracting at first that there was no separation between the restaurant and lounge areas. It would feel much more intimate if they'd just curtain the lounge off. The stage is set up nicely, though. When killing in front of a packed bar, you really get to feeling like a superstar up there. Don't be discouraged by the thin catalog; they have a big computerized selection, so just tell Sean, the host, what you want to sing and he'll look it up for you.Things didn't get busy until close to midnight. It was a five-singer rotation for the first hour, a perfect way to kick off the night for early birds (only a 15-minute wait between songs). I stunk it up pretty bad. Granted, the time to take chances is when no one's around, but I always wind up getting my ass kicked by Don Henley. I tried to sing "The Long Run" and was totally screwed by the second line. Sean, however, is an awesome singer. His rendition of Queen's "Killer Queen" was so powerful it inspired me to not embarrass myself the rest of the night.As things got busy, something transpired that I wish would happen at every karaoke night. People filled the place, but there were only a few new singers. The tight rotation now had a full audience. For such a tucked-in neighborhood, I would have figured there'd be only aged regulars, but the crowd was young.There was this guy pushing 40, however, who was a total ringer. He sang nothing but AM Gold, and had a voice as soft and sweet as David Gates from Bread. Then this cute young blonde got up to sing T-Pain and totally brought down the house.Being Filipino, Kona's island theme made me feel right at home. The atmosphere felt like a family party. I've eaten at Kona a couple times and highly recommend the Hawaiian and Japanese dishes. They don't have drink specials, but they're poured strong for a reasonable price. Do watch yourself if you've have had a few sips, though, because Fifth Avenue Northeast is a road commonly used by North Precinct cops heading back to the station.Driving through Wallingford on a Wednesday, I spotted a sign in a window that read "Karaoke." It was Changes (2103 N. 45th St., 545-8363, changesinwallingford.com), a gay bar. I spent the rest of my drive home deciding what songs to sing on my inaugural visit.I came in the next night at 9. There was a long bar with a few television sets showing sports. There were around 15 guys hanging out, and I took a seat at the end of the bar between a guy in his 30s wearing a scarf and a pea coat and an old man with a big gray beard who looked like he worked in a garage. I grabbed a book of selections and was settling in nicely when the bartender asked me what I was having. The moment I heard my deep baritone voice order that first PBR, I got self-conscious. I'm handsome and skinny; are these guys going to get pissed if they find out I'm straight? I wasn't looking to offend anyone or lead anyone on. All I wanted to do was sing, but I didn't factor in how much attention I might draw to myself. I decided to pound my tall boy, order another one immediately, and wait for the buzz to mellow me out.A pool table at the end of the bar held all the catalogs. I turned in my selection to Marcus, the KJ. I remember having a very positive feeling about him right away. He was so friendly it put my mind at ease. As I figured, every performer that night sang in tune. The first few did songs I'd never heard. The music sounded like country, but as I read the monitor, it was pretty clear the songs were written by men, for men.Midway through my third beer, I started to loosen up. Marcus has an awesome song selection, and I found a Springsteen cut I hardly ever see called "Prove It All Night." It's a powerful song about a man's desire to show his lover how well he can bring it in the sack. After 45 minutes of soft and sweet performances, I couldn't wait to blow the roof off the place.When my name was called, I channeled 1978 Boss, jumping around as I rocked the air guitar and blasted out Bruce's trademark screams like the Incredible Hulk. It felt really good to get that first one in, and the guys loved it.When I got back to my stool, the dude in the scarf complimented my performance. I told him that I lived for karaoke and introduced myself. His name was Andy. I asked him if he had any songs up. He said no, he was mostly into show tunes and there just to watch other people sing. The next batch of singers performed songs I knew, and brought more virility to their performances. I was really surprised how much country was being sung. This kid who looked like he was in the military sang a fantastic rendition of Randy Travis' "Forever and Ever, Amen," and another guy sang one of my dad's favorite Garth Brooks songs, "Unanswered Prayers."By the time I hit the bottom of beer four, I was cheering and clapping for everyone. I knew I might have been pushing the affability button a bit hard, but I was having a great time and wanted everyone to know I appreciated being there. A guy and a girl walked in and hung out near the pool table. They looked like a couple. A few minutes later, another guy walked in, and Andy said in an annoyed way, "Great, more straight guys." Not wanting to blow my cover, I replied, "What are they doing here?" He said he didn't know.I decided to meet the crowd halfway with my remaining selections. It's not as if I wanted to go over the top with Madonna, I just wanted to keep the audience happy. I settled on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." A quarter of the song is completely out of my vocal range, but I really love singing it and figured they'd appreciate the effort.After squeaking through the number, I got another good round of applause. When I bellied back up, I saw Andy trying to figure out a song. He found one, turned in his slip, and stepped out for a smoke. That's when Marcus came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Now I'm gonna ask you the million-dollar question.""OK," I replied."Are you gay?"I looked him in the eye and replied with a guilty face, "No, I'm not." He smiled and patted me on the back, and as he walked back to his KJ station, turned around and said, "You're going to break a lot of hearts tonight, honey."That was one of the coolest things anyone's ever said to me.After that, all the anxiety I'd felt earlier was gone, and I really started to embrace the scene. Next up was a guy who did Taylor Swift's "Love Story." I have many guilty pleasures, and Taylor's my biggest one these days. I think she's gorgeous, and I don't care what anybody says, I love her music. As I enjoyed the performance, I looked down to the other end of the bar and saw a couple of old-time rock 'n' rollers shaking their heads in disgust at the song. That's when I realized some of my random tastes could technically make me gayer than some of these gay guys.I topped off my night with Prince's "Little Red Corvette." By that time pretty much everyone knew I was straight, but a few guys still didn't. When Marcus got up to sing Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend," the military kid from earlier came right up and danced for me. He moved from side to side, gyrating his hips as he smiled at me.Andy got up to do his song after that. I can't remember what it was, but I'm pretty sure it was good. As I left, I shook his hand. He told me to be good, gave me a big hug, and demanded I come in again. I totally will. Changes did wonders for my self-esteem.music@seattleweekly.com

 
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