This week's dispatch from Karaoke Jeff Roman involves a trip to Greenwood's Baranof, where for six weeks in 2001 he served as KJ, and developed a hard-earned appreciation for how tough that job really is.
The only time I've ever been fired in my life was when I was hosted karaoke at the Baranof in Greenwood. Since Halloween is Karaoke Kristmas, I'm going to take time to reflect on how, and why, I blew what I considered then to be my dream job--and revisit the old place to see if the karaoke has gotten better since giving me the axe.
My buddy Jason heard the Baranof needed a KJ and recommended me to Carole, the manager, who had been trying to make karaoke work there for awhile. He thought I'd be a great fit because he knew I loved karaoke, and I literally had zero going on work-wise at the time. When I interviewed, she 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 the place up.
I started on a Sunday in September 2001. I came in early to check out the set-up and meet the staff. They were still working off laser discs, which even for that time was completely outdated technology. The catalogs had some selections crossed out because the previous host took a quarter of their library with him. It was a bare bones operation but there was enough I could work with (which meant I found plenty of songs I could sing). The bartender was a tall, husky, bald guy with a goatee and glasses named John. When I tried to order a beer from him that night, he told me he wasn't sure that was allowed and said he'd have to clear it first. I thought it 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'd talk 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 okay to drink, but I could tell he was going to monitor my consumption. I decided to never give him the satisfaction of cutting me off, so I didn't ask for anything more than a couple 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 fuckface named Jay.
Rick was a friendly guy who was there every night. He was in his 40's, had dark hair, 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 thirties, had corn-nut teeth from chain smoking, always wore a shitty warm-up, Adidas thongs, and his face just looked dirty. He was a piece of shit. 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 first. This guy had a hard-on for me like you wouldn't believe. Whenever I called him up to sing, he'd take the mic, make some dickhead 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 mic. I'd just call his name and leave it on the floor for him to pick up, and when he was done I called up the next singer without asking people to clap for him. He would always request "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." My favorite thing to do was sing it before he got the chance to, and that really chapped his ass. Eventually he stopped coming in.
I was never able to come through with the crowd that Carole hoped I could to bring in. Sundays, Mondays, & Tuesdays are really hard nights to rally people--and things got even tougher. My second Tuesday was September 11th. When I came in I asked John if we were still doing it that night and 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 USA" in the book.
The following weeks I never had more than 10 performers in a night. Some nights the scene was me and Rick trading off songs with five pissed off old men ready to strangle me. I spent hours combing that book trying to see if there was any song I overlooked, but I mainly sang six songs: "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 mic to a room full of empty tables, it gets me so embarrassed I just want to ball myself up in a corner, suck my thumb, 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 the all regulars out. Carole called me a week later and let me go.
During my six weeks at Baranof, I learned that KJ'ing is one of those "be careful what you ask for" jobs, like an ice-cream taster or someone that 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 and/or watch their friends sing. From that point on, every time I walk into a k-bar, I appreciate never having to deal with that aggravation again. I've been back in a few times since then but it's been a couple years. They've had many different KJ's since me and finally decided to do it on weekends. I stopped in last Friday to check it out.
Some noticeable upgrades were 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 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. The crowd was mostly in their mid-twenties to late-thirties. People were having a great time, and Baranof is known for serving good, stiff drinks.
The most memorable performance of the night was a guy dressed like Cher in the "If I Could Turn Back Time" video (the one where her bare ass showed through black nylons as she sang 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 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 50's 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. It wasn't gimmicky like the Cher dude. At that point I was inspired to deliver a performance that would squash every lousy moment I ever had in there--and I found the perfect song: Phil Collins "Billy Don't Lose My Number." I love that cut because it's super catchy, has a lot of lyrics, and (most importantly) I could sing it without looking at the screen once.
The KJ is good and knows how to work in new singers; she called me up 15 minutes after I turned in the slip. From the first verse knew it was going to be dynamite. By the mid-point, 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 for for eight years. Redemption is sweet.