Friday, June 10, 2016

Zen and the art of karaoke survival

Folks dancing at the party.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I must have spent a good 15 minutes searching Google just now, and couldn’t discover the average age of first-time karaoke use.

I just experienced my first time. I’m nearly 52. I wish I could tell you it was magical.

I know singing in your car and singing in the shower are both considered to be karaoke gateway drugs. And while I’m often guilty of both of the former activities, I’d never before succumbed to peer pressure to take the stage. My son is the performer in the family. I just sit and type stories.

And I pray karaoke is not addictive, because I very nearly died from trying it just once. Then, either numbed or emboldened, I tried it a second time. I don’t remember too much after that.

We were at a 1970s-themed engagement party for one of my wife’s coworkers. The crowd at Hidden Dunes had been dancing to Bee Gees songs and other appropriately kitschy tunes, like “Lady Marmalade” (the version by LaBelle, 1974) until DJ Mike announced it was time to sing.

People dressed in glittery stretch pants and unbuttoned silk shirts clutched champagne flutes and sang “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” (1967), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976), and “Annie’s Song (You Fill Up My Senses)” (1974). And you could tell they were accomplished cover artists — doing a little dance, playing to the audience, barely watching the video screen for lyric prompts.

While most of the crowd had embraced the disco style, I was wearing a David Bowie T-shirt. The cover to “Low” (1977). Bowie, who died in January, is my greatest musical idol. I learned to pay attention to songs after hearing a noisy cassette recording of a Bowie performance taped from an old TV. The song was “Space Oddity.” The rest is legend.

What I’m saying is, if I was ever going to sing in public it would have to be a Bowie song. Also, I was pretty sure alcohol would have to be applied liberally beforehand. But I was not drinking and had no intention of taking the mic, just enjoying the people with more self-confidence who did so.

Then DJ Mike came to our table and asked me what I was going to sing. I shook my head and grinned. “Nothing,” I said. He returned to his gear and started a chant of my name. The crowd joined in. My wife gave me a smile.

Something in my brain snapped. In retrospect, that might be how horror movies start.

Like a blurry Bigfoot photo.
I opened with “Fame” (1975), my feet shifting nervously, my hands in my pockets. I saw Bowie do “Fame” twice — the 1987 Glass Spider Tour in New Orleans and the 1990 Sound+Vision Tour in Pensacola. I tried to keep in mind that he often mixed up lyrics when performing, so I shouldn’t worry about it.

Then the darkness closed in. All I recall is the video screen, the words slowly changing color before my eyes as the song progressed. I had no sense of time or of the rest of the room, or even the sound of the crowd behind the rumbling in my head.

And then it was over, people applauded, my wife grinned ear-to-ear, and I started toward our table.

“What’s your second one?” DJ Mike asked. “Golden Years?”

I froze. The crowd chanted. I realized people had been dancing while I sang.

How could I not?

The music started, a rolling guitar decrescendo that then built and built into that Carlos Alomar funk. Suddenly, a woman I’d never seen before grabbed my right arm, pressed herself close and yelled into my face — something like “I can’t help it! This is my favorite!” — and started singing along.

No offense to the lady is intended, but I thought, “So much for ‘nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.’” I lost the rhythm. I stumbled on lyrics I’ve sung in my car a million times. I remember looking at my wife and mouthing “Help?” She shook her head. I  was on my own.

I kept waiting for the roadies to peel the woman off of me like you see at the concerts. They never came, but honestly I was still experiencing tunnel vision, one misfiring neuron short of an out-of-body experience.

So I soldiered through. There’s a secret I’ve learned that applies to just about any situation: Give it time, and it will pass. Find your center, which for me at the moment was a video screen with color-changing lyrics on it.

You, too, can survive karaoke.


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