When I Am King
For a while, I assisted my friend Danny in the running of his karaoke show. He is an inspiration in the field, setting up a bunch of technology to make his setup cooler for no reason other than the fact that he could. He also helped me with this post, since I’m walking ground upon which his feet are much more firmly planted.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Running a karaoke show in New York guarantees you certain things. One is that Billy Joel will come up on the setlist. A lot. Which sucks, if you fucking hate Billy Joel. Another is that people will prove repeatedly that they are not Frank Sinatra. Finally, you will hate your life at least once by the end of the night if you are hosting, co-hosting, or assisting the host. There’s a reason they give the karaoke guys free drinks.
The show I worked on with Danny took place at Mo’s Caribbean, now renamed The Stumble Inn. Among the specific clientele was a woman referred to as “The Vampire”, a septuagenarian who liked to get tarted up and go home with boys five decades younger. Kind of like Twilight in reverse. She was called the Vampire because she’d leave in the dead of night with these boys, who would never be seen again. (It would be funny/sad if, in retrospect, she were really a serial killer.) There was also a gentleman who liked to incite the crowd by singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. You’d always be able to pick out the New York Yankees fans in the crowd during that song; they’d be the ones glaring as someone dared to sing a song so closely associated with the Boston Red Sox. On the positive side was the woman referred to as Doctor Dot, who liked wearing short skirts and no underwear. She might even have been able to sing.
The one I remember most, though, is DP. DP was a douchebag.
He was one of the major perpetrators of Billy Joel performance. That alone, however, confers only bad taste. He was also constantly in search of entirely imaginary mating possibilities, with a peculiar emphasis on women with large lips who would never give him the time of day. However sad and funny to watch, this also failed to define him as a douchebag. No, his worst crime was stealing Danny’s persona.
Danny has a somewhat eclectic list of songs that he regularly goes to for his performances at his shows. He chooses not only for appropriateness to his singing voice, but also unlikelihood of being chosen by another singer; he refuses to have two performances of the same song on the same night. First come, first served, so to speak.
His personal playlist includes (oddly) “Toxic” by Britney Spears (done as a duet) and Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”. Danny also has a particular style to his performance. He knows these songs; he doesn’t need to stand stilted and watching the screen.
Performance is a many-sided thing; it’s all about confidence, about treading that line between “forgotten” or “unworthy of attention” and “asshole”. Staying on said line, more than any other talent, is what makes a great performance artist. “It” is a place of sorts; most people never find it. I never did, thankfully staying firmly within the less-odious “forgotten” end of the scale. Some people, though, are not able to accept that they’ll never find “it”. When you can’t find it on your own but can’t accept that as fact? DP found the answer, and his answer was something like meta-karaoke, or “karaoke-ing” karaoke.
DP stole Danny’s performance style in an attempt to win the crowd over. That proved not to be enough, though. One night, he sang “Walking in Memphis”, not in the style of the original recording, but in an imitation of the way Danny sings it. Danny was furious and made it known. I, being passive aggressive, took another tack.
I made it my personal duty to annoy the hell out of DP.
Technical hiccups, like the song skipping or his mic cutting out, seemed to occur with some frequency. It was very strange, but not impossible, given the complexity of Danny’s setup. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must now admit to my culpability in those events. They were functional in achieving their goals, and I am proud.
I did better than that, though.
I am a fair singer. Not great, but I can carry a tune and I’m not afraid to make a fool out of myself. My typical night will include “Say It Ain’t So” and a few other songs from that era. For DP, though, I was willing to mix it up.
It got DP’s goat that I could be so unserious about what I sincerely believe he regarded as “his” karaoke night. What really got to him, though, was the waitresses abandoning their posts to come dance on the stage with me. I could not have planned it better, for me or for him.
To merely annoy him with a song, though… that just wasn’t enough. I had to do more. Another night, I looked through Danny’s 50,000-strong collection of karaoke hits, trying to find the perfect thing. Then, shining like a beacon over a black sea, I saw…
Six minutes with four distinct sections and three complex time changes. Just the perfect karaoke song, let me tell you. Only way it could have been more perfect is if it was an instrumental. But then I can’t imagine it would have been on Danny’s list.
I stepped up to the plate, glanced at the screen and at the confused faces of the crowd, and did my best Thom Yorke. No lazy eye, but I didn’t do too badly.
Then I went to get a drink.
DP met me immediately. “I love the song, love the way you sang it, but why?”
Honesty, but he’ll never know it. “Just to annoy you, DP.”
He didn’t know what to do with that one and left me alone. Mission accomplished? Probably.
I wasn’t sure until the end of the night, though. We were packing up the gear and Danny told me that DP had come up to him during my performance and said, “What the fuck is this? Who is this?”
“It’s one of the best songs ever, DP. You’ve never heard of Radiohead?”
“No, and you need to delete this shit from your list.”
I’d really got to him.
I am not too proud to admit that I high-fived myself.