Welcome to Sing Sing, our beloved karaoke den. Ally and I cherish this spot because it has everything you want in a karaoke place: great songbook, private rooms, surly bartenders, cheap drinks. Ally and I already know our first song tonight. She just takes the remote and punches in 117498. That’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Everybody has their warm-up song, their go-to jam, the one that gets the blood pumping. This one is ours. For all karaoke freaks around the nation, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is one of those sacred anthems. It’s the kind of song that announces, “Dearly beloved, we have so totally gathered here today.” It’s the entrance antiphon of the ceremony. But for Ally and me, it’s the first duet we ever sang, ten years ago, right after we met. Our first karaoke date was a Lower East Side loft party. Now we find ourselves at Sing Sing most Saturday nights.
Why do I get so obsessive about karaoke? Two reasons, which I’m pretty sure are the only reasons to get obsessed with anything on God’s green earth:
What else in life is there to obsess about? There be music, and there be girls. Everything else is paste.
My girl Ally is my karaoke queen, and we have greeted a thousand dawns together with mikes in hand. We will greet many more dawns this way, unless either of us ever comes down with a throat infection or a sense of shame. Music is just one of our shared obsessions. There are many categories of geekdom we share (noisy indie rock, the Smiths, Japanese gangster movies, narwhals) and many categories of geekdom that neither of us has picked up yet (comics, Star Trek, interior design). We have individual geekdoms that we’ve turned the other one on to and individual geekdoms we prefer to enjoy alone. There are also the geekdoms that inspire us to try to convert each other. We have a lifetime to work on that. She got me into the greatness of Richard Feynman. I have given up trying to get her into the greatness of Bob Dylan. Karaoke is a good one to share.
I got into karaoke at a time when I felt like my life was a used firecracker. I was only in my early thirties, but I figured it was all too late for me.
We have followed this obsession into some strange places. We did “spa-raoke” in Chinatown, at a spot where you can get a pedicure and sing at the same time. Ally busted out the Morrissey jams while she got her nails done. When she was out of town, I took the laptop to the bar for a round of Skype-aoke. We’ve sung across the country, from the Korean barbecue joints of Rhode Island to the tumbleweed taverns of the Nevada desert. A seniors’ retirement community in Fort Myers, Florida. The heart of New York City. We have followed our microphone lust all over this land. And everywhere we ramble, we find some place to pop in for a song or two, because that’s just how karaoke fiends roll.
I got into karaoke at a time when I felt like my life was a used firecracker. I was only in my early thirties, but I figured it was all too late for me. I was a miserable widower with no idea how to muddle on. The happy chapter of my life was over, and the world had run out of surprises.
But it turned out my life was just beginning. I fell in love, I got married, I found a new life and a new home. Karaoke was just one of those surprises. But for me, it turned out to be a way of finding my voice. Something about it opened up doors for me emotionally. For me, it was part of coming back to life.
It’s a lot more fun with two of us. Before I met her, I was working hard on learning how to open up and sing my life. But singing our life is better.
Ally is an astronomer who loves music as much as I do, so she can help me comprehend the music we share in terms of the entire universe. She makes all this music I thought I knew sound different. She can explain that when Radiohead sings the line “Gravity always wins,” in the song “Fake Plastic Trees,” they are not correct, because gravity is just one of four cosmic forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. Gravity sometimes wins, like when black holes form or galaxies collide. Sometimes the other forces trump gravity, like inside the neutron, where the strong nuclear force prevails.
Are you really setting your hopes on not getting hurt at all? You think that’s an option? You clearly aren’t listening to enough Morrissey songs.
As soon as I met Ally, I could tell her gravity was going to win. Her nuclear force was something I couldn’t resist. I was drawn into her gravitational pull, and that drew me into my entire future.
Morrissey sums it all up in “Sing Your Life.” If it seems scary to open up and step to the microphone, that’s because it should be scary. These are emotionally dangerous adventures to go on. Singing what’s in your heart? Naming the things you love and loathe? You can get hurt that way. Hell, you will get hurt that way. But you’ll get hurt trying to hide away in all that silence and leave your life unsung. There’s no future without tears. Are you really setting your hopes on not getting hurt at all? You think that’s an option? You clearly aren’t listening to enough Morrissey songs.
So I have to sing what is in my heart. In other words, music and girls.
I would love to claim that all these years of karaoke helped me discover my buried talent as a singer. Hey, I found a way to unleash the inner beauty of my voice. The ugly duckling of my tonsils turned into the swan of my esophagus. I opened my mouth one morning and fluffy pillows of sound came out.
This is not that kind of story.
There are three notes in the words “turn around” and I am blowing five of them. There are also three notes in the words “sing your life” and I don’t even want to tally up the damages. It doesn’t matter. This is my voice. They say you have to invest ten thousand hours into something to achieve greatness. I have put in my ten thousand hours of singing badly, so I guess by now I might even be a virtuoso at singing badly. Maybe that should bother me. It doesn’t.
When you sign up for a whole night of this, you can’t really predict how the music is going to feel. You begin to sing a song expecting to get one story out of it, then you get another. Every song I sing makes me feel what it’s like to be a son, a brother, a lover, a husband, a fan. There are famous singers I have spent my whole life pondering, but after I pick up the mike to try their songs, I’m more fascinated by them than ever. Some of these singers are legends, yet when I slip into their songs, I feel like they’re helping me figure out some of my own basic questions. Some of these singers mean the world to me; others are just vessels for the song. One is Billy Idol. But their voices are burned into my soul.
Some of the memories I’m not so crazy about, especially the ones that involve beginnings and endings. I’m more of a “middles” guy. But I know it took some of these painful beginnings to launch me into the middle where I am right now. In a radiant, ever-expanding universe with this particular girl in it. Just us and the songs we like. Loads of those.
I have a photo of me singing karaoke, from my birthday last winter. Of course, it’s a private room at Sing Sing. As the TV monitor shows, the birthday boy is singing TLC’s classic slow jam, “Red Light Special.” That means it’s still early in the night. I am wearing a tiara and carrying a bouquet of roses. My sash says Sweet Sixteen. I look like a holy mess and I know I must sound that way. Yet I can see how blissed out I am in this picture. I am enraptured in the song. I am powered by the red-light special. I am a singer, damn it.
I look at this picture, and I know for a fact I look ridiculous when I sing. But I look closer, and I see there is no shame in my eyes. No fear. No trouble at all. I wonder why.