David and I paid our dinner bill and took our place in the standing-room-only bar, where we ran into Linda. She had already warmed up with a country song I didn't recognize (I don't think there are any I would). Linda had been animated during her warm-up. She left the elevated stage for the dance floor (making it difficult for most patrons to see her), boogied back and forth and, more than twice, waved the microphone in the air as though twirling a lasso.
Before Linda performed her song for the competition (a slow LeAnn Rimes number called "Blue"), we watched a man who couldn't have had more than three teeth in his skull jabber his way through another tune I didn't recognize (probably a country song). Despite the sentences rolling by on the screen above me, I couldn't understand a word he said.
A skinny little woman followed next with a frighteningly accurate impersonation of Céline Dion. Then, just as I was beginning to drift mentally, a young guy took the mike. His voice was a salve for the auditory abrasions inflicted by the string of people who sang before him. His was a slow R&B song that I later learned was first performed by Luther Vandross. The singer's appearance was jarring in this environment; he wore an oversized jersey, and his dark hair was pleated in tight cornrows. I couldn't guess his ethnicity, maybe an Asian and African-American mix. When he finished his song, he put his hands to his face as if in prayer and thanked the cheering crowd. Tony T. was his name, and he is well known by Karaokians throughout the county.
Neither Linda nor Tony T. placed in the contest that evening. That prize went to another young man with an excellent voice who sang the top-20 hit "I'll Be" by the Goo Goo Dolls. "I'm going to come back every week until I win," Linda said. "This is political bullshit," said Tony T.
The following week, Tony took first place for the evening after singing a popular Bon Jovi song. Unfortunately, no one would win the seven-week contest. After a few weeks, it was inexplicably canceled.
Earlier in the evening, one man caught my eye when he sang during the warm-ups, and then again later when he chose not to compete. He was tall with shaggy blond hair and looked like a retired surfer, but when he sang, he was a dead ringer for Frank Sinatra. When I asked him why he didn't compete, he said, "I've never entered a contest. The people that enter them are the people that work the circuit. I feel contests are designed by bars to bring people in to spend money. It's not really about finding the best singer. It's about a bar owner who says, 'Hmm, we're slow on Wednesday nights. We'll offer a $300 prize, but we'll have six weeks of first rounds, three weeks of second rounds.' And every one of those nights people who are in the contest have to come back and they're supposed to bring their friends to cheer for them and, you know, it's just a big contrived thing to bring people into their bar. And then you're down to who's judging you? Who picks the winner? How much does this person know about music or performance?"
This was Mike, a rare breed of Karaokian, one of the few who think karaoke is supposed to be fun and that people who take their karaoke hobby too seriously are missing the point. If the Dalai Lama were to be reincarnated as a fortysomething surfer dude with a passion for karaoke, he would come back as Mike. I wanted to know what this point was that so many others were missing, so I met up with Mike at his weekly KJ gig -- a volunteer position at a retirement community.
"At this point, I don't consider anyone there elderly," says Mike of the 700 senior residents at the Orchard in Point Loma. He first showed up four years ago to volunteer as part of an assignment for a class at Mesa College. When the assignment was over, Mike continued his free Friday-afternoon gigs. "Those people make me feel good. In a bar, I turn off the music at the end of the night and everyone's drunk, nobody notices; the jukebox is turned on and I'm gone. But these people really appreciate it. I mean, these people are my friends."
This venue is open to the public. "The more the better," urges Mike. "The people that live here get to see new people come in and sing -- it's entertainment for them -- and the people who come in from outside places get to see a new place." Not to mention that at the Orchard, unlike at a bar, the audience is seated, quiet, and attentive. I greeted Mike as he arrived in the parking lot. Before he made it to where I was standing, two older men, reminiscent of Statler and Waldorf (the old guys in the balcony on The Muppet Show), called out from behind his truck, "Open the damn door!"
Mike obeyed, and as soon as he unlocked the back of his truck, the two old men rushed his equipment into the building like expert stagehands. "If we can get this set up now, we might be able to get in one more song!" one of them shouted.
At the tender age of 28, I was the youngest person in the room. The excitement was palpable, or maybe the weight and buzz I felt was some sort of chemical reaction to the density of perfume and pain patches.
"Welcome back, Annie!" Mike said. "Hey, Richard, how's your wife?"
"Not good, Mike. Her hip is broken. I want to sing first because I need to take her to her doctor's appointment." Richard was one of the men who had been waiting in the parking lot for Mike to arrive.