Karaoke—everyone's an idol
Allon Morrison, a 26-year-old Vancouver transplant of Scottish-Israeli origin, stands before a rowdy crowd of strangers at the Buffalo Club on Granville Street. His eyes are closed, and he has one finger in his ear-a pitch-finding technique common to experienced musicians and folksinging fisherman from the north of England. He clutches the microphone stand with his free hand and swings gently into Elton John's maudlin ballad "Sacrifice". His appearance is modest, and his voice is plain. His chin trembles, and his eyebrows appear headed for orbit, but Morrison nonetheless wins the room's approval with an unflappable commitment to the song. This is Extreme Karaoke night, the Buffalo Club's attempt at pumping up a notoriously soft Monday. The poster exhorts patrons to "Sing Till U Puke", and the sentiment is apt. The room bustles and the taps don't let up. The tactic is paying off for the club, and it's no surprise. Karaoke spots have become hot in the past couple of years, popping up faster than lousy Rod Stewart albums or the nodes on Stevie Nicks's throat.
Whereas karaoke was once merely a curious adjunct to dining at the Thai House on West 7th Avenue or a walk on the wild side at the Dufferin, these days it's one of the most popular forms of live entertainment in the city. Ask any of the thousands of Vancouverites who routinely risk a prolapsed anus in pursuit of the whistle octave in Mariah Carey's "Emotions" and they will agree.
"Music can always soothe you and make you feel better," Morrison says with a shrug. "Slow or fast, downbeat or upbeat-it just works. Besides that, people are here to have fun and make fools of themselves." The experts agree. Peter Parker, publisher of the California-based magazine Karaoke Scene, explains, "I guess the truth lies in the fact that there are a lot of stars trapped inside people trying to get out. Everybody-not everybody-but most people like to do it. It's fun, it develops a great sense of camaraderie, it crosses all social, economic, and ethnic lines. It's a very democratic form of entertainment."
Mitch Pastorcic, manager of the Arch on Richards, didn't always see the appeal. "I hated karaoke at one time," he confesses.
Once a peeler bar with a steady clientele of visiting rockers such as Aerosmith and the Cult, the Arch features a different type of ass these days. You'll find them in the eight karaoke boxes tucked away on the club's south side, each one available at an hourly rate with a selection of 5,000 songs in numerous languages. The softly spoken Pastorcic is quite clear on the attraction-in fact, he's a convert. "I was too shy to go up there and sing. But being here for four years, I started singing. It's good for the soul. After doing it for an hour or two, you just feel stress-free."
"Mitch is a frequent user," adds Shawn Newby, the club's promotions manager. "He's not just the president. He's a client, too!"
Around the time he first attempted to record Smile, Beach Boy Brian Wilson famously declared that music and laughter are earthly expressions of the divine. He also went bat-shit crazy not long after he said that, but he was probably on to something nonetheless, and karaoke represents a pure synthesis of both, to the ringing of cash registers across the world. The reasons for its current critical mass only start with shows like American Idol, but one thing is undeniable: as an expression of pop culture's Zeitgeist, nothing else comes close.
The Japanese word karaoke actually translates as "empty orchestra" and not "caterwauling booze bag", as one might assume. The phenomenon began in the Japanese city of Kobe sometime in the early '80s, though the big leap came when some bright spark-having noticed that wooden houses offered little soundproofing for the amateur crooner-converted an abandoned railcar in a rice field. This was, for all intents and purposes, the first karaoke box-a private space that comfortably held a small group of people. Gradually, it became a nightlife phenomenon, with boxes appearing in major cities and karaoke systems being developed for home use. Pioneer Electronics shrewdly tied the phenomenon to its own laser-disk system while new competing technologies-CDs and DVDs, most prominently-have not so much divided the market as inflated it.
The popular western perception that karaoke, at its genesis, allowed an entire nation of overworked Japanese businessmen the opportunity to wrap their ties around their heads and imbibe limitless amounts of sake isn't something that Keiki Oh, general manager of Hollywood North on Seymour Street, feels the need to dispute. The western-style lounge-plush, polished, and serene, in contrast to the Buffalo Club-caters to a largely Japanese crowd, though the song selection is typically polyglot. After some thought, Oh concludes that the most popular number is "Hotel California". "In English," she's quick to point out. "Old songs are forever," she continues. "Songs from the '60s and '70s-very popular."
The Karaoke Box on Robson is perhaps the city's closest thing to the original experience. Like a thumbnail manifestation of the Sprawl in William Gibson's cyberspace trilogy, it offers a thrillingly incongruous excursion in the midst of Vancouver's ersatz Rodeo Drive-a disorienting interface of East and West. The main floor houses a food store but the upstairs area opens into a market that includes a hair salon, travel agency, licensed restaurant, DVD and video rentals, rows of OK Baby arcade games, secondhand books, and very little elbow room. Working the counter and wedged between banks of video recorders and monitors, Maria Domon welcomes customers into the three large and three small karaoke boxes annexed into an invisible corridor of the buzzing labyrinth.
"Hollywood North, Tokyo Lounge-all the clubs around here are really fancy. They have evolved from something like this," she says, sweeping her hand around the gimcrack setting. "The traditional karaoke box isn't very fancy at all." Asked if Asian youth are as gung ho as the kids lining up at the Royal Canadian Legion on Main Street or Shenanigans across the street, Domon smiles. "I think it's a lot more popular now than it was for my parents' generation," she says. Indeed, Naoki the Kid, a visiting artist from Tottori, Japan, and a regular patron at Robson's Karaoke Box, concurs. An excitable and gregarious 26-year-old whose voice is apparently still breaking, he admits, between shrieks, that he likes karaoke "very much!"
"Since when I was 20 years old, I started karaoke," he says breathlessly, in fractured English. "Used to have very classic style song, but now we've got very pop song, Japanese pop and hip-hop music culture, now, is a bit different." Naoki the Kid's favourite song is "Shimauta" by the Boom. Although he admits he'd be nervous to step up to the mike at an English-speaking nightclub, he figures he could eventually be convinced to tackle UB40's reggaefied cover of Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling in Love".
If The Buffalo Club and the Karaoke Box reflect the mainstream side of their respective cultures, Pat's Pub on East Hastings is where the wild things are. Popular with underground musicians, scenesters, and people you might spot at Zulu Records, the bar also makes room for the East Siders who view Pat's as their local, thus dynamically bridging Vancouver's skid row and its arts community. A popular event run by Dave "Beaver" Brooks is rated highly by Robert Dayton, a wild man of karaoke and the tireless creative nuisance behind Canned Hamm and July 4th Toilet, among other touchingly ridiculous acts of imaginative dissonance. Barking over top of a performance of Patsy Cline's "Crazy", delivered in every key but the right one by a blind lady in a mumu, Dayton recalls karaoke sessions at the Old American on Main Street back in the '90s with members of Superconductor and Cub, then takes the floor for his warm-up performance of Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes". It's a ballsy choice, calling for sudden leaps into falsetto and a tricky call-and-response pre-chorus that he more or less nails. Still, he seems a little rattled, in spite of the bene?volent smiles he raises from a couple of old Japanese men in pastel golf hats. He's followed by an old-timer by the name of Boomer who dives into Dayton's kinetic miasma with an aggressive swing at "Suspicious Minds".
"Karaoke is like making a mix tape," Dayton continues. "The two activities have crossover dynamics. Putting your own signature stamp on it: that's my personal vision of karaoke." Behind him, another regular is wrapping up Roy Orbison's "Crying"-or, rather, he's standing motionless in front of Beaver's gigantic video screen resolutely avoiding the nut-busting vocal operatics of the song's climax. Still treatising earnestly on the topic, Dayton frowns. "To me, it's important to find nuggets that nobody else has heard. I've already heard 'Born to be Wild' three times, you know? Show me what you've got!" He darts off to perform "The In-Crowd", narrowly missing a collision with a grim-faced senior slumped in an electric three-wheeler.
By the end of the night, we've heard Frankie Avalon's "Venus", Brenda Lee's "Sorry", the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love", Sade's "Smooth Operator", Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight", a flat version of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" from a man in Lycra shorts and a fanny pack, and a stab at "Cat's in the Cradle", delivered a consistent beat-and-a-half late, and therefore mind-bendingly out of phase. Beaver's book, as Dayton contends, is monstrous. Kansas, the Box Tops, Ace of Base, Eddie Rabbit, Pablo Cruise”¦ Not surprisingly, Beaver has been at the game for more than 12 years, ever since this viral leisure activity started to infect this coast, and the former musician is delighted by the youthful crowd. "They came in probably about a year ago," he figures. "They started digging the karaoke and it just kept building. They almost all know each other. They do a lot of stuff from before their parents were born. I got a whack of new stuff, but they do things like 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?'. Well, that was Carole King's first hit back in the '50s," he says, laughing incredulously. "How do you guys even know these songs?"
Beaver is obstinately faithful to the laser disk, even though it's a cumbersome format. The quality of the recordings are exemplary, but it's dying out under the weight of more compact formats like the CDG. The video element is dying with it, sadly. While Dayton emotes through Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train", the accompanying filmlet depicts a leather-vested Fabio minor, longhaired and chesty, with soulful trousers and a good line in expressionless Harlequin-style angst, piling through the streets of San Francisco in pursuit of-his girl? His guy? His shirt? His dignity? His mind? It's hard to tell through the wads of gauze they've stuck in front of the camera. Such is the nature of the karaoke video. Vancouver has appeared in plenty of these and the format is easy to ridicule but weirdly lovable all the same. Spooning couples walk along the beach or somebody runs a lot. The acting tends to suggest an epidemic of Bell's palsy at a fly-by-night modelling agency, but some of them work. "Fatty Bum Bum"-an obscure calypso record that dented the UK charts 30 years ago-features a mustachioed and spivved-up wide-boy in a porkpie hat lustily eyeing his girlfriend's massive arse.
The shift in technology was inevitable, however, as karaoke made its way into the home. Laser-disk players are okay for Stanley Kubrick and people who otherwise feel that Criterion sold out when it started producing DVDs, but most of us are satisfied with the popular compact formats. All-in-one units were a boom item up until recently; now DVD players are adapted to home karaoke. London Drugs carries a model for about $60 that also plays MP3s, yet another source for instrumental tracks. Hard-core karaoke lovers tend to scoff at the home rig, though. "It's okay," Dayton sniffs. "A little tinny." It also precludes the opportunity for true spectacle. Over at the Astoria, the deep-skid-row venue that's home to promoter Wendy Thirteen's Asbalt and tonight's Hot Rod Scary-oke, a wild-eyed kid is delivering an unhinged version of Brecht and Weill's "Alabama Song". Remarkably, and no doubt by accident, his performance conjures some of the decadent and romantically doomed Weltschmerz of Weimar Germany itself. Caught in mythic agony on the Astoria's narrow and dingy stage, the young punk's rendition is possessed, breathtaking, shiver-inducing. Spent, he collapses to his knees with a shudder. Nobody seems to notice, though. Wendy Thirteen breaks the spell by barking out the name of the next punter, who, naturally, happens to be Dayton. One soaring version of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" later and it's finally time for bed.
So how to account for this upsurge in willful public self-abasement? Back at the Buffalo Club, host Don G. Swinger-otherwise known as Doug Elliot, former bassist for the Odds-is gently lampooning the Magnificent Don Juan, who has taken the unusual step of bringing his own recording tonight. Entitled "Stalker", it's a catchy take on Michael Sembello's "Maniac" that contains the lines, "I'm a stalker-I touch myself. I'm a stalker-I'm inside your house. I'm kind of obsessed when I look at your breasts. I'm kind of aroused when I look down your blouse."
The burly performer later reveals that he was kicked off Canadian Idol-possibly because he wore a banana around his neck inscribed with this personal message to one of the judges, "To Sass Jordan, eat me, I'm good for you, love Don Juan." He's funny: he points out that the goateed muscle-neck currently straining through Tom Cochrane's "No Regrets" might otherwise be smashing things. "You're better off to sing off all your frustrations," he reasons. "I'd be doing the same thing if I wasn't singing."
Don Juan puts much of the Extreme in the Buffalo Club's Karaoke but he nails it when asked to account for its current popularity.
"As long as American and Canadian Idol are out there," he says, "it's gonna blow up. There's a boom right now. Look at this place. It's a Monday night! This place and every other karaoke place, everyone's out. I can't believe it myself." Finally he announces: "I wanna give you a press kit."
"Some people show up with their managers," host Elliot reveals. "You're a karaoke singer and you have a manager? What's that all about? People want to be instant celebrities but they don't want to put the work in."
Elliot feels that a competitive element in karaoke is fun but basically counterintuitive. That said, it's also extremely popular, from the Prince?ton's humble East Side Idol to the karaoke-fest competition organized each year at Knott's Berry Farm by Peter Parker's Karaoke Scene magazine, where 42 finalists were winnowed down from 15,000 this year.
The joyful spirit of karaoke, though, is probably best captured by the likes of Allon Morrison, who is back on-stage for a soulful run through the Drifter's "This Magic Moment". He's winning them over once again, not with histrionics or grandstanding, not even with a great voice, but with his honest reverence for the song and the obvious pleasure it gives him.
Elliot watches approvingly. Later he says, "You know what? You gotta have balls to come up and do it. Especially on a stage like the one at the Buffalo Club-it's fucking loud, and there's lights and it's hard to do! I'm amazed that people will get up and do it time and time again. Even when they're being laughed at or they're not so good. That," he concludes with a respectful nod, "is what's really cool."