Three weeks with some of Silicon Valley's most devoted lounge lizards Archie Garcia (in tie) and Ashton 'Metallica' Chevallier expose their karaoke souls.
By Colleen Watson
Photographs by Felipe Buitrago
MAYBE FOUR PEOPLE were looking at me. Two of those were friendly faces I knew; about six more stared morosely into their drinks or laughed with friends. After three weeks of watching other people do this, I told myself, I could do it.
The cramped, windowless bar with its painted cinderblock walls and neon beer signs could have been any low-rent place in San Jose. The faded, life-size mermaid greeting customers as they walked in let me know I was at the Red Stag on San Carlos Street.
I stood peering at my reflection in the huge mirror, a row of whiskey bottles obstructing my view. Danielle, a friendly bartender and a great singer herself, smiled to show her support.
Even with nobody paying attention, my palms started sweating and I battled with my stomach to keep down the 12 ounces of liquid courage that I desperately needed for the next four minutes and 18 seconds.
The music started, I sent out a wordless apology to Pat Benatar, looked up at the flat-screen TV mounted above the bar and tried not to make anyone's ears bleed.
Karaoke, like most things in California, is an import. Brought over from Japan in the early '80s, it was once a hobby reserved for a small group of the talentless and tone deaf. But karaoke grew in popularity and lost some of its stigma. "Normal" people started to sing in public, and no longer was it just the pastime of societal outcasts. Instead people from all walks of life were singing in front of strangers.
There lurks a strange nomadic culture in Silicon Valley of people who travel from bar to bar, like singing Gypsies, entertaining themselves and attempting to entertain others by imitating pop stars. While plenty of people like me will do it once or twice in a lifetime, maybe at the occasional after-work birthday party, these fanatics do it three and four nights a week. These are the few, the die-hards, the karaoke cultists.
They stake out specific bars for certain days of the week. They have their own songs. They carefully craft karaoke personalities. Most are loyal to their chosen karaoke jockeys and venues, and jokingly disparage all others.
The one thing they all have in common is a need to sing in front of people. Singing at home, in the shower or in the car just won't cut it. They need an audience. Is it narcissism? Exhibitionism? Is it an ego trip? This is their moment of stardom, their chance to perform for the crowd—to know that for at least four minutes all eyes and ears are focused on them.
Dozens of karaoke bars in the South Bay fulfill that need. Some host karaoke sessions once a week; others do it every day—from small, badly lit joints like Alex's 49er Bar off Bascom in San Jose to sleek ultralounges like Fahrenheit in downtown San Jose to the rowdier Boswell's in Campbell. Even South First Billiards offers karaoke once a week.
What kind of person goes to karaoke more than three times a week? Gwyneth Paltrow's quirky star turn in Duets aside, karaoke is often considered silly or even lame, and is openly mocked. Most people think of karaokiers as the tone deaf Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend's Wedding or the Japanese businessmen in Rush Hour 2, singing Michael Jackson off-key and with no rhythm. But that isn't a good picture of the hard-core karaokier. I needed to find out who comprised the South Bay's karaoke elite.
So, for about three weeks I stalked a couple of local karaoke singers in San Jose trying to answer these questions—and score some beers.
Archie Garcia (in tie) and Ashton 'Metallica' Chevallier expose their karaoke souls.
As an almost 10-year veteran of the karaoke circuit, Ken Fitzgerald knows the local scene. Fitzgerald looks younger than his 29 years. He's got a cute smile and seems almost shy. But that is not the case.
A serious karaokier, he has been known to perform 20 days in a row, has his own very impressive karaoke system and holds karaoke parties. Mostly, though, he sings at any one of a dozen bars in and around San Jose. He gave me the names of different bars to check out for each day of the week.
I met him at the Dive Bar on Santa Clara Street on a recent Wednesday. The Dive Bar is dark, but contrary to its name it isn't the least bit divey. Karaoke is done in the front, near huge windows, so everyone has to walk past a singer to get into the bar. I was sitting at a table when Fitzgerald came up to me and asked what paper I write for. I don't know how he knew I was a reporter, although the notepad and photographer might have given me away.
Often one can tell the regulars because they just seem more comfortable holding the microphone and being in front of people. Fitzgerald is no exception. Though he doesn't dance around, he reeked of confidence in his rendition of Jimmy Eat World's "Sweetness." "I started doing karaoke shortly after my 21st birthday," Fitzgerald says. "I went out and sang 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' and just had a blast with it. And I've been doing it ever since."
He's good. While singing one night in 2003, a friend asked him if he was going to the San Francisco auditions for American Idol at what was then called PacBell Park. At the time, he hadn't heard of American Idol but liked the idea. "I grabbed my tuxedo," he says, "and just headed on up and slept in my car and slept in line, [then] went into the ballpark—and was selected."
Fitzgerald was one of about 10 people, including William Hung, who were shown on the San Francisco episode. "I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I looked pretty good, too," he says humbly. "But I didn't make it to Hollywood."
He would end up auditioning two more times, once in 2004 and again in 2006. (He missed 2005 because he was getting married in Germany.) On his last attempt, he was the first in line at the Los Angeles auditions. He is no longer eligible for American Idol but he still loves to perform, and will be headed out on a Carnival karaoke cruise soon.
Carol Matsumoto tests her pipes on Katy Perry's 'I Kissed a Girl' at Sunnyvale's Blue Bonnet.
The Reluctant Bar Singer
Carol Matsumoto isn't shy so much as she almost seems like she doesn't want to be here. She readily admits to me that she doesn't like bars. But since she is a karaoke addict and needs an audience, she has to put up with the atmosphere.
She makes it crystal clear that she is here to perform and that is all; she puts up with no shenanigans from drunken patrons, giving them frosty stares if they start to bother her.
At fortysomething and about 5-foot-2, with shoulder-length jet-black hair and a baggy leather jacket, Matsumoto kind of disappears into the background. Before she goes up to sing, she hands the karaoke jockey a CD with the song she wants to sing on it—usually an older soft-rock hit, although she will change her selection to best fit the crowd, not trusting his selection. She does not use the prompter screen; after seven years on the karaoke circuit, she knows her songs by heart.
"Basically I taught myself how to sing," she says. "I would just sing along with the radio and practice in my room."
Here at the Blue Bonnet in Sunnyvale, she looks a bit out of place. She sits at a table quietly waiting for her next turn, while everyone around her is drinking beers and laughing or yelling over a pool game.
As the melody starts, I can see her visibly loosen up and start to enjoy herself. She wanders the floor, lost in her own musical world.
"I always wanted to perform and sing in front of people because I like the attention," she says.
Now retired, Carol has recorded three CDs of cover songs, which she sells at her gigs and gives out as gifts. She admits that she would love to make a living in the studio. "What I would really like to do," she says, "is just make CDs."
At the Dive Bar, Helen Garcia channels Susan Tedeschi's 'It Hurt So Bad.'
They first time I saw Archie Garcia, at Boswell's in Campbell, he was wearing a three-piece suit, strutting his stuff while singing Mötley Crüe. I thought maybe he had come straight from work to the bar, but no—he wore the suit because it was his birthday. (The following week I would see him with jeans and a Darkness T-shirt; this is generally his uniform though he can still occasionally be found in preppy formal.) With his thick black-rimmed glasses, he looked liked like Clark Kent.
Onstage, he danced around, pumping his fist into the air, singing "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love" by Van Halen. The crowd loved it.
Software salesman by day, this San Jose native transforms at night into an attention-craving karaoke dynamo. He started singing regularly a little over a year ago. A friend brought him along, and it's become an addiction.
Garcia has a few theories about the people who do karaoke as much as he does. "After doing it for a year, I tried to simplify things by saying that a regular karaokier, and by regular I mean someone who does it at least once a week and sings, is going to be either: One, depressed; two, narcissistic; or three, ugly. And of course you can be more than one of these." He good-naturedly admits that he falls into more than one of those categories.
He concedes that karaoke has a pretty bad reputation as a lifestyle choice, because it is generally practiced in bars, but he says it's helped him "tone down" his drinking. "Usually, I would go out with friends and drink and dance and go chase after girls. Whereas with karaoke, I limit my drinking because I don't want to screw up the lyric or my voice.
"And it gives me four minutes of all the attention of all the girls at the bar. For someone who needs as much attention as I do, it's a good trade-off."
For Garcia, it's not about the singing so much as the performing. "I'm always singing in the wrong key. I don't think it matters. Seriously, even if you turn in a completely average performance, you're going to do better than at least 10 people."
Ashton Chevallier got started in karaoke out of sheer boredom. He says he started going consistently about 18 months ago because there was nothing else he liked to do in San Jose.
"The couch is not the place to be," he says. "And I've made a bunch of friends. People expect me to show up."
Chevallier sports a heavy-metal look, with long curly hair, faded jeans and a Van Halen T-shirt. Onstage, he rocks all his songs, with kicks, fist pumps and a general hard-core feel. A crowd favorite that he regularly does is "Ballroom Blitz" by the Sweet (made famous on the Wayne's World soundtrack).
He says he also has been playing guitar in a nameless band for the last two years. He goes to karaoke at least twice a week, though if friends want to go on off-days, or other factors arise, he will sing five nights a week.
Late last year, he attended the 2008 San Jose Entertainer of the Year Karaoke Competition. The competition started in September and ran through December. Held at two dozen bars in the area, the top three performers from each bar would go on to the next round. There were six different genres: Top 40, R&B/Jazz, Oldies, Standards/Broadway, Country and Rock, with a finale held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown San Jose. Contest participants did all the judging.
Chevallier won first place in the Top 40 genre, sporting tight white pants, a bandana and aviator glasses, singing Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell."
Chevallier and Garcia, who are pals, are both a bit on the exuberant side. They are easily the most entertaining singers I saw during my sojourn.
They often back each other up during performances. While one sings, the other plays backup air guitar—or air bass. When I asked them to describe the difference, I got a little lecture. I sat on my stool at the Dive bar sipping a beer while Garcia and Chevallier patiently demonstrated the difference of the two imaginary instruments, all with a rather superior air about them. Apparently, it's all about the hand placement. I was shamed for not knowing this.
On slow nights they will sing songs they normally wouldn't perform. Both are good at judging a room, and sing songs they are pretty sure that the crowd will enjoy. But on off-nights they try out new songs, ones that might not go over too well with a crowded bar.
On one of these nights at the Dive, which contained less than a dozen patrons, Chevallier sang Metallica's "Master of Puppets," an 8 1/2-minute-long beast of a song, which contains enough instrumental breaks that he probably could have gone to the bathroom, ordered a beer and talked to a couple of friends before returning to the stage for the final chorus.
That night he sang nothing but Metallica songs. With the easily recognizable opening riffs, he got a few raised-devil-horn salutes, but in general patrons focused on their beverages.
Helen Garcia is also a regular of Wednesdays at the Dive Bar, but she sings under the stage name TK. Talking to her I can tell that music is one of her passions—she lights up and starts to get more animated.
"It doesn't matter where I am, I always sing," she tells me. She sings at the bus stop, at home—and especially at karaoke.
She started seven years ago, when she was 19. "I was actually at De Anza College when we had a karaoke fun day."
Not yet old enough to go to bars, she would head over to Dave and Buster's to karaoke. When she finally hit 21, she would go more often.
"I used to go seven days a week; I had it all planned out I knew where to go and when to go," Garcia says.
She admits that karaoke gets her through some of her more difficult times, that it's a form of therapy and an outlet. There was a time in her life when she was homeless: with nowhere to sleep she would sleep on the 22 bus that ran all night. She called it Hotel 22. But with any extra money, she would go to the bar every night, get a soda and sing karaoke. She says it kept her spirits up.
Now that things have settled down, the petite brunette goes "only" about three nights a week, belting out Janis Joplin and Susan Tedeschi's "Hurt So Bad."
"I just really, really enjoy it, whether it's just to have fun and hang out with friends. It's definitely helping me to succeed in my musical career."
Garcia currently works in graphic design and will be singing in a commercial for Ready 2 Model in the coming months.
In general, the karaokiers seem like a pretty friendly crowd. Always asking newcomers if they are going to sing, and if not, then why, cheering on their peers, and singing along to their favorite songs. And though the crowd ranges in age from early 20s to AARP-card-carrying age, from men in suits and women in dresses to guys in leather chaps and chicks in sweats, there seems to be a lot of camaraderie.
Thing is, many of them don't have impressive voices. But the quality of singing doesn't really matter. What counts is the rush from singing in front of a crowd.
It took me two weeks to get the nerve to sing in public. I blame it on the fact that when I was in the third grade, I fell off the stage during a school musical and ran crying to my mom. Since that time, I've done my best to not make an ass of myself in front of a bunch of strangers.
I knew I had to do it. It seemed only fair. But that whole afternoon, I was nervous.
When I finally got onstage, anyone could tell I was a newbie. My voice warbled and cracked, and I was incredibly stiff. I couldn't bring myself to look at anyone in my tiny crowd and kept my eyes glued to the teleprompter.
But I had gotten some good pointers from some of the regulars:
• No matter what, people have heard worse.
• If the bar is rocking, don't sing a whiny folk song.
• Never sing "Nickelback."
I made it through the whole song, only forgetting a line or two. And I didn't fall down.
Afterward I got some applause—probably more from pity than anything else, but claps are claps—and that felt good.
7 Bamboo Karaoke Lounge Wed-Sat, 9pm-2am: Karaoke. Tue, 9pm-1am: Karaoke. 1 62 E. Jackson St, San Jose, 408.279.9937.
Alex's 49er Inn Wed-Sat, 9pm-1am: Karaoke. 2214 Business Circle, San Jose, 408.279.9737.
B4 Twelve Wed, 9pm-1am: Karaoke Dance Party. With DJ Purple. No cover. 412 Emerson St, Palo A lto, 650.326.7183.
The Bank Thu: Karaoke. 14421 Big Basin Way, S aratoga, 408.867.5155.
The Bears Fri-Sat, 9pm: With MC Ruckus Brian. 1 872 W. San Carlos, San Jose, 408.998.3425.
Blinky's Can't Say Fri, 9pm-1am: With Stephanie. 1031 Monroe St, Santa Clara, 4 08.985.7201.
Blue Bonnet Bar Mon and Wed-Thu, 8pm: Karaoke. No cover. 208 S. Fair Oaks Ave, S unnyvale, 408.245.6651. Blue Max Fri-Sat, 9pm-1:30am: Karaoke. 828 W. E l Camino Real, Sunnyvale, 408.746.9500.
Blue Note Lounge Thu, 9pm: Karaoke. 765 N. C apitol Ave, Milpitas, 408.262.8363.
Blue Pheasant Tue, 7pm: With Steve Tiger. 22100 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino, 4 08.255.3300.
Blush Nightclub Tue, 7:30-11:30pm: Karaoke. 2 61 California Dr, Burlingame, 415.573.9840.
Boswell's Tue: With DJ Davey K. 1875 S. Bascom A ve, Campbell, 408.371.4404.
Britannia Arms Almaden Wed, 10pm and Sun, 10pm: Karaoke. With DJ Hank. 5027 Almaden E xpwy, San Jose, 408.266.0550.
Britannia Arms Cupertino Sun-Tue, 9:30pm: Karaoke. 1087 De Anza Blvd, Cupertino, 4 08.252.7262.
British Bankers Club Thu, Sun, 9:30pm: Karaoke. 1090 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 6 50.327.8769.
C&J's Sports Bar Mon, Thu, 9pm: Karaoke. No cover. 1550 Lafayette St, Santa Clara, 4 08.423.9013.
Cardinal Lounge Wed, 9pm: Karaoke. With DJ Curtis. No cover. 3197 Meridian Ave, San Jose, 4 08.269.7891.
Club Max Ongoing, 8pm: Karaoke. Doubletree Hotel, 2050 Gateway Place, San Jose, 4 08.437.2187.
Creekside Inn Wed-Sat, 8:30pm: Karaoke. No c over. 544 W. Alma St, San Jose, 408.289.9782.
DaSilva's Broncos Wed-Sat, 8pm: Karaoke. (Formerly the Claran), 1251 Franklin Mall, Santa C lara, 408.248.4682.
Dive Bar Wed, 8pm-2am: Karaoke. 78 E. Santa C lara St, San Jose, 408.288.5252.
Drying ShedFri-Sat, 8:30pm: Karaoke and D ancing. 402 Toyon Ave, San Jose, 408.272.1512.
Effie's Restaurant and LoungeTue-Sat, 9pm-2am and last Sun of every month, 2-7pm: With BNS Karaoke. 331 Hacienda Ave, Campbell, 408.374.3400.
Fahrenheit Ultra Lounge Mon, 9pm-close: Karaoke. No cover. 99 E. San Fernando St, San J ose, 408.998.9998.
Fifth Quarter Mon, Tue, 9pm: Karaoke. 1373-B K ooser Rd, San Jose, 408.265.7033.
Flames Coffee Shop Thu-Sat, 9pm-midnight: The Uncle Dougie Show. No cover. 1830 Hillsdale A ve, San Jose, 408.723.8393.
Galaxy Tue, Thu and Sun, 9pm-2am: Karaoke. $ 10 cover. 134 S. Main St, Milpitas, 408.262.1123.
Ginger Bar and Grill Thu, 9pm: Karaoke. Hilton Hotel, 39900 Balentine Dr, Fremont, 5 10.490.8390.
The Goosetown Lounge Fri-Sat, 9:30pm: K araoke. 1072 Lincoln Ave, Willow Glen, 408.292.4835.
Hard Work Cafe Wed, 8pm-midnight: Karaoke. F ree. 1620 Almaden Rd, San Jose, 408.289.9675.
Huddle Wed-Thu and Sun, 9pm: Wild Nights K araoke. 5152 Mowry Ave, Fremont.
Katie Bloom's Irish Pub & Restaurant Sun, 9:30pm-1:30am: Karaoke. 369 Campbell Ave at C entral, Campbell, 408.379.9687.
KhartoumThu, 9pm: With Davey K. No cover. 3 00 Orchard City Dr, Campbell, 408.379.6340.
King of Clubs Sun-Thu, 8:30pm-close: With Bruce of KOR Karaoke. No cover. 893 Leong Dr, M ountain View, 650.968.6366.
Las Fuentes Fri-Sat, 8-11pm: Karaoke in Spanish. 1 63 W. Alma Ave, San Jose, 408.280.5555.
Mariani's RestaurantThu, 8-11pm: With Chris. 2 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, 408.243.1431.
Mexico LindoWed: Country karaoke. Fri: Karaoke. 11 Race St, San Jose, 408.295.7765.
Normandy House Lounge Fri-Sat, 9pm-1am: With Stephanie. 30 Washington St, Santa Clara, 4 08.244.1937.
Oasis Wed, 8:30pm: With MC Ruckus Brian. Fri, 8:30pm: With Dusty or Jen. Sat, 8:30pm: With Doug. 952 E. El Camino, Sunnyvale, 408.738.9957.
Office Bar Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat, 9pm: Karaoke. 820 E . El Camino Real, Mountain View, 650.969.2098.
Pacific Palms Grill and BarWed-Thu, 9:30pm- 1:30am: Wild Side Karaoke. 1380 S. Main St, M ilpitas, 408.934.4999.
Peacock Lounge Thu, 9pm-1:30am: With MC Ruckus Brian. Sun: Karaoke Sundays. Tue, 9pm -1:30am: With DJ Mickey. DJ, dancing, karaoke. 102 E . Fremont Ave, Sunnyvale, 408.962.6690.
Pebble Roppongi Karaoke LoungeMon-Sat, 8pm-2am: Karaoke. 160 S. Frances St, Sunnyvale, 4 08.738.0392.
Quarter NoteTue, Thu, Sun, 9pm: Karaoke. No cover. 1214 Apollo Way, Sunnyvale, 408.732.2110.
Red Stag Lounge Ongoing, 9:30pm-2am: Karaoke. 1711 W. San Carlos St, San Jose, 408.292.6777.
Redi RoomThu, 9pm-1am: Karaoke. With Joseph. 4 340 Moorpark Ave, San Jose, 408.257.7770.
Rosie McCann'sTue, 8:30pm: Karaoke. No c over. 355 Santana Row, San Jose, 408.247.1706.
Royal Oak PubMon, Wed, 9pm-1am: Karaoke. 1 240 Coleman Ave, Santa Clara, 408.588.1111.
San Jose Bar & Grill Tue, 10pm: Kamikaze Karaoke. 85 S. Second St, San Jose, 408.286.2397.
Scruffy Murphy's Irish PubThu and Sun, 9pm-close: College Karaoke Night. 187 S. Murphy Ave, Sunnyvale, 408.735.7394.
Sherwood InnWed, 8pm and Fri-Sat, 8:30pm: With Vinnie. Sun, 8:30pm: With Chris. 2988 A lmaden Expwy, San Jose, 408.266.2480.
South First Billiards Club and LoungeSun, 9:30pm: With Wild Side. 420 S. First St, San Jose, 4 08.294.7800.
Southside CafeWed, 8:30pm : Karaoke and DJ dancing. With DJ Armando. 21+. No cover. 7028 S anta Teresa Blvd, San Jose, 408.226.5424.
SplashTue, 10pm: Hosted by Apple and KJ Ken. No cover. 65 Post St, San Jose, 408.993.0861.
StraitsWed, 9pm-midnight: Karaoke. 333 Santana Row, Suite 1100, San Jose, 408.246.6320.
The SavoyWed at 8pm. 3546 Flora Vista Ave, Santa Clara, 408.244.6909.
A Tinker's Damn Tue, 9pm: Karaoke. 46 N. Saratoga Ave, Santa Clara, 408.243.4595.
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