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Five Terrifying Minutes of Fame

Friends don't let friends sing, "Dude Looks Like a Lady" ...and other karaoke tips

By Michael J. Vaughn

A few years ago, a friend and I were hanging out, après sledding, at a "locals" bar near Bear Valley. The owner had a new karaoke system but was having a hard time finding anyone besides herself to try it out.

Considering this a call to duty, I left our game of pool to go up and try "Slow Down" by the Beatles. The regulars, who didn't know about my years in various bands, must have thought, "Well, hell, if that guy can do it ..." My memory of the rest of the evening is pretty much a blur, culminating with a 2am, 20-singer version of "Hey, Jude."

My first time, and I was already a missionary.

Fast-forward to spring 2002: Pittsburgh, Pa., where I was recovering from a failed Long Island marriage proposal by playing drums in a friend's band. She had a thing for Creed, however, and bless 'em, but those boys do not write very therapeutic drum parts.

She also had a thing for karaoke, so one night we hit an Italian restaurant packed to the gills with wannabe singers. I was hoping to win over the place with "Mack the Knife" (which absolutely no one can resist), but my friend had yet another thing, this one about "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." I have my faults, but I would never turn down a request.

How the college-age hotties in front of the stage even knew this song, I'll never know, but as soon as it started, they began to chatter and sigh in variations of "Omigod! I love this song!" The melody nestled snugly into my upper range, provided a couple of dramatic American Idol climaxes and sent me offstage to hoots and hollers. My ravaged ego was nowhere near recovery, but it was one helluva start. (This may not have been coincidence, by the way--my Pittsburgh friend is a professional psychic.)

The point that I am winding around to is that, somewhere beneath the serious cheese and bad singing, karaoke can be a spiritual, communal experience. Strip it down to its essentials, after all, and you've got a bunch of people gathered round to sing songs to each other. It may as well be "Kumbayah" around a campfire, save for the wonders of technology, through which we get to sing to Stevie Ray Vaughan's rippin' guitar work or Tony Bennett's 28-piece orchestra. Call it the Church of American Song.

So. Interested in joining our little congregation? Grab a hymnal and--as Aerosmith might put it--walk this way.

Finding the Right Joint

For your baptismal appearance, I recommend a cozy bar that's welcoming to newcomers (note: If the entire populace takes their smoke breaks en masse, that's a bad sign). Once there, you'll find a binder full of song listings (alphabetized by artist name and/or song title), some song slips and a pen.

Take your time! Half the fun is rifling through the popular music of the 20th century. If the 21st is more your style, look in the back for a listing of "recent additions."

Fill out the slip with your name, song title and song number and hand it to the emcee (introduce yourself, if that makes you feel more comfortable). You're now going to be really nervous until your name is called, but focus your attention and applause on the other singers. These courtesies will come back to you in spades.

Picking the Song

Choose a tune you know backward, forward and sideways. Think about how your voice feels when you sing it along with the radio. Do you feel like you're screaming? Then forget it. Woe to the millions who have started with "Brown-Eyed Girl" or "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," only to discover how high those notes really go. And yes, the best thing about karaoke is that obliging lyric screen, but you're still much better off if you know the words by heart.

The Performance

OK. So they've called your name, and you're no longer really nervous--you're insanely nervous. Here are a few mental strategies to see you through:

For one thing, recognize the things your body is doing to you: faster heartbeat, shallow breathing, muscle weakness, dry throat. These are all normal reactions. If you're able to acknowledge them as such, even anticipate them, you can harness that flow of adrenaline to your purposes.

Next, don't feel the need to sing to the audience, even if your friends are there. Just have a little tea party with the lyric screen, and if you're really feelin' it, close your eyes and cut out all the visual distractions. An audience will always appreciate a well-done song, even without the Mick Jagger rooster strut.

Finally, make it about the song. You picked it because you love it, so don't go up there to prove something or show off. Go up there to show what a great song this is.


Every sport has its unwritten rules. Following are a few for karaoke:

1. Don't ask the emcee to start the song over. If you miss the first line, just come in on the second. No one will care.

2. Don't hang out in the parking lot until your name's called. Hey, I'm sure it really is all about you, but could you at least pretend to care about the other singers?

3. Don't scream into the mike. As you prepare for the jungle yell at the end of "My Sharona," back that puppy up a couple of inches. You'll save everyone a lot of pain.

4. Don't get falling-down drunk. Remember how great you were, singing "Let's Get It On" after six tequila poppers? Neither does anybody else.

5. Don't hassle the emcee. It's hard enough keeping all these raging egos in check without you coming up to bitch about the lack of Neil Diamond selections. These people are the sacred priests of music--treat them accordingly.

6. Don't horn in. Perhaps your backing vocal to "Sex and Candy" is God's gift to harmonics, but you pick up that second mike without prior permission and you will die a terrible death. And no one will cry for you, Argentina. (This is not to discourage a planned harmony jam, which can be a beautiful thing.)

7. Don't milk the applause. Even if you deserve it--especially if you deserve it--nothing looks cooler than a humble "thanks" and a quick departure. If you are offered a high-five, however, slap away. Also, if you have just performed an Elvis tune, you are required by law to mumble, "Thankyouvermuch."

Advanced Karaoke 101

Once you get into this stuff, keep pushing! If the place is crowded, sure, do your A-1 material, but if you're one of three singers, why not try that Elvis Costello song you only half know? It's like the skiers say: if you don't crash and burn once in a while (let's talk about my "Danke Schoen" experience), you ain't skiin'.

If you'd like to go really deep, be aware that most karaoke machines have a knob for adjusting the key up or down. You're a Barry White bass who wants to do an Avril Lavigne song? Check with a karaoke host near you.

Also remember: part of the challenge is to find that one semiforgotten selection that makes your audience cringe, laugh and applaud, all at the same time.

Now, my postulants. I baptize thee in the name of the Bee Gees, the Temptations and Frank Sinatra. Go forth and sing, baby, sing.

Where to Karaoke

Almaden Lounge
1160 Blossom Hill, San Jose; 408.269.4200

Hours: Nightly 9pm-2am

A woodsy bar with enough nautical paraphernalia for "Pirates of the Caribbean" (be sure to fondle the mermaid on the way in). A popular spot for karaoke birthday parties. Tuesday is Old Skool Night, when post-1990 tunes are strictly forbidden.

Capacity: 65; 6,200 songs. Plus one pool table.

Britannia Arms
5027 Almaden Expwy, San Jose; 408.266.0550

Hours: Sun, Wed 9:30pm-1am

The Brit-A is just the kind of place I usually avoid: a warehouse-size Britpub fused with MTV Spring Break foaming at the tables with bachelorette parties. Get up on that big stage, though, and it's pretty incredible--bright lights, big-ass lyric screen; if you do well, the drunken bachelorettes will scream for you. No messin' around, though--go with your A material.

Capacity: 300; 6,750 songs.

C&J's Sports Bar
1550 Lafayette St, Santa Clara; 408.247.4027

Hours: Tue-Thu 9pm-2am

If you're a little A.D.D. when it comes to waiting for your turn, you can't beat the distractions at C&J's: pool table, foosball, dance floor, seven TVs and a wicked old-school "Lethal Weapon" pinball machine (five balls per game!). Tuesday is all-country night with Lance and the California Cowboys. Call ahead in case they've booked a band.

Capacity: 200.

Cardinal Lounge
3197 Meridian Ave, San Jose; 408.269.7891

Hours: Mon-Wed 9pm-1:30am

You want Vegas, you got it. The Cardinal's got wall mirrors, swiveling black chairs with red fringe, constellation wallpaper and a groovy spotlit stage. The real star, though, is the audio. John and Barbara of Act One Productions have lined the stage with seven speakers, creating a surround-sound better than Pavarotti's shower. Contests on Wednesday, offering cash and travel prizes.

Capacity: 90; 6,600 songs. Plus a dance floor.

Coconut Willie's
1099 W. San Carlos St, San Jose; 408.971.1737

Hours: Mon-Wed 9pm-1am

CW's low-ceilinged corner stage makes an effective audio womb for the nervous beginner. The place offers some veteran activities as well: Monday's singing contest ($50 cash prize), and Tuesday's "Suicide Night," in which everyone puts a song into a hat, then tries to sing whatever they pull back out. Décor is neighborhood luau, with grass-skirt wallpaper and two lamp-lit pool tables.

Capacity: 65; 5,600 songs.

Effie's Lounge
331 Hacienda Ave, Campbell; 408.374.3400

Hours: Tue-Sat 9pm-midnight

Thanks to emcee Erica Errico's 15 years with the popular Bay Area band Sundance, Effie's sports a pro-level sound system and a huge 10,000-song selection. This and a luxury-lounge feel combine to draw talented regulars and trembling newbies alike--a rare combination. On Wednesdays, each song gets you a raffle ticket for karaoke CDs or dinner in the adjoining restaurant.

Capacity: 75.

Fox's Den
803 Lincoln Ave, San Jose; 408.288.8886

Hours: Thu 9pm-1am

Another A.D.D. sports bar (three pool tables, two TVs, table shuffleboard and an "Elvira" pinball machine), but with a somewhat separate karaoke room that has a nice church-basement feel: linoleum floors, wood paneling and a big movie screen for the lyrics.

Capacity: 120; 8,000 songs.

Goosetown Lounge
1072 Lincoln Ave, San Jose; 408.292.4835

Hours: Fri-Sat 9:30pm-2am

Goosetown's draw is its karaoke nights and its dance floor, a hardwood pit just meant to be filled with writhing bodies and flashing lights. So pick a great dance tune--"Baby Got Back," "I Want Your Sex," "Billie Jean"--take it to the raised stage and live out your Donna Summer fantasies.

Capacity: 75; 8,000 songs.

Murphy's Bar & Grill
2240 Winchester Blvd, Campbell; 408.379.2654

Hours: Fri-Sat 9pm-1am

Phat Albert's Saturday night selection is a modest 4,000, but the room offers crisp acoustics and a pool table to lean on in case you feel faint. With TVs in both corners, you can actually face the audience while you sing, and the interior is bright and clean. A great place to bring a group of friends.

Capacity: 95.

Three Flames Restaurant
1547 Meridian Ave, San Jose; 408.269.3133

Hours: Sun, Tue-Wed 8:30pm-midnight

Can't beat the mobile singing at 3F: stay with the stage monitor, or wander off to dance floor monitors left and right. Drink in the hotel-lobby feel, the massive copper-top bar and the oddball humor of Doug, who sings a heart-rending version of "Help Me Make It Through The Yard" ("Pull the rosebush from my hair ...").

Capacity: 150; 6,400 songs.

Touchdown Tommy's
5837 Camden Ave, San Jose; 408.266.1431

Hours: Fri-Sat 8pm-midnight

Nice little hangout, TT's, sporting a wall full of memorabilia (an autographed bat from Stan Javier, my favorite A's sub), a pool table, table shuffleboard and five TVs. Jack's colorful list holds only 3,500 songs, but it's a good place to sing your favorite country tune and watch a game.

Capacity: 49

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Thanks, Designated Driver!: An appreciation, and some tips, for the nondrinker.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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