The Song Remains the Same:
An Adventure in Karaoke

By David Volk
From Metropolitan Living

It had been a long, grueling weekend of performing in bar after bar after bar, and now it was almost over. A hush fell over the crowd as audience members realized I had reached deep into my bag of tricks for the number I was about to sing. All of them knew it was a protest era song, but none could believe I was trying the technically difficult tune now.

I chose to view the murmur that ran the length of the room as admiration.

So I belted out the tune as loudly and proudly as Joan Baez would have if it were folk song karaoke night. Some were amused, others were stunned, but most just wanted it to end.

That didn't stop me, because I had a message I wanted everyone to hear. And the only way to tell them was to sing my heart-felt song:

"What's new pussycat? Woah, woah, woah."

Although my friends don't know this, I have secretly always wanted to be a lounge singer, churning out cheesy tunes for adoring fans. Sometimes I can see myself standing in front of a piano, singing "My Way", "It's Not Unusual" and a touching rendition of "She's Always a Lady to Me."

Unfortunately, I was born with a terrible handicap: an inability to carry a tune, even in a briefcase.

So when I was assigned this story on Seattle's karaoke scene, I saw the chance to realize my dream. Instead of just singing at one bar and writing about the rest, I went on tour with one good cheesy song. I even had a slogan: "Dave's karaoke tour: one man, one song and a dream…well, a nightmare, really."

Considering my handicap, I'm still surprised I was brave enough to go to Shogun in Federal Way (31140 Pacific Highway South, karaoke nightly 9 p.m. to close).

Only one of the tables in the dimly lit second-floor bar was occupied at 10 p.m.—-the Steve Miller Band was at the Puyallup Fair. The only people singing were the 20-something karaoke host, his friend and a guy in his 40s with long hair, a beard and a good voice.

Despite the small crowd, I was too nervous to hand in my song request. Until I met Thom Francis.

A long-haul trucker, Francis has sung in 48 states, belongs to a karaoke club in Utah and says he once drove 500 miles just to sing.

"It uplifts me to get up and act like a performer,"he explained. "It doesn't matter how good or bad you sound as long as you get up and have fun."

Easy for him to say. He has a good voice. After an hour of procrastinating, I finally stood before the crowd and flung my voice to the wolves. To say I was bad doesn't do my performance justice. Even though the words were right in front of me on the monitor, I couldn't keep up—and the song's high notes left my bass voice in the Pussycat's litter box. I was so terrible that the patrons ran downstairs to escape, and the host had to sing "Rosanna" to bring them back.

"I give it a 4.5 out of 5," Francis said, giving me a thumbs up after I finished. He's too kind.

As I left, I realized I had violated the first rule that applies to karaoke newcomers: Sing what you know. I chose "Pussycat" because it was cheesy and was probably on every karaoke song list, but I didn't even know the words until I bought a used Tom Jones cassette and listened to it on the way to Shogun.

Bull Pen (20011 Pacific Highway S., SeaTac, singing nightly 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.) was the exact opposite of Shogun. A few miles up the karaoke corridor (that is, Highway 99), the well-lit bar had a huge crowd and a large stack of song requests. Although karaoke hosts try to put first-time singers ahead of veterans, host Mike Francis told me I couldn't sing because the 20-something crowd already had it all locked up.

And quite a crowd it was, too. Audience members sang along to songs they liked—some even got up and danced, a no-no at most karaoke bars. The astounding turnout had a lot to do with the free-wheeling atmosphere. At least 50 people were there at midnight, and it wasn't even Bull Pen's busiest night. As host Francis puts it, "Our slow nights are other bars 'busy nights.'"

Bull Pen taught me the second rule of karaoke: The crowd may be a late one, but they sign up early. If you want to get on the roster, do the same. You can always pretend you don't hear the host call your name later.

Then again, I may have been lucky that I didn't get to sing. After all, there are some things a guy shouldn't do in certain Southend bars on a Thursday night. Singing a song that includes the word "pussycat" is one of them. The crowd seemed pleasant enough, but I couldn't shake the feeling that if I had told the group "to powder your sweet little pussycat nose," a few people might have told me, "We don't like your kind here."

That's when I realized the importance of groupies. If they wouldn't flatter me, at least they could cover me if things got ugly. So I went and got some.

Flanked by a passel of pals, I had high hopes for my Friday night. The Eastside, however, was surprisingly short of Friday night karaoke joints. Despite 10 minutes of exhaustive research, my groupies and I found only two places.

Shi-Lin Cuisine of China (15932 NE Eighth, Bellevue, singing 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday through Saturday) was thriving at 9:30 p.m. About 20 people, mostly blue-collar regulars, were waiting to sing. Just before me on the roster were an African-American man clad in a cowboy hat, a purple cowboy shirt and jeans with a big-ass belt buckle (He sang "Falling in Love with You,") and Madonna -—a person who could have been a man or a woman who sang "Killing Me Softly".

Madonna set the mood; I killed it. I was getting better at keeping up with the monitor, but I still couldn't hit the high notes and I looked as bad as I sounded. Back at my table, one of my people had his head in his hands throughout my performance. Describing my vocal stylings as "a cross between William Shatner and Tony Randall gone horribly, horribly wrong,"groupie Nick Fraser said my facial expression implied that I had fishhooks in my eyebrows.

"Let's hear it for David," the hostess said. "You should sing another number." (And she should join the U.S. Diplomatic corps.)

Our second stop isn't even worth mentioning because it was so dead the host started up the system for me and shut it down when we left. After cruising the International District without finding karaoke, my people pleaded fatigue and wanted to go home. That's how I learned you should pay your groupies.

By Saturday night, I had the formula down. The key was livelier groupies and getting in and out of bars faster. Leilani Lanes (10201 Greenwood Ave. N., 9 p.m. to close, Friday and Saturday) was up first. The song menu didn't have "Pussycat," but it did include my back-up number, Jones' "It's Not Unusual."

So, I opted to do a "suicide," karaoke slang for singing something you don't know.

It was my finest performance of the evening. My hips were swiveling, my finger was pointing and I was singing to a woman, just like Jones would have, if he were taller, thinner, less buff, American and Jewish.

The atmosphere in Leilani's bar lends itself to that type of performance because it's an extremely casual atmosphere. It is in a bowling alley lounge, after all. Most of the singers were middle-aged men and women who weren't great singers, but they were having a great time. The hostess warned that as the evening wears on and the crowd age drops, it gets even sillier. That may explain why the bar felt it necessary to put a "Kode of Konduct" at every table:

  1. Show respect for all singers. Please applaud everyone.
  2. Show your bar staff and host some appreciation.
  3. Please enjoy a drink or something to eat if you are singing.
  4. Do not drink and drive.

At The Rickshaw (322 N. 105th, singing every night) the party starts at 9:30 p.m., but they don't mess around. While it took a while for the singing to start at Leilani, the Rickshaw crowd was already swinging when we walked in at 9:45 p.m. The audience was way into it, cheering even the worst singers. The restaurant's food may be average, but its singers certainly weren't. The selections ahead of me included "La Bamba," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and a risque Adam Sandler tune about a bad car.

My still-bad performance was getting better, and the mostly 21-to-45-year-old crowd responded enthusiastically. I was followed by a 24-year-old white guy, volunteered by a bridal party to sing Sir Mix-a-lot's "Baby Got Back."

The crowd at Ozzie's (105 W. Mercer St., singing nightly from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m) was younger, the songs newer and the participants weirder than any other place we visited. When I tapped a customer on the shoulder and asked for the song list, he turned around to reveal a headful of glitter-gilded hair. Meanwhile, across the bar, four attractive but nearly under-age women (who were starved for attention from their much older dates) sang a salty Nine Inch Nails song, fondling each other as they danced and screamed the racier parts of the song.

My fiance arrived just before my number, inspiring me to greatness. I even hit notes I'd missed all weekend. The reaction to my second-best performance of the night? One listener yelled, "Make it stop." Astonished, my groupie Fraser looked at me and said, "I think you just opened a hole in the fabric of time."

I know my fiance loved my performance because tears rolled down her face as she listened. She left shortly after. I don't think the two events were related, but now she won't return my calls, and I can't figure out why.

One of Seattle's oldest karaoke clubs, Bush Garden (614 S. Maynard Ave, nightly from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.), was the perfect end to my long tour. The crowd was rowdy and eager to express its opinion of the singers and their songs. When a couple left the stage halfway through Elton John's "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word," the audience finished the song.

"Great," I said to Fraser as we sat and watched the crowd. "They're going to kill us." Indeed, audience members were shocked when they saw the name of the song on the screen, but I didn't give them much time to think about it before I belted out the question "What's new pussycat?" then aimed the microphone at the crowd. They responded, "Woah, woah, woah!" It wasn't pretty: I sang in three different keys and I couldn't hit the high notes, but still, no one killed me.

As we were leaving, Fraser looked at me with a mix of admiration for my bravery and awe at my foolhardiness and said, "I believe you just closed the rip in the fabric of time."

Other karaoke hot spots:

China Harbor, one of Seattle’s oldest karaoke spots with a huge room, 2040 Westlake Ave. N., Monday-Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Shay1s, 15744 Aurora Ave. N, Shoreline, Thursday and Sunday, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Gibson’s, 116 Stewart St, Seattle, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The Redondo Pub, 27019 Pacific Highway S., Des Moines, nightly 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. with all ages singing on Sundays.