Saturday night, a friend celebrated her . . . mumble . . . something-or-other birthday, so we did what actors tragically often do: we gathered at a bar and performed the ancient ceremony known as karaoke. Different people have different reactions to this activity, usually ranging from “I want that person singing to burn to death right now,” all the way to “I want everyone else in the world to burn to death right now.” I understand. My own position is, “Singing in public is a scrotum-tightening ordeal of sheerest panic not unlike being attacked by rabid knife-brandishing gibbons.”
But you have to understand that it’s a little different going out with a bunch of actors (if you haven’t already, in which case, you should do so if only as a bold anthropological experiment). Actors are, famously and correctly, known for characteristics like deranged binge-drinking; an almost pathological lack of shame; a desperate craving for attention, even of the most negative sort, which is unfortunately at odds with a gnawing fear that at any given moment, someone somewhere nearby is being slightly more entertaining than themselves; and finally, in some remarkable cases, actual singing talent. That last trait is of course subjective when brought to bear on karaoke, whose arrangements of any given song have been anesthetized, splayed open, gutted with a baling hook, filled back up with chewed cardboard, and then hastily half-revived and sent reeling back out into the world. Karaoke arrangements are like Gorey’s doomed tatterdemalions: wan, utterly without hope, and about five seconds away from an awful death.
There are ways to deal with all this. Some actors are wonderful; their voices are perfect, and they rise above the insipid tripe oozing from the speakers behind them; they perform the song. But there are other people who take a different tack: they attack the song as if it had punched their kid sister in the face, and destroy it utterly. These are the people to be feared and locked cages and poked with sticks until science finds a way to understand them and then fuck with their brains cruelly, Clockwork Orange style, so they may one day be stopped.
Guess which group I’m writing about? There were some lovely performances that night, I’m sure, but their memories have been destroyed by the following people, all of whom I am, I should add, very fond of. Lest it seem otherwise.
First out of the gate on Saturday was T., who, evidently feeling that the world wasn’t quite Hobbesian enough for his liking, lit into an eye-popping rendition of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” It actually started out okay, which is to say as okay as conceivably possible, for about four lines, when he mystifyingly substituted “karate” for “karama” in the lyrics, and then started stalking the tiny stage making frightening karate moves, kicking the air and leaping around like a frog on a hot plate. Since T. is about nine feet tall and ganglier-than-thou, he looked an awful lot like the muppet Animal after a thorough macing. He continued singing, exhorting everyone to madly karate “ALL! NIGHT! LONG!” and, because the rest of us have a tender spot for such awful things, we sang along. By the end, he had an awful lot of people in the bar staring into their drinks, wondering what fiendish thing had been slipped in there by the clearly malevolent bar staff.
Not long after this fearful spectacle came C., who ominously prefaced his performance with a suspiciously sincere bit of spoken dribble: “This song is about America.” Then the dire plonking strains of Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise,” started polluting the air, and C. whipped his vocal cords into a frenzied yelping that approximated human noise. C. paid very little attention to the actual melody–itself a mixed blessing–and opted instead for the Kamikaze approach: he’d lift his voice up into a stratospheric whoop and then come divebombing down in a murderous assault on the helpless notes lying far below, which burst into flames and screamed piteously and C. shot past them straight into the ground. Occasionally, he would totally unneccessarily howl, “This song is about homelessness!” Actually, the way C. performed it, it could have been about autocannibalism or cataclysmic viral spread.
Not long after C. finished his clumsy autopsy on Mr. Collins’ pithy social ruminations came the birthday girl, V. V. is one of the masters of this art form I’ve described, and I can honestly say that on one past occasion, her grim chemical-peel version of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” lifted me to another plane of existence; it was so otherworldly and horrific, it had me holding my sides laughing, otherwise I would have surely rushed the stage and impaled her on many forks. On this night too, she was mining the 80s, with her frontal assault on Pat Benetar’s interminable “Love is a Battlefield.” You knew where she was going almost immediately with the initial “Whoooaaoooaaaooo” banshee wail, because she already sounded like Diamanda Galas stuck in a taffy puller. V. continued along in this vein, paying absolutely no heed to the song’s meter or rhythm, instead opting for a kind of Paul Harvey vs. Eric Bogosian dramatic interpretation: “Heartache to heartache . . . . . . . . . . WESTAND!” Her eyes bulging like Don Rickles undergoing electrotherapy. In the audience, the drinking rate redoubled itself, and the regulars in the bar were looking decidedly twitchy and haunted, like sentient lab rats, aware of their fate, but unable to do anything about it.
The last one I remember, however, is K. K. is also legendary for his talent for eviscerating perfectly good songs, though he didn’t pick one on Saturday. No, again Mr. Phil Collins was selected for the old artistic cornholing, this time “Against All Odds,” which, for terrible reasons known only to himself, K. began singing with the most offensively ridiculous and overblown Cajun accent imaginable. “Teee-aa-iike a lwoook a-et me NYAA-OOWWW!” he bleated, clutching the mic in both hands, eyes closed and head thrown back as if delivering the finest of gospel standards. “Thyeeeh’s juzz’an EEE-OOMPTY SPYUZZ!” It was just ghoulish, the aural equivalent of diving into a swimming pool filled with dead dogs.
There was more that night, but those are certainly the highlights of horridly good fun. We had predictably emptied most of the rest of the bar by the time I left, and they weren’t even done yet. So there’s an idea of what you can expect if you go out singing karaoke with actors, or at least actors who are my friends, who are all troublingly disturbed individuals, and who wants it any other way?