Perched on a wooden stool by the front door and holding a microphone with one hand, Conley Jones belts out “Better Man” to a tinny, digitized arrangement with angst enough to make Eddie Vedder proud. With his free hand, he casually checks IDs as those in search of Baja Bean’s Tuesday night special—$3 margaritas and hours of karaoke—file in. Jones doesn’t drink. Instead, a 32-ounce pitcher of Mountain Dew sits within arm’s length.
At 9pm on this Tuesday night, the motley assortment of karaoke regulars—college students, middle-aged singles, older couples, 20something hipsters—are settling in at the bar, at the booths, at the wooden tables, ordering drinks and flipping through one of the two-dozen 231-page songbooks scattered about. They ponder what this evening’s selection holds in store.
A typical karaoke conversation:
“Oh, that would be a good one!” Out of the upwards of 10,000 song choices in the Thunder Music tome, Girl A’s finger lands on Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield.”
“Mmmm, I don’t know. Can you do the dance?” asks Girl B.
“What about something by The Cure? I love The Cure.” There’s no time for debate as the pages flip forward to the “C’s.”
The success of a karaoke song depends on how a karaoke hopeful interprets the following: her own vocal abilities, the singability of her selection and what the audience wants. Ideally, the singer can carry a tune (this rarely happens), the song does not push her abilities to the breaking point (literally) and (whether she knows it or not) the audience wants to hear that song. Over the years, says Stacie Hatch, who manages Baja Bean, certain karaoke favorites have surfaced at the restaurant: “Sweet Caroline,” “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and any number by Madonna.
On this evening, which is shaping up to be as amped up and predictable as any other karaoke night during the past three years, waiters in red-and-white baseball-style shirts run to and fro carrying margaritas in plastic beer cups to thirsty regulars. Tuesdays are Baja’s most profitable weekday night by far. Each server can expect to pocket around $200.
Karaoke came to Baja three years ago when Charles Davis, a regular at the Corner restaurant, slipped the name Steve Miller to the then manager. Miller is a legendary karaoke jockey (who happens to share a name with a ’70s rock legend). Within a few months of Miller joining the Tuesday night routine, Baja had to hire extra servers, a doorman and a second bartender. Mountain Dew-drinking Jones, who had been singing karaoke for five years, began as Miller’s apprentice in summer 2003.
Tonight, Miller sits ensconced at the front booth, nursing his fourth Red Bull of the day and chain-smoking Kool Menthols.
“Got to keep myself young,” he chuckles morbidly, an unlighted Kool bouncing between his lips. “I’m afraid if I quit I’ll die. My body won’t be able to take the shock.”
A big guy with a gray beard and cherubic cheeks, Miller looks like Kenny Rogers times two. His left forearm sports a cobra tattoo that he did himself with a needle and thread when he was 15. His eardrums are shot from 20 years on the job at Thunder Music, his Madison-based DJ and KJ business that he launched in 1985, so he has to lean toward anyone who speaks to him.
“Steve has been partying since before any of us were born,” says his protégé Jones. “He knows the construct of the perfect party and he makes it go wherever he is.”
“I’ve been drug around a little bit,” Miller admits, laughing. “I been drug around a lot.”
“You been drugged a lot,” quips Jones.
As another ID gets shoved under his nose at door duty, Jones launches into James Taylor’s “Steamroller.” At the beginning of karaoke night at Baja, Jones sings a lot as the paying patrons warm up to the task with more mixed drinks. (Sign on the wall at Baja: “TEQUILA Have you hugged your toilet today?”)
“How many people’s toenails are painted in here?” Jones asks, trying to break the ice.
The ladies scream.
“How many people’s toenails are painted red?”
“How many people’s toenails are painted pink?”
Still more screaming.
He breaks into a blues tune (“Well, I’m a cement mixer, a churning urn of burning funk…”) and then…
“Charles! Let’s bring Charles to the microphone!” That’s Miller shouting out from his booth overstuffed with folders of music discs and cigarette butts, giving the evening its official opening.
Karaoke is a great democratizer. Boss and janitor are equally susceptible to either glory or ridicule before the microphone. Karaoke raises to the level of public embarrassment that most private of self-aggrandizements: singing into a hairbrush in front of your bedroom mirror.
And if that doesn’t explain its appeal, consider this: Whether it’s karaoke at Baja Bean, Wild Wing Cafe, High Street Steak and Grill, Club Rio or Peking Chinese Restaurant, once you’ve been to one karaoke night, you’ve pretty much been to them all. Sure, places differ. Musical tastes differ. Audience participation and enthusiasm varies. There may be a jovial host at one place (Baja) and a veritable help-yourself karaoke buffet (Peking Chinese Restaurant) across town. Regardless, every karaoke evening unfolds predictably. Get beer, choose song, sign up for song, wait to sing song, sing song, sign up for another song. Repeat until amusement wears off. For some, that takes a couple hours. For others, such as Miller and Jones, it’s been years and the joys of karaoke have yet to age.
“Christina, let’s get Christina on up here!” Miller bellows in the same game-show host voice for every new singer.
A giggling college girl with two friends in tow timidly approaches the microphone as a recorded track sounding suspiciously like Celine Dion’s cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” sounds throughout the room.
“When I was young, I never needed anyone…”
Arm in arm, they mumble the lyrics, cringing on the especially out-of-tune notes before doubling over in laughter. The din of conversation swarms the restaurant. The girls don’t notice. By the end of the song, they’re singing at the top of their lungs, though not exactly in unison.
“All by myself, don’t want to live…”
The song gradually fades into silence and the group of students taking up two tables from which Christina and Co. emerged stand up to cheer on their ambassadors. The rest of the audience sits nonplussed. Performances like this are a dime a dozen and the regulars tend not to waste their time paying attention. On a scale of 1-10, the veterans probably would have rated this performance about a 3.
True karaoke devotees tend to be more serious about their craft. They’re not looking for love in all the wrong places like the Baja party girls. They often have songs or artists they specialize in and it’s not unusual for them to have greater musical aspirations.
For example, among the regulars, Ian Mitchell is the white guy with a knack for early ’90s rap. Charles Davis prefers early ’80s pop like Tom Petty and The Cars. Laura Shareck belts out Alanis Morissette and Joan Osborne on a weekly basis. And then there’s doorman/KJ protégé and incredible mimic Jones who can sing Tracy Chapman like the woman herself, but whose standbys run more to Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Nirvana.
In fact, Jones and his wife, Bianca, who is also a karaoke regular, devote much of their non-karaoke time to their band Laden Angel. They see karaoke as a way of building vocal endurance and range for the love of the band.
“I want to do the whole rock star bit one day,” Jones says, explaining his karaoke habit.
And the Joneses aren’t the only ones with rock ’n’ roll dreams. Sitting alone at his usual spot at the bar, 38-year-old Charles Davis, the Tom Petty guy, has been in many local bands over the years. His current group, Luxury Liner, plays what he describes as “mellow pop rock.” Summing up his motivations for singing karaoke week after week, he looks into his pint and bobs his head up and down. “It’s fun,” he shrugs.
On September 30, 2004, two weeks before the Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, the Ig Nobel Awards were doled out to their deserving recipients at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the winners, which included a researcher who investigated the scientific validity of the Five-Second Rule, and cited for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other,” was Daisuke Inoue of Hyogo, Japan, the Henry Ford of karaoke. A former drummer and amateur inventor, Inoue created the karaoke box in 1970 for a client who couldn’t endure a business trip without Inoue’s musical talents. So, Inoue recorded a tape of his drumming to send with his client. He also sent a little machine, with microphone attached, on which to play the tape. Success.
Following the triumph of this endeavor, Inoue set out to conquer the country with his karaoke box. He made many special tapes and started renting his karaoke machines out to local bars in Kobe. Sadly, he never patented his idea and so never earned the billions the karaoke phenomenon was destined to generate. The only karaoke-related patent Inoue owns is for a poison that keeps cockroaches away from karaoke boxes.
But the Ig Nobles recognize his claim. Inoue’s brief acceptance speech for his Peace Prize was broadcast on National Public Radio: “Once a time, I had the dream to teach people to sing, so I invented the karaoke machine. Now, more than ever [singing] I want to teach the world to sing perfect harmony. You see? [singing] Coca-Cola. Let’s party!”
By 10:30pm on the same Tuesday night, it’s raucous enough to please even Inoue at Baja Bean, 60 people crowding the downstairs bar area.
“John B.! Let’s get John B. up here!” From his booth, reading from the by now hour-long wait list of those signed up to sing, Miller announces the next singer.
John Baxton, a Web programmer at UVA’s Darden business school and karaoke regular, heads to the mic. This man is as close as Baja karaoke gets to celebrity and a hush falls over the bar as all come to attention for what promises to be a recording contract-caliber performance.
Laura Shareck and a friend are sitting with their backs to the microphone, but as Baxton emerges from the back of the bar, the girls swivel their chairs around to face front. Baxton’s choice of the evening is the ’80s hair-band classic “Still of the Night.”
In his neatly pressed polo shirt and khakis, Baxton, who is black, doesn’t seem like the typical Whitesnake fan. But that’s not the point. Holding the mic close to his mouth like a diva, he shuts his eyes and throws his head back on the falsetto notes, sustaining them to their fullest. The man can sing.
With Baxton channeling David Coverdale with frightening accuracy, Conley Jones, still perched on his stool by the door starts to head bang. He raises his left hand, signing the universal symbol for “hard rock” with his pointer and pinkie. His chin-length hair blurs as his head thrashes up and down.
“Now I just wanna get close to you and taste your love so sweeeeeeeet,” semi-screeches Baxton. “And I just want to make love to you, feel your body heat, in the still of the night, still of the night, still of the niiiiiiiight!” Baxton brings the song to its crashing close and the cheers are deafening.
Davis follows Baxton with “Stuck in the Middle With You” and the audience, indifferent again, resumes their conversations. Ian Mitchell follows Davis with “Ice, Ice Baby.” An anonymous trolling brunette gets up from her spot on the stairs and walks toward Mitchell. Soon, she’s shimmying up and down and all around him as he raps: “I’m killing your brain like a poisonous mushroom deadly, when I play a dope melody. Anything less than the best is a felony.” Catching his breath in a musical interlude, he shimmies back.
Christina and Co.’s karaoke courage increases in proportion to their alcohol intake. It turns out Christina turns 21 tonight.
“Christina! Let’s get Christina on up here.”
This time, she and her friends bounce on up to the microphone without a hint of hesitation.
Seconds later, the bootylicious opening notes of Eve and Gwen Stefani’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” sound throughout the bar as Christina and Co. stumble up to a TV monitor to view the lyrics more clearly. Clutching their microphones, they forget to sing, but remember to grind with each other. A group of women, who had been sitting at the bar drinking beer and paying no attention to the karaoke madness in their midst, suddenly jump up and join in the debauchery. Shaking their asses for each other’s amusement, one woman grabs the microphone from Christina and takes over lead vocals as the vice presidential debate heats up on close caption on the TV above the bar.
That’s the capper to the night, right there. Miller paces outside the bar smoking a cigarette and giving his aching eardrums a break. Jones has moved away from the door to a booth so that he can sit with his wife, his arm around her shoulders. One by one, the karaoke pros, like Baxton and Mitchell, throw on their coats on and head home to rest their vocal cords for next Tuesday night.
Where to go for karaoke
1327 W. Main St.
Charlie’s Bar and Grill
221 Carlton Rd.
High Street Steak and Grill
1522 E. High St.
1525 E. Rio Rd.
1517 University Ave.
Peking Chinese Restaurant
115 Fourth St. NE
Every day, after 3pm
Wild Wings Café
1935 Arlington Blvd.