“You’re the only person in this room not having fun,” she said. She was right. We were in the midst of a typical Friday night crowd at the local watering hole. I don’t drink, but I don’t think that had any bearing on my state of mind and, if anything, if I was a drinker my negative view of the situation probably would have been worse, not better. On the stage, which seemed to be the size of a backyard pool’s diving board, was a cover band. Not just any cover band, mind you, but an ’80s hair metal band, complete with poofy, sprayed-up manes held together with gypsy-print bandannas and the whole “we are gonna Rock YUH” schtick — I think the lead singer even did Axl’s snake shake a couple of times.
And the audience ate it up. No question that the booze was indeed flowing, so there was a degree of liquid indoctrination happening, but their momentary adoration was not completely fueled by firewater. And here’s the thing: in spite of the inherent cheesiness of trotting out Europe’s “The Final Countdown” like it was something worth trotting, the band could play. The singer could sing. It wasn’t like they were incapable, so why were they leaning on the crutches of Winger, Poison and Slaughter?
Weeks before, I mentioned to someone that the only time karaoke is really fun is when the participants are drunk. Look, there’s a little truth to that, isn’t there? I barely can handle listening to the real Mariah Carey sing, so why would I get any pleasure out of listening to an amateur imitating her competently? Stumbling for words and attempting to reach those hellspawned high notes until her poor little head nearly burst like a festering zit…well, that might be more entertaining. Still, that was a snipe there, and in retrospect I realize that maybe I do need an attitudinal chiropractor to wrench my crap back into alignment and help me not be such an old, opinionated crank.
I’ve met people in cover bands over the years, and even though many have been of the “Du-ude!” variety, they had a clear notion of where they were on the entertainment totem pole, and where they weren’t, meaning that few harbored illusions of becoming stars in their own right. One once said to me, “I’m not here to be a rock star, I’m here to channel a rock star. People don’t come here to see me if they come at all for the music. They come to see through me to whoever and whatever I’m singing tonight.” It was a very honest statement, a knowing statement. This guy worked at a mortgage firm at the time, before the term ‘mortgage firm’ had the same effect as ‘baby killer.’ Deskside number-crunching was what paid the bills, and he knew it. Saturday night at the beachfront joint with the tiki lounge was for fun, it was escape, and it was a brief moment for this guy to think about the might-have-beens.
That’s the part that perplexes me: those might-have-beens. This singer could sing; he had range, and he had a healthy dose of charisma. How in the world could he set aside that potential and step into someone else’s seven-inch dragon boots? The backing band could easily be session players, yet each, all down the line, had day jobs with no resemblance to this thing they seemed to love. It confused me and, in fact, it still does. It’s like your perfect mate stands on the other side of the river, but rather than attempting to cross the river, you make do with a porno magazine. How can that be satisfying in either aspect, creatively or emotionally?
Sure, I overthink these things. I root for these little guys who once must have longed to be big, even if I feel they’ve chickened out by strapping on the mullet wigs. Yet at the same time, when it comes to karaoke night, I’m only impressed when the singer fails miserably to grasp that four-minute burst of adoration. Do not criticize me, column-reading people, because you do it too. You watch American Idol and revel in contestants who totally blow it, embarrassing themselves before the television-viewing world. You enjoyed William Hung, not because you rooted for him, but because he boldly sucked where few had sucked before. You cheered every time Sanjaya Malakar survived because it meant, next week, you got to see Simon Cowell‘s little beady eyes cross with dumbfounded befuddlement. You quietly were rewarded when David Archuleta lost, because even though he did all the things an “idol” was supposed to do, he was a hemorrhoid-bursting twerp. We like to see people fail, and we like karaoke most when people do just that.
Do karaoke patrons hold the same rock-star dreams cover band members once had? I have to believe so, albeit they shoot for lesser stars so as to save face — but who hasn’t wanted to be adored, the center of attention, the center of a micro-universe bound by four walls with neon signs extolling the virtues of imported beer? Being a little bit of an exhibitionist helps. Make no mistake, though — this hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Main and First is more akin to a Roman coliseum than to Cheers. So I do sympathize with participants when they strike for the high notes but only hit the skids. I sympathize, but that doesn’t mean I want them to do well.
I don’t think I’m going to get over my Isms too soon. Those long-held biases still persist, even though I try to be more supportive and understanding. Yeah, I’m trying to have fun when a friend from high school walks on the stage in a leopard print shirt and counts the band off as they launch into a perfect duplication ofÂ “Rock You Like A Hurricane.” Sure, when Molly Jo steps up to that lonely microphone in the corner of the pub and asks the operator to plug in the backing track to “Dream On,” I’m hoping she wins one for the Gipper and doesn’t crap out when she has to screech like Steven Tyler. Yes, I am. Suuuure I am.
The recovery process is going to be longer than I anticipated.
A side note for readers in the New York tri-state area: Our very own Jason Hare and Michael Burke perform Acoustic ’80s nights in New York establishments and manage to make the whole cover-band thing fun and very entertaining. Rather than drowning in the horrors that cover bands seem to appreciate, Hare and Burke turn those conventions on their ears. They might even do “The Final Countdown” if you request it (i.e. bribe them with a free drink.)
Next week, it’s not about stars that might have been, but stars that never were. Oh yes, I’m talking about bands like Stillwater, Strange Fruit, The Rutles and the Metallica of the fakes, Spinal Tap. It’s all about revisionist rock history, so do drop by.