Two weeks ago, Portugal became country no. 24 on my World Karaoke Tour. This is the first in a series of posts that will review the first 23 countries on that tour. Today our topic is the place where it all began — the U.S. of A. In this, my most personal post yet, I discuss how I was first exposed to karaoke nearly 21 years ago, and how that hobby gradually came to assume a position of pre-eminence in my life.
It started with a nursery rhyme. Although I’ve sung hundreds of different songs over the years, the very first time that I grabbed a karaoke mic the song I belted out was “The Farmer In The Dell.”
The first ten years: 1991-2001
On the night of March 4, 1991, I was celebrating my 21st birthday. I was living with my parents in my hometown of West Orange, New Jersey; the previous year I’d graduated from Johns Hopkins University, and I was in the midst of a two year stint as a paralegal at a small law firm in Newark. My enrollment in law school was still nearly a year and a half away.
This was the milestone birthday on which I became “legal” to purchase alcoholic beverages in the United States. Of course, it was not as if I’d never imbibed (or never become intoxicated); but reaching the magic age of 21 still carried a certain symbolism.
To honor the occasion, I was hanging out with my high school friends Jon and Andrew, who had also returned to West Orange after their university studies. During the course of our evening wanderings, we entered a bar in West Orange that happened to be holding a karaoke night. Karaoke was relatively new to the United States at that point. The first karaoke bar in the country had opened in Burbank, California in 1982; nine years later, karaoke was still relatively unknown in the U.S. I’d first become acquainted with the concept while watching an episode of The Simpsons that aired on January 24, 1991. In that episode, Bart and Lisa Simpson had sung the theme song from Shaft at a Springfield-area sushi restaurant.
Now, less than six weeks later, I found myself in the presence of karaoke for the first time. I flipped through the song book, in search of a song title and number to submit to the KJ. For reasons that are lost to the dustbin of history, the thoroughly uninspired choice for my karaoke debut was “The Farmer In The Dell.” From such prosaic beginnings would I go on to become a karaoke aficionado who sings all around the world.
Karaoke did not immediately catch on with me, however. After my less-than-stirring rendition of the farmer taking a wife and the wife taking a child, I resumed my existing life, and felt no compulsion to make karaoke a part of my evenings. But when the summer arrived, everything changed.
The law firm for which I was working fielded a softball team that competed in a summer league against other area law firms. Despite my complete lack of athletic ability, I participated in my firm’s weekly softball games, which were played on Wednesday nights. Each week, after the conclusion of the game, my co-workers and I would drive to the Firehouse pub in nearby Bloomfield, New Jersey for pizza and beer.
As fate would have it, Wednesday night was karaoke night at the Firehouse. And so, on a Wednesday evening that to the best of my recollection occurred in June 1991, I sang the second and third karaoke songs of my life. I signed up for “Part Time Lover” by Stevie Wonder, and my co-workers signed me up to sing “Super Freak” by Rick James. 20 1/2 years later, I can’t remember in what order I sang those two songs. But I sang them both, and by the end of the night, I was hooked.
For the rest of the summer I looked forward to singing every Wednesday night. Three Barry Manilow songs became the first regular songs in my repertoire (that is, the first songs that I would perform on a consistent and repeating basis): “Copacabana”; “Mandy”; and “I Write the Songs”. “Copa,” due to its exuberant vibe and its ability to ignite a crowd, became my very first signature song. I’m not sure why I chose Barry as my go-to performer to emulate (a co-worker’s suggestion may have played a role), but his songs proved a good fit for my vocal range, which helped cement their inclusion in my oeuvre.
Nowadays, when I want to learn a new song, I go to one of the many websites for song lyrics (my favorite is Sing 365), and print out the words. I then log on to YouTube and watch a performance of the song, with lyrics in hand, paying attention to the melody and noting which syllables are stressed. Often I will also download an MP3 recording of the song to my smartphone, to facilitate listening to the song over and over and familiarizing myself with its nuances. It’s rare for me to debut a song in public without first undergoing such preparation. In 1991, such techniques were unimaginable to me. Although the World Wide Web became publicly available on the Internet in August of that year, the development of user-friendly browsers (as well as meaningful online content for those browsers to access) still lay several years in the future; and apps like YouTube were more distant still. But I did what I could with the paleolithic technology of the day. I remember buying books of sheet music that included some of the songs I wanted to study, and purchasing a Barry Manilow “greatest hits” CD. I couldn’t (and can’t) read music; but it was still helpful to be familiar with the words before attempting to sing a song in public (yes, at most karaoke venues the words appear on the screen, but just seeing the words flash in front of you will not necessarily be of much help if you’re unfamiliar with the song).
For the next decade, I would sing — not quite regularly, but on and off. During this period, it would not be uncommon for several months, or even a year, to go by between my visits to karaoke establishments. Karaoke was nothing more than an occasional pursuit for me, although one that I enjoyed. I sang occasionally while I was attending law school in Washington, DC (and it was shortly after I began law school in August 1992 that an otherwise undistinguished karaoke host bestowed the H-Bomb nickname on me, as discussed here); and I continued to sing occasionally after moving to New York City in October 1995. Then, in August 2001, I discovered the Raccoon Lodge, and everything changed — again.
The Lodge and the Fever: 2001-2007
The Raccoon Lodge actually boasted two locations that offered karaoke — one on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (with karaoke on Thursday and Saturday nights), and one on the Upper West Side (with karaoke on Wednesday and Saturday nights). They were both wonderful neighborhood dive bars, although I always preferred the one on the East Side. I was living downtown at the time, so to visit either location required a lengthy subway ride for me (and a lengthy cab ride home at the end of the night), but I didn’t mind. The Lodge (as I affectionately called it) provided such an amazing experience.
Partly due to its status as a neighborhood bar, the Lodge attracted a large and close-knit group of regulars — many of whom lived within walking distance, but some of whom (like me) willingly endured long commutes from places like lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Staten Island. I would see many of the same people every Thursday and Saturday night; and I truly looked forward to seeing them, because they were (and are) really nice people as well as talented singers. A decade later, some of my closest friends are folks that I met while attending karaoke nights at the Lodge.
The Lodge attracted a diverse crowd of interesting and creative people; among the friends I made there were a couple of aspiring filmmakers who cast me (as well as other Lodge regulars) in independent movies that they directed. Thus, my attendance at karaoke nights at the Lodge contributed directly to my qualifying for an IMDB page. Speaking of people in “the industry,” for a time, the regulars at the Lodge included Melissa Archer and Jessica Morris, two actresses who were new in town and had just begun working on the soap opera One Life to Live (and RIP to OLTL, by the way; its final episode aired today. I’ll miss the Buchanans!).
I’d first become aware of the Lodge in March 1999, after doing an internet search for karaoke bars in New York City (One of the reasons that my singing had been so sporadic after moving to New York in October 1995 was that I simply hadn’t known where to go for karaoke in the Big Apple. In 1999, after several years of accessing the internet through the highly restricted environment of America Online, I was only just beginning to become accustomed to the world of search engines. In particular, I had not yet heard of Google, which had just been incorporated in September 1998, and the founders of which were still in graduate school. And even in 1999, as humanity prepared to enter a new millennium, the universe of websites to peruse was far more limited than what we take for granted today). I visited the East Side Lodge on a Thursday night and had a pretty good time, but — perhaps partially due to the faraway location — did not return for nearly two and a half years.
But the second time I went there, on August 23, 2001 (another Thursday), something happened. I knew that I was going to go back. And this time, I immediately became a regular. For the next three or so years, a large percentage of my Thursday and Saturday nights were spent at the East Side Lodge; and a fair number of my Wednesdays and Saturdays involved visits to the West Side Lodge. The occurrence of the September 11 attacks, just a few weeks after I started frequenting the Lodge, may have helped accelerate my adoption of the Lodge as a favorite hangout; during the anxious weeks immediately after 9/11, I drew comfort from singing among friends.
In February 2003, I vacated my downtown apartment and moved into a building a block and a half from the East Side Lodge. Many of my friends suspected that the proximity to my favorite karaoke bar had heavily influenced my choice of address. Whether or not that supposition was accurate, I took full advantage of my desirable new location; I frequently held Saturday evening soirees in my new residence. My karaoke buddies and I would pregame in my apartment, and then we would walk over to the Lodge for some singing.
In the summer of 2004, both the East Side and West Side locations of the Lodge went out of business. The East Side Lodge was replaced by a bar called Cabin Fever, which eventually brought back karaoke several months later. I went there frequently, but it was never really the same. Partly because many of the former bargoers from the Lodge had moved out of the neighborhood, and partly because the new management did a poor job of attracting new people to replace them (firing the long-time KJ, allegedly for reasons of cost-cutting, didn’t help, as it alienated many of the regulars who’d been loyal to her show). Finally, in September 2007, Cabin Fever closed its doors forever. The space remained vacant for several years; this seemingly permanent emptiness seemed appropriate to me, as nothing could ever really replace the Lodge. Finally, in late 2011, a new occupant moved into the space: a French cafe (seen in the photo on the right). An ignominious end, indeed, for an establishment that had once exerted so strong an influence over its neighborhood and beyond. Croissants and café au lait are no substitute for what the Lodge once offered.
During the glorious era of karaoke at the Lodge (and, to a lesser extent, at the Fever), my repertoire of songs that I would sing expanded greatly. In particular, I discovered that my karaoke muse wasn’t Barry Manilow; it was Billy Joel. I’ve sung at least 30 different Billy Joel songs one or more times, and I debuted most of them at either the Lodge or Cabin Fever. As with Mr. Manilow, most of Mr. Joel’s material proved a good match for my voice. Plus, it helped that I’d enjoyed listening to Mr. Joel’s albums while growing up. It was a pleasure to now be performing many of the songs that had made such an impact on me during my high school and college years. My signature song for much of the Lodge / Fever era, although not one of Mr. Joel’s numbers, also harked back to the entertainment of my adolescence: the theme song from Footloose (the original version by Kenny Loggins, not the crappy cover by Blake Shelton that appears on the soundtrack of the 2011 remake of that film).
The modern H-Bomb era: 2007 to date
After the demise of the Lodge, for the first time in six years, I needed to find a new location to sing at. There was no question that I would continue singing; karaoke had irrevocably become one of my greatest passions. There has been a small number of karaoke spots in Manhattan to which I have returned over and over in the last few years. Some of them are quite enjoyable. But none has achieved quite the same sense of enduring community that characterized the Lodge during its golden age from 2001 through 2004. Still, the arrow of time points relentlessly forward. The Lodge isn’t coming back. While I will continue to travel the world to sing, I’ll also keep seeking out new and exciting karaoke adventures right here in New York.
In addition to New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC, the locations in the United States where I’ve performed have included the following states: Virginia (Sterling, Vienna, and Charlottesville); Pennsylvania (Narberth, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg); Maryland (Baltimore); California (Santa Monica, San Francisco, Riverside, and Burbank); Louisiana (New Orleans); Massachusetts (Boston); Texas (Dallas and Houston); Nevada (Las Vegas); Connecticut (Orange and Stamford); and Illinois (Chicago). Among the additional American locales in which I aspire to sing in the not-too-distant future are Alaska; Hawaii; Miami, Florida; Seattle, Washington; St. Louis, Missouri; and Madison, Wisconsin.
But while I enjoy discovering the diverse attractions of my home country, I view myself as a citizen of the world. In the next installment in this series, we’ll hop across the Pond to London as I reflect upon how karaoke first became a global activity for me in 1993.