As of June 1993, I’d been singing karaoke sporadically for about two years. That month, having just completed my first year as a student at Georgetown University Law Center, I flew to London to commence a summer law study program. My summer was to divide into three segments, each three weeks long: First, in London, I was taking a course on “Comparative Litigation.” Next, in Salzburg, Austria, I was taking a course on “Fundamental Rights in Europe and the U.S.,” which was co-taught by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Both the London and Salzburg sessions were under the auspices of a program that was operated not by Georgetown but by the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, California. Following my six weeks of academics, I would spend the final three weeks on a sort of abbreviated version of the Grand Tour, passing through various Western European cities. By this time I had come to regret not having spent a semester abroad during my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins; and I viewed my summer excursion as a way of partially compensating for what I’d missed out on. (This was at a time when study abroad programs were far more likely than today to take place in Western Europe; naturally, I assumed that if I had gone abroad for my junior year, my destination would have been somewhere in that region.)
The entries on my law school transcript from the summer of ’93 are not particularly important to this blog (although it was pretty cool hanging out in an Austrian beer garden with a Supreme Court justice, and asking him about a case that I had just seen one of my professors argue before him and his fellow jurists a few months earlier). But that summer in Europe had another, unexpected impact on my life. It saw the genesis of my World Karaoke Tour.
London, United Kingdom
I’d been in London for no more than a few days when I decided that I needed to find a British pub in which to sing. So one afternoon after my classes let out, I walked around from bar to bar, asking the bartenders if they knew of any pubs that offered karaoke. In one response that was seared into my brain, a bartender not only stated that he knew of no such pubs, but gratuitously added that “karaoke is old hat.” He said this all the way back in 1993! Talk about being on the wrong side of history. 🙂 Of course, in 2012, karaoke is ubiquitous almost everywhere on the planet — an outcome that would not have surprised the 23-year-old me in ’93. So anyway, when that bloke made his smug comment, I wanted to respond, “Hey man, your whole country is old hat!” But I held my tongue. (Note: I’m a huge Anglophile; so when I call England “old hat,” I say that term with nothing but affection. But there was something ironic about a denizen of such an ancient land deriding as antiquated an invention of the 1970s.)
Naturally, I did find a place to sing in London. The venue that earned the distinction of hosting my first overseas karaoke appearance was the Duke of Argyll pub (a current Google search indicates at least two different establishments in London that bear that name. I’m not sure whether either of them is the same place where I sang in 1993). With the location secured, I rounded up a group of my classmates from the McGeorge program, and planned a group outing on the next available karaoke night at the Duke of Argyll (I have long since forgotten what night of the week this was). To promote the event, one of my fellow students, a man named Ryan, prepared flyers that said “Barry wrote the songs, but Harvey sings them!” (The text of the flyers referred to a certain Barry Manilow song that was one of my most frequently performed numbers at the time.) I seem to remember that Ryan might actually have posted some of these flyers in public places in London.
A pretty sizable contingent of my McGeorge classmates turned out for my international singing debut. Their presence helped make the occasion memorable. I sang “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow and “American Pie” by Don McLean. As I recall, I was warmly received by the locals. Country no. 2 was now in the books, and my World Karaoke Tour was officially underway (although I wouldn’t actually start referring to it as such until more than a decade later).
The addition of the third country to the World Karaoke Tour followed just a few weeks after my appearance in London. While stationed in Salzburg (which itself was quite an enchanting city), I made a weekend getaway to nearby Vienna. (Also during my three-week stint in Salzburg, I took a weekend trip to Prague, but my Czech excursion did not include any karaoke.)
In its heyday, Vienna was a cradle of classical music, with many of the greatest composers having plied their craft within its precincts. An eponymous waltz emerged from its society gatherings and is still one of the most venerable ballroom dances today. Outstanding examples of baroque and other styles of architecture line its broad avenues. In short, Vienna is a bastion of high culture and one of the jewels of Old Europe. With karaoke still in its infancy outside of Asia, I’m not sure why I felt so optimistic that I would find a venue for it in Vienna of all places; but my optimism proved justified. My method of searching for karaoke there was similar to what I’d done in London: while touring the city, I entered various watering holes and simply asked around. Once again, those efforts paid off.
Thus it was that on Friday night, July 16, 1993, Austria became country no. 3 on my World Karaoke Tour. In attendance were Cristina and Jason, two of my classmates from the McGeorge summer law program, who also had traveled to Vienna for the weekend. Sadly, due to my lack of appreciation for the historical moment, my song selections of that evening soon faded from my memory. So I have no idea what songs I performed that night; nor can I tell you the name of the Viennese pub where said crooning went down. The one thing that I clearly recall is that I chose not to sing “Edelweiss,” which was available in the songbook. “Edelweiss” played a significant role in The Sound of Music, a movie that I’d grown to appreciate after spending time in Salzburg (the city where that Oscar-winning film takes place, and where I’d gone on an obligatory Sound of Music tour):
For a long time thereafter, I regretted not singing “Edelweiss” in Austria when I had the chance (my excuse was that I didn’t feel confident enough in how well I knew the song. But I came to believe that the risk I’d have taken in singing it would have been justified, given the uniqueness of the opportunity). Still, I had sung in Austria. That accomplishment contributed just as much to my enjoyment of Vienna as my visits to Schonbrunn Palace, or the Sigmund Freud House, or the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park (made famous by a scene in the classic Orson Welles movie, The Third Man), or the Circus & Clown Museum (which now goes by the much blander moniker of the Museum for the Art of Entertainment).
Incidentally, speaking of “Edelweiss,” until writing this blog post, I was under the misimpression that that song was the Austrian national anthem. That belief turns out to have been an urban legend; “Edelweiss” is not an authentic song from that country at all, but was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the stage version of The Sound of Music. Who knew?
After my summer legal studies wrapped up, I spent another three weeks traveling around Europe (I had, of course, purchased a Eurail Pass). My itinerary after departing from Salzburg consisted of Venice; Florence; Rome; Paris; Reykjavik; and Berlin. That’s right: in the midst of an orderly progression by rail through the European continent, I jetted off to Iceland, halfway towards the United States — only to then circle back to the mainland to pop my head in to Germany.
When I’d originally planned my summer in Europe, Iceland wasn’t on my radar screen. But Adam, one of my summer classmates in the McGeorge program, told me that he’d scheduled a visit to Iceland as part of his own upcoming post-Salzburg travels; and it seemed like such an interesting place that I decided to make a weekend in Reyjkavik a late addition to my travel plans for the remainder of the summer. I marched into the American Express office in Salzburg and booked a round-trip flight from London to Reykjavik. (At the time, I don’t think I was aware of the concept of open jaw tickets. So, after visiting Paris, I took the train to Calais; then, with the Chunnel still nine months away from opening, I caught a hovercraft across the English Channel to Dover, from whence I boarded a train to London. I flew from London to Reykjavik. Then, a couple of days later, I essentially reversed that convoluted route to get to Berlin.)
Out of the way though it was, Iceland proved a worthy stop on my romp through Europe. Among the highlights were a day-trip during which I saw a waterfall and geysers. (While the best-known geothermal eruptions probably belong to Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park, “geysir” is actually an Icelandic word; and they have some pretty good ones in Iceland). And on Saturday night, August 7, 1993, Iceland became country no. 4 on my World Karaoke Tour.
Reykjavik, the capital city where I was staying, had a population of about 100,000 at the time (as of 2012, its population has swelled to roughly 120,000). But I remember Reykjavik as having boasted excellent nightlife for a city of its size — with the downtown streets still overflowing with young revelers at 4:00 a.m. (The simplest explanation for this is that the people of Iceland are awesome. But another reason may have to do with Iceland’s status as one of the few countries situated at a high enough latitude that it can legitimately claim to be a Land of the Midnight Sun during the summer months. Even at the time of my stay in Reykjavik, seven or so weeks after the summer solstice, the night sky seemed to never grow completely dark. When there’s perpetual ambient sunlight, perhaps the biological urge to go home and sleep is diminished.)
Perhaps even more impressive, this modestly sized metropolis managed to have a bar with karaoke. In this case, I don’t think that I even consciously set out to look for a place to sing; but the place that offered it was hard to miss in Reyjkavik’s compact city center. Here again, I have long since forgotten both the name of the bar in question, and the set list that I sang. But sing I did.
Thus, by the time I flew back to Washington, DC the following weekend to begin my second year of law school, I’d quadrupled the number of countries in which I’d sung karaoke (all the way to the whopping total of four). What I didn’t know at the time was that 11 years would now elapse before I added any more countries to my World Karaoke Tour. We’ll get to the 2004 resumption of the tour, soon enough. But first we’ll fast forward to 2008, and my first singing appearance in Asia — in Japan, the place where karaoke was born. That’s coming up in the very next post here at H-Bomb’s Worldwide Karaoke!
Finally, a note on the images accompanying the present article: Ordinarily, I prefer to illustrate my posts with photos that I’ve taken myself. The pictures of London that appear above (Big Ben and the Tower Bridge) do meet that criterion, although they were taken during subsequent trips to England in 2005 and 2004, respectively. But I have no good photos from the summer of 1993 (and thus no decent photos from Austria or Iceland, two countries to which I’ve never returned) because I really wasn’t much of a photographer back then. While I do have some old-fashioned film prints from that summer, none of them was worth scanning in. Instead, the pictures that you see here of Schonbrunn Place and the Icelandic geyser are licensed images from a stock photography website. I will continue to use my own original photos wherever possible.