Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How Live Band Karaoke Saved My Life (Or At Least Made it More Interesting)

12/9/06 10:11a.m.
I’m sitting in front of my computer 36 hours after the craziness and my brain keeps going back to a classic baseball call by announcer Jack Buck at the 1988 World Series—“I don’t believe what I just saw!” Did I really get to sing at Gracie Mansion, the ceremonial home of New York’s mayor? Did I really witness our current Mayor Mike Bloomberg sing a parody of “Born to Run” dressed up like Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A. with his senior staff? Did I really hear the mayor give an on stage thanks to the band I work for, Bunnie England and the New Originals? And did I really steal the copy of the mayor’s speech he left on our lyric stand? Why yes, all of those things happened, just look at this picture (Bloomberg’s in the bandana):

Stunned? Yes, me too. Before I get to the tale about the most bizarre December 7th of my life, let me share a little background about how a drunken Thursday night diversion turned into a something that filled a gap that’s been in my life for more than a decade.

In 2004 I started going to a bar-slash-rock club off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn called Magnetic Field. In what in the literary business might call “foreshadowing,” my first experience at the bar was singing with Utensil, my boss Ira’s cover band, at his 50th birthday party. After 10 Rheingolds to overcome my stage fright, I did a drunken blast of yelling through The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” A few days later when my head cleared, I still remembered that the Field had a cool vibe so I started making it a regular stop on my social rounds. One week I saw that they had a live band karaoke night every other Thursday. In November 2004 I got the nerve up to go and attempt to sing. Alas, the show was canceled that night, which was probably a good thing because I don’t think I was quite ready to be on the mic. Three months later I mustered up the nerve again and went to the bar and signed up to sing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” I picked that song because it seemed to be the only one I could sing without looking at the lyrics that much. When my name was finally called, I felt like I would vomit. Then I got on stage, the guys started playing…and I went nuts. I screamed the words, jumped around and at points yelled so loud that without the mic I was louder than the band. When the song was all done, I just about sprinted off the stage.

Then something shocking happened—all three guys in the band came up to me and said my performance was great, and one hoped that I would come back for their next show. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I can’t sing; I wouldn’t know the difference between the key of A and the key of C if my life depended upon it. I guess they were just impressed by my stage presence, which I hadn’t tapped into since my days of hosting radio events. After the adrenaline high and the compliments, I was hooked.

I became a regular at the gigs for this band, Bunnie England and the New Originals. I got to know Michelle, the woman who hosted the evening (I guess she was the Bunnie of the name…oh I am very glad no one has called me Bunnie while I’ve been on stage) pretty well. One week when I showed up she walked right up to me and said, “Oh good, I need a ringer tonight.” “Ringer?” I said. “If I’m your ringer, than you must be having a shitty night.” Yet, she was correct. I had people coming up to me and request that I sing “Surrender.” (One attractive woman wrote it on one of the index cards people filled out to get a slot on stage and gave it to Michelle. And yes, I saved that card as a boost for my ego.) In early October 2005 William, one of Magnetic Field’s co-owners, asked me if I wanted a shot at hosting one week. I said yes immediately, and then spent the few days before my hosting debut having dreams about flopping on stage. It was as if I stepped right back in time to my radio days when I would have that gnawing feeling in my stomach the day I had to go introduce a Styx or Rush tribute band and give away some crappy T-shirts.

Hosting live band karaoke seems pretty simple: you tell people to write down their name and the song they want to do from the band’s master list on an index card and then hand it over. That first night I discovered there was a bit more to it. You have to warn the band what song is coming up; quickly find the right page in the massive lyrics book; remember to pass the hat so the band can get paid; figure out the right time to take a set break; get people to sign up when it’s slow, and placate people when they don’t get on stage right away when its busy. It was a bit rough at times, but by the end of the night I realized what I had been missing in my life—this outlet to entertain. Or at least the outlet to think I was entertaining people. Being on air more than a decade ago fulfilled that void in my life. In the time since I ditched the on-air life my various DJ gigs had satiated that need, but not all the way. This new monthly job did the trick—and I got to pretend I was a rock star!

I split hosting duties with Michelle for four months until she left the bar and then I took over both monthly gigs. The amount of fun I’ve had twice a month during the past 14 months is probably more than I should ever expect to have in my late 30s. I’ve struck up friendships with the three amazing musicians in the band, Paul the guitarist, Paul the bassist and Troy the drummer. (And I’d like to once again thank them publicly for allowing me to tell bad jokes, make fun of some singers, make fun of myself and otherwise work out my various emotional issues in front of a crowd.) I’ve seen long-time friends give it their all on the Magnetic Field stage (to watch my colleague Dave pour his soul out on The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was something we’d never see at a company Christmas party) and become friends with a bunch of nice neighborhood people who like to stretch out their vocal cords on a regular basis. And for my birthday I got to warble songs by The Figgs and Nada Surf off key and fulfill a long-time goal of jamming on stage with my guitar-slinging friend and former roommate Joe (oh we rocked “Highway to Hell.”) Only three times has it actually felt like work, and two of those times it was due to a bunch of drunken Brooklyn Law students. (After the ways these yahoos acted, it’s easy to see why people have an inherent distrust of the legal profession.)

So how does a hobby that fills a huge void in my life get me singing “Summer of ’69” in front of a bunch of political cronies at the City Hall holiday party? Well, New York City’s TV station Channel 25 features a segment called On the Prowl where the host does short segments about cool things in the city. One of the show’s producers had his birthday party at one of the live band karaoke nights and they filmed it for On the Prowl. Seth the producer enjoyed the experience so much that when the planners for the City Hall holiday party were looking for something different for this year’s shindig, he suggested us. So somehow we ended up at Gracie Mansion on a cold December night, sitting in the nicest green room I have ever seen, with waiters and waitresses bringing around some of the best looking appetizers I have ever seen—and knowing that the Mayor and a bunch of his staff were going to sing new lyrics for “Born to Run” penned by one of his speechwriters. I suppose if I had known that this was the holiday party for all of City Hall (I just thought it was for NYC TV 25) I might have hired my own speechwriter to craft something that would get this pack of public servants to chuckle. For some reason none of them laughed when I got on stage and said “We haven’t seen this many suits since our last trial.” Their lack of humor seemed to dissolve as more booze flowed—and especially after our Mayor got up and did his impression of the Boss.

The picture above can’t do justice to how surreal those 10 minutes felt. I almost forgot to take Paul’s camera out of my pocket because I was so stunned watching this unfold in front of me. When the crew did their exit stage left, I hopped on…and for the first time in 20 years I was left speechless as to what to say into a mic. I somehow recovered enough to get a few people up to sing Green Day’s “Basket Case,” which somehow seemed appropriate for what I had just witnessed. Apparently we were big enough of a hit that they want us back for next year’s party, which might be the biggest surprise of all. Who knew that the quickest route to politics for me would be through music?

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