My First Karaoke
I’m going to write more than any of you will read. No worries:
On most days when I poll the librarians in my head and come away with my two favorite openings to novels, I arrive unfailingly at one from Knut Hamsun and one from Thomas Pynchon. Hamsun’s comes from Hunger (1888): “It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him. …” Pynchon’s comes from Mason & Dixon (1997): “Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware …” I had occasion to think on both opening paragraphs tonight: the night of my first karaoke.
This is not to suggest I sang. Let’s not be foolish. I sing or hum or mumble all the time, but save for more than a few torturous renditions of the Good Times theme I’d goad Jen to sing with me in the office years ago, I’m not one to sing publicly. The public is happy about this, believe me. (Jen, you were such a good sport. Thanks for that.)
Early in the eve, I watched Hamsun, a film about Knut Hamsun, the extremely dead man who has been over the past five years the most influential writer in my life.
Hamsun left me conflicted but gave me a sense of vindication, which is exactly, I suppose, the film’s intent and Hamsun’s own intent with his final work, On Overgrown Paths. He was Norway’s most important writer from the 1890s through the 1920s. He won the Nobel Prize. But then he supported Hitler and Nazi Germany in WWII. As an old old man, in the post-war era, the Norwegians sentenced Hamsun’s wife to prison and put Hamsun on trial for treason.
How do we rectify such a brilliant writer’s work with such a terrible choice?
The film opens with Hamsun and his wife verbally sparring. Clearly, it’s a failed marriage, and not just because of their age gap. They’re screaming at one another. This has such a disjointed feel for the film because we don’t understand them yet. Then the Hamsuns make their horrible alignment with National Socialism. And then things begin to dawn on them and we have their transformations, Knut’s struggle to make his positions make sense without apologizing, and, finally, the failures and disputes at the end of his life that actually bring him and his wife back together and make sense of all the animosity we'd witnessed early on.
In one heart-wrenching sequence, Marie Hamsun, realizing she won’t be allowed to see her husband, cries out at the psychiatrist who has made this happen (or not happen, it seems), “You know nothing about human relationships!”
It’s a crushing scene.
So all this turmoil was in me as I voyaged to the Sportsman’s Pub for the first time. I’ve been curious about this joint for a good spell due to Jana’s postings. (Please give her blog a visit. She’s quite good.) On Thursday nights, she hosts the karaoke. I thought I’d give it a chance, finally.
I’ve never been to karaoke. Seriously. The closest I’ve been are (a) Jana’s writings and (b) a writer friend in graduate school who went off one evening on the proper Japanese pronunciation of the word karaoke.
The pub itself is worth it, though. Good fun. Strange crowd. Lots of tales. I'll be interested in seeing it in different moments, I think, but perhaps will steer mainly toward the karaoke scene. The main bar taught me that I hadn’t realized high-fives were still that in order. Alas, they are. As was public hooting and shouting and singing on the scale I cannot recall taking part in since, oh, since I was in college…as many of the patrons of the pub are. So the place had a weird déjà vu feeling for me.
Though an astute soul said it felt a bit too much like a frat house on this particular night (It did), that’s still worth it for an unexpected Thursday amble. I really hadn't wandered on this night of the week for a long time.
Jana is an excellent host, by the way. (Well done, J.) It was strange, I thought, to hear something like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” for if that came on the radio I’d turn it immediately; but to hear it sung by someone in a karaoke setting, I find myself thinking, “All right. Let’s hear it.” I listen. I enjoy the time. I enjoy how people challenge one another to do this, ostensibly to embarrass them, but eventually because they want to be part of it. I hear new things (to me) in the structure of these songs. I don’t like them more, not a bit, but I feel like I’m glad I’ve heard them.
A whole mess of karaoke strikes me this way (though that terrible Rob Bass attempt deserved a definite raspberry...especially after ol' boy started with so much energy! He fell apart within three lines).
As I listened to the tunes crooned and as Jana took the slow early hours upon her shoulders (and, again, did quite well), I reread poems in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters collection, which includes many skull-busters about his botched life with Sylvia Plath.
From time to time I’d look up and watch how young people would enter, seem to scoff at the karaoke, but stay close. Eventually, they moved in and began rifling through the song book.
And that’s when I thought of Pynchon’s opening to Mason & Dixon. In that paragraph, he describes a cat entering a room and inspecting everything as a possible source of food. And it occurred to me among all those college students and recent graduates that they all had that hunger for evaluating one another. Everyone who entered, everyone who was seated. If you crossed a line of vision, there was a pause, a moment in which two people wondered whether either of them held interest for the other. The ease of finding a crush, however temporary, and of calibrating one’s own crushworthiness.
Things progressed. I wrote. I listened.
A young man was doing his best Dylan impression to “Like a Rolling Stone.” I looked up from my book, which I’d held aloft a bit as if reading a choir book, in order to nab a bit of reading light. A young red-head had wandered in and paused. She was watching me and now I was watching her. Someone asked her for a cigarette and she seemed flustered and fumbled in her purse. Then, as the group she was with went out to smoke, she went with them. She looked back, even waited and lit her cigarette on the stoop just outside the door, in my line of vision, even though her friends had moved off to the side.
Later, our eyes met again. But that was all they'd do.
In those early hours, waiting for the place to lose its inhibitions, Jana sang “Crazy” as the room cleared for a moment. Everyone had gone out to smoke and she filled the time with what she said was smoking music. It was.
I recalled a widow at the country club back when I was a busboy. It was rumored her husband had been a mobster who died in a car bomb explosion. She always played “Crazy” on the bar jukebox.
One night as I wiped the tables in the dining room to kill time while waiting for her to leave, and while the bartender went on serving her new drinks, she played Patsy Cline thirteen times in a row. Thirteen.
“You know nothing about human relationships …”