"Is this the shithole?" our cabbie — whose name I won't use because I'm pretty sure he's driving without the proper licensing — asks as we pull into the parking lot of Music Bar (4586 Tennyson Street). We're packed four deep in the back seat (with another one in front), and fall out of the cab in the same awkward fashion in which we piled in ten minutes ago. We're really happy to be here — not just because it's Thursday night and we're about to dominate some dive-bar karaoke (every Thursday through Saturday at Music Bar), but because for most of the short-yet-uncomfortable trip from Five Points, our unnamed driver has screamed at his wife through a cell phone about an impending street fight between his stepdaughter and a girl from her school. "Let those bitches kick each other's asses and go to juvie, for all I care," he shrieks into space. "Fuck it. Going to juvie ain't no big deal. We both did it; so can they." By the time the others overtip him for undercharging us, I'm already at the bar, ID and credit card out, salivating like I've never needed a drink more.
Earlier in the day, we tossed around the idea of heading to Austin Karaoke — the kind of place where you rent a private room and sneak in your own booze — but decided that the anxiety of performing in front of unsuspecting strangers is half the fun. So now the five of us are in the sparsely populated Music Bar, drinking $4 pitchers of Bud Light and $20 rounds of shots at a large, circular table in front of the stage. The only other group of committed karaoke singers huddles around the table next to us, giggling about a game they call Kamikaze Karaoke. The rules, as they explain them to us almost immediately after we sit down, are simple: Anyone with the balls to humiliate himself without knowing exactly how he'll be humiliated scribbles his name on a piece of paper and throws it in the middle; the same players then choose a random name and sign that person up for a song of their choosing. This strikes our party as confidence suicide, so we pass. But Crystal, our emcee for the night, agrees to play, and the whole gaggle of crazies proceeds to struggle through "All That She Wants," by Ace of Base, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," by the Charlie Daniels Band, and other songs that I've blacked out, both intentionally and from alcohol.
Less than an hour into our inevitable debacle, the CDs start skipping and the lyric screen fades into pixilation. "This thing is such a piece of crap," Crystal mumbles into the microphone, then gets on the horn with her supervisor. We wander outside for a smoke and discover a quirky detail we hadn't noticed on the way in: a white, spray-painted box extending fifteen feet in every direction to keep smokers away from the door. Most bars simply put up loosely enforced signs instructing smokers to keep their cancerous distance, but this place isn't fucking around — so we join the rest of the not-so health-conscious behind the line and light up. A couple of construction-worker-looking guys in the shadows alongside the bar pull from a fifth of Beam, while Carlos, one of the kamikaze karaoke singers, lets Fatty, his Huskie, out of the car to pee. (This isn't the last we see of Fatty — whose real name, Carlos tells us after a few more beers, is actually Sierra. Around 1:30 a.m., she is let loose in the bar and instructed by the bartenderess to eat all the fallen popcorn.) By the time we finish our cigarettes and head back in, Crystal has everything working and it's time to throw down.
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The problem with karaoke — at least when dealing with hipsters, the creative class or anyone with a college degree, really — is that the whole experience of getting drunk and singing songs from decades past is laced with irony. Especially when a blue-collar bar is involved. "Isn't it so funny," they post to their MySpace pages and blogspots, "that my friends and I sang Prince songs at this seedy karaoke joint last night? Aren't we clever? Just look at these pictures!" Equally irritating is that these same people insist on portraying their karaoke experiences as conversation-stoppingly epic. And while there are definitely a few moments of drunken bliss at Music Bar — for instance, when one friend sings the most amazingly terrifying rendition of "Unchained Melody" that I, or the handful of regulars slow-dancing to it, have ever witnessed — I will not contend their monumental greatness here. Nor will I argue how hilarious it is when I sing "Say My Name," by Destiny's Child, or "Just What I Needed," by the Cars.
Even if I do break a few hearts and change a few lives with my post-bar-close performance of Clarence Carter's "Strokin.'"
Oh, man, it's epic.