Thursday, February 21, 2013


Coinciding with Sony's latest over-hyped PS4 press release, I had planned to come in today and spend a few minutes ranting about the lousy state of the video game world, and how desperately it needs me to help fix some major problems that continue to be "unsolvable", after decades of promoting the same myopic vision, continually falling short of anything discernibly meaningful. Instead, I'm just going to leave it to that one long sentence for now…I need to process and connect with some real-life gratitude. I need to talk about singing. More specifically, Karaoke.

I've always loved to sing. My "big break" came in 3rd grade when I was singled out by my chorus teacher and asked if I would take the lead vocalist role in our school's upcoming Christmas play, "The Candy Cane Kid" (see above photo, with my brother Bryan). I did it, and despite my natural shyness (Meyers- Briggs pegs me as an Introvert, with Extroverted tendencies) my young soul was honored and moved by the experience. In fact, from that point on, I had a legit desire to keep singing close to my heart, as means to both creatively express and, perhaps more importantly, a way to decompress.

Grade school chorus gave way to high school rock bands, then college punk bands, experimental studio projects, and finally, the apex of my path to musical sophistication: Karaoke. Yep, this is were my throat chakra expansions landed, self-respect be damned. Like writing or dancing, I certainly don't kid myself that I have raw talent as a singer, but boy do I have fun, and having easy access to a little fun in life is kind of a big deal.

Ten years ago I would have called myself a full-on Karaoke junkie, and for good reason. Less than two miles from my home there were several great venues to choose from, and a show every night if I would travel a just bit farther. On weekends I would literally spend the whole day signing at the local flea market, and then later in the evening meet up with the same crew of amazing talent that I got to know like family. A few of them were better than just good singers, they were great. Watching a very young James Durbin belt out classic metal songs like a seasoned pro was a sight/sound to behold, even back then. Lisa Leuschner (who would later sing at Karen's and my wedding) became another American Idol alumni, and to this day is probably the most underrated performer in that show's history. But even the less-inclined vocalists, and those who only showed up to watch and offer support, all came to know each other in this clean, fun and safe space where everyone was loved as an equal. We were all there for a common purpose after all, to leave our troubles behind for a moment, and to celebrate life with our little three minute offerings of a heart's best musical rendition. This was a meaningful time in my personal history, as never before or since have I been around a social group whose complete lack of judgement supported such a wide continuum of skill and talent, the opportunity to be safely vulnerable, and in that moment, to be completely real. I could compare it to dancing, which I also love dearly, but there is something strangely healing about being on stage as the center of everyone's attention, just long enough to feel the fire, but short enough not to care. Those were good times.

Inevitably though, times change, people move on, get married, get divorced etc. The flea market closed down, and even though I worked hard with a small group of local activists to get it reopened, karaoke did not return. And when my favorite evening venue shuttered it's doors (the best gay-friendly restaurant/bar this town has ever seen), it really felt like the end of an era. I don't go out singing anymore, or very rarely at best. And today, only one of my original karaoke pals remains in my very small but mighty inner circle. But it's because of him, all these years later, I am still getting a regular dose of karaoke's goofy magic. Today I am expressing some gratitude to Spirit for keeping Max-A-Million in my life for more than a decade now.

By the way, that's not his real name. But as all veterans of the karaoke scene know quite well, every "serious" practitioner must adopt a stage name to achieve the full faux-star effect. Mine was actually given to me, not chosen. Before you ask, the origins of "Mikey High-Note" shall never be disclosed, save for your required physical attendance to be arranged at a karaoke bar nearest you, where I will happily demonstrate the how/what/why this name came to see the light of day.

Max-A-Million has been my most trusted long-term friend since I moved to Santa Cruz. He's a zen master, cultural philosopher, brilliant cook, and damn good singer. Back in the day, he and I would send shock waves through the karaoke community with our ground-breaking duets, singing many songs people didn't realize could be performed as a duet, redefining the possibilities while having the time of our lives. Max is actually an extremely talented performer, and made his living singing the Rat-Pack standards in restaurants, cruise ships and casinos for many years, until he finally decided that singing is more fun when you do it just for fun. About three years ago, he set up a permanent karaoke bar in his living room. While this is not even a remote possibility for most of us, Max, a lover of all things karaoke, is not married and has no kids, so…why not?

It just so happens that the only break I get all week, a two hour "layover" between work and gamelan practice, lands me downtown, right on Max's doorstep. We have been singing, almost every week now for a good long time. I dig 80's new wave and punk tunes, he loves Sinatra and vintage country. Occasionally, it even turns into a little party where other singers show up to do the same. We dim the lights, fire up the disco ball and never have to wait very long before we get our own turn. It's not nearly the same thing as being in a public place, but it doesn't matter. Like giving it all you got in the car, or the shower, are wherever you are most yourself, what's important about singing is becoming the voice for a story you already know and love. It helps us take care of ourselves, and each other.

Yesterday I needed to sing a few specific songs. Some happy, some sad. Max has about 100k to choose from, so I figure whatever mood I'm in, I'll always get to the place I need to be. God bless him, and God bless karaoke.

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