Music hangs heavy in the air like the sweetly acrid scent of kudzu on a hot and humid Georgia night. From across the Parkway Bar, the familiar opening strains of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” come seeping into the room like syrup over Sunday pancakes.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Justin. Justin, ladies and gentlemen,” intones the DJ. Justin grabs the freshly wiped and disinfected microphone he’s just been handed and launches into the song. At first, he seems cautiously tentative, his volume and delivery are almost off-hand, if not blatantly off-key. Bolstered by the hoots and hollers of the large and attentive crowd, he leans into the mic and begins slamming Bernie Taupin’s lines of loneliness and alienation home: “…and I’m gonna be haaaaaaaaaaa-iiiiiiiiiiiiii-aaaaeeeee…as a kite by then.” That his Tiny Tim-like high notes are roughly a quarter-tone flat seems of little consequence to anyone (particularly the tune’s performer) and all join in on the chorus: “Rocket Maaaaaaaaan” they bellow, followed by claps, cheers, and several calls for more beer. The performer finishes and the DJ (why aren’t they called KJs?) announces the next singer.
“Ladies and gentlemen: Next up to the stage, we have Sven. Let’s hear it for Sven, please…”
Maybe it’s hearing the hard “v” that I’ve been correcting folks on for most of my life, or the fact that I can’t remember for the life of me what song I had elected to perform, or that I simply hadn’t consumed enough Heineken as of yet… Whatever the reason, my fists, teeth, and butt all simultaneously clench like boxers in the 14th round. I try to cover my nervousness with a blend of professional dutifulness and friendly nonchalance, but I’m pretty sure it’s just coming off as weirdly arrogant dorkiness to all in attendance. This isn’t helped by the fact that the sole of one of my shoes stops on the floor, causing me to lurch forward and then hop-walk onto the stage with the clumsy panache of a third-grader in his first school play.
“Here ya go, man.” says the DJ/KJ, adding with a wink: “David Bowie. Good choice.”
The song intro’s signature oriental motif begins to play and I look to the monitor’s screen like a speeding motorist peering into the rear-view mirror at the cop who’s just pulled him over. Hoping to see those always crucial first words that I can’t recall on the display, I distinguish only dashed lines disappearing one at a time in a cryptic count-down that only serves to heighten the sense of panic that I am now almost completely overwhelmed by.
Finally the screen flashes its first clue: “Oh oh oh ohoo little china girl”
“Shit! Was I supposed to sing that part?” screams my inner voice so loudly that I think people might have heard it.
It repeats: “Oh oh oh ohoo little china girl.” This time, I act like I meant to lay out on this section by sort of half-swaying to the music while simultaneously “conducting” the music track with the mike as my baton (see karaoke violation # 236).
I muster all the courage and swagger that my many years of live performance can afford me and jump in head first.
“I could escape this feeling, with my china girl”
Holy mother of mothers! What the hell key am I singing in? Am I too low? Too high? I take a guess and go a little lower.
“I feel a wreck without my, little china girl”
“WRONG, Seaholm!” My brain reprimands me, like it’s looking for its coat to leave.
“I hear her heart beating, loud as thunder”
At this point, I’m pretty sure the crowd doesn’t know whether to boo or bow towards Mecca.
“Saw the stars crashing”
By now, I’m certain that my mortar-fire technique of aiming too far this way and then too far that way has not only failed me, but has done so in such an obvious fashion that all the words on the monitor look like “Suck. Suck. Suck.”
I desperately look over to the host for some kind of a sign. Or a life preserver. He’s looking back at me and I swear, he has absolutely no expression on his face. None whatsoever.
Unbelievably (to myself, anyway), I soldier on.
“I’m a mess without my little china girl”
Well, I’m a little closer to the melody, but…
Looking to the next line, everything suddenly snaps into place. I love
“Wake up in the mornings where’s my little china girl”
Nailed it! The falsetto at the top of the melody included. Suddenly, I’m “on the donkey” and riding it for all I’m worth! By the time the song’s climax comes around, I’m tearing into it like a bear in a mess tent:
“I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow/Visions of swastikas in my head/Plans for everyone…”
The power of confidence surges through me.
“It’s in the white of my eyes…”
I finish out the song and graciously accept the high-fives and kudos. I’m not at all satisfied by my performance, but more than happy to have at least salvaged some small part of my dinged-up dignity, at least until the next song I choose…
Why would I do this?
Because karaoke singing scares the ever-living crap outta me.
Because I know if I can learn to not only welcome any musical situation, but also come away with a satisfactory result, I am better equipped to be of service to my studio clients, as well as their audience…and mine.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. Catch him singing songs he actually knows at the Adams Ave Unplugged Festival, April 26 and 27.