Monday, February 23, 2015

The Pinnacle of My Career as a Singer

The missus adores karaoke. She loves the instant feedback, and the pleasure of performing before people who aren’t likely to judge her, except very positively because she’s a very good singer, evocative of both Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, not one of those six-octave-range types who never allows you to forget what remarkable chops she has. She’s got a distinctive voice, and a way with a phrase, and the joy she exudes while performing, even in a crowded pub, 10 percent of whose patrons are paying attention, is pretty irresistible. 

 I, on the other hand, have usually regarded karaoke as cruel and unusual punishment. I derive pleasure from listening neither to someone with no sense of pitch brutalize a song I couldn’t stand in the first place, nor from the local showoff demonstrating how one of Aretha Franklin’s iconic hits might have sounded if only Aretha had been a better or more passionate singer.

When I was a fourth grader at Loyola Village School, the first institution of lower learning north of what wasn’t yet known as LAX, I auditioned for the school orchestra, which hadn’t actually formed at that point. To demonstrate myself worthy of one of the limited number of instruments for which the music teacher had been granted a budget, I had to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”  I sang. She listened, wincing, and informed me there weren’t enough instruments to go around. I kept my mouth firmly shut the next several years, until, at 24, one of my group Christopher Milk’s succession of managers decided, on the basis of his being a little in love with me, that I should be the front man, rather than drummer. I didn’t think I sang less wel than Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter, Neil Young, or many, many others who’d come to be widely loved, and agreed. Audiences were undelighted. 

I lived a couple of decades later with the San Francisco Zoo’s koala keeper, who seemed to derive enormous pleasure from telling me how awfully I sing. I now share housing with another former member of CMilk, who has enthusiastically taken over for her. Of my iffy pitch and narrow range there is no doubt. Euphonious my tone is not. 

And yet, and yet: I have never as a performer experienced a thrill like that at Tuesday evening’s karaoke session in the upstairs bar of the Las Arenas del Mar hotel in El Médano, Tenerife. There we were in the center of the bar area, having claimed our place 90 minutes before. The place filled quickly with neckless, bald, prolifically tattooed Brits with alarmingly sunburned wives as the missus and I handed in to the MC the slips on which we’d written the names of the songs we wished to perform. I had decided to forego "MacArthur Park" in favor of such cornball favorites as "Ebb Tide," "Unchained Melody," and Engelbert Humperdinck’s "Release Me." But the first song the MC cued up for the evening was a rather more obscure nomination of mine, Conway Twitty’s gloriously melodramatic Elvis imitation from 1958, "It’s Only Make Believe," the melody of which ascends inexorably in the verses until turning into a high-pitched howl of anguish in the chorus. 

The music started. Unfamiliar words appeared on the TV screen on which lyrics are projected, and I remembered too late that the record had an intro. I didn’t remember how it went, and faked it, falteringly. I thought someone might have snickered. I thought someone else might have groaned. Not another night of this! But then the song proper began, and I began to sing, throwing Twitty’s little Elvisesque grunts in between lines. The chorus came, taking me to the top of my limited range, but I got there. Good God almighty, I got there! And at song’s end, after I held the last note for two bars (pretty steadily, as far as I could tell, though I’m usually the wrong person to ask), the place absolutely erupted in applause. They loved me, and not just for my having had the gall to go first, I dare to imagine, but for having gone first with considerable panache.

An unexpected moment of intense pleasure.

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