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Back Up, Singer

A karaoker returns to the scenes of many of her former crimes of pitch and passion.


It's Monday night in Sidepocket, the pool hall off Staples Mill. The Bud Light signs swing in the air conditioning, construction workers lean over the pool tables, and back by the snack bar, in the corner by the quarter-candy machines, a woman in a tent-like purple top goes flat over the notes of “Our Lips Are Sealed.”

Briefly, the bartender interrupts her, coming over the sound system to announce, “R.J., your order's ready.” Anne Marie, the karaoke jockey, puts on King Floyd's “Groove Me,” but no one can be made to sing it. While the beat bounces unaccompanied, another woman leafs through the pages of the battered binder containing the song catalog. In a few minutes she's deep into the Dixie Chicks' “Cowboy Take Me Away,” her performance unskilled but lively; the despair and foreboding all mine.

I'd signed on to go karaokeing every night for a week in an effort to recover something I'd lost, but I was also frightened to re-establish contact with the karaoke universe, with its dashed hopes and divorce proceedings. Once I found it all intriguing, ugly-beautiful. These days, though, I work a 9-to-5, which requires limiting exposure to sorrow, others' and my own. Most weeknights find me reading novels, watching “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” while my husband writes e-mails beside me — or maybe, on a Thursday evening — drinking a beer with a Warren Zevon record turned down low so as not to disturb the neighbor's kid. It's been years since I've sung in public, or went out every night of the week.

Still, I want to know if now, past my early twenties and the giddiness of legal drinks, I can enjoy again what I once enjoyed. If, as in some karaoke-themed retelling of “Polar Express,” I will still hear the tinkling of Santa's bells — that is, understand the attraction of getting up in front of strangers and belting out country-and-western hits.

So I stay in Sidepocket another half hour, then drive downtown to Penny Lane Pub, where somebody billed as “Evil Scott” covers David Allan Coe's “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” While the crowd picks up the echoes, chanting “Let me, let me, let me,” it comes back to me how the greatest karaoke experiences involve a delicate confluence of factors: the songs in the catalog, the people with you, the drinks on the table, your checking-account balance. Whatever required is here tonight in Penny Lane, increasingly so. Michael does a swinging “What Time It Is.” Evan performs Snoop Dogg's “Gin and Juice.” Another Michael sings “Karma Chameleon” and everyone in this narrow, wood-paneled room bops along, including me.

On Tuesday, Caddy's in South Side promises even better times, the great reconnection. Here, years before, I'd found it so exhilarating to watch my friends rock Reba McEntire's “Fancy,” and a strange man once got sick on my table before a bouncer hauled him away.

The bar is more than half empty, but still contains all the types I remember. There's the red-faced Ernest Borgnine lookalike, complaining to me about his lack of success with women 30 years younger than him. Gyrating in front of the stage is the ex-stripper who still dances like a stripper. There's the man eager to explain his tattoos — the bearded face inked on his shoulder is that of Karl Marx, not Robert E. Lee, he says. And there, like a couple of ghosts, are two college-aged girls snarling, shouting and dancing their way through “Proud Mary” — not “Fancy,” but close enough. The girls pinwheel their arms, toss their hair, do Tina-Turner-type squats. I feel like I'm gazing upon my friends' younger selves, my younger self.

“Don't it make you want to rock and roll all night long,” my friend Julie said, as we watched the girls. But she and I parted ways in the parking lot ten minutes later, at 10:30, because I had to get to bed early if I was going to go out again the next night. In my car, I sat quietly a few moments, gripping the steering wheel with both hands. I knew I hadn't yet got the guts up to go up and sing, but there was Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, the weekend for that. I might have been speeding toward home, but I was also speeding toward the moment the karaoke jockey would call my name and I'd take the stage and feel again, for the first time in a long time, the sweet release of doing something dumb.

I rolled down the window, gulping it in. Then I started singing Barbara Lynn's “You'll Lose a Good Thing,” a song I know all the words to and one that I only sing when I'm confident I'm not bound to lose anything at all.

CORRECTION: In the original version we incorrectly attributed Barbara Lynn's song.

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