Dark Impulses

At night, downtown Phoenix is a ghost town except for a few bright spots

American Stars and Bars
11 p.m. -- Karaoke at Big Al's

Sitting in a chair near the karaoke set-up at Big Al's, the tall black woman closes her eyes and rips into "I Can't Make You Love Me," the gorgeous love ballad made famous by Bonnie Raitt. As she sings, a white couple dances romantically under the soft, dim lights in the space in front of her. It's a serendipitous moment made possible by the DJ's false start, which wiped away the lyrics and left Renee on her own.

It also is the night's most telling movement. Karaoke nights -- and middle-class, after-work bar crowds, for that matter -- don't come much more diverse than this one at Big Al's, located in a strip mall off the corner of Central and Grant. Black, white and Mexican share the mike and indulge in each other's musical tastes. Surprisingly, those tastes are actually good musical tastes. Tonight, the singers indulge in Tejano waltzes, Kool & the Gang's "Gimme the Night," Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and old soul classics like "My Girl," "Cruisin'" and "Ain't No Woman Like the One I Got." And mostly, they all can sing -- the half-cocked execs and their fetish for Air Supply are nowhere to be found, replaced by a playfully competitive, friendly string of participants.

Everyone looks like a shabby-chic rock star at Boom.
Everyone looks like a shabby-chic rock star at Boom.
Top: Curtains down at Cheuvront. Above left: Performance art at Paper Heart. Above right: Pizzeria Bianco lights up Heritage Square.
Top: Curtains down at Cheuvront. Above left: Performance art at Paper Heart. Above right: Pizzeria Bianco lights up Heritage Square.


Elaine Bell, Quetta Carpenter, Joy Hepp, Brendan Joel Kelley, Paul Kix, Jill Koch, Michele Laudig, Steve Lemons, Christopher O'Connor, Robrt L. Pela
Photography by Emily Piraino

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Later in the night, Renee returns with a singing partner, a noticeably younger, funkier black woman named Dee Dee. The two decide on the night's most ambitious selection, dueting on "All My Life," an enormous mid-'90s hit for brothers K-Ci & JoJo. Here, they stumble over the song's trickily supple melody and inspiring, soaring bridge, relying in spots on the vocal overdubs the karaoke machine hasn't erased to carry them. Yet by song's end, they've ironed out the awkwardness and their take on the line "And I hope that you feel the same way, too" is undeniably riveting. It's a moment that nearly makes all the sins committed in the name of karaoke forgivable.

11:45 pm -- Amsterdam drag show

Over at Amsterdam, the performers get even more into character. Amsterdam is stylish and cozy, with dim lighting, soft leather couches and chairs intimately clustered around tables. If the attention to interior decorating doesn't serve as an immediate tip-off to the type of bar you've entered, one look at tonight's performer will: a drag queen in shiny, long teased blonde wig, wearing tight jeans and a striped tee and lip-synching the old Stacey Q hit, "Two of Hearts."

The crowd of maybe 50 people, who sip martinis and beers, is made up of mostly clean-shaven thirtysomething white gay guys in button-down shirts and tees, with scattered fag-hags. A small group of dressed-up women gather around a table in the middle of the room.

A performance follows by a super-voluptuous "Cher" in a long straight black wig, knee-high boots, black leggings and a black lace shirt. She has all the Cher mannerisms down, even the tongue flick. Next up is Anita Buffet, a full-figured black drag queen in a short, curly wig, sequined long black dress, rhinestone earrings and necklace, and glittery make-up. She favors old Patti LaBelle hits like "New Attitude" and "Lady Marmalade." Later, there are a few songs from a drag queen named Topaz, a feisty blonde in sheer black.

Blair Jones, a gay, 36-year-old computer tech, lives within walking distance from Amsterdam and likes it because it's nice, and not too smoky. Nevertheless, the 18-year-old Phoenix resident criticizes the "lame" gay music circuit that he says has existed since Chupa, a popular club at Seventh Avenue and Jackson, closed about seven years ago.

"For the club scene, that was the high point," Jones recalls, admittedly missing the pre-Will & Grace era before gay was cool. "I think it just got kind of mainstream. I mean, gays became mainstream."

As the subdued weeknight crowd lounges and chats quietly, Anita Buffet dances throughout the room, giving out kisses, and the women in the middle of the room playfully pucker up.

11:54 p.m. -- Slumped at Newman's Lounge

No one's acting, singing or even doing much talking at Newman's.

Just two blocks south of Amsterdam -- but worlds away by every other measure -- the closet-thin Newman's Lounge manages to feel crowded even with four solitary drinkers at the counter. At Newman's, you've got little more than a long bar, with stools positioned beneath and some booths in the back. On a busy night, Newman's can seat 25, hold 50. That's a figure for the fire marshals, however. Tonight, there are four surly drinkers taking the edge off what remains of a weekday, staring at some documentary on PBS about commercial aviation.

After absorbing cigarette smoke and ashes for years, Newman's regulars call it a bar with character. Maybe it is. Or maybe it's just dirty. Either way, the beer's cheap. You can get a Pabst Blue Ribbon for $1.75.

With the exception of the bartender, an Asian woman aging well and singing along with the country classics from the jukebox, Newman's is all men tonight. As such, there is at least one bar stool separating each drinker. And nobody's talking.

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