As I walk into Dusty Macgruders, at 24th Street and Thomas, that 4 Non Blondes dim ode to twentysomething trust-fund angst called "What's Up" trumpets through the small bar's PA system. It is at first excruciating. A song like that is usually the first nudge for me to bid a hasty retreat.
But, somehow, the song this time sounds different--tempting, even--as it might be if sung in a way that would give it an unlikely flair, a whole new meaning. Then I see the woman holding the microphone; a roundish older woman with compact gray hair and an obliging face. She looks more like somebody's den mother than a woman who would be seated on a stool in a bar, sipping from a shot glass and dispensing throat on dirges best left to rot in landfills.
This woman, Sherrie Walton, has a big airy voice. Thirty years ago--just after she got a college music degree--she sang every week in a Phoenix bar called the King and I. That is, until her husband made her quit. Now Walton has two kids all grown up, one daughter with a baby and a son in college. She's no longer married.
"I didn't sing for years," says the 52-year-old Walton. "After I quit singing with a band, I didn't sing for like 21, 22 years."
In front of her is a bag of half-eaten potato chips and a shot glass full of something clear.
"I used to sing only two nights a week, and that was it. But that was when I was young and cute and beautiful and sexy. But my husband didn't want me to sing, so I quit. Then years later, karaoke started, and I thought, ooh, should I do it or shouldn't I do it? Now I'm old, and you know I haven't been married for years. Now I just sing karaoke!"
Walton stands and breathes life into a non-MTV classic--Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret"--with an aplomb that undoubtedly reflects her bygone stage demeanor.
When she finishes the dusty show tune, the 20 or so regulars put hands together loudly. And this is something they have all seen; Walton sings here nearly every night after her nursing shift at a local hospital.
Later, incredibly, this woman gives a bracing spin to a Bon Jovi song. The idea of this woman giving life to such cultural refuse like Bon Jovi isn't even ironic anymore. It just shows that pop lines have all blurred, and the meaning is lost. She may as well have been singing a Leonard Cohen song or a dog food commercial.
And this scene defined for me the necessity of karaoke better than any other did. Since rock 'n' roll has hit its saturation point, karaoke's arrival in bars has helped prop up the gasping old geezer that rock has become, giving her a temporary leg on which to perch before she inevitably topples over into our collected haze of pop culture autism.
Dusty Macgruders is one of those neighborhood taverns bereft of the goods which typically draw herds to much-moneyed sports bars and lounges. At Macgruders, there is no nubile clientele, no sporty cocktails and no PR budget. Nah, the bright but small Macgruders is proudly working-class, offering a couple of pool tables, darts, TV screens and a good-size bar.
Some men here are colored with sunburns borne of long hours outdoors; others have that telltale "beer physique" of spindly arms and legs with disproportionately thickened bellies. Certain women show peroxide damage and grizzled grins.
Jerry Hubbard has been managing Dusty Macgruders for more than a year. He also plays host to the bar's nightly karaoke. Hubbard has that familiar beer physique and maintains a fading ladies'-man demeanor.
"I spent most of my life in a bar drinking," he cracks, holding a beer bottle in front of him for examination, "I might as well go to work in one. The stories we could tell about the barroom brawls.
"But Shirley, the owner, when she got this place 19 months ago, she wanted some place where you could go and say hi to your friends, give everybody a kiss and everything. That is the kind of place it is. And that was her goal.
"It's a hugging type of bar."
And the lot at Dusty Macgruders is an animated one.
"That's D-e-l-R-i-o like the porno chick," laughs John Del Rio, who is in his 20s. "I sometimes think that I am related to the porn chick because, umhmm. You know."
Del Rio grew up a half-hour south of Fresno and came to Phoenix as soon as he turned 18 to "get the fuck outta Dodge." He says he's working day labor and is saving up to visit his grandparents in Sonora for Father's Day. Tonight, though, he cuts the carpet with all the verve of a sailor on shore leave.
Donning dark shades, Del Rio lunges his not-quite-supple frame onto the floor, intoning anything from the Stray Cats ("Stray Cat Strut") to the Stones ("Honky Tonk Woman") with impressive abandon.
He employs patented Elvis hip shakes, lip curls and body twirls--all with comic intent. At one point, he even croons undeviatingly into the face of one comely matron, then attempts to land a kiss on her face. The woman balks, then laughs it off.
"Sometimes the singing gets me laid," Del Rio says later with a shrug, "but only once in a while.
"Being on the floor and being under the lights does something for me. When I was little, my dad used to always have me sing along with the Mexican songs. He thought it was fuckin' cute, ya know? He was tellin' all my uncles and aunts in Mexico, 'Hey, look at what my son can do, watch this, watch this.' Later I sang along to my mom's oldies station."
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Del Rio wins 25 bucks in the bar's twice-weekly karaoke drawing. With the proceeds, he offers to buy me shots. I decline, telling him that I can buy my own, and I sport him a few instead.
Del Rio is a guy who, most nights, gives his all for naught and is still more entertaining than most things going on in the city at night. The man is a showman.
I get up to leave, and my new pal Del Rio gives me a hug of sorts. And I'm thinking about how the next day he has to rise and try his luck at day labor.
With his skills, Del Rio should be famous; at least fame would probably pay better. Besides, he possesses more personality than most who are called the same.