On a Saturday night in mid-November, I'm about to launch an alcohol-fueled audio assault on the croaky-oke crowd, along with my friends Bones, Chazz, Toxic JuJu, and JuJu's dad Papa JuJu, who's visiting P-town from Indianapolis.
We've commandeered a table near the karaoke machine at Brigett's Last Laugh, a neighborhood bar on Cave Creek Road in Phoenix that hosts karaoke to a packed house seven nights a week.
The crowd around us includes everything from middle-aged bikers and couples in cowboy hats to tattooed goth chicks and goateed neo-hippies, but for some reason, everybody's singing nothing but country songs. The only, uh, reprieve comes when a chunky goth girl belts out Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." After the girl growls and shrieks her way through the song, à la Yoko Ono sodomizing syphilitic barn animals, the ever-truthful Toxic JuJu turns to her and says, "That totally sucked, but I love your passion!"
Everyone at our table lives about five minutes from this bar. The proximity means we're all getting hammered out of our skulls. By the time we go up there to put in our karaoke requests, we've collectively consumed about 10 beers, six Jack and Cokes, four margaritas, and eight shots of tequila.
The first person to perform is a super-sloshed Toxic JuJu, singing The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." The song, a hit in 1964, features the incomparable voice of Eric Burdon wailing through the upper registers with spine-tingling precision.
But JuJu is no Eric Burdon. When the opening strains of the song come spilling out of the speakers, Toxic JuJu stumbles to the front of the bar and begins delivering what I can only describe as a drunken doom-metal version of a '60s psychedelic hit. Her voice is deep and shaky, somewhere between Cookie Monster and a post-nervous-breakdown-Marianne Faithfull. "There is . . . a house . . . in New Orleans . . . ," she growls, "they caaaaaall the riiiiising sun . . . "
During the keyboard solo, JuJu plays some spirited air guitar, complete with huge arm-circles. Everybody's cheering as the song winds down, and the master of karaoke ceremonies comes charging up to me and Bones with the mic.
There is only one song I'll agree to sing at karaoke, and that is Judas Priest's "Breakin' the Law." I know all the words, and I can head-bang to it. Between the guitar solo and the final chorus refrain of "Breakin' the Law," there's a fantastic drum-charge that just begs for a blur of flying hair.
Head-banging is an art form. There's more to it than just shaking one's hair around. There are actual dance moves there's the "half-circle," wherein the head-banger swings his or her head from side to side; the "whiplash," which consists of violently whipping the hair around from one's back to the front of one's face in a huge arc; the "tandem," which consists of two people head-banging in time, side-by-side; and several other variations, including the "thrust," the "figure eight," and the "hammer."
Bones and I butcher "Breakin' the Law" vocally, but the wall-to-wall crowd goes wild when we do some tandem head-banging. As we head back to our seats, an attractive brunette at the table behind us affects her best Beavis & Butt-head accent and yells, "That was awesome! Yeah! Yeah!"
Back at the table, Papa JuJu is a big hit with everyone. This fellow in his late 60s a former Freemason who says he was booted from the fraternal order for not paying his membership dues has partied hardy with a group more than half his age, even smoking a fatty-boom-batty blunt with me before we headed to the bar. He's already gone up and introduced himself to Brigett, the hot blonde owner of the bar, whom Bones describes as "Britney Spears in 15 years," and gotten a couple of dances with her.
During a break in the karaoke, the song "Tequila" plays on the stereo, and Papa JuJu and Toxic JuJu manage to get half the packed bar in a dance train by literally pulling people up out of their seats.
At the end of the night, Bones' friend Rah Rah, who's one of the best karaoke singers at this bar full of impressive regulars, performs "Mony Mony" and brings down the house. The woman's got a great voice. Bones tells me Rah Rah is a trained vocalist who performed the national anthem at a Cubs game when she was only 12, and that she once had a record contract and got screwed. That's an old story, and one that I'll bet could be found in karaoke bars across the country. A lot of "has-beens" can still find an audience if they band together on a package tour, but the best of the "never-was" stars are resigned to rockin' the karaoke.
Along with a few caterwauling lushes like us, of course.