Excerpt from 'Turn Around Bright Eyes'
8:04 p.m.: Total Eclipse of the Heart
Once upon a time I was falling apart. Now I'm always falling in love.
By "now" I mean Saturday night, in one of the sleazy karaoke bars where I always seem to wind up. It's me and my wife, somewhere in New York City. We're here to sing the night away. It's just after eight, early enough to beat the midnight crowds, too late to talk ourselves out of what lies ahead. We're not going home before we get a few songs in. And we're not getting up on time tomorrow. Sometimes we drag some innocent bystanders along. Tonight it's just us.
Either way, we always come here for a fix of that transcendent experience we can only get from singing. The electric frazzle in the voices, the crackle of the microphones, the smell of sweat, mildew, vodka, and pheromones -- the full karaoke experience.
Tonight we are setting out to belt some of our favorite songs. We'll do songs we've never tried before. We'll take on duets we haven't sung together. And we'll do the standards we always have to do. But when you take that karaoke microphone in your hand, you don't know what kind of adventure you're stepping into. So you just have to surrender and let the song take over. You start to sing karaoke, and some kind of psychic heart-switch flips. If you're lucky, and the beer doesn't run out, it's more than just a night of debauchery. It's a spiritual quest. This spiritual quest, like so many spiritual quests, involves Bonnie Tyler.
Welcome to Sing Sing, our beloved karaoke den on Avenue A. Ally and I cherish this spot because it has everything you want in a karaoke place: great songbook, private rooms, surly bartenders, cheap drinks. Every time we head over to Sing Sing, I get that thrill of anticipation as we pad down Avenue A. As soon as I see that red awning over the door, even from a few blocks away, the adrenaline starts to flow. The awning has the classic yin-and-yang symbol of the Tao. Except it's at the center of a microphone.
From the sidewalk outside, Sing Sing looks like any other karaoke bar. There's always a picture of a microphone outside. There's a door guy checking drivers' licenses, probably wishing he could be the door guy somewhere swankier, maybe a club where they have a velvet rope and a strict no-Journey policy. Inside, it's dim fluorescent lights and red walls. The customers perch on their bar stools, just a few notes away from crashing to the floor. There's usually a bartender. And there are always songs. That's why we're here.
I love the crowd at Sing Sing. It's part of the show. You can always hear rockers and rappers and disco cowgirls and smoothed-out crooners. Despite the early hour, there's already a bachelorette party full of blitzed bridesmaids teetering on their heels, ready to start splashing their Disaronno-and-Sprite on everyone. There are some lurkers in the shadows, too wasted to remember whose birthday they came here to celebrate. Maybe none of us can sing on key, but nobody minds. We're not here to judge, right? Nobody's here because they're a great singer. We came because we want to be stars for a night.
Some places have a stage; other places you sing at the bar or grab a table. One of the reasons we love Sing Sing is they have the private rooms, which is definitely the way we want to go tonight. If you get there soon after 8 p.m., you can usually score one, but by ten, you'll get stuck on the waiting list.
Karaoke has lots of rituals. The first, naturally, is showing up. The second: Ally and I check in at the front desk to get our room. It's eight dollars an hour per person for the room, or two dollars per song if you sit at the bar. But it's cheaper to rent the room, which means you stay later and sing more. You can sign up for a specified time, or you can sing until the bartenders throw you out at closing time. I can already tell tonight is going to be the second kind. But hey -- it's Saturday night, so I guess that makes it all right.
From "Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke," by Rob Sheffield. Copyright © 2013 by Rob Sheffield. Published by It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.