Thursday, June 15, 2017

Rock You Like A Hurricane

Let's say you are a kind of venture capitalist or something similar to that in the early 1970s. One day someone walks into your office and says they have a great idea for a new business where customers will pay to sing along with musical tracks (minus vocals) with their friends. All that's needed is an entire multi-story building outfitted with private rooms, let's say 10 or 11 stories with about four or five rooms per floor. In other words, a not insignificant capital investment. They swear it will catch on and people will be flocking to this kind of a business for decades to come. You are not going to approve this and finance it, are you? I mean you can't, can you? There's no way this is going to work.

At some point in time in the last fifty years or so, someone came up with the idea outlined in the previous paragraph. Maybe they didn't quite conceive of things the way I wrote it, but eventually they got there over time. And of course what I'm describing is what we know now as karaoke, which of course just like sumo, the katana sword and most great video games (we'll get to those last two later) was invented in Japan, in this case in the city of Kobe in about 1971. And if it wasn't invented in Japan, why would I really be writing about it as part of my Japan trip report?

I get that we have karaoke in the United States and that it's not quite like I described above. Most of the karaoke we could find here at home would be in bars converting to that function for a specific night. I'm sure on any day of the week, but realistically probably just on the weekdays, I could find a bar somewhere in my now hometown of Arlington, VA where I could belt out some tunes at karaoke night in front of my friends and whomever else happened to be there at the bar that night. It would be an entire room affair and the next night at the same place, I doubt I'd find karaoke at the same spot. They would have probably moved on to trivia night or Taco Tuesday or some such thing.

But we don't have karaoke in the United States the way they have it in Japan. At least not at the places I hang out in. Remember that first paragraph I wrote? Sure you do. I mean come on it was only three paragraphs ago. The part about the multi-story building devoted entirely to a seven day a week karaoke joint where each party gets their own private room to serenade just their friends with their favorite ballads or whatever else you choose out of the system? Yeah...that part. THAT's the way it works in Japan and it's amazing to me that it's economically viable. And not just one place either. Within about a five block radius of our hotel in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo there are five separate karaoke places, some of which are open 24/7. This is not American karaoke, folks.

Now I have never even considered going out for karaoke night at home. I'm quite sure I'm a lousy singer. I don't have any recent proof of this but I did test it out in high school once. I decided one day in senior year that I would see what my singing voice was like. Who knows what I was thinking but I probably decided it would enhance my cool-ness factor or something, although I can't quite fathom how it would do that.

I had a tape player with a microphone input and decided I would sing along with Sting's "Russians" while recording my voice. I picked that song because I'm sure I thought it was an easy one to sing, not having much respect at 17 for Sting's voice I suppose. The playback was embarrassing and I immediately deleted all the evidence and never tried any singing in public or private ever again. Well, except singing along with the radio in the car and maybe the occasional song in the shower. I mean who doesn't do that?

But being in Tokyo with karaoke bars (although I'm not sure that's what they are called) all around me? You bet I'm going karaoke-ing and I'm putting my all into it. So on full day one of my time in Japan after about six hours watching sumo live and a quick meal of yakatori in an alley, we took the plunge and entered a karaoke establishment. A quick rundown of the rates and rules from the guy at the front desk and an order for a few "pitcha"s of beer and it was on!

Tell me this doesn't look like a party on a Sunday night in Tokyo.
We made our way to room 24 which was one flight up from the lobby and down the hall to the right. What we found was a smallish chamber that would have struggled to hold many more than six or seven vocalists but which quite comfortably held our group of four. Table in the middle of the room for our pitchas and the control box; TV at the front of the room just adjacent the door; phone for ordering more beer and other sorts of libations just near the door with a quick "moshi moshi" and some instructions; and some low black leather or more likely vinyl bench couches around the outside of the rest of the room. Welcome to our karaoke palace for the next three hours. No, that's not a typo.

I don't know what it is that makes it difficult to sing in front of your friends but there's clearly something there. Yes, the liquid courage helps but you can't all very well sit around in silence until someone's had enough to drink where they break down and start to make a fool of themselves. Someone has to go first.

I was actually sort of prepared in advance. I had a little bit of a playlist in my head: Styx's "Mr. Roboto", Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero", something by Cheap Trick that they sang on their At Budokan album and Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In". Styx because the song has Japanese words in it; "Juke Box Hero" because I practiced in the car and in my infinite wisdom figured I could pull that one off (I'm relegating Lou Gramm to my 17 year old me's opinion of Sting here); Cheap Trick because At Budokan has to be the greatest live album ever recorded in Japan; and "Don't Fence Me In" because they sung it at a karaoke bar in the movie Rising Sun.

Song selections are made via the tablet-like thing that comes in the room. Use the attached stylus to search for your desired song or artist, although don't search for artists by last name first; the Japanese sort by first name. They even use the first name first system in Tower Records, which still exists in Japan. Joan Jett starts with "J", Billy Idol starts with "B", Kanye West starts with "K"...well, you get the point. 

Singer's eye view during "Planet Earth".
First song: D-U-R-A-N D-U-R-A-N yielded a couple or three screens of songs. Let's go with "Planet Earth". Let's start singing.

I admit to some stage fright when it came to singing in front of some of my oldest and dearest friends but to me, it was about impossible to hear the quality of your voice coming back through the speakers and once you got into it, you really got into it. Admittedly the darkness and the sparkling, flashing lights that only came on when someone was singing into one of the two microphones in the room helped tremendously. Whether I knew it or not, I was either a bad singer, or the next Celine Dion (OK, maybe not Celine) or somewhere in between and you know what? It didn't really matter.

It's been almost 32 years since I was a senior in high school and I've learned a thing or two since then. I know I'm no Sting on the vocals. I also know enough to know Lou Gramm has a better voice than me although it might have taken me singing "Urgent" in Tokyo ("Juke Box Hero" was inexplicably not not on the list) to nail home that point this year. But I'm pretty confident I can do a passable Bob Dylan (that's B-O-B...I've covered this already I know), so that's where I started after we were done dueting on "Planet Earth".

If I needed something to get me going, it was a song where I thought I could reasonably pull off the vocal range but also get a little bit of screaming in to get the adrenaline pumping. After that, I'm sure I wouldn't care. And Bobby D's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" seemed like the perfect song to get me in the karaoke mood. The song has a regular, steady meter to it but you can really belt out the "everybody must get stoned" chorus. After that, it didn't matter. Get me song after song to sing to, along with another pitcha or two of beer here and there. I didn't even care when I knew my voice was cracking on the high notes on Cheap Trick's "Surrender"; I'm for sure no Robin Zander.

Sing it, baby!!!
Eventually everybody got into it even if it took a good number of songs to do so. I cannot definitively say if any of the four of us were regularly off key or butchered song after song or just were not having our best day on the mike. And I wouldn't say if I knew; what happens at karaoke stays at karaoke. I will say that I was impressed by the range of material available; at one point I was threatened with revocation of song selection privileges when I went too far into the prog rock vault for Larry's taste with Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Karn Evil 9". I don't know what the big deal was; it was just Part 2 of the First Impression and not the entire 29 minute song. Love me some prog!!!

Apparently, by the way, so do the Japanese. I had difficulty finding any Marillion CDs (insert joke here) at Shibuya's Tower Records until I realized there was an entirely separate Progressive Rock section. Cool!

This was a ton of fun. I couldn't imagine going to Japan and NOT going to karaoke and this experience confirmed it. While the night started slow, by the end of our three hour session we had a uniquely Japanese touchpoint in the books and I wouldn't necessarily rule out not doing this again the next time (if there is a next time) in Tokyo. But I will say that I'm not in a hurry to do this in the U.S. if I were even inclined to search for bars where I could do this in front of a room of total strangers.

Singing a few hours worth of songs made me appreciate two things, in addition to what incredible friends I have. First, as a stress reliever (not that I needed it on vacation), I could see this doing the trick. I would imagine that banging out some Scorpions or Guns 'N' Roses over a couple of drinks could really tone down an anxiety filled work day. Second, singing for hours hurts. I mean I guess I knew that (John Lennon allegedly couldn't sing for days after finally capturing "Twist and Shout" on tape) but there's nothing like doing something to drive home the point. My respect meter for the vocalists I love just went up a tiny notch.

We entered room 24 just a bit after 7:30 p.m. and left for the one block walk home to our hotel three hours later, which was super super early by Shinjuku standards even for a Sunday night. In between, I think we assembled a pretty good set list. I got a nod in to my favorite guitar player of all time with Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" (there was no Mark Knopfler solo section); we got some Tokyo themed jams in with Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" and Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla"; and I was extremely happy Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" was available. "Baker Street" remains my favorite song of all time but doing it Karaoke style allowed me an opportunity to get some karaoke air guitar in. Hugh Burns' guitar solo in that song is absolutely amazing and I'm pleased I got to jam out on my imaginary axe after taking Rafferty's vocal parts in tribute to one of the most underrated artists I love.

It was a couple of days later that we realized we forgot about "Mr. Roboto". And I know what you are thinking: how could we possibly forget about Mr. Roboto? Oh well. Next time...

Me doing my best Hugh Burns on the air guitar next to a TV with a tree on it.

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