Song Of The Day 3/16/2017: Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing”

The Final 14
The Big Whisky Saloon in Olympia, WA--formerly the "new Thekla."

I'm OK - You're OK - Karaoke!

Well, I’ve gone as far as I can. I’ve held out long enough. It’s been simmering underneath these last 35 entries like a light cream sauce, and now it’s almost scalding.

It’s time to discuss the whole karaoke thing.

You could make the argument—and this is wholly, utterly embarrassing for me to admit—that karaoke was Ground Zero for everything that happened over the last fifteen years. It’s where it all began.

Wow, I didn’t expect the nausea to be so acute after making that statement. Excuse me for a minute.

I mostly avoided karaoke for many years because I couldn’t figure out whether it was fun or pathetic. Maybe that’s a bit this-or-that, but I never really got all that much out of the experience. You had singers who just fumbled through the whole thing happily without much of a care, or you had professionals who were completely serious.

I didn’t think anyone (at least where I went) was taking full advantage of the opportunity to turn karaoke into comedy. I felt there was a kind of pity that hung around karaoke bars in America—kind of like a decimated, live version of Star Search—that needed to be, not really overcome, but exploited to its utmost effect.

Think Andy Kaufman. That’s the first thing you have to know about me and karaoke: It was all based on my admiration for Andy Kaufman’s comedy, and the fact that if he’d been around when the form got established, he would have killed at it. I don’t think he necessarily would have done it, but if he’d chosen to, it would have been a perfect fit. He could have embodied the giddiness and the utter pity that karaoke inferred.

So that was a performance element I wanted to employ, but guess what? You can’t just walk into a Denny’s cocktail lounge and do karaoke as performance art. Mainly because, in most of those places, there was no focal point for karaoke singers—meaning there wasn’t a stage. I’d only been to one such karaoke joint before Olympia, and that was an industry bar in Burbank.

But just under a year after I’d come back to Olympia they started doing karaoke at the new Thekla, in the odd semi-circular building downtown that used to be US Bank.

They had karaoke at the old Thekla too, but I wasn’t around at the time. It was hosted by Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill. I’ve heard stories about those nights, which all took place when I was in Los Angeles. I felt left out.

The new Thekla karaoke was hosted by Jared Warren (KARP, the Melvins, Big Business, Tight Bros From Way Back When). That guaranteed that there was going to be a heavy mockery component. The established clientele of Thekla also promised that there wouldn’t be too many people thinking this would be their next stop to stardom, or a date. And most importantly of all, they had a real stage.

So I thought it might be the perfect venue to air out all my pent-up comic art shit. I’ve rarely been righter about anything else.

Here’s an arcane piece of trivia for you: The first song I did at Thekla karaoke was David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us.” This was a maudlin piece of ‘70s pop nobody in the audience recognized at the time. I sang this pretty straight except for a part when I collapsed on the floor in simulated emotional pain. Nobody took much notice of it.

A couple of weeks later I did Morris Albert’s “Feelings.” (“Nothing more than feelings.” You know that one.) For this number I made up a plan. I got a glass of water right before going onstage along with a couple of napkins. Then I sang “Feelings” in a halting, cracked manner, as if I was having a real emotional crisis. After the first verse I dipped one of the napkins into the water, then squeezed it back out onto my face so it looked like I was crying. I repeated this a couple of times to gradual amusement from the crowd. Finally I threw the entire glass of water in my face and went full-on devastated: “FEEEEEEEEEEEL-LINGS!!!! OH, GOD! MOTHER FUCK!” At the end I pretended to be so overwrought, that three or four guys I’d tipped off before the song came up and “escorted” me and my fragile shell off the stage.

So that felt right.

I didn’t go quite that far every week, but to a certain extent I started planning this shit a little more extensively each time.

I think the next big production I threw together was for Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You,” also a song nobody remembers, from Frampton’s ill-fated attempt to extend his career after Frampton Comes Alive. It is not a good song. Singing bad songs necessitated a little more leg work. That meant props. For “I’m In You” I started off in mock emoting, but otherwise pretty straight. Then I whipped out a bouquet of cheap flowers, daisies I think, and sang while gazing at them. I heard a few “oohs” and “awwwwws” from the girls in the crowd, they thought it was a really sweet moment. That’s when I chewed the daisies off the stems and spit them back out, the way Ozzy would eat a dove.

During the last verse I started taking off my shirt. (I think I heard Jared go, “No, no, no, don’t…”) I’d taken a piece of paper that read the words “THIS SPACE FOR RENT” and taped it to my chest. So that was the finale. But then again, just the beginning.

I think it’s around that time I started just flat-out rewriting some of the lyrics, a practice I partook in again just about a month ago. The first one was either “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (“I woke up in downtown Shelton,” “Ich lebe das verrückte Leben!”) or Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” (“Have you ever done it with a Mouseketeer?/Baby it’s the bomb/I like exploring societal taboos/And writing books with Mom”).

I did this a lot with Billy Joel songs, of course, as a way to extricate the love-hate relationship I had with his work. One night I did “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—a song so annoying even Billy Joel himself hates it—but wrote out entirely new lyrics to the song on the backs of paper drink coasters about a half-hour before. (In longhand. We’re still pre-smartphone.) After finishing each verse I’d toss the corresponding lyric coaster on the ground. They were collector’s items. “Piano Man” was another big revision job: “Now Paul is a karaoke singer/Who can’t remember his ex-wife/And he thinks he’s a star, but everyone in the bar/Just wishes that he’d get a life.” Thunderous acclaim. Scads, I tell you.

The biggest, most over-the-top, most meticulously planned and executed karaoke stunt I ever pulled at Thekla was for Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”

Before showtime I went to a Rite Aid in Lacey and purchased some disposable surgical masks and Band-Aids. At the venue I explained to a couple of friends (the only one I remember is my good buddy Amanda) what I wanted them to do, and they all agreed.

After the first verse of “Sexual Healing” I took the mic into the audience and started wandering around the tables. I then stopped one by one at the tables where all my co-conspirators were sitting. They stood up, wearing the surgical masks, and applied a bandage to a different part of my body each time.

Then things got a little crazy—random people got on stage and we started mimicking hospital events, like spasms or something. The whole song ended with my friend Rob giving me the Heimlich maneuver, which further caused an entire, pocket-size case of Bayer aspirin to fall to the ground, scattering pills everywhere.

I remember buying the surgical mask and the Band-Aids—but I do not recall buying Bayer aspirin. Somebody actually donated that during the course of the song. And I think there was a stethoscope too. I don’t know where that came from either.

This is what we did for fun when we ran out of firecrackers, kids.

From that point forward Thekla became appointment viewing, and I did different schticks every time. “William Shatner” doing “Rocket Man.” “Tom Waits” doing “The Rose” (which didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped).

And, of course, Sean Connery doing rap songs. This was one gag I didn’t really invent, though. It stemmed from a party at Brooks’s house where Ian, Shanon, Matt C. and I, without much provocation, just started talking in Sean Connery-speak around the fire pit. “Bush out the thorazine and let’s disco.” “I was in seven James Bond films. So back that ass up.” I merely took that riff and applied it to songs like “The Humpty Dance” and “Nothin’ but a G Thang.” I’ve whipped it out recently too.

After Thekla closed we did karaoke at the 4th Avenue Tavern once. The theme was “prom night.” We all dressed up in our high school prom finery. My friend Mare showed up with her husband Greg, with a pillow stuffed inside her dress so it looked like she was pregnant. Brilliant. I had to concoct a scheme for that.

So I sang “I Will Always Love You” while couples danced. Then right after the final big chorus, I screamed, “Greg! I can’t lie anymore! It's MY baby! Mare’s having my baby!

Greg then, as requested, ran from the dance floor onto the stage and mock-slugged me in the stomach. Just as I got back up, my other friend Garann walked onstage and yelled “You told me I was the only one!!” Then she “slugged” me in the stomach, and I fell down onstage behind a monitor—where I’d secretly stashed a ketchup bottle a few minutes before. While I was still down on the floor I squirted a dribble of it onto my face, so when I got up it looked like I was bleeding. Song over.

Only a couple of years ago Garann told me she didn’t realize I had a ketchup bottle hidden away that whole time. She thought it was real blood. I was happy to assuage her of her guilt.

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