I first sang karaoke in the summer of 1993, in Chicago at the Belmont Street Fair. A stage had been set up in a blocked-off intersection, and with bravery that seems out of character in hindsight, I agreed to sing Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” as a duet with my roommate, to a crowd of hundreds of drunken frat guys from DePaul University. Years passed, and my next karaoke experience took place at the bar at the Silva Lanes bowling alley in Santa Fe, which doesn’t exist anymore. I sang “Me and Bobby McGee” and accidentally sat down before the final verse, dazed and confused by the difficulty of singing a Janis Joplin song without her voice backing me up from the radio.
A quick survey of current karaoke spots in Santa Fe reveals that you can sing your little heart out in public more nights of the week than not. Karaoke at the Cowgirl BBQ (319 S. Guadalupe St.) is Mondays at 9 p.m. Boxcar Bar and Grill (530 S. Guadalupe St.) hosts it on Wednesdays at 10 p.m., and at the Palace Restaurant and Saloon (142 W. Palace Ave.), it’s 10 p.m. on Thursdays. I opted for the fourth locale: The venerable Tiny’s Restaurant and Lounge (1005 S. St. Francis Drive) where karaoke starts promptly at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday nights.
I went with my husband, William, and my friend Tantri. We stood at a counter near the bar with our drinks and watched the show on the little stage that was lit in reds and purples, as if for a rock and roll band. I would sing eventually, but that first night was a reconnaissance mission. Would I be intimidated or feel welcomed by the crowd? I’d been to Tiny’s several times for the chicken guacamole tacos, and I like the local, homey feel. It’s definitely a bar, but it’s also the kind of place that lets kids sing karaoke, if they’re there for dinner with their parents, before 9:30 or so. After that, Tiny’s can get a little rowdy.
There are many ways to be good at karaoke, and it’s not necessarily about classical training. Some people, like the guy we immediately started referring to as the Zen Master, obviously practice a lot. The Zen Master sat alone with earbuds in his ears, listening to something on his phone and taking notes in a little book. Then he went up there and sang “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, note for note and moan for moan, without really moving or changing his facial expression. This unassuming twenty-something guy stood still and channeled Robert Plant like it was nothing. Another standout was a woman whose name I didn’t catch but who could belt it out like her life depended on it. She sang a couple of power ballads. There were many power ballads that night, and a few obligatory country tunes, some Ozzy Osborne, Prince, Eurythmics, David Bowie, and many songs I didn’t recognize. William and I found that we could entertain ourselves for hours just by looking at the thousands of choices in the thick karaoke song binders and suggesting them to each other. I begged him to sing me a Tom Petty song when we next returned, but he made no promises.
Of course not everyone who sings is good, but without a doubt, everyone is entertaining. The trick is not taking it too seriously — unless you’re the Zen Master — and to have a good time. What people lack in talent, they make up for in showmanship and enthusiasm. But over the next couple of weeks, as I pondered what to sing, I was worried about how I would sound. Though I can carry a tune, I can’t project and my range is limited. I finally settled on a song I’ve known since I was a kid: “My Life,” by Billy Joel.
The night we went back to Tiny’s, all but one waitress had called in sick, and there was a huge group of about 20 people having dinner in the bar area. Though the waitress was obviously under pressure, she kept her humor and delivered prompt service — which was amazing, because she was also manning the bar. A guy I recognized from community-theater productions was on stage, hamming it up to “Beginnings” by Chicago. He was followed by a middle-aged man with a thick handlebar mustache who did a fantastic rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I saw that the Zen Master had arrived, so I asked him what he was going to sing that night. He was shy as he told me his name, Matt, and that he was going to sing “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. He said he’s been coming to karaoke at Tiny’s every week for over a year because it’s “very down to earth” and “like family here.”
An older man named David sang Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” and the dance floor exploded with more people than I’d realized were in the restaurant. Afterward, I asked David what he thought made everyone get out of their seats. “It’s an iconic song you can dance to,” he said, and went on to tell me that karaoke is “really wide open. You hear a variety of music — Broadway show tunes, ballads, dance songs. It’s all up to the individual and what they’re a fan of. You might love Bette Midler, so you get up there and sing one of her songs.”
Alysha — a trained vocalist who studied music in college — sang “Summertime” in the style of Janis Joplin, perfectly and all the way through to the end. She was with a group of women at a birthday party. They sang many songs, including a rousing rendition of “Love Shack” by the B-52s, as part of a private karaoke battle among themselves. Soon enough, it was my turn. It went OK. I bottomed out on a couple of notes, but I kept up with the lyrics and a bunch of people at the bar sang along, which was a little distracting but also nice because they seemed very enthusiastic about my song choice. And then William, who had never sung karaoke before, sang “The Piano Has Been Drinking” by Tom Waits — and he was really good, treating the song more as a theatrical performance than a chance to show off his pipes. Tantri did not sing, even though rumor has it she has a great voice.
Around 11:30 p.m. a man in his forties, styled like an old-school ’80s punk, sang “Mother” by Danzig. The man’s ability to scream-sing with the intensity required to effectively pull off true hardcore heavy metal was worryingly good. We were mesmerized. He had so much energy. And in the end, he threw the microphone on the floor with an angry flourish. The entire audience went silent and the kind, white-haired karaoke host, who’d been helping the lone waitress bus tables all night, grumbled at him to leave.
“Call me a cab!” he yelled, using the expected expletive as an adjective modifying “cab.”
In stillness of the rapt crowd, the host shrugged and said, deadpan, “[Expletive] cab.”
A few seconds passed, and then we all burst into applause as the man slammed out of the bar.
After that untoppable moment, which Tantri described as “independent-film good,” it seemed like the right time to call it a night, though Tiny’s karaoke lasts until 12:30 a.m. It’s entirely possible that I will attend karaoke at Tiny’s again, whether or not I sing. There are very few neighborhood-type bars in Santa Fe, which are the kind of bars I like, but Tiny’s fits the bill perfectly. If you go, try the chicken guacamole tacos, don’t stress about how you sound, and remember to tip your waitress. ◀