Patrick Ward words, code, and music

Outflanking the Karaoke Jitters

“Let’s go sing karaoke!” she said.

Thump, went my heart.

A unified “Yes!” poured out from the group.

Who are these conspirators that taunt me so?

Someone else offered up, “We’ll go to Imperial Palace, they have a great karaoke bar on the second floor.”

Another finalized the deal: “Ok. It’s settled then. Karaoke at 10. Imperial Palace.”

Now, you have to understand that I’m basically a mole rat, a subterranean dweller not used to the bright lights of social gatherings. I’ve always felt that singing in public was rather personal, a vulnerable outpouring of the soul. To me it meant breaking down my carefully crafted wall between the inner coward and the outer deceptions on my face. I may seem to be natural, but inside the troops are scrambled, responding to rising levels of collective stress.

Karaoke? I wasn’t sure my voice would even respond to such a request.

I imagined some low-level courier in my head, speedily making his way along adrenaline corridors to carry the news of singing, singing in public.

“General! General!” he screamed, “we have an urgent request from headquarters!”

The general stared back with steely black eyes, his M1 helmet tipped slightly askew as beads of sweat maneuvered across stubbly, grizzled sideburns.

“Well, let’s hear it son! We haven’t got all night,” he barked.

With a gulp of air, the messenger exclaimed “Sir! There is a request for more troops to the vocal chords Sir! Karaoke Sir!”

“Speak slowly son, did you say karaoke?”

“Sir! Yes Sir!”

“Doggonit! What the hell is wrong with those bastards up there? Don’t they know we’re already dealing with social anxiety tonight?”

“Sir! Yes Sir! They’re upgrading the system with a new framework. They’ve found new sources of courage, Sir!”

The general rubbed his chin, staring at the young courier. “We’ll have to call up the reserves, private,” he said, and began to scribble a short message in his black leather book. He tore out a page and handed it to the soldier standing at attention: “Take these orders to the CO at Pressure Company.”

So, off our little courier went, to spread the word of karaoke, reserves, and new found courage.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the bar that I began to feel the pressure of this idea. I began to hope that our messenger was swift enough to deliver his message in time, that he would be able to gather sufficient troops to meet our melodic attempts.

The bar itself was half empty, but a haze of smoke had already drifted across the room and melded with the aroma of stale beer, sticky floors, and last night’s cigarette butts still crushed in plastic ashtrays. The karaoke stage was dark, the microphone stands were covered with black cloth, and the jockey’s booth was empty.

Aha! I might be able to slip through this unscathed after all.

“I think it opens at 10,” said a voice, “Oh look! There are the song sheets!”

Drat!

Ok, I thought, I might just be able to do this, but I’d need a partner. I looked around at my companions and thought, maybe, one of them would join me on this adventure. Alanagh caught my eye. She also seemed a little nervous about this whole episode. So, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind doing a duet.

“Sure,” she said, “I think that’ll be less intimidating.”

Whew! A partner in melody murder.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love to sing. In fact, I write songs for guitar and sing quite beautifully at times; never in public, though, never in front of inquisitive eyes that seem to tear the beats right out of my heart. Which, by the way, was thumping at a sprinter’s pace by now. I’m strictly a closet performer, a crooner of shower stalls, shielded bedrooms, and one-on-one encounters, not bar rooms full of joyful patrons.

We sifted through decades of billboard hits: Billy J., Elton, Elvis, Frank, Journey, Kylie, and, oh look, The Police! Perhaps, we decided, “Message in a Bottle” would be appropriate.

Just at that moment, a bright light appeared behind us. I turned around to see the stage lit up like a carnival. Music began to pour forth from speakers that I hadn’t noticed before, and a voice boomed through the microphone: “Wwwweeelllcome to the Imperial Palace Karaoke Bar!”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Our little messenger was feverishly running from gland to gland by now, carrying the orders of a general too proud to fail. The general was bound to see this adrenal spike through. In his most Churchillian voice, he proclaimed “There is no room for fatigue! I want those bastards in Sympathetic to stick with it this time! Confound it, we will not flee, we stay to fight!”

And so, the whole system began to wake up. Heart brigades were sent coursing through arteries at breakneck speeds, platoons of pulmonary troops worked overtime to regulate excited cells, and sphincter specialists began to pucker in unusual formations.

“This is not a drill, gentlemen, “ exclaimed the general, “this is battle!”

Perhaps a drink might calm me down, I thought. Even though I rarely drink, if there was ever a time to drink, I reasoned, this was it!

Where the hell is that waitress? Never mind what kind, just give me a goddamn drink!

And then the karaoke festivities began. The singing was good, I mean some of it was really quite marvelous. Which made it worse, because I would have to follow these troubadours with my tone deaf rendition of a sappy Police song.

I tried to sing along with the others, tried to fein a spirit-filled glee, but the adrenaline junkie inside wasn’t happy, he wasn’t showing up with glee in his heart; this was fear, plain and simple.

And yet, somewhere inside that tensed up body of mine a tiny sliver of courage started to rise, a sense that this boiling cauldron of epinephrine welling up inside might be able to sustain me through the fear. Maybe the general was right. Maybe I didn’t need to flee this time. Just maybe it was time to take the offensive and charge towards that brightly lit stage.

So, when our names were called and our song was queued up, I took her by the hand and we stormed up onto that stage with smiles on our faces, fear in our hearts, and no idea what to do next.

I remember the music began to start and the words started to jump across the screen, but the voice wasn’t coming out. Somewhere inside of me a melody was hidden, buried in the anxiety of a desperate mind. I stood there like road kill, waiting for the lights to run me down.

Where were the general’s troops?

“Left flank, men! Left flank! We’ve got a major shit storm here boys, we’re going to have to outflank those jitters! More troops to the vocal chords!”

The music had stopped.

A voice boomed out of the speakers again. “Ok, guys, he he. Karaoke requires that you sing,” laughed the DJ, “Looks like we’ve got a couple of karaoke virgins on our hands folks! Let’s give them a little help! Come on! Let’s hear it for the virgins!”

Head meet hand — shield the eyes.

I put the microphone down, thinking that I’d failed, ready to walk off like the failed karaoke virgin I was.

“No man it’s okay,” shouted the DJ, “We’re just going to start over. You can do it, man! Don’t worry!”

Sigh. Ok! Remember the general’s words!

So, I began to sing. I did the best I could:

Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh

Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh

More loneliness than any man could bear

Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh

The words weren’t empty. I did feel lost at sea, drifting all alone up there in front of so many laughing eyes. I looked over at my partner, who cast a few nervous glances back. “Ok,” we both seemed to say, “we can do this.”

To tell the truth, I couldn’t hear either of our voices through the monitors. For all I know I sounded like an elephant caught in a car crusher!

And yet, by the time the chorus started, something strange happened: I began to enjoy myself. I knew this wasn’t a performance to be proud of, but I was starting to get it. The adrenaline didn’t kill me. The general was right, we could take a stand. This was supposed to be fun! I’d forgotten that part.

I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world

I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world

I hope that someone gets my

I hope that someone gets my

I hope that someone gets my

Message in a bottle, yeah

Message in a bottle, yeah

Deep within the tangle of sympathetic nerves coursing through my body, the general and his minions worked feverishly, carrying me through this ordeal with honor. My voice boomed stronger as the song continued. The awkward ticks of my body began to soften, and my eyes began to reveal smiling, happy faces in front of me, not the demon spawn I’d imagined just seconds before. Even the melody began to reveal itself from the recesses of my memory.

Walked out this morning, don’t believe what I saw

Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore

Seems I’m not alone in being alone

Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home

I began to hear the beat again, swaying with the music as best I could, reaching past the borders of my courage and belting out the last refrains of that song as if I too were a troubadour of note!

As the song began to trail off, I began to hear the applause. I had done it! I stood up there, bared my naked voice and lived to tell of it.

As I walked back to the table, I imagined the general would be pleased.

He plucked a fresh cigar from the recesses of his front pocket and shoved it in the corner of his mouth with all the confidence of a triumphant warrior.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “Stand down. The threat is over. The enemy has been vanquished and we have won.”

We got a few hive fives at the table, but the biggest high five I reserved for Alanagh and myself. We overcame the fear and made the general proud.

As I sat there watching the next few contestants singing their hearts out, I kept hearing my own song reverberate through the open spaces in my mind: “Sending out an S.O.S…, Sending out an S.O.S…”