Monday, November 15, 2010

How I lost my karaoke virginity in a crappy motel in West Virginia

Snowshoe, West Virginia.  January, 1998

Near the top of the mountain, there's a series of switchbacks that makes me a little dizzy every time I drive up this way. 

It stopped snowing sometime early this morning, but the plows haven't been able to keep up.  I'm in four-wheel drive, but I still slide through the corner, which makes the toxic stew in my stomach churn and foam.  I slow down a bit, but the next turn sloshes the roiling sludge up one side of my gut and fills my throat.

No time to pull over, and no where to do it anyway: the shoulder is banked up with snow.  So I open the door and lean out as I take the next right-hand switchback, jettisoning last night's Salisbury Steak dinner special and the fuming dregs of all the beer and liquor that bartender kept forcing on me.  My eyes water as I try to focus on the road again.  I close the door and open the window, spitting into the cold fog.  I feel a little better.

I woke up this morning pretty sure that I wasn't going to ski today, but then I talked myself into it.  I hadn't spent last night at the Marlinton Motor Lodge just so I could wake up and drive back to Charlottesville.  I figured after a couple runs my hangover would fade.

The storm had hit Charlottesville on Wednesday afternoon, and by yesterday morning, it was almost two feet deep and still coming down.  My partner and I had been hanging siding on a house in a subdivision that didn't even have paved roads yet.  There was no way we could get in there.  So I decided to jump in my Blazer and drive the three hours to Snowshoe, ski all day, and then drive back home.

The skiing yesterday was about as good as it gets around here.  Shin-deep powder, mild temperatures...but it's still, you know, West Virginia.  Not exactly a skiing Mecca.  But it's the best we've got.

It snowed off and on yesterday, and after the lifts closed it started falling hard again.  I called my partner from a payphone and asked how things were going back in Charlottesville.  He said the whole town was closed down, so I said, screw it, I'm gonna spend the night here and ski again tomorrow. 

I didn't have enough money to stay at the resort, but I knew there was a motel in Marlinton, about 20 miles away, where rooms were around thirty bucks a night.

I checked into my room and there was nothing to do; so I walked over to the 7-11 and got a six pack of Corona, the closest thing they had to decent beer, and watched some of the movie Billy Jack on TV.  I noticed that the sign in front of the motel said Thursdays were karaoke night at the bar.  I figured that might be some good entertainment.
In all the years I've lived in Virginia, I've heard people make fun of West Virginians.  Like they were a bunch of ignorant, toothless rednecks.  And while it does turn out that West Virginia has the highest rate of edentulism in the country, I've met a lot of cool people here.  I know shitloads of rednecks in Virginia, and in a lot of ways they're pretty interchangeable.  They all love hunting, Nascar, and Top 40 country music, and hate taxes, unions, and fags. 

But West Virginians are not so predictable.  They tend to be more independent thinkers--maybe a little isolated from mainstream values, so likely to make up their own.  I come here maybe a dozen times a year to ski, mountain bike, and hike, and I always meet some freaks when I do.

So I was hoping that karaoke at the motor lodge's restaurant/bar would be worth a laugh.  But I didn't think there would be much turnout in this weather. 

My ski clothes were all I had to wear, since I thought I was just coming for the day.  I had worn neoprene bike tights under my black North Face shell pants, but I sure as hell wasn't going to wear tights to dinner.  So I put my ski pants back on, and my black sweater, and headed to the restaurant.

Besides me, there was one couple eating at the restaurant.  The bartender was also the waiter, and we chatted for a while about this and that: the weather, where I was from, the usual bullshit.  I asked him if he thought the karaoke thing was going to happen and he said, yeah, definitely--the regulars are very serious about their karaoke.  He asked me if I was going to sing, and I told him no--hell no--I'm just gonna watch.

Dinner was filling--that's the best I can say about it.  I had a drink before my food was ready, and the bartender brought me another one that I didn't order, so he didn't charge me for it. 

The karaoke host showed up a little late due to the snow, and started setting up his equipment.  And sure enough, as he did, more people trickled in, got drinks at the bar, and talked.  Everybody seemed to know each other.

When I went to get another drink, the bartender introduced me around and joked that he thought I would probably sing if they all encouraged me.  The guys--and it was all guys, no ladies so far--were all friendly and kind of excited about the storm, swapping stories about the wild rides they had been on to make it to karaoke night.  A couple of them had been on the road for more than an hour.

I hung out at the bar as the karaoke started up. 

The first few singers were just awful.  The next three were even worse. 

And they made some odd musical choices.  Sure, they warbled a couple popular country tunes, but a number of these bearded lumberjack-looking guys seemed to prefer pop ballads like Journey's Open Arms.  That's what I'm talking about when I say these West Virginians are unpredictable.

Whenever anyone finished their song, they would come back to the bar, and order up some kind of shooters for them and their buddies, like B-52s or Kamikazes.  The bartender would always make too much and pour what was left in the shaker into a glass and give it to me.  After a while I didn't even know what I was drinking anymore.

I think everyone else had already sung by the time the guy with the handlebar mustache took the microphone.  The murmuring stopped as his song started.  It was something I knew from my childhood but it took me a few seconds to recognize it: I Started a Joke, by the Bee Gees.  But why?  That wasn't even from Saturday Night Fever, which at least had some campy retro-novelty value.  What a weird selection.

But, by God, he nailed it!  I got chills after the first line, and they lasted throughout the song.  I hate to admit it, but I even got a little choked up.  You should listen to that song sometime.   You would get a lump in your throat too.

Things started getting a little fuzzy by then, and the next thing I knew, I was up on stage with the mic in my hand, singing Folsom Prison Blues.  I had never karaoked before, and I had always thought it was pretty lame.  But there I was, in front of a dozen or so of my new best buds, singing my heart out. 

And I gotta say: I tore that shit up.  I was the Man In Black, even if it was black Gore-Tex.

After my first number, everybody slapped me on the back and bought me drinks, congratulating me on losing my karaoke virginity.  The bartender complimented me profusely, telling me how surprised he had been to hear such a big baritone booming out of a slim guy like me. 

It must have been the combination of the drinks and that special camaraderie you feel when you're pinned down by a storm together, but I felt really close to those guys. 

And I couldn't wait to get back on stage.  I filled out the request forms as fast as I could, mostly for Johnny Cash songs, since they're all in my range.

I asked my buddies why there weren't any ladies at karaoke night, and they said it was because they were afraid to drive in the storm.  I was like, That's bullshit! Why don't you make some calls and get some chicas up in here? It wasn't like I wanted to hit on them or anything--I have a fiancee, for crying out loud--but it just seemed like a shame that there were no chicks to swoon over my buddies and me.  And maybe sing some duets.
No ladies ever showed up, but we kept rocking till--I don't even know how long it went on.  I just have little snatches of memories that I'm piecing together.  The guy with the handlebar mustache singing more Bee Gees, plus some Earth, Wind, and Fire.  Drinks that looked like Pepto Bismol. The bartender telling me how handsome I was.  A number of times.  A group rendition of Margaritaville.  Waking up sweating in my ski clothes with heater cranked all the way up.

I'm not sure exactly what I stumbled onto last night.  The bartender was definitely into me.  Right?  But what's up with a bunch of guys in the hills of West By God Virginia getting together every week to sing Bee Gees and Journey songs?  Is that what passes for a gay bar here?  Or is it just what any bunch of dudes would do if they didn't give a shit what anybody thought?  







  1. Your last sentence explains it all...Guys will do anything when they know no one else is around (females) and they don't give a rat's azz. BTW I think women are the same way...Just sayin'...I've known a few and I will do crazy stuff if I know no one knows me or just
    Also, I got the book a few days ago!.

  2. Aaargh.Karaoke.Japanese for "Strangled cat".

    Although I can knock out a mean John Cage's 4mins 32 seconds.

    If that isn't in the book I recommend singing anything soppy in the style of Led Zepplin.

    I once went to a wedding reception where the evening's entertainment was karaoke.We didn't stay long.

  3. If I were to go back to school for a Masters or a PhD even, my focus would be the study of karaoke nights around the world. I doubt there's a state in the union where I haven't witnessed one.

    I honestly believe people hope to be "discovered" on karaoke nights, the amount of people who anticipate their weekly karaoke outing is unbelievable, and to witness those who show up with their own books and personal cd collection to choose from is fascinating.

    I'm a beyond horrible singer, yet I always feel the need to get up there and do my thing. A karaoke night is always a blast, but especially so when you're in another state or country!

  4. Could use a little intro relating this story to the theme of "Beta-Dad".

    I'm imaging a dream sequence to another life ago sorta thing.

    I mean for your future book, of course.

  5. If you're going to lose your karaoke virginity, "Folsom City Blues" is the right choice.

    Great post. Makes me much less willing to write about my own karaoke experience last weekend. (Although I did rock "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" pretty well.)

  6. I had a traumatic experience on karaoke night at a club once. I only WISH the guy had been rocking some Johnny Cash.

  7. Ah, karaoke, how I miss it so. I haven't been back to karaoke since the night I threw the sign-up clipboard at the DJ. That was the night I knew I had a problem.

  8. I have been to Snowshoe many a time. Hubs is from Huntington so I am very familiar with the evil barbs that poor WV natives get. Pennsylvanians tend to do it all the time. Except that if you go to any given Walmart on a Friday night in PA, the people look alot like any rural area in any state may look and probably alot worse than most people from parts of WV. There are rednecks everywhere!

    Great post

  9. You are obviously a very diverse and fun character. Apparently a closet Johnny Cash! Was the bartender a giveaway about the place, or are you just overwhelmingly charming to all? Love the pre-Beta Dad story - certainly provides us more insight into the real man behind Beta Dad.

  10. @KBF--You're probably right. I've seen unsupervised dudes do some really disgusting things. Glad you got the book.

    @Jacks--I don't think I've ever seen John Cage on a karaoke menu. I did "Whole Lotta Love" one time, though, speaking of Led Zep. The best part is how they transcribe the three minutes of moaning in the middle of the song.

    @Elly Lou--I know, I know. Email me. We'll work it out.

    @Miss Nikki--That would be a great dissertation! I presented at a conference for the Pop Culture Association one time, and that would be right up their alley. An interesting panel might compare some aspects of exhibitionism found in both karaoke and blogging. Heh.

    @David--You're right. In the 3D movie version there will be a big swirly vortex with random objects flying out of the screen to indicate flashback.

    @DiPi--I totally thought of this when I saw on facebook that you had been karaokeing. I guess I yanked the idea out from under you. Sorry, dude. Anyway, you are classically trained, so you should be able to nail "Bohemian Rhapsody" too.

    @Karen--I think a lot of people have had karaoke trauma. Did you ever hear about that spate of violence in the Philippines related to people singing "My Way" at karaoke bars? For real. I think maybe some people even died.

    @Steamy--I think you need to get back on the horse. Just make sure you have a responsible person along to restrain you.

    @Skeptic--That's what I always say! There are rednecks everywhere...even in Cali.

    @Bonnie--you know, I had never considered that karaoke night at the motel was like some kind of ongoing gay event until I started writing this. I suspect that really, it was just a bunch of dudes who wanted to go out and party, and there happened to be no ladies at the bar. That happens a lot. Also, drunken bonding with strangers happens pretty frequently. But the bartender? He was definitely smitten. My charms work very randomly and sporadically; and usually they are most effective on crazy people.

  11. I popped my own cherry in a bar in Chicago. I figured I was just about far enough away from home to risk it.

    I've recently been invited to a movieoke - where you act out scenes from movies in a bar.

    As horrifically hipster as it sounds, I'm quite excited by the idea - although will probably skulk in a corner.

  12. I am such a karaoke whore I don't even remember my first time.

  13. I've never been out to karaoke, but this totally reminds me of my first night at Fight Club...

  14. I've never had the guts to do karaoke, even though I can sing.
    You can get Coronas at your 7-11? (my favourite beer btw). The hardest thing at our 7-11's is slushies.

  15. Have done karaoake three times: Beatles (Paperback Writer), Bowie (which ended up as some duet and I honestly don't remember), and Men Without Hats (Safety Dance, naturally, which I did with my ex). It takes a LOT of drinks to get me to sing in front of a crowd!

    My funniest karaoke experience was seeing German Daniel singing Aretha's "Respect." His lack of pretense or irony while belting out his Teutonic "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, tell me what it means to me" was certainly my most memorable karaoke experience, followed closely by a guy in Red Lodge, Montana, who could croon Frank Sinatra amazingly well.

  16. Was it The Blue Oyster Bar?

    Great post man.

  17. Was that a picture of you that night?!

    Singing at a karaoke is men's way of talking to each other about your "emotions". You got free drinks that night. Don't know why you complained. LOL.

  18. My karaoke virginity was lost at a serious dive bar near my house (in Texas). It used to be a walmart and the bathrooms are by the old layaway, past the walmart cart with random piece of wood in it and near the paint cans. Really.
    And you know, I went on just before the huge burly man who sang linda ronstadt (and KILLED it). Those country boys... They make me wonder.

  19. while the narrative shines, it's your use of edentulism that made it zing for me.

    i didn't even know that was a word. but i plan to use it plenty.

  20. @Dan--Yeah. I made it my policy to only do karaoke in towns where nobody knew me after my first time. Now I'll do it anywhere. The best are these "karaoke boxes" where you rent a little room and geek out with just your friends as the audience.

    @Andygirl--I'm glad to hear that!

    @Peter--Fight Club is for pussies. Karaoke is much more dangerous.

    @Allitlesprite--You should do it. It's kind of addictive, and if you can actually sing, I imagine it's even more so.

    @PaulH--Hahaha...One of the funniest things I've seen ever (not exactly karaoke) was your impromptu scarf dance/lipsynch to "D'ya Think I'm Sexy?" in a dorm room. I'm sure there were drinks involved.

    @James--I had to look up Blue Oyster Bar. Been a long time since I saw any Police Academy movies. wasn't quite that extreme.

    @Absence--I would never complain *and mean it* about free drinks. And no, that picture is from a night maybe two years ago, at a Korean "karaoke box," that would merit its own post.

    @Miley--Was that called Brokeback Bar&Grill, by any chance?

    @jef--Thanks! I use that word whenever I can. One of the perks of having a doctor wife. Another of my favorites that she turned me onto: "exsanguinate."

  21. Haha, no. Not the brokeback bar & grill. There was no grill part. Just the bar. If you ever make it to Houston, holla. I'll show you a great time at the old walmart. Just stepping into it will make you wish you were in the arctic circle. Naked.

  22. Gay bar, all male karaoke, flirty bartenders...whatever works to keep those free drinks coming, I say.

  23. I think the only dorm rooms I was ever in at UVA were yours and June's, but I'm guessing if there were scarves around it was June's.

    And drinks must have been involved, as I've zero memory of it. But then, I've lip synced (and occasionally sung along) to more songs than I care to admit!

  24. Beta Dad,

    I've just started my own blog and a friend told me how good your blog was, and it is! I have proudly now become your follower.

    I have recently joined a 'Man Band' at my work and have become the singer, even though that's not my strongest point (it was either that, or play the triangle). I have been doing a fair bit of karaoke to practise and have become a bit of a fan. I do the obvious (Sinatra) but always have the strange urge to sing White Wedding by Billy Idol. Not sure where that comes from.

    Keep up the great work, Beta Dad!

  25. i sang for a band called ThunderLizard in high school. and we were money.

    especially when we broke off a little 2 Tickets to Paradise, Eddie Money style.

    recognize, bitches.

  26. but was the bartender hot?

    what did he look like?

    if you were gay, which you aren't, which is ok, would you have gone for it??

  27. I love karaoke cuz you don't need a great voice. It helps obviously but body language and energy can totally compensate. Loved hearing about your experience!


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