brokedown kitchen at the top of the stairs

I do karaoke in the Boston area a lot, so I pick up on the little differences between joints. For instance: Charles Playhouse Bar, the bar beneath the theater that hosts Boston’s long-running Blue Man Group and Shear Madness, hosts karaoke every Friday. DJ Jimmy boasts a selection that rivals Paul B. over at Asgard – tens of thousands of tracks indexed on computer. Since the low-ceilinged basement bar is built for performers, hosting stand-up comedy on other nights of the week, the sound system has some bite to it. And the bar’s hard enough to find that nobody stumbles in off the street. You have to know someone to get here.

Plus they have a mic stand. Most karaoke DJs work several gigs, providing their own display screen, mixer and wireless mic. But at Charles Playhouse you’re looped into the bar’s sound, meaning you use the house mic. And ask anyone who performs on stage: there’s a substantial difference between performing with a mic stand and without. Most comedians I know find it comforting. It gives you something to do with your free hand. It gives you something to lean on if you’re drunk. If you’re singing, it gives you the opportunity to use both hands (simulated air guitar, clapping over your head to exhort the audience, twitching like a British New Wave singer). At the very least it gives you a dancing partner. I suspect the crucial function of a mic stand is to act as a security blanket. If there’s a mic stand in front of you, you’re performing into the mic; if there’s nothing, you’re performing into the audience.

“I’m hanging onto consciousness by my fingernails here,” I told the audience an hour before closing. I would have stayed longer, but my friends had been buying me drinks all evening (birthday, etc) and I couldn’t even pretend to roll. But, after the DJ couldn’t load my first three song choices (“read error? what the fuck does that mean?”), I settled on a little Violent Femmes to close out the evening. Gano’s lyrics were meant to be sung while tottering, so overcome with the bitterness of adolescence that you need to anchor yourself to the ground or else explode in a hail of fists. And I clung to that mic stand like it was keeping me alive.

I’ve got that rock and roll; I’ve got that future flow

We’ve Got The Beat That Bounce
Watching the video for “Boom Boom Pow” this weekend – just because, okay? – raised the obvious question: what do the other two guys in the Black Eyed Peas do? Why are they there? You’ve got Will.i.am producing the songs – and as little as I like their songs, “Boom Boom Pow” has a really catchy beat to it. You’ve got Fergie on vocals and eye candy. While the latter trumps the former in most pop acts, she has a good voice in her own right.

But then there’s the other two guys: the ugly one and the guy with the samurai topknot. What do they add? They’re not very talented rappers. I can’t imagine they have a lot of female fans screaming over them. Now that the Black Eyed Peas have become world-class superstars, why are these guys around?

The world seems to have answered that question for me, in that Will.i.am has made tentative crossover steps (like his role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Fergie has a solo career. Whereas no one cares about Taboo’s aborted solo projects, or his role as Vega in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. So, asked and answered.

Of course, it would be rather mercenary for a band to drop its less attractive / useful members once it achieved superstardom. And since pop music isn’t known for its mercenary attitude, I suppose we’re stuck with those two until the end of time.

Things Not To Say, Even At A Whisper, In A Conference Room Full of Coworkers When You Realize You’ll Have To Present First
“Balls.”

Have You Come Here For Forgiveness? Have You Come To Raise the Dead?
U2 played at Foxboro Stadium, south of Boston, this past Monday. I did not go to see them, though I had ample opportunity. At least three friends e-mailed me, forwarding along info from friends who were trying to offload tickets. One of them needed to get rid of a dozen club-level seats (private bathrooms, free snacks, etc) at $250 a pop.

I like U2 as a concept; I’m glad they still exist. But I have no real desire to ever see them live. Certain bands generate an energy when heard live that trumps any of their albums. I can’t imagine what hearing U2 live would add, other than “more fireworks” and “Bono’s face on a Jumbotron.”

Here’s some anecdotal data: I’ve gone to karaoke probably one hundred times in the last three years. My favorite haunts all have very extensive songbooks. But I have never heard anyone sing a U2 song from later than 1996. And if we exclude the one time somebody covered “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (from the Batman Forever) soundtrack, no one goes more recent than Achtung Baby. That’s eighteen years of irrelevance.

I Guess I Thought You Had The Flavor
In conversation with a friend recently, I realized how much the question, “Why do I always want what I can’t have?” answers itself. You want what you can’t have because you don’t have it. If you had it, you wouldn’t want it any more – because you’d have it. This is true whether you’re talking about romantic partners, careers or a 42″ plasma TV. Wanting what you can’t have doesn’t make you weird or broken or hopeless – it’s part of the human condition.

“Why do I always want what I can’t afford?” is an interesting question. But wanting what you can’t have is normal. There’s a reason Buddhists say not wanting is such a big deal: because it’s really, really hard.

free, only want to be free

PROLOGUE: Some trivia about the Neil Diamond classic that titles this post:

  • Pete not only references it on this week’s Overthinking It podcast, but he sang it at karaoke this past Wednesday. It was awesome. By contrast, I sang Billy Idol’s live cover of “Mony Mony” and got the entire bar to curse at me. That was also pretty cool.
  • This song came from the universally panned (though financially successful) 1980 Neil Diamond film The Jazz Singer.
  • It was one of 166 songs deemed inappropriate by Clear Channel following the September 11 attacks, sharing that black mark with the entire Rage Against The Machine catalog, AC/DC’s “Safe in New York City,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her.” And who says corporate monopolies ruined the music industry!

I played about an hour of video games on Saturday before I realized I was sitting inside on a gorgeous day. So I got up and wandered Somerville, stopping to say hi to Lynne D. and her yard sale. “There were people here at eight this morning,” she said, shocked. “One guy sat out front in a van filled with newspapers for twenty minutes. Taking notes in a little notebook.”

After checking in on Marie C. and her carrot cake, I emptied my fridge of beer and headed to Mike M’s annual 4th of July barbecue. Attendance was low but intimate (because of Don S’s simultaneous barbecue, we theorized, to which all the people with baaaaaaaabies might have gone). Mike had constructed two ladder golf sets, which ate up several hours. He and Robert took turns grilling various meats – pork tenderloin, bacon-wrapped steak tips, teriyaki chicken – while the rest of us threw bolas.

Two hours wandering Somerville plus six hours playing ladder golf turned my arms crispy, sucking the life out of me by the time we retired indoors. We played about four straight hours of Mike’s racing variant of charades – two teams compete to mime their way through a list of items, racing to opposite ends of the apartment to pantomime to their fellow players. We started out strong, but energy and creativity started to flag after several sprints and beers. At one point, our team guessed every syllable of “Scooby-Doo” and still couldn’t guess the answer. “Boo bee poo? Poo pee boo?”

there’s a chance we can make it now

“How many?” the proprietor at Do Re Mi asked.

“Thirteen,” Trisha said. Trisha made a rare visit to the East Coast this past weekend, and trashy karaoke in Allston topped the list of events.

The old man rubbed his chin with his thumb. “Normal rooms, very crowded for thirteen. Party room, best size.”

He led us back through winding hallways, carpeted in purple all-weather fabrics and indirectly lit. I had never been taken this far into Do Re Mi before. Typically, I show up late for whatever’s going on and wave at the front desk. They smile and point me toward the only other room in the building with white people in it.

The party room: a suite the size of my apartment. Leather couches at least a decade old, with stools and a poorly kept piano in the back. And a massive, widescreen TV up front.

“Whoa,” we said.

“Eighty dollars an hour,” he said.

We spent the rest of the evening fighting over the karaoke machine’s remote and belting out classics from the days of late night partying: Queen, The Darkness, Rage, Green Day, etc. I brought a half-pint of Canadian Club and ended up consuming all of it.

Allston hipsters, like I used to be, enjoy the shady and the cheap. It makes the minimal care they take of their own lives seem almost opulent in comparison. The dive bars cater to college students and the laundromats stay open late. I mention this only because we had some reservations about returning to Do Re Mi, having heard that it expanded and renovated. Would it still have its seedy charm? Could it still pass for a front for Thai prostitutes in the evening hours?

Let me assure you, scenesters and unemployed heroes, that the new Do Re Mi is worth every penny you pay. Sometimes, you just have to spend $340 on the party room.

nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by

I found a new karaoke spot on Friday: the bar beneath the Charles Playhouse in Boston’s theatre district. Small turnout for a Friday, though Memorial Day weekend might have contributed to that.

A few friends had turned out for Dave C’s twenty-ninth birthday. “I wanted one last big bash,” he said. “I’ve noticed that I have different priorities in an evening as I get older. I can’t bounce back from those big nights out any more.”

I agreed with him. But that strikes me as an excuse to schedule your Saturday mornings wisely, not to cut short your Fridays.

# # #

I missed my car (in the shop – over one thousand dollars of spring and strut work) most acutely on Sunday, when I had to hoof it to Brighton to grab a burger wih Sylvia then back to Cambridge to have a drink with Pre-Doctor Margaret N. But the benevolent confluence of the Red Line, the #66, the D Line and the #1 made it all work.

The evening brought me through a gamut of bars, too – from the 112 beers on tap at the Sunset Grill in Allston to the cultivated dinge that is the People’s Republik. Does anyone else think a 112-beer tap is wasted on 90% of Allston residents?

# # #

Explored the bike path in Davis Square with Andrea on a balmy Monday afternoon. We passed and were passed by a record number of cyclists, enjoying the shaded ride and the air free of humidity.

“That dog looks lost,” she remarked, commenting on a pug that had planted its feet in the middle of the sidewalk.

I indicated the pug’s owners, a mom and her toddler pedaling a few yards away. “The dog knows what it’s doing. It can wait all day if it has to.”

I also hit up Joanna’s annual barbecue in Porter Square, eating some grilled sausage and listening to Serpico recount earlier adventures in New Jersey.

“It’s a massive grown-up arcade and restaurant complex,” he was saying, of Xanadu, “that looks like nothing so much as a stack of shipping containers dumped in the parking lot of Giants Stadium. There’s no way that place can be making money.”

“Well, sure,” I said. “Based on the set of books you’re looking at.”

“True. There’s probably a wealth of boxed-up arcade games in there that’ll burn real easy.”

“Or just vanish overnight. ‘Hey, it’sa one ‘a dem extremely local collapsars. Just sucked everyding into its event horizon. Whaddaya gonna do?'”

the city’s a flood and our love turns to rust

I’m a city boy at heart. I always will be.

# # #

Go to Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End before 7:30 and you beat the evening rush. You’ll still have to shoulder your way through a mob thirty deep – Back Bay couples with gray temples, suede and camelhair; pudgy college parents wearing their daughter’s school on their sweatshirt – but you’ll face worse at any other time. Push gently to the front: there are no lines, and the half-dozen ladies serving all orders won’t resolve your disputes of ordinality. It’s anarchy in practice: order evolving unplanned.

A spread of opulent treats tempt you under the glass counter. Experiment if you like – the Oreo cheesecake looks too good to be anything but great – but you’re best served with some cannolis. Get at least two, more if you intend to share. Specify ricotta filling and powdered sugar.

Hanover St. in the North End is narrow, centuries old, and on Saturday nights it gets packed. Cops lean casually against motorcycles. Valets crack wise and swap cigarettes. College freshmen sprint across intersections and slap each other on the arms to punctuate sentences: yo, you see that?. Anything could happen.

# # #

U2 played a secret show at the Somerville Theatre last night. Rumor bled into the network as early as a week ago, but the band only confirmed concrete details this morning. Anyone passing through Davis Square as early as Tuesday would have seen cops blocking off the street behind the Theatre, and lighting trucks bigger than most Somerville apartments unloading.

Only a few hundred people got in – radio contest winners, mostly – but another few hundred mobbed up outside. Close enough to snap postcards from The Edge, but still penned back by a long line of cops and riot barriers. As the concert got underway, a kind soul in an apartment overlooking the Theatre cracked his window and perched a radio on the ledge, relaying the concert live from WBCN. Then some jackass brought out an amp and started busking in the Square. Nine out of ten for opportunism, buddy, but you lose a few points for class.

I didn’t see this, mind; I just make it a point to know what happens in my city. I got people.

# # #

Come to the Asgard often enough and they know you as a regular. The staff turns over pretty regular – you never see anyone work there longer than six or nine months – but it only takes a few trips and a few big nights at karaoke to plant your face in their mind. The bouncer waves you in; the bartender catches your eye. You point, rather than speak, and he draws you a perfect pint of Guinness.

You see the same faces – friends from the real world, people you only know through this bar, strangers you’ve never spoken to but see here often enough. You form a routine. You drop the cold mask that you put on for walking through a city alone at night and put on the social face. It’s good to see you. It’s good to see anybody.

# # #

I like the quiet introspection of being alone with nature. But I don’t need it. I spend enough time inside my own head. I need distractions.

I like walking past a building tall enough to obscure the moon, looking up and seeing lights on. Maybe it’s a cleaning crew, vacuuming out offices while Jam’n 94.5 echoes down the hallways and the best view in the city hangs outside their window. Maybe it’s a late night brainstorming session. It could be someone trapped in a dead-end job, scared to step outside. Could be a crime in progress.

There’s enough going on to keep my mind occupied. That’s why I’m a city boy at heart.

du, du hast, du hast mich

I’m fortunate to have funny friends.

Shows at ImprovBoston can be touch and go (it’s a big theater; a lot of different groups perform there), but Three Hole Punch was one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. Any of the four cast members could help carry a show in her own right. But the four of them have worked together for years and the chemistry that results makes for crackerjack improv. It doesn’t hurt that they’re easy on the eyes, either.

I forgot for a while what I enjoy second most about karaoke at Asgard – singing along with other people. Sitting in the audience having tied one or two on and just belting along to Smash Mouth or Boyz II Men or James Brown or who the hell ever. Singing with a bunch of other actors and singers in the audience used to give me performance anxiety. Still does, from time to time. But if I kick back and let myself relax, Wednesday night becomes the bridge that carries me through the week.

Last night I found out that the green belts in jiu-jitsu box better than I do. Even the green belts with neck and shoulder issues that prevent them from taking the full range of falls. They block better, move better and throw better combinations. Boxing’s not a tall man’s sport – reach might seem like an advantage, but it just opens up a whole mess of target areas down the front of the body. Remind me never to get into a boxing match.

Also I took an elbow to the forehead. This was later, though.