This is the first part in a three part series, The Karaoke Files, set in The Westgate Bar and Grill in Tacoma’s West End neighborhood. The events written about took place over ten weeks. Some names have been changed.
The light from the monitors flash blue and a woman with wet hair and a bikini appears on screen. Her head tilts all the way back like she can’t get enough of all that hair on her shoulders and a bronzed, muscular man stares at her from a gleaming white cabana. I glance nervously to the back of the stage – to the red tinseled walls and fake flaming sconces – then over to Robert.
“Are you sure you want me to sing this with you? I’ve never heard this song in my life.”
“Don’t worry, I know you’ll do great,” he says, with a friendly pat on my back. His silver hair dances with colors from the stage lights and he smiles at me with the side of his mouth that is missing a tooth. I take a deep breath and position my microphone; it was time to be fearless. This is how it must be done at the Westgate Bar and Grill’s karaoke nights.
A couple of years ago, I spent two nights a week for ten weeks at the Westgate. Prior to that my personal karaoke history was peppered with one-off birthday parties and duets or group sing-alongs. My friends would laugh, we would all drink just a little too much to muster up some courage, and by the end of the night my husband would put us all to shame with his signature performance of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell.” It was a routine that I never strayed from. I was a dabbler in the art, nothing more. That is, until I stumbled upon the Westgate. This is my journey.
The Westgate Bar and Grill is located just past the corner of North 26th Street and Pearl. It’s the type of place that you can walk into any time of day and find someone hunched at the bar, playing pull tabs or video poker. On certain nights of the week, they offer an intense bingo competition that gives away prizes like microwaves and fondue pots. The bingo games are a family affair; I witnessed one table with a mother, grandfather, and teenage daughter playing. Between drinks of vodka tonics the mother would slip out the side door for a cigarette, leaving her teenaged daughter and grandpa to man the booth and bingo blotters.
The first time I ventured into the Westgate for karaoke alone, I entered through a side door off of the parking lot. An older gentleman with a graying mohawk greeted me as I approached. He wore a motorcycle vest and straddled a bar stool, the edge of his round belly swinging down like a hammock. A group of Harley riders gathered around the dartboard and he talked with them occasionally over his shoulder. One woman, tall and blond with a voice like a trucker, yelled something unintelligible as she stumbled towards the sliding glass doors to the smoker’s patio. He checked my ID.
“Welcome to the Westgate,” he said.
I chose a naugahyde booth up front with a perfect view of the stage. I grabbed a song book and timidly flipped through its pages. It was barely 9 pm on a Tuesday, but there was already a handful of people there, looking like they had been drinking since they left work that afternoon. A woman at the table next to me, in a white pant suit and long black hair leaned back in her chair, legs spread, hands tightly gripping the seat between them. The man with her, his white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and his tie on the table, also searched through a song book, although he never chose a song.
I learned that the woman’s name was Serena as the emcee called her up to sing. She grabbed the mike from its stand and half-sat on the stool. She pointed to the audience, sweeping her arm in a long, sideways arc, motioning that this song was dedicated to all of us. Before the music began she yelled into her mic, “Robert! Robert, get your ass over here and dance.”
A white-haired guy with faded jeans strolled up to the stage, giving the performer a slight bow in salute. Happy that she had a backup dancer, she took her place on the stool and closed her eyes, the notes of The Eagles’ “Desperado” coming through the speakers. She placed one hand on her ear and tilted her head slightly back—like Whitney Houston or Celine Dion—and belted out the song. It was pitchy and her words were slurred; she almost fell off of the chair a couple of times. But when she was done, there was applause from everyone. There may have even been a “whoop!” from someone by the pool tables. My fears began to diminish slightly, and I began more intently to look for a song.
A man walked up to my table then, he was thin with cropped brown hair and wore an Orange Crush tee-shirt. He peered down at me from above his rectangular glasses, taking in my notebook and belongings. It was the karaoke emcee. “Hi. Are you planning on singing?” He asked. I was taken off guard but managed to blurt out, “I think so.”
“Good,” he replied, “Because you’re up in two songs.” That was the first time I met Larry.
Larry was a karaoke host for nearly two decades. If you were to meet Larry on the street, you might think that he was someone’s favorite high school music teacher. His affection for karaoke and its performers was palpable; he encouraged and celebrated each participant like the proud coach of an underdog soccer team. My first night as a karaoke loner, he convinced me to try songs that I had never sung outside of my car or shower before. Because there were few people at 9:00 on a Tuesday night rearing to go, he relied on a handful of stragglers to keep the music going.
Between singers, karaoke hosts like to practice their chops with songs of their choosing. Larry tended towards the sentimental Country Western variety, like Kenny Chesney or John Michael Montgomery. You always knew that he was about to sing when you saw him reach for his mike, saunter across the dance floor and casually lean against the stage’s bar stool. Behind each song he sang, you knew there was a story.
When I asked if he remembered the first time he performed karaoke, he answered with an emphatic “yes.” In his earlier days, Larry used to sing with a choir. “It was always easy when there was somebody up there with me,” he said. But he was terror-stricken the first time he took the stage alone. Although he knew all of the words to the song (a professional’s tip to anyone new to karaoke) his hands were visibly shaking, and he didn’t know how to start. His wife at the time walked up and faced him — it was like she was the only other person in the room. “Sing me this song like you always do,” she told him, and he did. From that moment on, he was hooked.
I wondered if I was going to have that moment: when all of the love would pour out of me and over the instrumentals of a Radiohead song. Larry gave me hope that I might.
infographic by Shawn McAllister