Lonesome King Wins
a Night in Koreatown
I’d spent the whole day with that song playing on my mind. But had no idea that I’d wind up singing it late at night to a room full of Koreans. It was fun, but let’s be clear: it was not the highlight of my life.
The disclaimer is apropos of a coda that my wife always finds a way of inserting, whenever the story pops up at family and friend gatherings. Which, I must quickly add, it’s hardly ever mentioned anyway.
She says it with a sweet smile insulating the blade of her tart tirade. A certain imagined past she swears by I’m still stuck at, can be squeezed out of it, like blood from a surgical scrub. In my defense, I invoke happier times that I’ve spent on stage, to no avail.
For that usually happens only later. No matter how many times I get stung by the putdown, I can never think of an equally sharp rebuff to throw back at her. There, in just four brief paragraphs, I’ve given you all the wonders of married life, warts and all.
There had been a few bar stops before we wandered into this splashing island of colored lights at the heart of Koreatown. In a city full of towns, one can hit Africa and Latin America, skip Europe, and duck right into a dive out of Seoul.
Back in my waiting tables days, I’ve worked for James, a friendly chap whose real name I wouldn’t dare to pronounce. He was the one to educate me on the nocturnal habits of single Koreans, once they’re in a striking mood for finding mates.
Guys sit on one side, and girls on the other, and the waiter is the go-between. You like that gal? tell the waiter and, for a tip, he’ll deliver your message to her. Which may be a flower, a fancy drink, or an entire bottle of Scotch for her and her giggling friends.
SONGS TO GET WASTED BY
Hey, I could do that, I thought, for a moment forgetting that with my looks, I’d never make it as far as the frame of the front door. But couples do get together and fall in love, their secrets safe with the go-betweens. And the tips are outstanding too, I’m told.
Give it a few years, and some of those guys and gals are hitting the karaoke bars, after work. Overtired and thirsty, it’s unreal how well Billy, from Payroll, and Janet, from Receivables, can duet a Whitney Houston tune into a late-night epic apotheosis.
Stats may exist somewhere, about what are the most popular songs, and artists, karaoke enthusiasts prefer, but I suspect that none in the top 10 list is among my favorites. Celine Dion comes to mind. A few-octaves-lower Maria Carey. The theme from Ghost.
Lack of scientific method never stopped the Internet: some lucky keystrokes and voilá, dozens of sites pop up, with popular karaoke lists. And best fits for when you’re drunk. Or throwing a birthday. Or simply out, lonely, searching for a new hit.
LOOK, MY BROTHER IS ON TV
Which was probably not what Daisuke Inoue had in mind when he created the machine. It made him famous, but not rich: he’s still not credited as its creator and doesn’t seem to mind. Karaoke exists in its own space and time, and the usual rules hardly apply.
In my book, Elvis is perfect for just such a space and time: his catalog is immense, full of wild rocks and mid-tempos and high-octane semi-standards, and there’s no risk of playing a bigger ass than the 1970s Las Vegas version, or rather, a pastiche of his.
Of course, I grew up with the best and the worst (more)
* Long Live
* The Man Behind the King
* Album Art
of the guy, but was less than a toddler when he’d already had his breakthrough year. My best memory of him is watching my brother singing King Creole on a live-audience TV show, back in south Brazil.
Somehow, the Beatles were easier to grasp and grasped I dug from an early age. Still, I never stop having a soft spot for the sideburned one, who was riding fast to nowhere, while I was getting deep into the rock that run him over, circa the middle 1960s.
PAVAROTTI’S LONG LOST SIBLING?
There was always an Elvis song or two on the repertoire of the few bands I’ve had back then, sort of a tribute to the syllable of our names that we share. Also as a homage to my brother who went on to become a published expert on the son of Tupelo, MI.
King of rock’n’roll doesn’t really do any justice to what he was about. For make no mistake, the overwrought ballads critics used to massacre his legacy was his real love. And the gospel. It was on sheer instinct that he took upon rock and changed the world with it.
I’d offer that if he were born in, say, Modena, he’d have done the same but as an opera singer. The son of Gladys could’ve also been a Kantor. Who knows? But he couldn’t be further than any of that when fate caught up with him reading The Face of Jesus in the can.
The bands came and went, but my wife has it that I never got off that stage. So after a few drinks, she and her sister thought I should get up and try one round, for loser’s sake. I knew what she meant, but at that point, it didn’t take much convincing with me.
A FEW SHOTS & BROKEN HEARTS
For some reason, Are You Lonesome Tonight? had been percolating inside my skull since early in the day, back at my job in Skillman, on the afternoon van, riding back to New York, and was possibly still around inside me. So I chose that one.
Five bucks a pop, as we’d say then, and up I was, backed by a few speakers and facing a small TV, to my right, and a crowd of Korean businessmen, split in groups of likely co-workers, looking spent on loose ties and red eyes. They’ll fall asleep, I thought.
But surprise, I got in gear and saw their heads pricking up, one by one. What? no Pompadour or jumpsuit? Just a short Latino guy, with enough depth in the throat to go for the lower ranges without much of a flicker? Well, they liked it. Indeed, they did.
I let myself loose, going back to the first time my brother brought home two of his LPs: the 50,000,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong one, with multiple Elvises wearing metal shining suits on the cover, and the one with his profile picture, guitar in hand, looking up.
By the time I was finishing my three-song quota, I’ve noticed the small bunch forming in front of the tiny stage. They were really into it. When I was done, there was no leaving the stage: they start paying me to sing another song, and another one, and another.
ARE YOU SORRY WE DRIFTED APART?
No idea how long it took me to run out of material. Or voice. But it wasn’t long; an odd burn started creeping in from my gut, as if I was naked in front of everybody, feeling like a nightmarish cliche, or simply murdering a beloved gem by singing it off-key.
I was done and couldn’t wait to get out of there. Back at our table, we had a round on the house, while my sister-in-law couldn’t find words to compliment this ‘other side’ of me her sister had never told her about. Lucky me, I also got a wet kiss from the wife.
Soon all of that was gone, of course. Years after, I was back in the neighborhood running errands, when, suddenly, do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there? hit me. It was pure Elvis, from the low ranges to the heights of vibrato, both raw and suave, without a flaw.
I peaked through the window and there he was: a young, dark-skinned fellow in a suit, and the adoring crowd at the edge of the stage. Yes, that night came rushing back to me. I was watching myself all over again. But, and I must insist, it was not the highlight of my life.
(*) Originally published on June 2, 2016.