The Holiday and Karaoke and Blue-Eyed Soul

December 27, 2016

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Meeting the wee small hours.

There’s something about Christmas and Karaoke and me. We all three seem to stumble into each other when I’m in a state of massive flux, and before I know it these two end up simultaneous contributors to the highlights reel that is my existence. It’s like having two goofball high school buddies who somehow know to come knocking on your door once every few years, with a six-pack of beer or a bottle of Maker’s, right when you need a kindred spirit and a laugh.

The last time the three of us hung out like this was in 2010. Massive changes from within and without had me in the thrum of transition. I was visiting my parents in Spanaway, WA, and through some miracle of nature my elusive hermit of a brother was home. That night, the two of us walked a few blocks to TJ’s, a run-down little dive bar on Pacific Avenue, to grab a beer. Karaoke night was in full swing, and the first thing we saw was a tall, gangly, long-haired guy in his early thirties croaking out The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira.” A few beers later, I’d acquired enough courage to get up and do James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Screw M&M’s: Nothing makes friends faster than getting a roomful of drunk people to shout “Get on up!” in repeated call-and-response.

Around 11 that night, my brother, five other patrons and I were crowding the floor of the place, singing a Village People song at the top of our lungs. To my right was the lost Oak Ridge Boy, and next to him was a pretty young woman just out of rehab, her elfin-beautiful features and childlike exuberance only slightly offset by the meth-darkened teeth she’d acquired as mementoes of her past. Her serviceman boyfriend, protective and almost paternal, had his arm around her waist as we all belted out “Macho Man.” To my left was my usually-taciturn but now-exuberant brother and a benign-looking married couple who’d talked about being swingers over beers a few minutes before.

There’s no way any of us (my brother and I excluded) would ever see each other again, never mind hang out in real life. But as we danced, yowled drunkenly, and hoisted pints of Rainier under the glow of vintage beer signs, we were a bunch of misfits united by the need to be someplace besides solitary and homebound. In its own weird rattletrap way it was just what a bunch of Christmas orphans needed.

It’s only appropriate that my two goofy pals Christmas and Karaoke would show up for a reunion in 2016, a year that’s pimp-slapped me into such a state of flux that it’s a miracle I’m not a bunch of disjointed atoms floating around haphazardly. I’m restless and itchy for something to do after returning from a Christmas visit to my parents’ house. Salvation comes in the form of an invite to Karaoke at Bar Sue, a bar on Capitol Hill.

There’s no reason to think, given what a mean bastard 2016’s already been, that Christmas wouldn’t fall right in line with the preceding 11 months. Of course, it throws one more epic body blow in the form of George Michael’s death. But I join a whole roomful of drunk Christmas orphans/night creatures/misfit toys as we tell 2016 and Death to fuck themselves, largely to the tune of George Michael.

It feels a little like a wake. Dressed-to-the-nines Christmas party defectors and a cross-section of every species of Capitol Hill denizen sing, dance, and drink. George Michael pops up on the cue, time and again. Somewhere amidst the caterwauling but fun renditions of Michael’s hits, it hits me what a brilliant pop songwriter he was. I think with some sadness about how I’d literally grown up with him, and how he’d never record again. But the people jammed in Bar Sue do their unintentionally pivotal part to kick any moping to the curb, damn quick.

Not every reveler busts out a Wham or George Michael song. Jeannine, the issuer of the karaoke invitation, owns Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” leaning forward and twisting ‘round and singing like Iggy Pop in a dark velvet dress. A faultlessly-pretty man with a shaved head and nose ring sings a pop song I’m too old to have heard before, in a lovely high voice, and the whole room dances. I’m socially-lubricated enough to throw my hat into the ring, not at a George Michael song (not even gonna try for those blue-eyed soul boy high notes) but at “Ziggy Stardust.” And I’m just tippled enough to be certain that I kinda kill it.

Some kid in a Christmas sweater is belting out a nu-metal song when I wind my way through the packed bar to leave. I bump into a girl in a spangly jumpsuit and pixie haircut who’s been dancing near me for a fair amount of the night. She smiles at me and gives me a random hug. Then out of nowhere we wind up kissing for several seconds, like it’s midnight on New Years Eve and fate has pushed us into each other’s orbit. It’s a sweet, innocent moment that gracefully fades out with both of us laughing a little as she kisses me once more on the cheek and I walk out the door. My mind turns down the nu-metal, and I’m hearing the bittersweet wee-hours beauty of “Kissing a Fool” in my head, as I head home.

I have today off. Most of it’s been spent in the throes of mundane necessity—going over bills with a fine-tooth comb, cleaning, picking up groceries while I still have unlimited use of my vacationing neighbors’ car. George Michael’s been on the radio as I drive, and on my computer streaming steadily via YouTube videos all day. God help me and my too-low voice, I’ve been singing along.

The richness and complexity in so many of his songs is intense, and all the more resonant given the state of upheaval my life’s been in lately. I notice how the seductive baby-making groove serves as ironic counterpoint to the bitterness and anguish in “Everything She Wants,” and how an exultant retro-soul number like Wham’s 1984 single “Freedom” comes equipped with a sense of defiantly fighting against the inevitable. Those songs and at least a couple dozen others just demonstrate the guy’s genius. He made heartbreak and pain into sing-along fodder as catchy and exhilarating as the joy tautly running through the irresistible hooks of “Faith.”

There’s consolation in the fact that so many people around the world were replicating what was happening in Bar Sue last night. George Michael gave the world a bunch of songs with enough staying power to keep people singing along for decades. That’s as satisfying a middle finger in the direction of Death and the rest of this shitty year as you’re gonna get.

2017 will be better. We’ll make it better. You gotta have faith. Or at least a late-night reunion with Christmas and Karaoke, just when you need it most.

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