Drunk-Rock Karaoke

By Emily O’Donnell

Written for Issue 10 of The Original Magazine (2012)


Howler’s is less crowded on a Wednesday night than it will be by the weekend. The atmosphere is familiar however, dimly lit smoke swirling over muted television screens and half full pints of beer. At the door I pay three dollars to enter, with the requisite ID check, and I am handed a coaster that is my pass to a free beer at the bar. I traverse through the crowd with my boyfriend at my heels, to slip into the back room where I typically come to see rock shows and obscure indie/folk/punk bands. Onstage there is indeed a band; drummer, guitarist and bassist but no singer for the lonely microphone up front.

To the left of the stage a snake coils over a large whiteboard. The word ‘HOWL’ stretches in giant letters over a sign up board, scrawled with messy names and titles of songs. The board reads like a found poem, ‘Hybrid Moments…Punk Rock Girl. Waiting Room In the City. Blank Generation to Suspect Device. What Do I Get?’

The band banters for a few moments, the guitarist Bengt is the one I know best. He has worked at Howlers for a few years as a sound technician and ended up joining the band when Howler’s started hosting punk rock karaoke two years ago. There has been a revolving door of band members over the years, but Bengt Alexander is the driving force behind live band punk karaoke now, keeping it going even when the other band members are out of commission.  Bengt plays in both the live rock band, as well as editing the video montages of each event. So not only do we get to be rock stars for a few moments in stage, we each have the potential to become Internet sensations as well.

“It’s like being a teenager again,” Bengt told me. We get to forget the stress of our workdays, or school days, and get silly.

I look around at the crowd of people, drinking their one free beer and replacing it with shots of whiskey from the table. Everyone who sings tips a dollar into a can and receives a free shot. All of this liquid courage builds us up, to gain the courage to get up onstage and perform punk rock songs with the band. For a few hazy moments, for better for worse, we all get our chance to shine.

Onstage the bassist lights up a cigarette, although the back room at Howler’s has recently become non-smoking. We had argued about this earlier, trying to determine if we could really be punk rock by adhering to the rules of the man, who told us we couldn’t smoke inside.

“Sussman told me I could smoke onstage,” he defends himself to Bengt, referring to local musician Elliot Sussman who often plays at Howler’s. Bengt laughs and asks him, “If Sussman told you to jump off a bridge would you do it?”

My friend Adam is up on stage, the first performer of the evening as he often is. He is flipping through a big white binder, searching for his lyrics. He looks between them and says, “It depends on which bridge. If it was the Bloomfield Bridge, that might be different.”

“We’re like Goofus and Gallant,” Bengt says. “You’re Goofus. Goofus smokes on stage in the non-smoking venue, because he’s an asshole. Gallant follows the rules!”

The crowd laughs, I take a swig of my beer and shout, “But that’s not punk rock!” And then I light a cigarette.

The first time I came to punk rock karaoke, I did not sing. I wasn’t as familiar with punk rock as many of my friends were. I grew up listening to the girly soft pop rock of my mother and my sisters, aware of bands like ‘The Pixies’ or ‘The Ramones’ but never really interested in the harder edge of their music, or the angry way they approached their lyrics. This changed after I went to live band punk rock karaoke the first time. I watched my friend Lucy get up onstage, despite her obvious stage fright, and rock out to a song I didn’t know. She forgot half the words but she was still congratulated by the band and half the crowd for doing the song justice. Her roommate Robert, who was not yet my boyfriend, got up and did two or three songs, effortlessly nailing tricky elements. I was wildly impressed by their seeming confidence, and the enthusiasm and energy of the punk rock vibe affected me. I was taking my first steps toward becoming more of a punk rock girl.

Tonight I am here with Robert, who is now my other half. I have my camera in hand, as always, and fear closing my throat. I have always had terrible stage fright, but tonight I am going to sing. The first time I sang, I did Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues, a song not actually on the list, but available upon special request. I failed miserably at that song, so tonight I was doing something simpler. A song I had rehearsed alone and in the car with Robert, in preparation of this moment.

My boyfriend gets up on stage before me, familiar with the routine of punk rock karaoke. He is prepared to sing a song by the Ramones and Bengt, shouts out to the crowd. “Somebody get this man a leather jacket!” He is speaking in jest, but miraculously one appears from the crowd and is handed up Robert. He laughs into the microphone as he pulls it on. I snap a photo, with his dark hair loose about his face he looks like a more sober version of Joey Ramone.

I am awed by his seemingly effortless performance, although I know he’s nervous. He is used to performing with an instrument and his hands dangle helplessly at his sides, needing his cello to keep them occupied. He looks to me with a wry smile, belting out the Ramones effortlessly, gripping the microphone the same way he will grip my hands in moments, before I step onstage.

The minutes tick on by until it gets to me. With my heart in my throat and a bellyful of whiskey I jump up onto stage, green skirts swirling around me.

“They’re forming in a straight line,” I launch into Blitzkrieg Bop without too much trouble although I know my pitch is off, that I’m going to forget half the lyrics. “They’re…something something tight one? The kids are losing their minds! The Blitzkrieg Bop! Hey! Ho! Lets go!’

The key to successful performance is not necessarily knowing the song lyrics or having a great singing voice, but having the confidence that whatever you are singing, or playing, sounds right. Bengt will later confide in me that the band doesn’t even know all of the songs, they rarely practice together and they mess up just as much as anyone else. But, he tells me, that is punk rock. It is all about the energy.

My performance of Blitzkrieg Bop by the Ramones is largely consists of me jumping around a lot and shaking my hair while I shout the chorus. That’s all you really need. As long as you look the part, people will believe you. Although a decent singing voice will take you far it is not mandatory. Many regulars will come back week after week to sing their favorites or to try out new songs. The atmosphere is high energy and friendly, as Bengt told me, “Punk can be pretty aggressive, but we’re all friends.” The welcoming atmosphere and excited audience can give you a confidence that is hard to find elsewhere. I used to freeze up, motionless and unable to speak in front of a crowd of people. Tonight I stood on stage and I sang not one, but two punk rock songs to a crowd that loved me. And maybe I’m not quite a punk rock girl yet, but its fun to feel like one on the last Wednesday of every month, at Howler’s.

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