Karaoke Dreamin'

The blisteringly harsh world of the Bay Area's competitive karaoke scene is no match for my version of "Three Times a Lady."

"See the problem is you can't have your opener be a ballad," explains Rhonda Allen, a Mint regular and competition junkie. During a slow afternoon at the club, Allen becomes my coach. Looking up from the monitor I see her steady gaze judge my every move.

"What you're going to want to do is start with a bang, a little pizazz, something that will get 'em going," Allen explains. She walks me through stage etiquette ("Keep your head out of the monitor, look 'em in the eye") and wardrobe suggestions ("Lose those sneakers. You need to look like a professional").

The lesson ends when she takes the mike to perform Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman." She sounds like an angel. It's better than the original. She gives me a "that's how it's done" look and leaves me with precanned words of wisdom.

"You just have to believe in yourself," Allen says. "There is nothing that will hold you back if you have your dream. Karaoke is like the stage of life."

My dream? Stage of life? Gee, thanks but no thanks, Rhonda. I'm in it for the money.

The money is in San Jose, the Cardinal Lounge to be exact. Someone at the Mint tipped me off to the dive's sporadic singing competitions. The $50 contest is small potatoes, but it's training ground. After a full day of preparation (pressing snazzy shirt, memorizing lyrics, prepping girlfriend to yelp like a coyote in heat) I'm convinced that the place will be a king-maker.

I stick to ginger ale to keep my wits intact and croon through two selections: the Coaster's "Love Potion No. 9" and Bad Company's "Shooting Star." I turn my back to the monitor. I do the c'mon-put-your-hands-together thing. I even dance a little. Nearing the end of the night I'm confident. I can't beat John's "Night Fever" or Emily's tear-jerking "I Will Always Love You," but I'm a dark horse for third prize -- gift certificates for dinner. The only competition is Ed, a beefy 35-year-old computer programmer from Mountain View. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?

"I started just for fun," Ed says. "But I played sports in college and competition is kind of addictive -- you know, the rush -- so I really like singing in the contests." We both have one song left. I buy him a beer, hoping to throw his game. He offers up his karaoke life story. "My first time I was really nervous ... yadda, yadda, yadda." Drink up, Bub. You're dead meat.

Per Rhonda's suggestion, I save the Richie for last. I sense victory with every note. I even give my girlfriend a little wink at the end. Nice. When it fades out, I hand back the mike with casual confidence. Catch you guys on the flip side.

Two songs later, Ed is called to the stage. His song: Prince's "Purple Rain," a bold choice.

Over the next few minutes, Ed is not a computer programmer from Mountain View. He's a star. He's magnificent. He takes second place to John leaving Emily with the scraps of third.

The disappointment of the loss starts to fade as we drive home, but not because of some "not in it for the money" epiphany or some spiritual satisfaction taken from Rhoda's "stage of life." It's because the oldies DJ is on a roll and the night is warm and we're wailin' out "Carrie Ann" as loud as we want to. Tom Patrick is right: Canta che ti passa. Sing and it will pass.

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