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."

I've had five vodka drinks and I'm channeling 1986 Lionel Richie. Not the badass who fronted the Commodores in 1975, not the face-lifted soul-robot of 2004. The realLionel Richie -- adorned with big hair and a ride-ready 'stache, draped in white linen. The Lionel Richie who had 13 consecutive No. 1's and still played underdog to Michael Jackson and Prince. The Lionel Richie with the honey voice that could make any even-keeled woman within earshot damp where it counts. Lionel Richie: the patron saint of semiprofessional karaoke.

Welcome to Club Max's 10-week Karaoke Competition in San Jose. The competition for the $500 purse is brisk. A few minutes ago Vickie and Carl wowed us with "Up Where We Belong." Carl was a dead ringer for Joe Cocker's beer-addled soul growl -- replete with a comedic stumble 'n' slur routine that had the crowd in stitches.

Then, a cocksure Beth slayed Shania Twain's "Damn, I Feel Like a Woman." She wandered through the crowd with wireless mike, prancing through the tune without the safety net of the monitor. The brave move sent a clear message: I'm here to win this bitch, y'all better step off.

The KJ (karaoke jockey, duh) scrutinizes the sheet. "All right, folks," he bellows. "Lets get Naaaaaate up here!"

A glacier of dread fills my stomach.

I slug back the watery remains of a screwdriver, and am beset by a moment of frightening clarity. Every atom in my body is acutely aware of the tragic miracles of humanity that unfold around us at every second. Children are being born. Beloveds are passing over the great River Jordan. On highways and airplanes, in factories and schools, in bedrooms and on boats, and, yes, in this humble shell of a bar in the graceless suburbs, the majesty of the human spirit rages against its collective destiny. I canwin.

One clammy palm grips the microphone. Lionel, let your spirit enter me, let me be your vessel. Let me pass into the next round. (And please also strike down Beth -- with her pear-shaped mom-ass, impeccable pitch, and over-rehearsed curtsy. Smite her with your hideous fury.)

The following four minutes and three seconds pass in a blur -- memories carried away by the whitewater rush of adrenaline and alcohol that rages through my veins. When I wake to a smattering of applause I know I won't advance. But Beth doesn't either. In the fearsome reality of karaoke contests, $500 might as well be the lost treasure of El Pensamiento. She could have lit herself on fire while wailing a dub version of "God Bless the USA" and she still wouldn't have advanced. Moreover, there were murmurs in the crowd that the best singers in the area came out just to "get a read on the room."

"Whenever there is money involved it brings out the big dogs," says Ron Kischuck, a 52-year-old San Raphael contestant. He explains that most contests like this have a small entrance fee ($10). The contest takes place over a number of weeks. Singers are given points for things like presentation, style, and crowd response. The top three earners compete in the sing-offs at the end of the series. Kischuck's gift horse is Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." He claims that last year the song brought him more than $1,000 in delightfully tax-free cash.

The demographic for karaoke in the Bay Area is every bit as diverse as the region itself. There are nearly autonomous scenes for gay (the Mint), straight (Rookie), drag (Aunt Charlie's), and Asian ('N Touch Club) enthusiasts. There are private rooms and public stages. I'm interested in the competitive public stages. Show me the money.

Meet Tom Patrick, who could rightfully be considered San Francisco's karaoke king. Patrick built his show business career on karaoke.

"Karaoke is one of the ways I first made my way in this crazy business," he says. "I've been a singer in rock and cover bands since high school but when I moved to Florida, then to California, I didn't know anyone and so karaoke helped me both keep my chops up as well as meet new people."

Let's check out some stats about Tom. Age: 40. Career: "Show biz." Credo: "Canta che ti passa," (Italian for "Sing and it will pass."). Current favorites: "Magaritaville," "Mack the Knife."

For Patrick's impressive resume, check out www.tompatrick.com. He's been in the game for 20 years, since the advent of the fad's global takeover, which started in Japan (the word itself translates to "without orchestra") in the '70s. He's karaoked around most of the globe, performing in Europe, the Caribbean, and Hawaii. In fact, by press time Tom will have left his home in San Leandro for sunny Hawaii, where he hopes his career as a KJ and lounge stylist will continue to blossom.

Tom provides crucial insight into different Bay Area hotspots, rattling off a list of environments where I'll be able to develop my new supplementary income: Dino's in Castro Valley, Pangano's in San Leandro, and The King of Clubs in Mountain View. One of them is San Francisco's karaoke ground zero, the Mint, a joint on Castro with karaoke 365 days a year, over 12 hours a day. It starts at 1 in the afternoon.

"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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