"The same thing that makes people wear lampshades on their heads and walk in front of traffic," says Rebecca Jeram. "Booze."
The 27-year-old Jeram is no friend of the karaoke machine. Tonight, though, she was outnumbered four to one, as her girlfriends insisted they all attend a bar with crooning potential.
"They want to sing 'Summer Nights,' " says Jeram with ill-natured resolution. "All of us, together, with little hand movements, and other stuff."
Lucky for Jeram, "Summer Nights," "I Will Survive," and "We Are Family" are banned this evening from the Covered Wagon karaoke room. Luckier still, tonight is the first Waggies, a contest celebrating three years of weekend-warrior-karaoke-action hosted by KJ Ryan Curry. The contest should delay Jeram's humiliation for three or four hours.
The "kitchen," as the karaoke room is still lovingly called since it was converted years ago, is as packed now as it was when the Counting Crows and Red House Painters used to play on the tiny back-room stage. Maybe more so.
Tonight, folks lean against the fleur de lys wallpaper three and four deep, resting against each other like dominos with their pints precariously perched above each other's heads. They are a strangely cheerful crowd.
Stephanie Q., the first contestant of the night, stumbles through an arrhythmic rendition of "Gangsta's Paradise," the chorus on the backing track swallowing her hesitant voice. She is small and nervous; to combat her stage fright, she rivets her eyes to the teleprompter. By the third verse, my palms begin to sweat.
Despite Stephanie's less-than-inspired performance, everyone applauds wildly, giving her kudos for going first. The karaoke judges -- DJ Shindog, CW co-owner John Marskbury, and me -- give Q. an extra half-point for bravery.
"Karaoke crowds are always really friendly and supportive," says 31-year-old Suzie Hart, a San Francisco child-care provider who sings with the Mission Dolores Choir, "even during competitions. It gives everyone a chance to feel like a star."
Hart, who recently came in second at Sinead's competition (just missing out on two round-trip tickets to Ireland) plans to sing "The Greatest Love of All" tonight, as popularized by Whitney Houston. But first, 34-year-old Rico Blandon, a bike messenger and professional musician who has long black hair and wears a leather jacket and combat boots, steps to the mike to croon his way through the Elvis ballad "I Want You, I Love You, I Need You."
His voice is true, and although his eyes are hidden by a baseball cap, his passion is evident. Like KJ Ryan Curry and many of tonight's competitors, Blandon got his first exposure to karaoke at the Castro's infamous Mint, but has since opted for the more relaxed environs of the CW.
"Here, you don't have to worry about competing with all those drag queens who see karaoke as a way of life," says Blandon. "This is just good fun."
Michael Grant, a 28-year-old Menlo Park resident who is confident he will place in the competition, takes the stage wearing a gold-and-purple pantsuit, a silver bow tie, and gold-rimmed sunglasses. He sings "Purple Rain," which disappoints the judges, who think he's better suited for a David Lee Roth tune.
Even so, Grant gets the girls screaming (yes, screaming), and less than three contestants into a 20-person competition, the crowd becomes loose enough to begin singing along with the choruses.
"This is a great place to come if you need a little ego boost," says Dellah Henson, who tries to sing karaoke at least two or three times a week.
"I think it's like taking out a personals ad," says 26-year-old Frank Satty. "No matter what you say, you're bound to get some strokes."
Although the crowd is congenial, competition for the Waggies is stiff. "Paul" does a staggering rendition of Diana Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Barry Manilow comes to life in the form of a funny, bald man in a Hawaiian shirt. Blondie is butchered, but two tear-jerking U2 medleys make up for it. A computer consultant named Rolland Lopez leaves everyone yelling for more Stray Cats, and the house "ringer" blows everyone away with a steamy Marvin Gaye song that is concluded with a personal note about masturbation.
By the end of the contest, folks are holding up lighters and waving their arms in the air, and I'm tapping my foot in spite of myself.
The plethora of veterans notwithstanding, the coveted gold Waggie and $150 in first-place prize money goes to a karaoke neophyte, 28-year-old Kirk Edwards, who has sung in front of an audience only twice before. Second prize goes to "Kevin" for "Sexual Healing," and third goes to Suzie Hart. Strangely, the U2 singers are noticeably miffed. One spends a few minutes shouting, "I was robbed"; the other, a musician of 13 years, complains that the singers were not judged on vocal ability.
When Kirk Edwards is called onstage to reprise his winning number -- "Kiss" by Prince -- he struts his stuff, singing in a falsetto that turns his face to rubber. The crowd is enthralled and amused. Edwards pulls his shirt up in deference to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and wiggles his butt.
"Now, that's karaoke," says Rebecca Jeram, sneaking out of the lounge just as her friends begin waving their song slip. I couldn't agree more.
By Silke Tudor