Nanci Bushrow, co-host of Showcase Karaoke, paces in front of the packed lounge in a western button-up shirt, sternly shaking her permed, blonde head like a teacher scolding an uncooperative class.
"Where are the balls tonight?" the trim, late-40s emcee demands. It's early into her set, and the performers have been singing mellow love songs as the ice slowly melts in their drinks.
A young man in a muscle shirt takes the stage. Staring at his boots, he begins to sing Eric Clapton's "Layla," mumbling his way through the chorus: "You got me on my knees / Layla, I'm begging, darling, please."
Bushrow motions for the hapless entertainer to drop. "Get down on your knees, sucker!" she orders.
He complies, and the room wakes up with whistles and applause.
Soon after, Bushrow organizes a line dance; throws back a shot; urges the crowd to "make some noise, dammit!"; throws back a shot; two-steps with an elderly cowboy and throws back another shot for good measure.
It's just another lively Saturday night at Tiny's Restaurant & Lounge, an old-school family establishment where the assortment of kitsch memorabilia gleaming behind the bar embodies the variety found within the ranks of karaoke diehards filling the room.
These are not your average drunk dilettantes giggling at the mic, but seasoned performers who rehearse beforehand and go out together many times a week to hone their skills at venues all across town.
Manny Godsey, a longtime KJ (karaoke jockey) known as DJ 3-D Entertainment, puts it succinctly: "The regulars are kind of like a family."
As Santa Fe experiences a karaoke renaissance, this family grows, fostering unlikely alliances. Where else can you find hardcore metalheads, drop-in politicians, feisty middle-aged women and reserved elderly locals sharing drinks, songs and stage-stories? Only karaoke clubs bring together such a signature mix of the quirky and the conventional. And because all are allowed to be themselves—or alternatively, escape themselves—the clan multiplies.
"I'm always broadening my friend circle through karaoke," Matticus Fooks Hellfather tells SFR one afternoon while taking a break from moving a friend's hot tub. It's an unlikely statement for a burly, tattooed man in his 30s who leads a semi-fictitious cult known as "The Unholy Order of Slaves to the Enraged Masturbating Axe God," but it exemplifies karaoke's "Come as You Are" spirit.
Hellfather commutes from Pojoaque during the week to work in a Santa Fe wood finishing shop. He lists shooting crossbow, grilling meat and singing "obnoxious '80s metal songs" among his hobbies.
"Nobody sings a Natalie Merchant song and gets people to go batshit," Hellfather says. "If you sing Twisted Sister, it's another story." But, he adds, "Not everyone can sing metal, and the ones who can, actually work at it. It's very much like opera, where you really have to practice singing a lot in your car."
He emits a quick grunt of laughter, reflecting upon the comparison.
Hellfather, who estimates he's been performing for over 10 years, has devised a methodology when it comes to stepping into the spotlight: "I clear my mind to make [performing] less stressful, pound a couple beers and sing something that I've never done. I often like to pick songs that I hate and make complete mockeries of them and get everyone laughing."
This satirical spirit is reflected in his cult's dogma, which he describes as "basically a lot of tomfoolery."
"I'm no L Ron Hubbard, or Jim Jones," he modestly concedes, but "I'm always disappointed by so-called satanic cults because they never do anything that evil...You never hear them talking about blowing up the world or enslaving everyone to Satan's will."
Enter the EMAG (Enraged Masturbating Axe God), Hellfather's creation.
"He's basically hell-bent on destroying the universe, planet by planet," Hellfather says, "and he has chosen me to be his representative on this planet so I can then be promoted to destroy other ones."
When asked for a physical description, the cult leader says, "I've actually got a picture on Facebook of the EMAG that I made out of Play-Doh. He's holding a giant axe in one hand." What the enraged deity is doing with the other hand leaves nothing to the imagination.
Despite his commitment to leading the Unholy Order ("people have actually joined," he says, "but I don't have an official registry"), Hellfather still manages to find time for karaoke.
He's not alone. Godsey says that recently, he's noticed a boom in karaoke's popularity among Santa Feans.
"Now, I host four nights of karaoke a week," he says. His spots include Low 'n Slow Lowrider Bar at Hotel Chimayó, the Elks Lodge, the Fraternal Order of Police and the VFW, all of which maintain a distinct atmosphere.
Godsey, whose heavy-lidded brown eyes and Zen tranquility bring to mind a northern New Mexican Forest Whitaker, has been a DJ and KJ for over a decade. He speaks with SFR one Tuesday night at Low 'n Slow before, as he puts it, "things get popping."
The Jack Parsons lowrider photographs lining the walls define Low ‘n Slow’s usually laid-back atmosphere.
Despite the hotel bar’s sleek, reserved ambiance, Low ‘n Slow draws rowdy regulars for Tuesday and Thursday karaoke nights. Godsey says it’s one of his most “up-tempo” venues, along with the FOP (where he sometimes alternates hosting duties with Michele Leidig, another popular local KJ).
The FOP is across town from Low ‘n Slow on a dirt drive off Airport Road, and it maintains a certain wildness despite its fraternal allegiance. On a recent Friday night, dense, eye-watering smoke fills the linoleum-topped bar, where every table was cluttered with $2.25 bottles of Miller High Life. A cigarette dispenser stands in one corner, while in the other, antiquated slot and video poker machines peek through grated windows from a partitioned members-only “gaming room.”
Drinking Clamato Cheladas at the bar, a gregarious grandmother of three attempts to identify patrons for SFR’s benefit, as they serenade the room with a string of classic country and Elvis hits. In addition to a few gentlemen who she says loved her back in high school, the woman’s slurred list includes several retired police officers, a firefighter and a lawyer from the District Attorney’s office.
Back at Low ‘n Slow, Godsey explains that such variety helps keep things interesting. During the day, Godsey works as a pre-K teacher in Nambé.
“Got the day job, and the nightlife to meet people and check out the scene,” he explains. It’s a Jekyll/Hyde arrangement that proliferates throughout the local karaoke community; Godsey, for instance, reports significant growth in his fan base during the recent state legislative session.
There were “a lot of regulars from the Legislature,” he says. “It was so funny, [seeing] them up there in suits just singing and dancing.”
Though Godsey recalls a substantial list of legislators who took the stage, few were willing to go on the record about their experiences. The exception was State Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Bernalillo.
“I like going to karaoke,” the enthusiastic freshman admits over the phone, “but the vibe has to be right.”
The vibe was certainly right one memorable Wednesday night at the Palace Restaurant & Saloon.
“I sang The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go,’ and it was very well-received,” O’Neill remembers. Over the phone, he shares a bit of Joe Strummer’s charisma, though of the sort developed in the boardroom rather than the barroom.
“The problem was, the next day I didn’t have a voice,” he says. “For the rest of the session, I couldn’t talk, which is hard when you are in the role of legislator.”
A trip to the doctor revealed extenuating circumstances.
“I had laryngitis, and it coincided with The Clash song,” O’Neill explains.
It’s fitting that, as a public servant, O’Neill was willing to forfeit his own health for the greater good, but self-sacrifice is surprisingly routine in karaoke bars, where a singer can gain as much favor for a horrific performance as for a show-stopper.
This double standard creates a welcoming, egalitarian atmosphere, one that’s further enhanced by the fluctuating boundary between audience and performer.
Bar staff sing regularly throughout the night at Low ‘n Slow, where SFR overheard one unnamed sous chef recount an experience when this boundary was breached. Halfway through his signature piece, “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred, the chef said he was approached by an overexuberant, drunken out-of-towner who couldn’t resist stripping off his clothes while he sang.
Now, he is too sexy for the stage, preferring to sing that particular number from behind the bar with a wireless mic.
Though she’s never stripped or been stripped onstage, lifelong singer Edie Gonzales knows the value of audience participation.
“People will think you’re great if you make them feel great,” she tells SFR.
On a spring evening at Tiny’s, clad in flowing black garments, Gonzales sauntered between full tables while belting out “Mustang Sally,” holding the mic up to different patrons so they could sing (with various degrees of skill and enthusiasm) the refrain: “Ride, Sally, ride.”
At each instrumental break, she shook her long, dark hair furiously, pumped her fists and shouted, “I’m 60 years old!” to a howling audience.
Gonzales always strives “to entertain people and give them an opportunity to feel they are part of the performance.” Her philosophy has paid off—she once won a trip to Las Vegas, Nev., and another time, a $1,000 cash prize.
The veteran singer grew up in Santa Fe, where she was “soaked and marinated in the local Hispanic culture, which included lots of music—music in the home, music on the Plaza, music in church, music for all family gatherings.”
Despite such exposure to music, Gonzales’ opportunities for sharing her own vocal gifts were limited.
“In my day and culture, the performing arts were not considered a viable option as a career,” she says. “So, what do us oldies but goodies do with our talent? We go to karaoke!”
It’s not just the oldies but goodies who love karaoke, which owes some of its popularity to its accessibility and versatility. In addition to portable machines and integrated bar systems, there are video games like SingStar (20 million copies sold), smartphone apps and even karaoke taxi companies that ensure your ride home is a stellar one, popping up in cities from New York to Chico, Calif.
In Japan, where karaoke was first invented in 1971 (the word is a contraction of two Japanese words: “empty” and “orchestra”), so-called karaoke boxes are the norm. These private rooms allow small groups to sit with their own TV, microphones and songbook, away from the prying eyes and ears of strangers.
Despite its 40-plus-year history, karaoke’s popularity in Santa Fe is a more recent phenomenon.
“I wish they’d have had karaoke here back in the 1980s,” aficionado Stephen Houser says one night before heading over to Tiny’s. “I would have had a very different life, I think.”
Houser fits into the “mainstay” category of regular. He is a large man with a soft, clear voice. There are few nights when the middle-aged Native American is not out poring over songbooks, filling out cards for the KJ and mouthing the lyrics along with the onstage performer.
“I just want to have fun. It’s not a competition,” he says.
Singing Ringo Starr’s “You’re 16” at the Palace one night, Houser stands out under the spotlight, his white T-shirt silhouetted against the dark red damasked walls. Though facing KJ Leidig’s glowing blue TV screen with its scrolling lyrics, he sings from memory, his eyes closed and his head gently undulating to the music.
Houser rarely picks the same song twice. In fact, he often makes selections with the audience, rather than himself, in mind. His repertoire includes everything from “Oops! ...I Did It Again,” by Britney Spears, to “Windy,” by 1960s soft-rock stars The Association.
“It’s not a matter of me being good, exactly; it’s about me being good enough to let people know how good the song is,” Houser says.
The unassuming singer is the son of famed artist Allan Houser, whose work is housed in major collections around the world, including the Smithsonian and the Japanese Royal Museum.
“It was a special time back in the 1960s and ’70s,” Housers recalls of his years growing up in Santa Fe.
“Native Arts began to get respect. It was great. I was really into music and all this stuff, and I thought I was going to do something in the arts for a living. Then my father got super-famous.”
Growing up in an arts-immersive household, the younger Houser developed an early interest in singing, filmmaking and writing (he published a short story at age 17, after winning a national magazine competition).
However, people who hear Houser sing are often surprised that his only formal musical training occurred in elementary school choir.
“In grade-school choir, we sang ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ ‘Love is Blue’ and ‘The Sound of Silence,’ among other things,” he says. “We toured around, and I always wanted to solo, but I didn’t really know how to sing, [so] I never got to do that.”
Partly as a result of never getting his chance to shine, Houser’s musical aspirations were put on hold. He explored other interests in life, but never totally gave up on music.
“I just sang on my own—alone, pretty much, in my room or in my car—for a long, long time,” he says.
The many hours Houser spent singing in his car eventually paid off, as is the case (according to Hellfather) with opera singers. These days, Houser solos many times a week on the stage of his choice.
On a typical weekend, he can be found at Tiny’s, sitting with other members of the karaoke family at a drink- and song-card-strewn table. Such a night might open with Hellfather screeching out “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” followed by O’Neill sacrificing his lungs to “Secret Agent Man” before Gonzales gets the room to swoon with “Proud Mary.”
Then, before everyone goes in separate ways, Houser might finish things off with a heartfelt rendition of one of his favorites, La Cage aux Folles ’ “I Am What I Am.”
The show tune is a particularly apt selection for someone who says he abandoned a career in the arts in part because of the pressure: “It’s like there’s this idea that you have to be somebody, like you have to create an image of who you are,” Houser says.
Karaoke, on the other hand, with its implicit acceptance of all people as they are, offers the ultimate paradox. It is the place where someone like Houser—by imitating stars and icons past and present—can also be his most authentic self.
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