Nov/Dec 1999 Editorials

The Wooden Bucket

by Tom Dooley


I never would've thought it possible, but I have discovered the joys of karaoke.

When my friend Joe first invited me to the Wooden Bucket on a Thursday night back in August, I went because I wanted to drink a beer and hang out with a friend. I had no intentions of singing or becoming a "Bucket" regular. But it's been two months, and I'm hooked.

By day, I'm a usually mild-mannered English teacher. By night, or at least, every Thursday night, I transform into Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, or John Lennon, depending on the mood that strikes me.

I know what you're thinking. Karaoke isn't cool anywhere outside of maybe Tokyo. And I'll be the first to confess some reservations about the whole thing. As much as I've come to look forward to my Thursday night diversions, I have no desire to expand to other nights of the week. I won't be growing a handlebar mustache, buying a maroon leather sport coat, carrying around my own singalong cd's. I do know of people who run a regular circuit of karaoke bars though. It seems each bar has its own night of the week staked out, so that the really dedicated performers can do what amounts to a weekly tour.

With all due respect to everyone involved, the Wooden Bucket languishes in the karaoke backwaters of Tucson. It's not generally a place where young professionals and college students go to celebrate life and blow off steam, in the process lending themselves to a jubilant rendition of YMCA. Neither are there too many of the top-shelf karaoke singers on their weekly tours--there's a bigger and better gig across town on Thursday nights. Which means there are instead ten or twelve regulars and their friends, many of whom can't sing worth beans. Some of us can't even carry a tune. Which is kinda cool. It's a friendly, supportive atmosphere, where the goal is mostly to have a laid-back, fun time.

Witness the guy I'll call Zeke. He sings "Love Me Tender" every week in a muffled monotone. He has some kind of disability, so he can't keep up with the words on the screen. Truth is, he sounds... well, he sounds like someone who's stoned out of his mind and recovering from a three day drunk. When newcomers hear him for the first time, you can see them mouthing "What the hell?!" to themselves, but Zeke is an essential part of the Wooden Bucket karaoke experience. The unspoken message: if Zeke can get up there and sing, then so can you.

It was Zeke who made me succumb on the very first night. I figured, what the hell? No one except my friend Joe knew me there, and Joe had just finished doing "Okie from Moskogee." Why not give it a try? Luckilly, I picked a song that was mostly in my limited range.

I can tell you from experience that there are few things in everyday life more ignoble than getting up to sing karaoke and realizing one line into the song that it's nowhere near your range. You try to go high and your voice cracks. You try to go low, and you can't find the notes. You're warbling back and forth, and you're amplified, and you're in a bar. You try to hand the mic back and get them to stop the song, but suddenly everyone's clustering around you like it's the end of an AA meeting, giving you support and urging you to finish the song out. This is why, for self-conscious non-singers like myself, it's nice to find a low-key establishment like the Bucket.

It is, however, an equally UP-lifting feeling when you find a song you can sing. For a few moments, you're the center of an intoxicating whirlpool of sound and expression. It's cool man, it's cool. One night after I tore through "Georgia on My Mind," the deejay guy (they're called K-Jay's, naturally) said I was the Alanis Morrisette of men. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Recently though, my true identity was revealed to the other Bucket regulars. My cover was blown. It seems one of my students has a sister-in-law who also goes there on Thursday nights, and when they figured out what was going on, the sister-in-law told everyone who I was when she had the mic. Now they call me "Mr. Dooley" and giggle behind my back. Which I have to admit has stifled my creativity a bit.

I've taken to singing less and drinking more, and busying myself with playing pool and darts. I still do three songs a night though. I try to do two new ones and one that I know I can do reasonably well. It's hell to walk out the door after a particularly awful performance, so I try to end on a positive note.

The playing pool and darts has gotten me into another mess. Last week I was playing with this guy, and he turned out to be a major gangster and criminal. He's thirty-two years old, and after two ex-wives, several jail sentences, and major debt for legal fees and such, he's trying to straighten himself out a bit. So he goes to the Wooden Bucket to keep himself out of trouble (as I mentioned, there isn't a whole lot of action taking place in this joint).

All of which was fine until our last conversation, when he suddenly looked at me funny and asked if I was a cop. It made sense that he would ask. I do look a little bit like one. I've been playing pool and darts with him for a few weeks, and he's been telling me all kinds of stuff about his life. Why wouldn't I be some undercover agent, posing as a karaoke singer / English teacher? I assured him I wasn't, but I felt pretty weird about it. Like I was lying, somehow. It was all too perfect. I'm hoping he doesn't decide to ambush me some Thursday night to "tie up loose ends."

This morning, when I went to the store, I saw Zeke gathering carts in the parking lot. I smiled and said "Hi," but he looked uncomfortable and turned away. It was like a scene out of the movie Fight Club. The first rule of karaoke night at the Wooden Bucket: don't talk about karaoke night at the Wooden Bucket. I guess in a way we're all leading double lives, those of us who dare to pick up that mic.


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