Joan Connor is a full professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Ohio University. Her first two collections of short stories, Here on Old Route 7 and We Who Live Apart, were published by the University of Missouri Press. Her third collection of short stories, History Lessons (University of Massachusetts Press), won the AWP award for short fiction. Joan is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council fellowship, the John Gilgun award, the Ohio Writer award in fiction and nonfiction, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Colony.
Here he comes. He's got all the moves. All the moves down pat. Why, he's as slinky as a polyester print, as high as a Hawaii-slap-me-five-o. His palm fronded shirt eases through the crowds with the grace of an oil slick. His fans are legion. He's the man, the music man, the man who makes every mark a star. Every wish on a star a dream come true. Canned magic. He's got it all—the discs, the lyrics, the TelePrompTer, the wanna-be bag of dreams and wishes. He's the one, the Santa If-Clause. What if, what if Clause.
How much stardust does it take to make a star-man shine? He's got it in his bag, whatever it takes. What if it took no talent, barely any at all, to shine, to burst into song and starlight for three minutes, every white dwarf a supernova—baby, I'm gonna make you a star? Would you like to sing from a star? Then shine right here, shine on, shine on harvest moondog.
He's got the patter and the platters. He can spin matter from antimatter. He cans the songs; he cans the songs. Got the country, r & b, got the rock and roll, got the folkies for the fading boomer blooms, the rap, the happenin' hiphop, the brand X for gen-x, every decade for every guitar-licking wizard and top-forty lounge lizard, got honky tonk and honky, easy hokey, and the hokey-pokey. Scat and the Alley Cat. Zydeco, SKA, Hava Nagila, TEX-MEX, novelty, cigs and swigs for the Irish jigs, and Hark the Herald Christmas carols. Name it; he's got it, and it's all by request. Like a music doctor making house calls, and the stethoscope's copacetic, room temp. Scope-aesthetic. Mercy.
So make way for the K. Move aside for the shlock-doctor, K-MAN, because here he comes, glad-handing, teeth grinning emcee-pearly-gated, back-slap-happy, okey-dokey, oh, you kid, in-jokey: yours truly, Mr. Karaoke.
Who invented original spin?
The original spin doctor himself. The MD. of CD's. Please. A big, big hand for the Karaoke Man.
And there he stands on Friday nights in towns from Tokyo to the Poconos soothing and smoothing, cajoling and consoling spinning the discs, adjusting the mix, rolling the lyrics and the licks, scazzing the intro.'s, pegging the segues, funking with the drunks, keeping it rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.
Okay, it ain't art, or I'm a monkey's Garfunkle. But it's something, something to fill the time between first call and last, check-in and blackout, strifing with the wife and waltzing the last chance dance. It ain't art, but it's a diversion for all the Spice cake girls and lingering malingering Elvises and Tom (Got A Bad) Jones, the rolling clones, and the shake-the-lead outta their shoes zeppelins stumbling down the stairway to heaven.
It's got a good beat, and you can't dance to it. But Karaoke Man wears a huge industrial strength grin. He's nice. Professional nice. Nice the way a hit man is professional, nice as ice. Drunks can elbow his equipment, slur the tunes, heckle and jackal, but he's the bland leading the blind. Stays nice as vanilla pudding, just as smooth. Ever try to agitate tapioca? That's Karaoke Man. But without the lumpy pearls, girls. He's so cool, he's tepid.
So he primes the spinster girl groups and helps fat Elvis settle on the stool to croon the room tender, swoon the room true while his breadtruck driving butt oozes like yeasty dough over the sides of the stool, flubbers toward his off key-knees. Would make the teeth ache if there were a sober-tooth in the house. And maybe that one blonde farm boy, one who comes every week to glean whatever bottle-bleached thatch he can at last call when the girlfriend's up at the parents' retirement home, maybe that one actually summons a moment or two, strikes a heart-breaking note : a different town, a fresher taste, an un-rummaged shirt, a decent backup band. With that tenor, maybe that farm-boy could have made it without the K-man. But for the moment, the bar lulled, it's all about never-ever land, the outback of the wanna-be's and never-will's. Karaoke Man's the dream machine, the delusion factory, the king of boogats and ersatz, a handyman of dreams, the peddler of seems. And they lap it up like Sloe Gin fizzes and seven-and-seven's. They love it.
He's the fame game host with the most. No harm done. It's played for fun. Low stakes and no mistakes. They wake up sober in the morning. Victims of the victim-less scam and everybody still in love with the Son of Sham.
And in the oui hours, K-man still gets to dance with all the pretty girls from France, doing the horizontal cancan, I think I can. I think I can. The little K-man who could and did and did and did. The mais oui hours—Mother may I? And come again. The best part being that maybe you're not booked for another gig a month or two months down the road for the roadhouse, and, by then. mademoiselle was laying new track for locomotion. All aboard. So he rarely got de-railed. Not the K-man.
Of course, it wasn't all glamorous. There were the drunks with their stove-toed boots spiking the speakers and clobbering the mike, screaming earnestly in Garblish, with that wilding look like God just handed them a decoder ring only to have the holy ghost fly out the crackerjack box to fuck things up by forcing them to speak in tongues. Moved by the spirits and removed.
And there were the angry husbands and jilted joy-boys or the guys who were just angry like they'd been handed a raw deal. K-man called them, the butchers. Blood-thirsty pissed and nowhere any meat. And hadn't they maybe been handed a raw deal—stuck with a fat stupid wife who couldn't figure out how to use a rolling pin, hair looking like one of those formerly pink fuzzy slippers stuffed in the back of some closet hadn't been cleaned since people liked Ike and wondered what lit Liberace's candelabra. Had some shitty job in a gypsum pit or mining lime, some real sorry-ass minimum-rage job only to be laid off right before freaking Christmas and every card maxed into figures that looked like the Pentagon's budget for hammers. Then some hammy clown whose all fake cheery-loud, louder than his screaming-meemies shirt comes waltzing in and wooing all the linty-haired wives gooey in their pleathered seats. Hell, Karaoke Man can't blame them; he'd hate himself too. Because he had the power, the right-as-Midas touch to turn shit into Shinola before it reverted to type. And K-man blameless slid, as he always did, out the back door. Packing it in. No roadies. Occasionally a groupie. But he, scot-free, no flies on me. The K as in Karaoke. Goodnight, okie. And he slid like a slinky into the inky hours splotching before the dawn. Driving by starlight, ambulating with all the other nocturnals, the coons and porkies and screechers, to sleep the day vampirishly away, the hours like a bat's hung upside down. It was a living and, on the whole, a life.
But it had its downside. Like when you met a class act, not one of the queens of the canned cheese club. The real thing, a little black dress, a string of pearls cast before wine, and you're trying to explain what you do—you're the Karaoke Man.
Karaoke, yes, she saw it once spelled out on the Holiday Inn marquee, thought that it was some kind of Cajun food, like blackened rabbit with okra. Karaoke tonight. Skip that. She's a salad girl. Leafy greens. Lettuce pray!
And you explain, "No, karaoke, entertainment industry."
And she stares, just stares with eyes, a gaze about as comfortable as sitting on a divan of dry ice.
You clarify for her.
Proprietors of public halls pay you to play DJ for drunks who lip-synch to pop songs.
You nod happily. K-man's cruising. By George, she's got it.
And she's laughing one of those sequiny, tingly high laughs that you can't believe anyone laughs until you hear one for the first time, feels like a slipped disc keyboard-tinkling up your spine.
She's got to see it to believe.
And she accompanies you to the next gig. You're a little wiggy, wiggly with excitement but having a sad hair day. Oh yeah, she watches you, staring through the haze of no-frills smoke and sodden as slug drunks. Sprinkle them with salt and they'd puddle-bubble to the floor except they won't always re-form, as is the way with slugs.
The luscious lushes. Bodies with spines, pure fluid. Slam-poetry in motion. Slo-mo. Slo-etry. Reciting slug poems: sloems.
And even in the fright light of the bar you can read the neon in her eyes: END OF DATE.
She shakes your hand at the oui hour, says, Non. It was very interesting. Thank you. The car door slam-bam and no thank you K-man. You're a sociological study, a bug on a pin. Pierced earwig. Field work. Very interesting. And you drive through the wee hours, wee wee all the way home. Bruised, missing the little black dress. I vant to bite you in the class structure.
But by morning, K-man comes around again. K-man always come round again, bad penny, number one hit. The cat came back. Class-tea-and-ass doesn't know what she's missing. He's the K-man. He put the k in okay. Put the soul in blue-eyed souls and soles in the blue-suede shoes. Put the corn in country before it was cool, the dread in dreadlocks, the shock in shock rock. Got the boogie woogie blues to his bad, bad bones.
She will never know. How could she ever cop the K, read the K-man? Girl who wears sincere culottes. Wears unfacetious loafers. With pennies. Newly minted. No hothouse Daisy Buchanan would ever comprehend the kilo-wattage of the K. Loose lip-synchs sink ships. What did she know? Besides Latin and brand names? He was the K-man. Unsinkable. Unflappable. Unstoppable.
K—the stand-out letter of the alphabet, with that arm outstretched and the leg, a letter with places to go and people to see, a veritable walking stick. Speak softly and... That was the K and little did she know, little did any of them know about the rest of it. His covert ops. His secret self, his alternate life. K as in mild mannered. K as in ClarK Kent. He, K-man, the king of Karaoke. Were they truly so blind? Did they really not see the K-man poised to fly on the vertiginous precipice of y2K. Y2K, why NOT 2K? It was K-man, man of the millennial hour come round at last. On the verge of the new millennium, he was iconic, man, superhero of the zeroes. 2-zero-zero-zero and all the zeroes in the binary codes gone goose. Gone bust.
But who was K-man? What was his mission?
The split gene in the machine. The man who makes the scene. Mission: fission. A fait accompli. Already in like Flynn. And out again. He had no drive to replicate himself, not the K. He was already here, there, and everywhere. The little black dresses could hold him in contempt, but they could not hold him down. Like Chicken-Man he was everywhere. Clogging the channels, spamming the arteries, choking the charts, grid-locking the information highways. Talking to himself in the third person, so there'd be endless versions of the versions and reversions of K-man everywhere. Like smog. Like air. Rehearsing the tune, mi mi mi. Me, me. Meme: K-man, an idea whose time had come.
Sure, the fad would pass. The trend would end. But K-man was already virally spiraling up the ladder of the DNA, subliminal messaging the media everywhere. What'cha doin' Marshall McLuhan?
K-man, he got all the moves; I got all the moves. You want to be an actor; then act like an actor acts. A writer? Then look like the man who writes the book. Better yet, talk the talk. Talk the talk about the book. Some air time and you're primed for prime time. Head of state. Just look the look. Right head of hair; you're there. Do late night. Do late night with everyone. Everyone's doing late night. Everyone's doing me. K-man is crowding the stage. Life's an infomercial and K-man is Everyman. 'Cilla, ain't no originals on the stage but me. The original K. Number one. The rest are just impersonators impersonating the Grand Impersonator who is K-man, who is me. The Great Pretender.
Don't slam the K. You can't slam the door. K-man's been jammin' there before. There ain't no there there anymore. Just the Big K, already there, picking out your dishes, your family-values room decor, your thought patterns and co-ordinating disposable eye colors.
I'm Kismet. I'm Karma. I'm already in your linen closets and lingerie drawers. In your daughters' bunk beds and your condom foils. The beat so sweet it can't be beat. I can your music and your cheese. I help your hamburger. I write your speeches. You don't have to blink or think. I am your Alpha and Omega, your bigwig and your bigot. Your Jughead and egghead. The best thing since reconstituted bread. Like Kilroy was, K-man is here. Right here, here, in your head, to rock your world. The jingle you can't stop singing, the hit single you can't shake. I'm choosing all the mood music. The rest of you just hum along. And if you can't carry a tune, don't fret. No sweat. Just mouth it, mouth it, mouth it. Everybody now, Mouth it.