PITTSBURGH AND THE KARAOKE NINJA
Because I didn't want anything horrible to happen to Astrid, I decided I would participate in a blog-writing tonight on her behalf. Go to her website - it's a riot. And Astrid, I have to ask...in an itinerary that includes Egypt, Iceland, Morocco and Florida twice...what the f*ck were you doing in Pittsburgh? Did you not know? You must not have known, poor thing. If any of you have not been to Pittsburgh and are considering traveling there (or have not been and are not considering traveling there, a much better mindset) I warn you in this way: I have lived in Pittsburgh, and it is, in one word, severely disappointing. That was two words but I had to add that modifier. How disappointing? Here's an appropriate analogy: it's like dying, floating up to Heaven and finding out that, behind the Pearly Gates is...Pittsburgh.
Thanks for visiting Astrid, and no need to laud me for boosting your site's hit counter by four.
For my post tonight I'm going to detail for you one of my favorite activities in life - visiting my favorite bar in Los Angeles. It's special for many things, but none more important that a tiny man with a big, big heart. Incidentally, I apologize to Devon who has already been emailed this story and perhaps read the bulk of it - it's going to be a near word-for-word repeat.
If you live in the greater Los Angeles metroplex you can easily find Amagi by traveling down to the dodgy (read: Hollywood) end of Sunset and hooking a right on Gower, entering the Gower Gulch shopping complex (read: hooker-infested strip mall) and looking up. You'll know Amagi when you see it; they have just hung a banner over the door that reads "THE NUMBER ONE KARAOKE CLUB IN LA!" Perhaps that's a bit of a stretch in terms of the populous and those vague numbers that economists refer to as "revenue", but Amagi is clearly #1 in the minds and souls of the devoted few who trek there at least twice a month. Namely...me and four other people. Now there are two ways to enjoy Amagi. The first is as a sushi restaurant. I've never dined so I can't vouch for its quality, but I will say that if you go there on a weekend night and you're not Asian you will be the only one. That's not to say there's a conspiracy or something wrong with that, but for some reason they tend to congregate there (and seem to attract an utterly artrocious band - don't make me explain).
Let's move on.
The other (and best) way to enjoy Amagi is to hit the door just to the left of the restaurant and head into the bar. How might one describe Amagi? Dive. It is a dive bar. The tables teeter. The chairs stack on each other at the end of the night - and some even fold for easy closet storage. Every expense has been spared. The karaoke machine is ancient and looks like something that was an accidentally created by the people who worked on the original EasyBake Oven. The mics could turn Kelly Clarkson into a roaring dragon scraping at the world's largest chalkboard. Having said that, it's easy to surmise that the talent pool here is below that of the shallow end of a pool that someone has relieved their bladder in. But this is the lifeblood of Amagi, the only entertainment other than an occasional birthday troupe of the sight of Yours Truly projectile vomiting in the Ladies' washroom. And yes, the beer is cheap and the lone bartender slings 'em with reckless abandon until the click before 2 AM.
But what truly makes Amagi a special place is the presence of one man and one man alone. He stands roughly 5'4". He wears a long black do-rag. He fits snugly into a tight black shirt and handsomely into black slacks. He is at Amagi - seriously now, no joke here - seven nights a week. He sings between four and seven songs every night, depending on the size of the crowd, without question. His means of employment are unknown. He drinks no alcohol and only occasionally tips back a cold bottle of water. He is Asian, and at first you might think, on any given weekend night, that he's mistakenly wandered into the wrong part of the establishment. But you would be wrong.
His name is Steve. That is a fact you will forget immediately.
He will forever be known as the Karaoke Ninja.
I would love to take credit for that label but sadly it is attributed by my buddy Gabe the Wandering Jew, who made Amagi his home bar almost the moment he moved to Los Angeles about a year ahead of me. He introduced me to the glory that is the Ninja. Let me explain.
Steve can't sing very well. You might take the story I'm about to tell you as making fun of this man, but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. He is, without fail, the unequivocal best part of my week every time I step into Amagi. We're now on a handshake/head-nod basis, and that's as close as I feel comfortable getting to this cultural icon. Because it's not the quality of his voice - it's the size of his heart the unabashed passion with which he performs his craft.
His voice might be described as a raspy, low-tone Axl Rose, and thus might explain the fact that he tries to make his closer each night NOVEMBER RAIN. He usually starts off pretty mellow and then finds the right part of the song to work himself into a whirling timebomb of talent and expression. He is not afraid to open up the throat and let out manly amounts of emphatic, confirming screeching. His song choices are carefully pieced together based on the material others are choosing during the night. And just to take it to the next level? If he feels the room is ready and the timing right, he will not hesitate to interpretively sing the guitar solos to any given song. He will not hesitate. Let that sink in. Not enough? It's not quite humming and it's not quite singing - it's huminging. Perhaps you have to be there to understand.
But the true power of the Ninja isn't realized until you see the reaction of the crowd to this man. So powerful. Such stage presence. The screen that feeds the words? Doesn't f*cking need it. He knows each of his favorites by heart, this one. And when the denizens of this dank den get into the melody...well, friends, it's all over. People stand and cheer. They rise to their feet on chairs. They dance before the stage. They slowly wave lit lighters back and forth in a sign of supreme acceptance. Imagine Michael Jackson, in his prime, except playing in a dingy karaoke bar for tens instead of a packed stadium in Moscow before more than 100,000. But that level of sheer intensity. Of unbridled enthusiasm. Of divine unity.
Oh you might think I'm joking, friends, but I can assure you that I am no less serious than a Britney Spears rectal polyp. Here's a running count of the his playlist from this past Saturday and some commentary on each choice:
1. PURPLE RAIN - As a singer he makes Prince look like Prince, but in terms of audience participation, sex appeal and overall mindbending goodness, the Ninja cannot be touched. Already on the first song he's screaming into the second chorus, and after a few moments of shock (clearly form the raw energy emanating from every Ninja pore) several in the audience are on their feet in approval. Anyone who is not singing along is dragged out into the back alley, beaten, and turned into Sushi for the neighboring diners. The cover concludes with several people asking themselves, quietly, if they've just witnessed the Second Coming of Christ Our Savior. Those people will eventually come to the mostly-assured conclusion that they hadn't, but in some miniscule, seldom-utilized section in the back of their minds that even the strongest faith can taint, they'll also forever wonder.
2. NOVEMBER RAIN - The Ninja does appear to have a certain proclivity towards songs about rain, and I have to think that, had a guy/girl duo not launched into NO RAIN by Blind Melon mere minutes before this song we'd be talking about a Precipitation Trifecta. Thankfully his climate-driven ideology does not take him down the dark road that leads to covers of Snow (the early 90's white Canadian rapper with a faux Jamaican accent for those of you who forgot, never knew, or blocked out in a fit of sheer survival instinct) material. In any case, people are immediately on their feet and don't let up on the singing. I am literally hoarse by the end of the performance and resort to chugging more beer to keep my own karaoke hopes alive. Sadly, I find that Nathan and I are the next up (to sing TWO PRINCES by the Spin Doctors, a pick I was originally worried about but has NEVER failed to bring down the house) and seriously...how do you follow that?
3. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY - And this is where the night starts to get special. I don't think I need to explain to you that this song is f*cking Karaoke Gold (TM). Add to that the extreme blend of fiery, harmonious balladiering he's already unleashed upon us tonight and...well, let's just say that someone's pants were nearly soiled in delight. I only wished I still had my long locks with which to properly headbang. It can't get better from here.
4. I DON'T WANT TO MISS A THING - Oh, but it has. What a pleasant, unbelievable, surprising gift this one was. Now you might be saying, "Hold on there, partner Geoff. How can you say that going from classic Queen fare to the main track from a movie starring Ben Affleck is a step up in the process?" Consider several things: the inevitable female gravitation towards the song; the numerous chances to match Tyler's impossible screaming interludes; the necessary step down to improve the reception of the finale; people on several different kinds of beer, cocktails, and mood-altering drugs. A step down? I think not. I have officially lost my mind at this point, causing my brain to revert to stored energy to keep my bodily functions in check. Some very affected young lady throws her thong on stage.
OK, OK...they were boxer briefs and it was me. And the Ninja refused, which I think was the right thing to do.
5. SWEET CHILD O' MINE - Look, there are two ways to close out the night - SWEET CHILD or LIVIN' ON A PRAYER; the latter is mysteriously and frighteningly absent from the Amagi catalogue, so G&R it is. If you can't bring either home you don't deserve to hold a $4.99 microphone in your hand; get the f*ck up on out. The Ninja can bring it home, of course, and bring it home he did. People either didn't notice or refused to acknowledge that the woman who was manning the CD players was stacking chairs around them while he bore his soul. Everyone on their feet. When he begins huminging the final solo you know that you've reached Nirvana. There's nowhere else to go. There's nothing else to prove. It's all been said, done, and signed in unerasable pen. Get out while you still have the will to live the next day knowing that the Ninja will always be out there, one step ahead of you...and just a better man.
People who go to Amagi for the first time eventually leave the bar with the same wallet, the same Driver's License, the same haircut, the same set of clothes with which they walked through the doors earlier in the evening. But despite their outward appearance they are not the same person inside. Something beautiful and mystical has been unlocked and is growing inside them, giving them not only a greater appreciation for life but a sense that all is right with the world. One man. One do-rag. One microphone. One audience, united and standing free.
Again, you might think I'm being sarcastic or ironic or satirical. I wish I could share Amagi and the Ninja with all of you, but to fly all of my friends out here would require nearly 2 1/3 plane tickets, an expense I just can't float at this point. But I know you would see what I see. If you ever visit LA (or, God forbid, you live in LA and have never experienced a phenomenon like this) drop me a line and I will make sure you're there to see it for yourself. There is a 0% probability of disappointment from this venture. It is, as I like to call it, a mortal lock. Your world will be brighter. Your next breakfast will taste better than any meal you've ever eaten. The road will rise to meet you and the wind will blow fairly at your back.
We owe you one, Steve.