Monday, May 29, 2017

Melvis Is My Stage Name

Or How Karaoke Changed My Life (No. Really, Man)

The following contains Elvis impersonation and karaoke addiction.
You have been warned.

Czech Karaoke Championship
It began as a drunken experiment with me on a mic mumbling Elvis tunes. I wasn't like those loud and proud karaoke fools who throw their hearts and voices into it for the love of musical exhibitionism. I was with a group of fellow students in an Aussie bar in London. I was the class clown, so I had to get up there and damn the consequences. So I mumbled drunken Elvis with my mouth mashed on the mic. I know. How unsanitary. How many other drooling drunks had gone before me?

So along with the shared saliva and camaraderie of a communal microphone were the hazy memories of magnificent firsts: our first trip abroad, our first croaky karaoke, and for some of the group, their first time drinking legally whilst under 21. Hell, I think half of those kids only went on the London Semester trip so they could pub crawl at age 18. I was there because my photojournalism prof had fucked off on sabbatical, leaving me with a semester full of empty dreams and broken promises (or vice versa). Good enough reasons, one and all. And in that last minute Hail Mary pass at the sky, with a heart cracked and leaking purple piss and vinegar, I got on a plane. And my life changed forever.

Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow

Try something new. If you have no courage, pick up a glass and pour yourself some liquid courage. If you do not drink, don't want something new and are too shy to try, just give up and get into the gawd damned box. Darwin will erase your wimpy ass.

While the origin of karaoke is rather unimportant compared to its awesome power to free your soul, consider Japan. Kara = empty and oke = orchestra. They not only invented the fucking thing, they made it a required social outing for managers and employees of large companies. I can only imagine the hours spent before work doing jumping jacks and push-ups, followed by 10 hours of mind-numbing, robotic labor, followed by being forced to sing 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' in front of the entire day shift. This was the original corporate team building exercise. It was also a way to separate the men from the boys during promotion time. If you could not do your jumping jacks, pushups, robotic labor, heavy drinking AND singing your guts out—you might as well stick a ginsu in your gullet.

London Semester: Pub Crawls, Fish and Chips and Karaoke
(Punctuated by Occasional Inconvenient Studying)

The very first flight I'd ever taken was for my study abroad semester in London. I was still reeling from the jet-lag and the pub crawling when classes had finally commenced.

"You're late again, Craig," said the English teacher.

"Don't you mean, 'You, squire, are tardy once again?'" I might have said (It's all a blur. But I'm a smartass, so, yeah, I probably said that.)

As I slumped into my seat I definitely remember uttering what would become my mantra for the rest of the semester: 'This classroom shit is seriously fucking with my pub crawling schedule.'

So there you have it: the beginnings of my broad career as a wide body jetsetter (and functional alcoholic) began with the simple need to pub crawl in a slightly more interesting place than California. During that 5 months in London I learned a great deal: A) The people match their weather: cold, cloudy and dripping with sarcasm, B) Curry, C) Brits don't like Americans (who knew?) D) I wanted to travel and live abroad for the rest of my life. And I also learned an important life lesson that didn't involve curry spice or strong ale tolerance. My spastic, in-your-face social retardation could safely be channeled through a microphone. In public. A group of Aussie chicks were a-flutter. Our token lesbian student cried out 'You could make me switch!' to the shock of her roommates. I have it on video, so she should have an excellent career in politics.

A Praguelodyte and the Birth of Melvis

My microphone mumblings continued in Prague, Czech Republic (One half of The Artist Formerly Known As Czechoslovakia). I read somewhere that some people were going there. I heard that Prague had expat newspapers and websites just itching for writers and photographers. And the best part: even if you failed at that, you could always teach English. The only requirement to teach English in Prague in 1997 was to have an English-speaking tongue flopping around in your mouth. And since the local 'papers' paid DICK, I chose to teach. My first interview for a Prague language school went exactly like this:

Interviewer: "Are you a native speaker of English?"

Me: "Yes."

Interviewer: "Where are you from?"

Me: "California."

Interviewer: "Can you start tomorrow? We pay 200 crowns per hour."

Me: "I don't think that's enough time for me to prepare a lesson. Next week would be better."

Interviewer: "Can you start tomorrow? We pay 300 crowns per hour."

Me: "Preparation, schmeparation. I'll do it."

Melvis Beta
So when I wasn't showing up late to lessons or teaching students about the failed American Dream propaganda and the magic of my favorite dystopian films, I would further vent my spleen on the karaoke stage. This quickly became a habit and later, an addiction. When I knew I officially had a karaoke singing problem was when I paid a woman a hundred bux to sew me an Elvis costume. I was making about $200 per month in those days, so to spend half your monthly income for your singing habit is worthy of an intervention. But the Czech Karaoke Championship was coming up. I needed to dazzle them. Karaoke isn't about the best singer; it's about dazzling the crowd. And I was going to bedazzle a costume, wear a sequin encrusted belt, and thrust my pelvic prowess and fake karate moves at them, Viva Las Vegas style. I squeezed my belly into the white jumpsuit, pulled the zipper past my belly up to my sparse chest hair (pulling a few along the way), and Melvis was born.

The Big Night came. It was down to me and my rival, Johnny Night-train. All of the other mic-slingers had bitten the dust in the blare of stage lights and the screams of the crowd of hundreds. I went out there to unleash my final song, my crusher, my crowd pleaser, my heart breaker and life taker: Suspicious Fucking Minds. I wowed them, I wooed them, I got them clapping and howling, and when I kicked upwards and sideways with each crescendo, I knew I had the prize. And then the Night-train sidled up to the mic while I was huffing and puffing in my beer. The stage went dark. Then a spotlight hit him. Then he went full metal tranny on our asses and sang Like a Virgin. Like Madonna. It was freaky, seeing a tall man dressed in black rub his chest and wriggle like a serpent. Then he dropped to his knees, fairly fellating the mic and rubbing his nethers while squealing.

The rat bastard won. Madonna had kicked Melvis' ass in a fair fight. He was number one, and I was a big, fat, stinking hunk of burning number two.

Melvis 2.0: Berlin

Defeated, I dragged my lounge lizard ass to Berlin. A new town, full of promise: cheap rents, tons of feckless wanderers and creative types, a liberal loophole in conservative Germany. A new life for the serial expat and a tabula rasa in cyberspace for a new blog: Dunkin' Berliner. 2009 was a great time to live in Berlin. The vibe was easy, the rents were cheap, and the gentrification process was only in its infancy. The hipster beardbeast had not yet sunken its gluten free claws into the Berlin Bear. You could sit in a park all day grilling on portable grills and swilling from portable potables (like Sternberg export, at 40 cents per bottle, a perennial favorite of punks and cheapos like me). Then one day in Mauerpark, I heard a croon like a clarion call: karaoke on the horizon. I swaggered directly into the ultimate mosh pit of outdoor karaoke: the Bearpit Karaoke. This is the stuff of legends: one man, one bike, one laptop, two speakers and a microphone. In that open air stage I found my addiction again.

Bearpit Karaoke in Mauerpark
But the Bearpit grew in popularity, from mere dozens to several hundred people clapping and cheering and beering on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It became harder to get on stage as the list grew longer. I felt that twitch and that itch. I needed my fix. So I jumped into the jumpsuit and threw myself at the crowd. It went wild. There are videos of me on YouTube. But it wasn't enough. I needed to dazzle them more. Such is the nature of addiction. A short stroll across Mauerpark is the flea market, home to all sorts of overpriced bric-a-brac sold to hipsters by Turks. One bagful of rhinestones and sequins, one patient girlfriend with needle and thread, and one month later: Melvis 2.0 was ready for action. I was going to get on the that stage again, not just to dazzle and shine. I was going to propose to my lady in my Melvis costume in front of 1000 people and the internet. I was going to sing Love Me Tender like Nicholas Cage in Wild at Heart. But the season was over. The rains came, the karaoke crowd subsided. And my new costume hit the mothballs again.

I never did get to propose on stage. We got married anyway. We eloped in Gibraltar, honeymooned on the Costa del Sol, and I did end up singing Love Me Tender to my new bride in the resort bar in front of dozens. Anti-climatic? Maybe. Sweet and romantic in the most cheesy way? Oh yeah.

A Wardrobe Malfunction of Elvisian Proportions

Got Any Blue Suede Shoes?
Don't rest on your laurels. You get fat and you crush them. Well, at least I did. After a few years I kept my shiny superhero costume in a bag in the closet, until one fine day. The Hard Rock Cafe Berlin had the ultimate karaoke event: Sing For Your Supper. Sign up, sing your guts out backed up by a live band(!) and stuff a burger in your face for FREE. This is better than a karaoke contest. Even if I wasn't the best, I would get free food! This was the perfect opportunity for the Melvis costume to come out of the closet and back into the limelight.

I talked to the manager. It was all set up: before my name was called, I would have 5 minutes to sneak off to das wasserschrank, slip into my costume and then storm that Berlin stage in a blitzkrieg of buh-huh HUHs and fake karate moves and a gyrating pelvis amid a real live band!

FUCK. The zipper on my massive, custom made jumpsuit hit my seedy underbelly and split. All those 40 cent beers added up to a fortune in failure. I tried to suck in the gut and rezip. But it split again, this time just between my gut and my groin. Zipper stuck, belly and sack out in the breeze. It was a fail. An epic fail. And then a voice:

HRC Manager: 'Melvis! We're Waiting! Let's go!'

Me: 'Wardrobe failure.'

HRCM: 'Well suck it in and get out here!'

Me: 'No. Really. They really don't want to see what's hanging out. It would put them off their supper. Maybe get me arrested.'

So I sulked in the toilet until the next singer had come and gone. I donned my civvies and slithered back to my table, which was right below the Great White Belt of the King himself. I looked up at the blue plastic prescription bottle which was (oddly) included in the display. I wanted to crack the glass and hope for a pill to swallow. Then I would slither off back to die on the toilet, just like The King.


I've done a few karaokes since then, mostly low key, sans sartorial flair. The Melvis 2.0 suit never got to strut and fret its hour upon stage. I got too fat to fit into the fucking thing, truth be told. But it lurks in the back of the closet, waiting for me to either lose weight or to pay a tailor to enlarge the thing. And when that day comes.....Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.

My favorite yokee dealers in Prague:

Photos by Gabriela Sarževská


Karra Sandin said...

I cannot believe that in the years we've known each other, I've never seen you onstage. I want to see those YouTube videos!

Craig Robinson said...

Yes, we all have our hidden corners. ;) I've just made an adjustment to the layout of the blog so that people can actually SEE the links to the videos and such. Click away! Thanks for the comment.

-Big Sir