Andy always said that “not every night ends at the karaoke bar, but every good night does”, but Andy was always saying stuff like that. He was one of those guys who always had an answer to everything, and not only that, he made his answers sound like they were eternal truths, originally from God (or something) that had since been passed from generation to generation to him, and him only.
“Any decision you make mustn’t take longer than it takes to cook an egg” was one.
“People who wear hats are always hiding something” was another.
“Never eat a meal alone” was a third, but there were dozens of others.
The one that we lived our lives by right then was the one I quoted first, the one about the karaoke places. That’s how I found myself sitting in a dark bar with my back against the wall, surrounded by a group of people I didn’t know. Andy didn’t, either, but since “strangers are only people you haven’t gotten drunk with yet”, that’s where we were.
That I had my back against the wall was my choice, though, since I wanted to stay as far away from the stage as possible. I didn’t sing. Not ever. I didn’t sing in cars, I didn’t sing at church, I didn’t sing the national anthem at sports events, and I most definitely did not sing karaoke.
The reason I didn’t sing was simple: I was bad at it. I enjoyed music, I really did, but I also enjoyed it too much to torture other people with my singing.
I learned the truth about my voice a long time ago. I used to be like any other kid who liked to sing songs, and who, when singing pop tunes in his room, thought he was just as good as the artist he was listening to. I could be Sting, or Elvis, Phil Collins, or any one of the Beatles, and most days after school I was. I’d be sitting by my desk, maybe doing my homework with the stereo on, singing along.
That all changed in six minutes one afternoon.
That day, I heard myself sing. I was so much under the illusion of being Sting, or in that case Bryan Adams, that I decided to record myself a little bit, and add that song onto a mixed tape I was putting together for a special someone.
But that was a long time ago, in a world that didn’t have apps or GarageBand or Macs – well, maybe there were Macs but I didn’t have one – so I had to build my own studio with what I had: my Walkman, my boombox, my headphones, and some imagination. (This was also before MacGyver).
I put my black BASF tape with Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” inside my Walkman, plugged my headphones into it and then played the song so loud that you could hear the music in the background but not loud enough so it would drown my (what I still believed to be beautiful) voice. I cleared my throat, pressed “rec” and “play” on my boombox, and then “play” on my Walkman.
First the piano, then the guitar, then me.
“Oh, thinkin’ about all our younger years…” I sang into my boombox’s built-in microphone.
Four minutes later, I pressed “stop”, and rewound the tape in my boombox, put my feet on the table and pressed play.
I almost fell off the chair. I could only listen to the first minute of my singing.
It was the most horrible thing I had ever heard, and while I was still a young man, I had heard some horrible sounds in my time. Like nails on a chalkboard (because yes, chalkboards were still in use in my school).
I ejected the tape, and pulled out the tape from the cassette, ripped it apart and threw it into garbage.
As Andy would have said had I known him them, “Never leave evidence.”
Many of Andy’s wisdoms were contradictory, of course, but the one he used always trumped the one I used in my defense which is why he could just laugh when I told him I didn’t sing.
“A man should know his boundaries,” I said. (That one was an obvious rip-off of a Dirty Harry line).
He laughed and said that “how do you know you can’t fly if you’ve never tried?” And with those words, he pulled me out of my seat and sent me off to the stage’s general direction. And, as usual, Andy got his way.
I took a piece of paper from the karaokemeister’s pile. The notes were poorly cut photocopies with a line for the name of the “artist” – and yes, “artist” was in quotes – and the song. I was still looking for a pen when the karaoke-DJ told me I was up “because Andy’s friends always go first”. All he wanted to know was the song.
I chose Richard Marx’s “Hold on to the nights”, another old favorite of mine.
Also, another ballad.
The piano started to play and I could feel invisible fingers on my throat. But as the color of the words on the screen started to change, I started to sing.
“Just when I believed… I couldn’t ever want for more…”
I knew the lyrics by heart so I stared at my shoes instead.
“…this ever changing world pushes me through another door…
Not the world, I thought. I was Andy, it was always Andy. He was there now, grinning like a Cheshire cat, pumping his fist in the air.
Chorus. People muttering in the background. Somebody booed.
“HOLD ON TO THE NIGHTS!” I screamed, thinking that I could fool people that way. (“What matters isn’t whether you can or can’t do something, it’s whether others believe you can do it,” said Andy).
“HOLD ON TO THE MEMORIIEEEEES!”
And that’s when they came flooding back to me. The memories. That summer. The summer nights. (Also a Richard Marx song). The long walks, how she and I talked about everything. Our rides. My bike. Her car. How I had sung Heaven in my room, and how Andy had started dating her.
I realized I wasn’t singing anymore. I was simply reading the lyrics off the screen, quietly.
“… well, I think that I’ve been true to everybody else but me…”
I put the microphone down and walked back to our table. The song came to a close just as I sat down with my back against the wall.
“… whoo-o-oo-ooaaaah-ooooaaah … hold on to the nights.”
“That was rough, man,” Andy said. “Oh well, at least now you know you’re no Sinatra.”
He looked at me for a couple of seconds. Then he slapped me on the shoulder.
“Shame rhymes with fame, buddy.”
Just when I believed
I couldn’t ever want for more
This ever-changing world
pushes me through another door
Richard Marx – Hold On To The Nights (1987)
This is a part of an ongoing series of stories, mostly flash fiction, inspired by 80s pop songs. You can find them all here.