A COLLECTION OF STORIES BY LUKE TAGG
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SMOKE: Karaoke Cowboys

Originally published: 21 May 2003

A 35-year old chap in Manila was gunned down the other night in a karaoke bar after a group at a table near his asked him to stop singing. The man refused to stop singing, so they shot him.

Fair enough.

Have you ever been in a karaoke bar where one bloke just won't shut up? A bloke who no doubt fancies himself something of a Fred Astaire, or perhaps even an early Mario Lanza, but who comes across sounding like a pissed twat, which he is.

I've met plenty of those blokes and I've wanted to kill every last one of them, so I can empathise with our murdering cutthroats in Manila.

Yup - you guessed it - I frittered away many of The Lonely Years in karaoke pubs in Cape Town in the late eighties and early nineties, from the original "Clive Rice Karaoke" at Springfield's at Newlands station (and someone please forgive Clive for bringing karaoke to this country, because I sure as hell can't), to many cold, dark nights at the Stag's Head hotel in Gardens.

I've got some stories to tell - none of them spectacular, none of them special - but they should give some insight into what is a very lonely past time indeed.

The concept behind karaoke has always seemed like a good idea to me, but it's never proved to be one. Great idea - everyone wants to be a pop star so let's make backing tracks, give them the words and let them be a shining star for a night.

Get spotted by a bored talent scout who takes you to Broadway and from there it's LA, rubbing shoulders, being a diva and living on a diet of kinky sex and cocaine.

Great idea. Works for me.

But it never quite worked out that way, did it? Instead karaoke bars are peopled with the loneliest souls you are likely to encounter, carrying the weight of the world and the insignificance of their lives on their shoulders.

Some of them are really good singers, which makes it all even sadder.

There's always a shy, obese guy in the corner with a voice of gold and never a chance of proving it beyond that sad circle of people.

There's always a 45-year old divorcee, with three truant kids and an abusive ex-husband, who gets up there and sings the same songs over and over again, night after night, with never a hint of talent or self-assessment, and just the alcohol and her imaginary world keeping her together.

There's the cocky young guy who considers himself a hotshot and his voice ain't bad with 12 or more Black Labels to back it up, but who in the light of day becomes yet another insignificant loser in some office job in Epping Industria.

And there was always me - the dark, morose wanker in the corner, propped up by three overflowing ashtrays and a platoon of empty beer bottles, realising the sadness of my own situation yet completely unable to do anything about it.

Many such nights I spent at the Stag's Head, a biker bar near the parliament buildings in Cape Town.

Stag's was a unique place in a unique time - full of rough, ready-to-smack you bikers and fresh-faced, pool-playing students at the same time.

We'd bunk off from drama school, which was a kilometre or two down the road, and go to Stag's to play pool at three o-clock on a week day afternoon.

My memories of that are always of faded, occasionally torn green felt on the pool tables, weak afternoon sunlight in mid-winter filtering through the dingy shutters, trenchcoats, warming beer, circles on the counter where wet bottles had been, lonely women, bad TV and the click of pool balls over the muted murmur of late-afternoon drunks.

Very special times. Very lonely times.


But it got worse at night, when the karaoke outfit would move in at about 5.30pm, headed by a tough, beaten broad called Sandy, who at three in the morning looked like a goddess despite her bad teeth and worse breath, nondescript t-shirts, too-tight jeans covering an ass begging to be released and a hairstyle straight out of an eighties punk-rock magazine.

In the fellers would come - a weird, eclectic mix of young and old, rich and poor, black but mostly white, workers and students and anyone else in that strange mix of people who made Cape Town such a socially-vibrant place to usher in the nineties.

They'd sing all night long - the list of requests was always 20 deep - and I would sit at the back of the room by myself, drinking my way through a case of lager and dragging down as many as 80 cigarettes in one sitting.

Occasionally I would get up and sing Blue Suede Shoes, as it was the only song I knew well enough, then I would tramp back to my table, faces swimming in a disconnected blur at my peripheral vision, heart thumping in my chest and fingers struggling to maintain their grip on a fading fag.

I would sit there and tunnel-vision in on Sandy, who grew lovelier and wittier by the hour. That ass began to firm, the tits began to un-sag, the hair became an unrelated oddity and by 3am on any given Tuesday I was in love.

The next day I'd vomit it all out into an impersonal vitreous-china toilet bowl, bare-kneed on the cold tiled floor. Love ain't easy.

I suspect I was not alone. My life has improved immeasurably since then, but I still see them - lonely, unrecognised souls, who go off at night in search of solace and a brief, tender, exquisite moment of stardom, for a bunch of losers who don't care.

It's a tough racket.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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