When I stopped drinking, I made a deal with myself.
I would have to give a up a lot of stuff I was used to doing regularly, like falling over in public, loathing myself and ignoring the looming prospect of liver disease – things I wouldn’t miss at all. But there was one booze-specific activity I was determined not to go without.
“Self,” I said, and I may or may not have been sweating DT-bullets and giving myself the steely eye in the bathroom mirror as I said it. There was a lot of that going on in those days.
“Self,” I said. “We may be sober, but I’m not letting us miss out on karaoke.”
Because I loved karaoke.
Loved it from the moment in the early ’90s that I first stepped up onto the foot-high stage at the old K-Bar on Courtenay Place, blathered on $2 jugs of DB Bitter, to sing My Way.
Out in the audience, there was polite clapping and less-than-polite heckling from my mates, but when it was over and the cheering and hollering started – not because I was any good, mind, but because “Balls to the Wall Glass Shatterer” is my unofficial karaoke nickname – that was it for me. I was a goner.
Karaoke let me live out my childhood fantasy of being a rockstar, without any of the hard work, thick skin or, you know, actual talent needed to really succeed as a musician.
I could never have hoped to satisfy the “must make a public spectacle of yourself weekly” glitch in my personality in such a socially acceptable manner. Not to put too fine a point on it, mastering the karaoke mic is one of my greatest technical achievements, right up there with finally getting my driver’s licence and that one time I flew a plane.
But unlike those things, I could only do it when I was blasted off my face and feeling no pain. Because everybody knows karaoke is something you only do when you’re blasted off your face and feeling no pain. At least, it’s that way in New Zealand, where the fear of standing out in a crowd is practically the national phobia.
Be it at a wedding reception, in a school hall, or even one of those private karaoke rooms the best kind of Asian restaurants have out the back, belting out a couple of Bonnie Tyler classics requires a few bevvies. That’s just the way it is.
I’m not sure why we’ve made it so hard to sing in public.
Singing is an intrinsically human activity. It’s soothing, uplifting. Kids sing almost before they even know what the word for it is – my mum says I was warbling Wings’ Mary Had A Little Lamb before I could properly talk.
According to Oxford University experimental psychologist Jacques Launay, singing gives your brain a full workout, aids breathing and relaxation and, when we do it together, it helps form social bonds.
Anyone who’s ever experienced the camaraderie of the karaoke lounge knows this to be true. Once you’ve shared a mic with a stranger to belt out the chorus of Weather With You, you’re bonded for life.
“Music has been used in different cultures throughout history in many healing rituals – and is already used as a therapy in our own culture,” writes Launay.
“Everyone can sing – however much we might protest – meaning it is one of the most accessible forms of music making, too. Song is a powerful therapy indeed.”
Everyone can sing. Everyone should.
That’s what I needed when I was sobering up. I needed the powerful therapy of song. I needed karaoke.
I think the first time I did it sober was at The Silver Buckle in Camberwell, a cute little corner pub on the main road that had karaoke almost every night. It was one of the places I used to wash up at the end of a boozy evening, staggering in half-cut to belt out a couple of tunes, before crawling home to pass out.
I figured going in there to sing sober in front of strangers would slay a couple of my demons at once.
Butterflies? I had a whole lepidopterarium in my guts. But I picked Big Spender, a classic, easy to sing and a little bit brash. Also completely ridiculous, I could play it for laughs.
After a rocky start (I was flatter than three-week-old pancake), I hit my stride at about the “laughs, laughs” bit, picked up momentum in the second verse and carried that mother all the way home to a soaring-if-slightly-pitchy finish.
My reward? An old gadge drunkenly shouting “show us your t…”, some politely disinterested applause and an overwhelming sense of achievement. I’d done it. I’d actually, really, truly done it.
I’ve been karaoke-ing stone cold sober ever since.
On Saturday night, we celebrated my baby cousin turning 40 – 40! – by hitting the hired karaoke machine hard.
In a packed suburban lounge, about 30 of us belted out Don’t Dream It’s Over together, with all the unselfconscious charm and manic exuberance of a troop of chimpanzees. Powerful therapy and group bonding never sounded better.
Check out my ultimate Karaoke setlist over at Spotify.