You can find it at Winston's in Ocean Beach on any given Sunday night. It is one of the most fascinating species of American culture. For the last five years, in fact, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance. It is the hardcore karaokeer.
Sure, there are more active karaoke bars in town, such as The Lamplighter in Mission Hills. But there's something about mixing American Idol with the 21st-century hippie vibe of Ocean Beach that makes 'OB-Oke' especially gawk-worthy.
The people-watching here is sublime. If the Coen brothers ever run out of inspiration, they could do worse than come here to watch people butcher Zeppelin.
OB-Oke's most vibrant personality is its host, Jose Sinatra, who is as Ocean Beach-iconic as The Spaceman or the double cheeseburger at Hodad's. Part Vegas-era Elvis, part cable-access-television host, he's well-known for his sexually charged remakes of classic songs, a disturbingly extensive knowledge of pop culture and a flamboyant sense of fashion. Atop all that, the guy delivers the world's cheesiest jokes with unsparingly appropriate cheese.
Stopping by OB-Oke on a pretty average night, I decide the time has come to ditch the shyness and actually venture on stage. After a few $2 cans of Shyness Eliminator (Pabst Blue Ribbon), I scan the songbooks to choose a tune.
My first impressions aren't good. After searching for 'Baba O'Reilly,' I find that karaoke at Winston's--home to San Diego's modern classic-rock band SuperUnloader--has forgotten about The Who. The only song available is 'Pinball Wizard'--a Who-by-numbers, greatest-hits track. My heart set on channeling my inner Daltry, I select it anyway.
Curious about this lack of classic rock, I search for The Clash, only to find 'Rock the Casbah' is the sole option. There's also no Kinks and no Sex Pistols. There are, however, about seven pages of Frank Sinatra standards--the Rat Pack titan after whom Jose is named.
I smell branding.
After a short wait, I am called to the stage. To my surprise, I don't suck--not at all. I actually fuse spirits with 'Pinball Wizard.' I bust out the Robert Pollard-esque high-kicks, even nail the Pete Townsend vocal part with the higher register. If I were a girl, I would swoon in my direction.
I'm stoked as I get off stage, completely in shock. I have just rocked a Who song in front of 70 complete strangers despite the fact that I can't really sing and was in no way forced to do this. I am immediately filled with the sickness that I thought I could never contract. The sickness that makes otherwise rational people think singing badly to a Muzak version of a great American song is a good idea.
I pick another song.
As I wait for my second round, I watch a variety of ordinary people find their own small stardom with the aid of a machine, a stage and an Elvis impersonator standing nearby. A 20-something hipster struggles through 'Tempted' by Squeeze. His buddy follows with Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love.' To start, he's nervous, shelled. Yet with each successive verse, he realizes his own rock-star image, eventually becoming someone else entirely. I witness a hair-metal connoisseur tackle Whitesnake's 'Is This Love?' with such earnest conviction that, for a second, I actually appreciate the song.
The rest is predictable. People in cowboy hats successfully knock out a few country standards. A skater goes for irony (a karaoke standard in and of itself) and attempts Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.'
Feeling confident after my acing of 'Pinball Wizard,' I decide to attempt something a bit trickier--The Buggles' new-wave anthem, 'Video Killed the Radio Star.' The song has a special place in my heart as a cover tune, since I absolutely love the version by The Presidents of the United States of America. In fact, I enjoy their rendition so much that I've forgotten what the original sounds like. But, I figure, it must be rocking.
Oh, how very wrong mortals can be.
As soon as the music starts, I become my own train wreck. Worse, I am a train wreck that I have very deliberately orchestrated. I get all of the parts wrong, starting with the very first part. The song is in C-sharp, and I have apparently discovered the little-known H-flat. Somewhere in the middle, the video screen reads, '19 measure solo break.'
What the hell am I supposed to do on stage while a Muzak machine solos for 19 measures?!
And that's when I realize I'm alone. Cold and alone in the hot, bright lights. No one can save me--not the cowboys, not the skater boy, not even the Elvis impersonator with a pencil-thin moustache.
I decide to simply stand there and look stupid and lost. I feel it brings a dose of realism and honesty to my performance.
Upon the song's merciful completion, Sinatra comes on stage and says, 'You nailed it, man.' But this is also a person with an enormous object masquerading as a penis bulging from his tight leather trousers. Neither that nor his reassurance of my karaoke prowess hold any truthfulness.
I have experienced stardom and its fallout in the same night. Within the span of a few hours I have lived an E! True Hollywood Story--minus a nasty drug habit and a compromising videotape.
Would I return to OB-Oke to avenge my fall from momentary grace? As long as the cover remains $1 and the PBR remains $2--yes, I very well may.
OB-Oke is waiting for you every Sunday night at Winston's. Butchering starts at 10 p.m. Free. 619-222-6822.