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I’m a karaoke guy. Everyone knows that. I’ve hit bars from coast to coast looking for Karaoke Nirvana – the right mix of alcohol, crowd size, enthusiasm, general vibe and of course, a killer performance. Like heroin, it’s a constant chase for the next high – a search for the perfect three to five-minute rush. I’m a true believer.
All you can ask of a karaoke bar is an opportunity for success. Of course you, the performer, need to deliver. But there are some places where all the little things, the intangibles necessary for a perfect performance are lined up perfectly. Throughout my karaoke odyssey across this nation, only one bar consistently sets up the performer for success.
That bar is Ego’s in Austin. It’s in a parking garage under a very nondescript office building just south of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue bridge. It’s the right mix of dark, dirty, poorly lit, and hard to find that make for an ideal location. There’s little to no cell service. The bathrooms are fucking repulsive. My often-repeated joke is that the only things that would survive a nuclear bomb are cockroaches and people inside of Ego’s.
Ego’s, as the name suggests, is a 7-night-a-week karaoke spot. The crowd changes night to night but at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, it’s show time. Ego’s has different Karaoke Jockeys each night, but the system works like a well-oiled machine. Three old TVs display the lyrics and the next three performers names at the bottom of each screen. As one song ends, the next singer is called to the stage. There is no music video played between songs. Nor is there a group line-dance or Cupid Shuffle. If the next performer doesn’t arrive after a “going once, twice, three times” warning, we’re on to the next one. This effectively does two things: rapidly decreases the wait between songs while also building an adrenaline-based anticipation. When your name is called, you hop out of your seat and bounce to the front of the room, praying the KJ doesn’t miss you and call the next name.
Why should you care? Let me explain. Honestly, I didn’t want to write this piece. I don’t want other people to know about Ego’s. Before you come to Austin for a bachelorette party, a quick Google or Yelp search for karaoke bars is going to send you to Common Interest up north. It’s a trash place where the KJ does a terrible stand-up routine between songs and they let people smoke inside. Garbage. Let me also be clear, I don’t want you at Ego’s. It makes my wait longer and makes the room stuffier. It also makes me sweatier.
I’m writing about Ego’s because someone else is singing its praises, and I can not ignore The New York Times. The Grey Lady. All the news that’s fit to print. Someone named Marian Bull is moving from NYC to LA and thought it would be fun to stop at several karaoke bars on her way across the country. From The Times:
Everything at Ego’s was just slightly stranger and warmer than everywhere else. I brought along a friend, and after my third Miller High Life, we sang “Jesse’s Girl,” off-key and screeching on the high notes. I did a few high kicks; we were really getting into it, our own little dance party onstage, egged on by everyone else in the room.
I’m sure Marian is a sweet person, and she’s a good writer. She writes for GQ and the Times. That’s impressive as hell. But, she is the enemy. Thanks for blowing up my spot in the most reputable fishwrap in the world. I will curse your name til the end of time while I sweat in a one-in one-out line in the bottom of a parking garage on a random Saturday night. When my friend from out of town tries to meet me there and leaves because there’s a line (and they can’t get a hold of me because of the lack of phone service), I’ll terrorize you on Twitter (like a real man would).
And, “Jesse’s Girl,” really? That’s a song for one person. Keep your friend off the stage. Pet peeve. Also, who the fuck drinks Miller High Life at a bar? I mean, come on. That’s the beer you buy when you are a broke 22-year-old going to a lame-ass BBQ and can’t afford regular domestic light beer. Not the right choice at a dive bar with a full liquor licence.
Marian, I too have traveled the country searching for karaoke bars and a five minute flirt with stardom.
One night in San Francisco, I left a friend’s wedding and took a Lyft to the nearest karaoke bar. By myself. I was already a little sweaty and disheveled from killing it on the dance floor, but I looked fly as hell in my suit and had the itch. For the most part, it turned out to be a good experience. I sat at a table with two attractive young women who spoke limited English. I proceeded to buy several rounds of drinks and talk politics with my broken Spanish. (These bozos were 1000% sure Bernie Sanders was going to be the next president.) After several bribes to the Karaoke Jockey (I’m super rich) the time I’d be waiting for arrived, and my name was called. “Jim, it’s your turn to be a star.”
First, it was confusion and bewilderment in the faces of those in the crowd when calmly asked: “Do you know where the fuck you are San Francisco?” Expressions turned to fear and shock when I keeled over and screeched “Time to die-eye-eye-eye-eye!” It sounded something like the first 50 seconds of the video below (sound up, obviously).
I broke into “Welcome to the Jungle,” with reckless abandon and tore the fucking house down. My latina tablemates were stunned and blown away when I returned to the table sweating like I just played in the NBA Finals. I was emotionally and physically spent. Despite how it appeared to my new friends, I hadn’t performed up to my standard, perfection. My voice cracked several times, worst of all whilst I slid across the stage to sing, “Watch it bring you to your sha na na na na knees knees.” Although a memorable and enjoyable night, this night would not be the night for Karaoke Nirvana.
There have been other close calls. One night, I killed it at The Rock It Grill in Virginia. Before a mostly African-American crowd, I hammered out a couple of soul classics to a raucous applause. First, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” As I shook and shimmied across the entire restaurant with the cordless mic, I overheard at least one person tell his date “look at this crazy fuckin’ white boy.” I killed it. Later that evening, I invited the KJ to duet with me on Sam & Dave’s classic, “Soul Man.” Blew the fucking roof off. Until the end, when I accidentally wrapped my scarf around the mic stand, tripped, and badly sprained my ankle. This would not be Karaoke Nirvana.
In a previous life, I lived in Dallas. There was a since-closed, smelly, dirty bar a block from my apartment called the Corner Bar. The bar lacked any redeeming qualities, but I liked the KJ. One night, he introduced me to a friend of his. She and I hit it off and this lead to a memorable hook-up (you’ll need to find me in person for the details). The next Karaoke Wednesday I returned to the Corner to find my KJ friend visibly upset. I offered to buy him a shot and he waved me off. “I just heard that my friend tried to kill herself today, so I’m kinda shook up.” Needless to say, I hammered my Crown Royal and never returned. Note: there is no definitive evidence that his “friend” was the one I had “met” the past week. But there is also no evidence otherwise.
My favorite karaoke spot in Dallas was The San Francisco Rose. Divey, dark, sticky, and weird – it was right up my alley. I had a couple of breakout performances there. My game changing move was to walk around the outdoor patio with the wireless mic, furiously belting out the chorus of the Black Crowes’ cover version of “Hard to Handle.” Needless to say, previously-karaoke oblivious smokers on the patio didn’t know what to make of me. The looks on their faces could be seen inside the bar where patrons delighted in their confusion, and in the sweet, powerful harmonies I shared with Mick Jagger. Alas, I had come to the bar with friends, but they had left early instead of waiting for my final, showstopping performance. When I returned with friends to repeat the trick and shoot for nirvana, I never had the same luck.
One night an inattentive KJ ignored my questions regarding wait time to furiously make out with his heavily tatted girlfriend. It was unprofessional behavior. It was weird for anyone to be that frisky in public, let alone someone in a powerful and important position of responsibility. Remember, your fate is always in the hands of the KJ. I didn’t panic. I used my tried and true method to get to the front: bribery. The first two times I slipped dollars into his tip jar they went unnoticed due to the furious PDA just a foot away. When I finally caught his attention, I made the universal “wanna shot” gesture. This too was rebuffed, “I don’t drink.” I spend the last two hours before closing time preparing for a performance that never came.
That wasn’t the only weird experience at the Rose. Undeterred, I returned and exalted when I saw a different KJ. I ordered a round for my squad and myself and instantly knew something was wrong. My Crown wasn’t Crown. Not even close. I saw the bartender pour it out of a Crown bottle, but it was not Crown. When I informed the bartender that there was something gravely wrong, he said nothing. He paused and looked at me in the eyes. Then after an affirmative nod of the head, he handed me two crumpled dollar bills and poured two shots of Jameson (a liquor I do not drink nor enjoy). We silently tapped shot glasses, hammered them down, and I turned and walked away thirsty and bewildered. Needless to say, I’ve never found Karaoke Nirvana in the Big D.
Back to Ego’s. Weird things happen there. One night I was in a bad place. I sang something sad and remember spending most of the second half the performance on my back on the stage floor yelling, “I’m so alone.” Dark times. After it was over I felt a tap on the shoulder. A woman asked me to audition for an independent film. The audition didn’t end in a callback, but the moment was certainly memorable.
Recently at Ego’s, I achieved total Karaoke Nirvana. My friend Jessica moved to Australia, so we had a huge going away party. I got to the underground bunker about 15 minutes before showtime and got on the list. My first performance was a poignant rendition of the Rolling Stone’s cult-classic rocker “Mixed Emotions.” The club was still filling up with friends filtering in from the previous stop on the party itinerary, but your boy was feeling it. Aggressive fist pumps, foul language, and my patented Mick Jagger Strut were all in effect. It felt great. I documented this triumph in real time via my Snapchat spectacles (unfortunately they were paired to someone else’s phone at the time. That someone else runs a malicious parody account. Note: follow @ProducerMicah for the real me.).
The real Nirvana happened after I returned to my seat, breathing heavily. Jessica showed me a snap she took of a young college woman taking a snap of my performance. The caption on the coed’s snap said, “Ego’s is lit! 🔥” Truly the highest praise any millennial can heap upon a stranger. Later that night I busted out “Welcome to the Jungle” for the first time in a year. A musician friend of mine hopped on the stage apparently to be a backup singer. I quickly and violently removed him from the stage by screeching “Get the fuck off my stage! Axl doesn’t need a fuckin’ backup singer and neither the fuck do I!” As the song ended, I implored people to “tip your fucking bartenders, they’re working hard for you,” and of course my signature “Goodnight now!” followed by an aggressive mic drop. Nirvana. .