Tucked away in a bar-room corner, crouched on a chair, the part-owner of Noyo Bowl in Fort Bragg does his best to emulate Aaron Neville. Beneath neon beer lights and a deer head, he sings “Tell It Like It Is” into a microphone. It’s Saturday night, the O’Doul’s clock reads 10:40, and, for better or worse, Karaoke Night at the bowling alley is hitting full stride.
I’ve heard of things like this before—small joints, bowling alleys, hole-in-the-wall bars—where karaoke becomes the main event on weekends. Here, the part owner DJs behind a table and the patrons memorize the song selection booklet and come back every Saturday night to sing.
By 10:45, the part-owner/DJ has moved on to Stevie Wonder, and, wincing in apparent pain, belts out the final lines to “I Just Called to Say I Love You." Surprisingly, this does not seem to hold the crowd’s attention. They leaf through song books, picking tunes they feel would showcase their vocal abilities. The place is humming with mild excitement, as folks are generally concerned and focused on their stage debut. They drink and wait.
“Just need some of that liquid courage!” I hear a man say to a friend, trying to persuade him to take the stage.
A tiara adorned woman, dressed in a pink flowered shirt with braided red hair, dedicates a song to Scott. “I love you, Scott,” she says, as “Thank You” by Dido starts playing. She boils over with passion. During the final chorus, she walks over to Scott and begins rubbing his shoulders while her voice fades with the music. From my angle, I am unable to see his expression, though he seems rather nonplussed considering the romantic fervor directed toward him.
It’s more than awkward. I turn to my friend Steve, and tell him with a smirk, “We’re not allowed to laugh unless we’ve been up there,” to which he replies out of the corner of his mouth, “We’re not allowed to laugh, but we’re allowed to feel slightly uncomfortable.”
Rindy, the bar-maid, tells me the karaoke usually gets going around 10. At this point in the night, “it’s a locals’ bar,” she says. This is evident to me. I feel like an out-of-towner.
A man named Chris--who's wearing leather pants that leave little to the imagination--steals the show. He tells me he’s been doing karaoke here for over 10 years. Chris was in the high school choir and sung with the radio before hitting a rough patch in his life. He left music behind. He was reintroduced to music by a woman who stole his heart and invited him to karaoke one night. “Whatever happens in life, this makes me feel better,” he told me, sipping a Miller Genuine Draft.
Karaoke is a weird thing. For some people it’s something fun to do every lunar eclipse. Others, who never got to play in a band in high school, who sing aloud in the car craving their moment in the spotlight, use karaoke as a release—and as Chris said, a means to feel better.
The Noyo Bowl is a time warp, something recent generations are still unfamiliar with. It’s poetic. It’s real. In an age of Rock Band and American Idol music video games, my experience at Noyo Bowl proves drunken bar karaoke has stood the test of time. That the people want to be heard.