By Anna David
I really sucked at karaoke before I got sober.
And when I say I really sucked, I mean I really sucked.
Unfortunately, I also really liked to do karaoke.
I had friends back then who had genuinely good voices—genuinely great voices, in some cases—but who were, like me, drowning out their every last thought and feeling with alcohol and cocaine. And though the senses of these people were dulled to the point that it made perfect sense to them to hang around me, a person who was literally killing herself with drugs and alcohol, their voices still sounded great when they sang. I know my ears were drug-addled so I shouldn’t be considered a reliable narrator here but in this particular case I can be because these people were good.
We liked to go to a dive bar that’s famous in LA for basically being a dive bar that’s been in West Hollywood—a town which wears its gaydom proudly—long enough to have had a sign out front that said “No fagots.” I pretty much only hung around gay men and other women who loved gay men back then but we were so fucked up all the time and the karaoke selection there was so good and the bathrooms so easy to do coke in (you didn’t even have to go in a stall but could just bust it out above the sink) that we basically ignored the sign and went about our drinking and singing and snorting.
The saddest part of all of this is that one of the guys I hung around then was a genuinely amazing singer—like had-a-record-deal kind of amazing. His voice was angelic and resonant but his dedication to chopping up and snorting lines of coke so extreme that rather than pursuing a dream that he was inarguably put on this planet to pursue, he spent his time hanging around us and then bringing the house down on the karaoke mic at Barneys Beanery.
I knew, even back then, that this was sad. I knew that he should have been in a studio or on a tour bus and not wowing all of us with his Stevie Wonder renditions at 1:30 am on a Wednesday. I knew that being close, personal friends with the Karaoke Jockey, or KJ as those of us in the inner circle liked to call him, was not where someone like him—or any of us—should be. But this was a hard thought to face and I often had bindles of cocaine to distract me from it.
My singing, like I said, was atrocious. But as my addiction got worse—as I forgot all the healthy ways I’d once known of getting esteem and attention and love—I increasingly turned toward things like karaoke to remind myself that I was worth something. That was, of course, before the years when I just sat there in my apartment alone, with no karaoke mic or friends around at all.
I did not expect karaoke to factor into my sobriety. But I went to rehab with a delightful guy named Justin and when I stopped by his sober living house one day after we’d both left rehab, telling him I was looking for new activities to embrace now that I didn’t have drinking and drugging taking up all my free time, he suggested we go “lay down some tracks” at a nearby karaoke place he’d found.
And lay down some tracks we did—that day and regularly for a while after that. We’d go to this karaoke place in West LA, which then rented rooms during the day for a mere $3 an hour, and take turns singing our little newly sober hearts out. We’d tape record and listen to our efforts, then try the same songs again the next time. We took our devotion to karaoke quite seriously.
While Justin had (and still has) a seriously lovely voice, my own still warbled and my tone could best be described as deaf. Still, it didn’t matter. We sang and sang and sang, playing KJ to our own performances that only we could hear. And one day, a few months into my sobriety when I was working at a magazine for an extremely difficult boss, I felt overwhelmed. I thought about drinking because I simply didn’t know how to handle the stress of this impossible boss sober. But then I thought about karaoke and how free and happy I felt when I did it in that private room with Justin. Justin wasn’t available. But instead of drinking, I told my boss I’d be gone for an hour, drove over to that karaoke place, got my own private room and sang away my stress. When I returned to the office, I was able to smile for one of the first times at that extremely difficult boss. And when I turned a year sober and wanted to throw some sort of a party to honor it, it was immediately obvious what kind of party it should be.
I don’t know what’s become of my old party friend whose voice would have made Stevie Wonders proud. I think my heart would break wide open if I really thought about all the people who were destroying their lives with me back when I was. While I don’t have bindles of cocaine to distract me from hard thoughts like that anymore, I do have other ways. Like living my life—a life that still includes karaoke. Oh, yes. Not only have I found some new karaoke loving friends (Justin moved back to Georgia, alas) but I actually took voice lessons last year to improve my attempts. (If you are in LA and want to improve your voice, look no further than my teacher Brianna; if she could help me, she can help anyone.)
Now I get to play KJ. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
[That pic is me looking through a karaoke song book last year, pre voice lessons. Be grateful there’s no audio recording.]
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