On the edge of Pittsburgh is Wilkinsburg. And on the edge of Wilkinsburg there was a bar where my friends and I would go in the early 90s.
We were choir geeks, and this bar featured karaoke on Wednesday nights.
It drew quite a crowd, back then – karaoke was relatively new and hadn’t gotten the sort of tired reputation it has today, and we thought it was fun. It was fun. Still is, really.
It was an interesting crowd, too – one night I got to hang out with the bass player for Rusted Root, then the premier dance band in Pittsburgh and briefly, later in the decade, a national chart-topper (if you’ve ever seen Shrek, they’re the ones who sing “Send Me On My Way” when the ogre and the donkey set off on their journey). He was there to see his girlfriend sing and ended up sitting with us. He was a nice guy.
They were a tolerant bunch, down at the bar.
They put up with an awful lot of people who couldn’t sing at all. After enough beer, who could tell? Certainly not the singers themselves.
They put up with an astonishing amount of repetition from people who may or may not have been able to sing. You could always count on one guy to attempt “Spirit In the Sky” most weeks, for example, and by the time I moved to the midwest he had pretty much gotten it down. Whether that particular song was worth that kind of effort is something of an open question, I suppose, but it was worth it to him.
They put up with a certain amount of nonsense from those of us who could actually sing, too. Most of the time the woman who ran the karaoke preferred to have us sing things from her catalogue, but every once in a while she would have an Open Night where you could bring in your own CD and she’d mix out the vocals and let you have a crack at it. My friend Alec and I took that as an opportunity one night to perform “The Confrontation” from Les Miserables, a duet that eventually had both of us singing madly over top of one another, as they did on Broadway.
Two straight guys singing show tunes in a Pittsburgh bar. Those where the days.
For all the train-wreck fascination that we got that night, we were just one more song in a long list of songs that flowed past the regulars at that bar. They listened politely, half an ear on their own conversations, and gave us a nice round of applause when we were done just as they did for everyone, even the “Spirit In the Sky” guy.
But there were two people who could stop that bar cold.
One was more of a mascot than anything else. He was probably well into his 80s, possibly in his 90s. And every week – every single week – he would get up and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” We would all join in on the last chorus. He was the only person who was allowed to sing a capella, and nobody begrudged him the honor.
The other one?
I never did get her name. She didn’t show up on any sort of regular schedule. But when she was there you knew it, and whenever she walked up to the microphone the bar would fall silent.
She always sang Patsy Cline.
It was eerie how much she sounded like Patsy Cline, too. She’d close her eyes, hold tightly to the microphone, and suddenly it was 1961. She usually did “I Fall to Pieces.” Sometimes “Crazy.”
Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. There in a bar on the outskirts of Pittsburgh was magic, and we all knew it.
When she finished, she’d disappear back into the bar – she must have had friends there with her. There would be a sort of pause as everyone readjusted to the normal world, and whatever luckless soul was called up to follow her would be treated a little more politely than usual, because we all knew how hard a position that was, following Patsy Cline.
But someone had to do it.