Everyone’s a wannabe on the sing-along circuit
It’s 11 o’clock on a Saturday night at Gina Marie’s Italian restaurant in downtown Chico, and yet another wannabe performer is onstage singing karaoke. After he finishes, the man hosting the event, who wears a bedraggled look despite the peppy nature of his job, announces that tonight’s next performer has recently signed a contract with MTV.
A few heads turn in the small, dimly lit audience. MTV is big time, after all. The announcer winds up. “So give a big hand to Michael Dracul as Ozzy Osbourne performing ‘Paranoid'!”
Out of the shadows, a darkly robed figure with long brown hair stalks menacingly to the stage, takes hold of the microphone and stands casually before a glowing teleprompter. If you don’t look too closely, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the metal hero and pop-culture phenomenon, right down to his ever-present purple-tinted spectacles.
“Finished with my woman ‘cause she couldn’t help me with my mind …” he sings, rocking his head mechanically with the beat, eyes focused straight ahead on the prompter.
Although he doesn’t sound exactly like Osbourne—he lacks the range and vocal power—there is something about him. If there is a quality that could be considered “Ozziness,” he embodies it. Think of it as Goth glare meets Budweiser belch. From the black clothes and crucifix jewelry to the perpetually stoned look and other-worldly mannerisms, the visual resemblance is there.
When he finishes the classic head-banging song, the crowd responds with scattered applause, perhaps wondering what all the MTV fuss was about.
Off stage, the 43-year-old Dracul is soft-spoken, articulate and polite. When he sits across the table, flanked by his wife/manager of 13 years, Elizabeth, and his “security,” Robert McNaulty, his wife’s brother, one can’t help but notice his eyes. Underlined by black mascara, they peer large and wide from behind the tinted glasses, lending him the maniacal gaze of the sleep-deprived. He has two sharp front teeth that look like vampire fangs. The truth is actually more frightening.
“I couldn’t get dental insurance through Medi-Cal, so my front two teeth just rotted out,” he says. “The side ones aren’t sharpened on purpose.”
It’s slow tonight at Gina Marie’s (in fact, the restaurant would soon cancel its karaoke night). There are only a few patrons sipping drinks in dark corners, and they appear oblivious to the off-key caterwauling coming from the stage. A spiky-haired lady belts out an impassioned version of Pat Benatar’s ‘80s classic, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” She’s followed by an African-American man with glasses who gets the crowd involved by bouncing in place to his monotone reading of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me (Live).”
Dracul takes in these other performers with an air of calculated calm. Now that he has actually signed an MTV contract, he has big dreams. So what if he can’t sing like a pro and doesn’t have any original material? He’s got Ozzy down, and soon he’s going to bounce right out of this town with its spoiled college kids driving SUVs and its pathetic excuses for karaoke bars. Years of dedication and hard work to become Ozzy Osbourne have to pay off some day—don’t they?
Michael Dracul is perhaps the most consistent—and certainly one of the most flamboyant—of the many regulars on the local karaoke circuit. Anyone who visits a few of the bars will soon find familiar faces each night, and Dracul and his wife are almost inevitably among them.
Performing karaoke is not for the thin skinned. Some nights, the audience is a bunch of raucous college students who will rip you apart just as fast as they’ll holler approval. More often, though, local karaoke audiences are sparse and lost in their own conversations. Still, the regulars keep coming and keep singing their hearts out, as if karaoke offered some kind of unique therapy.
Oroville, Magalia, Paradise, Chico—all have karaoke bars, but of course with entirely different audiences. In Chico, alcohol fuels the karaoke festivities. Most students need liquid courage to help them get onstage. They tend to show up late, whereas the regulars are always there on time, stone sober and ready to go. Like the performers on the hit summer television show American Idol, many of them have dreams of future singing careers and consider karaoke “practice” before an audience. Others—middle-aged housewives, retired old men or former child singers—do it just for relaxation or enjoyment.
In Dracul’s case, it all started when he was a kid and first saw Black Sabbath late one night on The Don Kirchner Show. “I would sneak a little black-and-white TV under the bed sheets, and when I saw Ozzy—I just knew it was what I wanted to do,” he says.
Dracul and his wife lived for many years in Oroville before moving to Chico in 1998. Neither has a regular job. They subsist on SSI disability checks. Like his hero Ozzy, Dracul has mental-health problems—in his case, chronic-anxiety disorder. The affliction doesn’t keep him from performing, however.
“My psychologist asked me how I can get on stage and do karaoke, and I told him because I’ve learned to differentiate between audiences and crowds,” Dracul explains. “If I’m there to perform in front of an audience, that’s fine. Take me to the Chico Mall at Christmas time, and that pushes me over the brink.”
For the last seven years, Dracul—the name means “dragon” in Romanian, he says—and his wife have been performing regularly several times a week at various karaoke spots: LaSalles on Sundays, The Bear on Tuesdays, the Asian Buffet on Fridays and Saturdays, and Gina Marie’s on Saturdays before it cancelled karaoke. On the rare occasions when no karaoke is happening in Chico, they get in the car and drive to Oroville, Paradise or Magalia.
It’s been enough to make him the most familiar figure on the local scene—so much so that, over the last two months, local television news stations in Redding and Chico have run short segments on him after they learned about his trip to an MTV studio audition in New York last summer.
On a whim, Dracul and his wife traveled four days by bus across the country to audition for the popular MTV show Becoming: Ozzy Osbourne, in which participants get a first-class makeover and reenact one of their music hero’s recent hit videos. Unfortunately, Dracul was a bit too much like the befuddled Osbourne, arriving late and missing his original audition.
“They liked my look,” he says. “The producer told me they would call if they needed an alternate. … She also said they might hire me to do teaser commercials for the new Osbournes season. They said if they used me they would fly me back east next time.”
While in the Big Apple, Dracul signed a general contract stating the program could use his image and has since seen himself aired on MTV, albeit consigned to the background of the Becoming audition. While he was there, Dracul took the opportunity to pitch his own concept to MTV staffers.
“I mentioned my idea of doing an Osbournes family wannabe show where they would follow my life around as sort of the opposite of The Osbournes,” Dracul explains. “Someone who doesn’t have it all but is trying.” The MTV execs told him they would consider his idea, he reports.
Meanwhile, wife Elizabeth has kept busy by contacting corporate sponsors such as Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and See’s Candy, billing her husband as an MTV-signed act with a demo available and asking for financial aid to jumpstart his career. As her letters indicate, this would include money for everything from prop lists ("100 human and canid skulls … white feather angel wings, nooses, and one extra large cross") to travel money, roadies, living expenses and, of course, security. She says that several of the corporations told her via phone that she was too late and should try back early next year with a written proposal.
Meanwhile, her husband stays busy in his spare time trying to recruit a real band. Dracul found an 18-year-old guitarist, Corey, and a drummer ("who keeps flaking,” Dracul says) and hopes to find a bassist who will round out his new group, Centre of Eternity—named, of course, after a Black Sabbath song. Performing several Osbourne covers as well as some originals (yet to be written), Dracul hopes his live band will be the start of something big.
Next week, he will get the name “Ozzy” tattooed across his knuckles, just like the Prince of Darkness himself.
The way karaoke nights work is simple: Most clubs hire onstage hosts, the KJs, or karaoke jockeys, who emcee the events and whose job is to keep a party vibe going—singing songs themselves when the number of participants slows or spinning dance music to get people in an upbeat mood.
Local KJ Shelley Robinson is a talented country singer who runs her own mobile DJ and karaoke business on the side, while also serving as a KJ on weekend nights at the Asian Buffet. The Draculs say she is one of the best KJs around.
“I tell the crowd at the start of both nights, if I catch you being disrespectful of the performers, the first thing I’ll do is ask you to get on stage yourself,” Robinson says. “Then I’ll gladly escort you to the door.” She’s a friendly woman with a confident, spunky attitude. Her robust singing reminds me a little of Dolly Parton.
When Robinson is running the show, fans say, there is very little “dead air” between performers. And she is one of the few local KJs who bring props—hats, wigs, inflatable instruments—to the shows for performers to use.
Perhaps an underlying reason local performers appreciate her is because she understands their dreams. Like many of them, she is working on an original demo in hopes of attaining a country music singing career.
“It really takes a lot of guts to get up there,” she says about the performers. “And for some people, it definitely is a kind of therapy.”
Robinson explains that being a professional KJ/DJ can cost money. She has invested several thousand dollars in her own audio set-up and hundreds of karaoke CDs over the last few years. But, like other local entertainment businesses such as Class Act, Robinson will make some of that money back by working parties, weddings and other special events.
Robinson says her job is rewarding because she gets “to encourage the performers to experiment, try singing new songs and really watch them grow.”
Beth Dracul tells me male mosquitoes drink only fruit juice and that it’s the female ones that are currently biting my legs beneath the table.
We’re sitting on the back patio at the Madison Bear Garden on a balmy early fall evening. It’s around 9 on a Tuesday night.
“Human blood is the medium embryonic females survive in best,” she continues. “By the way, I also write vampire stories and lots of fiction.”
Beth Dracul is not just the Sharon Osbourne to her husband’s Ozzy. She also performs karaoke herself, singing tunes ranging in style and tone from KISS’ party anthem, “Shout It Out Loud,” to Broadway favorites. She says she started performing at Rockers in Orland and that it took a whole year after her nerve-wracking debut appearance to get back onstage again.
“All performers are applause junkies,” she says. “Addicted to that high. … You give away everything you got when you’re up there. College crowds tend to treat us like Muzak, like we’re not even there. When you get absolutely no applause, a lot of us get the feeling that it’s not even worth it anymore.” She admits that she can have a terrible temper when audiences don’t respond.
From the stacks of CD cases that always accompany the Draculs to the sense of anticipation that sweeps across the table every few minutes before someone is about to take the stage, it’s clear how serious karaoke is to them. Oh, and there’s also the bodyguard always sitting nearby.
“Michael wants to play Arco Arena some day,” says McNaulty, a medium-built guy whose job involves attending all the karaoke events and scanning the room for signs of trouble.
When asked if there has ever been any, he pulls out his lip and shows me a scar from several weeks ago, when an unruly drunk punched him in the parking lot of the Asian Buffet. “He was looking for a fight all night,” McNaulty explains. “I took offense to some rude comments he made to a woman inside.”
Beth Dracul is depressed tonight because one of her early songs got absolutely no response. She’s just told me she has “no talent.”
“Michael lets it roll,” she says, “He just ignores the crowd. Sometimes later on, though, he tells me he feels like screaming at them.”
Tonight, Michael has just finished performing a lively version of the Osbourne solo song “Bark at the Moon” when he comes back over to our table.
“Much better howl this time, dude,” his bodyguard says.
A group of drunk, blonde college girls is now onstage singing a song about “sexin’ up” someone in celebration of a friend’s 21st birthday. The mostly young audience of 40 or so seems entertained as male barks spur on the girls’ sloppy performance.
A few songs later, Beth Dracul is back on stage. A short woman who usually wears a glittery prom dress, with her long dark hair in a whip-like ponytail, she takes the stage determined for a better response this time. As the latest MTV Eminem favorite fades on the house speakers, the tempo slows and Dracul steps beneath a row of blue lights. In her big, “opera” voice she begins the first notes of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables.
She’s not perfect, but she seems to have a better ear than most of the performers tonight, and she nails the high parts with natural poise. As the dramatic song ends, the crowd acknowledges her effort with brief applause, and she in turn bows happily in each direction.
Clearly in a better mood now, Beth introduces me to one of the more memorable karaoke regulars on the local circuit, an enthusiastic 58-year-old retired Bay Area postal worker who lives in Paradise. He gives me his name but a few days later stops by the CN&R offices to say he’d like to be referred to just as “Ray"—on the advice of his attorney.
Ray is one of the more consistent regulars and is known for his enthusiastic support of other singers and the obvious joy he finds onstage. Whether singing classics like the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling'” or one of his personal favorites, R. Kelly’s “I Think I Can Fly"—for which he previously won a $35 first prize at the Bear—Ray lets it all out on stage in a big kind of way.
Though his singing might sound like butchery to some, it stems from the fact that Ray is partially deaf with an accompanying speech impediment. When I talk to him, I have to shout over the speakers, and he appears to rely on lip reading.
Ray tells me that he just agreed to help someone arrange a karaoke night at the Starbucks in downtown Chico. He then excuses himself to take his turn. For his next number, he will attempt a bold choice, one that makes me nervous for him: Roy Orbison’s haunting classic, “In Dreams.”
A wiry man with tan skin, silver hair and spectacles, Ray performs with more body movement than most; as a song progresses, he moves with it and, even though his voice is a somewhat faulty conduit, he makes up for it with raw conviction. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching karaoke, not everybody can sing like the stars, but good karaoke performers can achieve a kind of kindred glow in the spotlight.
When smiling Ray begins singing, scattered laughter and surprise ripple through the audience. A few people look up, annoyed at the loud noise. Creased brows dip toward the lone, contorted figure onstage, apparently trying to figure out (as I once did) whether he’s drunk. Slowly it dawns on them, as Ray focuses harder on delivering the lyrics clearly, struggling to pull emotive sounds from his chest like moving stones.
“In meams I malk with you” is how the words sound, the volume of his voice escalating in waves, “In meams I talk to you/ In meams you’re mine all the time/ Me’re together in meams, in meams!” These last words he practically wails, projecting them into the cool night air of the Bear’s moonlit courtyard—lingering words cut loose from the rhythm and set adrift. “Only in dreams, beautiful dreams!” he howls the last chorus like the final articulation of some strange epiphany.
When the music ends, the audience gives him a warm round of applause.
“Told ya,” he says when he returns to the table. “My other favorite is when I wear my costume for ‘I’m Too Sexy (for My Shirt).'”
I wonder whether Ray will get the same kind applause for that one.
A blow-up Budweiser blimp hovers above two busy pool tables inside the high arched roof of the Asian Buffet, where leftover chicken is currently being passed out to the evening crowd.
The audience on this cold Friday night is a mixed bag of different ages, and the family vibe makes it feel extra warm inside. All of the karaoke performers here seem to know each other, as they take slips of paper from KJ Shelly Robinson and fill out their song selections.
Robinson introduces me to Mark, an energetic used-car salesman and karaoke regular who says he used to sing professionally as a youth in Los Angeles, where he won The Gong Show when he was 13 years old. “I do it nowadays just to relax,” he says, patting a fellow karaoke performer on the back, “They’re some good talent here.” Before the night is over, I will have watched Mark belt out a near-perfect rendition of the Dennis DeYoung-led Styx song “Babe” that wins enthusiastic applause.
Another friendly guy that everybody here seems to know is a short and stocky 25-year-old regular, Kenny “Raccoon Boy” Weese.
“My middle name is Raccoon,” says Weese, who wears a coonskin hat as he shoots pool surrounded by several taller women. “I like to do karaoke here ‘cause everybody knows me, and they have low light on stage. … I sing some Hank Williams, ‘Tear in my Beer,’ ‘Cheating Heart,’ just for fun. I never been in no contest.”
Something about Raccoon Boy’s welcoming demeanor makes him seem like the people’s champ here.
Michael Dracul, “Chico’s own Ozzy,” as he was introduced, has just finished singing the creepy song “Mr. Crowley,” and his wife is following with her own dramatic version of “Love Theme from Titanic” when I am joined by the couple’s “head of security.” McNaulty is unable to attend as many karaoke nights these days because he just took on another late-night security job, but he still believes that the Ozzy gig will eventually pay off big-time.
“I’d like to retire in about five years,” he says, with seriousness. “My dream is to have my own castle with solid walls and narrow, defendable windows.
“A man’s home is his castle. I’ve studied medieval castles, and there’s just about nothing gonna get through those walls unless maybe a nuclear attack,” he continues. “I think the Ozzy sponsors will work out so that I can at least hire a security team under me that, you know, aren’t gonna fuck up anything.”
For a moment I half expect to hear Federico Fellini yell, “Cut! Let’s try it with the albino dwarf.”
Back on stage, 24-year-old Melissa Cardin is doing her best Cher impersonation, singing the hit, “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Cardin is one of many young people who will be involved in local auditions for American Idol II (see sidebar). She’s competed at several karaoke competitions and is brimming with confidence.
“It’s definitely my dream,” says Cardin. “I know I’m going to make it. It’s really just a matter of when.”
Dracul is annoyed that older singers such as he cannot audition for the American Idol show—but if you think that’s going to stop him from pursuing his dreams, you haven’t been paying attention. Good news came just that day, as Elizabeth found an oversized rubber skull at Dracula’s Closet that may see its prop debut on stage Sunday night at LaSalles.
The last performer I catch tonight is Raccoon Boy. He’s abandoned his usual Hank Williams shtick in order to perform the latter-day Beach Boys hit, “Kokomo.”
He begins to sing with a high, adenoidal twang. I can sense he’s a little nervous. His voice cracks a couple of times as he sings the main verses ("bodies in the sand/ tropical drink melting in your hand/ we’ll be falling in love"), and he looks terribly alone standing in the limelight. Yet, once again, I find myself experiencing a strange mix of awe and appreciation for the singer, a man who might be described by harsher critics as tone-deaf or amateurish at best but who still has the guts to perform in front of a crowd simply for love of the music itself.
Raccoon Boy reaches the refrain. “Way down in Kokomo! Aruba, Jamaica ooh I wanna take ya, Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama …”
Others join in, and Raccoon Boy’s voice picks up strength as if lifted on this wave of support. He begins to move his hips, rocking slightly with the beat and smiling.
Afterwards, I ask him how it felt.
“It kind of feels like a dream—real comfortable," he says with a grin—then goes back to shooting pool with the ladies.