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It's an incongruous sight -- a jittery, clean-shaven twentysomething guy with a conservative haircut is on the Rudyard's stage with a punk quartet called the Rashomon Effect. There are no tattoos in evidence on his body, no unusual piercings to be seen. He's wearing a gaudy tie-dye T-shirt and a fanny pack. Yes, a fanny pack. He kind of looks like the sort of vaguely hep bank employee who might spend his off-hours at the Last Concert Cafe, not a guy who should be anywhere near anything punk.
"Back in the day, we used to hunt guys like him for sport," reminisces Rudyard's sound man Joe Omelchuck as he twiddles the knobs on the soundboard. But hey, this is punk karaoke night. If Donald Rumsfeld took the stage and told the band to rip into "Orgasm Addict," that would be his right. You don't have to look punk to be punk unless you're actually in a band.
Meanwhile, back on the stage, the tuning's done and the band kicks in. Tie-dye guy has morphed into Johnny Even Rottener. "Right! Now!" he snarls, a demented look in his eye, veins bulging in his neck nearly to the point of terminal aneurysm. "Ha ha ha ha ha ha / I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist " As this unlikely looking punk continues ripping through the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." with Henry Rollins's intensity and Andrew WK's (to coin a word) spasmocity, a friend turns to Racket and says, "Look at the decades of catharsis this guy is unleashing."
Catharsis -- that's why the Japanese salarymen invented karaoke. After a buttoned-down, well-mannered 80-hour week down at Mitsubishi, what better way to unwind than to knock back a sake or ten and pretend to be Frank Sinatra for four minutes?
And while Rudyard's live-band punk karaoke night doesn't offer much in the way of rice wine or Ol' Blue Eyes, catharsis reigns, along with Shiner Bock and the ghosts of Joey Ramone and Johnny Thunders. There's tie-dye guy, who went on to sing Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." Perhaps he's singing for much the same reason the Japanese businessmen do. Then there's Greg Ellis, a onetime punk bandleader who has spent the last 20 years on the other side of the lights as a record store manager, record label exec and project manager at Southwest Wholesale. His performance of the Modern Lovers' "Road Runner" won him the only standing ovation of the night. For him, it was something akin to a bath in the fountain of youth.
Others take the stage just for the hell of it. Rusted Shut drummer Dom Benczedi -- mike, cocktail and cigarette in hand à la Shane MacGowan -- turned the Heartbreakers' "Chinese Rocks" into a nine-minute epic. He left the stage once, the band continued playing, and Benczedi returned to the stage minutes later and hollered something about looking for "Third Ward rocks," "Fourth Ward rocks" and "Fifth Ward rocks." He also knocked over a mike stand, grabbed the guitar of the Rashomon Effect's Johnny Rojas and, for a second, looked like he was going to smash it to bits. Bassist Rob Wilharm wrestled it away before hustling Benczedi off the stage. Punk as fuck, my friends, punk as fuck
In fact, it was a little too punk for Wilharm and company. "He treated it like an open-mike night," says Wilharm. The punk karaoke night was his idea -- he adapted it from similar nights in New York and San Francisco -- and he doesn't want his show turning into a punk guitar pull. "Some latitude toward that is fine, but when he started going Pete Townshend with my friend's guitar, it wasn't funny anymore. If you're a musician, having someone mess with your guitar is like being violated."
And so Benczedi will likely be barred from the stage at future punk karaoke nights. "We're talking about banning him and the other guys from Rusted Shut," Wilharm says. "If we don't, it'll always be an open-mike night. Open-mike nights are great, but there are already plenty of those around, and I think they would get banned from those, too. Dom is totally not welcome on this stage. It's really sad for something like punk rock karaoke to have to have rules like that, but he's gonna find a way to make you have that limit. He's a bad boy."
Wilharm's protectiveness is understandable -- the 37-year-old has worked long and hard to put this together. After dropping out of college, the native of Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Osaka, Japan, where he put together an all-original punk band with two fellow expats, and also fell in love with karaoke. At first, he was an English teacher, but then he became the only American construction worker in Osaka, and stayed in Japan for three years.
Back in America, he continued playing punk. After hearing about the punk karaoke nights in other cities, a light bulb went off over his head. "I play originals, but I'm always learning covers just for kicks," he says. "At some point I realized I knew so many that I figured if I could just get a couple of guitar players we could do this."