Next week, Seattle's Johnny Nighttrain heads to Finland to compete in the World Karaoke Championships. Is he some kind of Idiot?
As with the proverbial world's tallest midget, the title "karaoke champion" seems to carry an inherent slight. To celebrate accomplishment at such a negligible endeavor--fitting your fist in your mouth, impersonating Miss Piggy, solo performance art--invites unflattering speculation: "It's nice that you're good at something, but... do you really want others to know?" When the endeavor is karaoke, the pathos skyrockets. The whole notion of competitive karaoke seems built on artistic dreams deferred. Certainly no legitimately gifted singer could stand for his or her talent to radiate no farther than the karaoke stage, home to any drunk bridesmaid who can scrawl out "Kokomo."
I first learned of Johnny Nighttrain when his alter ego Zach Miller, a 28-year-old Puyallup native, sent an e-mail about his forthcoming participation in the world karaoke championships. When we meet in person--in a booth at Linda's--Johnny Nighttrain brings his manager, a fedora-sporting lug in a wife-beater and mustache, who introduces himself as the Midnight Lover.
"The first time anyone saw Johnny sing they instantly knew they were in the presence of genius," says the 27-year-old Lover (given name: Justin Deary), who, like a good manager, keeps his star stocked with White Russians throughout the evening. When I press him for specifics, he gives only unsettling generalizations: "He's magic. He's fire. He gets really into it."
This much is fact: In the last months of the last millennium, Johnny Nighttrain was introduced to the Midnight Lover at the local karaoke hot spot Leilani Lanes. Soon after, the duo joined forces for their first large-scale karaoke experiment: Karaoke Street Party NY2K, for which they rigged a rented RV with a karaoke machine inside and speakers outside, then spent New Year's Eve 1999 driving around while riders performed inside. "The cops shut us down pretty quick," says the Midnight Lover, but the experiment was a veritable karaoke boot camp for Johnny Nighttrain, who performed karaoke with his new manager every week for two years, honing his performance skills, gaining confidence and admirers, and learning valuable lessons. ("Never attempt Hammer's 'Too Legit To Quit,'" says Johnny. "It's way faster than you remember.")
Then, like so many antsy graduates before him, the man inside of Johnny Nighttrain--Zach Miller, an Evergreen grad with an interest in literature--fell victim to the siren song of teaching English overseas. In 2003, Miller departed for a yearlong teaching stint in the Czech Republic--but Johnny Nighttrain would not be shoved aside. "Hosting karaoke in Prague was my destiny," says Johnny, who, at the urging of his new Czech friends, signed up for the Czech Republic's national karaoke competition (for which permanent Czech residency was not a requirement). After delivering an impassioned rendition of "The Rose," Johnny Nighttrain was pulled aside by the regionals' Scottish judge, who informed him he'd be advancing to the national finals. "But don't sing 'The Rose'!" huffed the judge. "It's a song for women!"
At the finals--held in a glitzy Prague nightclub tricked out with towering video screens--Johnny Nighttrain socked it to the Scottish judge in the first round, slithering through Madonna's spicily feminine "La Isla Bonita" and advancing to the semifinals, where he delivered a rousing rendition of "Mack the Knife" (complete with choreographed box step) and proceeded to the finals. In the closing round, Nighttrain delivered a volcanic performance of Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You"--another slap at that gender-biased Scottish judge, and another knockout for Johnny Nighttrain, who was crowned karaoke champion of the Czech Republic. Next week, he'll represent his temporary homeland in the World Karaoke Championships.
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Upon reaching this point in the narrated backstory, it occurs to me that I've never heard Johnny Nighttrain actually sing. We find someone sober enough to drive and head up north to the Rickshaw, where the Czech champ is immediately recognized. "You're Johnny Nighttrain, aren't you?" asks a friendly brunette. "I saw you sing here the other night..."
When the Midnight Lover zips away for drinks and song slips, leaving Johnny and me alone, I pop the question: "So... what drew you to karaoke, instead of, say, something real?"
His answer is immediate. "I think my generation feels like you can't succeed at anything serious. With karaoke, it's all irony and no risk." His answer sounds like a sound bite, and, smelling bullshit, I remind him of something he'd mentioned earlier in the evening: his forthcoming departure for New York City, where he'll attend the New School to study poetry--perhaps the least ironic endeavor available to man. "I originally got into poetry because I thought it would be easier to write than fiction," he says with a laugh. "I was wrong, but by the time I figured this out, I was fascinated."
Johnny Nighttrain's name is called by the Rickshaw's hostess, and he takes the stage for his celebrated "La Isla Bonita." (Those of you wondering if Johnny Nighttrain's predominately female repertoire signifies his homosexuality, you're not alone, but we're all wrong--he's a straight guy, a fact reinforced by the guilelessly expressive movements of his arms and legs.) It's a joyously over-the-top performance, complete with rolled r's and ass slaps, and the Rickshaw's two dozen patrons go nuts. And while it's immediately evident that Johnny Nighttrain is no great shakes as a singer, or dancer, he is an undisputed karaoke star. Chalk it up to charisma, energy, and a profound lack of shame: With each fearless performance, Johnny Nighttrain goes to bat for all those who've ever wanted to sing but believed they couldn't, or shouldn't; in their honor, Johnny hits it out of the park.
Amped by Johnny's balls-out performance, the Rickshaw kicks into high gear, with what seems the whole bar screaming along with one young lady as she scales the psychodramatic mountain that is "Total Eclipse of the Heart." It's a thrilling collection of minutes, and it sends me off with a head full of deep thoughts about the nature of karaoke, where stardom is parceled out among the masses and anyone who wants it gets a turn on the celebrity pedestal, if only for the duration of "Love Shack."
Later that night, my Rickshaw epiphanies get a handy comparative study at the Crocodile, where a benefit for Rat City Rollergirls has brought together a roster of musicians playing their favorite cover songs. When I arrive, Bobby Bare Jr., and his band are thrashing out selections from the Pixies' songbook--eternally exciting compositions played by a burning-hot band, but they achieve nowhere near the transcendence of the shout-alongs at the Rickshaw. If part of the blame lies with Seattle's live-rock audience, whose fragile hearts might shatter should they dare to uncross their arms, much less dance, much of the credit must go to the likes of Johnny Nighttrain, who, in the dorkiest way imaginable, is preserving the primal experience of live music better than anyone not affiliated with the Southern Baptist church. God bless 'em, and wish him luck.
Hungry for a taste of the Nighttrain? Come to Johnny's pre-championship sendoff karaoke party at the Rendezvous (2320 Second Ave) this Sat, July 24, 7-10 pm, $7-10 suggested donation.