By Andrew Ramirez
I’ll admit it—I’ve been to Oiwake in Little Tokyo a few times. The last time was way back when I still had those boots, the good brown ones that zipped up the inside ankle, and my black jacket with the sleeves crunched all the way up to my elbows. I gulped down a pitcher of Sapporo, wrapped my fingers around the mike, and—eyes shut, eyebrows lifted and arching—attempted to light a fire with some Jimbo Morrison-inspired croons and screams. A friend took a video. After the bar closed, I was sitting next to her in a cab. “Oh that was a Doors song?” she said. “Yeah, I can kind of tell,” and then: “Well, maybe.”
Located in the Japanese Village Plaza Mall on the second floor of a quiet gray building, Oiwake is the equivalent of several boxes of cool shit you happened to find stashed in your grandma’s attic. Belting songs on its raised stage—similar to rotating the buff arms of your older brother’s dusty He-Man action figure—starts out as a joke but quickly, too quickly, devolves into a life calling. The first time I went to Oiwake I didn’t know what I was getting into. In a T-shirt and regular fit jeans, New Balance tennis shoes, no serious rock star aspirations and a Digitron watch cinched tight on my wrist (Indiglo function if I needed it), I sang the classics—Come On Eileen, Ma Cherie Amour. But somewhere in the middle of Layla, the warm karaoke syrup started sliding around in my veins and I was undeniably and irrevocably a karaoke fiend.
The only downside/ day job saving grace to Oiwake is the karaoke selection. Void of any Lou Reed, Strokes, or even the good Janis Joplin songs—it’s like a sort-of-cool Christmas sweater or jean jacket that’s a half size too small. It doesn’t quite fit but it’s good enough to where if you roll up the sleeves, if you pull it at the seams here, a little there, well, maybe….Because the beer is cheap and if you’re surrounded by the right people, any minor Oiwake inadequacies disperse into nothing like early morning mist. A pitcher runs fifteen dollars and only on rare occasions will you get carded. The second time I went I had to show my ID. The Tennessee one with the bearded guy born in 1987 made the bartender smile. He flicked down on a handle and the tap dropped an autumn colored column into the plastic pitcher. When the froth slipped over the edge, he flicked up on the handle and said, “You must have just shaved, right?”
Two weeks later I reentered the karaoke area with another full pitcher, sans tennis shoes, and as much middle school stubble as I could muster.
Can any of this double as a life lesson? That it’s not the songs that make the karaoke bar, but the way they’re sung and how you feel singing them? Or more precisely: Both soaking up and wringing out sake-breathed encouragement. Hey that wasn’t half bad. In fact that was PRI-T good. It’s all make believe anyway, and you’re supposed to sound too-drunk and foolish when you lean into the mike and tell everyone to break on through (plus, if you’re too good at it, that’s just as, if not more, embarrassing).
So pull out all the stops and watch some YouTube videos for inspiration. Make like your favorite gone-too-soon rock star and act like him for three hours. Comb your hair the way you usually don’t comb your hair. If you can manage that, it’s only a headache the next morning, and I assure you you’ll still write the shit out of those English papers due Monday.
Oiwake (122 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, 90012)