I've never seen a karaoke book that offers King Missile's "Detachable Penis." But there it is, alongside songs by the Buzzcocks and the Cure, Dio and Judas Priest, on the menu at Rory Lake's Karaoke Dreams. Lake started his karaoke night four years ago at the Prodigal Son on North Halsted, and now hosts it more or less monthly in the bright and smoky basement bar of the American Legion post at 1824 W. Cortland in Bucktown. On this particular Saturday night the folks on the mike are neglecting the unusual offerings in favor of more conventional selections. A grizzled man does a monotone "Reelin' In the Years." A young woman in a plaid miniskirt does an emotional "Keep On Loving You."
Lake, who's nearly tall enough to scrape his head on the basement's low ceiling, is dressed in a track suit and (I hope) wearing Billy Bob teeth with braces. He occasionally pitches in on backing vocals, whether anybody asks him to or not. Around 10:30 he does his own version of "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass. Between lines he exhorts the crowd to sign up, sing along, and dance, and people continue to stream down the narrow stairs till the room is uncomfortably packed. The karaoke console is his own, and he treats it like the control panel of the Enterprise. He calls his regulars "Dreamers," singling out some by name, others by their pigtails or the color of their shirt. He looks positively thrilled whenever he sees someone dancing, and if he doesn't think enough people are, he'll shake his own stuff to set a good example. He goads a fellow he's nicknamed "Steal Thunder" up into the hot spot to mug his way through a hip-swinging version of "Jailbreak." It's hard to stay awkward and self-conscious here for long.
Though Lake, 40, was born in Texas and still has some sort of accent, he says he's lived in or around Chicago for about 13 years. He operates as a freelance promoter, often partnering with Brian Peterson at MP Shows, who books at venues like the Note and the Abbey Pub. "Doin' my Karaoke Dreams shows pulls in a little money," Lake says, "and I'm doing more private parties and such. I also do odd jobs, like lawn work and whatever I can find within reason on Craigslist, and I sell stuff on the eBay. I've even done some radio voice-over work for commercials." He used to stay with a friend in Kankakee who was frequently on tour, living rent free in exchange for house-sitting services; earlier this year he moved to Chicago, and for now he's crashing with another friend. "I was always comin' into the city for all the shows I was doin'," he explains. "You gotta be where things are happening."
The big event on Lake's calendar right now is his fourth annual Battle of the Bands. Friday through Sunday the Note will host the preliminary rounds, with four bands each night, and in January the three finalists will compete for the title--plus the traditional prize, a free day of studio time. Saturday night's round is anchored by San Diego gore-grind kings Cattle Decapitation, squaring off against locals Lair of the Minotaur, (Lone) Wolf & Cub, and the Chicago Thrash Ensemble. This year all the other acts are locals too--Cealed Kasket, Boys on Trial, Hotlips Messiah--and the judges are mostly scene celebrities or members of other area bands. There's no real attempt at objectivity or even consistency in the judging, and the results are usually more slapdash sketch comedy than sincere competition.
Lake composed and recorded the battle's theme song, a sort of dirgy processional he plays on keyboard; for each night of the battle he tweaks the lyrics to include the names of the bands. He and a friend also shoot short introductory videos for all the judges, which are projected on a big screen before the music. Last year's are archived at rorylakepresents.com: Poet Thax Douglas sits on a sofa, choking with laughter while struggling to hold on to a cat, and wanders through a grocery store. Tamiz, who performs weekly at the Note as part of the comedy/variety show Public Hair, uses a half dozen different settings and just as many ridiculous spangly costumes to reminisce about his fictional career as a Bollywood actor and electroclash artist. Velcro Lewis invites us into his glamorous life as a househusband and threatens to chuck his son's dirty diapers at bands that suck.
"Last year's battle, we didn't have the last videos finished until about an hour before the show," Lake says. He says he does the films to "get people pumped, bring everybody in." And the judges share the stage with the bands--part of Lake's effort to "make it an event, not just another boring rock show."
Brian Peterson has been Lake's partner for all the battles. "He wanted to put me to the test, to see if I can run my own shows," Lake says. "He wanted to do something like a variety show--he has his own thing like that, Public Hair--but he's more into the comedy. We did a few variety-type shows, and then had to figure out what to call it. Hey, Battle of the Bands!"
MP Shows' collaboration with Lake also led to its long relationship with the now defunct Bottom Lounge. "The first battle was at Lakeview Links, before they changed the name to Bottom Lounge," says Peterson. "We thought it would be funny to do it in a club that nobody went to. Oddly enough that's when I first realized that Lakeview Links existed, and after talking to the owner I found out they were changing the name and had an all-ages license, so I started to do regular shows there."
Every year the crowds for the Battle of the Bands have grown, but it's still so friendly it's practically incestuous. Everybody onstage seems to know everybody else, so that the event sometimes feels like a giant mutual noncelebrity roast. Among the judges on Friday night are nerdy accordion rockers Herc., who had to be "resurrected" after their alter egos and archnemeses, Metal Porpoise, impaled their heads on mike stands at last year's battle. One of the bands they'll be judging this year is Metal Porpoise.
As emcee, Lake is so blustery, enthusiastic, and unabashedly dorky that he can make the more naturally reserved feel churlish about their own temperament. It's hard to describe what's so special about the silly spectacle he's put together, but Peterson is willing to take a crack at it: "It's sort of like Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding or something," he says, "but with rock bands and more drinking."
For more on Cattle Decapitation and Lair of the Minotaur, see the Treatment in Section 3.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Shaina Boone.