Two young Asian men, standing behind a desk protecting so much audio equipment it looked like a movie set of a NASA control room, pointed me toward a labyrinth of smoky glass adorned with the occasional large-scale photo of a scary clown or an endless field of flowers. I passed a cooler full of Heinekens and Gatorade and bottled Frappuccinos, then found my destination: a room sponge-painted forest green and upholstered in grandma floral fabric, with mirrors everywhere.
I was at Court Hill, a karaoke bar in Albany Park, for a birthday party for Chicago Antisocial photographer Andrea Bauer. After monopolizing her weekends for almost two years now, I would’ve been an asshole if I’d skipped her special night just because I really hate karaoke.
Court Hill is one of those places where you pay $75 an hour for a little room where you and your friends can sing to one another in private. When you walk in you’re handed a remote and a paper plate of Chex Mix. Every half hour you get three pitchers of fruity spiked punch–peach, apple, and lemon–no matter how small your party is or how little you’ve put away of the last batch.
You pick a song from a pile of binders listing about a million titles, then program in the corresponding number. It’s harder than it sounds–the digital interface is in Korean, and the remote’s buttons say simply, and puzzlingly, man, woman, up, and down.
My gift to Andrea was inviting Peter Enger to her party. He drives a cab for money, but he’s known around town as a karaoke superstar.
Four years ago a friend of Enger’s had a birthday party at Sidekicks, a legendary karaoke bar in Uptown. Enger went, but he wasn’t really into it: “I wasn’t thinking that I was going to sing or whatever,” he says. “I was just there to support my friend.”
The first song his friend chose was Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” which “she destroyed so thoroughly that I couldn’t remember how it was supposed to sound by the time she was done with it,” he says. “I was like, Oh my god. I could do this.”
He and the birthday girl signed up to do a duet of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” but when they got up there he wouldn’t let her near the mike. “I kept pushing her away. There was something in me that came out.”
For many years before that moment, Enger had led an isolated life. “I had a few close friends periodically,” he says. “I hadn’t been good at keeping friends for a long time. . . . I lived in dens for years, little caves that I never cleaned, and would never have anybody over. I always imagined I wanted people I could invite over or have social things, but I never did.”
Karaoke changed all that. After that fateful party, he says, “I’d get home from work and I’d be like, I’m having feelings. I need therapy.” Therapy meant singing at Sidekicks. “When I was sad, I’d sing a sad song. It would always improve my mood. It was cathartic.”
He started collecting wacky clothes from thrift stores–too-tight glittery shirts, leopard-print anything, hideous skirts–and brought bags full of his new wardrobe to the bar. “I liked to show up like a regular person and sign up for a song, go in the bathroom, and come out in some weird costume,” he says. His signature was a cape–red on one side, black on the other–that he picked up when he was doing volunteer work for the African People’s Socialist Party in Oakland in the 70s. (He moved to Chicago in 1994 to work on the campaign to free Fred Hampton Jr., in prison for aggravated arson.)
For his songs, Enger would dress in drag as a dowdy schoolmarm, say, or a sheikh with a scarf lashed around his head. “I want to look like the other,” he says, meaning “not American.” He was born in the U.S. but mostly grew up in Seoul; his parents taught English at Korean universities. “I thought I was a little Korean boy. When a little American girl would walk by I was up in the trees with the other Korean boys looking at her like she was some strange object. Even though I looked just like her.”
He moved back to the States in 1974. He was 19 and had a pregnant wife, Soo, and $140 in his pocket. They bounced around the country with their daughter, Molla, for a year and a half, then chose Oakland “for the hippies and street life,” he says. He and Soo separated five years later.
A few months after he discovered his passion for karaoke, Enger started circulating flyers at coffee shops advertising his performances. “I did this only to please myself,” he says. “It felt so funny and amusing to pretend like I was this guy who thinks he’s a star, to play it up like, Wow, I’m the shit.”
One Saturday night in 2002, some producers from Jenny Jones came to Sidekicks. Enger says they interviewed several regulars, but they focused on him, a newcomer. “I knew they were gonna want me. I just knew. I’d never even seen the show.” He became the main subject on an episode about quirky passions ruining personal relationships–he convinced his daughter, who was 28 at the time, to pretend to be embarrassed by him.
Getting on the show “caused some bad feelings among some of the regulars who had been doing karaoke for years and years,” Enger says. “They were pissed that I was this newbie who came in with a cape.”
He was eighty-sixed for good in January 2005. “I barely tapped the mike. The DJ told me not to do that again. So I went up there for my next song–I was really drunk–and made a big speech about how I told the owner if I broke anything I would pay for it so don’t fuck with my act. And then I banged it again and they threw me out.”
Enger is 50 now. He goes out to karaoke a couple times a month, at Carol’s Pub and the Hidden Cove, but from 2002 to 2004 he was singing three to five nights a week, about eight songs a night. Still, Andrea’s birthday party was his first time at Court Hill. He showed up quietly and perused the binders. He asked a friend of Andrea’s to program in his song–he wouldn’t tell anybody else what it was–then slipped out of the room.
He came back in wearing leopard-print stretch pants, a tight black shirt with a rhinestone star, the cape, and a sparkly head scarf and pro-ceeded to yell his way through “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight” by the Cutting Crew, not completely missing any notes but not really hitting them either. He jumped and kicked and swished his cape around. It wasn’t exactly what I’d call good, but his enthusiasm was breathtaking.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.