Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{We Imaginary Girls think we throw some pretty great karaoke parties. But we're amazed by our imaginary friend Johnny Nighttrain, who was recently crowned the Karaoke Champion of the Czech Republic 2004 and he's heading to Finland to compete for the World Karaoke Champion title July 28-31, 2004! Big things happen to those who love the karaoke! This article originally ran in May 2004, but we're re-running it because Johnny's back in town, and he's throwing a fundraiser bash at the Rendevous on July 24th to help him get to Finland for the big championship. We highly suggest you attend!!}


There'll be a load of compromisin'
on the road to my horizon
but I'm gonna be where the lights are shining on me…
Glen Campbell "Rhinestone Cowboy"

I woke up on the floor. Actually, I was sprawled across the feet of Jessica, my friend visiting from Seattle, who was slowly kicking me awake.

"Sorry" I apologized to her, not sure what for yet but figuring it was the safest thing to say. The plastic crown signifying the beginning of my karaoke reign lay on the floor above the now-wilting rose that she had given me during the rendition of "I will always love you" that won me the championship. I got up off the floor, stumbled back into my bed and fell asleep.


"Move your hips more." Jessica told me.

"I'm trying, but I can't get my arm and hips to move at the same time." I said.

We were standing in my bedroom rehearsing for the championship and Jessica, a bonafide dancer, was helping me try to choreograph dance moves. Fortunately she had a great sense of humor.

"Ok, let's take it from the top." she said. I hit Enter and an illicit download of La Isla La Bonita began bumping from the computer. I held the end of a jump rope in my hand to simulate the microphone, and crouched facing the wall.

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro, I mouthed, spinning around,
Warm wind carried on the sea he called to me, I brought my hand up in circles and slowly stood, trying to channel the spirit of beautiful flamenco dancers.

"Am I beautiful?" I asked.
Jessica laughed. "More hips," she said.


I sat on the tram riding to Lucerna, the karaoke venue, and looked up at the churches and spires of Prague as they drifted past. I felt good, content, like after you check your luggage at the airport. I wondered about how strange life was and how some people were starving and other people were rich and how I was going to participate in the Czech Republic's karaoke championship. I couldn't escape the feeling that it was my destiny to end up here, which made me smile on the tram. The idea of God having any hand in a karaoke contest is about as absurd as him choosing a favorite boxer. How did I get here? As Susie told me "from skill, hard work, and perseverance", all characteristics I never, ever applied to anything else in my life. In fact, I'm one of the laziest people I know. I guess because karaoke is kind of a joke for me though, its ok for me to excel at. If you fail at karaoke you don't fall very far.

Anyone can do karaoke, and the worst karaoke singers are my favorite. Karaoke is the handgun of entertainment. No longer do you have to be beautiful or talented to perform- anyone can do it. You only have to be drunk.


I got into an argument with the doorman because he demanded the 100 crown cover charge (about four bucks) from me even though I was a competitor and on the list.

"You should pay me." I said.

"What?" he said.

"You should pay me."

"You must be joking." He said in his robotic Czech accent. I knew that was the end of the conversation. As I walked down the stairs I felt like a chump. This whole thing was a racket. I should start my own karaoke business and run "championships", apparently there were plenty of gullible people willing to pay to get on stage.


The Lucerna music bar is a big, almost Showbox size venue, with two floors: an upper floor with balconies and a lower floor with the main stage. The regular stage had been expanded with a large round disc-like projection enabling the singers to moon to the audience from 360 degrees. The singers were cordoned off to one side of the bar where the stage entrance was. I recognized a few faces: Radmilla, a tall blond Czech singer with a beautiful voice, Melvis, a man who looked like a tall, gangly version of Steve Buscemi, and Mateo, a baby-faced man who looked as though he'd crawled from the gutter of a Humphrey Bogart movie- slicked back hair, black silk shirt, cigarette in one hand, whiskey in the other. I knew him because we'd already competed in the qualifying rounds. He had an amazing, Sinatra-like voice. I had never heard anybody that wasn't on a CD with that kind of voice- a smooth tenor with perfect pitch.

A pudgy American guy in sweatpants and a baseball cap and sat down next to me.

"Steve." He said, extending his hand. I glanced around, other people were wearing suits, silk shirts, bow ties, although Melvis was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he surely wasn't wearing sweat pants. Steve had a hell of a pair of balls. I smiled. "Johnny Nighttrain" I said.


Johnny Nighttrain was a stage name I adopted while drunk and singing karaoke at Lelani Lanes in Seattle in 1999. This was just before New Year's Eve 2000 when we'd attached a karaoke machine and a goats head to a flat-black RV borrowed from an illegally emigrated Australian with a missing tooth and had driven around Seattle singing karaoke on the streets. We'd shown up at the Breakroom where they were having karaoke and challenged them to a duel. Everyone was drunk and dancing on dumpsters outside the RV, which broke down later in the night and had to be towed back to the Australian's warehouse where it was later scrapped for parts. I returned the karaoke machine to Radio Shack a few days later, claiming 'bad Christmas gift idea'. I kept the stage name though.

That was during the salad days of karaoke when I still had a dream — to buy the RV and drive around the country singing karaoke and filming a documentary along the way. Imagine singing 'Born in the USA' in the Mt. Rushmore parking lot, or pulling up outside stars houses and challenging them to karaoke versions of their own songs — "Yes, I know you wrote 'All Night Long', Mr. Richie, but I think I can do it better than you." Nicer celebrities like Dolly Parton might even invite us in for a cup of tea or a beer.

For awhile it seemed like it was really might happen- but I needed the people- the Midnight Lover, Joseph the Explosive, Mr. Getz, Bree Nichols, Thomas Bridgeman- amazing, funny, brilliant, unreliable and flat broke. It was hard enough to get them all to show up at the same bar, much less commit to a trip across the country. I still think I could take Lionel Richie though.


Karaoke King of Czech!Steve and Becky, the karaoke hosts, gave us our instructions and we drew numbers. I drew number 6 of 24. It seeme
d like a good one- not first but early enough that the judges would still be paying attention. I slapped it on my polyester shirt and went back to annoy the barman by ordering another pot of tea.

Everyone else was drinking beer, but I'd decided to refrain until after the competition, when I figured I would need a drink one way or the other.

People shuffled in and the tables filled. Finally, the judges took the stage- there were four of them and they sat in back of the performers, I was relieved to see that they had beer- hopefully they would find my performance amusing.

The karaoke began- an average rendition of One by U2, more than slightly off-key. My friends Jessica, Suzie and Emily came as it started. I talked to them nervously.

My number came up quickly and I took the stage.

"Jmenuji se Hanzik Nocnivlak." I said into the microphone "I'm Johnny Nighttrain."

I turned around and crouched away from the audience, head bowed towards the ground. I thought about the outline I had scribbled in the back of my notebook so I could remember what to do:

Dance Moves for La Isla Bonita

Song Part Move
Beginning Crouch, Turn
1st Verse Spanish Waves – MOVE HIPS
1st Chorus Big Arm Movements
Interlude Stomping or short shuffling footsteps
Chorus/Bridge Point out girl in audience, hip thrusts, lay down, "wake up" – Crawling sequence
Last part entangle self in mic cord, crouch

The performance went basically as scripted, I forgot a few moves but did manage to do the rub my chest and do crouching hip thrusts during the bridge where the lyrics go Where a girl loves a boy and a boy…..loves a girl. No major screw-up in the rest of the song and the audience cheered when I finished. I exited the stage breathless.


The next performers were fairly average until Melvis took the stage. I don't know when he changed from his t-shirt and jeans but he was now wearing a sparkling white Elvis suit complete with sequins and sunglasses. The audience went crazy. He sang Suspicious Minds, his voice high and squeaky and his movements frenetic. The audience stood and cheered. I can't beat him, I thought to myself. The other two highlights were Steve, who stood in his sweatpants and did a perfect version of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing", and Mateo, who sang The Stray Cat Strut — his voice was smooth as Astraglide, though he stared into the balcony the whole time..

The end of the first round came and half the singers were disqualified. I heard my number in those who'd made it to the second round, and Susie gave me a high-five.


I was up sooner this time and the audience clapped. I didn't have a dance plan for this song (Mack the Knife) I just improvised on stage. I remember doing the box-step, running around the stage, and pantomiming things like "the shark babe, has such teeth dear".

"You nailed it Johnny." Steve told me as I exited the stage. I wasn't sure. Its hard to compare yourself to others, and I had no idea what the judges thought of my antics.

As I waited for the round to end I contemplated the lack of Czechs in the competition- out of 24 contestants there were probably 4 Czechs. I decided that it was partly becuase of the lack of karaoke in Prague, and an unwillingness on the part of the Czech people to humiliate themselves publicly, a characteristic mostly inherent in Americans.

Melvis sang again but the response wasn't as overwhelming this time- the Elvis theme wasn't as impressive on the second round. Mateo sang an amazing version of New York New York and Steve a perfect Eminem song.

When they announced my number for the final round I felt giddy. My friends were hooting and clapping. I was the second performer to take the stage. I sat down on a step on the stage and began Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You'

If I should stay, I would only be in your way

I knew the song perfectly after a year's forced exposure during junior high when my sister had blasted it from her room.

Jessica and Emily handed me roses during my performance.

"How you all doin' tonight?" I talked to the audience during the the instrumental. "You're beautiful, you're all beautiful people."

I got off the stage and Susie hugged me. My friend Tom handed me a beer and a shot of Becherovka, the herbal liquor Czechs used as a cureall for everything from the common cold to athlete's foot.

"Great job Johnny." Melvis told me after my number. He'd washed out after the second round.

"Man, I can't believe I beat you after that first round performance." I said.

"Yeah, well you know, the kids these days, they don't know Elvis, and you can sing that pop shit. Plus you've got the moves."

Steve sang another Eminem song, which was good but plagued by technical difficulties. Mateo sang 'Mack the Knife'. The songs had been pre-chosen before the contest, and although his voice was still great, he seemed to somehow wilt into the background, looking sallow and downcast, By that time we were all down on the floor in front of the stage dancing, cheering the final performers on and spilling beer on ourselves to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by one of the female performers. When they finished and got ready to announce the winners I was almost sad. I extricated myself from the girl I was dancing with and my friends clustered around me.

They announced the women's category first. Radmilla, my Czech favorite, came in second, and Gail, a controversial karaoke contestant since she'd been trained as a opera singer, took first. Then they announced the men.

"Third place karaoke singer in the Czech Republic- Steve."

I couldn't think or feel my fingers because Susie and Jessica were gripping my hands so tightly.

"Second place singer in the Czech republic- Mateo!"

"Holy shit, motherfucker- you're the fucking karaoke champion of the Czech republic!" Susie bear-hugged me and almost knocked me over.

"Karaoke Champion of the Czech Republic,- Johnny Nighttrain!"

Gail and I climbed onto stage and grinned giddily as they placed plastic crowns upon our heads.

"The winners will be going to Finland in July to represent the Czech Republic in the Karaoke World Championships!" The audience cheered. The rest was a predictable blur- I remember calling the Midnight Lover in Seattle and leaving a message on his machine, and as karaoke king trying to order the tram to run backwards.

We came back to my flat and dumped my prize bag out on the floor, which consisted of: A Finnair (official airline of Finland) Mug, A Finnair poster, a poster from the Czech Championship, a certificate naming me karaoke champion of the Czech Republic (complete with wax seal, evidently to distinguish it from forgeries), A jar of Nescafe Gold instant coffee (Gold for the champion- did second place get regular Nescafe?), and several bars of chocolate.

"I can't believe you're going to Finland!" Emily told me.

The next memory was the floor.