I'm at the Wishing Well bar on a slow night. If you've ever been lost in North Portland, you may have been lucky enough to find yourself in the quaint, all-American neighborhood of St. Johns. About the only thing that resembles a chain business in these parts is the Burgerville two blocks away. I've been in the Wishing Well on more typical nights, when the place was full, the dance floor hopping, and the clientele resembled a bunch of bowlers celebrating some district championship. I sit and tap my toes, staring at a bowl of half-eaten pretzels that has been on my table (I'm guessing) all day long. I admire the black velvet paintings above the video poker games: three of a naked Hawaiian chick and one of an old Indian toking cheerfully on a peace pipe. I almost expect actor Jack Nance to come strolling in, but then I remember he's dead. My expectations switch to George Jones.
This is where Marlena Wray has been performing on weekends for the past two years. A lounge singer who has traveled through nearly every American state as a drummer, guitarist, and singer, Wray's eclectic repertoire includes Nat King Cole, Santana, Roy Orbison, Shania Twain, The Pretenders, The Righteous Brothers, Patsy Cline, Elvis, The Beatles, and even the Backstreet Boys. She is the perfect soundtrack for this scene.
Here, switching instruments every few songs, sometimes chatting during the instrumental breaks, she is the queen of rock-n-roll. Her offhand manner of performance tells you she is in command of these tunes. "I've never run into a song I can't pull off," she tells me.
Talking to her over a plate of shrimp, Wray strikes me as a renegade. Somewhere in her forties, her look is tough and wise, but also stylish and pretty, like a weather girl who could drink you under the table. Born in Illinois, then raised in Texas and Arizona, her parents fought with her about playing music, seeing the lifestyle as full of drugs and debauchery. She bought her first instruments with baby-sitting money and taught herself to play drums while learning three guitar chords off of a television show. She worshipped at the altars of The Beatles, Creedence, and Jefferson Airplane. When she was old enough she hit the road, touring with lounge acts as a drummer, playing in Holiday Inns and Ramadas.
In the late '80s, she learned that club owners didn't want to pay full bands, so she went solo. She mastered the art of sequencing (her Roland D-110 holds all her bass and drum tracks) and polished her voice into something delicate and confident, like Anne Murray mixed with Karen Carpenter. But for songs like "Honky Tonk Woman" her voice can transform into something saucy and inspired.
Wray has made a decent living doing this since moving to Portland in 1990, even recording four CDs which she sells at her gigs. In 1998, she won the Best Songwriter of the Year award from the Oregon Country Music Association with her own tune, "Who's to Blame."
However, despite these successes, Wray knows that the '80s were really the ideal time for musicians like her. At some point before the Clinton era, karaoke (which translates as "empty orchestra") began invading America like an evil red plague. Many clubs dumped their house bands and lounge singers and invested in KJs (Karaoke Jocks), letting their drunk patrons entertain each other.
"It helps people to feel like they're a star," says the coincidentally-named Starr, who runs the show at the Grand Cafe, one of Portland's hot spots for karaoke. "We have a great stage area, bright lights. People really get into it here." Indeed, people at the club often wait almost three hours to sing, and the list ranges from songs in Spanish to alternative bands like Hole. Other local clubs with a booming singalong crowd include the Galaxy, The Ambassador, and Chopsticks Express.
Jeff Shirk, an internet representative for Karaokewow.com, one of the biggest web sites for equipment in the country, says the home machines are really the hot thing these days. "There's about a 30 percent annual increase, and most of that is from sales of home machines. People go out to the bars and sing; then they want to go home and practice." But is the karaoke craze pushing aside real talent for self-indulgence?
"I feel bad for the lounge singer," says Shirk, "but the majority of the country wants to be stars themselves When I go out to watch karaoke, I kind of prefer to see the really bad singers. It's more entertaining. If they're all really good, it's too much like a talent show." Karaokewow.com is in its eighth year of business and doesn't seem to be slowing down. "The thing is, every year you think [karaoke's] going to die, but it keeps coming back."
To hear Marlena Wray talk about karaoke-mania you'd think she was commenting on the devil's music. "If I go to hell, it'll be a karaoke bar," she tells me. "Nothing good can be said about karaoke. Just look at the cover of the songbook. It says in bold print: NO TALENT REQUIRED! So for starters, with the minute exception of a handful of singers--which I have yet to hear--karaoke is painful to listen to, usually extremely loud and obnoxious, and gives false hope to people who THINK they can sing.
But most importantly, it takes jobs away from musicians who make their living from playing an instrument and/or singing, and who have paid their dues working in clubs. There is a lot more to singing than just half-assedly croaking out a song watching the words on a TV monitor."
The OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) doesn't help matters either. Here in the Wishing Well, there are several grumpy rules posted next to the bar, including: No doubles, 30-60 minutes between drinks, and no Long Island Ice Tea after midnight. "The OLCC are like nazis," says Wray. "It kind of makes drinking at home sound like a better option." Still, she can't complain too much. The days of the lounge singer may have fallen into the abyss, but if they have, Wray is clutching to its edge with a strong hand. The Wishing Well, like a time portal to the "good ol' days," offers a lavishly decorated setting and a mostly faithful audience for her solid brand of one-woman-band musical genius.
Marlena Wray plays on most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the Wishing Well in St. John's (8800 N Lombard) from 9 pm until 2 am. Check her web site for other gigs: http://www.transport.com/ ~twinktune