The piano was playing, somebody in a witch costume was singing her heart out, and there were only two free tables when we got to Martuni’s early on Halloween night. I would have picked the smaller table closer to the piano, right in the middle of everything, but my out-of-town friend “Heather” preferred to sit as far back from the piano as possible, with a wall at our backs, so that’s what we did.
Most of the room was in costume; they’d come to be festive. We were in street clothes. Whenever anyone asked me what my costume was, I gave the same answer I’d been giving all weekend: “I’m a life coach.” There was always a stunned pause, and then a laugh. Once, I tried switching it up and said, “I’m a sexy life coach.” That time there wasn’t a laugh, so I switched back. Make of that what you will.
Martuni’s, at Valencia and Market streets, is one of the city’s last honest-to-God piano bars. The premise of the night, we soon realized, was that people were supposed to show up in costume, then go to the microphone and sing a song that went along with the theme of their costume. That’s a pretty good premise. It was only honored about half the time: Some people would come up and clearly do costume-related schtick, some people would come up and give a long and detailed explanation for why this song was appropriate for their costume, and some people would just go up and sing whatever it was that they were going to sing anyway. But when it worked, it worked.
Heather is a musician; she plays bass and has a band that mostly performs folk music at Renaissance festivals across the midwest. She took the room in, got comfortable in her chair, and sighed contentedly. “I’m in heaven.”
The waiter came up to us and asked what we were drinking. I’d warned Heather that the martinis here were tasty, but not spectacular — but are spectacularly strong. She hesitated, then ordered a classic martini with gin and olives.
“For you?” the server asked
I sighed. “I’m … I can’t drink tonight,” I said. I’ve been sick. It’s been a whole thing. Don’t ask.
“No problem,” he said.
“Do you have a mocktail?”
“We do,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” I said. It’s a crime to take up a table at Martunis on a busy night and not order anything.
This was a hot room, heavy on showtunes and filled with people who knew how to sing them. Most theaters are dark on Monday nights, and so a tradition has developed of professional performers coming out to Martuni’s on Monday nights to sing their hearts out for fun instead of money. You get a lot fewer pop songs and a lot more Sondheim. It’s a sight to behold … especially with costumes.
But it was still early in the evening, and so the piano player sometimes had to work the crowd for volunteers.
“Come on,” he said. “Who’s going to come up and be my next victim?”
“Are you going to sing something?” Heather asked me.
The drinks came out fast and, I have to say. That mocktail wasn’t subtle or nuanced or interesting, but it was damn tasty. I’d guess it had a Sprite base, definitely some pineapple juice, and then something else, maybe guava or grenadine. I didn’t ask, I was just happy to order them.
The next time the piano player had an empty space at the mic and was pushing for someone to come up, I stood up. I walked over.
“Hi!” he said. “What are you going to sing?”
“Hallelujah,” I told him.
He gave me a pained look. “Seriously?”
“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” I told him. “Yes.”
“It’s a downer,” he said.
“Not the way I sing it.”
His scowl deepened. What the fuck was happening here?
“Look,” I said after a long pause, “you want people to sing, and that’s a song I do well. And my only back-up song is ‘Irene Goodnight,’ which is the most depressing song in the world … ”
“We usually don’t do that until the end of the night,” he said.
“Apparently, I’m very inconvenient for you. Sorry about that. But you were asking the room for somebody to come up, and I have to think you’ve worked with a lot less reasonable song choices than this, so take your pick, or send me back, I guess. What are we doing here?”
Another long moment, another scowl, and then he started to play. He wouldn’t even look at me while we performed together.
But the room picked it up, and sang along beautifully. It is such a privilege and a pleasure to get to sing with so much talent. They cheered, loudly, when it was done. We’d had a good moment.
“I heard half of the argument you got into,” Heather said when I sat back down. “His half, because he was talking into the microphone.”
I nodded. “I have a hard time thinking that any song where people are singing along is a downer. It doesn’t matter what the lyrics are, if people are throwing themselves into singing it with you, it feels good.”
“Absolutely,” she said.
“Now … are you going to get up and sing something?”
“Oh, no, absolutely not.”
“Really?” I asked. After all, she is a professional musician …
“No. I’m like you, I don’t know very many songs that work in this format. And …”
Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the strength of the drinks, or maybe people are inclined to confess to someone who’s just belted out “Hallelujah,” but she told me, then, about how her father was also a professional musician, and he’d forced her to sing on stage with him when she was very young. It had caused her to develop crippling stage fright; her vocal chords would literally lock up. She’d overcome it … she’d worked hard to overcome it … and now she was a performing musician, too, but it left scars. It left trauma, and while she loved singing with people, she wasn’t going to sing unfamiliar songs in front of people.
“I grew up in a house where people sang together and made live music, and it was the best thing in my life,” she would later tell me, “and I refused to give that up. I had to be part of it. And so I ended up learning how, and I sing in front of people professionally, but I don’t sing casually. Never. I want to be part of this, but … not that part.”
This room was heaven for her, but only if she was part of the crowd.
“Got it,” I said. “No problem.”
We ordered another round.
The room was getting packed. There were no more tables free, and people were standing in the spaces between them. Everyone in full costume. Next to my table, someone dressed as the sexy nurse from the album cover for Blink182’s “Enema of the State” was getting her picture taken in the pose on the album.
“From your costume I’m guessing you’re … a life coach?” I told her. Apparently I had one punchline that night.
She grinned. “I am!” When her photo session was done, she shook her head. “I thought I was being so original with this costume, but I’ve already seen three other people I know posting pictures of themselves in it … ”
A few songs later, the piano players switched out. The room was sardines in a can when Joe Wicht, the new piano player, came in to take over. There would be no more empty moments anymore: People had come to sing, and a long list of singers was put together. As it got busier, it became more communal. More and more people sang along, doing the choruses of the songs they knew.
When someone sang the opening song to “The Sound of Music,” the whole room came in to do the “ah ah ah ah” vocalizations underneath the lyrics. It was glorious, it was hilarious, it was so, so, much better than a haunted house. Heather worked at not sliding to the floor after her second martini. They really are that strong.
Next to me, a woman in a dark, semi-slinky get-up with a row of spikes on her head asked if she could put her jacket on the back of my chair while she stood.
“Of course,” I said. And then, “I’m trying to figure out your costume, and I’m guessing you’re a … orthopedic surgeon? Because the last orthopedic surgeon I had was dressed just like that.”
You can’t have just one punch line. You have to experiment with new things.
“Only in the operating room,” she said. “That’s the only time we dress like this.”
In fact, she explained, she was a sea monster from a video game.
What a strange and wonderful world.
Pandemic or not, I shouldn’t have stayed away from Martuni’s for so long.