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Old Schooled

Tony Gleeson

The sign outside MJ's Rock 'n' Roll Clubhouse reads "Eat, Drink, Remember." Which didn't make much sense to me, since the second item generally precludes the third. But when I entered the red-lit joint with the black-and-white tiled arch and the posters of Elvis and some dude on stage was belting out the King's "Believe Me" (and to be fair, a pretty good rendition) to a prerecorded track, I had a head-slapping moment: So that's what the sign meant. It's that kinda rock 'n' roll — the sort that is practically wholesome.

Offering the musical equivalent of comfort food (and wouldn't you know it — there's even meatloaf on the menu!), the old Mexican restaurant Jalapeños had been converted into a shrine to Baby Boomer nostalgia — including a cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe at the corner of the bar.

Friend Emily was coming straight from school to meet up, so it was too late to enact Plan B. I grabbed a stool at the crowded bar encircled by retro album covers (yes, real ones a little worn at the corners) and claimed my space in front of Elton John. While I waited for my beer, I looked for answers.

"Is it always karaoke on Thursdays?" I asked a guy leaning against the wall, thinking that maybe this was an earlier event that had gone long.

"It's not karaoke — it's a contest," he said. Evidently, I had stumbled into MJ's version of American Idol, the final night of a seven-week competition resulting in a $1,000 prize, and the guy's niece was a contestant. Fifteen-year-old Kimberly had sung "Son of a Preacher Man," and she had high hopes.

"She was phenomenal," one of the judges — Mr. Dirden, a middle school music teacher — told me with a grin that looked like it was made of golden Chiclets. His brain-shaped Afro had a little gray streak serving as a cleft between the two hemispheres.

"Got any favorites?" I asked, seeing if I could get him to tip his hand.

Mr. Dirden swallowed hard.

"Daniel set the bar pretty high," he said, touching my arm to suggest this information was confidential. "I think we like him the best."

When my pal Emily showed up and claimed the stool next to mine, the one with Steve Martin in a bunny suit on the album cover above it, her outfit had already begun to cause a stir.

"You wore that to work?" I asked in disbelief, sizing up her short black jumper with the crisp white shirt beneath it, which she'd paired with slutty net stockings and sneakers.

In the time it took her to smoke a cigarette outside, she'd already acquired a stocking stalker.

"Oh, God," Em said, turning away as he approached.

The guy's cologne preceded him, making me gasp.

"Love your stockings," Mr. Stench said.

"Yeah, got it," she said without turning around to face the guy.

Instead, Emily extracted a large ceramic bowl from her purse, evidently just to look busy.

"Is that a bowl?" a six-foot blond asked as she walked up to join us, apparently just as surprised as I was to see my friend pull something like that out of her purse. The blond introduced herself as Leah, a contestant in the competition.

"Feeling confident?" I asked about her chances.

"I'm going last," she said ruefully.

I tried to reassure her "best is for last," but she wasn't buying it. The purple rim on the inside of her lips hinted that she'd been looking for courage in other ways.

"Drink more wine and just have fun," I said as the first contestant began the contest's second round with "All That Jazz."

After her third glass of wine, Leah began to lighten up. By the time two other contestants had finished a country song and an R&B song (alas, no rock), Leah shared that she was a chef on a yacht her hubby captained.

"Once you ascertain the tastes and dining style that people like, to be given carte blanche is so liberating. You can do whatever you want on someone else's budget," she explained.

Sounded dreamy.

"I've been singing since I was young, but it doesn't pay as much as chefing," she explained.

Chefing?

Leah left us to check out her competition in the other room, and during the versions of Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One" and Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," I talked to the girl who'd sung "All That Jazz." Her facial piercing actually fit in with the retro décor. The stud above her lip was called a "Marilyn," since its placement resembled the star's famous mole.

Introducing herself as Shannon, a 25-year-old who'd moved down from Philadelphia to sell swing sets, she confided about her job, "It's the best form of birth control ever — doses of other people's children."

Well, whatever works for her. But I knew firsthand that there are far less painful ways of preventing pregnancy.

When I met Jane, the owner who put the J in MJ's, I figured I'd get the scoop on the newly opened joint. All three owners (Maggie representing the M and Nancy the n in Rock 'n' Roll) were Boomers who still hold day jobs at the Broward School Board.

"We grew up on this music," Jane said, gesturing to the memorabilia, "and on the Mickey Mouse club," which explained the clubhouse portion of the name. But the karaoke?

"Boomers don't really drink, so we're trying to get a younger crowd in," she explained.

Things were beginning to make sense. In just four months in the biz, the School Board employees had learned a lesson — the oldies clientele was more of a dinner than a late-night set. Now the owners were experimenting with plans to get a crowd that would appreciate their 3 a.m. license.

"I keep getting calls from bands saying there's no place to play," she said.

So in addition to the groups playing Motown and '50s doo-wop covers, she was making plans to bring in bands that play originals. Em and I suggested the Red Elvises. And I suggested that my buddies Slip and the Spinouts would be a good fit since they play rockabilly.

"What do you call rockabilly?" bartender Clint interjected.

"It's a musical style and a look, usually," I explained, fumbling for an answer. "Like long side burns, sort of an Elvis thing going on, a fusion of rock and country."

"Yeah, that's what I thought," said Clint, who was named after a character in his mother's favorite soap, Days of Our Lives (his sister Erica was named for the same reason). "There was a band in here calling themselves rockabilly, but they were just plain country hillbilly."

"In February, we're starting a music club where people can come in and play and promote their music," Jane said, and as further proof that she was trying to reach a hipper audience she added, "We even have a MySpace page."

"God bless, MySpace! I can be a 14-year-old girl again," interjected Emily, who in her outfit was almost living up to the profile.

We were interrupted by the declaration of a contest winner.

"Who's Billy Lee?" was the outcry from several contestants. Daniel, the judges' early favorite, took second.

"He did those two old songs," answered the young buck in the cowboy boots and tight jeans cinched by a giant silver-buckled belt. "That's bullshit."

Evidently, none of the young'uns had spotted the crooner as a threat. Shannon and her friends looked downright disgusted. Leah downed the last of her sour-grape juice and split while the cowboy was busy cultivating grapes of wrath with some harsh accusations: ""The judges know each other, and he goes to all their shows. It's bullshit!"

But despite the protests, Billy Lee walked out of the place with a cardboard certificate that declared him the winner with ten $100 bills taped to it in the shape of a big MJ. "Don't take that out in the wind," Jane advised as an oblivious Billy Lee walked out with his Benjamins flapping in the breeze.

When we left, Em and I needed a karaoke antidote — a little danger would do. So even though it was a school night, we stopped for one more beer at Roxanne's, where old school means subversion and counterculture and comes in the form of grungy digs, colorful tattoos, outspoken politics, and punk rock.


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