Periscope Depth

so we’ll go no more a-roving

There’s an indifferent bar on Mass Ave in Cambridge called the Asgard. It’s an Irish pub. Don’t ask me what Asgard has to do with the Irish, although the Norse certainly had their way with Ireland a dozen centuries ago. Asgard differs from other Irish pubs in Boston in degree but not distinction. The dark, faux-ancient wood that makes up the bartop and tables is darker and fauxier; the buttressed ceilings are higher; the Guinness drafts are pricier. Otherwise, nothing separates Asgard from Kinsale, Joshua Tree, Tavern on the Square, Biddy Early’s, the Black Rose, Crossroads, O’Brien’s, An Tua Nua, Clery’s, the Green Dragon, Lir, J.J. Foley’s, Matt Murphy’s, the Druid, the Field, River Gods, Phoenix Landing, Tommy Doyle’s, Grafton Street, Union Street or the Emerald Isle. They have trivia on Tuesdays, live music on some Fridays and, until about two weeks ago, Boston’s best karaoke on Wednesdays.

I should know. I was there.

To have a good karaoke night, you need alcohol, forgiving friends and karaoke (in that order). Very few people like to sing with rockstar presence unless there’s a drink nearby. There’s no point to belting out your favorite 80s hits, New Jack Swing or showtunes unless you have an audience. And you need a song catalog, a monitor to prompt you, and some decent speakers. Those first two are easily attained. It’s the third one that’s the hurdle: finding a catalog that covers pop hits and buried classics, in a bar that has a good sound system and is the kind of place you wouldn’t mind drinking.

In March 2007 I was still in Neutrino, an ImprovBoston house troupe that did improvised video vignettes, filmed and edited together live. Dave had recruited me. One evening, Dave told us about this karaoke night he and John S. had stumbled onto at the Asgard. Since the Asgard was right around the corner from our rehearsal space, and Rachel V. and I needed a drink anyway, we followed. The bar was nearly empty. Baseball season hadn’t really started yet, it was Wednesday and it wasn’t dark yet.

Paul, the karaoke DJ, had an effortless grin and the towniest accent that the North Shore has yet produced. He had scattered thick books across several tables. You didn’t need to fill out a slip to request a song; nothing so 20th century. He had every song in his catalog on a hard drive. Requests were kept in order by some descendant of the WinAmp player. I paged through the back, found one of my favorites, and whispered it in Paul’s ear.

“Primal Scream?” he asked. “That’s not one of those death metal bands, is it?”

Over the next four years, Wednesday night at the Asgard went from a ghost town to a dense pit of humanity. Dave, Rachel and I recruited the rest of ImprovBoston to come by after shows or rehearsals and sing their weary hearts out. I expanded my catalog from inoffensive pop to rock, classic hip-hop power ballads and the most depressing sorts of folk. People made friends with me, bought me drinks and challenged me to freestyle rap battles (all true). Wednesday night karaoke followed me through three apartments, three jobs, four haircuts and a variety of hook-ups both awesome and ill-advised.

But the heart must pause to breathe: two weeks ago, karaoke at the Asgard was suddenly canceled. I wasn’t there; I didn’t see it; all my details are hearsay. I hadn’t gone as often in the last year. Karaoke was no longer a weekly ritual to convince myself that I was a well-liked rockstar. I had discovered that I was well-liked, even for my faults, and that was enough. But there were still plenty of people who wanted their fix every week – for that or other reasons – who now lacked an outlet. And there were people I almost never saw but for Wednesdays.

“Leaving people is a sadness,” Frank Herbert wrote. “A place is just a place.” Paul B still does karaoke gigs throughout the Boston metro area, and may be coming back to Cambridge soon. I can still find most of my friends in the bar of the ImprovBoston lobby. But on hearing that karaoke had been canceled, I realized that I had no reason to ever set foot in the Asgard again. It was the black box in which the biggest party of the week happened. Now the sets were struck and the actors were moving on. I could leave the Asgard without so much as a second glance.

But recollection is a tactile thing. We remember sensations first, ideas second. We invest our memories in the taste of beer, the swirl of dim lights and the sound of our own voices through beat-up amps. It’s easy to forget that there’s nothing special about the Asgard in itself, and that they pour a better Guinness elsewhere.

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