A journey into costume karaoke, with the incomparable Carletta Sue Kay
MUSIC "Where's the costumes, bitch?"
The voice behind the inimitable Carletta Sue Kay, Randy Walker, has joined me at Deco Lounge in the Tenderloin for costume karaoke. The atmosphere is conjuring memories. "I worked at a self-storage place two blocks from here called Fort Knox," Walker says. "I worked with every fucking junkie in San Francisco — recovering, mind you.
"This lady, let's call her Christine, was 59, with long gray lion's-mane hair. She was very sweet. She'd come in popping Xanax like candy. One day, right before I got fired, Gonzalo who I worked with came up to me and said, 'Lady upstairs, sleeping — money.' We jumped on the private elevator and there was Christine, laid out in the middle of her unit, covered in $100 bills. I asked her about it the next day and she said, 'I had a date!'."
Though Carletta Sue Kay is familiar with the most delicate strains of Parisian heartbreak, a real-life character such as Christine would not be out of place in a Carletta song. If Antony Hegarty occupies darker rooms, and Baby Dee finds secret places of unsettling whimsy, Carletta more than matches the best of both in a very San Franciscan way, combining a formidable voice with a restless and freely honest — as rock 'n' roll as it is chamber-bound — approach to being a singer. One listen to "Sleeping with the TV On" is all it'll take for her to convince you.
Tonight I'm getting convinced in-person. "Pardon my obligato," Walker says on his way to the Deco Lounge's stage, where he's soon comfortably issuing commands for more reverb to KJ Paul De Jong, who it turns out has booked lucrative hooker-hotel music gigs for Carletta in Port Costa. "It's not standup," a boozy wise-ass yells, and then Walker proceeds to sing the hell out of the Patsy Cline classic "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray," expertly using silence to magnify the sound of sorrow. Afterward, the wise-ass walks over to our table to praise him.
Thanks to Walker, Carletta Sue Kay is the kind of dame who knows Nashville as well as she knows Paris. "My favorite drag queen in the world is in Nashville," Walker says, when I ask about one of country music's homes. "Remember the figure skater Oksana Baiul? This queen's name was Oxona Barstool. She wore this big green M&M outfit and she sounded like Tom Waits."
Walker has also sung in Memphis' Sun Studios: "I asked where Roy Orbison stood, and they said, 'Honey, Roy was all over the place.'" Still, the next Carletta Sue Kay recordings are a homespun Bay Area affair, painstakingly produced by band member Doug Hilsinger. "We're doing two collections," Walker explains. "One is an album of ballads titled Incongruent. There's an also an EP called Incongruous, and all of the songs on it will be up tempo. " The wordplay in those titles comes naturally to Walker, who shares his boyfriend Lee Reymore's deep love of literature — particularly Southern Gothic fiction — and lucrative love of book collecting.
At Reymore's urging, Walker uses the moments before his next turn at the mic to tell the story of his encounter with the late Michael Jackson. "You know [the 1988 movie] Moonwalker? I was in that," he says. "I come from a theater background and grew up 50 miles outside of L.A. in Fontana, hometown of Sammy Hagar."
How was Michael? "He was a sweetheart. One day Bubbles got loose on the stage, and another day Yoko was there. I made $18,000 for a 12-day shoot, and I was only an extra."
Carletta and the man behind her have a lot of stories to tell, whether they're shared over a cocktail or through the stereo on songs such as the glam-anthemic "Joy Division." Carletta can knowingly name check Beethoven, Crass, and Echo and the Bunnymen while reminiscing about a doom-laden boy with an Ian Curtis fixation. Walker has no hesitation about visiting the treasure troves of soul.
"My fangs are dripping looking at these costumes," Walker jokes, after likening Deco's wardrobe rack to the bars maneuvered by gymnasts. Finally, after someone sings "Killing Me Softly" and someone else sings "A Whole New World," it's time for his final costume-karaoke number. The song is "Get Here," and though it was made famous by Oleta Adams, he makes a point of explaining on stage that it was written by Brenda Russell. This is in keeping with his musical , which is rooted in an appreciation of '70s singer-songwriters like Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, and Karen Dalton, as well as contemporaries like Kath Bloom.
Important names, one and all — but what did Walker's real-life cousin Carletta Sue Kay think of her musical namesake? "She didn't know anything about it until two years into it," Walker says. "She found out about it through the Carletta Sue Kay MySpace, and wrote verbatim, 'What the fuck is this!'"
What the fuck is this? Something well worth a listen, bitch.
CARLETTA SUE KAY
With M. Lamar
Sun/19, 8 p.m.; $10–$15
Community Music Center
Capp Street Concert Hall
544 Capp, SF