JOEY P remembers the first time he tried it, how it made him feel, the warm rush that enveloped him long into the night.
It was at a bar in Cockeysville 12 years ago. Someone said: "You oughta try it, man." Nah, that stuff's not for me, Joey P said. Maybe someone else called him a chicken, although he can't be certain of that.
Anyway, he finally swallowed his fear and tried it. Man, it was everything they said it was. Pretty soon, he couldn't get enough of it. He was doing it two, three times a week.
Oh, he was hooked, all right.
Joe Platania was a stone karaoke junkie.
I went to hear him the other night at a joint called the Charred Rib in Timonium.
I was tired of hearing about Osama bin Laden and anthrax and the economy being in the tank, and I figured drinking a few beers and eating some Buffalo wings were almost my patriotic duty.
Joey P took the mike after DJ Johnny Kutz, known as the Godfather ("Music you can't refuse"), warmed up the crowd with a tune.
Platania opened with the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New," the lyrics flashing up on the big-screen TV as he warbled:
My love, I'll never find the words, my love
To tell you how I feel, my love ...
Quickly, it became apparent he has an exceptional voice. It's not a big, dazzling voice that makes you pull out a cell phone and dial David Geffen and shout: "You gotta see this guy!"
But it's a pleasant voice with great range, and he handled the soaring falsetto with ease. ("I've been told I have a 3 1/2 -octave range," he said earlier. "The average person has between 1 1/2 to two. Now Mariah Carey, she's like a five or a six.")
When it was over, The Godfather boomed "Joey P!" and the crowd gave him a nice hand. He smiled and waved and made his way back to his seat through the bluish haze of cigarette smoke.
"I just try to have fun," he said, sipping a Diet Coke and exchanging high-fives with the guy next to him.
The thing about Joe Platania and karaoke is this: He may be hooked, but he's not goofy about it.
He's 37, a longtime sportswriter who strings for the Associated Press and NFL.com, and he's under no illusions that a producer from Atlantic Records will be sidling up to him anytime soon, waving a contract.
"This is cathartic, therapeutic," he said. "Some people go bowling, some people play canasta. I do karaoke."
So three nights a week, he goes to where the action is: Wednesday's at Bayou Blues in White Marsh, Fridays at the Rib, Saturdays at the 152 Seafood Bar and Grill in Bel Air, near his home.
This does not always sit well with his wife of five years, Allison. But, hell, she met him through karaoke.
She saw him one night in a club where he was singing Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer," and from then on she started making rounds to the karaoke joints, looking for "the Bon Jovi guy."
As corny as it sounds, she also knows this: Karaoke "saved" Joe Platania in a sense. He was a self-described social misfit: shy, lacking in confidence, the whole nine yards. Singing in front of an audience helped him work through a lot of his fears.
"This turned my life around," he said softly. "I stopped drinking in '91. I met my wife in '93. It challenges my creativity as far as using my voice in certain ways. And it challenges me socially ... It's been a real confidence-builder."
On this night at the Rib, there were 15 or so singers in the karaoke "rotation." Some were new faces, but most were regulars, like Max Mayhem, a long-haired dude who favors heavy-metal songs; Howie, a kind-faced older gentleman partial to slower ballads; Tyna and Johnny Pineapple; and Marc With a C.
Karaoke etiquette requires singers to encourage each other. And clap for each other, no matter how bad the singer is. And some are bad, really bad.
There was one guy who was half loaded and did an Elvis song that was truly horrible. In fact, it was stunning in its horribleness.
It was so horrible I wanted to fly down to Graceland right away, because I knew the King was spinning in his grave and you don't want to miss a sight like that.
You wonder how karaoke singers maintain their concentration, too, at least at busy places like the Rib. As Joey P and the others sang, waitresses moved about with trays laden with food, people talked and laughed, others sat at the bar with their faces glued to the TV.
"It's just a matter of focus," said Joey P.
Once, Platania was singing at a bar when, in the middle of his song, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Hmm, thought Joey P. That's strange. Maybe they used to applaud Sinatra in the middle of his numbers. But Joey P ain't the Chairman of the Board.
It turned out the cheers were for the Orioles; the game was on the overhead TVs and Mike Devereaux had just hit the winning homer.
"Memo to bar owners: Try not to have the ballgame on near the stage," said Platania, laughing.
On his second turn in the rotation, Platania rocked the house with "Nothing But a Good Time" by the rock band Poison. His third song was the plaintive "Too Much Heaven" by the Bee Gees, requiring the kind of vibrant high notes that would shatter the windshield of a '57 Buick.
I left around midnight, having done my best to help the economy via a small sampling of Yuengling beer products.
Joey P said he was going to hang. He was hoping for one more turn at the mike.
If they ever start a 12-step program for karaoke singers, I know one guy they might call.