The Karaoke Tapes

"In those instants, sloppily crooning alone to 'Forget Me Never,' I knew music had me in a chokehold."

In the early ‘90s, I was a homeschooled misfit with buck teeth, hair slicked to the left (just how Mom liked it), and eternally sweaty hands begging my parents to bring in the Elvis cassettes from the garage. They kept the tapes on top of a dilapidated shelf infested with black widows, mosquitoes, and half-eaten beetles because his lyrics were declared profane; my dad was too big a fan to ever fully throw them away. A few times each year, my persistent chirping chiseled its way deep enough into their generally childproof ears they finally gave in. I won the lottery.

I set up the thrift store karaoke machine by the fireplace, loaded one cassette after another, and tried my damnedest to learn the words just enough to hum along. In those instants, sloppily crooning alone to “Forget Me Never” or screeching made-up verses with my older brother Bobby to the tune of “Clambake,” I knew music had me in a chokehold. Breathless as I was, I found my voice.

I watched seasons live and die from the yellow tiled picture window of that house for what seemed a millennium—failing spelling tests, battling my three brothers on the abused polyester carpet with plastic swords, and plunking out fragments of songs in my pajamas on the $50 upright piano my parents bought for my practicing. The earth in my eyes stretched from the budding hydrangea garden at the tip of our backyard to the neglected gas station from a forgotten era six blocks away. It was only when I heard the yearly announcement of Mom yelling from the vanilla wall phone over the hypnotic drone of dinner in the microwave, “Uncle Terry is coming to town!” that the world became infinite.

I dashed down the eighteen steps to the basement, dodged the razored perimeter of the ping-pong table, bounded over Dad’s untouched bench press station, flung open the wafer-thin door to the canning room, maneuvered past the precious mound of VHS movies, and kneeled to where the karaoke machine was stored by the battered board games to heave with all my might. I dragged it through every obstacle, up the steps, across the linoleum ocean, into the living room, and finally, to the foot of the piano. After securing a fresh cassette, laying the microphone on the crest of the keys, and tapping record, I played every song I had written over the last year to give to my uncle as a gift upon his arrival. This was Terry’s and my annual sacred ritual.

Terry was a surfer from California with a bewitching smile, an unflinching wit, a peculiar obsession for the Minnesota Vikings, and a relentless drug addiction since the age of fourteen. He eventually moved to Massachusetts with his wife, his child, and his dream of starting over, but soon after, the devil found him there, too, and that meant the law wasn’t far behind. His marriage imploded, employment floundered, and narcotic compulsion escalated to a disastrous degree so he boxed up what little he had and relocated once more—this time to the boundless outskirts of balmy Las Vegas. Even as his spirit dwindled and the great empty void tenderly coaxed him further into the blackness, he still made it a priority to visit my family in Idaho once a year.

Within his first step back into our house, I saw a shriveled rose suddenly grow back thirty petals. Laughter and love deafened the torment. Acceptance and joy buried the twinge. Here, he was no criminal. He was our hero. The first hour he appeared, my brothers swarmed him like a king size candy bar on Halloween night. But as conversations gradually quieted and one by one they left the room, I approached with the cassette. When I handed it to him, his eye leaked a few tears before winking. “This will be my soundtrack all year,” he said. He meant it every time.

Vegas had a way of toying with Terry like a cat getting her paws on the neighbor’s pet parakeet. Each sunrise, he thought he saw an opening to a brighter life, but by sundown another merciless claw was wrapping itself around him, pulling him further along the splintery fence, deeper into the untold dimness of the sprawl. What once began as a playground morphed into a cold and endless nightmare; he couldn’t get off the merry-go-round. He phoned our house periodically in between visits, and I could always tell when it was him because of the syrupy tone Mom’s voice took on when she answered. Once the syrup crystalized, she hailed the family into the already cramped kitchen so we could all have a turn. My brothers and I lined up like meager soldiers along the carnation pink cabinets between the colossal radio and desert of empty soda cans. We habitually fidgeted with the ballpoint pens overflowing from the Tom and Jerry mug by the unopened stack of junk mail until the phone was passed to each brother’s ear. I could hear Terry’s rusty voice trepidly chip away a little more every conversation. The wildfire in his laugh had been replaced by a dull and desperate flicker. I always wanted to say the right thing, but it never came out. I sensed his prison in every pause. The only minute I felt a notion of freedom radiate from his words was when he mentioned the cassette tapes.

“This last tape got me through a lot,” Terry said, his voice quivering. “May be the best yet.”

“Just wait for this next one.” I softly replied. “I already have it waiting for you.”

Three weeks after that exchange, on a silent, foreboding morning in February, my mom received a phone call. Terry had overdosed. Collapsing like a marionette who suddenly had its strings clipped, she hit the floor between the dog’s corroded water bowl and the brightly colored cereal boxes lining the air vent. “HE’S GONE! HE’S GONE! HE CAN’T BE GONE!” Her fierce wail reverberated in my ears like a violent alarm I couldn’t shut off. My body sunk down the leather office chair until my bare feet touched a stack of gnarled newspapers piled behind the printer. Laying paralyzed beneath the desktop computer on the clear vinyl mat, I managed to twist my neck once more toward Mom but couldn’t make out her form—my vision distorted from the tears. The hour I feared most abruptly arrived. Terry was gone.

The house was hushed the following months. It felt like he could still call any minute and say it wasn’t real or it was a misunderstanding or the world’s cruelest joke. Our calendar, suspended by a loyal nail and purple yarn, draped off the side of the coat closet, still displayed a photo of an arctic fox—teasing us into thinking no time had passed at all. One fiery afternoon in June, while my brothers argued in the front yard over who would get the better basketball, I descended down the steps to my bedroom. Leaning against my screaky headboard, legs tucked inside of me, I stared at the last of the karaoke tapes resting against the rumpled pile of superhero comics supported by a long plastic rattlesnake in my bookshelf, the words “For Terry” scribbled up the side of the cassette jacket in black ink. I thought about how it all started,  pretending I was Elvis by the fireplace. I started humming to myself. The lyrics to “Forget Me Never” slowly floated back to me:

“Each time a star falls out of heaven – it leaves the sky a deeper blue. So if we part, forget me never. And don’t forget my love for you.”

Trevor Powers (born March 18, 1989 in San Diego, CA) is an American musician, producer, and composer based in Boise, ID. He began recording music in 2011, releasing a trilogy of albums under the moniker Youth Lagoon before announcing the end of the project in 2015. While taking crash courses in classical theory, jazz, and ancient modes throughout the time that followed, Powers started making music experiments inspired by the visual works of artists such as Francis Bacon, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Harry Clarke. Lining his walls in crude print-outs of pictures, he found graphic saturation helped inform the social and spiritual themes of his music.

For two years, Powers crafted his own library of sounds, grotesque and bewitching, to serve as the backbone to the poetry he had been writing while traveling between Europe, Asia, and the United States. Embracing a combination of noise, beauty, and mercurial avant-pop atmospheres, he began molding these experiments into songs highlighting the intersection of unity and chaos, nightmares, and the invisible forces at war within the human self.