CAPE MAY - Coming into a bar mid-karaoke is a risky proposition at best, but at Martini Beach on this Monday, to the strains of a 64-year-old Brit who is not Paul McCartney singing "I Saw Her Standing There," burning questions were all around.
Would Sal Riggi, beaten to death with a microphone in his trademark Panama hat, be on hand to reprise his murder-inducing version of "Runaround Sue"?
Would Officer Steve Pascal - "underestimate at your own risk" - show up as the unlikely-but-unsurpassed-in-enthusiasm connoisseur of karaoke and camaraderie?
And, most pressing, would anybody's singing this night trigger additional (though fictitious) murders?
Let's just say, there were candidates.
Welcome to the world of karaoke host Terry O'Brien, the guy who rules the surprisingly robust karaoke scene in Cape May, but whose deep-seated ambivalence about that role led him to write a book, Murder-Oke!, in which he kills off all his lousy singers.
"I'm the hairdresser," says Edward Kohl, 43, a hairdresser in Cape May and a murder victim in Murder-Oke!. "I think I got scalped. It was an Andrew Lloyd Webber song."
Yes, it was. It was "Love Changes Everything," a song that, in karaoke-ese, Kohl "owns." O'Brien won't let anyone else sing it.
Until death do them part.
O'Brien is that kind of host. Last month, a guy who laughed too much at the Ugly Mug was asked to leave.
As he writes in his book: "Edward was a charter member of Terry-Oke! nation, and as such was afforded all the luxuries that came with it - 'owned' songs, favorable rotation positions, and the occasional free beer."
O'Brien, a columnist at the freewheeling Cape May weekly Exit Zero, initially presented the book in serial format in the paper, prompting all of Cape May karaoke to pore over its pages like it was the book of available songs the regulars study all night long on karaoke night. "It went from 'Can you put me in your column?' to 'Can you kill me in your next book?' " says O'Brien, 38, a father of three who walks around with a fanny pack and sings in a duo, Acoustic Mayhem.
Every character in the book is a real person, though, naturally, the events depicted are fictitious. (No actual karaoke singers were harmed in the writing of the book.)
"It was great therapy," O'Brien says of killing off the singers in the book, which contains four other "Spooky Stories" in addition to "Murder-Oke." It was published by Exit Zero (as in Garden State Parkway, mile marker zero).
O'Brien's been an actor and a musician in town, but there's no denying it's the karaoke that really took off and now pays the bills. He's got gigs five nights a week, plus the occasional try-not-to-wince three-hour kiddie karaoke.
He looks a little like he's miserable doing it, but, really, he's not. He's grown, well, kind of fond of it, at least made his peace with it, though he seems to use many songs for breaks of various kinds: bathroom, smoke, air, space, existential crisis.
" 'Blaze of Glory': Five minutes, 36 seconds," he says, ducking out for the duration, wireless mike in hand. "On a busy karaoke night, nobody is ever happy."
O'Brien tells musician pals, "I die a little inside every time I turn the machine on."
(And never more so than during a first-timer's John Belushi does Joe Cocker doing Bob Dylan rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone.")
Still, he notes, "The drummer's never drunk, the bass player's never fighting with his girlfriend and the band always sounds the same."
As Terry-Oke, he's built a band of loyalists, including Coast Guard members stationed in Cape May and, happily for anybody there, after-hours actors and singers from local dinner theaters, as well as Exit Zero peeps like Sal Riggi, a columnist who must endure questions like, "So when are you going to stop writing all that Republican stuff?" from strangers.
"I'm this huge iconic person in Cape May, but once you hit the Parkway, it's like who?" O'Brien says.
When O'Brien first started four years ago, his friends and colleagues followed him around from gig to gig to make sure he always had a good crowd. But in truth, and in time, they all got hooked.
On this night, there's an impressive turnout, including Sal in the Panama Hat and Officer Steve, the flat-topped investigating officer in the book, an actual Cape May police officer, who logs time from start to finish, including the extra hour until 1 a.m.
For the uninitiated, walking into a karaoke room is unexpectedly intense: Take away the music and the booze, and it resembles study hall at the science library at a small liberal-arts college: Everyone is poring over binders, barely looking up, scribbling on paper (song requests).
"It's like a cult," says Brynna Bessette, 34, herself a karaoke host visiting from Connecticut. "They get all fired up, whether they get to sing, and what they sing."
Even her boyfriend, Noah Vivian, who fronts a heavy-metal band called Face First, has given up trying to resist.
"When you're the karaoke DJ's boyfriend, what choice do you have?" says Vivian, 34, who will turn in one of the night's best performances of the Beatles' "Oh! Darling."
O'Brien's at the front, a slip-jockey, organizing and reorganizing the request slips to work in first-timers, not alienate regulars, trying to please everyone. He's so busy this night that he forgets to sing himself, which he likes to do, since that's what he does. At least when not lugging the karaoke machine upstairs.
Close to midnight, it's Rimma, the waiflike Russian who hangs by the bar in the next room because her boyfriend can only stand the karaoke scene from a distance and with continual access to drinks, singing a Sinead O'Connor-ish version of "Nothing Compares to You," and that seems as good a time as any to plot an escape.
If not a fictional homicide.