Paul McGilloway

Paul McGilloway

It is 11:00 on a Monday night – a relatively quiet time in New York City. But not at Arlene’s Grocery, the renowned Lower East Side convenience store-turned-rock venue on Stanton Street. The bar lights dim, exciting an already anxious crowd. A weighty yet tongue-in-cheek voiceover announcer welcomes the audience and recites the Ten Commandments.

The first Commandment? “Thou Shalt Seek Only to Rock!”

The band takes the stage one by one, playing the opening chords of “Hell’s Bells” to frantic applause, as a shapely brunette in a red bustier and plastic devil horns struts forward holding aloft the “Karaoke Bible” – a thick binder packed full of the greatest rock lyrics of all time, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top – and we are launched into a throat-tearing rendition of the AC/DC classic.

Welcome to Live Rock and Roll Karaoke at Arlene’s Grocery.

“It’s more than just going to see a band,” Paul McGilloway, lead guitarist for Arlene’s Grocery Monday Night Rock and Roll Karaoke Band, says softly in his Irish brogue. “You can participate. And it’s not just the great songs. It’s about the fact that anything can happen.”

The band features the lanky McGilloway on guitar, along with drummer Mark Marone, guitarist Eric Presti, bassist Dan Grennes, and singer/MC Kory Clark – and, of course, YOU. Every Monday night, they and anyone courageous (or drunk) enough to get up on stage with them can live out their rock star dreams one song at a time.

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“When I first got here to New York [five years ago],” McGilloway, 31, says, “I stood outside Arlene’s for 45 minutes, just waiting for them to open. It’s a little embarrassing, actually. I came to New York, and I knew I wanted to start a rock band. Who knew I’d eventually end up here playing every Monday night for two years?”
Tonight, like most Monday nights, over 100 people fill the bar when the first singer, a Mr. Clean look-alike with a soul patch, takes the stage to sing a spot-on version of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell.” Next, an unassuming blond girl sings and snarls Rage Against the Machine’s “Killin’ In the Name” (after which Clark crowns her the first “Queen of Rock” of the night).

“Reverend Pete,” who looks more like a philosophy professor than hardcore rock and roller in his corduroy jacket and curly brown Jew-fro, howls “Highway to Hell” with such ferocity as to garner the crowd’s collective exclamation of “Holy fucking shit!” – Monday Night Karaoke’s highest honor.

And the band never misses a beat, playing every searing guitar solo and drum breakdown with loving authenticity while still allowing the singer to take center stage.

“‘Enter Sandman’ – if that song doesn’t get played Monday nights,” McGilloway says, “something is badly wrong. You know it must be a full moon or something.” Sure enough, Arlene’s regular and crowd favorite “Hardcore Andy” steps up to growl his way through one of Metallica’s biggest hits.

“You want everyone to leave the stage feeling like they’re a rock star,” McGilloway says. “Like they did a good job.”

“We like to bring it out in people,” Marone adds.

There are plenty of regulars to look forward to on any given Monday night. “The Mighty Huck,” 40-ish bald man with a beer gut, will sing just about anything, while Paulie Z prefers Led Zeppelin and actually has the vocal range to pull it off. Rob Pfeffer, a.k.a. Axl Rob, has an affinity for – you guessed it – Guns N Roses classics, and he gets the chance to promote his own music at the same time.

“I’ll say, if you liked what you saw, come see my band,” Pfeffer says.

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But the best moments are often the most unexpected.

“The guy that always stands out in my mind…I don’t know who he was, but he was dressed like a Wall Street guy, you know, this Asian American in a suit,” McGilloway says. “He just looked kind of square, right? You’d think he wouldn’t be able to carry a tune. But he wanted to sing ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ so I thought ‘Ok, this should be interesting’…And he got up and fucking nailed it!”

Live karaoke supposedly originated in Los Angeles, although at this point no one can say for sure. Other acts have popped up throughout the country: The Human Karaoke Experience rock out Tribeca in New York, while Atlanta’s 10 High Club, Boston’s Milky Way Lounge and Chicago’s Pontiac Cafe and Bar all host similar events.

Marone lays the logic that sets Arlene’s Grocery apart: “We’re performers. It comes natural to us to put on this show. And we try to make our event more inclusive, like a community. We pick songs with an anthemic quality. And there’s a rule for any song before it makes it on the list – the sands of time have to be on it.”
(Translation: it has to be at least ten years old.)

McGilloway and Marone formed the band about two years ago, when Arlene’s asked them to take over Monday nights. The previous karaoke band had begun making too many demands and “basically phased themselves out of the gig,” according to Marone. McGilloway had previously played with Grennes in a cover band and Marone, who grew up in New York and has been in bands since the age of 14, had played with Clark and Presti on and off over the years.

The band members maintain musical careers beyond karaoke, as well. McGilloway is currently working on solo material; Marone plays in the “folky pop” band The Mercenaries; Grennes is a member of the “Beatlesque” Uncle Pumpkin; Presti doubles as a sound engineer; and Clark, the raspy-voiced Robert Plant look-alike who provides much of the show’s comic relief and rock-star attitude and once sang with Geffen Records’ Warrior Soul, currently tours with hard rock act Dirty Rig when not onstage at Arlene’s.

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As they do every Monday night, the band ends their show with the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right (To Party).” The entire crowd is invited onto the stage for a collective sing-along, and anyone who was too nervous to sing before finally gets their chance.

“I like what Andy Warhol said,” McGilloway muses. “‘In the future everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame.’ Well, we can provide five. Two and a half if it’s a Ramones song.”

Photos by Eric Markowitz.

This story was written Oct. 2006 for the NYU Journalism course “New York Characters.”

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