Joe McGinty is 6-foot-5, which means he has to hunch over to play piano at his weekly karaoke night at Manhattan Inn. Not that it’s a big deal. “I’ve always enjoyed people singing around the piano,” says the 54-year-old.
The former keyboardist for the Psychedlic Furs started running karaoke nights two decades ago at the birthday party for a member of the band Dinosaur Jr. People liked it, so he organized more at Manhattan and Brooklyn bars like Fez, Barmacy, and Motor City. He’s been doing it weekly since 2004. “It’s like Cheers or something,” he says. “There are regulars. It’s a very neighborhoody vibe.”
As a child growing up outside of Atlantic City, McGinty listened to Yes, Burt Bacharach, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and The Beach Boys. He started playing piano as a freshman at Mainland Regional High School and joined his first band, called Etc., a year later. The band played some school dances, but McGinty didn’t get any dates out of it. “I was pretty nerdy in high school,” he says.
When he graduated, it was a good time to be an aspiring musician in Atlantic City. The state had recently legalized gambling and casinos were opening along the waterfront. “Every casino had two or three lounges with music going all the time, so a lot of musicians were moving to Atlantic City for work,” McGinty says. In 1981 he graduated from Susquehanna University with a major in computer science and two years later he joined a touring casino act that played covers of Lionel Richie and The Pointer Sisters. The group performed six nights a week, four sets a night.
When that band called it quits, McGinty spent time in Philadelphia playing with Robert Hazard, who had written and recorded “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” later made famous by Cyndi Lauper. Hazard told McGinty about auditions for The Psychedelic Furs, an English alt rock/new wave band that had just gotten big with their song, “Pretty in Pink,” which was featured in the John Hughes movie of the same name. McGinty tried out, got the gig, and moved to New York, where the band was based. He played with them from 1987 until their break-up in 1991.
“They had high expectations from the last record they made,” McGinty says. “It’s a good record, but it didn’t sell as much as the record company had hoped and they were dropped by the label.” The lead singer, Richard Butler, decided to pursue a solo career, which McGinty says he and his bandmates thought would be temporary. “Suddenly I found myself in New York having to get a job and figure out how to be a musician because for the first five years I lived in New York, that was my gig,” he says. “It was almost like I was moving to New York for the first time.”
On another night, McGinty is at Rivington Music Rehearsal Studios on the Lower East Side. He’s wearing a blue button-down shirt and dark jeans. The room is small, with equipment piled to the ceiling: amps, drums, stands, microphones, keyboards. Until recently, concert posters covered the walls. “I think the owner saved them all. I have to get him to put stuff back up,” McGinty says over the sound of a bass line from next door.
McGinty is practicing for the 20th anniversary concert of Loser’s Lounge, an event he’s been organizing since 1993. “Me and my friends were listening to a lot of Burt Bacharach and feeling like there was maybe a secret club of people who liked Burt Bacharach, but couldn’t admit to it,” he says. The appeal of “What the World Needs Now” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” should not be underestimated; the first Loser’s Lounge sold out.
McGinty and his bandmates have since done over 30 sets of shows, including tributes to ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, and The Zombies. “It started out as kind of guilty pleasures, bands that you’d maybe feel a little self-conscious about liking,” McGinty says. “But now it’s sort of expanded into anything that would make for a good night of entertainment.” The act has been at Joe’s Pub in the East Village since 2005.
When McGinty isn’t playing at the bar or in rehearsal, he’s at his East Village apartment scoring films or working in the studio. His girlfriend, Amy Hobby, is a filmmaker and the two occasionally collaborate. “Her schedule is unpredictable, mine is unpredictable, and in a way that’s one of the things that makes it work,” he says. He’s contributed music to a handful of film and television projects, including The Virginity Hit, a Will Ferrell-produced flop from 2010, and HBO’s strip club reality series, G-String Divas. “When in the strip club, you’d hear throbbing bass as if a DJ was playing a dance track. So a couple of times between naked girls dancing you hear my music,” he says of scenes in the show.
He also owns and operates Carousel Studios, which has vintage keyboards that he’s been collecting for decades. “A lot of this equipment I got very cheaply because it was going out of style,” he says. But now electric pianos and synthesizers are back in vogue and business is good. He’s worked with the Ramones, Debbie Harry, Nada Surf, Ryan Adams, Spacehog, and Devendra Banhart.
McGinty’s time with The Psychedelic Furs remains his claim to fame. The sign outside of Manhattan Inn reads in pink and purple chalk: “PIANO KARAOKE @ 10:30 WITH JOE MCGINTY OF PSYCHEDELIC FURS. FREE.” Karaoke happens past the narrow bar, in a square back room with exposed brick walls and a skylight. Lining the perimeter are 14 booths made of wooden tables and old movie theater seats. A white baby grand piano, which the bar owners found on Craigslist, is at the center of what becomes a dance floor on weekends. Light comes from candles on each table and a moss-covered crystal chandelier hangs above the piano.
McGinty arrives at 10 p.m. and orders a Stella at the bar while the manager tests the microphones. The back room is half empty when McGinty sits at the piano bench. There are regulars, who greet him and talk about previous weeks, and there are tourists who probably read about the event in Time Out New York. McGinty loosens up his fingers with jazz chords and then calls over Andrea Diaz. The two met through karaoke and perform under the name The Duchess and The Fox. Diaz is wearing a strapless red dress with black stripes and has a white flower tucked behind her ear.
“Check one, two,” she says into the microphone.
“Shall we, uh, start with… What do you want to start with?” McGinty asks her.
“Why don’t we start with ‘Rome?’” she says and he nods. She turns back to the mic. “Hey guys, how are you? Happy Tuesday. It’s a chilly Tuesday. Nobody warned me this morning when I got out of bed that I was going to have to, I don’t know, trudge through a blizzard to get to work,” she improvises. “This song is called ‘Rome.’” Diaz delicately wraps both her hands around the microphone, still in its stand, barely touching it. McGinty stays mostly expressionless, concentrating on the notes, fading into the background.
They finish their six-song set. Applause. Diaz rejoins her friends at a booth and McGinty circles the room, passing out song lists. The 200 choices are mostly oldies – Elvis Costello, Blondie, Madonna. The VH1 selection. People write their names on slips of paper and leave them on the piano, reluctantly at first, but a few drinks later, with more enthusiasm.
An older man in a tee shirt and suspenders sings “What’s New Pussycat,” rocking side to side and back and forth. A regular named Nicole sings “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Sam, a blond girl in a black sweater, does “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Her friends add “woos” and harmonies. Sam breaks into laughter, but she gets one of the night’s biggest applauses. “Alright,” Joe says afterwards. “That was good.”
There are 15 dollars in the plastic goldfish bowl serving as a tip jar on the piano. A waitress brings McGinty a beer, which he keeps on the piano near the bottom octave. There’s “Political Science” by Randy Newman and “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. When there’s a lull in volunteers, McGinty performs 10 CC’s “I’m Not in Love.” Then the slips of paper pile up again. Singers nervously twist the microphone cord, snap their fingers, beg their friends or dates to join them. A guy named Adam, dressed in a plaid shirt and beanie, sings Elton John’s “Levon.” He has one of those ’90s grunge voices that’s meant for karaoke, but awkward anywhere else. Two friends do “Born To Run,” which offers McGinty a chance to show off with a long piano solo. The singers belt, sharing a microphone, looking into each other’s eyes. The girl’s neck veins pop out. “Sorry, Bruce,” she says when it’s over, referring to Springsteen.
“It’s all in the spirit,” McGinty reassures her.
There’s something quaint about Piano Parlor that drives its appeal. Unlike Koreatown’s karaoke bars with flashing lights, McGinty’s event has no cheesy backing tracks or video screens. Just good old-fashioned lyrics binders. “Sometimes I can fake it,” McGinty says of requests for songs not in the books. “There have been times when I’ve played songs that I haven’t even heard before.” He loves music, but not every song. “People will ask for ‘Piano Man’ and I will not do that song,” he says. He also gets tired of “Killing Me Softly,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. “A group of girls will go up there and realize they don’t remember the words,” he says.
McGinty has learned how to deal with singers who are less talented or less polite. “You get every kind of personality. You get the uninhibited people that don’t care if they can sing or not and sometimes you get shy people who can sing really well who are really sweet,” he says. “You get some people that just kind of want to be a jerk, they want to fuck things up, or piss people off. And I can deal with that. Sometimes I’ll purposely play wrong notes if somebody’s being too much of a jerk or something. I’ll fuck with them if they’re gonna fuck with me.”
“I never thought I’d be famous,” McGinty told me one evening. “But I always wanted to be a working successful musician. And I think to that end it’s going pretty well.”