There's a lady on stage
She may not be the latest rage -- but she's singing
And she means it -- From "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage," by Peter Allen
THE SINGER is Karen Akers, a Glenda Jackson look-alike with China doll skin. Her song is pure cabaret and it's coming out of her as lusty and longing as a wronged lover this night at Mickey's a hazy New York Cafe.
She's a lady on that stage, this mother of two from a street of station wagons in Washington, a lady singing out her soul to Manhattan lawyers and half-filled win glasses. Soon, she'll listen to the rich lifeblood of applause. "Sometimes," she says, "you don't even hear it. "I don't know how that can be. Maybe it's because you need it so much."
How she wants be a star.
It's a daydream that floats into the kid's Spiderman lunch boxes as she packs them in the kitchen on Utah Avenue. It stays with her while she drives the carpool to the Montessori school. Sometimes, it follows her into the Safeway where she'll pick up something for dinner.
She's a Washington housewife by day, a New York club singer by night -- commuting between two identities. It's a class struggle, a stage-door dream shared by countless thousands of house-bound sopranos singing along with the radio. But for Karen Akers, it is a dream that could come true. First there was the club try-outs, then the bookings in name-brand nightspots like Reno Sweeney's, then a part in a foreign film, and now a contract to sing on German television. Maybe she'll make it. Maybe she won't.
Meanwhile, the price she pays is a double life lived between broken stoves in Washington and agents in New York, runny noses and Metroliners. And a husband who says he loses "whatever that sense of day-to-day being in touch provides."
Washington, D.C., Utah Ave., NW. Tree-lined affluence. Two tall pines by a neat walkway, a tricycle on the porch and, after the bell on the brick house is rung, Karen Akers. She is 34, tall and absolutely slinky. Her eyes are almond-shaped, the lips full, cheekbones high, the voice soft and husky. This is not your basic PTA mother.
"I'm a bit of a curiosity," she says, "to one neighbor, in particular. It's because my life is so vastly different."
She leads the way into a vastly undifferent living room, decorated mostly be her husband, a lawyer. The carpet is brown wall-to-wall. A potted plant sits in a corner, and the furniture is modern, soft and beige. She wears a beige silky blouse that matches the decor.
She sings at least an hour a day here, usually as she plays the piano in the corner of the basement playroom. But there are always the errands. And dinner. She takes a voice lesson on tape while she fixes it for her two sons, aged 7 and 4.
"If I were on my own," she says, sipping herb tea on the couch, "of course it would be easier. But no, I don't think I would be happier . . . Sure, things probably would have moved much faster for me -- but then again, this is the pace I've chosen.
It's hard," she says, "very hard. But very possible.
She was born in New York, grew up on the East Side, spent her summers in the Berkshires and her winters at Catholic schools. Always she loved to sing. Eventually she wound up at Manhattanville College, where she got a guitar for Christmas her freshman year. One day, she went to hear Carolyn Hester, a folk singer of the early '60s. They talked afterward.
I was enthralled," Akers says. "I saw the nails on her left hand were down to the quick so I immediately went back to my dorm and just butchered my nails so I could play the way she did."
She married in New York in 1968 but soon moved with her husband to Washington. He was a lawyer for the Navy. She was a George Washington University secretary who sang in basement coffe houses during the early '70s. The moved to New York again after her husband took a job with a private Manhattan-based firm. She began working her way through the nightclubs.
Two years ago, the firm transferred her husband to Washington. "My initial reaction," she says, "was acute depression. I was impossible to talk to. I think I cried for three days. Washington, at that point, seemed miles and miles away from my career."
So she and her husband reached an agreement: She would continue to work, commuting for performances sometimes four days a week and maintaining a small, dingy apartment on the Upper West Side. As for care of the kids, her husband's salary paid for a housekeeper. The 3- and 4-hour Metroliner trips became a time for switching gears.
"At first it was tough," she says. "It took me a while to get used to it. But a performer has some need to be very selfish in his or her life. I grew to relish the independence those days gave me."
New York, 44 West 54th St., Mickey's. Long and narrow, murky blue and yellow lights, an exposed brick wall. Inside are about 35 people, who look like they decided to stop by for a drink on the way home from the office. And maybe to hear this lady singer, too. Some wear jeans, but generally this is a crowd that looks like it reads The Wall Street Journal very carefully. Carafes of white wine and an occasional spinach salad dot the tables. In a small cafe On a crowded night In a spot of light Stands the singer . . . All the people turn to hear her sad refrain Catch the cry of fame that's in her song But in her haunted face, and in her searching eyes There's a sign that's something wrong . . . -- from "The Singer," by W. Marks
Karen Akers' voice flows as creamy and rich as mousse. Her nails, fire-engine red, wrap around a microphone she holds to the lips that look even fuller now, maybe because they're moist and scarlet. She wears silky black pants, a black vest, bow tie.
Her style is torchy seduction, sort of Linda Ronstadt minus the cutoffs. The crowd cozies up to her.
"My next song," she coos to the lights, "is, oh, I don't know, it makes me a little nervous. It's awfully personal." A wicked grin, and then she's in to an imaginary love affair with a grocery store clerk: When he starts to move He aims to please Which only goes to prove That sometimes in a clerk You find a Hercules . . . But oh, can that boy ffff . . . oxtrot. As dumbbells go He's rather slow . . . But who needs Albert Schweitzer When the ligths are low . . . He often is a bore But on the floor, he aint And oh, boy oh boy, can that boy fff . . . oxtrot. -- from "Can That Boy Foxtrot." by Stephen Sondheim
From there her songs get more wistful than wicked, pounding at what becomes a theme of mean men who leave nice women. The men get meaner, and her voice madder and madder. The audience cheers her, calling fore more.
("I've never thought of those songs as reflecting anything about our relationship," says her husband, Jim. "I think she picks songs that suit her dramatically, and I've never sensed that she's picked those songs because they mean something to her. I don't feel threatened.")
After her show, Karen Akers heads for Elaine's with friends. She drinks Scotch and laughs and laughs until 3, then goes home to 110th Street and Riverside Drive, an old building of dingy halls and stale elevators. Her apartment has worn wood floors, smudged woodwork, a view of a brick wall instead of the Hudson River. The decor is Early College Student.
The next morning she gets up late and, with the window shades drawn, has a cup a tea in the darkened room. She wears a T-shirt and blue jeans and without make-up looks a little Early College Students herself.
"I haven't spoken to Jim in a while," she sighs. It was his birthday two days ago, and I've been trying to reach him."
Back in Washington, she'll talk more about the strains on her marriage. It's very hard from time-to-time," she says "In September of last year," when I was singing at Reno Sweeney's two nights a week, I was away a lot -- and that was a very trying time. But we managed . . .
"And there was a period when we were living in New York that we were leaving each other long, involved notes by the phone. Jim was working late on a law case and by the time he got home, I had already left for my gig.
"I have a feeling," she says, "that what's going to happen is that I'm going to travel more and more, and I'm going to want more and more, and yes, I think there are going to be conflicting feelings . . . But you know, somebody said to me, 'Karen, you're never going to make it unless you go on the road 365 days a year.' And I said, 'No, I'm not going to be on the road 365 days a year. I'm going to do it my way."