Lush Life

by Shawn “Speedy” Lopes

Say what you will about the unbearable gaudiness of hotel lounge shows, but let’s get one thing straight: Don Ho is smooth. I mean silken. At $35 a head, the Ambassador of Aloha entertains tourists at the Waikiki Beachcomber in the same room, with the same songs and jokes, and still manages to garner legions of repeat visitors.

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Lush with the legendary Don Ho at the Don Ho show

Tonight in the Hana Hou Showroom, the average age must hover around sixty-five. In one corner, our pensive friends, limp-haired and outfitted in Brit-rock black, stick out like sore thumbs. Vocalist-slash-guitarist Miki Berenyi, who sports her usual fiery red hairdo, has already prompted a minor spectacle without even trying. In this lounge, we begin to notice, hair dye equals more Grecian Formula than Manic Panic. The loud, young locals at their table would be us, the Radio Free Hawaii crew; a small cadre of on-air DJs and staff from 102.7 FM who have taken it upon ourselves to show Lush a bit of Honolulu. Truth is, though, this type of show, devoid of dancefloor, DJ booth or concert stage, is as foreign to us as to them.

Enter Don Ho. Spotlight, please.

Alooooooooooooha!

“Before we begin, friends, I would like to welcome to the Hana Hou Showroom one of the world’s best-selling musical acts, all the way from England,” announces Ho. Heads turn toward our table. “My daughters love this group…a big round of applause for Lush! Please stand so we can see you.” Hesitantly, the band complies, no doubt eager to return to the anonymity of their corner table. “Hold on, let’s get the girls up here first to start the show off,” suggests Ho.

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Emma and Miki are summoned to the stage by Don Ho

Immediately, Ho’s underlings usher Miki and bandmate Emma Anderson to the stage, where the girls are seated on either side of the kanaka crooner. “How about a drink first, ladies?” asks Ho, offering a glass first to Miki, who gamely takes a sip. “What kind of a drink do you think that is?”

“Pineapple,” she answers. “Some kind of pineapple drink.”

“Very good, you can keep it,” he gestures, to a smattering of giggles. “And you, my dear?”

“Um…oh, this is water,” answers Emma. A burst of laughter irradiates the room. “I’ve got a real drink at my table, actually.” More laughter.

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At some point in the ’90s, this particular photo landed in my possession, though unfortunately, I don’t know who to credit

“See these people?” Ho asks her, motioning to the audience. “They used to drink that stuff in their younger days. Now it’s just Geritol.” This seems to be the orchestra’s cue to begin Don Ho’s magnum opus, “Tiny Bubbles.” He starts alone, then slowly begins to guide the girls through the well-known classic, line by line:

“Tiny bubbles

in the wine

make me feel happy

make me feel fine…”

I notice a smile creeping on my face. Melodies begin to flow like sweetened poi as Miki and Emma add a glinty topnote to Don Ho’s cool tenor, creating something oddly familiar, yet completely new and novel. It’s a fabulous matter of luck to behold such a wondrous collaboration, I think to myself. As the tune winds down to its climactic end, Ho raises his hand. “We’re not finished yet,” he warns. “Let’s get the fellas up here now.”

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The Lush boys take their turn at the miucrophone

After a brief moment, the Lush boys gather their feet and sheepishly saunter to the stage, where their delighted female counterparts wholeheartedly applaud the trade. Within moments, Emma and Miki are whooping it up as Chris Acland and Philip King, looking every bit uncomfortable with microphones in hand, follow Ho in a rousing rendition of “Suck ‘em Up,” the unofficial Hawaiian drinking song. This is a Kodak moment; Waikiki’s master showman has the audience sozzled with laughter and music. “Drink some champagne,” he advises the crowd, “It’s a good laxative.”

It’s always an uneasy experience walking into a strange dive bar for the first time — sort of like going to the prom with your platonic date; anything could happen but probably won’t. And for all the trepidation, the most likely scenario sees you returning home alone, only bereft and drunker than when you left.

From what I gather, our second stop, Shaka Hawaiian Deli, is a karaoke lounge that offers an all-you-can-eat buffet and unlimited, or complimentary drinks for a very reasonable sum of $15 ($20 on weekends). The owners must figure most of their patrons won’t consume fifteen dollars worth of Hawaiian comfort food and alcohol, although I have to believe Lush will. Weeks of travelling through the American Rust Belt must arouse one’s appetite for the exotic, and as luck would have it, the Radio Free Hawaii sales staff managed to finagle free entry for our entire party to round out an oddball weeknight.

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Lush, live at the Groove, September 12, 1996

Inside this peculiar watering hole, the barroom walls, painted sky blue and airbrushed spottily with fluffy white clouds echo with Hawaiian music as a large man seated in a nearby booth seems to be in the throes of a painful falsetto. I order a beer and let the band acclimate themselves to their surroundings, all the while taking note of Lush’s drinking habits. A rum and coke for Phil, good ol’ American Budweiser for Chris. Budweiser? For such a well-travelled man?

“I’d much rather be drinking a Corona with a twist of lime,” he admits, although here, his choices are limited to Bud, Miller and Coors. “That or a Guinness. You have that here, don’t you? That’s what I’d like most now.” The mention of the storied stout reminds me of an acquaintance’s recollection of how he and a group of buddies travelled all the way to England on an 8000 mile beer run only to find their first pub of choice served its beer warm. He swears Brits prefer it that way, though I wondered if maybe the bar just had a faulty tap. “Do you really drink your beer warm back home?” I inquire, in a bid to confirm the shaky account.

“No, not all the time,” Phil answers. “Is that what you heard? Maybe for some of the really good darker beers…”

“Like Guinness,” Chris chimes in again.

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Me, center, after a few drinks with Chris and Phil.

Soon, Miki appears with a steaming plate of Asian-inspired local grinds, a serving of which I recognize as char siu chicken. It occurs to me that during their six day stay in Waikiki, this may be the closest Lush will get to true modern Hawaiian culture – a side of the islands very few tourists experience. If you think about it, the local-style plate lunch is a delicious personification of Hawaii’s vibrant cross-cultural heritage; a lovely melange of Asia, Polynesia and America.

Well, this is too surreal. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined enjoying beers and chicken long rice with Lush. Having patronized one of the city’s least elegant venues tonight where the entertainment is only as enjoyable as the volume of alcohol you’ve consumed (Emma called for a ride back to the hotel only minutes after we arrived) I realize I must savor every moment of this exchange, all the while staying mindful of not coming off as a desperate fan or hanger-on. I order another round of beers for our table ‘cause I’m pretty sure that’s what cool guys in bars do.

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September 12, 1996: Lush, live at the Groove in Honolulu, Hawaii

Over the next hour, the conversation turns to music and travel. America seems more hard rock-oriented than England; unlike in the U.S., ska is dead back home, but Jamiroquai, Pulp and Manic Street Preachers are white-hot; the new album captures the real Lush better than previous outings; and Bush desperately want to be the next Nirvana.

Who is the heaviest drinker in the band, I need to know. “Probably Miki,” answers Chris, nodding affirmatively. A guitar player, meat eater and carouser? Could God have created a more perfect creature, I wonder. In my mind’s eye, a crown of light appears just above Miki’s head. Chris glances over at the adjoining booth. “It probably doesn’t look that way tonight, though.” After only a few drinks, slightly slouched in her seat and head cocked to one side, Miki hears him and replies almost apologetically “It’s been a long night. We need to get up at 8:30 in the morning.” As Phil explains, a friend of Miki’s mother owns a home on the North Shore (or ‘Northside,’ as he calls it) and they’d like to inspect the more habitable side of the island before returning cityward for their Honolulu show on Thursday.

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Lush, live at the Groove in Honolulu, Hawaii, 9-12-96

In light of her sensational performance at the Don Ho show, I excitedly suggest Miki give a shot at a song on the karaoke jukebox before departing. “Oh, bloody hell,” she chuckles, modestly waving off the proposition, halo still burning brightly.

Ah, it’s just as well, I suppose, as the lights dim and our large Hawaiian friend, four beers better than his last song, takes the microphone to his table and begins to serenade the last of the lushes in the room.

Epilogue

This is a piece I had originally written in 1996 (yes, 20 years ago this month), with the intention of starting my own printed publication, which never materialized. While I did take some concert shots of Lush’s performance at the Groove and a few at the Don Ho show, another handful of photos ended up in my possession through a colleague at Radio Free Hawaii, though I can’t remember who, exactly. Oddly, none of the former coworkers I’ve suspected of loaning me the color pics at the Don Ho show remember the photos at all. I still have no idea who they actually belonged to. Anyone?

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Written by Shawn "Speedy" Lopes

I am a lifelong Honoluluan whose true calling is to tell the stories of others, whether through photos, film, video, audio or the written word. Here is a collection of my works – some previously published in periodicals like Billboard, the Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Weekly, though most of what you read or view here has never been seen before.

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