There are times and places in this country – in this city – where it’s not appropriate to sing the national anthem. Spokane native Toby DePaolo learned that the hard way. DePaolo has made a public spectacle for the past seven months by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at pubs and bars across the area.
It’s something he did partly for fun, but mostly out of frustration, he said.
“I didn’t like the way things were going in the world, so I decided to get drunk and sing the national anthem,” said DePaolo, 33. “I know a few people in Iraq who chose to go there. I love this country. And I believe that government can work. Good government can only be realized with public participation.”
DePaolo’s main goal in sparking “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the middle of a crowded bar was to promote patriotism and to provoke political discussion, especially among people in their 20s and early 30s.
7 followed DePaolo on a recent patriotic pub crawl where he sang the national anthem at seven Spokane drinking establishments.
Although the national anthem’s melody was adapted from a colonial drinking song (“To Anacreon in Heaven,” about a Greek poet who wrote extensively about wine and women), during this trip the song often seemed awkward and out of place in the bars.
DePaolo gathered at his home on a Friday at dusk over a bottle of wine and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” with a group of friends – Kassie Swenson, 26, Mark Steward, 29, and Heather McLaughlin, 33.
McLaughlin, a teacher at Lewis and Clark High School, was adamant about why she would not be joining the pub crawl.
“It’s insulting, it’s making a mockery of the national anthem,” said McLaughlin, who teaches physical education at LC. “Spokane is a conservative place that doesn’t see the view of liberalists. I think it’s a waste of way to be an activist.”
DePaolo said he wanted to reach out to the average person who doesn’t have the energy or the resources to initiate change.
“It’s like people are not allowed to talk politics in public places, whether it’s the war, poverty or food, clothing and shelter,” DePaolo said. “People are so caught up in ‘I gotta pay bills’ that they can’t meet their basic needs so they can’t participate to make change.”
The conversation escalated in intensity until McLaughlin and DePaolo agreed to disagree.
Before the group departed, DePaolo blasted N.W.A.’s “Express Ya’ Self” and said, “This is my anthem.”
With a group of 20- and 30-somethings sitting around a table and talking politics on a Friday night, the evening already seemed like a success, DePaolo said.
Sam and Dom’s: When the group entered the Sprague Avenue bar, a lot of middle-age patrons were shooting strange looks, but that quickly faded into smiles. It was karaoke night, and DePaolo was welcomed to cut in line to sing the national anthem. The warm mood was infectious as the crowd of about two dozen drinkers sang along. By the time DePaolo got to “rockets’ red glare,” he put down the microphone, his voice blending in unamplified with the rest of the bar.
“The working class – they love it,” DePaolo said.
At the bar, Curtis Anderson, 22, and Rochelle Zehm, 22, were selling American flags (among other items such as kitchen shears and tranquility fountains). Zehm said they had sold 600 flags in the past week at bars, car lots and salons.
“Everyone is buying,” Zehm said.
Anderson gave DePaolo a flag for free as he was leaving the bar.
The Blvd.: While rock band Meter 12 was onstage, Steve Lightfoot, vocalist for Life’s Lie, was stoked about DePaolo’s request to sing the national anthem.
“Who else in these times would do this? In this state of extreme liberalism, everyone is scared to be patriotic. I’m not a fan of Bush, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love my country,” Lightfoot said.
There was a miscommunication, though, and Toby joined Meter 12 onstage before the band was ready.
At first, the bassist looked perturbed but then attempted to sing the words with DePaolo, until the drummer kicked in a funky beat that knocked the tune off balance. DePaolo tried to salvage the mess by rapping the national anthem along with the beat, but that only seemed to make things worse.
O’Doherty’s: The crowd of mostly college-age patrons appeared confused when DePaolo climbed onto the bar to sing. After a little coercing, most of the men wearing baseball caps took them off. One guy, who kept throwing dirty looks at DePaolo, pulled him aside to apologize as DePaolo was leaving.
The Onion: An older gentleman quickly took off his hat in honor of the national anthem. A group in their 20s tried to ignore DePaolo, then reluctantly pulled off their caps and drummed along on the table.
After finishing the anthem DePaolo teased the onlookers.
“I’m doing this to promote volunteerism, and for a free drink,” said DePaolo, who has volunteered his time with groups such as the Board for Neighborhood Alliance, Chief Garry Park Neighborhod Council, the Save the Administration Building at LC, the Spokane Preservation Advocates and the local Sierra Club. He never got the drink.
Suki Yaki: The response was instant. A woman with a much better voice than DePaolo basically took over the song as the rest of the lounge joined in.
Mootsy’s: Another national anthem rap disaster was brewing as the deejay from Bozeman’s Eightrack Mind refused to turn down his scratched remix of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” This time DePaolo waited until the band’s break and sang the national anthem from the other end of the bar. The crowd accompanied him without reservation.
“I sometimes challenge authority,” DePaolo remarked to the crowd. He said he was fired from the city water department in December for insubordination. He now runs his own computer mapping company, Inland Spatial Technologies, and Riverside house painting business.
The B-Side: Members of the local alternative rock band La Cha-Cha wishes they would have turned down the initial request for DePaolo to sing during their set. In the middle of DePaolo’s singing, the soundman put his vocals through so many digital effects that it turned into white noise.
La Cha-Cha later issued this comment: “We have our own political views, and we think if someone wants to spread their own views about world matters, they should do it, but they should reserve a venue for it themselves and not use other musicians’ concerts to do so. There weren’t many there that night that appreciated what Toby was doing and, in fact, some people left the show. And that’s never good.”
C.J. Hill stayed through La Cha-Cha’s set, but she was put off by the interruption.
“I appreciate the fact that he’s bringing out the issues, but I didn’t like the presentation of it,” said Hill, 25. “He’s drawing more attention to himself rather than the issues. I would have preferred if he said something prior. It was distracting from the artists onstage.”
After last call was announced at The B-Side, DePaolo apologized to the soundman and the band for any offense he caused by singing the national anthem.
DePaolo reflected on the night’s events and questioned whether he would find himself singing the national anthem in public again.
“I think there are a lot of patriotic people. A lot of people in our demographic go out to the bars to socialize and listen to music, but you’ll never see some of those same people at a neighborhood meeting, or public meeting, or fighting poverty. They work hard to have that time to go out and have fun,” DePaolo said.
“I think the younger population is more apathetic due to having leaders they don’t identify with. I believe that people care about each other, love their country and want the greatest good to happen.
“I think a lot of people were smiling and, for a minute, they thought about something other than the beer in their hands.”