Tilting at The X Factor


T I L T I N G     A T     T H E     X    F A C T O R

Day one of the X Factor experience. Flew into SFO last night at 12:30AM, asleep by 2 and up at 4 to make it to the Cow Palace by 6 to register. Drove up Old Bayshore. Passed through Colma – the headstone capitol of the Bay Area – there are a couple major cemeteries nearby – where I’d been dropped off hitchhiking high on acid in the late 60’s. Heavy. The headstones are on display in the bright clear northern california sunlight that makes every detail sharper.

Past Colma to Brisbane, the Cow Palace turn off. It’s like rural Arkansas around there – Funky bars and small sleepy Southern town vibe in the shadow of San Francisco’s southern reaches. Built in ’41, The Palace is a hulk of a building  – a giant Quonset hut, like a hydroelectric plant in a Daffy Duck cartoon. I remember driving back from a camping trip with Fee in the ‘70’s and seeing a sign – “Rev. Ike now appearing – Cow Palace”, pulling off the freeway and checking it out. We sat in back alone in the nose bleed section some of the few white faces there, and watched a few people in wheelchairs wheel up to his podium and him saying a few healing words. Noone tossed their crutches away or anything like that. I remember he had a big smile and pomaded hair – this was before Jeri curls – and tried to talk us into buying prayer cloths you were supposed to hold up to your radio during his broadcast sermons so good fortune would come your way. The power of attraction – old school.

As a kid I saw rodeos there and at least one hot rod show. Walking the exhibits at the show, I saw a couple of Hells Angels checking out Big Daddy Ed Roth’s cars. I remember their backs to me and the logo spread across lived in, greasy denim sleeveless jackets. I’m not sure why but I walked up to them and asked for their autographs on a napkin. The shorter one wrote “Chocolate George”. When he died in a motorcycle accident in ’67, 200 bikes rode to his wake in Golden Gate Park and the Grateful Dead played.

It’s a spectacular early spring day, the air like the clearest glass in a tiffany showcase and everything lit to perfection. I park and walk past a half mile of serpentined crowd control fencing. Now empty, waiting for tomorrow’s crush. There’s a weirdly festive smell like cotton candy and PCP coming from the dozens of porta potties planted around the site. I wait in line for 15 minutes to register for the auditions and head home to get some sleep.

As I’m drifting off, I hear mom talking on the phone about editing the church newsletter she’s helped put together for the last 50 (?) years. The Pine Tree. The name is reassuring. As I’m going to sleep, song titles and melodies drift through – “Early Onset” and “An Eye for an Eye for an iPad”.

I talk to Cyn that night. Boop’s been crying “Dada” throughout the day. This is the first day I can remember being away from him all night. For this folly. I’ve awakened with him almost every day since he was born.

It’s not complete folly. I’m hoping for some mandate, a sign this is what I should be doing. In a promo video for signing up to try out for the show, Simon Cowell asks “Why are you worth $5,000,000?” My initial reaction is “How about $500,000…” Warner Bros. probably put up $5M in today’s dollars over the life of Code Blue counting how much it cost to record the album, tour support and promotion. I’ve been worth it before…

That night I visit Bruce, Nancy and Lillie on her birthday. Bruce tells me about the latest developments in commercial energy engineering – the use of “Big Data” – mining vast amounts of real time nanodata so that energy use  can be controlled moment to moment for maximum efficiency. “Think of a building breathing, like an organism.” Cool and exciting concept.

The next day I get there by 8. The crowd control fences are now filled with thousands of people. I get in line in Chute 5. There’s legacy cattle herding nomenclature like “chutes” and “We’re gonna load you in now”. Two black guys in their early 20’s near me are decked out in Hot Topic style punk gear – random suspenders, straps and studs attached here and there, vaguely punk slogans on their leather jackets, with geometric shapes cut into their hair and eyebrows. The pretty one starts singing in a light falsetto “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. He’s good, real good. I wonder how many are as good as he is.

After a couple hours waiting in the sun, some guys in the chute across from us rig up a game  – putting a dollar bill on the ground on a walkway between the chutes with a string attached. When someone bends over to pick it up they yank it away. The crowd can’t help but love it even though it’s bad behavior. A water vendor comes by and falls for it. A squabble ensues as the two black punks hassle him about wanting warm water instead of iced as it’s better for the throat when you’re about to sing, others tell them to quit hassling him as it’s hot and they just want to buy some water. Squabbling over water – we’re in our own little eco-system. It doesn’t take long to break the situation down to essentials.

A roving video crew with sound hooked up to the PA system roamed around picking contestants at random. “You got 10 seconds. Show us what you got.” And they’d cut loose with their best riffs. Two out of 10 were pretty weak but the other 8 could really lay it down. As good as the pretty one or better. I get my first sense of the level of talent here. Pretty high.

Finally after 3 hours in the sun, we’re herded inside the Palace past memorabilia from its days as home of the rodeo. Our chute full of entrants takes its place in a section of seats above one of the exits.

Below us on the arena floor are 36 cubicles in four rows of eight made of black cloth stretched on frames about 8 feet on a side, open at the top and one side. Ominous, like something from Abu Ghraib or office cubicles in hell. “Down on the killing floor…” to carry the cattle metaphor further. In the stands it feels a little like we’re gladiators in the Coliseum waiting to be called.

They start calling the entrants nearest the cubicles down to do their thing. It looks like it’ll be a few hours until they get to us so I wander around. As I open the door to a hall way, there’s a low roar of dozens of contestants posed here and there warming up in full voice bouncing off the high concrete ceilings and walls. Babel. I read a story of a driver in a car accident having a near death experience. He felt himself in what must be heaven – much soft white light and thousands of angels singing. They were each singing different songs but it being heaven, he could somehow hear every song distinctly. This hallway scene was the opposite. Like in theory, the presence of all colors is white, but in practice, when you mix all the colors on your palette together, you get brown.

In the stands moms are fiddling with their sons and daughters’ hair and outfits, a striking busty Katy Perry type sits looking over legal briefs, a 6 foot transvestite in high heels, bleached blonde wig and wedding veil stands in line at the men’s room. The crowd is less than 50% white, mostly black and latino, a few Asians.

I stand with a group where we can see into the cubicles. The contestants are gesturing grandly to the judges, pantomiming – they’re too far away to hear. Then they stand still as the judges render their verdict. If the contestant passes the first round there’s jubilation and thankyous. One goes down on her knees in thanks, is given her yellow card signifying she’s passed the first round then runs out of the booth waving her card in the air and a cheer goes up from her fans in the stands.

The ones who’ve made it through go out the west arena entrance. The ones who’ve been given the thumbs down walk out the east entrance below us – “The Walk of Shame” I hear someone call it. Their body language completely different – slumped shoulders, slack jawed, some crying. A woman behind me keeps yelling out “Stay encouraged!” and applauding as they pass below. Some of us join in the applause as they slump past and most smile, give a thumbs up, walk a little taller. Some make grand exits, smiling and strutting, laughing at defeat. As she gets close to the stands, a black woman on her way out starts shaking her booty and shimmying, really working it. The crowd in the stands loves it, gives her an ovation. “This is her real audition right here” someone says.

They seem to be letting about half the contestants through, separating out the bush leaguers and nut jobs. I’m encouraged, thinking they’re being generous in their judgment and I should be able to make it through this round. I practice my “Can I Get a Witness” and “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” every chance I get. Originally it had been 3 songs but now it’s down to a verse and chorus of 2 songs.

About 2/3 of the contestants have been called.  The section next to ours is called to go down to the floor and lineup by the booths. The adrenaline slow drip begins. “Oh my God! Courtney made it”. I hear a high school girl saying behind me. Rather than bein jubilant, she’s staring with slack jawed disbelief and envy at her friend on the opposite side of the arena ecstatically jumping up and down waving her yellow card. Didn’t know she had it in her.

Finally our section is called. We file down to the floor and quickly line up in groups in front of each of the 8 rows of booths. A few of us say a hurried goodbye and good luck. Everything is moving faster the closer we get to the booths like water as it approaches a waterfall or a bathtub drain. One of my ears plugs up as I’m waiting. Perfect timing – it must be a mental thing. We’re given last minute instructions “You’ll do a verse and chorus of 1 song. Please don’t touch the judges. Have fun.” We line up singly in front of each booth.

Then I’m stepping into the open side of the booth. There’s a guy in his late 20’s, with clip board and inauthentic, drained smile sitting on a director’s chair. “Hi. Where are you from?”

“Los angeles”

“How old are you?

“60.” No point in lying about it. Maybe it’s an asset.

“What do you do?”

I choke. “I’m a…trying to be a musician.”

“OK let’s get started,” and he nods.

I tear into “Can I Get a Witness” complete with hand raised like I’m testifying on the chorus, and a few dance moves but the whole thing has a frenzied feel to it. My ear is still bugging me. I’m distracted and off my game. Why couldn’t it have been a female judge? I would have done better with a girl sitting there. I realized the melody is pretty much clustered around 2 notes – the chord changes under the melody are what give it its character. Without a band playing the changes, it’s static but my vocal coach had recommended I go with it. Cyn preferred Softly when I sang it to her over the phone. Maybe “Softly” with a bigger melody was the way to go and I blew it.

I finish a little out of breath.

“I’m going to say ‘No’ for today.”

“For today?” I’m thinking. There’s no next day. Does he mean I should try again next season? “Can you give me any pointers on how I did?”

“I can’t really…” That smile. Tough job.

After waiting for 7 hours, it’s over in 2 minutes. I say thanks and walk out of the booth in dull semi-shock.. Someone walks into the booth behind me. “Let’s get started,” I can hear the judge. I keep my head down as I leave and head toward the east exit. I seem to be almost alone. Did everyone else make it through? By now there’s only one section of contestants waiting to be called. The section where I’d been sitting had been sitting is empty, the “Stay encouraged” lady is gone as I walk out the east entrance to mom and dad’s Corolla. I drive back through the same park I’d detoured through on the way to register but it didn’t lift my mood.

Though I told everyone it was just like running the marathon – something to tell the grandkids – I was really counting on that mandate more than I realized. Some kind of sign that I’m on the right path. Not getting it is leaving a big hole – though I did have a great visit with mom and dad. On the plane home, I feel like I’d fought in Sarajevo on the losing side. No jubilation, but a quiet awareness of damage, survival and resilience. Whether or not what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger depends on how you interpret it, the narrative you build around it. It’s a choice.

quix·ot·ic  (kwk-stk) also quix·ot·i·cal (–kl)


1. Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.

2. Capricious; impulsive:.

I’m not so sure how romantic or noble this escapade has been but capricious and impulsive – definitely. I may have been inspired by the story of how the guy who created FedEx ran out of cash in the early days when the business was struggling, went to Vegas, put all his money on one throw of the dice and won. Losers are “capricious”, winners are “strong-willed”.

I wonder how quixotic the attempt to revive my music career for the last 10 years has been. Have I been tilting at windmills? No, it hasn’t been capricious – it’s been considered and decided. Maybe my risk assessment could be more rigorous, but I’ve tried my other option – holding down a straight job and found it to be ultimately unfulfilling. Maybe I’ve jousted with inner demons, but not impulsive tilting. I’m where I’m supposed to be.

After his adventures have come to an end Don Quixote wakes from a high fever restored to “sanity”, renounces his quests and adventures, then dies.

After I get home I’m driving the new Prius. It’s a used car and there are radio station presets left over from the previous owner. I flip through them. One is a Christian station – Focus on the Family. A woman is talking in that Anita Bryant kind of “oh gosh”, clipped, hyper-enunciated, nuance free, relentlessly upbeat way, as if God has a low tolerance for ambiguity or irony. She’s talking about her painful divorce and how it was such a trial for her since in her circle it “just wasn’t done” (divorce). You were supposed to pull yourself up by the boot straps and make it work. But she couldn’t and the marriage failed and left her in shock and challenged her faith. She found it led to a deeper understanding of God – as if finding a friend who’s there for you through thick and thin and not just an abstract object of veneration and fear. It gave God a shape and led to a deepening of “my relationship with him.”


It’s Sunday and I spend a few minutes thinking about where God was during this adventure. The emptiness feels like God’s absence. But my God doesn’t play golf, go on vacation, or get distracted when someone’s in need. I have to accept God was present and that there is a plan at work, though I can’t see where it’s leading, when I’ll arrive at any kind of resolution or fulfillment. Rather, it looks like it’s leading to the edge of the world, that I’ll fall into an abyss. It’s kind of a cop out to take a “Jesus Take the Wheel” attitude that God will always be there like a safety net, but maybe our idea of safety is too narrowly defined. And maybe that’s the lesson from this pilgrimage – have faith. Even though the path is dark as midnight, know there is fulfillment, deliverance ahead.


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