OK. I never learn. I should steer clear of contests of any kind. But I couldn't resist this latest hare-brained scheme of mine to enter a singing contest on a local New York talk radio show and bring home the $2500 first prize. Piece of cake, I thought. But as I said, I never learn. Well, maybe I learn, but I get really bad grades.
I started listening to talk radio in my car because - let's face it - music has become unbearable. New music more or less sucks and classic rock...let's just say, if I hear "Layla" one more time I might go on a murderous rampage. I never liked the damn song to begin with. The show I've been listening to is called "The Radio Chick." It's your standard chat fest, but I'm hooked on it. The Radio Chick is an intelligent middle-aged Jewish woman who has a sexy and soothing delivery. Her two co-jocks are both quick-witted and have a good chemistry with the Chick.
So one day I'm driving around and I hear them talking about a singing contest they're presenting based loosely on "American Idol." The twist is that their contest is called "American Ex-Con." To qualify you have to not only be able to sing a tune, you also have to have been handcuffed, arrested and incarcerated. Unbelievably I qualify. Yes, I am an ex-con. Technically speaking. My crime? Trying to rescue a stray cat. It's a long story which I will write about in a separate piece, but in short, I was placed in a cell already occupied by two rather frightening gentlemen who asked what I was in for and then when told, menacingly accused me of trying to kill the cat. It took me twenty minutes to convince them that I was no cat killer, that I was simply trying to save her and find her a nice home when things went completely amok with the park police. I know what these kind of people do to child molesters and I definitely didn't want to find out how they handled kitty slayers. But back to the contest.
I heard a couple of the initial entries and figured I'd be a shoe-in. The next day I sent in a song I had recorded for my new album. It's a straight-ahead blues entitled "Twelve Bars and I Still Have The Blues." A few days later I was driving around when the Radio Chick played my song on the air. Now, you gotta remember that this is not a music show, this is a make-fun-of-everything-and-anything provocative talk format. These people are skilled professionals at being opinionated wise-asses. If they sense any weakness in a caller or guest, they pounce like your worst nightmare bullies in junior high - the kind that make a mockery of the old adage "sticks and stones may break my bones". So I start having second thoughts about the whole thing, but it's too late. My friggin' song is blasting out of thousands of speakers throughout the tri-state area, not to mention the worldwide web. I'm waiting for them to start mocking my effort with some facetious remarks when the Radio Chick says "You know me, I'm a sucker for the blues." Then her co-host chimes in "well this guy can certainly sing" and finally the other co-host says "I gotta say, I love this." I almost run my car into a pole, I'm so hyped. Most of the other ex-cons didn't get off so easy. The three radio judges ridiculed, criticized and laughed through many of the songs they played for the contest. But that's their job. I was just grateful they spared me the humiliation.
Cut to the end of the week - I receive an e-mail telling me I'm being considered for one of the six finalists out of over sixty entries. I didn't realize there were that many talented ex-jailbirds in hearing distance of this particular radio station. But apparently there are...kind of. I sweat it through the weekend, kept in suspense until 4:00 Monday when they announce the six who made it into the finals. They say the first four names and I begin to wonder if maybe they had changed their minds. Maybe I sounded too slick or something. Possibly I'm too "pro" - this is supposed to be for laughs after all. When suddenly I hear the fifth finalist is "Xavier." Oh, I forgot to mention , I decided to go under the partial alias of "Xavier." "X." is my middle name after all and I didn't want anyone to know about this...I was doing this strictly for the $2500, which could come in handy paying off the cost of mixing the new album. So I'm in. I call Nancy and I have to admit I'm excited. I'm ecstatic, actually. People who didn't know me from Adam heard me sing and thought I was better than the rest of the rotten bunch. I felt good.
My question at this juncture is what song should I sing to clinch this thing. I know - I'll do something by Stevie Winwood. "Dear Mr. Fantasy" or "Gimme Some Lovin'". Upon my arrival home, I immediately pick up my acoustic guitar and start scheming. I'm confident I'm going to win. These songs suit my upper register and people have commented in the past how much I sound like Mr. Winwood when I do his material. I'm champin' at the bit. Let me sing for the Radio Chick!
Then a second e-mail comes in. This is what I feared. It says, do not bring any instruments with you. You will be required to sing a duet with one of the other five finalists a cappella. You will be assigned your song at the station on the day of the contest. It will be one of these:
I Got You Babe (Sonny & Cher)
Enough Is Enough (Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer)
Don't Go Breakin' My Heart (Elton John and Kiki Dee)
Ebony and Ivory (Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder)
It Takes Two (Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston)
A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock'n'Roll (Donny and Marie Osmond)
I see the $2500 going up in flames and the ashes raining down. I make a snap decision to back out of this farce at all costs. But then I have a vision of them tearing me apart verbally on the show for being a thin-skinned wimped-out spoil sport. They might even get hold of my real name and turn me into the laughing stock poster boy for the sore loser of the week. Or something equally horrible. OK, here's what I'm going to do. I'm gonna go through with this but on my terms. The only song here on which I can retain any shred of proficiency, not to mention dignity, is "It Takes Two." I can even sing Kim Weston's part. I don't care. Just don't make me sing one of those other creepy songs. I mean, I love the Beatles and Stevie Wonder is a genius, but come on, "Ebony and Ivory" is a piece of crap. Hated it when it was a hit, hate it even more now. Some things improve with age, most things don't, and "Ebony and Ivory" is even more cloyingly annoying and sappy in the new millennium. The metaphor isn't even correct. Any musician will tell you that the black key on the piano next to a white key produces a half step interval which is a dissonance. Metaphorically, Seinfeld had it better with the black and white cookie when describing racial harmony. And that's the second best choice I have. The rest of the selections are so dismal at least as far as me trying to sing them that I begin to regret ever listening to this Radio Chick. It also occurs to me that there is only one female finalist. What are they going to do, make her sing the girl part on all these duets?
I practice "It Takes Two" over and over. Sometimes Nancy sings the female part and I concentrate on the Marvin Gaye sections, or I just sing both sides of the duet so I can be ready for anything. I'm sticking to my guns; I'm only learning this one duet. Here's the other thing I forgot to mention - in the second e-mail, they informed the finalists that one of the three duet couples will be eliminated. Boom, done, get outa here, you lost, it's over. The both of ya - scram. So I've gotta get past this part of the competition. And damn it, I will. As a matter of fact, I'm doing a pretty good Marvin Gaye as interpreted by a skinny white Jew, of course. But not bad. And my Kim Weston - well, let's just say I may need to wear some tight jockey shorts to nail the high notes. But I can do it. As Sammy used to say between knee-slapping fits of hysteria, Yes I Can! My plan, if they insist I do one of the other lame choices, is the Robert Kennedy - Robert McNamara Cuban Missile Crisis theory. Nikita Kruschev sent two notes to JFK. The first said he would back down and not send the nuclear missiles. The second one was more aggressive and threatening. RFK said, let's just pretend we never got the second one and respond to the first. Which is what they did, saving the world from a nuclear holocaust. That's what I'm going to do. Ignore the second e-mail. I'll just say I never got it, the only one of these duets I even remotely know is "It Takes Two." Once I've made it past the a cappella duet with one of the other criminals, then I'll bring it all home with a solo vocal sung to a karaoke track. Again, the choices are from a list in the second e-mail. But I'm in luck. "Good Lovin'" by The Rascals is one of the selections. That's a song I can sink my teeth as well as my vocal cords into. Like Eddie G. said in "Double Indemnity," everything is fitting together. Like a watch.
The day of the show, I carefully pick out my wardrobe; even though I know this is radio, I want to look slick for the Chick. I choose a paisley shirt and black pants - just flash enough without looking like I'm trying too hard, and anxiously take the subway into midtown Manhattan to the skyscraper where I'll claim my victory and seek my destiny. The security is tight; we are ex-cons after all. I'm patted down and have a metal detector wand waved around my groin. It starts beeping, but it's only my metallic subway fare card tucked into my pants pocket and not a gun or some kind of aluminum phallic enhancer a la Spinal Tap. So I am let in to the radio station.
A security guard ushers me into the green room (the waiting room, for you laymen) where I meet the other five contestants. Not a bad looking group for a bunch of felons. Well, that's not exactly true - their crimes ranged from jay-walking to driving with an expired registration to one guy who jumped out onto the field at Yankee Stadium disrupting a game. The most egregious crime was that of a six foot five Southerner who got caught masturbating in his car. I fit right in with these hardened thugs.
A producer from the show comes in and begins assigning us our duet songs. Before he starts, he tells us that one of the finalists dropped out of the contest. The producer did not have nice things to say about this upstart who had the audacity to challenge the wisdom of the radio elite. Inside, I'm thinking that dude is my hero. He did what I should have done - gotten the hell out of this godforsaken contest. He told the station "I want to sing my own songs or I don't sing at all." The producer went to great lengths to pin this prima donna down as the biggest jerk this side of Hoboken, even though he said he was perfectly polite in his stance. He was promptly replaced by a runner up.
The first duet goes to two of the guys; they get "I Got You Babe" which is not exactly a singer's showcase. I laugh to myself, suckers, I'll buy you a drink with part of my $2500 winnings. The next duet, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", goes to a guy and the one female finalist. This girl is ridiculously cute. I'm talkin' five foot two eyes of...I didn't notice the color of her eyes; I was too busy eyeing her perfect bod. Twenty-two years old and...well, if this were TV she'd win even if she couldn't carry a tune.
So I'm anxiously waiting for our duet. "Our" meaning me and the big country masturbator. He's the only one left besides me. I start chanting "It Takes Two, It Takes Two" over and over in my head to induce the idea by osmosis into the producer's brain. Then I begin to pray. "Please dear lord, I'll be good. I'll do anything you want. I'll be kind to strangers. I'll even stop surfing for porn. Whatever, just grant me this one wish. It Takes Two' by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston. I'm begging you."
The producer looks at me and the big guy and says "Xavier and Mark, you two will be doing...("please God!")..." As his mouth forms the words "Ebony and Ivory" I scream silently to myself, nooooooooooooooo!. I muster up the courage and very diplomatically and soft-spokenly ask "ah, sir, would it be possible if we did It Takes Two' instead?" "No, I'm sorry, these are the songs we've chosen." I try one last attempt. "How about Mark does Ebony and Ivory' by himself and I do It Takes Two'?" I point out that I can sing both parts quite handily. But now he's adamant. I slowly sink down onto the couch and watch my contestant life flash before me. I'm slithering down into the deepest regions of hell where one has to listen to songs like "Ebony and Ivory" for the rest of eternity. In my shocked state I hear my partner Mark say with a southern drawl "I don't even know It Takes Two', never heard it." I now know what it must have felt like for a prisoner on death row in Texas while Dubya was governor. Doomed - fait accompli - might as well be measuring out the coffin because my ass is fried. Over the years I've managed to tune out as I best I could music that I don't like. But back in the day a song like "Ebony and Ivory" was hard to avoid and snuck in a few times, enough to know it when I heard it. But that's it. I don't really know it. And I don't want to know it. Could you imagine the uproar if I back out now? The producer just trashed the guy who'd wisely quit in advance. I can only think of what the Radio Chick and company are going to do to that poor shmuck on the air.
With my best poker face (which isn't very convincing) I tell my singing partner Mark that I sort of know "Ebony and Ivory" and we'll be just fine. OK, where do we rehearse, I ask the producer. "Rehearse? Oh, ah, I don't know, I guess right here." In the green room. The room is only 12 x 12 foot square and there are six of us doing three different songs. "Sorry that's all we've got." I didn't think I could feel much worse, but conjure up this bit of auditory cacophony. "I Got You, Babe", "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" and the wonderful "Ebony and Ivory", all being sung at once in a small room, again and again, by six nervous misters and misdemeanors who just met. On top of all my other misgivings, I have a cough that started up due to allergies, so I brought along my prescription cough syrup. I didn't bring a spoon because I figured there would be metal detectors (this is New York), and I didn't want to pull out my spoon and have someone shoot me thinking it was a knife or at best an accoutrement for shooting heroin.
After fifteen minutes of this torture, we're led into the studio. Radio is a mystical medium. Because there is no visual, you are forced to try to see what you hear. I had a certain vision of the Radio Chick and her two co-hosts. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that they look pretty much as I suspected. The Chick was attractive and sexy, one co-host was a good looking black man and the other had a shaved head and a pleasant face. I'm as star struck as the next person and I'm excited to be in the same room with these voices I've been hearing over my car radio for the past several months. Each of the contestants was asked a few humorous questions. when it was my turn, the bald co-host said he wasn't sure he believed anything I said because I had a smirk on my face. When I mentioned that my crime was attempting to rescue a stray cat, the Chick's sidekick Chuck came back without missing a beat, "why were you trying to rescue Brian Setzer from a city park?"
Out of pure nerves I swigged down way more than the prescribed dose of cough syrup, and before too long I was in a codeine stupor accompanied by severe nausea and dizziness.
So the contest is underway. First up, the "I Got You, Babe" contingent. They range from passable to don't-give-up-your-day-jobs. I think even Mark and me massacring the already insufferable "Ebony and Ivory" are going to beat these guys out. Next we're served up the delightful "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with the attractive female finalist. Not godawful by any means, but not god-good either. Here we go. Mark is so tall that I grab a stool as a joke and make the motion like I'm going to stand on it to get up to eye level, which gets a few chuckles. During our so-called rehearsal, I snapped my fingers on the backbeat to create a groove and more importantly to keep us together. We worked out that big Mark would sing the opening chorus. I would sing the first half of the verse, then he would do the second half, and then we'd sing the second chorus together in harmony.
Unfortunately, they gave us hand mics, so while my left hand is holding the mic, my right is clutching the lyric sheet. I try snapping my fingers but realize it's impossible to make any sound with a piece of paper in your hand; try it some time. In all fairness Mark has a decent voice, with a nice country twang and good pitch, especially for an auto-masturbator. He starts the song a little lower than we rehearsed it but sounds strong. I start the verse, "we all know, that people are the same, blah blah blah" which is too low for my voice and admittedly wobble. Suddenly Mark, of his own accord, begins singing along with me which throws me off - we go into a tailspin and we're going down. When it's over the Radio Chick says "Xavier, do you get nervous when you sing? You sounded a little shaky." All I could muster in my mortification was the word "always." I don't know what I meant by that. All I knew was there was no $2500 check to sign that day in my future. They tell us to go back to the green room so they can decide which pair is out of the contest. I already know. I take my coat with me and seriously consider making a beeline toward the elevator and down to the street. But I think about the consequences. Mr. Heyman, Mr. Richard X. Heyman, that is your real name, isn't it? You can run but you can't hide. I keep my winter coat on hand and decide to leave after they humiliate me and Mark in the next segment. I bow my head in prayer - please let it be the "I Got You Babe" twosome; I don't care if I win, just don't make me one of the first to go. But sure enough, the Radio Chick says "there was one duet that was shakier than the rest. Mark and Xavier, you are out." I guess I'm not a good loser because even though in my heart I knew we sucked or at least I sucked on that song, we were really no worse than the other duets. I was now livid, pissed off at the whole world, sullen, miserable and completely sick to my stomach, mainly from the overdose of codeine. I have to keep reminding myself this is not a big deal - so you made a fool of yourself in earshot of tens of thousands of listeners. It's not a music show, it's a comedy show, but it's not working. I may not be a household name, but I'm pretty certain I'm the most critically acclaimed unknown singer songwriter in the country, maybe even the world - certainly in the room. If you don't believe me, just go to my website and read the reviews. My own family doesn't even like me as much as some of these reviewers. I sure don't think I'm as good as some of these writers gush, but now is not the time for the humble bit. False modesty aside, I'm a solid rock'n'roll singer and my fellow loser, masturbating Mark is a good old country singer. Frankly, we were the two best singers in the room but were axed because of that stupid song and the dumb rules they came up with.
I am about to leave as the segment ends before a commercial break, when one of the co-hosts says "Xavier, you don't have to leave. You can stay in here; you and Mark already lost so it doesn't matter" which makes me feel ten times worse than I already did So I have to sit there and listen to the four remaining contestants sing their solo songs. My mind is steaming. Just let me do "Good Lovin'" and I'll wipe the floor with these posers. But that ain't gonna happen. One by one, they karaoke their way through a variety of tunes and then are asked to leave the room so the three judges can eliminate the next two. I feel about as low as Bush's approval ratings and don't even have the strength to say "no, I'm going home"; I sit down on the couch with Mark while they decide on the next two losers.
Two of the guys get cut and it comes down to the guy who ran down on the field at Yankee Stadium and the cute twenty-two year old girl. They each get to sing another song. Baseball Crasher tackles "I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown and I have to admit he does about as good a job as any white guy trying to do JB. The young lady takes a gamble and does Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." They're both singing to karaoke tracks and it is obvious that the song is in too low of a key for her. It was originally sung by a couple of men after all. She soldiers through, jumps up an octave at the end for a last ditch strong finish and then the voting begins.
The outcome is to be decided by the listeners who can either call in or vote via e-mail. People are calling in, commenting positively or negatively about the two finalists' performances and several callers comment about the other contestants. Not one mentions Xavier. Instinctively my masochism kicks in and I sit there debating if it's better to be totally insignificant and ignored or to be laughed at as the butt of someone's cruel joke. At this moment I'm leaning toward the latter before I fade into oblivion like the guy at the end of "The Incredible Shrinking Man."
It's a close race reminiscent of the Bush/Gore election but after all the votes are counted, the cute girl walks away with the first prize. What a surprise. We runners-up each get a t-shirt with the name of the station on it.
We're each asked for a final comment about the two finalists. If my mind was even half working and I wasn't jacked up on codeine and ready to puke, I might have said something mildly amusing like "If I were that infield crasher runner-up I'd ask to have all the hanging chads re-counted" but all I can do is utter in a voice that couldn't conceal my disdain and disappointment - "they were both excellent". To which the three radio personalities all go "ooooh", which translates to "what a thin-skinned spoil sport" and the show mercifully comes to an end. I shake hands with the Chick and company, ride the elevator to the lobby, out the revolving door and promptly puke all over West 53rd Street.
Through the ages, sages have passed down bits of wisdom such as "don't spit into the wind for it will surely return to its source" meaning you, the spitter. Well let me add to that, if possible never puke outside on a blustery winter day. As chunks of vomit cascaded toward Mother Earth, a gust of wind redirected them back onto my shoes and pants. Fortunately, I had the perfect item with which to wipe off my regurgitated breakfast - the 92.3 Free-FM WFNY t-shirt. God works in strange ways.
I once played drums for a moderately well known rock singer/guitarist who turned out to be such a jerk in person that I can no longer listen to his music that I once enjoyed. The Radio Chick and her cohorts were not in any way nasty or out of line in their conduct. I gave a shoddy performance on the song I was forced to do, but the whole experience has soured my desire to ever hear the show again, which is a shame because unfortunately my only alternative is... "what do you do when you get lonely/and nobody's waitin' by your side...Lay-laaaaa!" Oy. Look out!