Wednesday, June 11, 2008

America's Accidental Idol

David Cook didn't even plan to try out for American Idol - and then he won


Less than a week after winning American Idol, David Cook is sitting in a glitzy restaurant on the south tip of Manhattan's Central Park. The chef, who proudly says he was among the 55 million who phoned in a vote for Cook during Idol's finals, presents the singer with an off-the-menu treat — foie gras on toast — that leaves Cook unnerved. "That looks dangerous," he says. "I'm a little scared." Tossing the bite-size morsel in his mouth, he chews slowly and quickly lunges for his Sprite to drown out the taste. Later, when the chef returns with a delicate flan of puréed peas, Cook looks at the plate, picks it up and sets it aside to be cleared.

Weird food isn't the only thing to have appeared in the 25-year-old's life in the week since Idol wrapped. After his upset win over teen crooner David Archuleta on May 21st, Cook jetted to New York for his first-ever visit — during which he hit Regis and Kelly and signed a record deal with 19 Recordings/RCA. Whisked around the city in a limousine, he was constantly assaulted by fans. "Sorry to bother you," said one middle-aged woman, interrupting Cook's dinner to plead with him to sign anything. "But the rest of your life is going to be like this."

Like Chris Daughtry before him, Cook has struck a (power) chord with rock fans across the country. The Idol finale brought in nearly 100 million votes, and by the next week, 11 of Cook's songs had entered Billboard's Hot 100 — more than any other artist since the Beatles in 1964. Leading the pack is his first single, "The Time of My Life," followed by many of his Idol covers, including takes on U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Collective Soul's "The World I Know" and Lionel Richie's "Hello."

Dressed in dark jeans and a black sport jacket with the sleeves rolled up, displaying gnawed fingernails and a left forearm festooned with rubber bracelets and a single silver band engraved AC, Cook brushes off criticism about Idol's starmaking machinery. "The overnight thing is nice and romantic," he says. "But in this particular instance, it's not the case." For a decade, in bands like Axium and the Midwest Kings, Cook has busted his ass to achieve a modest goal: the ability to support himself through music. "I never got into music for the celebrity aspect," he says. "That sounds like a cliché, but it's true."

Cook was born on December 20th, 1982, in Houston. Before his second birthday, Hurricane Alicia ravaged his hometown, his father's jewelry business relocated to Independence, Missouri, and the family landed in nearby Blue Springs. Family outings were often spent at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals play, and Cook grew up wanting to become a major-league ballplayer. Throughout his youth and high school he was a standout pitcher, with nasty movement on his fastball. But before he entered Central Missouri State University, he injured his throwing arm — and shifted his focus to music.

"Second grade was the first time I sang in front of an audience," Cook recalls. "My music teacher, Mrs. Gentry, gave me a song called 'I Wonder' for our cowboy-themed Christmas pageant." In fifth grade, Cook picked up a violin. ("There was a girl in orchestra who I thought was cute," he says.) He officially gave it up on his 13th birthday, when his dad presented him with a brand-new Fender Stratocaster.

A summer trip to visit his grandmother and play baseball with his cousin in Kokomo, Indiana, changed Cook's life forever. "One night we were having a slumber party, and Nine Inch Nails' 'Closer' came on the radio," he says. "I was like, 'That song is so cool.' There were a lot of changes going on at that point — I'd hit a growth spurt. I went to Indiana listening to country, and I came back listening to rock." He taught himself guitar by playing along with Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape, Our Lady Peace's Clumsy and Green Day's Dookie. Cook found rock music at a pivotal time: When he was 11, his parents divorced, and his father relocated to Indiana. "I had a great childhood," Cook says. "I got confused for a while, but my parents made a concerted effort to make sure whatever turmoil they were experiencing didn't bleed into taking care of us." Even more devastating news came a few years later, when his older brother Adam was diagnosed with brain cancer. "He's my role model, and it's something that he's been dealing with for a while — it's not terminal," says Cook, who taped "AC" onto the Gibson Les Paul he played on Idol.

Throughout high school, Cook involved himself in theater productions like West Side Story and entered talent competitions — finally taking home a prize with a rendition of "Paradise City." "That was my first real rock & roll experience," he says. At 15, he formed Axium, emulating Eddie Vedder's angsty baritone. Cook says he never really applied himself in school — "I was the kid with a ton of potential" — but used his brainpower as part of a competitive forensics debate team. During the Idol competition he was given the nickname "Word Nerd" because of his crosswording hobby, but he's not yet a master. "I can do the New York Times crossword until about Wednesday," he says. "After that it gets too hard."

During his freshman year in college, Cook says, he ditched classes, adding that it wasn't drugs ("Never tried them") or alcohol ("I guess I'm a social drinker") that contributed to his delinquency — it was music. Though they received modest local acclaim, Axium became a dead-end street. "I tried to keep the band rolling, but it didn't pan out," he says. In his senior year, Cook took a handful of his demos and recorded a solo CD called Analog Heart. "I'd never learned so much about myself as a musician than I did that year," he says. "I was struggling to book shows, struggling to get people to come to the shows, but I loved every second of it."

In 2006, after graduating with a degree in graphic arts, Cook moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had a gig lined up playing rhythm guitar in a regional touring outfit called the Midwest Kings. "It gave me a different perspective, allowed me to understand how to work a stage," he says. He scraped by, bartending and painting apartments, while his loved ones encouraged him to come home and get a real job. "The last thing I wanted to do was tuck tail and go home," he says. "I thought, 'I have my whole life to make money, and I should struggle for something I love.' It wasn't something I was ready to give up on."

At 5:30 in the morning on August 10th, 2007, Cook, his mother and his younger brother Andrew, 20, stood in the rain outside Omaha's Qwest Center. "I was just there for moral support," says David — Andrew was the one actually there to audition for Idol. "I appreciated the show for what it is, a huge platform, but I never really saw it as my path." With television cameras on, and encouragement from Andy, David auditioned with Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" — kicking off the nine-month journey that would lead him to Idol glory.

"I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me" is Cook's standard answer when questions fly about Idol's authenticity. But aside from criticizing the group numbers and a particular matador outfit he was forced to wear, Cook says he got what he bargained for. "There's a vibe associated with American Idol, and the show's not for everybody, just like anything else," he says. "But I'm aware that I signed on the dotted line."

Anybody who watched the last few rounds noticed Cook's incredible calm. "I was never in it to win it, and that took some pressure off me," he says. "If I'd gotten caught up in all that, I would've had a coronary." He means that literally: He suffers from genetically high blood pressure, so he's learned how to stay on an even keel, or, as he puts it, "to take the yin with the yang. If not, I'll die!" During Dolly Parton Week, he got nervous about forgetting the words, which sent his heart into a tizzy. Though he claims it was "blown out of proportion," he was still rushed to the hospital and put on medication.

As far as behind-the-scenes Idol drama, Cook can report none. He's looking forward to hitting the road with his former Idol mates — especially Luke Menard, Amy Davis, Michael Johns and Archuleta. His fondest memories of the whole experience are getting to throw out the first pitch at a Royals game this year, meeting the band America in an airport ("I covered 'Sandman' in my first talent show"), dating former Idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell and, of course, winning. "That's when the Cliffs Notes version of your life races through your head," says Cook, who was in tears. "I thought Archie had it."

In New York, Cook is on his way out of MTV, where he has recorded a guest spot on the network's Spanish-language version of TRL and realized that five years of Spanish classes have gotten him nowhere. Back on the street, he's asked whether Chris Daughtry's success in hard rock is a good sign for him. "I definitely think guys like Bo [Bice] and Chris have paved the way for somebody like me to have success on the show," Cook says. "But I've prepped myself to have a little bit of room to breathe, a little wiggle room, because I can do the hard rock and I can do the ballads. I don't want to make a Chris Daughtry record, I want to make a David Cook record. I feel like I know who I am."

[From Issue 1055 — June 26, 2008]

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