Lib at Large: Mill Valley's Hockenberry catching break on 'America's Got Talent'

AMERICA IS FINDING out what a lot of us in the Marin music scene have known for a long time: Tim Hockenberry has talent.

The sandpaper-voiced Mill Valley singer has gotten a much-deserved big break, making it to the semifinals of "America's Got Talent," an NBC reality show that features singers, dancers, magicians, comedians and sideshow circus acts competing for a top prize of $1 million and the chance to headline on the Las Vegas Strip.

When a local booking agent offered him her audition slot for the show, Hockenberry, who turned 50 in June, hesitated at first.

"I told her, 'I think I'm too old for that,'" he recalled with a laugh. "But she said, 'No, they take old people, too."

Encouraged by his 9-year-old daughter, Lola, a big fan of the show, he agreed to give it a try, showing up in February at the Bill Graham Auditorium in San Francisco, passing the producers' audition with a rendition of "You Are So Beautiful," a song his daughter suggested.

From there, he went on to audition for judges Howard Stern, Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel in front of a live studio audience at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and for millions of viewers across the country.

By then, the producers had time to piece together a compelling "backstory," creating a video that played on Hockenberry's recovery from alcoholism, his approaching middle age, his fading hopes. "I want to do something in this business before I turn 50," he said on camera. "I've got three months."

Just before walking onstage for his first appearance on the show, he was shown standing in the wings with his girlfriend, Bronwyn, a former model who cradled their newborn daughter in her arms as a soundtrack played a treacly instrumental version of Glen Hansard's "Falling Slowly." The baby is his fourth child. He and his ex-wife have three other kids, ages 9 through 18.

"I'm not so much nervous as I am scared," he confessed before going on. "This may be my last chance."

It made for great TV. And as you may have guessed by now, our boy flat-out slayed them, accompanying himself on an electric keyboard as he once again sang an abbreviated "You Are So Beautiful" in the soulful rasp we've admired and enjoyed in local clubs for years.

As the audience chanted, "One more song," a smitten Howard Stern called Hockenberry "a breath of fresh air." And an awestruck Howie Mandel asked, "Where have you been?" As if the modest, self-effacing singer had been hiding under a bushel all his life. "Sir," he announced, "you're life is about to change."

He got that right. Hockenberry sang for more people that night (14 million, he says) than he has in all the bar gigs, weddings and bar mitzvah's he's ever done combined.

"This is definitely the largest vehicle for exposure I've ever been involved in," he told me this week. "I was at the farmers market with my girlfriend and the baby the other day, and there were no less than four or five people who came up to us, asking, 'Aren't you the guy on 'America's Got Talent?' It hasn't gotten to the point yet where I'm ready to beat up paparazzi. But I definitely get recognized more often. There are a lot of people rooting for me."

Hockenberry's most ardent rooters may be the recovering alcoholics who've sent him congratulatory emails, telling him what an inspiration he is to them.

"I made a couple of comments about that in the original interviews I did for the show and they jumped all over it," he said. "I'm not ashamed to be in recovery, by any stretch, but it's a little more of my backstory than I wanted, only because I hate to sound like I'm using my recovery as some sort of badge of honor. But I get a lot of email from people at some stage of the recovery process who are touched that I'm so open about it."

Not everyone, though, has been enamored with the way he's been portrayed on the show, and it wasn't long before the critics pounced.

"You didn't really think San Francisco auditioner Tim Hockenberry fell off the turnip truck yesterday, did you?" asked an article on Examiner.com. "Well guess what: the Joe Cocker sound-alike — who blew the judges away with his unexpected voice and touching story of beating alcoholism — has already had a record deal, recorded four albums and performed at concerts in large arenas. Gotta admit, we fell for Tim's touching story of 'wanting to do something before I turn 50.' Well guess what, America — he already has."

Not really. Hockenberry has had some small-time local success. He recorded an album for Mill Valley's About Records, sang and recorded with the Mostly Dylan group, toured with the Trans Siberian Orchestra and, most recently, with Mickey Hart's band. But all of that's not even close to the national recognition he's getting on "America's Got Talent," a hit show now in its seventh season.

"I hate to apologize for having some semblance of a career," he said in his own defense. "There are a lot of fans of the show who think that it should only be for these rags-to-riches, just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck people. But the producers are looking for an act that can actually do a show for weeks on end in Las Vegas. You can't have some kid who stands up there and blows bubbles."

Since passing his initial audition, Hockenberry has survived performance rounds in Las Vegas and New York. As one of 24 semifinalists, he expects to return to the show in late August or early September for his shot at the brass ring.

In the meantime, he'll perform with his quartet for the hometown folks Aug. 12 with two shows at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. (The evening show is sold out). And he'll be onstage Aug. 10 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

"I'm still a relatively unknown commodity, and it would be nice to say I made it in the music business to some degree," he said. "But I'm not saving any lives, after all. And even if I lose and have to play little piddly gigs for the rest of my life, I've still won. I get to live in Marin, I have a lovely, smart girlfriend, I have beautiful kids and the new baby. And I still have work and get to keep doing what I love to do."

By Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal
ugust 3, 2012