The Man is slight, swarthy, and he wears a black T-shirt with the words Cheap Trick Live at Budokan emblazoned on the back. “I have many things for you,” he tells me, smiling slyly. Together we proceed down a long, dark corridor hung with banners that read Cheap Trick. “This is yours now,” says the man, draping a gray satin baseball jacket that bears the logo Cheap Trick Dream Police over my shoulders. “This also. And this. And this.” Soon, my arms are laden with trinkets and paraphernalia: Cheap Trick belt buckles, Cheap Trick buttons, Cheap Trick bow ties, Cheap Trick clipboards, Cheap Trick undershirts, Cheap Trick karate belts….
“But…what is Cheap Trick?” I stutter, confused. “How old are they? Where are they from? Why is their name on all these things?”
The man stops smiling. “Cheap Trick is a rock & roll band without a past. That’s all we can tell you now. Don’t ask any more questions, or I’ll be forced to turn you over to the Dream Police.”
“But…but…I’ve come all this way! I have to know!”
A crash, then blackness. The banners fall from the walls, the corridor seems to spin, and the man in the Cheap Trick T-shirt is suddenly transformed into a cloud of oddly shaped plastic chips that fly in my face like crickets hitting a windshield. “Who are you!” I scream. “What are you hiding? Tell me the truth!”
“Welcome to Japan.”
I wake up to a shower of plectrums. Outside the airplane window, 30,000 feet below, the Japanese coast looms on the horizon. Above me, Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist and leader of Cheap Trick, is flicking personalized guitar picks at my face and laughing.
“So this is the plan. You’re in car number six. Remember that, and when it’s time to move, move!”
John Whitehead, the young lawyer who is Cheap Trick’s tour manager, hands over a diagram labeled: Cheap Trick Limousine Assignment. Nielsen’s name is written in the box marked car number one, bassist Tom Petersson is in car number two, drummer Bun E. Carlos occupies car number three and vocalist Robin Zander is in number four. Whitehead nods gravely, then darts off to discuss more logistical matters with the leader of our security platoon.
Twenty black-suited Japanese guards are bustling outside the entrance and exit driveways of CBS/Sony recording studios in downtown Tokyo, waiting for the band to emerge from its rehearsal session. The guards all tote half-concealed walkie-talkies under their suit jackets; earplugs with long wires trail down their necks and disappear inside their coats.
All these elaborate precautions seem silly. Since Cheap Trick landed in Tokyo yesterday, we’ve been shepherded from airport to hotel to studio by a squadron of guards. True, Cheap Trick is one of the most popular rock bands in Japan, with three Number One singles and four gold albums to its credit. And, last April, when the Midwest’s foremost British Invasion-style band toured Japan for the first time, it was mobbed at every turn by screaming teenage girls.
So far, however, the expected hordes have failed to materialize. Fifteen members of the Cheap Trick Fan Club greeted the band at Narita Airport, and that’s been it. “They’ll be here,” warns Kirk Dyer. Dyer, one of four personal bodyguards the band has brought along from its home base in the Chicago-Madison area, is a strapping, Bunyanesque fellow. Like all Cheap Trick road personnel, he’s wearing a matching black Cheap Trick T-shirt and satin jacket; there are three colors of this uniform, and they are rotated every day. “They just don’t know we’re here yet,” Dyer theorizes. “Wait.”
One by one, the tiny Toyota limousines edge their way into Tokyo’s rush hour snarl, headed for radio station JOLF, where Cheap Trick will tape two interview programs. Car number six, which I share with Epic Records publicist Lois Marino, is the last to pull out. As the driver weaves his way through traffic-choked, labyrinthine streets, die rest of our cortege disappears from view.
We drive up a narrow road, pull around a corner, and it happens.
Hundreds of tiny palms assault our Toyota; they’re pounding on the roof, the windows, the doors. Hands, faces, arms and legs press up against the car windows and block out the daylight, while the car pitches and sways, threatening to turn over any minute. There is something particularly horrifying about being attacked by a pack of thirteen-year-old girls. Evil is one thing, but when the innocents are transformed into monsters….
Lois, a petite but spunky Brooklynite, yells over the din. “It’s my hair. They think I’m Tom or Robin. I’m going out there.” She shoves the car door open and squeezes out so she can be seen. The crowd draws back.
This time, it’s for real; Robin Zander’s limo pulls into the parking lot. Lois and I are left alone as 300 girls scurry toward his car. I push into the middle of the crush to get a closer look; on every side, schoolgirls are being wrenched and tossed out of the limo’s path by the guards, who — out of deference? — all wear white gloves. For a moment, it feels like things are going to turn ugly.
Bodyguard Ken Harris, a mammoth, barrel-chested off-duty Chicago cop, shoves his way out of Zander’s car and climbs over the roof on his belly, flicking off girls like so many pieces of lint. He bellows orders in English, but his sentiments transcend linguistic barriers. Harris and Dyer drag Zander out of the back seat, form a human sandwich around his slender, boyish figure and battle to the station entrance. I catch a glimpse of Zander as the three push by; his jacket is in shreds and he is holding onto his golden hair, gritting his teeth.
The arrivals of Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos are quite anticlimactic Petersson, a striking ski-nosed brunette, is surrounded by fans, but they don’t display the rabid urgency of Zander’s. Nielsen draws cheers, squeals and autograph hounds, and runs through the crowd holding his Hamer Guitars baseball cap on his head (he never takes it off; it camouflages a balding pate). The chunky, bespectacled Carlos walks the gantlet virtually unmolested. When the girls scream, he looks thrilled and waves hello.
Inside, 100 lucky girls in the studio audience wait at the foot of a small soundstage. The DJ leaps onstage, reels off a few sentences in breathless Japanese, ending with the words Cheap Trick. One by one, the band members greet their public:
“Hi! I’m Robin Zander and I’m so glad to be in Japan….”
Zander smiles. The rest of his speech is drowned out by a sustained squeal. Standing under the lights, dressed all in white, he seems impossibly pure, dimples within dimples.
“Hello. My name is Tom Petersson, and I play bass with Cheap Trick. I just wanted to tell you how thrilled we are to be here once again….”
Petersson steps forward to let the little girls snap photos; his squarish, well-defined jaw and high, chiseled cheekbones make him unusually photogenic. He has the same straightforward Midwestern good looks as Zander, but he seems a touch more sophisticated. The peach-faced Mouseketeer who grows up to become a hashish smuggler.
“Konnichiwa! Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick!”
Carlos smiles and backs off the microphone almost immediately. An embarrassed flush creeps up his neck from the collar of his gray Hawaiian shirt: “What am I doing here?” He’s endearing and cuddly, like your slightly dorky cousin. The girls love it.
“Hullo hullo hullo. I’m Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick.”
Nielsen moves like Jack Benny; his shoulders are locked in a perpetual shrug. When the spotlight hits him, he turns on, popping his eyes out so far you expect them to drop to the floor and roll around. His pale doughface becomes Silly Putty, twisting and stretching into gleeful contortions. It’s like watching a cartoon character come to life.
The on-the-air interview takes place in a smaller, private studio; the band sits in one room, and Lois and I watch from the other side of a glass window. Ken Adamany, Cheap Trick’s manager, is with us. Adamany, a slight, swarthy fellow, observes the proceedings with the cool, disinterested air of a camel trader. Nielsen is answering the questions with ease, as if he’s answered them many times before:
What do you say to people who tell you you are like the Beatles?
Well, we’re very flattered. But the similarity is just coincidence. People compare us to the Beatles because we just happen to have four members who just happen to have four distinct personalities. Cheap Trick is not just “Cheap Trick.” It’s Rick and Tom and Bun E. and Robin. We didn’t plan it that way.
What was the hardest point in your career?
Gee, that’s a hard one. It was probably back when we were just starting out. We were playing for very little money. We sounded pretty much the same as we do now. The band was good, the songs were good, the music was good….
“Good enough,” whispers Adamany, “to make money from.”
Cheap Trick wasn’t making a lot of money the first few years after they formed in 1974, but they always carried themselves as if they would someday. Midwest rock scene regulars remember seeing them arrive at club dates in a white limousine with the best-looking women in town. This is not to say Cheap Trick was spoiled or lazy; indolence is a hard trait to develop when you’re playing-one-nighters in places like Waukesha, Wisconsin. But from the beginning, it was evident that Cheap Trick was being groomed for the top.
And they had Ken Adamany behind them. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Adamany had abandoned a musical career (he played keyboards with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs in a band called die Fabulous Knight Trains) to become a powerful booking agent in the Northern Illinois-Southern Wisconsin area. Insiders and rivals nicknamed him “the millionaire playboy of Janesville, Wisconsin” (his hometown). By the time Cheap Trick and Adamany joined forces, he controlled a hefty chunk of the club and concert traffic in the region; needless to say, Cheap Trick had no trouble getting booked.
Adamany held out for two years before signing Cheap Trick to a label — Epic Records in August 1976. Soon afterward, the band cut its first album with Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Starz). Cheap Trick was a tour de force of heavy-metal rock & roll; raw, loud guitar tones offset by witty songs and arrangements. Critics liked Cheap Trick’s intelligent rock & roll, but the album never found its audience. Too smart for Kiss fans, too loud for AOR, Cheap Trick sold about 150,000 copies.
Barely six months later, Cheap Trick tried again, this time with Epic staff producer Tom Werman. In Color had a cleaner, pop-oriented sound; Werman turned down the guitar and brought the melody up front. Around this time, reviewers began making Beatles-Cheap Trick comparisons. In Color sold slightly better than the first LP, but not enough to make a difference. Meanwhile, Cheap Trick was performing, according to Ken Adamany, an average of 250 one-nighters a year, opening for Kiss, the Kinks, Santana and Boston.
Maybe America didn’t jump on Cheap Trick’s bandwagon, but 6000 miles away, Cheap Trick mania was in full force. “Clock Strikes Ten,” from In Color, reached Number One on the Japanese charts, followed by “I Want You to Want Me.” The press, more influential in Japan than in the U.S., made Cheap Trick its darlings. Two months after the release of In Color, the major Japanese music magazines began clamoring for interviews. “It was inspiration,” says Rue Togo, editor of Music Life, Japan’s largest-selling rock magazine. “Kiss and Queen and Aerosmith were most popular at the time. But they were too big; it was time for something new.”
Heaven Tonight came out just in time for Cheap Trick’s April 1978 conquering-hero tour of Japan.’It was expected to be the album that would finally break Cheap Trick in the States, but it dropped off the charts after reaching the forties. The breakthrough, when it came, surprised everyone. Cheap Trick had recorded two performances from the tour in Osaka and Tokyo and released a record called Cheap Trick Live at Budokan for the Japanese market. It was a rough, hastily prepared recording (“Some of the songs,” Zander remembers, “were single takes”), but it contained the best songs from the three studio albums. Import copies sold so briskly in the U.S. that Epic rushed it out and later released a live version of “I Want You to Want Me.” Budokan is now just shy of the platinum mark, “I Want You” is rising on the charts, and Cheap Trick’s completed studio LP, Dream Police, is being held back until Budokan‘s popularity fades. Thanks to Budokan, Cheap Trick is now a major U.S. concert attraction; their spring-summer tour of large halls and stadiums is their first full tour as a headline act.
It’s ironic that Cheap Trick should get their first big hit by fluke; from the beginning, very little in their career has been left to chance. They’ve toured incessantly, created four quirky, distinct personas and have marketed themselves with savvy. The Cheap Trick logo, a bleeding typeface designed by Petersson with the help of artist friend Christopher Crowe, adorns everything from album covers to underwear crotches. A Chicago-based writer remembers seeing logo stickers in every tollbooth on the Chicago-to-Rockford portion of Interstate 95 as early as 1975. “Everywhere, people were saying, ‘Who are these guys?”‘
Who, indeed. While Cheap Trick was styling advertisements, they were also styling themselves. Each member had his own “look” and with minor variations, these costumes have remained constant since the band’s inception. Rick: cardigan, baseball cap, bow tie, black sneakers; Robin: three-piece suits, classy designer wear; Tom: more casual–leather pants, boots, swashbuckler’s shirts; Bun E.: baggy antique trousers, garish tie, cigarette pasted on lower lip. These are no lighthearted affectations. “Once they made me scrap a whole shooting’s worth of film,” laments one photographer. “Rick was wearing white shoes.” An acquaintance recalls visiting Nielsen at his home: “He came out of the bathroom, and he was still wearing that hat.”
They put on costumes; they also disguised their backgrounds. Their first Epic Records press biography teased: “This band has no past. Literally. Oh, we can tell you some things — a little of this and a bit of that …but Cheap Trick is, in fact, a band without a history.” The bio went on in that fashion, mentioning exotic birthplaces (Petersson in Sweden, Carlos in Venezuela) and rendezvous in dark European cafes. Every time Cheap Trick gave an interview, their story came out different; ages, places, dates shifted around like the pea in a shell game.
“Isn’t it much more interesting this way?” Rick asked me last year, after I’d interviewed him for a half-hour and gotten a half-hour of quick quips, fantastic fibs and not-so-serious stories.
I had to agree. As every performer knows, the best way to keep them entertained is to keep them guessing. Cheap Trick does the Kiss routine one better: they don’t need the makeup. Music, marketing, a carefully crafted image — it all adds up to one smart, irresistible rock & roll package.
But who are these guys?
We’re just a bunch of Rockford jerks. Brad “Bun E. Carlos” Carlson
Bun E. Carlos is veiled in a wreath of cigarette smoke. “You can find just about anything you want right in Rockford,” he says.
He’s talking about rare records, which he collects — everything from Johnny Burnerte to Eno. He has over 1000 items stored at his parents’ house in Rockford, Illinois. Wherever he travels, he carries an assortment of bootleg cassettes, out-of-print albums and traders’ catalogs; his first stop in Tokyo was a record store. Rock & roll isn’t just a job for Bun E. — it’s his favorite pastime.
“And it sure beats being a roofer,” he laughs, warming to the conversation. A roofer? “Yeah, helping my dad,” he replies. Carlos’ father, Mr. Carlson Sr., is the prosperous proprietor of a roofing company in Rockford. [Rolling Stone contacted Mr. Carlson’s roofing company to confirm the true identity of Bun E. Carlos. A Larry Carlson told us that he head heard of a Brad Carlson, but when asked if Brad is Cheap Trick’s drummer, he said slyly, “Oh no, Bun grew up in Panama, and his father was instrumental in the building of the Panama Canal.”]
“My parents were real strict, real religious — no drinking, no smoking, church on Sundays. But there was lots of music in the house, because my mom and dad both played all sorts of instruments. And we all belonged to church choir.”
Carlos smiles a little sheepishly; he is shy — it’s no pose. When I sidled into the empty seat next to him on the plane from Tokyo to Osaka, the first thing he did was apologize for the copy of Gallery on his lap (“It belongs to the roadies”). Up close, he has a baby-faced innocence that doesn’t show up in his press photos. Nice Midwestern family, Sunday school, chaperoned dates — how in the world did Carlos get started in rock & roll?
“I was thirteen,” he explains, lighting up another cigarette. “And I was in a band called the Pagans. We had a local hit in Rockford, a Beatles cover. My mom was real upset. People will grab you and do terrible things to you, she said. So my sister would drive us all to gigs in the next town.”
Carlos attended college for a while, then spent three months in Italy, hoping to avoid the draft. When he came back to Rockford, he went to work for his father for a while, then hooked up with Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, who were about to move to Philadelphia and start a band. Carlos followed them, and the three (plus Robert “Stewkey” Antoni of Todd Rundgren’s Nazz) played local clubs under the name Sick Man of Europe. After a year and a half of getting nowhere, Carlos, Petersson and Nielsen returned to Rockford.
“Everybody back home said to me, ‘You’re playing with Rick Nielsen? He’s such a jerk!’ Last year I sent out all my I-told-you-sos.”
He grins and starts telling stories about the early days, when Cheap Trick was scrounging around the club circuit.
“We had some great times. Sometimes Ken [Adamany] would hire us to play backup for acts that were coming to his club. We played behind [Chuck] Berry, Bo Diddley — sometimes we just barely knew all the chord changes.” Carlos smiles at the memory; the rock & roll of the Fifties has been a major influence on his drumming style. His featured spot in Cheap Trick’s set comes during a cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”
“And there were the crazy nights Cheap Trick would play clubs. The late sets got pretty rowdy. There was the ‘Carnival Game.’ I’d start up a little shuffle, and Rick would take the mike: ‘Ladies and gentlemen … welcome to the Cheap Trick Carnival. Tonight, we’re asking for volunteers — do I have a young lady in the audience? Well step right up, and you’ll win a prize if I fail to guess your weight within five pounds. Just step right up. Now in order to guess your weight, you’ll have to sit…on…my…face…!”
It looks like a toad tongue, or maybe a section of rat intestine. “Mmmmmm…tasty. Try it,” Rick Nielsen offers, holding a slimy, unidentified tidbit on the end of his chopsticks and waving it in front of my face.
“Uuuuuuuuuuunhhhh,” I cringe in disgust. Rick knows a vulnerable audience when he sees one, and continues.
“Hey, this reminds me of a television show we saw in Japan last year. There was a guy performing in this amateur talent hour, and he had this live eel. And he started to tear it with his teeth and eat it raw!” He licks his lips.
By now, I’m doubled over, laughing hysterically.
“And all the veins and blood were dripping out of his mouth, stuck in his teeth….”
Gross. But also very funny. Nielsen has a gift for this sort of tasteless, adolescent humor, and it’s reflected in his lyrics. Cheap Trick, the first LP, contains a song called “The Ballad of T.V. Violence.” The song was originally titled “The Ballad of Richard Speck,” and was acted out onstage with Nielsen in the role of mass murderer. Violence, suicide and teenage sex are also favorite Nielsen themes, but they’re all treated with sarcastic delight.
“Yeah, I have to go back and put myself in the head of a fourteen-year-old for some of the songs,” he admits in a rare moment of seriousness. (Although Nielsen won’t tell his age, he is approximately thirty-three, according to informed sources.) “But for others, I jump ahead and write from the perspective of a fifty-year-old. I have one called ‘Oh Claire.’ It’s a romantic song about a couple who marry and grow old together….”
“Sounds like the Beatles’ ‘When I’m 64.”‘
“Yeah, but in the end, the guy dies of a heart attack.”
Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right They just seem a little weird…. “Surrender”
“Well, yes, I admit that Rick’s lyrics are a bit strange. I’m not one to venture what goes on inside Rick’s mind. He’s got his father’s sense of humor.”
Mrs. Ralph Nielsen, a pleasant, motherly sounding woman, pauses for a minute. She’s calling from Nielsen’s Music Store in Rock-ford, an establishment that Mr. Nielsen, a former opera singer, has owned for twenty-three years. Rick is their only son.
“What was Rick like in high school? Oh, for goodness’ sake. We always had them in our garage. I can remember the noise. It rattled the glasses in the kitchen when I was trying to do die dishes. The band was called the Phaetons. Rick was still in high school, but I have a feeling that he was not in high school as much as he told us he was.
“I used to sit in that kitchen and think, ‘Oh dear, will I ever live through this!’ Now I run the gift section of the music store — we sell Cheap Trick T-shirts, posters, that sort of dung. And I have five rock concerts under my belt,” she adds proudly.
“Did Rick show any signs of musical talent when he was growing up?” I ask.
“Well,” she says quickly, “of course his dad had all sorts of instruments around the house. Rick played drums and flute. Let me think….Oh yes! Here’s a funny story. When Rick was six years old, we took him to Dallas to hear his father sing. And the accompanist hit a wrong note. After the show, backstage, Rick blurted out, ‘You made a mistake!’ In front of everybody! Everyone was quite embarrassed.”
Why didn’t you just come out and say you were four guys from Rockford, Illinois? Why did you adopt this air of mystery?
“Did we do that?” asks Rick innocently. We’re riding on the Shinkansen, the fastest train in the world. Outside the window, trees and houses whoosh by at 120 mph. “Well, actually, what are you gonna say? All right, here are four superstars, and one night onstage after Bo Diddley drank root beer and ate beans, I played guitar while he farted across the room.”
“No, but you did put, ‘Bun E., born in Venezuela … Rick and Tom met in Europe….”‘
“Well, what I said was the truth. You can’t make up everything. I was born in Chicago, and as a matter of fact, Tom and I tried to start the band in — hey! That bio was written by a writer, you know. We didn’t have our names at the bottom of the thing.” Nielsen sounds irritated, a little defensive.
“In your interviews, you didn’t exactly try to set things straight.”
“And in ‘Surrender,’ you sing, ‘Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away….”‘
“Well, yes, but….”
He turns my tape recorder off. In the ensuing conversation, Nielsen explains that he wants his home life kept separate from his rock & roll character.
“Look,” he says when the tape is running again. “I’m a really normal guy. You know our song, the one that goes, ‘It wasn’t easy, it was hard as hell….Never worked so hard, had so much pain.’ That’s really what Cheap Trick is all about: work hard, keep trying. Everybody in the band has that stick-toitiveness.”
For the first time during the tour, Nielsen is serious, absolutely straight. A rock & roll Horatio Alger: work hard, stick to it, get a gold record. But for his outlandish attire, he could be a traveling salesman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The guy who spends Monday through Friday wearing out shoe leather to push his product, then turns into the life of the party on Saturday night. And sneaks a whoopee cushion under his hostess’ sofa.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry. You Cheap Trick staff? You give this to Ro-been prease?”
Giggles. Red faces. Dozens of preteen and teenage girls have staked out the lobby of the Osaka Grand Hotel, which has been decorated for the occasion with a large billboard that reads: Welcome Cheap Trick to Osaka. So much for security. The girls tend to cluster in groups of three: two gigglers to one confident first-year English student. They are polite, discreet and persistent. They’re behind me in the gift shop. They’re at my elbow by the magazine stand. They’re waiting outside the ladies’ lounge. There is no escape; always three girls, five or six feet behind me, waiting to zero in on the “Cheap Trick lady.” By the time I sidle over to the lunch counter in the hotel coffee shop, I’m loaded down with three handmade dolls, four sacks of chocolate candy, five tins of sourballs and a half-dozen letters, all for Rick-ka, Buneee, Tom-ma and Ro-been.
I order lunch, open my notebook and try to look busy so they’ll leave me alone. They don’t. They’ve learned to persevere; it’s not easy to be a rock & roll fan in Japan. Concert tickets are expensive, around fifteen U.S. dollars, and the demand for seats is so great that tickets are routinely sold through a mail lottery system. That’s only half the battle. Last year, a fan was killed during a Ritchie Blackmore concert in Sapporo — literally crushed in the press of an excited crowd. Fifty others were injured.
Since then, Japanese authorities have cracked down on rock & roll. Last night at Cheap Trick’s Budokan concert, security guards — one for every twenty fans — patrolled the aisles, insuring that no one got out of hand or out of his or her seat. You’re not allowed to dance Or even stand up; concerts have become a test of an adolescent’s capacity for frustration.
What happens to all that throttled energy? Last night I caught a twenty-five-foot paper streamer a girl threw at the stage; its entire length, back and front, was covered with the following message, painstakingly handwritten over and over again, hundreds of times: “Robin, I love you and want to devote my life to you.” How many self-abnegating hours had it taken to complete?
“Ah, but the kids are the ones who control the situation,” an older Japanese man assured me. “All parents want their children to study hard to get into the best universities. So they spoil the children. Kid say: ‘Give me money for Cheap Trick ticket, or I don’t study for exams.’ Parent is helpless.”
Not exactly. When the Bay City Rollers came to Japan in 1977, the entrances to concert halls were barricaded — by schoolteachers. They stopped students and confiscated their tickets, and at least one was suspended from school for having attended a concert. It sounds like a modern-day American Hot Wax, and in a way, it is. Japans booming economy provides young people with money to spend; Western influences are eroding traditional family roles. Rock & roll has become the battleground for a struggle between generations, much as it was in America twenty years ago. And Cheap Trick is a leading beneficiary.
Without even realizing it, Rick Nielsen created an image that was perfect for the Japanese rock & roll audience. His lyrical nose-thumbings (“Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch…. Got my Kiss records out”) are funny in English because they’re parody. But in translation, the tongue-in-cheek effect is lost; to Japanese, it must seem as if Nielsen is being naughty in a way they’d like to be, but wouldn’t dare.
Zander and Petersson, on the other hand, are perfect sex objects for a nation of painfully shy teenage girls. As Music Life‘s Rue Togo told me, “Japanese girls don’t like macho. Robin and Tom are friendly. Japanese girls are not so grown up about sex…it’s just imagination, you know?”
Imagination — perhaps. Keiko and Etsuko have been at every restaurant, radio station, concert hall and on every train and plane we’ve traveled on so far this tour. On the way back upstairs to my hotel room, we bump into each other, and they greet me like an old friend. They are slightly older than most Cheap Trick fans — Keiko is sixteen, Etsuko eighteen — and their dress betrays them to be several stages beyond the school-uniform-and-anklet-sock set. I’m overcome with curiosity: are they groupies? Students? How can they afford to follow us everywhere, and how do they find out where we are?
Etsuko is cagey about answering questions. After a few minutes of halting, confused conversation, I gather that their parents have given them each $1000 to follow Cheap Trick to the far corners of Japan. Etsuko’s father, it develops, is a top executive with National Panasonic. There’s irony for you. While he helps his company steal a share of the American electronics market, Cheap Trick is stealing his daughter.
“But how do you know exactly where we’re going to be in every city? The travel plans are secret — how do you find us?” I ask them.
Keiko turns to Etsuko, whispers a few words in Japanese and shakes her head.
“Come on,” I wheedle, “you can tell me.”
Another conference, then Keiko smiles knowingly.
Robin Zander comes streaking down the corridor in T-shirt and jogging shorts. Zander, the youngest member of Cheap Trick, is a loner, and he’s been hard to catch for an interview; after concerts, he generally goes back to the hotel, to bed. “Hey,” he puffs, jogging in place for a few seconds, “I have something to show you. I’ll be right back.”
People who knew Zander when he was first starting out with Cheap Trick told me he was shy and emotionally volatile. “You’ll be able to see it in his face,” an old friend of his advised. “The business of being ‘Robin Zander of Cheap Trick’ will get to him, and he’ll have that get-me-out-of-here’ expression.” But so far, I’d found Zander outgoing and cordial — a little too cordial. On our first meeting, I began to feel like I was out for the evening on a blind date with the son of my mother’s best friend. “Gee,” Robin interjected after a few minutes of pleasantries. “You’re an amenable sort for a journalist. Do you have any hobbies?”
Later, though, Zander seemed to loosen up. At an afternoon rehearsal, he sat alone with his guitar during a break, singing a creditable imitation of Robert Plant’s vocal in “Rock and Roll.” “That’s pretty good,” I said. “Can you do anybody else?” He strummed a couple of chords, then went into a perfect imitation of Neil Young singing “Comes a Time.” “That’s the kind of stuff I used to do in my coffeehouse days,” he said afterward. “I could do James Taylor, Neil Young, and sound just like them. That was really popular, and it helped me to get work.” He stopped a moment and added wistfully, “I write songs like that, you know, countryish songs. Maybe someday —”
Robin comes back with a notebook, and we sit down in chairs by the window. Six stories below, a throng of girls is maintaining a vigil. The sight of Robin’s blond hair through the window provokes a series of shrieks from downstairs. Zander sinks down in his seat.
“I’m really twenty-six, you know. The last time we were in Japan, I lied about my age. But I’m getting old,” he laughs, a bit nervously. He starts into his life story: musical parents, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks (in Loves Park, Illinois, outside of Rockford), quit school at sixteen, ran away to Glasgow, Scotland, came back to Illinois. When Cheap Trick first approached him to join, Zander said no; he was making big bucks performing folk music in a Wisconsin resort. After his contract ran out, Cheap Trick beckoned again. This time, Zander said yes.
“Look at this,” he says, handing over the notebook. It is a folio of pencil drawings, very good likenesses of Robin. “This is typical of the things that the girls give me,” he continues, turning the pages. Each drawing is more delicately detailed than the last: Robin Zander crying a single tear, Robin Zander in flowing robes, walking on water, Robin Zander reaching out to touch the outstretched hand of a single admirer.
“I’m sure we seem like gods in the fantasies of some of these girls,” he says, matter-of-factly.
I study his face for a reaction, but there is none. The sun streaming through the window casts golden highlights on his hair. There is an uncomfortable silence.
“How did you develop your ‘look’?” I ask, searching for a more neutral subject.
“Early on, I was into David Bowie.” He stands up, faces the mirror and slicks his hair back to demonstrate. “Then someone in the band suggested I try a Bryan Ferry type of thing. That’s when I started wearing three-piece suits. It wasn’t unnatural for me,” he adds, almost defensively. “Nobody forced me to look any way. I just exaggerated what was already there. I am blond, fairly attractive, I lightened my hair a little….”
“What about your music? Did you have trouble adjusting to a band where you had to sound like different singers in each song?”
“I’m a chameleon. That’s my personality in the band. Rick is the crazy one, and I’m the chameleon.”
But what voice is the real Robin Zander’s?
“They’re all me,” he says, a little uncertainly. “That’s me in there somewhere.”
Another silence. Zander curls up even tighter, bringing his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. I start to apologize for making him nervous.
“What do you think of me?” he suddenly asks, staring straight into my eyes.
“That you’re very defensive,” I answer, not really knowing what else to say.
He looks out the window. “That’s the real world out there. I haven’t been out there in three years, since the band started. I have no friends left. Just the band, my manager, other people in the business —” Zander trails off and gets up to leave. The crowd outside spots him and begins to scream again.
“I don’t trust anybody.”
Nobody forces them to go out on the road 300 nights a year,” says Ken Adamany. “This is what they like to do and what I like to do. Nobody’s forcing anybody.”
Adamany shifts a little uncomfortably in his seat. He is not used to giving interviews. “I prefer to stay in the background and let the music speak for itself,” he says. But Adamany is hardly a background figure. He is constantly with the band; during sound checks and rehearsals he sits onstage listening, evaluating. Occasionally he’ll tap Rick on the shoulder and whisper a few words of suggestion. He is also very much in charge of all operations; if any band member wants to wander around the hotel during his free time, he must ask Adamany’s permission. Last tour, a Japanese fan handed Adamany a cartoon drawing of him and the band: Rick, Tom, Bun E. and Robin as marionettes — Ken Adamany as the puppeteer.
“The ‘puppet theory’ is absolutely true,” he admits, poker-faced. “If Tom comes backstage now with white boots on, I’m gonna say, ‘Tom — red boots tonight.’ He might even say, ‘Yes sir!’ Naw, not really. I don’t ride herd on them; it’s mutual respect. Rick manages me as much as I manage him.”
“What are your plans for the next year, now that Cheap Trick is a major U.S. attraction?” I wonder.
“Well, we don’t have any game plan. Just more of the same. And we’re looking at some film projects.”
“Are you still going to tour constantly?”
Adamany shrugs. “More of the same.”
“Where did the Cheap Trick image come from? There seems to have been some shrewd planning and clever marketing.”
“Does it seem so?” Adamany asks innocently. “Is that right? Well, the truth is, I saw Rick one day and said to myself, ‘Ken, you’re gonna make $10 million off that guy.”‘
Adamany grins toothily. And who can tell if he’s joking?
The $10-million man is toting three — count ’em — three guitars tonight: one red, one sunburst, one covered with black and white squares. It’s the middle of Cheap Trick’s second set at the Osaka Festival Hall, and I’m standing in the photo pit seven feet below the first row of screaming fans. Candy, flowers and confetti sail overhead; it feels like a bunker down here.
Barely five feet away, Robin Zander is poised at the microphone, dressed in a cream-colored suit, his feet spread apart. He doesn’t dance or move far from the microphone; he doesn’t have to. The slightest toss of his head is enough to excite this crowd. Over to his left, Tom Petersson hunches studiously over his twelve-string bass, occasionally looking up to pose for a snapshot.
I can’t see Bun E. Carlos from down here; he is hidden behind a drum kit and a thicket of cigarette smoke. But I can hear him. He drums with an energy that brings to mind old Chuck Berry records and high-school battles of the bands.
Rick Nielsen works the crowd like a vaudeville trouper. He struts, charges, leaps from a raised platform, and bobs and jiggles like the hula doll in a cabby’s rear window. He tosses picks to the audience, guitars to his roadie. Soon, he’s down to one guitar, and he begins his solo: one rapid-fire scale, then another, at half-step intervals up the neck (“Look, ma,” his face says,”no hands!”). For the finale, he hits A loud chord, balances the axe on its side and allows it to tall backward.
It’s a showman’s solo, not a guitar player’s, and Cheap Trick is a show band, one of the best. They don’t need fancy lighting or smoke bombs to hold an audience’s attention — die characters they portray are entertainment enough. All rock bands employ staging, but Cheap Trick may be the first band that doesn’t even try to make its act seem natural. For two hours every night, Rick Nielsen becomes a guitar whiz in the throes of a psychotic reaction; Robin Zander and Tom Petersson become teen idols; Bun E. Carlos is a chain-smoking oddball. They’re rock & roll cartoon heroes, larger than life. The bio was right: these guys didn’t grow up in Rockford, Illinois. Cheap Trick is a band that has no past.
Backstage at the Nagoya City Hall, the band is warming up for show number four on this tour. Robin is in the supply closet, screaming high notes, Rick is in the next room with his guitars, Tom is nowhere to be found. Bun E. Carlos and I are alone in the dressing room, sitting by a curtained window.
“There are about fifty girls waiting outside that window,” Carlos laughs, and he shakes the curtain slightly. There’s a burble of excited voices. “It’s amazing what you’ll do when you get a little bored.”
He looks at me, I look at him, and the idea hits us both at the same time. I stand with my back to the window, and Bun E. pulls open the curtains.
For a split second, I feel a tremendous rush of energy that’s replaced by an equally tremendous surge of guilt. It’s not me they’re screaming for — and it’s not really Robin they’re screaming for either. It’s the package, the icing on the cake, the shoulder-length blond hair. Close the curtains — please!
“Now, don’t you feel terrible?” he says.
“You just really can’t take this thing seriously. Maybe if I was twenty-three it would really screw me up. But I’m twenty-nine — and I’m too old to do anything but take it with a sense of humor.”
Tom Petersson shrugs and orders another Sapporo beer. He, Lois Marino and I are having dinner in the hotel restaurant, and we’re all slightly watered down from alternate rounds of beer and sake. The tables around ours are filled with girls who are sipping soft drinks and staring.
“But how do you explain this all to people back home?” I ask. “How do you tell them what it feels like to be an idol?”
“Well, I don’t really tell anybody. They wouldn’t believe me. And if they did, they’d just think I was being an egotist.”
“If you guys ever turn into egomaniacs,” interrupts Lois, “I’ll kill you!”
Petersson gets up to leave. “Don’t worry,” he says with a sly twinkle in his eyes. “We’re not interesting enough for that.”