He's the guitar god in geek's clothing, the chump with the killer chops, the dopey-looking dude who does the dynamite solos in the middle of indelible ditties he pens himself.
He's Rick Nielsen, the lead guitarist of power-pop top guns Cheap Trick and composer of such uber-catchy classics as “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police,” the rock star from Rockford, Ill., who models his stage wardrobe after Huntz “Satch” Hall, who always played the buffoon in the Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids films.
Of course, the goofiness ends at his fingertips, when they tear into the strings of one of his outlandishly customized electric guitars. That's when he transforms himself into the giant among power-pop guitar heroes he's been for more that 35 years.
He still looks like it, though, standing between quintessential rock-star pretty boys Robin Zander on vocals and Tom Petersson on bass. It used to be drummer Bun E. Carlos — who looked like a portly, chain-smoking cross between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet — backing Nielsen up on the dweeb half of the team. But Carlos is semiretired now, replaced on the drums by Nielsen's son, Daxx.
It's this 2013 version of Cheap Trick fans will welcome to the Main Stage at Rocklahoma — Pryor's three-day outdoor rockfest — at 8:40 p.m. Sunday.
And Nielsen, at 64, has no intention of retiring any time soon, as indicated in this recent phone interview with The Oklahoman, after he called on time, then asked if he could call back in 45 minutes because he was “caught up in something.”
45 minutes later:
You must be in Orlando, Fla., right about now, or headed there.
Nielsen: I am there. That's why I was late. Florida slows you down.
How many dates a year is Cheap Trick averaging nowadays?
Nielsen: Something like around 200. That's ridiculous, isn't it?
You haven't cut back much, have you?
Nielsen: No, not really. I mean, you know, some years have been less, some years have been more. We're lucky that we get to work.
Is Bun E. playing any dates with the band this time out?
Is he still a member of the group?
Nielsen: My son Daxx is playin' drums for us.
Is he now the permanent drummer for Cheap Trick?
Nielsen: The last three years now.
Well, the last time we talked —
Nielsen: The last time we talked was about 45 minutes ago.
Before that, the last time we talked, “The Latest” had just come out on CD, vinyl and 8-track tape. And you were boasting about having the No. 1 selling 8-track in the world.
Nielsen: I think we're still in the Top 10.
I thought you would've managed to sell em all by now.
Nielsen: Well I think we probably did. I don't imagine we're selling too many more of 'em, but it's harder to find an 8-track player than an 8-track tape.
So, you're coming to Rocklahoma ...
Neilsen: Who we playin with?
Guns N' Roses, Alice in Chains, Korn, Bush ...
Nielsen: Oh, that's good stuff. We'll kick all their ---es. Well, we've got the most seniority, put it that way.
Have you heard anything about this festival?
Nielsen: Well, I've heard of it but I heard of South by Southwest and we never played there until three years ago. So it's like, I know about it, but until we get invited ... now we've got invited, can't wait to play.
When people talk about your musical influences, the Beatles always come up, of course, and other British Invasion groups, but you mentioned in one of our earlier conversations some later, lesser-known groups. Could you tell me who some of those were?
Nielsen: The Move, Patto ...
Yes, you mentioned Patto and that was one thing that really interested me because you're about the only guy I've ever talked to who knows who Patto was. Also the great (guitarist) Ollie Halsall.
Nielsen: Oh my God, the guy was unbelievable. Left-handed player. Amazing stuff, plus the band and the arrangements. Very, very cool. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, those guys were great. Would stand up to anything today. And all that stuff. The fact that you know Ollie Halsall, you're like one of the four people in the United States who knows who he is. ‘Singin' the Blues on Reds,' ‘Loud Green Song,' all that good stuff. You know, the last album that they did, Mike Patto was dyin' of cancer and when they recorded the record, he was lying on his back on the floor in the studio with the microphone above him, finishing the record. He was so weak ...