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Mr. Five-Neck Guitar: An interview with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen

Okee dokee folks…
Do you remember the part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High when the character Mike Damone was trying to sell Cheap Trick tickets to a girl in the bleachers? He says to her,“Can you honestly tell me you forgot? Forgot the magnetism of Robin Zander, or the charisma of Rick Nielsen?” He then runs through singing a few lines of “Surrender” and “Dream Police” with a little air guitar accompaniment. We don’t find out if she buys the tickets or not, as he is interrupted by Stacy Hamilton played, by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who tells him she is pregnant. Well, you don’t have to travel back to 1982 and deal with Damone to get tickets for Cheap Trick in concert, you can simply hit up the Providence Performing Arts Center for Cheap Trick’s November 13th show. I was fortunate to chat with guitarist/songwriter of Cheap Trick, Rick Nielsen, by phone the other day. For those of you who don’t know, he is the one who sports the flipped brim ball cap and plays the multi neck guitars.

Cheap Trick – Rick Nielsen is third from the left. Photo by Martin Thompson

Rick called me from his home in Illinois. He had just returned from a Cheap Trick show in Cancun and mentioned they have two more Mexican shows this month. We had a fun conversation that bounced all over the place and had both of us laughing a lot. I told him that I used to go see Cheap Trick back in the 70’s and that I was one of those old guys. He replied, “If you’re old imagine how old I am!” I told him about the time I saw Cheap Trick open for Blue Oyster Cult at the Cape Cod Coliseum and how I literally walked into Cheap Trick bassist, Tom Petersson in the lobby. “What did he do?” exclaimed Rick, and he followed with, “Did he punch you or did you punch him?”

I wanted to know about his famous five-neck guitar. I asked how much it weighed. He told me simply, “too much!” I brought up that I have Gretsch with a block though neck that I think is heavy and he responded, “That’s a hollow body, that’s not heavy! I have a Gretsch Malcolm Young Model and that’s heavy! You must be a weakling, not one to carry a five-neck. The five-neck weighs a lot. I tell people I used to be two inches taller. I didn’t need to shrink as an old man but now there’s extra shrinkage.” As a guitarist I was curious as to what the tunings of the five-neck guitar are. Rick said, “Well, I have three five-necks so that’s fifteen necks. The first two have 36 strings and the other has 38, it has a mando-cello on it.” We went on to discuss his guitar picks and his pick flinging prowess. “I used to be better, I tore my rotator cuff a couple of months ago. I can’t even take my clothes off or on so I’ve been wearing the same clothes for months!” I asked how he can play guitar with a torn rotator cuff and he reported that, “It doesn’t affect my playing it affects my pick throwing which is more important than playing!” I told Rick that I still have quite a few Cheap Trick guitar picks that I caught back in the 70’s. He said, “I’ve never sold one of them but other people have. I order 60,000 at a time. I’ve never sold one but have given a million away”.

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The original drummer Bun E. Carlos has had a complicated relationship with the band over the years. He had to curtail his drumming because of back problems. This caused issues with the band which led to lawsuits. The resolution of all this was that technically Bun E. Carlos is still a member of the band but no longer plays with them live. Nielsen’s son, Daxx, now plays drums for the band. I asked what Daxx’s age was and Rick answered, “He never told me. You don’t think I talk to him, do you? I think he’s old enough to drink though.”

I recounted a story I vaguely remembered reading in Circus or Creem Magazine about a controversy that involved the band Kansas and the listing of Cheap Trick’s name on a venue marquee. I asked him about that. His response was, “Yeah, they didn’t want anything known as a cheap trick out there. I mean it was Las Vegas, of all the cities in the world.” I wondered if it was the band or the venue that had the problem with the name. He answered. “It was the venue, we did a lot of shows with Kansas, the band were good beer drinking hellions back then, until they found God and they quit the band. One of them became a minister.” I commented, “Oh, Geez” and Rick said, “No, Oh, Jesus!”

A while back I saw Nielsen on the show American Pickers so I asked about that and commented that he must have quite the hoard. His response was, “Oh, Oh, yeah, I have a couple warehouses, a couple garages, a couple houses. I got a lot of stuff! Those are good guys, they didn’t even see my house or the other warehouse stuff, they only saw a fraction.” Again, as a guitarist, I wanted to know how many guitars he owns so I asked, “What is your current guitar count?”. He answered, “Well, I try to keep it right around 500, but I screwed up; I bought four last month. I just enjoy them. Better than blowing it on fast cars.” I came back with, “If I had the money I would probably buy a lot as well.” Rick replied, “I started with one, just like everyone, and I hardly ever buy new ones. Always used, they already have scrapes and scratches all over them so I don’t have to do that.” I pressed him to find which guitar was his favorite but he told me “It’s like picking my favorite kid or asking which guitar I would want on a desert island. What would I be going to a desert island for?” He did tell me about one of the top axes in his collection. “I’ve got a ’63 Merle Travis that they only made three of but now I found out they made four. They were 2000 bucks in 1963 but if you had that kind of money you could have bought a Volkswagon or a Mustang…so it really didn’t sell well. That’s one of the rarest things I have.”   

I said to him, “You’re 72 years old now, you don’t have anything to prove, you’ve had hits, success, you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you don’t have to do this anymore so you must do it for the love of it, right?” He came back, “You mean riding in a plane everyday and getting frisked at the airport? Playing is fun, the traveling kind of blows but I like to do it, and I get to talk to guys like you and tell you about the five-neckers! How many strings were on it again? Who cares about this stuff other than guys like you?” I countered with “GUITAR PLAYERS! I could probably talk to you for an hour about that one guitar but we don’t have that kind of time.” He shot back, “I don’t really know that much about them! I am more of a songwriter than a guitar player anyway. There are always these super-whiz guys that can play rings around me. I’ve played in Nashville and every time I go there everyone in the audience is better than you are, well, better than me, I’m afraid to hit the first note.” To that I said, “I’ve seen technically proficient guitar players and while they may be good it’s all technique and no art.” He acknowledged, “Well, that’s why I stayed a songwriter, I can take that kind of criticism. Jeff Beck is my favorite guitar player, since the 60’s, I know him, he actually bought one of my guitars, we played with him in Germany and I told him he’s my favorite and he said ‘but you’ve got the hits!’” I agreed and said that “Surrender” has been referenced in movies and it’s even part of the theme song for That ‘70s Show, so I asked how that came about. He told me,“Originally they wanted ‘In The Streets’ by Big Star or ‘Surrender’ but they chose the Big Star song the first year but realized that they should have done “Surrender”, so we did it but we had to do it the same tempo as the other one so it fit in there right, we had to do a different arrangement, so we just added ‘We’re all alright to it”, and it made it more to go with the show.”

We were running out of time and had to wrap the conversation. I declared that I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to get to his show as I had my own to play and he razzed me, “Gee, what a true fan you are, not even coming to our show! You’d better write something good about us then!” I really wanted to see them so I asked if, off the top of his head, he knew where he would be the next night. He told me that he used to remember every detail when they were out on the road, flights, what airport has the greatest hot dog and so on but wasn’t sure about the schedule. Then he said that when he was a kid he had memorized the Presidents in order and began to recite them to me. “Washington, Adams, Jefferson…” He went on until I stopped him. I HAD to ask him one question that my girlfriend wanted to know: What the KISS connection was. He responded, “You come home and your parents are listening to KISS albums. It’s like the most embarrassing thing you can think of. Every kid thinks their parents are weird, parents are hippies-that’s weird, parents are holy-rollers-that’s weird, they’re trying to be your best friend-that’s weird. Everybody had weird parents, but just the thought of them listening to music that you weren’t supposed to listen to was weird. And it was pretty amazing that KISS asked us out on the road in 1977, that was a big plus for us because that’s when the Japanese press saw us which was big…and Gene [Simmons] loved it, because any reference to KISS was a money maker, love those guys!”

Cheap Trick will be at PPAC on Saturday, November 13th. For more about the show “Reach Out” to: PPACRI.org. That’s it for now, thanks for reading. www.JohnFuzek.com

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