I was already having a bad Easter Sunday no thanks to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’d barely made it through the movie when a friend called to tell me Joey Ramone had died after a seven year battle with lymphoma, a few weeks before his 50th birthday. It was April 15, 2001.
I’d only been a fan of The Ramones for only a year and half but I was still heartbroken. In a fitting tribute, Joey’s mother and brother organized on birthday bash for Saturday May 19, the day Joey would’ve turned 50. A few of us scored tickets and headed to Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City for the big night. We got seats in the balcony as emcee Steve Van Zandt presented a variety of surprise guests. The first big surprise was a performance by Blondie, who performed a kick-ass set of songs from their early albums. Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh, also did set with his band Stop. Before they launched into a cover of the Ramones’ “Danny Says,” Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen came onstage, sporting one of his trademark checkerboard guitars. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when the next band up was none other than Cheap Trick.
Like most people, “I Want You To Want Me” and “The Flame” were all I knew of the Cheap Trick canon at that point. I remember reading a glowing review of their first three albums in Guitar World when they were remastered and expanded in 1998, but I’d never looked into them. So when the band opened with the raucous “Hello There” and went immediately into the bombastic “ELO Kiddies,” I was floored. This wasn’t the radio friendly pop I’d heard from this band! Surely their next song would be something more mainstream. Nope, “He’s A Whore” – another rocker from their self-titled debut. After Rick shared some memories of Cheap Trick playing gigs with The Ramones, the band closed with one of Joey’s favorites: “Surrender.” I actually did know that one but I never knew it was a Cheap Trick song (this is long before Shazam, you see). After seeing them knock out only a handful of songs, I had to dig into Cheap Trick.
My typical way of getting into a new band is by starting with their first album and listening chronologically. As luck would have it, Columbia House music club (which I was a loyal member of for years) had a sale shortly after the show and I got Cheap Trick’s self-titled debut for a measly $3.99. It arrived in the mail on a warm summer day so I loaded it into my Discman, popped on my headphones, and listened to the CD from front to back in one sitting. The album sounded like a comic book brought to life through music, with lyrics about how school is for fools, the relentlessness of the taxman, missing someone named Candy, and a male prostitute with a bag of money painted on a canvas of hard rock with strokes of incredible pop sensibility. By the end of the tenth and final track, my brain had melted in my head. Naturally, I spent the next few months scooping up every Cheap Trick album ever made. Since Amazon didn’t exist as we know it today, I acquired their entire catalog through trips to mom-and-pop record stores, Virgin Records in Times Square, and even eBay when I was having trouble finding a few out of print titles.
Cheap Trick is one of my all-time favorite bands, and their 30+ years of making music has yielded the highs of mainstream success, the lows of getting dropped by a label, and all the fertile ground in between. I’ve seen the band in concert many times since 2001 and although I may never be as blown away as I was during that first set, this song and the nine that followed came pretty damn close to flooring me all over again.