Feelin' all alone without a friend, you know you feel like dyin'
- Cheap Trick, "I Want You To Want Me"
It was the summer of 1979, somewhere in an East-coast airport, and I was on the final legs of an elementary school tour of Washington D.C. (not as cool as the biannual school trip to Disneyworld, but educational enough to convince my parents it was worth going into debt over). Aside from being educational, the trip was also supposed to teach me positive socialization skills, and both my parents and myself were hoping this time spent with classmates outside of the classroom would put an end to my five year run as King of the Nerds. I was to focus on things like 'fitting in,' 'going along with the other kids,' and 'trying harder' - and if all else fails, 'just ignore them and they'll go away.' Well, the end of my reign seemed plausible at the outset, but kids are clever and it didn't take long for my classmates to figure out that not letting me find a seat on a tour bus was not all that different from keeping me from sitting down on a school bus. Only now when I finally did get to sit down it was next to a dirty toilet. And getting pushed to the back of lines at museums and restaurants is kind of like getting pushed to the back of the school cafeteria line. Needless to say, these were all turns of events for which I was totally unprepared.
But the end of our journey was near. Me and the rest of the fifth graders sat impatiently awaiting a connecting flight home, when suddenly one of the 'in' kids screamed, 'It's Cheap Trick!' I did not own a Cheap Trick record per se, but I had seen the television commercial for the At Budokan LP, and I had heard the refrain of 'I Want You To Want Me' enough to get caught up in the hype. Besides, lead singer Robin Zander did look like a less showy version of another Rock'n'Roll starlette I was infatuated with, Tommy Shaw from Styx. But the real attraction was Rick Nielsen with his music note sweaters, piano key ties, and dorky glasses. Here was a fellow geek who had not only infiltrated Rock'n'Roll culture, but actually commanded attention and affection from the very kids who pounded on me daily... perhaps there was hope for me yet! Little did I know that what I considered a chance for validation as a misfit would turn into a pivotal anti-Rock moment.
Word quickly passed to my position at the back of the peanut gallery that Robin Zander was not with the rest of the band. This news was shortly followed by word that the other band members would actually be sharing our flight. I recall this news immediately struck me as some sort of class struggle within the band, as though the superstar vocalist was off flying first class somewhere while his band mates were stuck with a plane full of obnoxious elementary school kids from Minnesota - I think this was my way of perceiving the remaining band members as more approachable, and justifying my unworthy ass inhabiting the same space as theirs. By the time I boarded the plane they were already seated with drinks in hand, which is when I actually caught my first glimpse of Rick. Much to my surprise, I saw that he and his band mates were sharing their seats with two of the most popular girls in my class, Stacey and Trish. Stacey was a tom-girl and Mendota Elementary School's answer to Tommy Shaw. Needless to say, I had a huge crush on her. Trish, on the other hand, was a malicious power-Queen who, back in the first grade, never came through on her daily promises to show me her penis after I showed her mine. As I stumbled toward my seat through the haze of pedophilic auras emanating from Cheap Trick, I managed to snap off two pictures. 'Yes, there is hope for me yet,' I thought to myself with scheming eyes and a sweaty brow, 'One day I, too, will be a Rock'n'Roll guitarist... or whatever it is Rick does... and command the affections of those I admire while being amused by the butt-kissing of those I despise... Muah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaaa!'
Once in the air, my little bag of nuts (on-board snack, that is) in hand, I begged the flight attendant to have the band autograph my napkin, 'Especially the guy with the musical sweater!' She said she would see what she can do, and headed off toward the front of the plane. I leaned steep into the aisle to try and catch a glimpse of the proceedings. As she handed them the napkin they reflexively began penning autographs, when Rick asked, 'Who are these for, anyway?' As the attendant pointed my way, I blushed and ducked, only to hear Rick snidely say, 'What, that little nerd there?' In that moment of Rick's triumph of wit, the irony of such a statement coming from someone who based his career on a geek persona was apparently lost on both of us. Luckily, I had two classmates sitting with him to ensure the details of the event would live on in legend long after the flight had landed. When the flight attendant returned with my autographed napkin, it read through my blur of tears like a notarized certificate of inescapable otherness.
Rick's comments had two long-term affects on me. The first was turning me off on the Rock'n'Roll phenomenon, and consolidating its association with dominant cultural forces of homogenization and oppression (or, in the language of the day, 'bullies'). I knew Rock'n'Roll was something associated with popularity and power, but it was at this moment when I firmly and finally concluded that power was targetted against me (remind me to tell you about the previous summer when I was beaten up by a gang of Rockers because I owned a copy of Styx's Pieces of Eight before they did, somehow defaming the band's image because I was such a nerd). Now that's the stuff New Wave haircuts are made of! The second of Rick's lessons, which has served me well with regard to drag (and gets truer with age), is that no matter how hard I may try to blend in with a particular crowd, I should never count on 'passing.'