When is music fandom pathological?
The Dream Police, they live inside Robert Kilroy’s head.
They have also taken over his living room and a good portion of his closet. Actually, it’s the 70s pop-rock band, Cheap Trick, that takes up a lot of space in Robert Kilroy’s life. I know this firsthand because Kilroy is my husband, which means that Cheap Trick also takes up a chunk of space in the life we share. Walk into our house, in suburban Reno, Nevada, and the first thing you’ll see is a stack of amps covered in the band’s signature pattern.
Kilroy, which is what he prefers to be called (although I call him Rob), has even gotten our kids in on the act. Though our son Liam, now 18, doesn’t remember his first road trip, he was just three years old when his dad drove him six hours to see the band when they played at a Harley Davidson rally in Hollister, California.
When we met, 25 years ago, I knew right away that Kilroy, an attorney who is now 51, was a music fan of a magnitude to which I couldn’t relate. The early evidence came in the form of stacks of saved, and savored, ticket stubs from live shows he had attended. And from the piles and piles of concert t-shirts that he had collected. His love of music, and of this particular Midwestern band, has not turned out to be a phase that faded with his twenties. Or forties. In fact, he dreams of hiring them to play at a birthday party one of these days.
“I’m going.” That’s what Kilroy remembers thinking way back in 1982 when he was 18 years old and after his dad told him he couldn’t go to the Cheap Trick concert that Kilroy had bought tickets for two months earlier. Kilroy had waited three years for his favorite band to play near his hometown of Jeffersonville, Indiana, but with the snap of a finger, over what Kilroy recalls was a minor transgression, Kilroy’s father Bob just said “No.”
It was 30 years ago, but Kilroy remembers the event like it was last weekend. It might as well have been: Cheap Trick has been getting Kilroy into trouble ever since. First with his parents. Then with me. Somewhere in the middle he even got himself in trouble with the members of the band.
Today Kilroy can tell you whether or not Cheap Trick is currently touring (they are). In fact, he can tell you exactly where the 70s pop-rock band is playing their next show (at the time of this writing it just happens to be in Nevada). He can tell you whether or not they are headlining (the band is on tour opening for Peter Frampton and Foo Fighters but for the Nevada show they’re playing solo).
For anyone else who needs to know what the “American Beatles” are up to (this is the band’s nickname in Japan where thousands of Cheap Trick’s most rabid fans reside), daily updates are available at CheapTrick.com. The website is where Kilroy keeps tabs on the band, even studying set lists from recent shows. Much to the delight of their most devoted fans, Cheap Trick posts set lists online after every show. “I like to know what gems from the past they’re playing,” Kilroy says, “even though it makes me wish I could have been at the show.”
Kilroy certainly knows enough band lore to qualify him as a super-fan. For instance, he knows that guitarist Rick Nielsen plays a different guitar for every song during a live performance. He knows that Robin Zander, the band’s lead singer, knows every lyric to every Neil Young song. He knows that the band’s drummer Bun E. Carlos’ real name is Brad Carlson. And he knows that the bassist, Tom Petersson, is the inventor of the 12-string bass guitar. He’s a little bit embarrassed to divulge these details, but at the same time, defiant in his appreciation of the band.
Kilroy has seen the band “at least 50 times,” since that first missed opportunity almost three decades ago. If pressed he is sure that he could name every venue and every show he’s attended. He also remembers the times that he was supposed to see the band and couldn’t:
• April 1979: “Louisville, Kentucky: I wasn’t old enough.”
• June 1980: “Louisville, Kentucky: The concert was canceled.”
• March 1981: “Louisville, Kentucky: The concert was canceled.”
• July 1982: “Lexington, Kentucky: Aforementioned parental permission withdrawn.”
• September 1983: “Indianapolis, Indiana: My ride was on his way to get me — I was in college, living in Ohio — and he wrecked his car when he tried to avoid a squirrel.”
• June 1992: “San Jose, California: The concert was canceled.”
• June 1998: “Chicago, Illinois: My wife forbade the trip.”
• June 1999: “San Francisco, California: My daughter was born prematurely.”
• September 2008: “Reno, Nevada: The concert was canceled.”
Despite evidence to the contrary, Kilroy swears he isn’t the band’s top fan. “There are some really obsessed fans,” he says.
For starters, there’s Kim Gisbourne, from Leeds, England. “He flies all over the world to see Cheap Trick,” Kilroy says, sounding slightly envious. Kim also runs the “Unofficial Cheap Trick UK/Europe Newsletter.” Then there’s “Taper Dan,” the middle-aged Los Angeleno who records every show he sees — illegally — and then makes copies of the tapes available to other fans for free (Kilroy has also taped dozens of shows; more on that later). “I really can’t explain the feelings I get from seeing my favorite band live,” says Kilroy. “I can go to a concert and forget all about any stress I’m dealing with. It’s like it just doesn’t exist when I’m there.” Kilroy frequently mentions Cheap Trick with verbiage typically used to refer to first love, or at least new love:“Anticipation. Excitement. Exhilaration.”
“I started listening to the band when I was 14 and the music is imprinted on my brain, just like my first girlfriend is,” he says. I am loathe to tell him that there’s no such thing as imprinting with music, or, while we’re on the topic, with teen love either. There is plenty of research that examines the phenomenon of imprinting, the term used to describe bonds that form biologically for many species, but “there is no such teen process,” writes Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who studies imprinting. In a Psychology Today article “First Love, Lost Love: Is it Imprinting?” Kalish notes, “Adolescence is a period of many kinds of intense emotions. All these memories can be encoded in the sensory areas of the brain…but strong emotional memories are not imprints.”
What Kilroy experiences does have precedent, though. For him, listening to Cheap Trick and attending the live shows are, as cultural studies expert Daniel Cavicchi observes, a kind of interruption of the continuity of ordinary life. In his book Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning among Springsteen Fans, Cavicchi, who teaches American history at the Rhode Island School of Design, writes about the fan culture surrounding the singer Bruce Springsteen. But he may as well be writing about Kilroy and Cheap Trick:
“For fans…a concert represents a powerful meeting of the various forces and people and ideas involved in their participation in musical life. The excitement of participation, the feeling of connection with Springsteen, the interaction of fans and other audience members, the rituals, the energy, the empowerment, the communal feeling, the evaluation and discussion: together they enact the meaning of fandom. They shape and anchor fans’ sense of who they are and where they belong,” Cavicchi writes.
Cavicchi has observed that committed music fans see their role as “very special and serious.” There is even ritual involved, ritual that has many requirements. Like the Springsteen fans Cavicchi writes about, Kilroy and his Cheap Trick brethren have rituals that involve buying concert tickets, planning road trips, and communicating about their live-show experiences on various fan websites (including Kim Gisbourne’s). Also like Springsteen fans, Kilroy likes to “relive” the concert experiences by collecting concert tapes and trading them amongst other fans.
Among the most impassioned Cheap Trick fans, Kilroy is held in particular esteem because he has managed to add some things to his collection of memorabilia that none of the others have: two of Rick Nielsen’s guitars and amplifiers and one of Robin Zander’s guitars.
He has traded gear with both members of the band handful of times, transactions that delight him, even years later. “The other guys, like Kim and Dan, always want to hear the details of my meet-ups with Rick and Robin,” says Kilroy.
Kilroy even saves some of the correspondence he has with his brethren — for years. I didn’t believe that he saved it until he pulled up evidence from his email archives dating back five years. In the email, another super fan mentions one of Kilroy’s recent guitar trades, a feat Kilroy is very proud of. “I saw Rick Nielsen last night at the Burbank airport as I was waiting for my flight back to Phoenix. He was wandering through the magazine store and I saw that trademark hat. I went up and introduced myself and told him that I had the #22 Rick Nielsen Standard. He told me that he had the #23 which he had traded from our own Kilroy. As I was leaving he tossed me one of his pics [sic] and said to use it when I play the Standard. What a nice guy!”
While Kilroy takes fandom to a level that most people can’t remotely relate to, Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, doesn’t believe that Kilroy has an unhealthy level of interest in the band. “People who are truly obsessed are often dealing with an issue such as adult ADHD or obsessive compulsive disorder,” he says. Olivardia has patients who feel compelled to collect every piece of music a band has released. Kilroy’s collection of 1000 bootleg tapes of live Cheap Trick shows and 50 CDs — including imports from Japan and Germany — doesn’t put him in this category.The boxes of tapes, many of which Kilroy has yet to listen to — “So little time!” — line the shelves in our garage. “The band has played more than 5000 shows,” Kilroy says, “So I’m actually missing quite a few.”
“Buying a greatest hits album, and imports, even though you have every song on other albums is not pathological,” Olivardia continues, “Fandom becomes a clinical problem when a person is driven to collect even if he doesn’t like the band any more,” says Olivardia, who treated such a patient.
“This guy is worried that if he doesn’t collect every bit of music from the band that made the first record he ever bought something bad will happen to him.” The fandom has become negative, says Olivardia and the fan “has become a hoarder.”
“People relate to music on different levels,” adds Olivardia, who admits he is more of a music fan than most people he knows. He sees dozens of live shows every year, even traveling as far as Manhattan for some of his favorites. He collects imported versions of his favorite bands CDs. One wall in his living room is lined with his collection of 3000 CDs. Even though he has downloaded the music onto his computer, he can’t part with the actual discs. “I like to look at the cover art and read the liner notes,” he says. “I almost can’t relate to someone who doesn’t have a favorite band,” he adds.
To put things in perspective, Olivardia compares being a fan of a band to being a fan of a sports team. “I know people who plan their entire vacation, or even their year, around the Boston Red Sox game schedule, “ he says. “I know dads who spend thousands of dollars on game tickets so they can take their sons to Fenway Park and share that experience,” Olivardia says. “I would never do that, but I can relate,” he says. “Fandom becomes a problem when the fan isn’t attending to his life responsibilities,” says Olivardia, “or when they spend more money than they have.” Olivardia is also concerned when he meets someone who can barely have a conversation that isn’t about his or her passion.
Interviewing Olivardia turns out to be marriage counseling of a sort.
Kilroy has always been more passionate about music than even people who consider themselves extreme music fans. In 1992, on a cross-country flight Kilroy ended up chatting with a guy who happened to be responsible for trucking gear across the country for the band Pearl Jam. A few months later, when Kilroy had left his job as a Naval officer and had a six-month gap before he was due to start law school, he took a detour that involved driving the members of Pearl Jam on the California leg of their tour. During a drive through California he was chatting with the band members about their influences and guess who came up during the conversation? Yep: Cheap Trick.
“Mike McReady and Jeff Ament [two members of Pearl Jam] are huge fans of Cheap Trick,” says Kilroy. When he told them about his vast collection of bootleg tapes, they asked him to send them copies of specific shows that they knew of from the 70s. “How cool is that?” he asks.
Recording tapes of live shows once got Kilroy into big trouble with the band.
In 1994, just after the Pearl Jam roadie experience, Kilroy got caught recording a show in California. “I had posted something on Prodigy [one of the first internet bulletin boards] about recordings of past shows and one of the roadies saw it and turned me in. At the show, security came and patted me down and took my recorder.” After the show, lead singer Robin Zander came out and brought beers to the fans who were hanging around. “He knew exactly who I was and came over to explain that they didn’t want me to record because of potential legal issues with their label,” recalls Kilroy.
It was the first night of a two-night run and so the next night, the drummer, Bun E. Carlos came out during the sound check and also reminded Kilroy that he couldn’t record. “I apologized and told him that I never sold my bootlegged tapes, I just traded them,” he says. “When I told Bun E. about some of their 70s shows I had in my collection, he asked me to make him copies,” laughs Kilroy. “I sent him the tapes a few weeks later along with a list of a bunch of questions I wanted to know about the music and he actually called me. We talked for 45 minutes.”
Kilroy has taped hundreds of live shows — a practice that the majority of rock bands prohibit. In fact, for a long time I refused to go to shows with him because he wouldn’t talk or sing or dance or really move even one inch during performances because he didn’t was to “mess up” the integrity of his recordings. Plus, the whole ordeal of sneaking in the recorder, which he stuffed into his pants, was…awkward. I would have been more comfortable if he’d been smuggling pot into concerts. Seriously.
Did I mention he’s a lawyer? And that he wrote his law school thesis on how the North American Free Trade Agreement killed the business of selling bootlegged CDs and the recordings of live concerts?
At one of the last shows I went to with my husband during the height of his recording-and-trading-bootlegged-tapes era, he got caught taping and was escorted out of the Murat Theater in Indianapolis. We were watching Foo Fighters, a band I really like, so I stayed and watched the show; he waited for me outside. Shortly after that incident, he graduated from law school and we were scheduling our cross-country move. Our plan was that I would fly with our then eleven-month-old and Rob would drive west with our dogs. The house we were moving into needed painting and we decided — okay I decided — that he would get to Reno a few days before me so he could paint before the movers and Liam and I arrived. He suggested that he travel west by way of Chicago so he could attend a Cheap Trick show there (and visit his sister). Alas, Chicago is not actually on the way to Reno when traveling from Indianapolis. He skipped the shows.
I Want You to Want Me
It’s well known amongst Cheap Trick’s devoted fans that lots of other (i.e., better selling) musicians also look up to the band, a fact that Kilroy is eager to point out. “Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam have all said they were influenced by Cheap Trick and some of them even have Cheap Trick open for them when they tour,” says Kilroy.
But unlike many of the bands that look up to it, Cheap Trick has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is a source of aggravation for Kilroy that he nonetheless tries to play down. “They don’t need the approval of the Hall of Fame,” says Kilroy. “Most of the bands that do get in have record labels lobbying for them,” he says. And Cheap Trick doesn’t currently have a label. Anyway, there are plenty of people who seem to appreciate the bands’ gifts. April 1 is Cheap Trick Day in the State of Illinois. And VH1 has included Cheap Trick on its list of top 100 Artists of Hard Rock.
Fans like to point out modern musicians whom Cheap Trick has influenced, but also note heralded bands that influenced Cheap Trick. When the band’s first music was reviewed, around 1975, it was described as a combination of British guitar pop featuring well-crafted songs with catchy melodies (i.e., The Beatles) and sonic guitar riffs (i.e., The Who). The band was also noted for infusing tongue-in-cheek humor in its lyrics (i.e., The Dream Police, one of their most popular songs). Music blogger George Starostin, observes that way back “With their debut album, Cheap Trick establish[ed] themselves as yet another bunch of guys way too devoid of genius to be the next Beatles, but clever enough to get a new kind of sound going on that helps one being tricked into thinking that they just might be the new Beatles.”
“It’s a cheap trick,” Starostinwrites, that they managed to “merge pop music with hard rock…by playing innocent Beatlesque melodies with ragged dirty guitars.”It’s fitting, then, that during last few years, Kilroy says the band’s best shows have been at the Hollywood Bowl, where it has played the entire Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album before sold out crowds.
All those years ago Kilroy may have missed the show in Jeffersonville that he had tickets for, but since then he has made up for it many times over. In fact, just two days after the show his dad wouldn’t let him go see, the band was playing in Indianapolis, two hours away from Kilroy’s home, That afternoon he told his parents he was going to work but picked up three friends and drove straight up I65 instead.“We bought tickets outside Market Square Area and sat in the tenth row,” he remembers. “It felt like church for me.”
Kilroy says he won’t make it to the next Nevada show but he has two dates on his calendar for later in the summer. I’m not sure I’ll be invited. “Cheap Trick is the Saab of rock bands,” he says. “They’re unique. And you either get it or you don’t.”