Robin Zander is sipping Starbucks spiked with Bailey's in a silver Airstream trailer, awaiting a strap for a guitar he hasn't played in three years.
It's a nice one, a Gibson Roy Smeck; they go for a few grand apiece. Most of the time it sits silently in his Safety Harbor home. His guitar tech restrung it this morning. Now Zander just has to figure out how to carry it.
"We don't have any straps?" he asks his son, also named Robin.
"No, we don't have the right —"
"All you need is a shoelace.
"I know. We're getting someone to look."
At a normal gig, a small army of techs would have found a strap already. But at the moment, Zander's primary gear is en route from Chicago, where he and his band just celebrated Cheap Trick Day in the state of Illinois, to a corporate gig in Orlando the next day. From there, it's up to New York, and the biggest honor of Zander's career: Cheap Trick's induction, after more than 40 years of power-pop hits and immeasurable influence, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
At today's induction ceremony, a sliver of that glory will also shine on Safety Harbor, the singer's hometown of 23 years. It's where he finds himself on this day last weekend, about to play a festival gig with his son and daughter in front of maybe 400 fans, friends and neighbors. Afterward, he'll sleep in his own bed, surrounded by his wife and kids and dogs and possessions that don't travel with him on the road. Like the little-used Smeck with no strap.
"I just saw it laying there and thought, Eh, I'll play that today," says Zander, 63, picking out a couple of notes. "It's like picking up an old friend you haven't seen in a while."
• • •
Cheap Trick may be the favorite sons of Rockford, Ill. But their singer might as well be Floridian.
Born in Beloit, Wis., and raised outside Rockford, Zander spent years circumnavigating the globe with bandmates Rick Nielsen, Tom Peterson and Bun E. Carlos, cultivating a cult following through their stylish energy and snappy rock hits like Surrender and Dream Police.
In the early '90s, he and wife, Pam, who grew up in Pinellas County, settled down in the Sunshine State, drawn by family ties and the promise of a nice, safe community in which to raise their son, Robin Taylor, now 23, and daughter, Robin-Sailor, 15. (Zander's go-to line about his kids' quirky names: "My wife just calls us Robin, and we all come running.")
Zander has made friends here. He supports local charities. He roots for the Bucs, Rays and Rowdies. He calls Tampa Bay "paradise."
For years, Zander could mostly tuck his hair beneath a cap and go just about anywhere, from the Bonefish Grill near his house to Harry's Beach Bar in St. Pete Beach, a favorite watering hole. But ever since Cheap Trick was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in December, the Zanders have been besieged by friends and strangers all over town, all offering hugs and handshakes and kudos. People Zander has known for 23 years are suddenly asking for an autograph.
"It's elevated these guys in a supernatural way," Pam said. "You knew about it, but when it actually happened, it was like the sky opened up. . . . It was nonstop from that day on. I get stopped everywhere I go."
Hall of Fame. Those three little words have quite an effect. It's seriously rarefied air — since the first ballot in 1986, fewer than 800 people, including fewer than 120 bands, have made it in. And almost all of them live somewhere other than Tampa Bay. (Among the exceptions: Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin, who lives in Carrollwood; and AC/DC's Brian Johnson and Aerosmith's Joe Perry, who have homes in Sarasota.)
Safety Harbor just makes sense for Zander. It's close to Pam's family, which is important for a dad gone a third of every year. And it's close to a major airport, crucial for that very same reason. It's a quiet enclave of bohemian charm (galleries, pubs, a quaint Main Street gazebo) with enough upscale homes to appeal to a global rock star.
"Having artists that are famous, like Robin Zander, reinforces what we like to see ourselves as: an artsy town," said Joe Caisse, a Cheap Trick fan who has lived here a dozen years. "We know Robin could choose to live anywhere. He's got the money. The fact that he's chosen to live in Safety Harbor for 25 years tells you a lot."
Town officials haven't leaned on Zander to act as a tourism spokesman, though in the wake of the hall of fame vote, there is some talk of trying to get him involved with their 2017 centennial celebration. But no one's job rests on booking the town's most famous resident for a show.
"Is it cool to have a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer living in Safety Harbor? Certainly," said city manager Matt Spoor. "But what's neater is the fact that he lives there so he can have some peace and quiet and enjoy Safety Harbor like the rest of the 17,000 residents."
• • •
What does it mean to have a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer living in your backyard?
For Cheap Trick lovers, it means getting to see Zander perform in settings that fans in other cities can only dream of — headlining a free street festival, maybe, or strumming an acoustic guitar in an intimate bar. He even has hopped on stage at open mic night at Brady's Backyard BBQ in Safety Harbor.
For a while, Pinellas County was technically Cheap Trick's home base. From 2003 to 2009, they were signed to Big3 Records, the label owned by St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards; Zander recorded vocals in Big3's Central Avenue studio.
"I consider him a friend," Edwards said. "He's very good with charity, and he's done a lot of things around town to help the less fortunate and raise money."
Over the years, Zander has popped up at benefits for music education, children's hospitals, youth mentoring and the families of fallen local police officers — all of it, for the most part, on a very local level. Zander used to host an event for the Clearwater chapter of the First Tee, an organization that offers golf camps, training and access for children across the socioeconomic spectrum. He invited rock star pals like AC/DC's Johnson and Blue Oyster Cult's Buck Dharma, and donated guitars for auction.
From 2006 to 2008, Zander's Rockin' the First Tee benefit raised $200,000 for equipment and infrastructure. For the then-fledgling, now-thriving chapter, such a windfall was impossible to anticipate.
"All nonprofits were hurting — it had been a rough five years with 9/11," executive director Cary Stiff said. "It's totally a gift that a celebrity such as himself would get in his car, drive down here and understand enough about the program to say, 'I'm going to make this happen, and I'm going to ask my friends to help me.' "
As one of Tampa Bay's few household-name celebrities, you might expect Zander to be overwhelmed with requests and invitations anytime he gets off the road. Not the case, he said. Whether it's headlining a fundraiser or singing the national anthem at a Rays game, he tries to say yes when he can, knowing that in Tampa Bay, he can live a little freer — and perhaps do a little more good — than he could in a city like Los Angeles.
"When you're in a smaller community, it's easier to make a large impact," Zander said. "It's hard to change the world as a whole, but it's not that difficult to change your neighborhood. If you really make the effort, you can do it, celebrity or not."
• • •
From the moment Zander pulls up to Safety Harbor Songfest in a candy-apple Hummer, he is ambushed with smiles and well wishes.
"You look good, my friend! Rock and roll!"
"Congratulations on the hall of fame!"
"I have some friends who used to live down the street from you!"
"Pretty soon you'll be in the Safety Harbor Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," volunteer Heather Richardson said.
Zander chuckles at that one. "I want to be the first member," he says.
It's a minor miracle he's here at the moment. In the midst of all this hall of fame craziness, Cheap Trick just released its 17th studio album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy . . . Hello, which means long days of press, including appearances this week on Howard Stern and Today. Over 21/2 weeks, Zander will spend maybe two or three nights in Safety Harbor.
But the opportunity to sing with his son, a singer-songwriter who recently moved to Nashville, and daughter made it worth squeezing in this small, solo, seat-of-his-pants gig. Besides, he said, "it's the only time that I'm going to (get) to do something for the community, and say thank you."
At the hall of fame podium, Zander will get three minutes. He hasn't written a speech. "I think it's better if I do it off the cuff, and not think about it too much," he says. "Because if I do that, I'll stumble, and not be able to speak."
Three minutes isn't much. Safety Harbor might not get a shout-out. But the town is never far from Zander's mind.
A few months ago, Robin and Pam decided to sell their relatively modest residence of 13 years, on the north end of town, near State Road 580. They love the beach, so they looked for a place out there. But nothing felt quite like the home they'd established in Safety Harbor.
"You wake up in a different hotel every morning, a different town, you barely know where you are most days," Pam says, as her husband and son close their Songfest set with Cheap Trick's I Want You to Want Me. "But coming here, it's like we're on this permanent vacation."
So they're staying put, and building a new place not too far from their current one. It's a little farther south, a little closer to Main Street. Closer to the heart of the town.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.