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Rick Astley learns to roll with his oddly enduring fame

Rick Astley was lost.

He and a filmmaker friend were driving through Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, just two guys in a car with a camera and an idea to visit towns made famous through American music and culture, far-flung dots like Wichita and Amarillo.

"It's just two English guys, and we're like, Can we actually get out and ask anybody?" Astley said in a recent phone interview. "Are we in a scary place, or are we not? Is somebody going to get a banjo out? Is this okay?"

You can't blame him for getting turned around. Astley hasn't toured America since 1989, back when No. 1 singles like Never Gonna Give You Up and Together Forever propelled his 1987 album Whenever You Need Somebody to go platinum many times over.

For many years since, Astley seemed like a lost artifact of that era. The baby-faced ginger with the big, booming baritone — whatever happened to that guy? Was he still around? Did he still tour? Was that even his real voice?

Then came YouTube. YouTube discovered Rick Astley, and neither was ever the same.

Now Astley is back in America with a new tour, album and appreciation for how his strange, specific fame has evolved over the past 30 years, and especially the last 10. On Monday, his 51st birthday, he'll perform at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre, belting out all those old hits in what has, against all odds, become one of the signature voices of the Internet Age.

Seriously, this is all really happening. Honest. You are not being rickrolled.

• • •

For a detailed explanation of rickrolling, click here .

Wait, sorry, sorry, that's not the link. Click here instead .

No, hang on, sorry — HERE'S the right link. This will tell you everything you need to know .

Back yet? Wondering what just happened?

You just got rickrolled, is what happened.

Getting rickrolled is when someone sends you a link purportedly to some cool website or article or video — album leak! rehearsal footage! sex tape! — but it instead takes you to Astley's unfathomably cheesy video to Never Gonna Give You Up. It's the internet's equivalent of made you look, a digital non sequitur that's good for a harmless laugh.

It's impossible to say how many people have been tricked since the first known rickrolling in May 2007, as many millions of Never Gonna Give You Up views have been wiped clean due to copyright violations. But Astley's official clip, uploaded in 2009, has been viewed more than 280 million times.

Astley was a sensation in his day, even reaping a Grammy nomination for best new artist. But that was nothing compared to this. Rickrolling got Astley a gig in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It prompted pranksters to flood an online vote, naming him the MTV Europe Music Awards' "Best Act Ever." Just this past December, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers re-created the Never Gonna Give You Up video to rickroll their fans one night before a game. (The team offered to fly Astley in for a cameo, but he couldn't make it.)

"The rickrolling thing is a bit of a nuts thing, and it's bizarre, and in its own way, it's got nothing to do with me whatsoever — and yet it's got everything to do with me," Astley said. "I think certain people would be like, I'm an artist, and that's my song; what are you doing? I'm a bit more detached from it. Yeah, it's my song, but it becomes public property after a while."

Astley calls rickrolling "just a bit of fun — and yet, it's probably been unbelievably annoying for people." Still, it's hard for any artist to slough off anything that connects with that many people.

"I have to look at it positively, because if I didn't it would possibly drive me mad," he said. "I've always seen it as something to be grateful for, rather than to be upset about. If I was one of the songwriting greats and someone had taken my songs and done that — if they'd done it to a David Bowie song or something — that might be a bit too far. But with all respect to myself, I don't put myself in that category. I just think it's a bit of fun, and it's probably done me some good."

When rickrolling debuted, Astley was a couple of years into a comeback, following a decade-plus in retirement. Frustrated by the music business, he had walked away at age 27 to raise a family. Only at their urging had he stepped back behind the mic.

Then rickrolling came along, and all of a sudden, everyone wanted a piece of Rick Astley. Through no real effort of his own, he was a sensation again.

Which is funny (LOL!), because for the longest time, that's the last thing he wanted to be.

• • •

A few months ago, Astley did a Reddit AMA in which a fan asked him to name his desert island album. Astley picked Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall.

Interesting choice. Like Astley, the '70s soul legend withdrew from the pop spotlight voluntarily, and for the most part never looked back.

"For the last 25 years of his life, he could have gone to any restaurant anywhere, and nobody would recognize him," Astley said.

And while Astley would never compare himself to one of his idols — he once found himself at a party with Withers and couldn't work up the courage to say hello — he understands the appeal of living in anonymity. He's grateful that even today, even after a publicity blitz for the release of last year's well-received 50 — his first studio album in 11 years — he can walk into Starbucks without being recognized.

"I've done retro gigs with other artists from the '80s, and some of those gigs are crazy," he said. "We'll play for 20,000 people sometimes. You think, This is nuts! And yet I'm filling up my car on the way home at a gas station, and I could jump on the roof of my car and sing Never Gonna Give You Up, and no one would give a damn. I've just sung it in front of 20,000 people, and they've all sung along with it. It's a real weird duality."

What rickrolling proved, in a roundabout way, was that the world missed Rick Astley more than everyone had let on. He was a punch line for so long that everyone forgot why the joke was funny in the first place. As artists like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars began mining '80s pop influences to flesh out their own sounds — not just Astley, but Phil Collins, INXS, the Human League and countless others — once-laughable singles like Never Gonna Give You Up ended up defying their expected shelf lives by decades.

Not long ago, Astley found himself on stage at a British awards show, presenting a trophy to hot young alt-pop band the 1975.

"I'm thinking, Well, these guys aren't going to know who I am. Their moms might know who I am, but they're not," Astley said. "So I presented the award, and the lead singer got up, and the first thing he said was: 'Rick Astley. Legend.' I'm thinking, Well, that's interesting. Whether he was doing it out of irony's sake or not, it didn't really matter. I just thought it was interesting. Because you listen to their records, and obviously, they've been listening to their moms' CD collection."

Maybe. Or maybe someone just sent them a link.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

>>If you go

Rick Astley

The singer performs at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. $35 and up. (727) 791-7400. atthecap.com.

Rick Astley learns to roll with his oddly enduring fame 02/02/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2017 8:14pm]
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