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Cheaper Trick

Life on the Tribute Trail: "I wanted to do something to make money on the side. It's either this or Rod Stewart."

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It's eight o'clock on a Saturday night at McGregor's in Elmhurst and already the parking lot is packed. Inside, Moe's Dream Police are running through a sound check, trying to nail down a Bryan Adams tune that didn't go over the night before. They go through it several times, pulling it apart in different spots, then move on to more familiar material.

Familiar material is this band's stock-in-trade. Later tonight they will play songs popularized by Queen and the Black Crowes, in addition to the new Adams tune, but mostly they will cover the songs of Cheap Trick. Mostly, in fact, they will pretend to be Cheap Trick. Guitarist Scott Johnson will dress in a cardigan sweater and an undersized baseball cap, and he'll play a guitar painted in black-and-white checkerboard while drummer Pat D. Marco bangs away on his checkerboard-finish drums. Vocalist Moe Carrara will introduce "I Want You to Want Me" with a whine identical to the one Robin Zander used on the Cheap Trick at Budokan album (and the audience will begin applauding at the same moment the Japanese audience does on the record). Long-haired Paul De Marco, a dead ringer for real Trickster Tom Petersson, will plunk away at a red 12-string bass. (He and Pat D. Marco are brothers, but Pat spells their last name in the manner of Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos.) Keyboardist Pat Ryan, who has no counterpart in the real Cheap Trick, will keep a low profile.

Moe's Dream Police are a "tribute" band. According to them, that's what you've got to be to get work on the suburban club circuit.

"I wanted to do something to make money on the side," explains 29-year-old Carrara, who works for a computer retailer by day. "It's either this or Rod Stewart."

After the sound check the boys go their separate ways for a while. Pat D. Marco and Moe hop into Pat's red Camaro and run over to Denny's, where talk quickly turns to the hazards of the tribute trail.

There is little solidarity among tribute bands, evidently. Moe and Pat remember a Black Sabbath tribute band opening for them one night--"Jagoffs," Moe recalls. "They were pricks. They were pricks."

"They cut us down," says Pat.

"We're the headlining act, we had all our stuff set up," says Moe.

"And they wanted us to take our drums off the platform. We don't do that," says Pat. "There's no need for that, the stage is big enough for two drum sets. They were just going crazy, they started fighting with us..."

"You should have been there the night we played with Animation, the Rush tribute," says Moe. "I've had this rivalry going on ever since grade school with this guy [an Animation member]. We played too long. The bass player's going, 'I'm sick of those fuckers, I'm sick of Moe.' He's up onstage! He's saying, 'Come on up here you motherfucker' to me! He's going 'Fuck you south side. Fuck you Pat Flaherty.'

"Flaherty [the owner of the club] runs up to the stage and pulls him off. We didn't even do our second set. We said, 'Fuck it, let's get out of here.'"

"We're not hard to get along with," says Pat. "Moe may be a little hard sometimes, because he's the singer."

"It's like, hey, it's my band here and I don't want anybody to fuck around with us," Moe says.

"We usually have a good time," says Pat.

The waitress comes and, overhearing the discussion, asks what kind of music the band plays.

"Cheap Trick, Rod Stewart," Pat responds.

"Good stuff," says Moe. "Black Crowes."

"I want to get a Dean Martin/Sinatra revue," Moe says a little later, "'cause when I do that stuff there's no rasp in my voice whatsoever. I do Tom Jones. If this band kicks in there long enough, I think we'll start doing some weddings on the side, start making some extra cash. I want to play in a Vegas band. Dean Martin, he was the greatest. If I ever made enough money like that, I would go back and redo Robin and the Seven Hoods. I'd be Dean Martin and I'd get somebody to do Sinatra."

"Joey was talking about wanting to get a bubble gum band to do all bubble gum rock," says Pat. Joey De Marco, Pat and Paul's brother, is the band's booking agent. "He thinks that would go over well."

"We used to end our set with 'Saturday Night' by the Bay City Rollers," says Moe. "The place would go nuts because they knew the words, they knew the song.

"I loved the Pistols. I thought the Pistols and the Clash were the next best thing next to the Beatles and the Stones. The Pistols were great, man. The Clash was incredible. I used to like Status Quo, they were pretty cool. I love Slade. Sweet kicked some ass.

"I want to do 'Little Willie.' I want to rock out 'Little Willie.'" Moe starts singing the chorus, a little too loudly for Denny's. He laughs. "I like embarrassing," he confesses. "I can't help it.

"Once there was this old lady, she was sitting over there trying to put a piece of bread in her mouth. Her teeth are over there. I'm watching and I'm going 'Put it in your mouth. Do it.' I ran up to her and I go 'PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH!' She was gnawing at this thing for like ten minutes trying to get it in her mouth.

"I think of all the bands I've ever been in, I have more fun with the Dream Police. Because I can be whatever....I get away with it. And still pick up girls; girls love assholes.

"I'm an asshole sometimes, but not all the time," Moe laughs.

"He's not an asshole," interjects Pat.

"I'm very blunt though, which doesn't mean I'm bad," says Moe.

"He's honest," adds Pat.

"I just come out and say it," says Moe. "If that wart on your chin looks bad, lady, I'm gonna tell you."

Muzak moans from the ceiling speakers while Moe and Pat chat casually about the viability of a Queen or a Rod Stewart tribute band. Then they drift to novelty bands: Spinal Tap, Lenny and the Squigtones, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs...

"A Monkees tribute would go over great," Moe says.

Moe and company met Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen one night when they were playing a gig up in Rockford, Cheap Trick's home turf.

"We showed up at the gig and the club owner goes 'Trick's going to be here tonight.' We get in there, [Nielsen's] whole family is there. They're all dressed in fucking checkerboard! A little kid running around in a checkerboard outfit.

"I felt like I was a little baby at Christmas. Who else can I ask for? Me...me next to Rick."

In a couple of weeks the Dream Police are scheduled to return to Rockford, where they'll meet the entire Cheap Trick band. Pat is a little apprehensive about it, having recently been misquoted in a magazine as saying he has Bun E. Carlos's drumming down pat. He fears the Cheap Trick stick man will stick it to him when they meet.

"Now the pressure's even more on me," says Pat. "Because now Bun E. thinks I said that I'm just as good as him, which I never said."

Moe says, "You should see the pictures we have of Rick Nielsen looking at Scott going, 'Holy shit, why does this fucker want to dress like me?' But he introduced us in Rockford. He goes, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this next band's got the best material ever written.' He introduces us from the DJ booth.

"What else can a tribute band ask for? He actually liked the band. Once he said he liked us, that's all I needed to hear. Our goal was done. That's a big honor. That's like Elvis going to a Rick Saucedo show and seeing Rick and going, 'Pretty good.'

"I will faint if Robin comes up and says it,' says Moe. "I'll lose it. Rick Nielsen goes, 'Listen, if my guys decide to quit, I'm taking you guys out on the road.'

"I want to do summer festivals: Rick's New Cheap Trick, the Buckinghams, Shadows of Knight."

Moe tells a story about a Dream Police gig at a now-defunct club in Palatine: a man claiming to be from Elektra Records wanted to sign the band, thinking the Cheap Trick staple "Surrender" was a Dream Police original.

Moe does not live by Cheap Trick alone. He's also got a band called Big Bang Rodeo, which plays all original material. (Moe describes it as "John Cougar meets the Everlys meets Cheap Trick.") And recently he's been working on demos for Chicago rock veteran Jim Peterik.

"When I met Jim Peterik, I almost fainted. Then when he called me up to sing, I hung up on him three times: 'Yeah, right, you're Jim Peterik.' Click."

Guitarist Scott Johnson walks into the restaurant and joins the conversation. The 33-year-old has a 70s AM radio voice even when he's not purposely impersonating an obnoxious DJ to crack up the rest of the band.

"Original bands don't make any money," Pat is saying. "They don't draw."

"That's why I say my alternative was to starve as an original artist or join a wedding band or be in this group," says Scott.

After supper, Pat and Moe drive over to Pat's apartment. While Pat showers, Moe plays a video of Rick Nielsen's guest appearance with the Dream Police in Rockford. He also borrows some of Pat's hairspray to harden his do. Then it's back to McGregor's, where the headliners are disgruntled to find that the opening act, Normandy (not a tribute band), is running a little behind.

It's well after the scheduled 11 PM performance time before the Dream Police finally kick into their set. Moe joins the band after the instruments have built up some steam.

"Hello, Chicago," he yells to a cheering crowd. "Voted best tribute band three years in a row, Chicago Rocker magazine, Moe's Dream Police!" They launch into "Stop This Game" from Cheap Trick's All Shook Up album.

Off to the side of the stage, several young women are sitting at a table.

"Cheap Trick was my first concert," says Robin, a 22-year-old secretary from Westmont. She'll see the real Trick again when they come around, she says, but until then, "these guys are great." She's seen them ten times.

For Janet, a 22-year-old from Elmhurst, it worked the other way around: "I didn't realize how much I liked Cheap Trick until I saw this band."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.

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