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Trick Daddy Zander surrenders to the bay area beauty

Cheap Trick's Robin Zander is a rock 'n' roll legend. But for the Safety Harbor family man, the Tooth Fairy trumps fame every time.

By Sean Daly
Published November 10, 2006


ST. PETE BEACH

Robin-Sailor Zander, the 5-year-old daughter of one of rock's greatest frontmen, has major news to report. Twirling in the sand behind Harry's Beach Bar, the girl turns her face into the 5-o'clock sun and shows off a sizable gap in her grin.

"The Tooth Fairy brought me a whole dollar!" she giggles.

Behind her, sprawled on a hammock, is the Tooth Fairy himself. In lieu of wings and wand, he's dressed in a brown John Lennon T-shirt, baggy white pants and a hippie cap pulled over his trademark blond mane. He's also sporting a big, fat Cheshire Cat grin.

When you're both the Tooth Fairy and the lead singer of Cheap Trick, it's hard for life to get any better.

"Look at this place," says 53-year-old Robin Zander, whose iconic power-pop band headlines Ribfest tonight. "Look up at the sky. Look at the ocean."

Zander has lived in the Tampa Bay area for more than 15 years.

He loves it here.

Seriously: He loooves it.

"When I have time off, I go home," the rock star says in that instantly recognizable voice, the one that forever seared I Want You to Want Me and Surrender into your brainpan.

"For me, home is vacation."

Along with Robin-Sailor, Zander is joined today by his wife, Pam, who graduated from Pinellas Park High in 1981, and his 13-year-old son, Robin. (About her children's names, Pam jokes, "Any more kids and we'd have to do the George Foreman thing.")

The Zanders, who live in Safety Harbor, are blond, beautiful and as down-to-earth as, well, you and your family.

It's just that your dad probably isn't considered a god in Japan.

Instead of hiding behind the celebrity wall, the Tampa Bay area's benign version of the Osbournes embraced the community almost from the start. "If neighbors complain about me playing my music too loud, hell, I'll just invite 'em over!" Zander says with a laugh.

He shows up to as many benefit shows as he can. Father and son volunteer with the First Tee program, which gets at-risk kids off the streets and onto the golf links. The kids have attended both public and private school in the area. Robin Jr. just had a school dance - and didn't want his father cramping his style. "He doesn't want me around," laughs Zander, who also has two older children from a previous relationship. "But I gotta see what's happening. I gotta poke my head in the door once."

Next year, young Robin will attend high school, but his father isn't sure where he'll go. "Raising kids here is great, except for the schools," says Zander, the rare rock star who can expound at length on public vs. private education. "There are some good ones out there, you just have to look for them."

Zander comes to Harry's Beach Bar most Fridays, where the 9-to-5ers treat him not as a multiplatinum rock god but as just another thirsty pal.

"(Tampa Bay) is a different scene than living in a really big city," Zander says, sipping a Yacht drink, the rum specialty of the house. "There aren't as many people who are going to bother you."

Along with the Ribfest gig, Zander is supposed to be promoting new album Rockford, part of which was recorded in St. Petersburg's Big 3 studios. The album features Cheap Trick's trademark goodies: the soft melodies fortified by hard guitar, the heart-attack drums, Zander's utterly unique voice, which was born in Wisconsin but raised on Brit-rock.

Also, he should be talking about Cheap Trick's recent tour of Japan. In the late '70s, Japanese rock fans elevated Cheap Trick to superstar status. That's where Robin & Co. recorded 1979's At Budokan, one of the best and bestselling live albums of all time. "Japan was just beginning to be westernized," he says, summing up the phenomenon, "and Japanese fans liked the look of the band. They thought we were cool."

But Zander doesn't want to talk about the music today: "What is there left to talk about?" That's nothing against his band, and that's nothing against his love of music: "I like to say I play for free, but I get paid to travel. I'm in a rock band, you know? We like to mix it up."

It's just that Zander is home now. His kids are on the beach. His wife is on his arm. And what Zander really wants to talk about is . . . local sports?

"The sports in this city are unbelievable!" he says, losing his rock star cool and sounding like a weekend warrior. "That's part of the reason I love it here!"

Zander weighs in on all the local jocks. The Rays: "They need to get A-Rod and a couple of guys down here who can teach the young kids." The Lightning: "The whole league was so scared of us they skipped a year!" And finally: "I'm saving the Bucs for last 'cause that's my team. I sent a telegram to Gruden from Tokyo, congratulating him on the Cincinnati win. . . . The Bucs will get a wild card if not win the division." (In all fairness to Zander, this was before the Eagles miracle and the recent nosedive.)

Zander takes his family on the road when he can, but for the long trips, he goes it alone. "It's hard," he says. "Especially when you're so happy to be home."

And Pam admits there are times when she'd like her husband to give up the traveling once and for all. "Of course I would," she says, gently touching his arm.

But that's a talk for another time. Right now, the big discussion in the house is Halloween.

"We're gonna be the Buccaneer family," says Pam.

"We're all gonna be Jack Sparrow," says Zander.

As his father chats away, young Robin starts playing Wallhooky, a bar game in which you try to swing a small silver ring on a hook. Robin nails it almost instantly.

"Did you see that?!" his rock star father shouts. "He got it on his third time. There's a real art to that you know!"

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

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Robin Zander, lead singer of Cheap Trick

Born: Jan. 23, 1953, in Beloit, Wis.

Lives in: Safety Harbor

Band history: In 1973, Cheap Trick is formed in Rockford, Ill. A few years later, Zander plus drummer Bun E. Carlos, bassist Tom Petersson and guitarist Rick Nielsen (he of the multinecked guitars) become huge in Japan, recording multiplatinum live album At Budokan. Success in the United States follows for several years. In 1988, Cheap Trick has a career resurgence with Top 10 hit The Flame.

Career highlights: With their hummable melodies and hammering guitars (heard on such hits as Surrender and Dream Police), Cheap Trick's soft-then-loud style of power pop influenced such bands as Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Fountains of Wayne. Zander's singing style, a unique blend of Brit-rock crooning and classic-rock shouting heard on I Want You to Want Me and If You Want My Love , has been copied by such artists as Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan.

Sean Daly, Times pop music critic

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CATCH THE BAND

Ribfest

Cheap Trick plays at 8:45 p.m. today in Vinoy Park, downtown St. Petersburg Fifth Avenue NE on North Shore Drive. $6 advance, $10 at the gate, 12 and younger free. (727) 528-3828.