Their Town: Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen rocks Rockford, Ill.

May 26, 2012

When Rick Nielsen talks about his home town in northern Illinois, you might expect him to riff on one of his rock band’s hits.

Maybe “I want you to want Rockford.” Or “Surrender, surrender . . . to Rockford.” The Cheap Trick guitarist and songwriter could even economize and simply invoke the group’s 2006 album, “Rockford.”

But instead, over lunch downtown, Rick went with Sinatra.

“If you can make it in Rockford,” he said, “you can make it anywhere.”

All together now: “Rock-ferd, Rock-ferd.”


(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

The musician has lived in the state’s third-largest city on and off — but more on than off — for most of his 63 years and 16 albums. He once tried to leave, attempting to emigrate to Europe in the early 1970s to “drink beer and play music.” But he ended up back where he started, in the birthplace of the Rockford red-heel sock, the garage door remote and the band that has sold more than 20 million records since 1974.

“I could’ve gone anywhere; I could’ve moved to Hollywood,” said the father of four, whose wife is a local girl. “But I stayed here.”

Rick is a booster of the mid-1800s river settlement and 20th-century industrial heavyweight. He appears in YouTube tourism videos that parody the Wisconsin state senators who hid out in the Best Western Clock Tower Resort last year. His Rick’s Picks, a suggested two-day tour of the town, fills up four pages in the official visitors guide. And his guitars, part of a 2,000-strong collection, pop up in the most surprising places, such as a public Japanese garden, a Swedish restaurant and the Burpee Museum of Natural History, which will unveil the temporary exhibit “Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music” on Aug. 11.

But the longtime resident is also a realist (Rockford has cropped up on many worst-of lists) and a candid raconteur, perfect city-guide traits.

“This is an authentic place,” he said. “It’s got a lot of warts, but it’s real.” (The city’s slogan: “Real. Original.”)

In April, Rick and his 35-year-old son, Miles, also a musician, gave me a VIP, total-access tour of Rockford. With Rick, I would look back at the Midwestern town that witnessed the rise of an American rock classic. With Miles, I would gaze forward, at the city’s potential and possibilities.

Rockford differs from other towns with celebrity sons and daughters. Many destinations (see “Hoboken, Frank Sinatra”) paper their streets, signs and restaurant menus with claims that so-and-so ate, drank, slept, passed out here. By comparison, Rockford not only lacks historical plaques denoting venues that hosted the band; in some cases, the city has even bulldozed the buildings. Or, even more offensively, transformed them into easy-listening establishments.

“I know stuff from around here that’s no longer here,” said Rick. “Now everything has a fern bar.”

We started the tour inside the Irish Rose Saloon, peering out a large picture window that framed Rick’s past. With his bejeweled hand, he directed my gaze to the old Faust Hotel, in whose ballroom the scrappy upstart band performed, and to the Midway Theatre, the early 19th-century movie house that appeared in the band’s 1997 video for “Say Goodbye.” The Faust, the city’s tallest building, now houses seniors; the Midway is shuttered.

Out of sight but still on his mind were his father’s music store, where young Rick noodled around on guitar, and Lincoln Middle School, which threw him out of band for, as he told me, calling the teacher a “drunken, incompetent fool.” He also reflected on Rock Valley College, which he attended in 1969 and “honorarily” graduated from seven years ago.

“I did what I believed in,” he said. “It got me in trouble, but it also got me a job.”

It also earned the band its own holiday: In 2007, the Illinois legislature declared April 1 Cheap Trick Day. No joke.

“Cheap Trick and Rockford have always been synonymous,” said Mayor Larry Morrissey, who joined us for a cup of coffee. “It’s always been an awesome point of pride to say that we are the home of Cheap Trick.”

Rockford did, of course, have other alternatives for special holidays: Susan Saint James, Aidan Quinn and the sock monkey, for instance. But honestly, where are they now and what have they done lately? (For the what, Cheap Trick can reply: touring, including a concert in the Washington area July 3.)

Around town, Rick is an attention magnet, and not just because of his rocker status. Although most Rockfordians wear the everyman uniform of jeans, T-shirt and a pop of flannel, Rick embraces wacky-chic. For our outing on a brisk yet sunny day, he wore a black button-down shirt with poker card appliques, a skinny polka-dot scarf and slipper-style shoes that looked like Nordic mittens for the feet. He scoots around town in a Smart Car personalized with a rearview mirror shaped like a guitar neck and a giant guitar pick floor mat. His vanity plate is a cheeky nod to apres-concert antics (not suitable for children’s imaginations).

After lunch, we tucked our bodies into his toy car for the short drive to the Coronado Performing Arts Center. We drove past the Office, a gay bar dark at this hour, and the site of the razed State Theater, a cinema dating from 1932. We passed buildings with art deco embellishments and others as bland as a manila envelope. Luckily, a beautification project will soon add a splash of Crayola colors to the area, including musical notes painted along a bridge over the Rock River.

The Coronado, a glitzy movie palace built in 1927, closed for 18 months in 1999 to receive an $18.5 million facelift. The theater, now fully touched up, resembles a wanderluster’s fantasy, with dragon figures, Spanish castles, Italian and French villas and a starry, starry sky.

“I love this place,” said Rick as he took center stage with his electric guitar. “It’s too nice for me to have gone on stage.”

Cheap Trick has performed at the Coronado numerous times, adding its name to an impressive pantheon that includes Louis Armstrong, Liberace, Bob Hope and Gypsy Rose Lee, who shocked the locals with an Easter Sunday striptease. A major supporter of the renovation, Rick received his own special throne, an aisle seat covered in his signature black-and-white checkerboard pattern. He chose a spot in the nosebleed section, where he could misbehave without notice.

Rick ended the afternoon with a serenade. Sitting among an imaginary audience, he strummed a few chords of “I Want You to Want Me.” Then he packed up his gear, folded his tall frame into his circus car and puttered home.

“The Rockford my dad grew up with is definitely gone,” Miles said at the start of the second half of my excursion. Instead of visiting ghosts and skeletons, Nielsen fils would focus on areas springing to life, such as the 500 block of East State Street in the River District.

“A lot of great things have happened in the downtown area,” he said, “but now it’s the east side.”

The Rock River acts as the town’s great divider, distributing appealing attractions on both shores. The western portion touts the Discovery Center Museum, Davis Park, the Rockford Art Museum, the Ethnic Heritage Museum and the Burpee Museum. The east side crows about the 14-acre Anderson Japanese Gardens, the Midway Village Museum and the Laurent House, the only handicapped-accessible house that Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed. (The Laurent House Foundation will open the building to the public next spring.) Jane, the juvenile T. rex discovered on a 2001 Burpee expedition in Montana, lives on the left bank; a sock monkey modeled after Rick resides on the right bank. The live music venues, however, don’t favor either side.

“No one comes to Rockford to say, ‘I’m going to make it in music,’ ” said Miles, who performs locally and nationally. “You have to create the scene.”

At Octane, a west side cafe that segues into a hair salon en route to the bathroom, Miles expounded on the venue’s different performance spaces: Kryptonite, “rowdy drunk crowd”; Mary’s, “hardcore music fans”; and the Adriatic, where he leads a Tuesday night songwriters’ circle and former Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos and the Monday Night Band play on the obvious evening.

Before leaving, we ventured into Octane’s third personality, an ad hoc gallery. Near a table of patrons, bare bulbs on wires hung despondently against a blank wall. Illumination as art.

“He put in our alarm system,” Miles said of the artist, Jeremy Klonicki.

Heading east, we strolled by the tangerine orange BMO Harris Bank Center, the arena of the IceHogs, the hockey farm team of the Chicago Blackhawks, as well as acts that can fill 10,000 seats or thereabout.

On the river, I picked up a whiff of mischievous teen spirit. We peered over a barrier blocking access to Davis Park, an outdoor performance and picnic space on the water. Spotting a police car in the field, we retreated back to responsible adulthood.

When we finally reached Carlyle Brewingin the late afternoon, the bar was already crowded with beer aficionados. The beers on tap were tongue twisters: Humulus Lupulus IPA and Hophoria Double, for instance. We ordered a pint and settled into an adjacent room that was quiet and empty for about, oh, three minutes.

A group of older men invaded. They set down their glasses and fired up the shuffleboard table. We left before the game turned unruly.

For 25 years, Rick’s father, Ralph, ate at the Stockholm Inn. The tradition continues.

At breakfast the next morning, Rick and his two sons, Miles and Daxx, 31, gathered around a large circular table at the arena-size restaurant (12,000 folks dine here a week, or 8 percent of the population of about 150,000). I sat on Rick’s right, trying to guess what he’d order.

The eatery opened in 1968, paying tribute to the area’s Swedish immigrant population. A gift shop off the main dining room sells Scandinavian crafts and sundries (plus sock monkeys), and the kitchen prepares Swedish pancakes all day long. (And that’s exactly what he ordered.)

In 2002, the Lingonberry Group took ownership; Rick is one of the investors. A guitar decorated with the Swedish flag hangs near the cash register. A small plaque in Swedish accompanies the instrument. The only words I could decipher were “Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen” and the date of Dec. 22, 2002. There was also mention of King (“Konung”) Carl Gustav XVI.

A young waitress delivered our meals, and Rick pecked at his short stack like a baby sparrow. The rest of the crew attacked their omelettes, corned beef hash and slices of toast as thick as marble slabs.

Rick made a move to leave while I was deep in my well of oatmeal. He asked for the check, even though he was Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Despite his prestige, he had a bill to pay. After settling the tab, he bade us farewell and walked alone through the parking lot to his car.

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