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.
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.”
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.