Cities in Rock 3: Rockford

Posted on July 19, 2013 by

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I spent a recent Sunday afternoon denying the rowdy street festival happening three floors down, until I heard this drummer warming up on the street corner, emulating staccato jazz runs with accented snare hits and choked cymbals. Whoever was on the kit had his shit together. I took my coffee and went to check this guy out.

Quiet Mark, my neighbor, was sitting on the front stoop. He’s a decent fellow, but off in a way that makes you check your locks again before bed. I said “hi.” He said nothing. I stood next to him anyway. The street was a deluge of graphic tees, plastic beer cups, strollers, and corndogs.

QM finally looked up and said: “Drummer knows his stuff, huh?” I agreed and told him that’s why I’d come down.

“That band from your hometown, what’s it?”

“Cheap Trick.”

“Yeah. That’s a band with great drums, too.” He was referring to Bun E. Carlos, Cheap Trick’s drummer maybe-not-so-but-possibly-extraordinaire.

Mark’s comment may come off as serendipitous, but it’s not. When anyone finds out you’re from Rockford, Illinois, you’ll get two things: 1) “Oh my God, I’m sorry” and 2) “Isn’t that one band, you know, the one who sings that song that goes like, ‘I want you to want me,’ from there?” Glib or not, Mark’s reference brought me back to Rockford in the early aughts when I knew at least three girls at the Junior High who claimed Bun E. was their grandpa. I think I believed the first girl because that was the first time I’d heard it. The second, I flat-out disbelieved, and the third I half-believed, only because there were so many excited tweens that backed her story. Cheap Trick had some strange celebrity even with kids growing up decades too late, at least in the 815 area code.

Rockford is known as the 815, Forest City, Screw City (referring to the fasteners we make and not the availability of prostitutes, although, as it happens, there are plenty of those, too) and the home of Cheap Trick. In 2006, the city put the artwork from the band’s latest release, Rockford, on the city sticker, forcing vehicle owners not only to pay the fifteen bucks for a 2”x 2” eyesore at the bottom corner of their windshields, but also to pay minute to minute homage to the power-pop quartet. If you live in Rockford, Cheap Trick is a part of your life, whether you like it or not.

In tenth grade, I tagged along with some friends that weren’t really friends but just people I went to school with, and we ended up at a house with a windy-ass driveway nestled back in an old neighborhood where it was hard to tell where woods ended and yard began. I didn’t know the girl, Scarlett, who we were picking up or what we were going to do once we met her. At best, I figured I’d get to impress the new girl with stories of my band at the time – a metal outfit unfortunately named The Day Death Stood Still. At worst, we’d get stoned.

It was dark. I couldn’t see her face when she opened one of the heavy double doors – to be honest I don’t remember her much now; but I just looked her up and the platinum blonde porn star-looking gal who pops up on Google doesn’t square with any recollection I have. One of the guys asked to see the studio. The girl and two other guys I rode with wanted to see it, too. Following Scarlett down the track-lit hall, I was expecting to see a studio, a lot like the “studio” I had in my parent’s basement, which was a beat-to-shit drum kit and a couple of secondhand amps. I asked Scarlett whose studio it was, and she said it was her dad’s. This was my chance. If I could get my hands on her old man’s lame-ass whatever-the-fuck guitar, and show off the metal chops I practiced in my parents’ basement everyday, that would be it. I’d have her for sure. But when Scarlett swung open the door to the studio and I saw all the soundproofing foam and the checkered Hamer XT hanging from the wall, I knew exactly where we were. Somehow I missed the memo that we were going to pick up Scarlett Nielsen, daughter of Rick Nielsen, guitarist of Cheap Trick. What she was doing with us was probably the equivalent of what most kids do when they show their friends their dad’s gun collection or his pile of Playboys in the back of a closet. There was no chance of impressing her.

But I didn’t care that I was in Rick Nielson’s house. He didn’t play metal and that made him about as interesting as Vacation Bible School. Plus, I saw Rick Nielsen around town fairly often; mostly at this local Japanese grill called JMK Nippon – a Benihana mimic. Nielsen never waited for a table. He always went straight back to a private dining area that people like myself only got to imagine while we listened to soulless smooth jazz and waited thirty minutes longer than the hostess said we’d have to.

I heard, you know, in the way that everyone heard that Mountain Dew lowers your sperm count, that the Teppanyaki chefs saved all the shrimp tails throughout the evening for Nielsen.

When the economy tanked in 2008, there was a wimpy push to support Rockford businesses, and if you were curious which restaurants had Cheap Trick’s blessing in the bleak dawn of recession, you didn’t have to look much further than the wall décor. Nielsen donated autographed (brand new, no battle damage) guitars to his favorite eateries. But that wasn’t anything new. At some point during the Clinton administration, Nielsen hung a Hamer Special (the Les Paul Special Double Cutaway clone) with the body painted as a Swedish Flag by the front register of a local breakfast joint called the Stockholm Inn. It’s there today. You can see dads, as they hand the blue-aproned cashier the breakfast ticket, staring at or into the six-string as if it were some metaphysical gateway to simpler times. There was talk of Nielsen opening a twenty-five million dollar restaurant and hotel combo on I-90 meant as a museum for his retired axes, but that venture went the way of the Whole Foods that never quite made it to Rockford.

photo[Hamer XT in the basement of Anderson Japanese Gardens]

I was in eighth grade when I saw the Nielsens at Stockholm Inn, eating in a private French-doored off room which had the effect of a display case, the kind where your aunt keeps tchotchkes. I was waiting in line to pay the bill, deliberating the possibility of a dine-and-dash, when Rick’s two-foot braided goatee, black ball cap, black suit coat, and reflective black sunglasses walked by, and I had this intense moment of reverence and yearning. That sounds pretty fucking overwrought, but that’s how it was (ever notice the strange impulse to deny our uncontrollable peaks of sentimentality?). It wasn’t that I finally “got it” and was seeing Cheap Trick for the Top 40 monoliths they were, but I was swooning after an aesthetic. Rick Nielsen was cool incarnate.

But, really, the Cheap Trick aesthetic is complicated. I have neglected Robin Zander and Tom Petersson because they aren’t Rockford. Both of them got the hell out after the royalties from Dream Police. Zander lives in Tampa with an ex-porn star and Petersson went off the grid. These two composed the hunky/glam half of the Cheap Trick aesthetic, while Nielsen and Carlos were the brains behind the operation. Early photos of the band depict an aporia: Nielsen sports a burgundy cardigan and bowtie, Carlos, some dorky round spectacles, and Zander and Petersson have their teased-out hair and shirts open and revealing muscular chests. It looks like the hunky half will at any moment steal Rick and Bun E.’s milk money or at least give ‘em a wedgie.

From a marketing standpoint this dynamic had to have been interesting, and by interesting I mean challenging. Zander and Petersson appealed to the mainstream listeners – particularly, young girls who would buy posters and pick which member of the band they were going to marry. And then Nielsen and Carlos had a weird, not-so-cool, appeal. Rock Nerds, if you will. And the interesting part was that the not-so-cool was just as cool as the glam thing happening at the other end.

Outside my apartment, watching the jazzers wind down, Quiet Mark said something to the effect that he knew Cheap Trick was a timeless band because he’d heard the song “Surrender” on a Universal Studios TV commercial. I don’t know, but Cheap Trick is at least timeless enough to convince girls to fabricate stories about Bun E. Carlos being their grandpa. And hell, timeless enough that the presence of Rick Nielsen at a restaurant was enough to throw me into a fugue of pining. But why? For the same reason anyone from Rockford still gives a shit, which is no reason at all.