Episide 37: Rick Nielsen / Cheap Trick
If Rick Nielsen weren’t one of rock and roll’s most colorful and accomplished characters in real life, there’s no way to have dreamed him up. A homemade cartoon figure who is also a down-to-earth family man. A superlative guitarist who makes it look like a goof onstage. An inveterate joker whose best-known song is a sincere request for love. You think it’s all an image, a pose? Spend a few minutes with the man and you’ll find out just how wrong you are.
After more than four decades in the spotlight, Rick Nielsen’s accomplishments and enormous guitar collection could fill – in fact, have filled – a museum, and he’s still going strong. He has all the accolades of rock stardom, as well as a songbook that is deeply ingrained in the American rock psyche and the respect and admiration of fans and A-list musicians alike. He also has the infectious enthusiasm of a five-year-old hyped on chocolate bars. As a prescient but sloppy first-grade teacher wrote on his report card, “He doesn’t seem to know when too keep quiet.”
Rick Nielsen makes the human connection as well as anyone in rock. He knows everybody, remembers nearly everything and still has a fan's enthusiasm for the music he loves.
In Rockford, Illinois (pop. 150,000), Rick – who grew up there in his parents’ music store -- is less global rock icon than hometown king, a celebrity who is known from New York to Japan but always returns to the roost. His unique fashion sense makes him as inconspicuous as a prison escapee, but his neighbors take it in stride. In person, he's just a regular guy ... a regular guy who has traveled the world his entire life, has a cellarful of gold and platinum albums and owns enough guitars to equip a small army. (And where else would he come from but a city that notes, on its official website, “Much to Rockford’s chagrin, it was once known as the ‘Screw Capital of the World’ because of the billions of screws, bolts and fasteners its factories produced for the manufacturers of the world.”)
This is a man who values his brand enough to bet his eye teeth on it – get close enough, and Rick will gladly show off the checkerboard crowns that now shame the ordinary pearly whites in his mouth. The Don Juan of guitars thoroughly embraces his obsessions. (And, no, the tastefully appointed and empty-nest house he shares with his charming wife Karen, who married him before Cheap Trick came into being, doesn’t follow the motif.)
But expectations can be hard to shake. For many, Rick Nielsen will eternally be the character he invented -- the smirking smart-aleck with the flipped-up baseball cap and the upraised thumbs. He adds a caricature of that look to his autograph, has it emblazoned on the guitar picks he hurls at audiences by the fistload and made it the basis of his unique “Uncle Dick” twin-neck Hamer guitar. No one can argue that he hasn’t earned his typecasting. But don’t for an instant imagine that it’s all fun and games, or that it’s easy to make your way in the world as a working musician. Digging ditches? Of course not, it’s not backbreaking work like that (although his five-neck guitar is a mighty heavy burden to shoulder), but keeping a career -- not to mention a marriage, a family and a band -- together for decades is serious business. For all Rick’s clowning on stage, this exceedingly skilled guitarist effortlessly plays challenging riffs without missing a note.
Making it look easy invites underestimation, and making fun of yourself while you’re acting nonchalant reinforces that impression. Rick makes it look easy. But no one can accomplish as much as he has without taking his responsibilities seriously. In addition to all things Cheap Trick, there’s his Chicago pizzeria/brewery Piece, The Stockholm Inn in Rockford, charity work, business investments, guitar and footwear design and who knows what else -- not to mention a songwriting catalogue that includes some all-time rock and roll classics. Recording with John Lennon, performing the entirety of Sgt. Pepper’s live (a feat that album’s creators never even envisioned) or amassing one of the world’s greatest collection of electric guitars is just the sort of applied effort that is bred into the Midwestern work ethic. If you think he’s fooling around, well, he is, and he’s not.
Rick Nielsen was born into a life of music. Not to the sound of rock and roll -- he had to find that on his own. But the rest of it was his birthright: the travel, the commitment, the devotion to entertaining people with wit and humor. His 1948 birth announcement reads “Presenting Opus Number One by Ralph and Marilyn Nielsen. This is the first work on which these two composers have collaborated, and they have chosen to call it Richard Alan Nielsen.” Now he’s known as “Grumpy” to his grandchildren. Some things never change.
Since Cheap Trick was launched in 1974 the band’s achievements have mounted up to the sky: more than 20 million albums sold, eight Top 40 singles, more than 40 gold and platinum awards. They’ve played in excess of 5,000 shows, in every great (and not so great) concert hall in the world. They’ve been profiled in just about any publication you care to name and have performed on every TV show that books bands. Their songs rock dozens of film soundtracks and the finest karaoke bars in Japan. And with no end in sight, the story continues to be written.
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