© 2023 WNIJ and WNIU
Northern Public Radio
801 N 1st St.
DeKalb, IL 60115
Northern Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Rick's Picks: Cheap Trick guitarist's life on display in Rockford

A new exhibit opened at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford this weekend. And this time, it isn’t dinosaur bones attracting huge crowds: it’s an eccentric musician and the things he has collected during his half-century in rock.

Rick Nielsen is the subject of “Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music.” The Rockford native is known the world over as guitarist and songwriter for Cheap Trick: the guy who wrote “Dream Police” and “I Want You to Want Me.” The guy who whips an endless supply of guitar picks into audiences. The guy with the amazing guitar collection who has a penchant for checkerboard, the one who grew up in his parents’ music store and still lives in his hometown.

Standing in front of his car and checkerboard lawn tractor in the middle of the meticulously-curated exhibit, Nielsen says he’s glad all this stuff isn’t at his house anymore…so is his wife.  Quite likely Rockford’s most famous resident, Nielsen has a knack for becoming the center of attention wherever he goes while projecting that self-effacing Midwestern vibe.

“I didn’t ask for this. I probably shouldn’t have volunteered. But it’s an honor to see this stuff here. It’s like This is Your Life: There used to be a TV show and I expect Ralph Edwards to be here tonight. Then my first grade teacher will come back from the grave. Yeah, it’ll be great!”

Nielsen isn’t the only one who feels a little strange standing knee-deep in his own history at Burpee: his son Miles Nielsen is a songwriter, singer, and musician. His band played at opening events at the exhibit.

“It’s extremely weird to see things displayed in the museum that you took for granted laying around the house. Things you’d like just kind of walk on as a kid, or step on, or throw against the wall. And you’re like whoa, that was actually the guitar he used to write Dream Police? I didn’t know that!”

Miles Nielsen says there’s an emotional side to the exhibit, too. His kids, Rick’s grandchildren, have been through the museum. They don’t know anything about Cheap Trick of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but they DO know the man they call “Grumpy.” Miles says it’s great for them to see how everyone else looks at their Grumpy.

Connecting to the music and personality of Rick Nielsen is just the kind of experience Jay Graham wants everyone to have when they tour Rick’s Picks. Graham is a partner and co-creative director at Graham Spencer, which designed the exhibit. It’s also a labor of love for Graham: he and Rick Nielsen have been close friends for decades. Graham says the exhibit is going to keep changing during its eight-month run in Rockford: that includes Graham’s favorite part, a short documentary where other music icons talk about their admiration for Nielsen while holding one of his most famous guitars: the Hamer Checkerboard Standard.

“It’s like a holy grail! Their faces just light up when they see it. You will see that in the video. People are really moved by Rick’s and Cheap Trick’s music.”

The exhibit ranges from the professional triumphs, like the wall of gold and platinum records Cheap Trick earned, to the very personal, such as a surprisingly-lyrical prayer Rick penciled when he was a child. Visitors can actually rummage through Nielsen’s drawers: many display cases have pull-out treasures hidden below; drawers full of shoes, hats, costumes, and family photos. Walls are covered with posters and art work chronicling Cheap Trick’s history, as well as the bands Rockford fans may remember Nielsen playing in in the 60s.  Fans like Blackhawk Bank president Rick Bastian, who says the exhibit was better than anything he could have imagined.        

John Groh seemed a little overwhelmed by the 3,000 artifacts and hundreds of people in attendance. He’s the president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Groh says tens of thousands of people will come to Rockford to see the exhibit before it closes April 10th. After that, the exhibit is expected to hit the road, with proceeds benefiting Burpee Museum of Natural History. There’s nothing official yet, but there’s interest from other U.S. museums, as well as Japan, where Cheap Trick was once known as The American Beatles. Groh says the city of Rockford and the Convention and Visitors Bureau stands ready to help.

They aren’t the only groups contributing to Rick’s Picks. The state of Illinois put up a $250,000 grant. Emily Monk is the chief Operating Officer of the Illinois department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Tourism falls under her department. Monk says she had never been to Rockford before Friday night’s opening reception…and she likes it. She says the exhibit has a great “cool factor”: if Illinois can be known for having “cool rock stars who aren’t from Chicago, that’s a bonus.”

“Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music” will continue to grow and change during its eight month stay in Rockford. Organizers say to watch for a Rick Nielsen and Friends concert in January at the Coronado Theatre, packed with to-be-announced special guests. Nielsen isn’t afraid to drop names: he says if the time is right and schedules allow, he could get Dave Grohl, "some guys from Aerosmith," Billy Corgan, Todd Rundgren, and Slash.

Cheap Trick is on the road again this week, with a stop at the Illinois State Fair. They’ve also been touring with Aerosmith this summer.

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.