Rock ‘n’ Rockford

Why in the world is Cheap Trick still putting out CDs? Music, the band says, is what it does best.

Photography: Abel Berumen

Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos (top) and Rick Nielsen
ham it up in a Rockford cornfield.

Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos start their days like many Rockford residents. Nielsen sips a nonfat cappuccino at a local coffee shop, and Carlos mall-walks with a group of fellow baby boomers. Then they go to their day jobs as the lead guitarist and drummer, respectively, of Cheap Trick, one of the most resilient rock bands ever to come out of northern Illinois.

Since its 1977 début album, Cheap Trick has had career highs (the smash concert album At Budokan, the 1988 comeback Lap of Luxury) and lows (most of the 1990s). Now, more than three decades after it got its start playing bars in Rockford and southern Wisconsin, the band has paid tribute to its hometown in a characteristically idiosyncratic way: by naming its new CD (out June 6th) Rockford. “If you can make it in Rockford, you can make it anywhere,” says Nielsen.

The record marks yet another comeback attempt from a doggedly perseverant band that has, over the years, become the John Travolta of rock ‘n’ roll.

After money-losing tours, and bankruptcy hitting its record company seven weeks after the release of its 1997 self-titled CD, the band has fired its handlers in recent years and started managing itself. Along the way, it has found a renewed sense of purpose. “What do we do best? Well, we’re Cheap Trick. We make records,” says Carlos.

The bustling sounds on Rockford don’t vary much from the combo of sweet melodies and explosive guitars that Cheap Trick perfected long ago (which inspired such fans as Kurt Cobain). But there’s an unmistakable shift in the band’s outlook that is evident in the opening track, “Welcome to the World,” which Nielsen, 57, wrote after the birth of his first granddaughter. To get back on the radio, Cheap Trick co-wrote its single “Perfect Stranger” with Linda Perry, who has collaborated on hit songs with Christina Aguilera and Pink.

Cheap Trick’s other members moved from Rockford long ago: lead singer and rhythm guitarist Robin Zander lives in central Florida, and bassist Tom Petersson is in Nashville, Tennessee. But Nielsen and Carlos still hang around Rockford when the band’s not on tour (this summer, their Midwest dates include Milwaukee’s Summerfest on July 7th and Ravinia on September 3rd). Nielsen spends his days writing songs in his home recording studio and managing his collection of 300 guitars, which he keeps in three separate warehouses. (He estimates he has owned 2,000 instruments over the years, selling some of them to customers such as Jeff Beck.) Carlos, who practices every day, keeps 40 drum kits and 200 snares at the home he shares with his wife, Ellen. The 54-year-old spends his nights playing bumper pool with buddies at a local watering hole, where the bartender shoos away pesky fans. “In L.A. they’d be selling a seat next to you in the bar, and here they’re saying, ‘Never heard of him,’” Carlos says.

In fact, Nielsen and Carlos have become unlikely city fathers, raising money to renovate a historic theatre, making contributions to a local library and church, and helping the election campaign of the city’s mayor. The band even recently received keys to the city. “Twenty-five years ago they weren’t sure about us,” Carlos says. “But these days, we get along great with the town.”

 

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