By Tom Beaujour
The financial rewards of a 40-year career as the guitarist and primary songwriter in Cheap Trick afford Rick Nielsen the means to purchase pretty much any daily driver he desires. But the man responsible for penning such classic rock staples as “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” cruises around his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, in a tiny black Smart car, albeit one with a custom-made Telecaster-shaped rearview mirror and custom chrome doorsills engraved with the names of his wife, children, and grandchildren.
The Smart car’s vanity plates, which read “SHAGOFN,” are also a point of pride. “Shag often!” the 65-year-old guitarist exclaims with his trademark guffaw. “Although a senator once asked me what it stood for and I told him it was, ‘Songwriting Has Always Given Opportunities For Nielsen. ’ ”
As he drives toward the storage facility where Cheap Trick keep much of their old gear, Nielsen pilots the tiny car around town with aplomb, and given that he has lived in Rockford since he was eight years old, he could probably do so in his sleep. As we zip down the road, the guitarist points over a dilapidated fence to a grey house where he lived with his parents when he was a teenager.
The dwelling is now covered with vines and in much need of repair, but the garage where Cheap Trick practiced in the early Seventies, on the rare occasions that they weren’t out on the road, is still visible through the overgrowth. “By the time Cheap Trick signed with Epic in ’76, we were doing great,” Nielsen says. “We’d built up a reputation. One of our last shows before we got our deal was with Tom Petty opening for us at a place called Beginnings in Schaumberg. It was kind of a big club, and I think we made $10,000 that night. It was like, Wow. And then we got the record deal and we went back to $250 a night!”
Nielsen’s father, who was a singer of devotional music and opera, moved the family from Chicago to nearby Rockford in 1956 to take over a music store called American Beauty Music. “My uncle, George Nielsen, who was one of the guys who created Muzak, was here in town he talked my dad into going into retail,” Nielsen recalls. “So we moved out here in 1956 and we lived at a place called the Flying Saucer Motel.” Nielsen, who was an only child, spent much of his time helping out at the store. “Since both of my parents were working, I would walk to the store after school. It was feast or famine and long, long hours, and it made me realize that being in retail is not the greatest thing on earth,” he says. “But I just liked the whole thing. I used to wait on people and spy on girls, because they used to have a listening kiosk for 45s, and I’d catch them putting records in their tops. I’d have to go be the little weasel checking them out!”
When the young Nielsen wasn’t at the store with his father, he was often travelling with him to singing gigs. “My father was a choir director and he sang at churches and did concerts,” Nielsen says. “His group was called the Serenaders: two tenors, a bass and¬ a baritone, and a piano player. It wasn’t, like, all religious music, but it wasn’t pop music—it was called “secular music”—and they toured all over the country. By the time I was about 12 or 14, or something like that, I’d been to 48 states and Mexico.” Often, Nielsen’s father, who had a pilot’s license, would fly the group to engagements in a leased aircraft. “He’d go on tour and he’d fly to Fargo, then he’d fly to Seattle. He’d go as far as he needed to. Back then, there wasn’t GPS or anything like that, and radar was called Omni. You’d go towards a point and follow a beep beep, beep, beep,” he says. “If there was an extra seat, sometimes I got to go. I liked to get out.”
The road—or the air—probably seemed a much better place to be than school, where the young Nielsen struggled to fit in. “If I liked the teacher, I did real good, but if I thought I was smarter than the teacher, I couldn’t handle it,” he says. “So the good teachers liked me and the bad teachers didn’t. Back in 7th grade, I was first chair in band on both drums and flute. And then one day I told the band director, ‘You are an incompetent, drunken fool who doesn’t deserve to teach music to me or anyone else. ‘I was thrown out of the Rockford school system music program for life!”
For the rest of this story, plus Nieslen guitar pics, archival photos and another Nielsen feature, check out the August/September 2012 issue of Guitar Aficianado, which is available now at our online store!