Home Town HeroesTim W. Brown
Cheap Trick has reached another milestone in its long history with the release of its latest album, Rockford. Its appearance is like the publication of a mature poet's new and selected poems, a cause for appreciation and celebration. Named after the band's hometown of Rockford, Illinois--which, incidentally, was where I was born and raised, so it's like a double celebration for me--Rockford recaptures Cheap Trick's signature sound melding hard rock and Beatlesesque harmonies. Like that elder poet releasing his selected poems, Cheap Trick peaked in popularity 25 years ago, maintained a constant flow of better or lesser work, and came back with a vengeance late in life. Listening to Rockford has prompted me to think about their early career and my proximity to it.
Cheap Trick yanks out every rabbit, scarf and dove from their bag of not-so-cheap musical tricks in Rockford. In "Welcome to the World," the album's strong opener, and the prototypical headbanger "Come On Come On Come On," singer Robin Zander displays his best Plant screech over Zeppelinesque riffs. Elsewhere, he delivers the lyrics more quietly, as in "O Claire," a creepy ballad in the tradition of 1978's "Heaven Tonight," or "If It Takes a Lifetime" wherein it sounds like he's French-kissing the mic. Zander slyly bends up and down the ends of phrases like George Harrison, reminding you that Cheap Trick's Beatles sound always echoed George's songs much more than John, Paul or Ringo's. Just listen to the vocal harmonies on "Dream Tonight": they're lifted straight out of George's cuts on the White Album.
"One More" opens with Bun E. Carlos' trademark punchy solo drum intro after which guitar whiz Rick Nielsen takes over. Nielsen plops down heavy riffs everywhere, chords modulating chromatically upward in key, another Cheap Trick trademark, sounding like the swamp monster climbing stairs. He particularly shows off his gutsy grunge in "Perfect Stranger." This song reminds you that Nielsen practically invented grunge--the style's heavy guitar sound coupled with snappy melodies started with him. Hence, the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and others' long-standing interest in the band. Actually, I once saw Corgan get up onstage and play guitar on a couple of tunes with Cheap Trick. He couldn't keep up.
Rockford, the City
"In Rockford there is always a lot of talk about negativism.... When people talk about negativism in Rockford, they are talking not about some new condition brought on by standard urban problems, but about some element in the city's character that evolved from history or geography or chance--an element that would be present in the best of times."--Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker, November 1976
Cheap Trick emerged in the mid-to-late 1970s at the height of post-Vietnam malaise. Ford, then Carter, two of the most feckless leaders in American history, were the presidents. There was an energy crisis that sent gas prices through the roof. The overall economy was in a shambles, whipped and beaten by recession and inflation. The Japanese were kicking our butts industrially and the Iranians were blackmailing our asses diplomatically. American industrial prowess had reached its nadir with the AMC Gremlin and Ford Pinto (which sometimes blew up when rear-ended).
No city in the country was affected more direly by the confluence of negative national and international events than Rockford. An insufficiently diverse industrial base, an absence of natural and cultural resources, and a lack of foresight on the part of local business leaders and government officials led to growing unemployment, rising crime and spreading disaffection. What the city needed was jobs, but what it had was an overabundance of waterbed stores, the original blueprint for deindustrialization, causing formerly well-paid factory workers to settle for lower paying service sector jobs. It got so bad in 1976-77 that the superintendent of schools canceled all athletics, because the school system had gone broke and voters turned down a referendum to raise school taxes, a situation commemorated by Calvin Trillin in his 1976 New Yorker article titled "Schools Without Money." I didn't play sports, but I was an already talented, future All-State tubist, so I was relieved when the cost-cutters, recognizing music had some academic value, fortunately spared band and orchestra.
In the sorry wake of the 70s, the city's population steadily declined during the 80s and 90s. If thousands of people voting with their feet were not enough, journalists regularly pointed to the undesirability of life in Rockford. Every year Rockford comes in near the bottom of Money Magazine's annual "Best Places to Live" feature. Examining areas like employment, schools, taxes, crime, environment, health care and recreation, the magazine rates the three hundred largest metropolitan areas in the United States. In 1996 Rockford beat out all competitors and finished in three-hundredth place, dead last, behind such earthly paradises as Gary, Indiana and Flint, Michigan.
In short, Rockford exuded destroyed confidence and low expectations in those days (and into the present). However, a handful of our number, the four members of Cheap Trick, rose from the wreckage of our city and made a big splash on the world musical stage. What's more, they stayed true to their Rockford roots and expressed the aspirations of those of us left behind living in a post-industrial wasteland. Their virtuosity appealed to our work ethic, and their ballsy sound flattered our tough self-image. Cheap Trick enabled the average Rockford resident to overcome two broken arms and reach around to give himself a pat on the back.
Tim W. Brown is the author of four novels, Deconstruction Acres, Left of the Loop, the recently completed Time Trek, and the yet-to-be-published Walking Man. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in over 200 publications, including The Blomsbury Review, Chelsea, and Chirron Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics' Circle.