Home Town HeroesTim W. Brown
"Too many people want to save the world. / Another's problem is a boy or girl. / Some say the weekend is the only world. / It's such a strange strain on you."--"Downed" Lyrics
Although anachronistic in ways of setting and clothing as the 70s TV sitcom about the 50s, Happy Days, the 00s sitcom about the 70s, That 70s Show, in a loose sense depicted the lives of Rockford youth during Cheap Trick's late 70s reign. Essentially, we hung out and got high in the basement--or in the forest preserve or next to train tracks or at the extreme back of parking lots--stumbled into embarrassing predicaments, fumbled around with teen love, and evaded the notice of our dense overworked parents. The show's Wisconsin locale resonates most. Located 13 miles from the Wisconsin border, Rockford once toyed in the 1800s with seceding from Illinois and joining its northern neighbor. Given Rockford's physical and cultural proximity to the Badger State, it was natural that the band recorded the show's theme song, "In the Street," which goes, "Hanging out down the street. / The same old thing we did last week. / ... / Mom and Dad live upstairs. / The music's loud, so we don't care."
The Onion's stoner columnist Jim Anchower is from Rockford, and, though a bigger caricature than That 70s Show's Eric Forman or Michael Kelso, he is more typical of the city than they. Tooling around town in a beater car that was always breaking down and dedicating mucho time and effort to scoring and smoking pot were classic Rockford pastimes. My contemporaries escaped Vietnam by a couple of years, and there was little left to engage them in the shell-shocked, war-hungover environment of the time, so they checked out politically and culturally, becoming self-interested and self-indulgent noncitizens. Later, many of our number were attracted back to politics by a dopehead of another sort, Ronald Reagan, and through this choice lessened their economic prospects even further as Reagan promoted free-market capitalism rather than what Rockford required for its survival, which was protectionism.
Growing up, I knew thirty or forty guys like Anchower, well-meaning screw-ups whose limited imagination and skill set allowed them barely to tread water in life driving delivery vans and stocking the growing number of big box stores along East State Street. None of them was worried about whether he'd be admitted to Harvard or, his fallback school, Duke; usually, the decision for Rockford youth with family connections boiled down to either working at Chrysler or Hamilton-Sundstrand. None looked forward to much more in life than the upcoming weekend and how wasted he'd get.
A lapsed reformed alcoholic short-haul trucker, my cousin Greg typifies them. The couple of times he's run into Bun E. Carlos, Cheap Trick's drummer, around Rockford, he's insisted on calling him "Brad," Carlos' given first name, expressly to annoy him. I'm not sure what he accomplished other than to bring himself up briefly to Carlos' status by demonstrating that they shared a common Rockford heritage. It's a common leveling tactic Rockforders use: enter every conversation with a chip on your shoulder and fake that you're not embarrassed by the lack of amenities and opportunities where you're from.
Rockford's Brush with Greatness
"Would you like to do a number with me?"--"Hello There" Lyrics
I originally became acquainted with Cheap Trick through my best friend of thirty-five years, Steve. "They're gonna be big someday," he predicted in 1977, age 16, while peering at the cover of In Color (and In Black and White). Steve was the 70s' equivalent of an early adopter-- it wasn't beta-release software but record albums he sampled first of all my friends. Spending some of the disposable income earned from his after-school job at Hornsby's, a northern Illinois discount store chain, he next bought their self-titled first album, and he turned me on to it. Immediately, I dug "He's a Whore" and "Oh Candy," and I soon bought the album for myself, together with In Color, from the record section of Goldblatt's at Rockford Plaza, whose 50s kidney-shaped neon sign always had a letter or two burned out, spelling "R ckford Pl za." I played the crap out of these albums on my parents' retired Magnavox console stereo consigned to the basement, where I listened to them largely lying upside-down and stoned on an old, ratty couch.
We didn't learn till later that the band was from Rockford. They quickly became the newest members of the small but respectable pantheon of famous Rockforders. The city's most reputable product was Jane Addams, an early graduate of Rockford College, who later founded Hull House in Chicago and became a world-famous social worker in the early 20th century. The next Rockforder of note, unless you count a string of industrial magnates who ruled the machine tool and screw product industries circa 1940-1970, was Congressman John B. Anderson, one of the last-ever liberal Republicans, who made an independent presidential run in 1980.
My first celebrity encounter in life, occurring in 1978, involved Cheap Trick. I found myself waiting on band members Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson at Don's Hobbies and Toys, where I worked part time as a teenager. Don's Hobbies was a Rockford institution with five, then four, then three, then zero stores as recession, stagflation and Toys R Us slowly squeezed it to death. The duo was decked out in full Cheap Trick drag--Rick was wearing a doofy baseball cap, letter sweater and bow tie, and Tom wore an untucked royal blue silk dress shirt and skinny black tie. I rang up for Rick a couple of model car kits he selected from the store's massive plastic model section where, unquestionably, the reigning top seller was the black and gold Smoky and the Bandit Trans Am Firebird. Were they a gift? Was model building his method of winding down between gigs? I never asked but instead conducted the transaction dumb and starstruck.
The following year, 1979, was a seminal one for Cheap Trick and me. The band's commercial and artistic high point occurred in 1979. They broke through with the songs "I Want You to Want Me" and "Surrender," which features one of the all-time great key changes in rock history starting the third verse. Asks Zander, a step up in key: "Whatever happened to this season's losers of the year? / Every time I got to thinking, where'd they disappear?" 1979 was also the year I graduated from high school and the year I finally saw Cheap Trick perform live in concert.
That summer, as a recent grad with a fresh sense of freedom and full-time hours at Don's Hobbies and Toys, I bought with some friends season tickets to Alpine Valley, an outdoor concert facility in southern Wisconsin about equidistant from Rockford, Chicago and Milwaukee. Along with Cheap Trick, we had tickets for the high-flying Supertramp (whose "Logical Song" ruled the airwaves), Heart (the pioneering hard rock chick band) and Kansas (all I can say here is, "What was I thinking?").
For each concert except Cheap Trick's we were assigned front-row seats--the band was too popular that summer on the heels of Budokan to get very close to the stage. So we sold our tickets and kept our fingers crossed another Cheap Trick show would turn up and provide us with better seating. Instead, we ended up buying worse seats in the balcony of the old Chicago Amphitheater. Graham Parker and the Rumor opened the Amphitheater show. Steve had heard of Parker, but nobody else in the crowd had, so everyone ignored him and talked during his set. He got pissed off and started bitching out the audience for not listening to him.
When Cheap Trick took the stage my expectations were more than met. There was Rick Nielsen, son of Rockford music store owner Ralph, who probably spent most of his childhood at Nielsen Music geeking out with the guitars in the stock room, now metamorphosed into an athletic rockster showman. A combination of Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger, he thwacked the strings of a series of colorful guitars and gleefully ran around the stage, flipping spare guitar picks into the audience. He playfully crashed shoulders with the grinning Petersson, whose twelve-string bass lent additional oomph to the band's sound. Drummer Carlos sat on risers in back and thumped away, his fills spreading across two or more bars adding drama to every song. At one point he produced a pair of giant drumsticks for comic effect. I was a little surprised to observe Zander standing rather stationary behind the mic in his trademark white suit. A rock band has room for only one Jagger, apparently. Still, his chameleonic voice, taking on different colorations from falsetto to baritone, was transcendent.
Recently, I watched a multipart TV series on VH1 titled The Drug Years. The episode dealing with the 70s focused heavily on cocaine, Disco music and Studio 54, completely and inexplicably ignoring the opposing pot-smoking Disco Sucks forces. This group steadily grew in size and influence, and it eventually registered its displeasure with fake Disco values later in the summer of 1979 at the infamous Disco Demolition Night riot at Chicago's old Comiskey Park. Organized by radio personality Steve Dahl, this event attracted the exact opposite cohort of young people who sought entry to Studio 54--Midwestern working class rockers as opposed to Manhattan's rich and/or beautiful people. People from Rockford, for example.
For the record, I missed the Woodstock of my generation, because I was playing tuba in a concert band touring Europe, although Steve attended, and I feel like I have some direct connection to the event through him. It turned out to be a triumph in the culture writ large: Disco quickly faded in the glare of arena rock acts like Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon and was finished off by Punk and Post-punk, where, ironically, it lived on co-opted by New Wave dance bands.
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.