Rick's Picks, a 5,000-square foot exhibit at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Ill., is stuffed with guitars, clothes, shoes, photos, videos, music and personal mementos from Cheap Trick's main songwriter and guitarist Rick Nielsen. Even part of his stamp and coin collections are on display.
Cheap Trick has had a long relationship with Milwaukee, since playing in Brew City clubs in the band's earliest days, right up through a series of recent residencies at Potawatomi Bingo Casino and a Marcus Amphitheater gig this year at Summerfest.
The idea started about a year ago when one of the Burpee Museum's Board of Directors who is a guitar collector and Cheap Trick fan, approached Nielsen about displaying some of his massive guitar collection at the museum.
By November 2011, things started getting serious when Nielsen started going through some of his many storage lockers, packed with items he had been saving for decades, including every airline boarding ticket he's used. Nielsen estimates he has over 5,000.
At the opening day of the exhibit, Nielsen joked, "I'm waiting for Ralph Edwards to come out and say, 'This is your Life, Rick Nielsen!'"
Nielsen's collection of guitars numbers around 400 and there are 72 of his favorites in the exhibit including some from his rocker friends including Guns and Roses' Slash, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Queen's Brian May and Aerosmith's Joe Perry. Each guitar is accompanied by a description and history, plus a graphic that measures Market Demand, Rarity Factor, RN Favorite, Original Condition and RN Cool Rating.
Some of Nielsen's more popular guitars were damaged in a 2011 stage collapse in Ottawa, Canada, and won't be on display until they've been restored. Among them are the well-known Uncle Dick guitar made to look like a cartoon version of Nielsen and his "Gonna Raise Hell" Hamer Standard.
The exhibit begins with a Nielsen timeline from his birth in 1948 to the opening of the exhibit. In the same room is Nielsen's vintage black and white Ford Thunderbird, his checkerboard-design riding lawn mower and two life-size photos of his many packed storage lockers. "The smaller ones," Nielsen joked.
At the entrance to the main room is a welcome video with highlights of Cheap Trick concerts and comments from Nielsen. On the left is a wall full of gold and platinum records and the start of the guitar displays, including the 1963 Fender Telecaster B-Bender that Nielsen gave to John Lennon during the recording of the "Double Fantasy" album in 1980.
Nielsen and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos recorded two songs for the album with Lennon, and after John's death, Yoko Ono returned the guitar to Nielsen.
One part of a wall is filled with photos, posters, articles and contracts from of Nielsen's early pre-Cheap Trick bands, Fuse, The Grim Reapers and Sick Man of Europe, the latter of which eventually became Cheap Trick.
Nielsen is known for flinging guitar picks into the crowd and the exhibit has a collection that starts with his very first signature pick, a plain white pick with RICK NIELSEN printed on it, followed by all the creative variations over the years, including a Rick's Pick made specially for the exhibit.
The center of the room has a circle of red and white strands of fabric that surrounds his first five-neck guitar, an orange Hamer that contains a 12-string, a fretless and three other six-string necks.
Certain guitars, including the five-neck, are accompanied by an iPad that plays a short video history of each guitar. There are also iPads by the poster gallery and a split-screen multimedia display of Nielsen's early band history projected on a wall.
Opposite the five-neck display, there is a small stage dominated by the huge illuminated Cheap Trick sign that used to hang behind the drums when the band started headlining shows in bigger venues. In front of and around the sign are some of Nielsen's Marshall amps and Sound City speaker cabinets, along with a variety of old TV sets playing live Cheap Trick footage.
A colorful collection of custom sweaters Nielsen designed and wore on stage goes from floor to ceiling. Display cases feature clothes, boots and rings, and underneath there are drawers full of his glasses, baseball caps, shoes and jackets.
There are many hand-written song lyrics on various hotel stationery from over the years including "Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School" and "Voices."
And what exhibit would be complete without a "Me Wall"? As in, that's me with so-and-so, which in this case includes Pete Townshend, Andy Warhol, Les Paul, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck, Billy Corgan and many others.
The Me Wall also includes platinum and gold records awarded to Nielsen from KISS and Motley Crue for albums he played on and a prized gold 45 of "Ain't That a Shame" by Fats Domino that was a gift from Fats and his manager after Cheap Trick's version of the song appeared on "Live at Budokan."
Below the Me Wall there is a more personal, early side of Nielsen, with a Ralph Nielsen record, old photos of Rick as a young boy and letters he wrote back home when he would travel with his father.
Near the back of the room is a display full of letters from Japanese fans, including drawings and sculptures they made for Nielsen. During a walk-through, he singled out a long time Japanese fan Junko Kambara who has traveled from Yokohama to see Cheap Trick around the world nearly 200 times (including several trips to Milwaukee).
Queen introduces Cheap Trick to Japan audiences and media, which leads to "Live at Budokan:"
The back corner of the exhibit has a small theater showing a 30-minute documentary on Nielsen, including appearances by Trouser Press' Ira Robbins, Jack Douglas, the band's first producer, Slash, Dave Grohl, Steve Albini, Todd Rundgren and more.
The exhibit is open daily at the Burpee Museum in Rockford, through April 2013.