ROCKFORD, Ill. (CBS) — Rick Nielsen loves stuff.
“I’ve collected since my grandmother.”
He loves it so much, he’s kept virtually everything he’s ever owned.
“I was never looking to have all this stuff. It was just one piece at at time,” he said.
As he walks into a new exhibit that showcases his vast lifetime collection, the Cheap Trick singer, songwriter and guitarist is surprised at what even he hasn’t seen.
Rick’s Picks at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford features everything from Nielsen’s vast guitar collection, including his infamous five neck Hamer guitar, the band’s gold records, drawers of belt buckles, sunglasses, wacky sweaters and hundreds of pieces of rock and roll memorabilia.
In addition, curators cataloged more than 5,000 pieces of memorabilia, roughly 3,000 of which are currently on the walls, in the cabinets and in the drawers of Rick’s Picks.
“I’ve owned probably 2,000 instruments over the years.My airline boarding passes. I’ve been on 5,000 flights and I’ve kept everyone of them. That’s ridiculous but everyone is a story,” he said.
Nielsen loves telling stories of his more than 40 years in rock and roll. He points out an elaborate outfit in a showcase, pants with dozens of decals on them.
“I was kicked out. I couldn’t get into East Berlin in 1970 because I had those pants on,” he said.
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Nearly a year in the making, he says when he first saw the 5,900-square-foot exhibit he was speechless, sort of.
“I said expletive. The good one. I was proud,” he said.
As he does the interview, he’s interrupted by adoring fans who are surprised to see him taking it all in like they are. That’s because he’s an approachable guy who is recognized as Rockford’s most famous son with a unique style on and off stage, something that has come to define him.
“The sweaters that I have in the corner, I have 85 to 100 that I designed,” he said.
Drawers contain old shoes, bow ties, letters and guitar picks. Three individual glass museum cases show off the black skeleton pajamas he wore onstage, the checkerboard sweater he often wore in music videos and a pair of old jeans, the ones that got him kicked out of East Berlin.
As he walks around the room, he talks about each piece of memorabilia and what it means to him. Guitars from fellow musicians line the display cases.
Fellow musicians like Gene Simmons, Dave Grohl, Slash, Todd Rundgren and Brian May of Queen donated guitars for the exhibit.
Listening iPad stations let visitors in on old recordings and demo tapes.
“It’s me doing the original songs,” he said. “When I wrote ‘I Want You To Want Me,’ I wrote that in five minutes as an anti pop song.”
But for Nielsen, it’s a visual representation of his life, and he says the collection just skims the surface of what he really has.
“I have about five warehouses now,” he said. “They’re still all full even with all this stuff in here.”
In the end, Nielsen says he’s just an ordinary fan with an extraordinary life, something he decided to share with the masses.
When he looks back at Cheap Trick’s music, he pleasantly acknowledges its relevance today and its timelessness amongst the generations.
“There’s a three-piece band and a singer, and it still sounds good today. We weren’t just heavy, we weren’t pop. We were never trying to be anybody,” he said.
But Nielsen isn’t your typical rock star. He’s been married, has four kids and lives in his hometown of Rockford, a city to which he continually gives back.
“I do a lot for this city, but most of it is anonymously. If you can make it in Rockford, you can make it anywhere,” Nielsen said.
At 65 years old, he’s still on tour, promoting the exhibit and involved in all kids of business ventures.
“Will Rick Nielsen ever stop? Not til I die,” he laughs.
That’s good news for Cheap Trick fans, music buffs and for the Midwestern boy with the baseball hat and the goofy guitars.
“Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair With Guitars and Music” is on display through April.