Wisconsin’s beloved pizza mascot left behind a strange musical artifact.
Ephemera tend to age much more gracefully in the brain’s nostalgia bin. Digging them out and clamoring for context splatters pristine mental pictures with cold, hard facts. But when listening to an album as bizarre as Rocky Rococo’s Kitchen Licks, it’s difficult to ward off the urge to find how and why such a thing could happen.
I discovered Kitchen Licks when I found a box of the cassettes in the basement of the Rocky Rococo in La Crosse where I used to work. The delivery vehicles we used had tape decks, so it made sense to bring up a copy and listen while driving around. Technically, it wasn’t even stealing. But once I heard the opening bars of “90’s Kinda Guy,”—with its blaring synth horns and organ melody twirled into some pop music amalgamation—and the already hilariously dated lyrics concerning awesome databases and fax machines on boats, I knew I was going to keep the tape. And also grab some more to give to my friends.
I didn’t know much about it then. It was weird and funny but I didn’t know where it came from or who made it. Was that the actual Rocky Rococo guy, the one who had previously visited our store and hammed it up like a regular wise ass, portraying an Italian pizza gangster in a Leon Redbone costume? My friend and co-worker Nick told me that he bumped into Rocky as he was leaving the restroom and Rocky warned him, “I just unleashed a monster in there.” It was hilarious because even if it wasn’t true, it still seemed to be in the realm of possibility. That was the sort of crazy, slightly crass joke Rocky had been firing off the whole time he was in our kitchen. If he had that much dedication to the character even while exiting the bathroom, it seemed like he might have been willing to knock out an entire album as Rocky.
Turns out he did. Kitchen Licks was imagined and brought to life by Jim Pedersen, the man who for more than 40 years portrayed Rocky Rococo, the mascot of the Wisconsin-based pizza restaurant chain. Pedersen recorded the album in Madison at Concept Productions about 20 years ago. That’s about how old it is, Pedersen told me over the phone in January, although he couldn’t remember for sure.
“What I was trying to do was use pieces of language that were contemporary at the time,” Pedersen told me, before abruptly shifting into the Rocky persona and breaking into song over the phone with the opening lines of “90’s Kinda Guy.”
Pedersen said he wrote all the lyrics and the music for the project, which was designed as an extension of his tendency to make up songs to entertain customers. He wanted to fill out Kitchen Licks with a bunch of different genre experiments.
Some of it, like the eerily upbeat “The Magic Slice,” defies genre definitions. But songs like “Left Me Like a Cold Slice (In the Refrigerator of Your Heart)” play like sleazy blues, and “Dairyland Mary Ann” replicates greasy rock ‘n’ roll.
But Pedersen said the music was secondary to the lyrics.
“I wanted to do a wide range of lyrics that poetically spoke to people who especially live in Wisconsin. Because they know that stuff,” Pedersen said.
Apparently, those lyrics connected with people outside of Wisconsin too. Pedersen said that people in Seattle were turned on by “Strip Mall Love,” a proto-punk observation on urban sprawl commercialism.
“I was very flattered by it,” Pedersen said, who possibly discovered the Pacific-Northwest Kitchen Licks fandom while visiting the Rocky Rococo restaurant in Spokane, Washington.
But the longer we talked about Kitchen Licks, the less interesting the conversation became. Pedersen began to repeat the broad ideas that governed the products while breaking up our conversation with interludes like “Am I boring you here?”
Odds are he was bored. Here Pedersen was, indulging a dork who had harbored some strange obsession with an odd piece of art Pedersen had made 20 years ago. It obviously hadn’t been a smash success and Pedersen had wisely, healthily left it in the past. But he still tried his best to answer my questions.
The plan was to ask more. With Scott Gordon’s blessing, Tone Madison was going to host a live podcast at the High Noon Saloon so I could blather about what I’d learned of this odd slice of Wisconsin music history. I was in the process of trying to convince Pedersen to show up, as Rocky Rococo, and talk about Kitchen Licks.
But that didn’t happen. Less than a week after I talked to Pedersen, he died. A sincere outpouring on social media followed. People shared stories about Rocky Rococo and their run-ins and memories of a well-loved Wisconsin pizza icon. A fixture of many of our childhoods, an ambassador of pan-style square pizza with unusually large sausage, a goofy romantic, an endearing Italian stereotype, a tireless entertainer was gone. It was really fucking sad.
And here I had wasted his time talking about a weird record he made 20 years ago. It’s no wonder he had been so cautious about giving me his personal email address or insisted that, if he did show up for my podcast, he would do so as Rocky. Pedersen was a psychotherapist who helped families and people battling addiction. He was a marketer with his own consulting firm. He was a husband and father.
Rocky Rococo was an outlet for him. His living embodiment of the character on the pizza restaurant sign was his chance to channel music, poetry and humor into the world, while pushing a valiant pizza-by-the-slice agenda. Once he took off the white suit, he went back to being Jim Pedersen, the “more introspective person,” as he told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2008.
He was too nice to tell me so, but Pedersen knew it was ultimately pointless to dig too deep into the hows and whys of Rocky Rococo and any bizarre ephemera, including Kitchen Licks, that he may have produced. Characters and the memories they create are best left to live and flourish in our hearts and minds without too much fussy reality to weigh them down.