My sophomore year at Bowling Green State University, I attended a performance by an African dance troupe. I don’t recall much of that show, save for the troupe inviting the audience on stage to dance along with them during their final number. Self-conscious, I remained stuck in my seat while other free spirits joined them, undulating to the accompanying percussionists beating on the stretched skins of hand-crafted drums. To this day, a small part of me wonders what I would be like had I participated in the communal dancing. Later that night, back in my dorm room, emptiness settled in. Watching those performers connect with their heritage through an art form made me think I had no roots. I’m a white Anglo Saxon dude with German/Scottish/Irish blood in me. Though I knew that my “people” dated back to the American Revolution, I felt like a mutt with no homeland. Although I would eventually leave my room to resume a typical college existence, I couldn’t shake this feeling for years. It wouldn’t be until Julie and I dove into the madness of Los Angeles that I would come to realize that, indeed, I did have a homeland. Instead of the open plains of the African wild, my landscape was the paved, tree-lined streets of North Olmsted and the Cleveland suburbs where I grew up. And the tribal rhythms I longed to have beating inside my heart did exist. The musical foundations of my life weren’t the chants and drumming of Africans; they were the musicians and artists I heard on the radio when I was an adolescent, adopted children like Bruce Springsteen and Pat Benatar — and native sons the Michael Stanley Band.
Every city has a homegrown artist that the local stations champion, whether it’s the ‘Mats in Minneapolis, J. Geils in Boston, or Mother Love Bone in Seattle. During the late ’70s and early ’80s heyday of Cleveland radio, DJs did their best to break the Michael Stanley Band (or MSB, as they were affectionately known), and help them gain wider recognition outside the north shore of Ohio. Despite their support, MSB achieved only moderate success. MSB treaded that line between bar band and the AOR music dominating the rock charts in the early ’80s. They exuded confidence and civic pride akin to Springsteen’s affections for Jersey. Although they had deals with Arista and EMI, they never had the breakthrough hit that some of their contemporaries were able to accomplish. Their best LP, Heartland, was recorded while the band was between labels. Arista had dropped them and MSB decided to record a new album and shop it around afterward. This proved to be a wise move. Without the meddling hands of the record executives, Heartland turned out strong and defiant, earning MSB their greatest commercial success (the record also contains their biggest hit, “He Can’t Love You”). Unfortunately, EMI unceremoniously dumped them four years later, just as their single “My Town” was climbing the charts and blasting over loudspeakers in baseball stadiums around the country.
By the time I reached high school (’84), I had no use for MSB, having entered a phase of going against the mainstream. Mind you, I wasn’t into punk; I instead chose to explore the blues and classic rock (which would soon become the mainstream). By the late ’80s, MSB had broken up, radio had become more a business than an outlet for new music, and the likes of Bon Jovi were suddenly considered legitimate songwriters. You rarely heard the Michael Stanley Band on the radio, even in Cleveland. Stanley became a DJ on the local classic rock station, and you were more likely to hear him announcing the thousandth airing of “China Grove” than anything by his old band. To Stanley’s credit, he never bemoans the treatment the band received from their record labels, and doesn’t parade around stories from the glory days. During my college summers spent alternating between cassettes warping in the sun, college radio that the black boom box intermittently picked up, and the same damn classic rock I’d been hearing for years, I gained new respect for Stanley. Not only did he seem like a cool guy, but his fine ballad, “Lover” (download), had seeped into my soul.
There are some songs that you hear so often, you take them for granted, especially in your hometown. Growing up, whether I was sitting in the basement, (secretly reading The Uncanny X-Men), or foolishly trying to get a tan laying out on the front lawn, the radio was tuned to either Top 40 WGCL or the famous WMMS, On any given day, you were likely to hear one of MSB’s upbeat anthems. Yet, during the winter, it was the forlorn “Lover” that consistently streamed through the speakers in cars and bars and freezing basements.
With a simple strum of the guitar, two notes, quiet and alone, the mood is immediately set. This is not a happy song, my friends. An organ enters the mix, bringing to mind the countless number of churches that seem to be on every corner of downtown Cleveland. A piano joins in, representing the other cathedrals, where the pews are cheap stools and the sacrament is a bag of chips and a shot of Wild Turkey. Stanley begins his narration: a man on a late night journey to stop his woman, his ex, from making the mistake of hooking up with some guy who only wants to add her to the notches in his bedpost. I believe most guys can relate to the narrator. What man out there hasn’t experienced a jealous rage when hearing that your ex is on the town with another guy? And how many of us have tried to be the hero, saving the girl from some ass, only to be rejected, resented, and reminded to butt the hell out? “Lover” is one of Stanley’s best songs, striking the perfect balance between the AOR heavyweights of the era like Journey and Springsteen circa The River (by the way, that’s the Big Man playing saxophone on the song).
Besides the blue-collar tone, Stanley creates a plaintive portrait of Cleveland in the wintertime with his opening line:
Well the glow from the bars and a thousand stars
Light the cold Ohio night
And the Turnpike’s slick, the snow’s as thick as thieves
Hearing that conjures images and feelings of my hometown. Cold winter nights that cut through your skin. The way your nostrils stick with each inhale, causing shortness of breath. Huge wafts of steam rising from manhole covers, intermingling with the endless puffs of air coming from fools braving the outdoors, many of them making their way down the long row of bars that seem to be mere blocks from every church. Icicles weigh down the naked branches of ancient trees, and the streets are thick with gray sludge. Stanley’s description of the long trek on the highway brings to mind long drives through snowstorms, the tires “thumping” against the ice buildup in the wheel well, the wiper blades “whooshing” back and forth, and a aged heater rattling, barely warming fingers wrapped around a cracked steering wheel. And it’s that one line, one of the coolest fucking lines ever, that always gets me: “Thank God for the man who puts the white lines on the highway.” Sometimes those white lines are all that keep you on your side of the road. My lifelong friend Steve pointed out that this line “gets to the value of blue-collar work. After all, he’s not thanking God for the engineer or the highway planner.” That’s the Cleveland I remember, a meat-and-potatoes town if ever there was one.
Steve and I have debated the merit of this particular song. He finds it grating (save for that one line), while I think it’s finely crafted and truly heartfelt…or heartbreaking. During the last verse, when Stanley is joined by pianist Kevin Raleigh, they sing perfect harmony and the anguish it elicits always gives me chills. “Lover” is one of those tunes that has dug its hooks into my soul and has become a part of my identity, a part of my heritage.
Like I said, it wasn’t until I moved away from my hometown to create a new life that I realized that, yes, I really do have roots. Nowadays, thinking back to that mopey college sophomore, I see a boy wearing blinders, unappreciative of what he has. Nowadays, thinking of that mopey sophomore, I would take him aside, offer him a beer (something better that that Keystone Light swill he would be drinking) and tell him to take pause. I would say, “Thank God for the man who put the white lines on the highway, my friend. Those white lines lead into the horizon and the future, but they also lead you back home…and to who you are.”