The Curiously Narrow Rock Stardom of Michael Stanley, Willie Nile, Donnie Iris and a Lot of Other Legends Who May or May Not Be Famous

"Rock and roll will either kill ya, or it'll keep you young."

Michael Stanley made this breathy proclamation as I was interviewing him over the telephone one afternoon in the early 1990s. The middle-aged host of a local light features television program called Cleveland Tonight, Stanley had recently suffered a heart attack. A longtime smoker, he seemed to have misinterpreted his current state, which was something in between dead and young.

It is likely you don't think of Michael Stanley as a television host. It is far more likely that you think of him either as a major rock star or as someone you've never heard of and don't think of at all. This paradox is everything.

He said those words with such conviction that for a moment they seemed true, undeniable, wise even, especially to someone like me, for whom rock and roll is a central obsession and who at the time was a relatively young man and prone to think in such broad, anthemic terms. (Confession: I wrote a poem when I heard the news that Shannon Hoon had died. And I didn't even like Blind Melon.)

So — yes. Rock and roll is both a vital force and a destructive one. Witness please the martyrdom of Kurt Cobain and Mama Cass Eliot and Pigpen McKernan and also the way it has kept Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Rod Stewart forever young. There is no in between.

But of course this notion dissolved quickly, as did my ability to believe it. Michael Stanley is the quintessential "hometown hero" rock musician, a working-man singer-songwriter who almost broke through three decades ago and has remained comfortably nestled in Cleveland, lionized by his neighbors ever since. Just about every major city in the industrial East and Midwest has its own version of this.

In Cleveland, it's Michael Stanley. Buffalo has Willie Nile. Pittsburgh has two: Donnie Iris and Joe Grushecky. The workingman towns along the Jersey shore have Southside Johnny. (Detroit's version — Bob Seger — actually is famous well beyond his hometown, but this makes him the exception that proves the rule and also reinforces the grand scale of Detroit's Rust Beltedness.)

Stanley has been delivering such messages to a faithful audience for decades. His words strike me now as charmingly extreme, the sort of wishful absolutism that congeals in the mind of a certain type of working-class Midwestern rock songwriter for whom the anthem is the pinnacle of expression. And a rock anthem, by commercial necessity, cannot afford the weight of ambiguity. Every rose has a fucking thorn, goddamnit, and that's just the way it is. It must be so. This is how life can make sense.

Love: is like a rock.

This town: is my town.

I was born in a small town: I'm gonna die in a small town.

I rock: therefore I am.

The rise of the regional "heartland rocker" happened, not coincidentally, at the same time as the decline of the Industrial Revolution, in the 1980s, as factory cities in the East and Midwest began their crises of economy and identity. Our cities embodied a certain kind of reality-based myth about hard work and simple values and denim-as-metaphor, and so if we were to have bards we needed them to be the sort that we could sip cold proletarian beer to, and who would reward us with notions of escape (usually via muscle car) and loyalty (my daddy worked in the factory) and romance (bleached video blonde who listens attentively to the guitar solo). Country music did not yet have these markets cornered.

Uniquely, then, and with remarkable conformity, the major cities of this region each manufactured its own golem of the mid-shelf rock-and-roller in a fashion that seemed at once organic and prefabricated.

In each instance, the bandleader's name was the name of his band:

The Michael Stanley Band. Donnie Iris and the Cruisers. Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers (adapted from the name of his first band, one of the best rock band names ever: the Iron City Houserockers). Willie Nile. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

Each of them has been called, at some point, "the Springsteen of (YOUR CITY HERE)." The comparison is unavoidable, and the convention is resoundingly consistent: An earnest male Telecaster-playing dark-haired Caucasian leading a local bar band that flirted in some way with national fame, never quite made it to the big time, but remained, and remains, a regional icon. As time has passed, each of these figures has come to occupy the territory between the frustration of what might have been and the comfort of knowing they will always be loved and financially supported by the audiences that were pulling for them in the first place. They dress in blue jeans and loose-cut blazers, bravely holding a middle ground between the anxieties of art and unconcerned artlessness. Where once they represented the genre of working-class rock and roll they are now gainfully employed middle-class rockers, with careers that mirror actual careers in plumbing and auto sales; they have a clientele and know the tricks of their trade and are fully vested in their retirement plans.

The proof of a real-life stereotype comes when a fictional version can easily be drawn. Witness then Eddie and the Cruisers, a film (based, it's worth mentioning, on a novel by an Ohioan, P.F. Kluge) whose basic story is that of any of the musicians mentioned above. Gritty heartfelt rock band with working class hopes and dreams flirts with industry success only to hit the skids. The stereotype transcends when the fiction results in a furthering of the founding presumption. Therefore, when the New England bar band John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band was enlisted to compose some of the music for the soundtrack, the group's saxophone player was such a dead ringer for his scripted counterpart that the director cast him in the film, as the Cruisers' sax man. There was no way to differentiate between life and art.

So of course Michael Stanley believes that rock and roll will either kill ya' or keep you young. It's his profession of faith, and his faith has delivered the unlikeliest profession.


Proclamations such as these thrive in the geometric efficiency of the four-chord rock song. Not three (although the three-chord song would not be out of place in this territory). And definitely not five. Too ostentatious. Four is the sweet spot.

The four-chord riff has a distinct place in pop rock, and a subtle yet revealing aesthetic. In fact, if you looked at, say, the pop charts of 1982 — a galvanizing year for the Industrial Belt and its six-string composers — you could trace the entire scope of the musical culture by measuring the patterns of the main riff:

"Jessie's Girl" (Rick Springfield, four chords) = the mild complexity of this emotional situation will be defined thusly in the following three verses and intervening choruses, with a satisfying resolution;

"I Love Rock 'N' Roll" (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, three chords) = for the following 2 minutes and 54 seconds I will express my strong affinity for rock and roll;

"Should I Stay or Should I Go" (The Clash, two chords) = here we shall parse the dualized horns of a Frostian dilemma, only with Paul Simenon on bass;

"We Got the Beat" (The Go-Go's, one chord) = we have another one but we'll be using it in the next song;

"Eminence Front" (The Who, no chords) = not really even trying at this point.

Like I said, the four-chord rock riff is the sweet spot of the working class bar anthem, in the way it hits the launching pad of its come-around chord and then leaps into the open arms of the chorus. Think of the great American (O.K., Canadian) song of the working life, Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business." If you can think of a more symmetrically satisfying song, please let me know.

A song like this is two parts meat and two parts potato. In the best of them, the chords are palm-muted in the verses, then fired open for the chorus. Middle bridge, guitar (or occasionally sax) solo, and then down the home stretch. It is a can't-miss approach, and frankly if you can't feel good hearing a song like that, well, I think that you think too much.


"Youngstown is really good to me." — Donnie Iris

So. Michael Stanley. Good looking fellow, but not movie-star handsome. Beard, average build. Plays a Telecaster. Slightly rough-edged baritone. Emotions are handled with professionalism. Knows how to play to the back row.

You could post his picture next to Wikipedia's definition of heartland rock: "a predominately romantic genre, celebrating 'urban backstreets and rooftops,' (whose) major themes have been listed as including 'unemployment, small-town decline, disillusionment, limited opportunity and bitter nostalgia,' as well as alienation and despair."


From "Midwest Midnight": "Take me back to Midwest midnightTen thousand watts of holy light from my radio so clear..."

The whole lot of them — Stanley, Grushecky, Johnny, Willie, Donnie— came of age in the mid-1970s, peaked commercially in the early 1980s and then began their real careers with a longevity that seems to be based as much on their local audiences' unfulfilled need for a winner as any music industry convention. Here is a case where the audience may need the artist even more than the artist needs the audience.

When I was first coming into an understanding of rock music, I just assumed that Michael Stanley and Bruce Springsteen were equally huge rock stars. In fact, at that moment, within my parochial limitations, they were. Both of them sold out the big area stadium venues. Both of their tour T-shirts were as ubiquitous around this part of Ohio as Browns jerseys. They coexisted as a sort of Apollo and Zeus of WMMS, the local mainstream FM rock powerhouse.

Bruce Springsteen, of course, was actively becoming the biggest rock icon in the world. But at the same time Springsteen was exploring his interior darkness with the lo-fi Nebraska, the Michael Stanley Band played four consecutive nights at Blossom Music Center, the big outdoor shed near Cleveland, and drew nearly 75,000 fans. Stanley's song "My Town," with its "This town! Is my town!" fist-pump chorus, was the region's unofficial theme. It was a much bigger deal than "Hungry Heart," and I doubt even the Boss could have pulled off a four-night packed-house residency.

But what I didn't recognize – what I couldn't recognize because of the way the media was manipulating this information and because I didn't have access to long distance transportation and therefore the outerworld – was that beyond the borders of greater Cleveland, Michael Stanley was barely on the radar. One song had scratched into the lower reaches of the Billboard top-40 pop chart, "He Can't Love You" reaching No. 33. In Chicago, say, or Denver, or Tallahassee, the Michael Stanley Band may as well have been Chilliwack.

But that didn't matter. As long as he stayed close to home, he would be needed and adored. It becomes a matter of self fulfillment: as long as the local audience continues to support the musician, the musician appears to be as popular as the audience needs him to be for its own validation.

To this very day, Stanley, who now works as a drive-time DJ on the local classic rock station and releases albums regularly, has a very specific kind of iconic status, and a specific kind of deeply committed loyalty that is as admirable as it is hard to calculate.

In 2012, as I write this, Michael Stanley has recently played four consecutive weekend nights, sold-out shows, at an Akron cabaret-style dinner club called the Tangier. Those are the only concert dates listed on his web site.

On a recent visit to Pittsburgh, I saw placards advertising an upcoming appearance by Donnie Iris and the Cruisers at the local Hard Rock Café. All the shows listed on the official Donnie Iris website were in or around Pittsburgh, except two – one in Cleveland and the other in Phoenix – at a "Steeler Fanfest" party the night before a football game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. A home away from home.

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers had 13 summer concert dates listed on their website in 2012. Twelve were in the Pittsburgh area. The other was at a club on the Jersey shore, but interestingly, there was a Freudian slip of a typo, listing the location as "Asbury Park, PA."

Southside Johnny, the highest profile of the bunch, does well in Europe, but keeps close to the New Jersey region here in the States – New York, Atlantic City, Asbury Park. (The farthest U.S. concert from home in 2012? Cleveland.)


"Rock 'n' roll should be made by truck drivers from Tupelo, Mississippi." — Southside Johnny

I hated the Michael Stanley Band. I hated Bruce Springsteen. I hated the Doors. I hated Led Zeppelin. I hated this music for the three worst possible reasons:

1. Because I didn't like the people who liked that music;

2. Because, due to misguided anti-fashion snobbery, I had never really listened to it;

3. Because of my mother.

That third thing, the mother part, probably stemmed more from Charles Manson than anything else. She was genuinely afraid of hippies and even though she was of the prime demographic to be a first-generation Beatles fan and therefore a proper foundation for my own musical taste, she, for a crucial time in my own development, disavowed all rock music. (Sadly, her cultural stance softened just as disco and John Denver were emerging. Those were difficult years.)

So I actually wanted a rock and roll of absolutes — a music that would either kill me or make me young — but that wasn't possible. If I had just been given the Beatles, I could have found the Stones, and then I'd probably have made it safely to the Stooges. Instead, while I loved rock music, I found it a source of constant frustration.

I could find occasional copies of MAXIMUMROCKANDROLL, but I could never find the records that were reviewed there. When I tried guitar, my fingers fell apart half through the two-chord pattern of "You Really Got Me." The longer my hair got, the less it looked like Tommy Stinson's. There was an ideal, but I couldn't find it anywhere I looked. I was getting my information in the wrong order, without context.

The first friend I had who had a car owned just two cassettes: the first Pretenders album and the Tubes' Completion Backward Principle. There was a considerable void to negotiate, and we relied mainly on MTV to fill it. It was all random; we had no guide and no evolved sense of quality. Briefly, we believed Lee Ritenour was New Wave because he wore tight red pants and his video followed one by Split Enz, who we thought were definitely New Wave, but also maybe could have been rockabilly on account of their tremendous pompadours. A friend once admitted that he was sometimes confused about what was "punk" and what was "New Wave" — specifically, he thought the song "Rock the Casbah" was definitely New Wave because it included a synthesizer even though the Clash probably qualified as "punk." We made fun of him mainly to deflect the truth: We didn't have any more of a clue than he did. And then when I did find Springsteen and Zeppelin on my own terms, it was too late for it to be as pure and absolute as it would have been at 17.

If rock and roll were simple, life would be so much easier.

Excerpted from THE HARD WAY ON PURPOSE: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels. Copyright 2014 © David Giffels. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Speaking of THE HARD WAY ON PURPOSE: Essays And Dispatches From The Rust Belt, David Giffels

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