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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

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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.

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