Why Does Cleveland Rock Anyway?

A peek into the soul of the heart of rock & roll

The question really isn't Why do we deserve the Rock Hall? There are plenty of conventional answers for that. The legacy is undeniable. From the groundbreaking music store Record Rendezvous to DJ Alan Freed to WMMS, Cleveland not only birthed rock & roll — it has enthusiastically responded to it throughout the ages in a way no other city has.

Why do we rock? Now that's a question worth exploring.

At one point, back when we had money, people here bought more records per capita than anywhere else in the country. We've always been a place that cottoned to exciting new acts, an early proving ground for unknown artists like Elvis Presley, the Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Rush, and Roxy Music.

Of course, there's Freed's coinage of the term "rock & roll," though the phrase had been around for years in African American culture as slang for sex. Freed's real contribution was his willingness to buck the stigma attached to playing "race" records on the radio, with the help and encouragement of music retailer Leo Mintz, who founded the legendary shop Record Rendezvous back in 1938 and boldly sponsored Freed's WJW show.

A few years later, WERE disc jockeys Tommy Edwards and Bill Randle showed similar initiative in bringing Elvis here when most folks still heard him as hick music. His first show outside the South, held at the Circle Theater on Euclid, was dubbed "Hillbilly Jamboree."

Cleveland's stake in rock & roll can be seen in our willingness to go our own way. It's the same spirit that drove WMMS to experiment with free-form, progressive-rock radio, which the region embraced with a fervor not replicated elsewhere. That same attitude was integral to the emergence of an early punk scene in Cleveland that rivaled New York's ... at least until our local acts like the Dead Boys and the Cramps moved there.

Part of it is a feeling here in flyover country that if something's going to get done, you best do it yourself. There are no talent agents trolling the streets for artistically minded waiters. While there have certainly been artists that seemingly emerged from nowhere — Kid Cudi and Cloud Nothings are recent examples — most toil for modest reward beyond the thrill of performing. Sometimes it happens before packed audiences and sometimes to empty chairs; there's nobility here in the grind, and there's freedom in lowered expectations. And that too undeniably rocks.

"Embrace, my brothers, the utter futility of ambition and desire," David Thomas, frontman of the legendary Cleveland band Pere Ubu and a onetime Scene staffer, once wrote. "Your only reward is a genuine shot at being the best. The caveat is that no one but your brothers will ever know it. That's the deal we agreed to."

Here, there's a sense of brotherhood in the struggle and power derived from it. When Cleveland was breaking new records and artists, it wasn't just WMMS. Or the fact that every record company had offices and distributorships in town, thanks to our central locale. Or the bustling bar scene that's always existed here. Or the wealth of great musicians even back in the '60s and early '70s, when they were generally limited to playing in cover bands.

What made Cleveland a powerhouse was how mutually supportive these efforts were. For nearly two decades beginning in the mid-'70s, college radio fueled the underground scene. Bars and clubs popped up with regularity to cater to the large concert-going contingent. Labels were formed by those in the scene, and fanzines emerged to chronicle it.

And we saw it again when the time came to fight for the Rock Hall to land on our shores — and the nation saw it within us. When USA Today polled America on where the shrine should be built, Cleveland came out on top. (And $65 million in public cash for the effort didn't hurt our cause.)

This tenacity and refusal to give in is implicit in rock's promise. It's rebel music. Who knows what happens tomorrow but we've got tonight music. At its core, it's Cleveland music.

"There seems to be this Cleveland attitude that's a strange mix of depression and hopefulness. Low self-esteem but extreme pride," says Mark Edwards of the '80s-'90s band My Dad Is Dead. "It's a unique, downtrodden spirit that still retains an optimism that next year is going to be better."

That sense of dogged resilience and indefatigable passion soaked in resignation — that is why Cleveland rocks.

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