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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"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.

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