Cities in Rock 2: The Heart of Rock and Roll is Near Cleveland

Posted on July 13, 2013 by


As we have learned from the pundits during all of our recent presidential elections, Ohio embodies all of the contradictions of the American spirit. Or some such shit. Really, anytime you make a nation that includes both Texas and Vermont, you’re going to have an Ohio somewhere. I am sure it’s a metaphysical zoning law.

I used to live in northern Ohio. I lived in a place where Smucker’s makes jelly, and where a variety of jellos were presented in the campus dining room every lunch (red with Cool Whip, green with shredded carrots: ethnic food!). It is relatively near the homes of a number of serial killers, a place where thousands of buzzards show up every March 15, an active Pagan community, the birthplace of The Church of the Subgenius, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The main controversy in town was caused by poor relations between local boys and the Amish. The main delights were the new Lowes and Walmart. I used to visit the cows at the research farm for fun.

In other words, northern Ohio is much like any other Midwestern place: it presents a veneer of banal respectability that covers a whole bunch of weird.

Cleveland was mostly a place where we went when we were bored to eat Indian food and shop. Like all big cities, Cleveland was home to a number of notable musicians. My favorites from the list are Elliot Sharp, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Trent Reznor, and Pere Ubu. Overall, it’s an impressive lineup. (My favorite Cleveland band at the time was the Champion Bubblers.)

From a rock perspective, though, Cleveland is mostly famous for three things: inspiring the R.E.M. tune, “Cuyahoga,” which refers to several times when the river caught fire; as an often misheard lyric of the Huey Lewis song, “The Heart of Rock and Roll (is Still Beating)”; and being the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Down the road just a bit — almost touching — is Akron, Ohio. Akron also has its place in rock: Chrissie Hynde is from there, and everyone assumes that “My City was Gone” refers to Akron (just as an aside, that video contains one hell of a guitar solo). Kent State is right next door, commemorated by Neil Young’s “Ohio.” DEVO calls the area home. The Black Keys are an Akron band.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like the Grammys: the industry of mass-marketed music congratulating itself on its good taste. Looking through the list of inductees, everyone seems pretty obvious (which is how it should be, of course), and the vast majority of performers have been tamed enough by marketing and time to be acceptable for “classic rock” stations or for playing at your local grocery. DEVO and the Black Keys are not on the list (the Pretenders are, to be fair, which I find slightly disappointing). Nor is anyone else who strikes me as being even marginally disruptive anymore, nor are those kids two doors down from you bashing away at their originals in the basement.

If there’s any rock left, it isn’t in the oversold bands that get on your radio, nor can you find it in a museum. Now, of course, it’s a rock and roll tradition for folks to get famous being eccentric and disruptive, then, through a process of selling out and co-optation, to end up hawking vans on the History Channel. And, hopefully, the army of kids in basements will continue to churn up things that upset people from my demographic, and a tiny fraction of those can someday end up tired and co-opted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All as it should be.

So if you’re looking for rock, don’t go to the museum in Cleveland. Wander around the housing developments in Akron where the weirdness of contemporary American life still finds a voice. You’ll do better.

You are connected to Eunoia Solstice, a web-magazine curated by Jason Quinn Malott, Eric Jenkins, and Stephen McClurg. “Assembly Required” is my twice-monthly column concerning free improvisation, folk music, the apocalypse, and the self in contemporary society. Check out some of the other stuff on offer. Come back soon!

Cities in Rock is mostly a record of associations between music, time, and place — more memoir than musicology. Several authors plan to contribute. Stay tuned!