Michael Stanley, RIP: An Appreciation of Rock’s Ultimate Local Hero

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Singer-songwriter Michael Stanley died this week of lung cancer at age 72. He’s remembered by Holly Gleason. a music critic and author who was raised in Cleveland and befriended Stanley while she was a music manager. Gleason is the author of the 2018 Belmont Book Award winner “Woman Walk the Line” and is at work on the forthcoming “Prine on Prine.”

Like a secret handshake, you can still measure the rock and Midwestern bonafides of people, especially those who grew up in Ohio and surrounding states in the ‘70s and ‘80s by whether they knew the Michael Stanley Band. In Cleveland, especially, Stanley was an artist who felt every bit as important as Detroit’s Bob Seger, Indiana’s John Mellencamp and even Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen, who also captured working class lives, loves and disappointments with an authenticity as gritty as it was charged. He was the man who cast AOR rockers like “Midwest Midnight,” “Let’s Get the Show on The Road,” “Strike Up the Band” and “Our Town,” anthems from a town that was cast off and mocked, into a world where he never quite attained national stardom. How could they not know that, in our corner of America, he was a god?

Michael Stanley, the dark-haired guitarist with the voice that growled, did the unthinkable without the momentum of superstardom, in Cleveland, regardless of his reach to the coasts. He sold out the once-proud Richfield Coliseum, opened by Frank Sinatra with a black-tie gala and where the Cavaliers played for decades, for two nights faster than Led Zeppelin in their prime. Sold out the theater-in-the-round Front Row for ten consecutive nights as the swan song for the Michael Stanley Band. Sold out four more-than-SRO shows at Blossom Music Center, a record that has yet to be broken.

But that’s not why he matters, or why people where I come from care. Michael Stanley saw us. He knew what we were thinking, feeling, the reality of how it felt being the great unseen and never-heralded. He took it all in, twisted that truth into three, four, five visceral minutes, and sent our lives into the world with an actual dignity and understanding. (To read Variety‘s obituary of Stanley, click here.)

Michael Stanley, 1949-2021

As 1999 turned to 2000, I began a blind email friendship with him. Managing a big buzz artist whose deal had gone south, I reached out for advice. The client, who was on the cover of USA Today without a record deal, then got caught in a record company merger and politics and was self-destructing. Somehow I believed he would have insight into how to survive the bottom falling out. He had no idea who I was, beyond that I cared enough about one musician to reach out to another; demurring he suggested I try a young guitarist he’d seen who appeared to have a more current take. I explained that was exactly who I was reaching out for.

Still the exchange grew into a life of its own. I learned that he had opinions about everything musical, but he was also a voracious reader, a fan of the Indians, the Browns and the Cavs, Mission furniture, local Cleveland restaurants and how life evolved.

At some point, it came out that I was one of those Cleveland kids, who’d grown up on the music. If not a massive fan, I understood why “In The Heartland” mattered, “Spanish Nights” with its declaration “She holds on to St. Christopher…” mattered so much to us. They were songs people we knew had inhabited.

Where most rock stars want to be seen, he saw – and took in the people rocking out to his music. Shortly after we became friends, I confessed seeing him do a very small show at the end of the ‘70s at Cleveland’s Crawford Auto Aviation Museum; towards set’s end, he reached down and pulled me — along with a bunch of other girls — up onstage.

“I remember that show,” he said.

“Yeah, it was crazy.”

Looking at me, he laughed, “You were wearing a grey dress, right?”

I almost fell over. “Yeah…”

“Yeah, you’d stood there all night,” he said, “with your arms kind of folded, looking really hard at us…”

Mind you, this was more than two decades prior. Being pulled out of the crowd is a big deal to kid, but to a guy setting attendance records in Northern Ohio? To remember that? Already on track to be a rock critic — perhaps the job I am best known for — getting that close was a rarity, so I was taking it all in.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked.

“Sure,” I replied, suddenly unsure.

“What were you doing?”

Laughing, I explained, “I was trying to understand what it was you do that left everyone so unraveled… I was studying you.”

He laughed at that. But that was the thing. Michael Stanley didn’t just see me that night, of course. He saw us. Young, hungry, dreaming of something more, not even sure what it was. He felt our urgency. He put it in songs.

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Michael Stanley

“Take The Time” was a plea to connect with the people in your world. “Working Again” with its HOO-HUH punctuations echoed the get-on-with-it grind of blue-collar work. “Spanish Nights,” a tale of a love that couldn’t be, offered a blessing and a benediction with the confession, “When you run with the dreamers, the going can get so tough / Sooner or later, you find out dreams just ain’t enough…” And: “For passionate people, these are desperate times / Desperate measures call for passionate crimes…”

He delivered a great indictment of the record business. “Midwest Midnight,” whose bookends chronicle a young music lover moving from fan to band to one more record company casualty, brandishing the seething rejoinder, “Chasing the fame keeps ’em all in the game, But money’s still the way they keep score / And nobody told you that you would get old, strung out like some Avenue whore…/ Waiting release, getting shot through the grease / Some L.A. madonna’s maligned / And New York’s calling just to see if you’ve heard ’bout the great English band they just signed….”

Bitter, yet cautionary, “Midnight” is matched by “Let’s Get the Show on the Road,” which cores the indignities and suspended animation of never quite breaking through. As the tedium and moments stack up, Stanley offers a truth that extends beyond rock ’n’ roll: “The Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones use the Lord.”

“Stagepass” was the live album — with the iconic cover of an anonymous girl pulling a pass from quite the decolletage — that seemingly every kid had to have, more ubiquitous in Northern Ohio than even than “Frampton Comes Alive!” Fist-pumping fury provided our own soundtrack, our own place in rock ‘n’ roll just as WMMS started winning those Rolling Stone readers’ polls for radio station of the year. His record deals with Epic, Arista and EMI never yielded the massive hit, but “Lover,” the slow burning ballad of losing the girl, provided the impossibly iconic declaration: “God bless the man who put the white lines on the highway…”

But again, that’s not quite why the guy who did “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark or “Midnight Special” with Joe Walsh and Dan Fogelberg in his band matters. He’d been produced by the biggest rock producers of the day in Don Gehman, Mutt Lange and Bill Szymczyk … and toured with the Eagles, REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac. Living the rarest air of rock ‘n’ roll without ever forgetting the folks in Cleveland, he was ours.

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Michael Stanley

A citizen of music long past the transition to hosting “PM Magazine” and being the guy who “takes you home” as the afternoon drive-time DJ on WNCX, Cleveland’s AOR station, he received the 2019 Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award. While he was generous with what he knew, he understood his importance to the fans who believed in that music for so many years.

When we finally met, eight months after I’d first emailed him, he grilled me about the mystery of it all. He was fascinated by how it looked from beyond the windshield – and he thought the notion of context was funny. He swore he really didn’t know, nor thought about it. It seemed real.

And when he challenged me to come see his current band play — “Don’t you wanna know?” — I resisted the urge to demure for fear of what happens to once great bands when they gear down to the nostalgia laps. He was playing downtown Cleveland’s largest outdoor venue, the Nautica, with a post-MSB group he’d dubbed the Resonators. It was all so odd, finally, I agreed to come watch, knowing there was no review to be filed, no harm to be done.

It was one of the greatest lessons in the power of not just rock ‘n’ roll, but the passion for a focused hometown hero. He took the stage like he meant it, and the Resonators, whose lineup included original MSB drummer Tommy Dobeck and keyboardist Bob Pelander, did, too. It was as if they were playing for their life, but even more for the fans’ lives.

And that’s where the lesson comes in. Working class people don’t age well. Twenty years ago, that audience was in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and they looked like it. Yes, the hot girls who were all so sexy were still those women, but for most of the audience, the years showed. By the second song, however, the miles had fallen away. On their chairs, howling and dancing, it was exactly how they were as the 1970s turned into the ‘80s.

By the end of the set, after all of the songs from all of those well-loved albums were played, but the audience was not sated. Stanley, 52 at the time, and band reappeared, fired up the music – and then the unthinkable. The former baseball player came off that stage, guitar slung low, and took a victory lap through the crowd; up one aisle, down the other. The people came completely unglued.

Talking about how insane it seemed the next day, I couldn’t help asking what prompted it.

“You know,” he said, “it just felt like it needed to be done.”

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Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley always got what the people needed. His annual two-weekend stands at an old-school Akron supper club yielded “Live In Tangiers,” an unplugged consideration of MSB and  early solo albums. The double-CD set showed a depth of seething rockers and wistful ballads, usually with the woman just out of reach.

He’d stopped recording, claimed he wasn’t writing in part because the world had moved on. Our epistolary friendship challenged the idea of his creativity, pushed him to start writing again. Suddenly, the songs and albums started coming. “The Ground” offered songs for people weighing the same questions about their place in the world; “American Road,” “The Soft Addictions,” “The Ride,” “The Hang,” “Shadowland” and “Just Another Night in America” continued the thread.

Once again, Michael was writing songs for the people nobody saw, speaking their truth so they knew they were seen and somebody recognized their conflicts, their triumphs, their lives. That was the magic. Those songs — “Romeo Is Bleeding,” “My Last Day On Earth,” “Lucky Again,” “Lap Dogs Dance,” “Vicodin & Prayer,” “You Just Never Know,” “The Curves of Bratenahl” and “How Many Guitars Do You Need” — gave a palpable soundtrack to people thought to be too old and not target demo, but still very much alive.

Scott Raab, the longtime Esquire writer, came to a Tangiers show with me one year. Taking in the crowd, the obvious reality of age and circumstances stunned him. “Just wait,” I cautioned. “You’ve never seen anything like it.”

Gamely, he nodded. Since he’d driven from Cleveland where he’d been working on his LeBron James book, he might as well hear “Strike Up the Band.” By the time the band had hit second gear, the years and the wear and tear had melted. The audience was transformed, back to their shiniest selves, 15 or 23 or 32 years old when life was fresh and possibilities were endless.

Raab leaned over. “What in the hell? I thought you were kidding.”

“It’s like ‘Cocoon’,” I yelled over the music. “They need to believe, and the music ignites them. But more importantly, they can tell he believes in them…”

Whether he ever turned into Bruce Springsteen or not, he was our hand on the brass ring. He held on for dear life, doing everything a rock star does, including selling out massive venues in the rock ‘n’ roll capitol of the world. But then when it was over, he kept on believing.

Like the city of Cleveland itself, he never let go. He kept rocking, kept playing shows, kept writing songs. Every now and then, the inbox would get an email from MSBB@aol.com with a song attached, something fierce or something tender, but always something from the heart.

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Michael Stanley