It’s a wonder I can think at all

Time again for Hack’s Back Pages to administer a test of your ability to remember song lyrics!

This time, you’re going to be ruminating over lyrics written by the great Paul Simon, one of the finest songwriters this country has ever produced. From simple beginnings as an introspective folk singer with Art Garfunkel through his diverse early solo work and on through the wonderful South African roots music of “Graceland”, Simon has penned some of the most precise, poignant, whimsical and memorable lyrics the pop charts have ever seen.

I have divided the lyrics into Easy, Medium and Challenging sections, depending on the song’s popularity and which line of the lyrics I chose to single out. I’m betting most of you will breeze through the Easy, identify many of the Medium and even pick out a Challenging one or two.

Get yourself a pencil and paper to write down your guesses as you go. Then you can scroll down to find the answers and read a little bit about each song. Finally, check out the Spotify list to hear the songs you remembered and those you didn’t.

Get into the zone and focus. You’ve got this!

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EASY

  1. “Your time has come to shine, /All your dreams are on their way…”

2. “The answer is easy if you take it logically, /I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free…”

3. “And she said, ‘Honey, take me dancing,’ /But they ended up by sleeping in a doorway, by the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway…”

4. “And all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity, /Like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me…”

5. “They give us those nice bright colors, they give us the greens of summers, /Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day…”

6. “Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes, /Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…”

7. “The papa said, ‘Oy, if I get that boy, /I’m gonna stick him in the house of detention,’ /Well, I’m on my way, I don’t know where I’m going…”

8. When I was grown to be a man, and the Devil would call my name, /I’d say, ‘Now, who do … Who do you think you’re fooling?’…”

9. “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, /People writing songs that voices never share…”

10. “Mr. Beerbelly, Beerbelly, get these mutts away from me, /You know, I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore…”

MEDIUM

11. “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy, /I said, ‘Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera’…”

12. “Flying my bike past the gates of the factory, /My mom doing the laundry, hanging our shirts in the dirty breeze…”

13. “Then I learned to play some lead guitar, /I was underage in this funky bar, /And I stepped outside to smoke myself a ‘J’…”

14. “The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere, /And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb…”

15. “I am shielded in my armor, /Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, /I touch no one and no one touches me…”

16. “Some people never say the words ‘I love you,’ /It’s not their style to be so bold, /Some people never say those words ‘I love you,’ /But like a child, they’re longing to be told…”

17. “I got up to wash my face, /When I come back to bed, someone’s taken my place…”

18. “Asking only workman’s wages, I come looking for a job, /But I get no offers, /Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue…”

19. “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar, /I am following the river, down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War…”

20. “Ahhh, seasons change with the scenery, /Weaving time in a tapestry, /Won’t you stop and remember me?…”

CHALLENGING

21. “They echo and they swell from Tolstoy to Tinker Bell, /Down from Berkeley to Carmel…”

22. “These are the days of miracle and wonder, /And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry, don’t cry…”

23. “Couple in the next room, bound to win a prize, they been going at it all night long…”

24. “I get the news I need on the weather report, /Hey, I got nothing to do today but smile…”

25. “It was the year of The Beatles, it was the year of The Stones, /It was 1964, /I was living in London with the girl from the summer before…”

26. “Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset, /The sounds of the city sifting through trees…”

27. “August, die she must, /The autumn winds blow chilly and cold, /September, I’ll remember…”

28. “I never been laid so low in such a mysterious way, /And the course of a lifetime runs over and over again…”

29. “What a dream I had, pressed in organdy, /Clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy, /Softer than the rain…”

30. “I’m not the kind of man who tends to socialize, /I seem to lean on old familiar ways…”

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ANSWERS

EASY:

1. “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” 1970

The biggie, the biggest international #1 song of 1970. At its core, “Bridge” is a gospel song — “I envisioned Aretha Franklin singing it,” Simon said — and with Larry Knechtel on piano and Garfunkel turning in a spectacular lead vocal, it soars like nothing else Simon ever wrote. He claims it’s the song he is most proud of, out of a catalog of roughly 170 tunes.

2. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” 1975

Simon was in the process of divorce with his first wife as he was writing songs for his “Still Crazy After All These Years” album, and although most of the tunes were downbeat, this one took a more humorous approach to the whole breaking-up process. In the middle of the disco era, this single defied the odds by reaching #1 on the US charts in early 1976. (By the way, Simon mentions only five ways to leave your lover.)

3. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” 1986

Simon had visited South Africa in 1985 to immerse himself in the engaging rhythms of the indigenous music there. He brought some of the musicians back to the US with him to record, most notably the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who dazzled everyone with their vocals and dance routine when they performed with Simon on a memorable episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

4. “Homeward Bound,” 1966

The follow-up single to “The Sound of Silence” proved Simon and Garfunkel were far from “one-hit wonders.” He’d written the song while living in England in 1965, homesick for his girl and more familiar surroundings. The literary references and mature vocabulary were uncommon for the pop charts, but typical of the kind of songs Simon was writing at the time.

5. “Kodachrome,” 1973

Simon traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record this song with the extraordinary studio musicians there. In particular, keyboardist Barry Beckett really shines on this recording, playing tack piano like a man possessed. Simon said he had originally called the song “Goin’ Home,” which felt too conventional, so he switched it to “Kodachrome,” a color-saturated Kodak film that makes drab scenes look artificially bright and colorful, much like society’s penchant for glossing over ugly truths.

6. “Mrs. Robinson,” 1968

There she is, the tempting cougar as played by Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate.” Simon had only written the chorus when Director Mike Nichols heard it, but since he was on a tight deadline, Nichols used only that short fragment. Simon finished the song a couple months after the movie’s release, and it went to #1 that long hot summer of ’68. The line “A nation turns its lonely eyes to you” seemed to reassure us after the assassinations that occurred that spring.

7. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” 1972

The lyrics to this infectious single from Simon’s debut album tell a rather vague story about two boys who have broken the law (the exact crime is never mentioned) but are subsequently released and end up on the cover of Newsweek. Simon has said the story is “just a fiction, a whimsical pop song,” but its popularity has made it a highlight in Simon’s concerts for decades since its release.

8. “Loves Me Like a Rock,” 1973

Simon brought in numerous additional musicians for the diverse music he wrote for the “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” album. For this joyous gospel single, which reached #2 in the US, the impeccable voices of the New Orleans vocal group The Dixie Hummingbirds dominate the proceedings, singing in counterpart to Simon’s lead vocal.

9. “The Sound of Silence,” 1965

The song that got the ball rolling for Simon. He wrote it in 1963 and recorded it in acoustic form with Garfunkel for their debut album “Wednesday Morning 3 AM” in 1964, but the album was a commercial dud. Still, the song got some notice on college radio and, unbeknownst to Simon, Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson remixed the track with electric guitar and drums to capitalize on the burgeoning “folk rock” genre. It rocketed to #1 in early 1966 and put the duo on the map.

10. “You Can Call Me Al,” 1986

Simon and his pal Chevy Chase put together a hilarious music video for this upbeat single from “Graceland,” in which Chase mouths the lyrics while Simon sits quietly, then brings in various instruments to mimic playing at appropriate moments. The track peaked at #23 in the US but went Top Five in the UK and parts of Europe.

MEDIUM:

11. “America,” 1968

This is the first track that showed Simon had matured into a writer of great emotional and musical depth. It’s a snapshot of a young couple who “walked off to look for America,” unsure of what they’ll find in a tempestuous time (1968). It’s the highlight of the “Bookends” album, a real tour de force, but inexplicably stiffed when released as a single.

12. “My Little Town,” 1975

After five years apart, Simon and Garfunkel reunited in 1975 to record “My Little Town,” which was released simultaneously on Simon’s “Still Crazy” album and Garfunkel’s “Breakaway” LP. They also performed together on the initial season of “Saturday Night Live.” The song reached #9, helping sales of both albums. Fans hoped the duo would reunite long-term, but it proved to be short-lived…although they would reunite for tours multiple times in the ensuing years.

13. “Late in the Evening,” 1980

Simon starred in and wrote the music for the art film “One Trick Pony,” a dour look at the life of an aging pop star as he still lives most of his life on the tour doing shows while his relationships suffer. This track is the most upbeat of the bunch, describing the high he gets from performing to an enthusiastic crowd. It peaked at #6 on the pop charts, thanks to a lively arrangement with a commanding bass line and horn section.

14. “At the Zoo,” 1967

Simon wrote this little ditty to be used in the zoo scene in “The Graduate,” but the director turned it down. The duo released it as a single, which peaked at #16, and was later used by various zoos in their advertising campaigns. Simon wryly assigns character traits to the various animals, and urges everyone to make the “light and tumble journey” to visit their local zoo.

15. “I Am a Rock,” 1966

This testament to isolation and loneliness might be difficult to bear if it weren’t set to a lively rock beat. It was the duo’s third single, following the brooding quietude of “The Sound of Silence” and the homesickness of “Homeward Bound” (both also set to a rock arrangement). It peaked at #3, their third consecutive Top Five appearance. Simon later found the song “a bit too depressing” and rarely included it in his concert set list.

16. “Something So Right,” 1973

“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” Simon’s second solo LP, overflows with happy, effervescent songs. He seems happier than he’s ever been, particularly on this beautiful piece, in which he can’t believe things are going so well for him. Ironically, less than two years later, he was writing songs about splitting up. In 1995, British singer Annie Lennox recorded a gorgeous cover version on her “Medusa” album.

17. “Cecilia,” 1970

That’s producer Roy Halee on the left in the above photo. He was instrumental in bringing out the duo’s best sounds and arrangements on their final two albums, both of which were phenomenally popular. “Cecilia” uses random percussion — pots, pans, drumsticks on tabletops — to give the song a certain primitive feel. It went all the way to #4 as the follow-up single to “Bridge” in 1970.

18. “The Boxer,” 1969

Easily one of Simon’s top five songs of all time. The “lie-la-lie” chorus was supposed to be a placeholder until he could come up with lyrics that fit, but he eventually decided to keep it as is. “No matter what language you speak, you can sing ‘lie-la-lie,'” he said. The producer used a snare drum inside an elevator shaft to make the gunshot sound you hear during the choruses.

19. “Graceland,” 1986

“I was taking a trip with my son after my second marriage ended, and one of the stops we made was in Memphis to see Elvis’s homestead,” Simon recalled about the lyrics to the song that would also become the album title to his massively successful 1986 LP. Five South African musicians and The Everly Brothers contributed instrumentation and vocals to the recording, and it ended up winning the Record of the Year Grammy.

20. “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” 1966

This modest hit for S&G in the fall of 1966 uncannily captures the feeling of November afternoons when it feels as if it’s about to snow. It’s one of the first of their songs to receive a more complex arrangement. The Bangles recorded a rocked-up version 20 years later that reached #2 on the charts.

CHALLENGING:

21. “Cloudy,” 1966

I always thought this track from the “Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme” album captured S&G at their most innocent and childlike. Its lyrics are consistent with Simon’s themes of angst and isolation, but the music is upbeat and hopeful.

22. “The Boy in the Bubble,” 1986

The leadoff track on Simon’s astounding “Graceland” album features synthesizers, accordion and prominent African drums to discuss the strange new world of the 1980s, “the days of miracle and wonder” when violence can happen anywhere but new medicines are giving hope for those with previously incurable conditions.

23. “Duncan,” 1972

This wonderful little “story song” from his debut solo LP uses playful, mischievous language in six short verses to tell the tale of a man who leaves home, takes a trip “down the Turnpike for New England” and loses his innocence to a young woman he hears preaching in a parking lot. Curiously, Simon ignored the song for years but revived it for his final concerts in 2018.

24. “The Only Living Boy in New York,” 1970

From the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album, this favorite track of mine finds Simon alone in New York City working on the duo’s next album while Garfunkel spent six months on the set of the film “Catch-22” in Mexico. He is trying to be understanding but is very frustrated by his partner’s absence.

25. “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” 1983

On “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” from his vastly underrated “Hearts and Bones” album, Simon pays tribute to a moderately successful ’50s rocker but then goes on to recall the awful night another “Johnny Ace” — John Lennon — was shot and killed in 1980. The song was first performed at S&G’s “The Concert in Central Park” in 1981.

26. “Old Friends,” 1968

For their 1968 LP “Bookends,” Simon wrote a song cycle that examines different stages of life. The declining years are captured poignantly on “Old Friends,” describing two men in their ’70s passing the days on a park bench. It later became the title of the duo’s 2004 tour and live LP.

27. “April Come She Will,” 1966

One of his simplest and prettiest songs, this track appears on “The Sounds of Silence” album and also was used on the soundtrack of “The Graduate.”

28. “Mother and Child Reunion,” 1972

Simon had been to Jamaica and was charmed by the reggae music he heard, so he thought he’d take a stab at writing a song with reggae rhythms. He always felt it fell short of what he was aiming for, but as the first single from his debut solo album, it was well received by critics and fans alike, reaching #4 in the US and the UK. “It’s a rather brave attempt at trying something very new to me, which is something I’ve continued to do throughout my career,” Simon said.

29. “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” 1966

This gorgeous song, about a woman Simon knew in England but lost track of, appeared on the “Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme” LP. It’s one of the few where Garfunkel sings alone without harmony (with Simon accompanying on guitar as usual). A live version was included on the 1972 “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” package.

30. “Still Crazy After All These Years,” 1975

This tune is among several from the Grammy-winning album of the same name that explore the dissolution of Simon’s first marriage. It takes a look at the detached feelings one goes through when the relationship is no longer working and you’re just going through the motions. It didn’t do much as a single, but Simon drew laughs when he performed some of it on “Saturday Night Live” while wearing a turkey costume.

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Here’s a Spotify list of all 30 songs so you can remind yourself, or hear for the first time, the best of Simon’s impressive body of work.

Cleveland rocks! Cleveland rocks!

In 1983, up-and-coming bar-band rocker Huey Lewis had just finished an exhilarating show before an enthusiastic crowd in a small venue in Cleveland.  He and his band, The News, were in their van heading off for the next stop on their tour, and Lewis took a last look at the bridges, industrial Flats and downtown buildings that mark the skyline of the oft-maligned Midwest city on Lake Erie.  “You know,” he said thoughtfully, to no one in particular, “there’s plenty of great music on the West Coast, and the East Coast, and in the South…but the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland!

Lewis and guitarist Johnny Colla wrote “The Heart of Rock and Roll” with that theme in mind — heartland, blue-collar, fist-pumpin’, rock and roll-lovin’ fans in Cleveland are the best, most passionate rock fans you’ll find.  Ultimately, their manager persuaded them to make the lyrics more universal by mentioning numerous cities across the country so people anywhere could relate to it.  But Lewis’s initial thought was right on the money:  Cleveland and rock and roll are a pair made in heaven.

What’s up with that?  How did Cleveland earn its reputation as the Rock and Roll Capital?  How is it that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is located not in Memphis, or Philadelphia, or New York, or Los Angeles, but Cleveland, Ohio?

I’m a Cleveland native, spent my first 40 years there, attended hundreds of rock concerts there, even spent time as a concert reviewer for local newspapers, so I’m not without bias about my home town. Still, even though a number of cities have played a role in the birth, nurturing and continued support of rock and roll music since its inception in the mid-1950s, Cleveland has, without a doubt, been loudly and proudly involved in rock virtually every step of the way.

Want proof?  How about this:  The Moondog Coronation Ball, held at the old Cleveland Arena in 1952, is widely regarded as the very first rock and roll concert ever staged, sponsored by…

Alan Freed, the iconic disc jockey who purportedly coined (or, at the very least, first aired and popularized) the term “rock and roll,” began his radio career on WJW-AM in 1951 in Cleveland, playing rhythm-and-blues music (then known pejoratively as “race music”) to white and black audiences alike.  It was Freed who sponsored the Moondog Ball before moving on to a bigger spotlight (and infamy from a payola scandal) in New York.

Radio brought the music to the audience, and Cleveland listeners benefited from being regarded as a test market among record companies, who were eager to try new releases in influential smaller markets before going national with them.  In the Fifties and Sixties in Cleveland, Bill Randle was THE man.  From his perch at WERE, he had more clout than just about anyone in the country.  By the mid-’60s, it was “WIXY 1260, Super Radio” that ruled the airwaves, playing Top 40 and more to an eager audience.

At the same time (1964-1971), Cleveland’s WEWS-TV broadcast and syndicated a rock and roll showcase called “Upbeat” that far outlasted national rock-based programs like “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo,” airing performances every week by virtually every artist (British, R&B, American, whatever) of the time period who came through town.

By the mid-’70s, everyone was listening to FM radio with its better signal, and in Cleveland, listeners were blessed with the formidably hip gang of DJs and program directors of WMMS-FM 100.7, which was regarded as the best rock radio station in the country for many years running.  Major artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and Bruce Springsteen all credit the ‘MMS personalities — Billy Bass, David Spero, Kid Leo, Denny Sanders, Betty Korvan, Len Goldberg and others — for helping to break them nationally.

Cleveland’s rock and roll fans were not only passionate radio listeners but also bought records in huge numbers.  In downtown Cleveland, Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz was among the first to recognize the growing number of white teen customers who were buying R&B records in the ’50s, and consequently steered his business in that direction.  More stores opened in the suburbs, and hip shops like Record Revolution in the counterculture Coventry area of Cleveland Heights, Melody Lane in Lakewood,  and Music Grotto near the Cleveland State University campus flourished.  The chains (Peaches, Record Theatre, Disc Records) added fuel to the fire, and by the 1970s and ’80s, Cleveland was the number one market in the US for rock music record sales.

When rock bands began hitting the road in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, no tour was considered complete without a stop in Cleveland, where promoters, venues staffers, hotel managers, radio personnel, spirited groupies and hard-core fans rolled out the red carpet, eager to show them that they loved their rock and roll, and they meant business.

As rock and roll grew exponentially around that time, so did the business interests, reach, influence and success of Jules and Mike Belkin, two Cleveland brothers who built Belkin Productions from a small concern in 1966 into the undisputed king of rock concert promotion in Cleveland and all over Ohio and the Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s and beyond.  They combined efforts with most venues in the area to bring thousands of concert opportunities to Clevelanders for many decades.

Cleveland offered a rich, broad array of venues for bands at every stage of popularity.  The top acts played Public Hall or Music Hall downtown, or later, the Richfield Coliseum south of town.  Blossom Music Center, one of the nation’s first outdoor amphitheaters, opened in 1968 and still hosts many dozens of shows annually more than 50 years later.  In the 1970s, the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was the home of The World Series of Rock, a series of multi-act concerts that drew upwards of 75,000 fans.  In the early days, clubs like the Chesterland Hullabaloo catered to an under-age crowd with notable acts of the era.  Leo’s Casino brought in the top R&B acts of the day.  The grand old Allen and Palace theatres in Playhouse Square have hosted many concerts.  There was the theater-in-the-round Front Row Theatre.  There was Peabody’s in the Flats, the Euclid Tavern in University Circle, the Phantasy Nite Club in Lakewood, the Empire downtown… And so many more that came and went, in the suburbs and outlying areas over the years…

Easily the most influential, most prized, most famous concert venue in Cleveland was The Agora Ballroom (and its basement-level second stage, The Mistake), where pioneering impresario Hank LoConti brought in countless major and minor bands (from Dire Straits to ZZ Top, from Yes to Springsteen, from Todd Rundgren to Alice Cooper) to play to packed audiences night after night in the sweaty, vibrant, authentically rock venue.  It ranked with the West Coast’s Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore and The Roxy, and New York’s The Bottom Line and Max’s Kansas City as the club every band longed to play.

Curiously, Cleveland hasn’t exactly been a fertile breeding ground for musical acts that made it big on a national scale.  While the region was full of excellent local/regional bands that had rabid followings in the clubs and venues there — Glass Harp, Beau Coup, Fayrewether, Death of Samantha, Damnation of Adam Blessing, Love Affair, American Noise, Tiny Alice, Wild Horses, Deadly Earnest, Nitebridge — only a handful of musicians went on to widespread notoriety.

Mentioned most often is guitar hero Joe Walsh, who attended Kent State and honed his chops in clubs and bars around Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.  He joined The James Gang in 1968 and was largely responsible for them winning a record contract, releasing hit albums and singles, and gaining the attention of luminaries like Pete Townshend.  Walsh, of course, then went on to international success as a solo artist, member of The Eagles, and session guitarist on dozens of other artists’ recordings over a 50-year career.

Also notable were The Raspberries, now often regarded as the first “power pop” group, playing engaging Beatles-like rock and pop in the 1970-1974 period, led by the voice and songs of Eric Carmen, who was born and raised in the Cleveland suburbs.  Carmen’s solo career in the late ’70s and ’80s included a half-dozen Top Five singles and a huge following here and abroad.

Originally from nearby Canton, Ohio, The O’Jays struggled along for more than decade as a modestly successful R&B vocal quintet on a minor record label until 1972. That year, two members threw in the towel, but the remaining trio signed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label and became superstars with Top Ten hits like “Backstabbers,” “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “I Love Music” and “Used Ta Be My Girl.” They often appeared on “Soul Train” and continued to record into the 1990s and still occasionally perform today. They were inducted in the Rock Hall in 2005.

The multi-talented Tracy Chapman came out of one of Cleveland’s tough inner-city neighborhoods and, thanks to the “A Better Chance” program, lifted herself out of poverty and to the opportunities presented at Tufts University in Boston.  She was discovered playing coffeehouses there, and her 1988 debut album and hit song “Fast Car” helped her win the Best New Artist Grammy that year.  She has enjoyed broad critical acclaim for her eight albums of original material, including the Grammy-winning song “Give Me One Reason” in 1995.

Playing piano on Chapman’s second album was Marc Cohn, another product of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, who went on to fame himself by also winning the Best New Artist Grammy, in 1991, due to his hugely popular piano hit “Walking in Memphis,” a Song of the Year Grammy nominee.  He has released a half-dozen strong albums (in particular, I recommend his debut and “The Rainy Season”) in the singer-songwriter genre over the past two decades.

Nine Inch Nails, led by eccentric visionary Trent Reznor, got their start in Cleveland in 1988 and went on to chart a half-dozen Top Five albums in the ’90s and beyond.  Nine Inch Nails was inducted into the Rock Hall in 2020, and Reznor still tours and records today with a revolving lineup of supporting players.

Although she was far more successful later as a television personality and theme-song singer, Rachel Sweet (an Akron native) had her moment in the rock music scene. She was only 16 when her debut LP “Fool Around” was released in 1978, and by age 20 after three more low-charting albums, she moved on to the small screen. Her only Top 40 hits were covers of “Everlasting Love” with Rex Smith in 1981 and “I Go to Pieces” in 1979, which managed only #32 and #36 respectively.

A Cleveland punk band known as Frankenstein found local audiences to be indifferent to punk rock and left in 1976 for New York City, where they became The Dead Boys, led by Stiv Bators, and ranked right up there with The Ramones, Blondie, Television and The Dictators in the New York punk rock scene of the late ’70s.

Emanating from Cleveland’s east side near Shaker Heights was The Dazz Band, the talented funk group that enjoyed success on R&B and Top 40 charts in the early ’80s, especially Grammy-winning #5 hit “Let It Whip” in 1982.

Pere Ubu was a Cleveland-based “avant-garage” band that “celebrated ’50s and ’60s garage rock and surf music as seen through a fun-house mirror,” as one critic put it.  They formed in 1975 and made more than a dozen albums over the next 40 years which, while not commercial hits, were critical favorites.

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Cleveland’s favorite homegrown band by far was the Michael Stanley Band, a polished Midwest rock band with a compelling sound and great songs who inexplicably didn’t break through nationally, except for two underperforming singles (“He Can’t Love You” at #33 in 1980 and “My Town” at #33 in 1983).  Between 1973 and 1983, Stanley and his band made nine solid albums that were every bit as good as, and better than, other national acts of that genre.  MSB still holds records for sell-out show attendance records at several Cleveland venues.

In the mid-’80s, when national movers and shakers in the music business announced plans for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, there were conflicting views as to where such an attraction should be located.  Some said Memphis; others lobbied for San Francisco; still others thought Philadelphia; and, of course, New York and Los Angeles because of their size and wealth.  The board members were inclined to go with New York, but Cleveland civic leaders and radio execs put on a full-court press to sell the city as the appropriate place for the museum.  This included a visit to Cleveland by board members to see potential sites and hear how passionate Clevelanders were about playing host to the facility.

The deciding factor turned out to be a USA Today poll, where readers were encouraged to phone in their votes for the most deserving city.  The response was overwhelming — the largest response ever to a newspaper phone-in poll — and it was also incredibly one-sided:  Cleveland garnered 110,000 votes, and in second place was Memphis with a paltry 7,200.  That level of enthusiasm by the people of Cleveland — the rock music lovers who already recognized their town as the rock and roll capital — tipped the scales.

It took another nine years, but the Hall of Fame building — a visually dramatic structure (designed by I.M. Pei) on Cleveland’s lakefront — opened in 1995, with a spectacular all-star rock concert at the now-razed Cleveland Stadium next door, featuring dozens of the biggest names in the business.  It was, and continues to be, a huge victory for Cleveland and its connection to rock and roll.

Probably the definitive and certainly most exhaustive book about Cleveland’s rock credentials and history is Deanna Adams’s 600-page Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Cleveland Connection, (Kent State University Press, 2002).  Sprinkled with vintage photos and brimming over with quotes from most of the key figures in Cleveland’s rock music scene, the book is a fascinating read for any Cleveland rock fan and, indeed, for any fan of rock music history anywhere.

I must say, I find it puzzling that there seem to be so few rock songs that reference Cleveland.  I went digging and came up with only a handful:  “Cleveland Rocks,” Ian Hunter, 1979; “Look Out Cleveland,” The Band, 1969; “Cleveland,” Jewel, 2001.  There are two about the city’s infamous burning river:  Randy Newman’s “Burn On” (1970) and R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga” (1986).  Others are really about nearby cities, like Springsteen’s “Youngstown” (1995), or The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” (1985), about Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; or, of course, Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Ohio” (1970), about the shootings in Kent, Ohio.

There’s the occasional lyrical reference too.  You may have noted, for instance, that in Gordon Lightfoot’s #1 ode, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the freighter’s destination on that fateful journey was…Cleveland.

Sadly, the music of some of the early local Cleveland bands was not preserved and is unavailable on Spotify, but I’ve assembled a playlist of songs by Cleveland-based acts, from Alex “Skinny Little Boy” Bevan to the Euclid Beach Band, and I think you’ll dig the tracks by the early James Gang, the Raspberries and the fabulous Michael Stanley Band.  If you listen closely at the end of the Huey Lewis hit, God bless him, he wrapped up the tribute to rock and roll by concluding that its heart was indeed “still beating…in Cleveland…”

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