Cleveland won the right to host the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, but the best argument ever made that the Hall truly belonged on the North Coast was made by Ian Hunter on his 1979 solo release You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic. Yes, Frank Sinatra famously espoused the swanky glamour of New York and Chicago; Randy Newman acerbically let everyone know why he loved LA; but it was Hunter, the one time lead singer of Mott the Hoople that drew a line in the sand by defiantly letting the world know that “Cleveland Rocks.”
Ever wonder why a guy from Shropshire, England decided to carry the banner for our beleaguered home town? I was lucky enough to find out a few years ago. I’d just been turned away from Jon Brion’s weekly show by the impatient doorman of Club Largo in Los Angeles. At the time, I was a regular attendee of Brion’s Friday residency at the night spot, but on occasion the in demand producer of artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Kayne West, was joined by a celebrity that made showing up for his second set, as I was wont to do, an impossible proposition. On this night I was doubly hexed. Not only was Ian Hunter in the audience, but he was joined by Crowded House’s Neil Finn.
I was about to give up and call it a night, when I was given a huge assist by the indoor smoking bans that have recently swept their way across the nation. Out came Ian Hunter and he needed a light!
I was immediately there to help him out and it’s probably not hard to guess what I wanted to talk about. I quickly told Hunter where I had grown up and how in my youth WMMS had welcomed the weekend every Friday night at 6 PM by playing the Easybeats’ “Friday on my Mind”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and of course Hunter’s paean to our home town. I asked him how the song came about and this is what he told me:
“There was this period where everyone from Johnny Carson on down was really making fun of Cleveland. Well, we always got a great reaction there, and I figured that it needed someone to take its side to take the piss out of everybody.”
Besides providing an inspiring Rock and Roll underdog answer, Hunter was, if anything being kind. Cleveland’s late ‘70s nadir was a time where people would stand up and make sure that you knew they were from Dayton or Akron. The Cuyahoga River had infamously caught fire in 1969; Lake Erie was so polluted that Dr. Seuess mentioned its state of decay in his book the Lorax, and worst of all there was Dennis Kucinich, the youngest mayor in the history of the United States, who was widely thought to have led the city right into bankruptcy. History may have somewhat redeemed Kucinich’s legacy, but when Hunter released “Cleveland Rocks” in 1979, the “boy mayor” and his constituents were taking enough national abuse to make Britney Spears shed a tear in empathy.
The town was so desperate for good publicity that it launched the ill fated and less than inspiring “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland is a Plum” campaign. Hunter’s argument, with its Alan Freed intro, was infinitely more eloquent.
The mop haired singer went on to tell me how happy his bank account became when Drew Carey decided to use the song as his show’s theme in its third season. I felt good for Ian, but also shed a small tear for my childhood guitar teacher, Bob McGuire, the writer of “Moon over Parma,” Carey’s original choice.
Best of all, though, was this fabulous Hunter anecdote. Once, while walking through Cleveland Hopkins Airport, the rocker came upon an older married couple wearing “Cleveland Rocks” T-Shirts. When Hunter proudly told the couple that he happened to be the author of the song, the senior citizens looked at him quizzically and responded with a sincerely baffled unison response of, “There’s a song?”
Having fulfilled his nicotine fix, Ian said, “Thanks for the fag mate, are you going back in?” (Hunter isn’t homophobic; “fag” is a slang term for cigarette in England). I jovially told Hunter that indeed the reason I wasn’t going in was because his presence had filled the club to its gills and literally left me out on the street for the night. He offered to try and escort me in, but I politely declined not wanting to put him out. About a minute after wishing him well, the once rude doorman was politely waving me into the club like a VIP, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Ian had everything to do the instant change in his demeanor.
There are many noble men and women who grew up or resided in Cleveland, Bob Feller, Joe Walsh, Bob Hope, Jesse Owens, to name just a few, but when it comes to home town heroes make sure you never leave out Ian Hunter, a generous Englishman, who despite never residing here remains the city’s most articulate and tuneful defender.