Cleveland Rocks. Cleveland Rolls. Cleveland Burns.

When you hear the name Randy Newman, what do you think? Family Guy? “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and Toy Story? “I Love L.A” and his shamanic performance of the song at Staples Arena?

Or, maybe, nothing at all?

Well, I’m here to tell you that this guy – Randy Newman – is one of America’s greatest living songwriters. Forget the Disney soundtracks, and even the Monk theme song. Give Good Old Boys or Sail Away a spin instead. You’ll realize he’s not just an excellent musician. He’s a critic and chronicler of our times, an unwanted bard and an exiled sage.

newmanThe best.

Good Old Boys is, for my money, the most vivid depiction of the Deep South in any medium. The instruments paint pictures, tell stories, express emotions. Newman’s narratives are complex and life-like. It’s a masterpiece.


But this isn’t about Good Old Boys. It’s about “Burn On” from Sail Away, one of the songs that set the stage and created the template for Newman’s greatest album. Except “Burn On” takes place in Cleveland around 1969.

Yes, “Burn On” was in Major League, a terribly brilliant vehicle for Charlie Sheen’s bad boy persona. If you live in Germany, you might remember it as Indianer von Cleveland.

That was the year the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the last time, when the sparks from a passing train ignited the muck floating on the water’s surface. Oh, sure, similar fires had happened before. Thirteen times to be precise. A blaze in 1952 caused over $1 million in damages (that’s roughly $9 million in today’s dollars). The Plain Dealer wrote a few stories about that one, and then it was forgotten.

clevelandThe Cleveland riverfront back then.

But this go around, a writer for Time hit the scene and used it as a springboard for a big article on the beleaguered Cuyahoga, figuring the environmentalist hippie crowd would eat it up. Turned out that hunch was right on the money.

The story was an overnight hit. Cleveland was shamed. The 1969 fire had been brief, the damage in the tens of thousands of dollars. The year before, the city had pledged millions to fix up the river. So why was everyone kicking Cleveland now? They were trying, really trying. The Cuyahoga wasn’t the only river on fire, y’know!

So the river was brown. So it dappled with oil patches. So you could count the fish on your fingers and toes. That was the price you paid for big industry. The final stretch of Cuyahoga isn’t exactly pretty in the best of circumstances, anyway. This is a river where mass fish die-offs are considered a good sign. Hey, at least there’s fish, and this is what fish do here, is the understanding.

The Cuyahoga was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the late ’60s, we were a sick nation. Sick of success, marriage, pollution, traffic, and the constant demands of commerce and industry. Big oil and big steel – Cleveland’s lifeblood – were closing shop in America and eying foreign shores. The end of Cuyahoga’s era as the great bowel of the Rust Belt was drawing near.

But didn’t they know we were angry, damn it? The fire had us grabbing up our torches to get a light.

cuyahogaAn earlier disaster on the Cuyahoga.

The drunken horns and off-kilter swagger of “Burn On” captures Cleveland as it was by then, a wobbly, bruised prizefighter down but not out. Newman’s glib nicknames for Cleveland, “city of light, city of magic“, have a sarcastic edge, yet you could imagine it as a tag line for the Great Lakes Exposition held in the ’30s to celebrate the city’s centennial. The cinematic string arrangement certainly recalls happier times.

Now the Lord can make you tumble,
And the Lord can make you turn,
And the Lord can make you overflow,
But the Lord can’t make you burn

The view of the fire from the observation deck of the Terminal Tower that fateful day in 1969 was oddly beautiful. The thick, black smoke against the bright sky, the colorful cranes and conveyors and trucks doing their strange dance along the stagnant, muddy channel…

Too bad nobody had a camera.

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Ontario Street, Chicago: Rock N Roll McDonald’s

englewoodLike Inglewood, Englewood is often up to no good.

There are two Chicagos. There’s “Chi-raq” – gang-ridden, poor, with a murder or two about every other day. Then there’s “the Loop” and the Gold Coast, glitter in the morning sun, a mecca of skyscrapers and high rises, wealth and influence.

Nowhere else in America is the contrast between the haves and have-nots so stark.

Hell, I’d say Chicago is the most American city in the United States. Turn on WGN or WLS in the morning and you never know if it’ll be another story about a murder, or if the anchors are gonna pimp a flashy sports car on air. It’s our everyday life on steroids.

If you still doubt Chicago’s pure Americanness, did you know that McDonald’s is headquartered there? OK, OK, technically the HQ is located in a suburb of the city, but that’s close enough. McDonald’s even has a restaurant that doubles as a museum of sorts in Chicago on Ontario Street, the former “Rock N Roll” McDonald’s immortalized by Wesley Willis. It takes up an entire city block and is surrounded by a seven floor Sports Authority, a Hard Rock Cafe and a Rainforest Cafe.

rocken roll mcdonalds chicagoIt left me speechless.

Really, McDonald’s in general is just tough to sum up. You want to hate it, to mock the Frankenfood and conformity. But truth is, we all have a soft spot for McDonald’s. They bought your allegiance at a early age with the Happy Meal toys, stuck their tendrils into your adolescent brain and injected it with addictive, mind-altering doses of sugar and fat.  They hook you early and keep you for life.

I think that’s what makes McDonald’s little museum on Ontario so unsettling. It’s ostensibly a celebration of your childhood, which is a great thing. And there’s Ronald McDonald, frozen in carbonite like Han Solo at the end of Empire Strikes Back, welcoming to his McDonald’s fun house. What could go wrong? The promise is good times in Chicago, a trip down memory lane, a Big Mac served with a side of your childhood dreams.

But something is amiss.

ronaldThe “museum” – if you can call it that – is located on the second floor. Take the escalator up and you’ll find it hidden behind the jazzed up McCafé hawking biscotti, gelato, and tiramisu. It’s a long, mysterious, serpentine hallway, with dated, tinny hits from the ’50s through the ’90s echoing off the walls, calling – no, beckoning to your subconscious,  whispering, You’re home. Relax. Welcome to the pop culture Valhalla. 

Display cases jam-packed with kitsch memorabilia from each decade drip with the thick, sickly syrup of nostalgia  (ed. note: not sure if they added an ’00s display yet) . Go-go boots, Lincoln Logs, a Tickle Me Elmo, a Cabbage Patch Kid… the very artifacts that once filled our world with wonder and drained our parents wallets. It’s supposed to make you point, to ooh and ah and ogle. Yet amassed here, cracking, peeling, and faded, it all looks so trivial, like it was all a big joke.

museumFrom afar, all is well. But don’t look too long or too close.

Was this our childhood, a meaningless collection plastic and cardboard, a series transient cathode rays emanating from an unfeeling tube? Was it all so flimsy, ephemeral and broken from the start? Exposed as a fraud under the hot glare of McDonald’s studio lighting, maybe those Pogs weren’t so cool after all. Maybe, maybe… it was really…

Fake. Fake, fake, fake.

This, my friends, is America, here in the most American city of all: Chicago. Take it for what you will.

Back outside, in a glass-enclosed box in the McDonald’s parking lot, statues of Reggie and Bettie from Archie are posed inside a candy apple red convertible. They’re staring straight at the bum across the street, eyes wide, smiling ear to ear.

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Pardon the Mess

I’m goofing around with the layout on this blog in preparation for a new project. I wanted to do it all behind the scenes, but WordPress’ preview feature wasn’t working quite right, so in the end it was easier to do it live. Turns out Bill O’Reilly was right.

Chances are this blog will look butt ugly for a few days as I figure out what I want to do and how to do it. Sorry!

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