White Lines on Highway Were a Path Home
A Tribute to Michael Stanley
In the early ’80s, when my girlfriends and I were old enough to drive, we flipped a coin over whose parent’s car we would borrow, scraped up enough quarters to make the gas tank gurgle, and drove into downtown Cleveland. Downtown was a frequent destination for us. Oftentimes, we had more in common with Cleveland than our hometown of Amherst, the two locales a thirty-minute jaunt apart.
We wore Cleveland proud on our lips and our sleeves, singing to lyrics written by Michael Stanley and wearing his band’s MSB logo on our tees.
When night time fell, we took to the streets. Sometimes, we’d cruise past a house party to see if we knew the cars stalled in the drive. (We knew which boy drove what car). Most of the time, we just drove. To the lake or Andy’s Beach (a house belonging to his dad). To South Amherst and Gore Orphanage Road and the drive-thru where we hoped the clerk accepted our fake ids so we could buy a few six packs, try to let on we were more mature than life would let us be, and rode on. And to Cleveland in the Flats and our Midwest Midnight:
Ten thousand watts of holy light
from my radio so clear…
Bodies glistening, everybody’s listening
As the man plays all the hits that you want to hear
Windows down, and when we were lucky, in a car with an FM radio station, we sang along to every word Michael Stanley and his band played, phrases echoing what lay ahead for each in the rest of our lives. Those nights, we drove on and on, determined to explore who we wanted to be.
Michael Stanley died on Friday. As typical following a musician’s death, fans said his music was the soundtrack of their lives. I have so many soundtracks — influenced by my mother, my big sister, and college roommates — like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seger, but Michael, he was my hyperlocal soundtrack that set my Cleveland blood on fire.
Yes, Michael spoke to me and my girlfriends, or as one wrote in our group text after hearing the news, said, it was a refreshing to hear love songs from a man’s point of view about longing and letting go.
Yet to us, Michael Stanley meant even more. Growing up in Rocky River, not too far from Amherst, his success was a vision of what our success could later become. Like him, we had big hearts and even bigger plans. If his name was blinking, ours could too someday.
He appeared on stage at Richfield Coliseum for many New Year’s Eve concerts all of them blending together for me. He played at Blossom Music Center so many times we could set our calendars by it. His presence on stage was a constant, a showman showing us the way. He was a reliable source of not only dreaminess — which I must admit to when his band members took the stage with shirts buttoned only halfway, their voices smooth, and their dark waves of hair that matched the curl of their leather jackets — he also represented escapism from teen life, a Klieg searchlight emanating from the raised stage casting a beam on the direction we needed to go.
After college, I moved to Cincinnati, a regular tour stop for a different kind of icon, Jimmy Buffet. There were similarities in how each performer represented their fans and the region in which they appeared, the difference being Buffet was not from Cincinnati. Michael was FROM Cleveland and we claimed him loud and proud. His fame had traveled on the wings of those who flocked to colleges in southern Ohio, including Miami U. In Cincinnati, it seemed everyone knew who Michael Stanley was. Later, I realized how little his fame had spread. The lesson was: it’s okay to make it big in your hometown, because you can help make your hometown bigger.
Winter nights, along Route 2, my friends challenged me to see how fast I could drive from Cleveland back to Amherst (sorry, Dad). Along the way, there was the glow from the bars and the thousand stars, like a cold Ohio night, and we delivered thanks for the man who put the white lines on the highway. There has never been a late night since when those neon white lines and those bright lyrics seared into my subconsciousness did not lead me home.
As news of Michael’s death hit, I texted my high school friends. Going back and forth with our remembrances, we held a virtual grief support group that lasted until bedtime. My eyes were puffy before turning in and sleep came only when the lyrics whoever you are, I’m falling in love again left my head.
Hours before hearing of his death, I had turned in a freelance assignment about why we mourn when our favorite celebrities die. In this case, it was related to my work in the Alzheimer’s field. Our sorrow is not specifically aimed toward the name in the headlines. Instead, we are mourning a childhood, an event, or a person or era that corresponds to the height of that person’s stardom.
Tony Bennett’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis was reminiscent of my mother seated at the piano, ensuring I played the final three notes of Misty at the right tempo. Marty Schottenheimer’s death from Alzheimer’s reminded me of Uncle Tony who cursed at his beloved Cleveland Browns, and those bitter cold days I camped out for playoff tickets. Witnessing the diagnosis or death of someone famous reminded us of the bonds that held humans together.
But we can mitigate our sadness by holding up their work as a mirror to our life.
As the sun blazed through the grey of February fully intent on showing its March self, I sat outside and played every Michael Stanley Band song that seeped into my consciousness (thanks, Spotify). Looking in that mirror, I found me:
Seventeen caught in between
What I was and what I wanted to be
I was listening to no one
And nobody was listening to me
…And after all my friends think I’m crazy
Living in the past
But all you get to keep are the memories
You gotta make the good ones last
…Somewhere in the Night,
she’s reaching out and touching me.
Somewhere in the night,
And I just can’t let it go.
I became near giddy in the flood of rays and musical notes. The wash of his words revealed a younger me, in jeans that clung a little too much to go with tight perm curls unraveling in North Coast winds, car speeding through the zero hours to make curfew. Blizzarding or not — it didn’t matter — we followed the white lines to and from Cleveland, Michael Stanley as our guide.