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Friday, December 15

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Do you think of yourself as a Midwesterner? A Northerner? If you live in Chicago, author Ted McClelland would call you a Great Laker. McClelland spent last summer driving around the Great Lakes — a 9,600-mile trip that took him as far west as Duluth, Minnesota, and as far east as Kingston, Ontario — to research his upcoming book, The Third Coast, which looks at the Lakes as a distinct region of North America, with its own culture and common interests. Gapers Block has been pleased to present a series of excerpts from the book over the past several months; this is the final excerpt.

Hamburg, New York

I was eating pancakes at a family restaurant in Olcott, grazing through the Buffalo News, when I read about the REO Speedwagon/Styx double bill. That night. At the Erie County Fair. I paid my bill, hurried to the car, and drove to the nearest public library, where I logged onto ticketmaster.com. I had to be there.

Arena rock is the Third Coast's greatest contribution to popular music. REO Speedwagon formed at the University of Illinois, but they named themselves after a truck built in Lansing, Michigan, and we loved from their hungry bar-band days to their nostalgia act dotage. I saw them in 1982, at Jenison Field House, with one of my burn-out friends from the cross-country team. They were at the stratospheric pinnacle of rock heroism, but they'd been sporting enough to play donkey basketball for charity the night before at the local high school. That year was the low point for the Rust Belt's factories, but our music had never been more popular. Styx, from Chicago, came out with its goofy Japanese techno-opera, Mr. Roboto. Cheap Trick, from Rockford, Illinois, was part of the cassette jumble in the glove compartment of every peach-fuzz stoner's Firebird, right on top of Cat Scratch Fever by the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent. This new cable channel, MTV, was always playing videos by April Wine, Triumph and Rush, three Ontario bands who'd honed their chops in Junior A hockey arenas. Bob Seger filled Cobo Hall for five-night stands. Yeah, Journey was the biggest act around, but they'd stolen our sound, and wasn't their biggest hit about a kid "born and raised in south Detroit"? (There's no such place, but thanks for thinking of us.)

REO Speedwagon last hit number one in 1985 with "I Can't Fight This Feeling," the most mathematically perfect power ballad ever recorded. Then they became as embarrassing a relic of '80s adolescence as leg warmers, returning to the public eye only for their obligatory "Behind the Music" special. Lansing never hid the old LPs in the basement. In the mid-1990s, REO Speedwagon returned to play the Michigan Festival and drew 40,000 people, the biggest crowd in the event's history.

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Ticketmaster wasn't taking orders the day of the event. Frantic, I called the fairgrounds box office on my cell phone. The infield was sold out, but I could have a grandstand seat for $35.

"You're going to have to pay separately to get into the fair, though."

This was a cultural happening. When REO and Styx play at a county fair five miles from Lake Erie, you don't worry about money.

The Erie County Fairgrounds showed me the human side of something that had been troubling me ever since I'd crossed the border. Driving through the decaying villages on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, I would pass a dingy gas station or an eyeless farmhouse and think, "You'd never see that in Canada." At least not in southern Ontario. Small towns are not allowed to fail there, the way they are in upstate New York. Neither are people.

County fairs are perfect settings for foreign journalists and snarky TV hosts who want to portray Americans as rustic boobs. Fairs bring the agricultural past to the county seat, attracting a dispossessed peasantry which still has a yearning for the soil, but lacks the money to buy any. I roamed the dirt midway, from the cloying cattle barns to the trailers selling frozen bananas, fried twinkies, cotton candy, tacos, burritos, pizza, elephant ears (the American stomach must emit a special enzyme between Memorial Day and Labor Day, enabling to digest fair food). I passed a man swinging his lone leg between a pair of crutches. From a phlegmy throat, I heard a gurgling, smoky laugh. I turned to see its source: a mouth open on a row of teeth that looked like a neglected picket fence. A fat woman whose clothes were so packed with flesh she had to swing her shoulders in a robotic stride, just to move forward. And wherever I looked, I saw military symbols. A booth decorated like an Army/Navy store sold Blue Star stickers — "Half My Heart Is In Iraq," "Half My Heart Is In Afghanistan" — and foamy hats marked with the screaming eagle of the 82nd Airborne or the chess knight's head of the 1st Cavalry. A pair of camouflaged recruiters had set up a table beside the Rocket Ride, a bungee cord that flung a loveseat into the air, where it bounced around like an atom. They had chosen a good spot. You'll never see a recruiting station in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, or Highland Park, Illinois.

I suffered more culture shock at the Erie County Fair then I had in all of Canada. For five-and-a-half weeks, I had traveled through a country that tries to drag all its citizens as close to a middle-class lifestyle as possible. Of course, it hadn't seemed odd. What's odd about a nation of white people with good teeth and split-level homes? That's how American television portrays our country. When you go away, you forget about the people left off the screen. But here they were, with their bad dentistry, appalling nutrition and bellicose tribal emblems. Poverty and militarism were on parade at the Erie County Fair. It was impossible not to see the connection. I had grown up around people like this, but until this evening, I had never understood that the United States is a nation of extremes. We have Harvard University, but we also have states where a third of the teenagers drop out of high school. Downtown Chicago has $28 million condos. Five miles away, ghetto squatters tap into power lines. For every fast-food franchise owner with a yacht and a summer home, there were dozens of serfs and villeins manning his grills, or going to war to fuel his Lincoln Navigator.

In line for the grandstand, I stood behind a couple in matching Journey t-shirts. I thought immediately of the Great White fire in Rhode Island. All its victims seemed to be 33 years old. If these bleachers collapsed tonight, would I be mourned alongside hundreds of other 35-to-45-year-olds with petrified musical tastes? I worried less when I sat down behind a squad of 14-year-old girls, and a gray-mustachioed man introducing his son to arena rock.

A disc jockey bounded onto the stage.

"How many of you were here for the 2003 REO/Styx concert?" His pep rally tone made me feel, even more, that I'd wandered back to high school. "A little rainy that night, too. All I want to say is if there's a group of people ready to ride the storm out, it's this group."

We cheered ourselves for still partying on a Friday night, after all these years, although 8,000 of us weren't enough to generate The Colloseum Roar; "whoo-hoos" and wolf whistles pierced the static.

"97 Rock is going to carry all the Bills games this year. They're gonna win tomorrow night, right?"

Yeah! This crowd was gonna rock. The Bills were gonna win. Buffalo was still in its prime, and so were we.

Back in the day, Kevin Cronin, the lead singer of REO Speedwagon, wore his dark locks in a Louis XIV perm. The stage lit up like Shea Stadium, and Cronin — or the Cronin-sized action figure under the sunlamps — jogged out under a head of platinum blonde hair, worn in a housewife's wash-and-wear bob. His voice, though, was a marvel of preservation. After 30 years, he had learned to imitate himself perfectly. As he sang "Don't Let It Go," biting down hard on his Midwestern "Rs," he sounded exactly like REO: The Hits on my Klipsch speakers. Beside me, a woman in a pink tube top jumped up on the bleacher bench and started dancing, her open-toed shoes flashing metallic toenails.

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During the next song, she whipped devil horns toward the stage.

"You take it on the run, baby, 'cause that's the way you want it, baby..."

Woozily, she bumped me, gripping my shoulders for support.

"I'm sorry," she said. "This is my old high school band."

"Mine, too. I saw them in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1982."

"I've seen them every year since I was five."

In her purse, she found a milky bundle of plastic wrap. Unspooling it, she found a prize at the core: a hunk of marijuana. It looked like a flop from a bonsai cow. She broke off a chip, stuffed it in a pipe, and lit.

"Smoke?" she offered.

"No, thanks."

"Do you mind?"

"No. It's part of going to a concert."

After the band crash-landed "Keep Pushin' On," Cronin told us how glad he was to be in Rochester.

"It is good to be back here. We got friends around here in Rochester. Y'all come to see us in limousines. That's the kind of people we like."

The guitarist stepped across the stage and murmured in Cronin's ear.

"I thought I was in Buffalo," he said. "Last night I was in Rochester, now I'm in Buffalo."

Then he reminisced about REO Speedwagon's golden age. He couldn't have been more than 55, but already he was George Burns spinning vaudeville stories.

"There was a time when all the stars were aligned perfectly for us, and that was 1985, when we had the number one record in the country."

"Eighty-five," the woman in the tube top moaned. "We're all gettin' old. Hey, you want some beer?"

She handed me her frothing cup. I drank. It was cold and astringent.

REO Speedwagon ran through its hits like an old hi-fi piling 45s on a turntable: "Keep On Lovin' You," "Roll With the Changes," "Take It on the Run." My neighbor danced so wildly she fell out of her slipper. While she slid it back on, she gripped my shoulder, for balance. "You know I'm going to abuse you before the night is over," she promised. In 3-1/2 months, that was as close as I got to a date.

"Let's have a shout out to the hard-working mothers!" Cronin shouted.

"Wooooo!" She raised her fist in salute.

Of course, they ended with "Ridin' the Storm Out." As I tell my hipster friends, you can talk all you want about Ani Di Franco's lyrics, but when REO hits that organ solo, you're gonna be dancing.

Every power-pop band needs an angel and a devil: a wimpy boy tenor and a crunching pseudo-metal guitarist. REO had fired its devil. The band had nothing left but Cronin's wholesome quaver.

Styx, on the other hand, had fired its angel and kept the devils.

"I didn't like Styx even when they had Dennis DeYoung," I told the woman in the tube top.

"Oh, they're still great."

"Who does the singing now? Tommy Shaw?"

"It's... I don't know. I'm too stoned."

Styx had hired an impersonator who could reach the ionospheric octaves DeYoung had discovered during the "Sail Away" sessions, but he and his piano were parked at the edge of the stage, as though he were entertaining in a cocktail lounge. That left plenty of room for the guitarists to run around. And they did, like cars without traffic lights. Squealing guitars and pounding drums collided in a sonic pile-up. The band raced through their songs, which were interspersed with Shaw screeching, "Do you need a Styx fix?" and "Are you ready to rock tonight?" They crowd loved it. It was dark, they were drunk, and Styx had a light show. At a county fair, always ask for the party shift.

Read on:

1. Sheboygan & Manitowoc County, Wisconsin
2. Marquette, Michigan
3. Mackinac Island, Michigan
4. Grand Marais, Minnesota
5. Pays Plat First Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada
6. Isle Royale, Michigan
7. Rogers City, Michigan
8. Toronto, Canada
9. Hamilton, Ontario
10. Hamburg, New York
Buy the book.

 

About the Author(s)

Edward McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, published in 2005 by Chicago Review Press. The Third Coast was released by the same publisher in 2008.

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