It seems fitting that I'm writing this post on Interstate 80 just outside of Cleveland on my way to the Cubs series in my old hometown of New York City as a continuation of my band Bad Teenage Moustache's "Gig and a Game Tour." Which, by the way, continues this Thursday night at the Unicorn in NYC after the Cubs sweep the Mets again.
I've driven this well beaten path at least 100 times over the past 20 years, and even though Cleveland is the halfway point between Chicago and the Big Apple, I've rarely stopped there, preferring the cheaper roadside motels just inside of Pennsylvania so as to avoid mountain driving at night. However, the time before this last time I was in Cleveland was particularly memorable for all the wrong reasons.
A few years back, in the middle of one of my ex-marriage's trial separations, I was heading back to the Big Apple after a few games at Wrigley and Milwaukee when my used VW New Beetle's check engine light went on. I immediately pulled into a service station where they hooked the car up to the computer and said they couldn't figure out the code, but guessed that I needed a water pump, which they couldn't personally replace. Their only advice was to get the car to the closest VW dealer, which just happened to be an hour away in Cleveland. They also advised me not to drive the car at highway speeds and to take back roads under 45 miles an hour, and to stop at least every 30 minutes to let the car cool down if I had any hope of making it. I nearly blew the head gasket getting there, having to be towed the last few miles after white smoke came spewing out my tailpipe.
The mechanics claimed I'd be back on the road the next day. This was not the case, and I spent two nights and three days in Cleveland while they waited for parts.
It's one thing to go to Cleveland for a visit, and quite another to be stuck there. Seeing no other option, I rented a car and did the few things I found interesting, including a tour of the Christmas Story House, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where I got kicked out for photographing Cher's "Half Breed" headdress), and of course, a Cleveland Indians game at Progressive Field. I finally skipped town $1,600 in repairs and two hotels later, hoping to never go back again. i also hoped time apart from my wife would save our marriage. Neither thing turned out to be true. I got divorced and went back to Cleveland.
Last week, Bad Teenage Moustache, which on this tour consisted of my girlfriend Nicole, and keyboard player Gary, set out for a "Gig and Game Tour" to Cleveland and Minneapolis, with a brief stop in Columbus, Ohio for a rib dinner at Gary's parents and an open mic. The open mic at Bossy Girls Pin Up Joint was a bit of a bust, as it was running two hours late, but luckily, Space Bar next door was also holding an open mic, so we played there instead while most people in the bar watched the Cleveland Cavaliers lose the NBA finals. Despite the thin crowd, and lack of audience support, the gig was a nice warm up for the show the next night in Cleveland at Wilbert's.
We checked into our $44 a night Airbnb, on the other side of the tracks of most travelers' comfort zone, in the Waterloo Arts district, which is attempting a rejuvenation led by musicians and painters. However, even in the daytime, most shops are closed, and every restaurant Google suggests doesn't really exist. We had about an hour to freshen up at the apartment, which to our surprise had a ping pong table, and turned out to be an old dance studio. But no time for ping pong or dancing now! We had a gig to play and a game to catch.
Mike, the owner of Wilbert's, has a great business plan: Book out-of-town bands for Happy Hour gigs when their team is in town. The venue is directly across the street from Progressive Field, so with a 5:30 start time, we'd get to play music for an hour or so to pre-gaming fans, and be on time for the game. We arrived around 5, and immediately ordered our free band meal, and one of our two allotted comped beers.
It was right around then I noticed that the place was knee deep in middle aged women drunkenly screaming New Kids on the Block songs along with the sound system. As it turns out, NKOTB was playing right next door to Wilbert's, and as we finished up our meals, Mike asked us if we wouldn't mind going on at 6 p.m. instead, so as to sell as many amaretto stone sours as he could, to ladies reliving their late 1980s Donny Wahlberg crushes. I understood completely, but 6 became 6:30, became 6:45, and with the game and the concert about to start, Wilbert's cleared out of soccer moms and whatever baseball fans were left who could stand the ear splitting sound of Jordan Knight's falsetto and the sight of mom's wearing t-shirts their tween daughters can't even fit into.
I would have just taken the free parking, food and beer and gone to the game, but Gary's parents and their friends had driven up to see us, along with an anonymous BCB reader and Cubs Insider blogger Evan Altman. So right before first pitch and the first NKOTB auto tuned note, Bad Teenage Moustache went on, opening with a horribly received half version of "Hanging Tough." We played for about a half hour, including in the set "The Ballad of John Baker", and "Missing Baseball Cause I Had to Pee." Mike the owner, feeling bad we had been screwed out of an audience and any possible CD sales, bought us another round and gave us $100 for our troubles. We then went across the street to Progressive feeling like we had missed everything with the Cubs already up 6-0. By the time we sneaked down with a beer to Gary's parents' box seats, it was 10-0.
Progressive Field was by far the easiest place I've ever self-seat upgraded. No one asked for our tickets, and we had no trouble finding a few seats along the third base line far above the $13 price point we had paid for bleachers. With an attendance just over 15,000, the Indians are probably just happy anyone showed the night after the Cavs lost the NBA finals, leaving the city with a basketball hangover. Either way, we had a great view of the mascots dancing on the dugouts.
You might wonder: Who is Cleveland's mascot? They surely don't throw some white guy in an Indian costume out there to do a rain dance do they? You're right, they do not.
Though the name "Indians" remains as a reminder to all of us that Columbus was lost, their mascots are hot dogs covered in ketchup and mustard, an onion, and some pinkish purple monster named Slider. Usually teams trot out their mascots at very specific times during the game, like to race, or shoot T-shirts from an air gun. But not these guys! They're doing the electric boogaloo on the dugout, or mugging with fans for photos in the stands almost the entire game. I personally became obsessed with "Mustard" over the course of the 17-0 rout for no good reason other than that the game wasn't particularly holding my attention. In fact, I was cheering for Cubs outs during the seven-run top of the 9th inning, because after a drive, a gig, and a game, I just wanted to leave and sleep at that point.
Of course, I stupidly didn't sleep and stayed up until the wee hours playing Gary in a ping pong tournament back at our dance studio flat, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend who pulled the covers over her head. But these are the sacrifices bandmates make for each other.
We had been told by Mike the owner of Wilbert's that our entire band could get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame free because we toured through Cleveland. All it would cost us was one of our CD's. Unfortunately, my morning radio writing job was busy that next day, and I had to pop out a couple of parody songs about a woman going on the $10 dollar, the belly button challenge, plus a voice over about that white NAACP lady who pretended she was black. It's a living. A living that didn't give us enough time to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I was fine with it however. A. I had already been there when my car broke down, and B. the main new exhibit was about Paul Simon, who I haven't liked since he was a jerk to me when I auditioned for his Broadway musical Capeman 20 years ago. More on that story over beers at Wrigley if you care to hear it.
But what to do in Cleveland the few hours remaining before game time? Roadside America to the rescue!
i first bought the book form of Roadside America sometime in the 1990s when my old band God The Band was on tour. Roadside guided us to Giant lumberjacks made out of Mufflers and places where Elvis reportedly slept once. Like everything else that was once a book, it's now an app which uses your location to direct you to oddities and attractions nearby using your phone's GPS. So with not enough time for the Rock Hall, Nicole, Gary, and I set out to Playhouse Square to view the world's largest outdoor chandelier. Boy was it big and outdoors! We selfied in front of it because a sign told us to do so.
After that exhilarating two and a half minutes, we headed over to the public library to view the world's formerly smallest book in the special collections department. This miniscule copy of Old King Cole held the distinction of being the world's smallest book from 1985-2002, at which point it was dethroned. The world's current smallest book is "Teeny Ted From Turnip Town" which is the width of a human hair. Better get out those reading glasses! But the formerly "World's Smallest Book" was pretty darn small. How small was it? So small that we had trouble finding it, and spent more time trying to locate the tiny tome than actually viewing it. We also tried to see a bronze mural of Lincoln giving a gun to a slave, but the Civil War memorial was under construction.
We made it to the Thursday game on time, and met up with BCB reader Tom for a couple of beers as we waited out the rain delay in the Corner Bar, before heading to our actual seats in the bleachers. Unfortunately, our $13 seats also happened to be right in front of John Adams' seat. Not John Adams the president! But John Adams the Cleveland Indians drummer who has been a fixture at almost every home game since 1973.
I sat there tweeting out photos of me looking annoyed with Mr. Adams banging away over my shoulder, but got bored of that quickly and decided to introduce myself and get my picture taken with the famous fan. We chatted for a few innings about music and baseball and lamented the fact that these days no one would be allowed to bring in a bass drum, or any other non pocket sized instrument these days. I know this for a fact, because a band I was recording, The Garvey Train, inquired as to bringing instruments to jam in the bleachers at Wrigley. They were told "no," much to the delight of most of you I'm sure.
But John is more than just the Indians' war drum rally banger. He's an accomplished musician who plays regularly with bands around town. Plus, in 2011, he celebrated his 3000th game drumming for the Tribe who honored him with a plaque at his bleacher seat perch. The Indians rallied a bit in the fourth inning and John went back to his drum. I was out of beer, so I had stuff to do too...
The game was delayed for rain again in the fifth inning, but instead of staying in the ballpark, we scanned ourselves out at the smokers' gate and went back over to the scene of the day before's crime at Wilbert's. We passed the rain eating and drinking much more cheaply than we could have in the park. When the rain was over, and the game resumed, we simply scanned ourselves back into the park. I texted BCB reader Tom to see where he was, as most fans had left the game, and we pretty much had our pick of seats. We ended up about five rows back of the Cubs dugout, where we enjoyed inning after inning of dancing hot dog condiments in what unfortunately ended up as a Cubs loss.
The final injustice of the game was being handed a packet of Folger's Decaf coffee on the way out of the ballpark. Decaf? What's the point?
We Uber'd it back to our Airbnb, and spent the night playing ping pong again until 2 a.m.
Well, the Cubs split with the Tribe, but I had a much better time in Cleveland this go-around than the expensive car breakdown experience. In fact, to the naked eye, Cleveland has really turned a corner. Once a national joke, "the mistake by the lake", Cleveland is turning into one of the fastest-growing inner cities in the country. Young people, priced out of larger cities, are flocking to Cleveland for its affordability and growing job market. Even our Uber driver told us she left Manhattan after 30 years, and after 9/11, to move to Cleveland. Admittedly, she also told us she followed a man she shouldn't have followed there, but after the relationship soured, she like it enough to stay.
i feel like many once great Midwestern cities are on the rise again. i know from personal experience that NYC is unaffordable unless you like being a 40-year-old with three roommates. San Francisco is more expensive than Paris, and Los Angeles is a giant suburb. Chicago is even becoming overpriced, unfortunately, gentrifying artists and immigrants out of the neighborhoods they made cool and livable. It seems places like Cleveland are managing their cities well, inviting artists to beautify once abandoned buildings while managing to keep housing affordable for now. Of course, all these midwestern cities want to be the next Brooklyn awash in hipster money until rising to the status of Yuppie haven. It's a process I've witnessed far too often. But as of right now, Cleveland is in the artistic inception of the process, and a seemingly decent place to live. Plus, they house the world's formerly smallest book! How Cleveland cool is that!?