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.

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.

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.

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 industrialized 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 you could count the fish on your fingers and toes.  So it was dappled with oil patches, and the shore dotted with factories. 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.

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.


6 thoughts on “Cleveland Rocks. Cleveland Rolls. Cleveland Burns.

  1. The country’s rivers and lakes have experienced a lot of environmental progress since they were initially polluted by heavy industry. A lot/most of the countries resources are cleaner today than they were fifty years ago, especially in the Rust Belt. My mom tells me how she used to hold her nose when she passed over the Flint River as a kid. Flint has gone downhill in many ways since then, but at least the river doesn’t smell like shit.

  2. It would have been an accomplishment if Flint had reduced pollution while maintaining its strong industrial economy. But as it is, bragging about the river’s improvement is making lemonade out of moldy lemons. Of course the environment is going to recover if humans abandon the area. Flint at 100,000 people is a lot greener than Flint at its peak, and Flint at 50,000 or 20,000 people will be greener still. It’s the same scenario in Cleveland and Detroit.

    We never fixed the environmental problem. We just moved it to South America and Asia.

  3. That might be the other half of the story, but the river’s improvement can’t only be attributed to population loss. Environmental regulations are tighter on companies now than they were in 1969 when this incident occurred. There are also newer organizations focused on cleanup and maintenance; there is an annual Flint River cleanup, for example. I’m sure improved technology has helped a lot with emissions and pollution in the U.S. quite a bit, as well. But I’m sure things still get really grimy in other countries with fewer regulations and technology standards.

  4. I wonder about the environmental regulations. I’ve always felt that the real purpose is to hide pollution rather than eliminate it. Take my industrial hometown of Warren, MI. Red Run, a branch of the Clinton River that courses through the city, might not smell or look bad (for the most part), but it’s eerily dead and has been geoengineered to hell and back.

    There were practical reasons for enacting policies that prevent bodies of water from becoming fire hazards. It’s costly. A river fire damages infrastructure and buildings and invites lawsuits.

    But beyond that, what progress have we made? The industrial companies fix what’s easy and then move the majority of the remaining operations overseas or to unpopulated areas. In the meantime, we lose jobs and wealth while mistakingly believing we’re helping the environment by moving the problem to “out of sight, out of mind” locations. For example, take a look at the giant trash incinerator in the middle of what was once a dense Detroit residential neighborhood. It’s a sick joke.

    Where were all the regulations then? Don’t buy the hype, Andrew. “Going green” is a new corporate euphemism for cutting costs. Super 8 has a “green option”, where you forgo maid service and laundering to save the environment! What good people they are, sacrificing so dearly to save our planet.


  5. Yeah, and I know a lot of raw, untreated sewage dumps into the Flint River every so often from the Flushing/Flint Township Water Treatment Plant, too. So, I’m not saying I want to use the river to sustain my existence, but at least it doesn’t smell like shit and catch on fire. In Flint, that’s progress, George. Move the burning rivers to South America!

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