On YouTube, there’s a fake tourism video for Cleveland that boasts, “Our main export is crippling depression!” While that might feel less true in light of the recent NBA Championship victory for the Cavs, there’s a certain defeatist stench that’s hard to wash off when you’re from Ohio. I know, because I’m from there. I grew up in a suburb about thirty miles east of the “Mistake by the Lake,” as it was lovingly referred to throughout my childhood, attended art school in Columbus, and have a lot of relatives in the rural Southern part of the state, where my parents grew up.
Like many of my peers with creative aspirations, I had dreams of escaping it, punctuated at times with a sinking resignation that I never would (and though I eventually did, the threat of having to move back sometimes dogs me). This push and pull, plus some inexplicable Ohio pride that occasionally rears its head, informs not only my existence, but much of the music that was made in the state, music that soundtracked my time there and continues to remind me of home, no matter where I am when I hear it.
I was ten when Cleveland broke ground on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, twelve when it opened, and I’d just discovered a radio station at the far right of the dial–107.9 “The End.” Though 100.7 WMMS (or “The Buzzard” as it was locally known) was the more established “rock” station, I felt even then that it needlessly picked at the carrion of the past. They weren’t playing The Breeders on WMMS, but I could hear “Cannonball” at least once daily on The End. Not only was it awesome to me as a pre-teen girl to hear women like Kim and Kelley Deal on the radio, but the fact that they were from Dayton kind of blew my mind. It wasn’t until a few years later that I’d pick up on Kim’s legacy with the Pixies. Later still, in college, a friend introduced me to Kim’s post-Breeders side project The Amps, a project that, even more than the Breeders, epitomizes what I think of as the Ohio sound.
Despite the long line of alt-rockers I loved in high school who hailed from Ohio (Dave Grohl, Scott Weiland, Marilyn Manson, and Trent Reznor all lived there at one point or another) my mind immediately goes to its lo-fi greats–Pere Ubu, Guided By Voices, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. This weird brand of art punk basically refused to die, despite the fact that it was marked with a distinct lack of ambition to do anything other than survive. It began in the 1970s with Rocket From the Tombs, which splintered into The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu and the Electric Eels among others. By the mid-80’s, an elementary school teacher in Dayton named Robert Pollard had picked up the mantle, recording thousands of songs over the next few decades both solo and with the ever-mutating lineup of GBV.
Even the pop music that came out of Ohio seemed to have a bizarre streak, whether that was Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr blending minimalist guitar with new wave synths to gain traction as The Cars in and around Columbus, or those infamously red-hatted synth-wielding satirists Devo, who hailed from Kent and Akron. Their wonderfully weird brand of social commentary has much further-reaching implications than their one-hit wonder “Whip It” implies; though the band began as something of a joke, their confrontation of humanity’s de-evolution became very pointed in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings, memorialized in song by Neil Young (who is not from Ohio).
This off-kilter dismantling of traditional pop and rock, I believe, came out of an unnamable desperation. In Ohio, It’s easy to feel as though no one is listening; most of these musicians made music in their own little bubble, with a who-the-fuck-cares-anyway mentality. And this directly contributed to the same lackadaisical attitude that emanated from the scene I was most intimately involved with. We called it “shitgaze.” Its most well-known progenitors were Psychedelic Horseshit and Times New Viking, the latter of which went to especially urgent lengths to sound like garbage, recording everything to cassette. One of the band’s co-vocalists, Adam Elliott, regularly poured me too-large shots at karaoke every other Sunday, and I saw TNV play more times than I could count or remember.
There were only two bands I saw more: Sword Heaven (a terrifying noise/performance project fronted by a guy who holds the world’s record for most hours spent hula-hooping) and Sweetheart, an Unwound-indebted art rock act whose drummer, Ahmed Gallab, now also lives in Brooklyn and puts out music as Sinkane on DFA. There are a handful of bands beloved to me but mostly forgotten to the annals of time and/or Midwestern migration. Of these, Party of Helicopters might be the one most worth digging up. But I had a lot of fun at those Hugs and Kisses shows, too.
The scene didn’t die when I left, of course. Cloud Nothings, Saintseneca, All Dogs, Sex Tide, Connections and Nervosas are all carrying some kind of a torch. But the most successful indie rock acts birthed in Ohio found widespread success only after they left. That would include The Black Keys, whom I never much cared for because I hate blues-revival rock (and didn’t much care for Patrick Carney’s brother either, who I went to art school with), and The National. Something about The National makes me want to hit the snooze button more often than not, but “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is pretty much the anthem that best distills that hard-to-define sense of being on the verge of losing everything, of disconnecting from the past and floating free into the anxiety-inducing future. When Matt Berninger sings, “I never married, but Ohio don’t remember me,” I think, yeah. Ohio don’t remember me either, because all I ever did there was wait tables and go see shitgaze bands and get drunk at karaoke. I still owe money to the money to the money I owe, too, buddy.
On moonlit nights, when I miss front porches and all I have is a stoop, another voice comes to me. It’s Jason Molina, one of the most underrated songwriters of our time, who drank himself to death in Indianapolis in 2013. He was born in Lorrain and recorded first as Songs:Ohia and then with an ensemble he called Magnolia Electric Co., also the name of his magnum opus LP. I can’t think of any voice that mirrors the comforting bleakness of a rural Ohio landscape more. He sang about depression, and he sang about hope, about how they could exist side by side. On “Just Be Simple,” he asks, “Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” And while I can think of a million reasons why I left, I know that there’s that intangible Ohioness I always carry with me, too, fuzzy like distortion, fleeting like a dream some underachiever just gave up on.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.