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Michael Stanley digs deep on his new album, 'The Hang'

on May 26, 2012 at 9:00 PM, updated May 26, 2012 at 9:21 PM

What: Native rock 'n' roll son performs during the Great American Rib Cook-Off.

Tickets: $8-$36 at the box office and Ticketmaster outlets, or call 1-800-745-3000.

Michael Stanley was ready to put the finishing touches on his 12th solo album.

His wife, Denise Skinner, died in September, a mere five months after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Stanley, the heartland-rocking local hero whose Michael Stanley Band scored a pair of Top 40 singles and set the attendance record at Blossom Music Center in the early 1980s, found himself reeling in the midst of a season of loss that seemed like it would never end.

In 2010, his ex-wife Mary McCrone died, his mother died and his father died, along with his stepfather and two members of his road crew.

"It just kept coming," said Stanley, 64. "Every time I turned around, someone was passing away."

He wasn't always up for making music. When he was, though, he poured his emotions into new songs.

"It's the old joke: Songwriting is cheaper than therapy," Stanley said. "It's as much therapy for me as anything."

His latest release, "The Hang," is one of the most deeply personal albums that Stanley has released over the course of a career that spans more than 40 years. It's dedicated to Skinner.

"I think it's one of his best," said Mike Belkin, Stanley's longtime manager.

"It's not easy for me to listen to, just because I'm so close to him and I really feel the emotions that he felt when he was writing it.

"Everything he writes is from his heart. . . . People can relate to Michael. You know what he's singing is for real. That's why he has such a loyal following."

The new album includes a tender cover of the Dire Straits ballad "Romeo and Juliet," especially for Skinner.

"I was doing it as a surprise," Stanley said. "I wasn't going to tell her that I was doing it, but she did get to hear it once, before . . ."

"Romeo and Juliet" was popular when they first met in the early '80s, at the video shoot for the MSB hit "He Can't Love You." Stanley and Skinner crossed paths from time to time, then lost touch. They reconnected in 2001 and got married the following year.

Skinner, formerly a marketing executive at Capitol Records, was the driving force behind Line Level Music, the indie label that she and Stanley launched a decade ago. It has become a vehicle not only for Stanley's own albums, but also for releases by MSB alumni such as Bob Pelander and Jonah Koslen.

None of the 14 songs on "The Hang" was penned after Skinner's death, although "Breaking Down" sounds as if it could have been.

"And you take it all for granted / And it all just slips away / And leaves you crawling toward redemption / And there ain't that much today," Stanley sings.

Co-written by Michael Szymczyk (son of veteran audio engineer Bill Szymczyk, who mixed the Stanley-produced album), the hard-driving tune proved eerily prescient.

"When things fell out in real life, I looked back at the lyric and it was like a premonition," Stanley said. "It was written months before she was diagnosed, but it sounds like I wrote it the day after she passed away."

In rock 'n' roll, the realm of the eternal adolescent, some artists -- young and old alike -- don't want to spoil the party by bringing up mortality. Yet it's not an uncomfortable subject for Stanley, who had a heart attack in 1991.

"From that point on, I got a different perspective on things. I lost the idea that I was immortal. It was like, 'This is a finite situation we're dealing with here.'

Listen to a track from Michael Stanley's new album, "The Hang"

Listen to a track from Michael Stanley's new album, "The Hang"

Listen to the title track from Michael Stanley's new album, "The Hang"

"I had a song on the album 'The Ground' [released in 2003] called 'My Last Day on Earth.' Basically, it was a list of things I wanted to do on my last day.

"My mother just hated the song. I said, 'Mom, it's up musically and it's up lyrically. I'm very happy about things.' And she said, 'Oh, no -- you shouldn't be talking about that.' "

Another moving highlight of "The Hang" is "Martha," a hauntingly beautiful send-off named after Stanley's mother. When she was dying, she told him that she wasn't afraid -- just curious. Stanley wove her words into the chorus of the poignant song.

"I told her, 'What a great attitude to have toward this whole thing,' " he said. "It just blew me away."

His father, former radio personality Francis Stanley Gee, makes a guest appearance on "The Hang," too. A hidden track at the end of the album captures a priceless moment when a 4-year-old Stanley paid a visit to the old WGAR studios and banged on a piano on-air with his dad.

"At the end, his laugh is on there," said Stanley, who grew up in Parma Heights and Rocky River.

"My sister and I were talking, and that's one of the things we miss the most about Dad -- his laugh."

Stanley took the photo on the album cover, a poetic image of an empty wooden bench at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, on a trip that he and Skinner made to California.

"The best review I got was from a friend of mine who said that this is a really heavy album emotionally, but it's a really hopeful album, too," Stanley said.

"That was the idea behind ending it with the song 'The Hang.' It's a philosophical statement, the whole thing of realizing that it's not so much what you accomplish on the journey, but who you take the journey with. That's the important part."

For Stanley, having "The Hang" done has brought a sense of closure.

"A lot of things in there made me smile," he said. "Some of them, the opposite, but that's the nature of the beast. . . . It helped."

Stanley already has a jump on his next studio project, a more lighthearted collection of original material in an R&B vein. It could come out by the end of the year.

"The next one may seem like, 'Oh, this is rather frivolous,' but I need some frivolity," he said.

He recently started dating WEWS Channel 5 anchor Lee Jordan. Before last month's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Public Auditorium, they held hands on the red carpet.

The ongoing love affair between Stanley and his local fanbase shows no signs of waning, either.

"Cleveland is as loyal a city as you're going to find, and there was a relationship that was forged back in the glory days of music in the '70s," said disc jockey Bill Louis of WNCX FM/98.5, where Stanley (who joined the station in 1990) hosts the afternoon-drive show.

"Michael was a very bright light locally that we could call ours," Louis said.

"Once we held him close, there was no reason to cast him aside. He reinvented himself via the television career [Stanley co-hosted 'PM Magazine' and 'Cleveland Tonight' in the late '80s and early '90s on WJW Channel 8] and via the radio career. He found ways to remain relevant all these years, and his music has just continued along those lines."

Stanley has covered a lot of emotional territory as a songwriter since his self-titled solo debut was released in 1973. In some ways, though, hope always has sprung eternal at the heart of many of his best-known songs.

It's there in "Rosewood Bitters," with its subtle reassurance that even the darkest night of the soul will be followed by a sunrise. And in "Lover," in which a doomed romantic just might survive with a little help from the man who put the white lines on the highway. And in the hard-earned optimism ("This town taught me that it's never too late") of "My Town."

"If you look back at any writer's body of work, you usually find a common theme or two that they've been trying to hone," Stanley said.

"I realized that mine is: 'You just never know.' This whole idea of never knowing what tomorrow is going to bring, and being open to it. I'd almost always thought of it in a very positive way: 'Hey! Tomorrow! Tomorrow's the day something good happens!' "

Spoken like a true Clevelander, or at least a true Cleveland sports fan, right?

"That old T-shirt -- 'CLEVELAND: YOU'VE GOT BE TOUGH' -- well, yeah, sure as hell you've got to be tough," he said.

"In life, you've got to be tough. Something great can happen tomorrow. Or something horrible can happen tomorrow. You have to be open and roll with it.

"I choose to believe that something good will happen, but I'm aware of the fact that it may not be good.

"It's going to have to be dealt with, one way or another."

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