The Biggest Rockstar on the Planet is Ian Ruhala
By Matthew Mitchell
Illustrated by Peter Hopkins
In high school Ian Ruhala started this band called Hala. And it was just him in his parents’ Detroit storage room churning out tunes for Bandcamp. He wants to be a rockstar and has gorgeous hair, boyish good looks, and can play all the instruments. It’s hard to imagine a musician and their work without also understanding where they come from. When I think of Ian Ruhala, I also think about Detroit, Michigan in all of its beautiful glory. I think about the heavy gusts of cold wind drifting in from Lake Erie and Lake Huron. I think about the cold resting above the city like the harsh winters of Cleveland.
Tonight, Ian’s playing a gig in The Locker Room at Mahall’s Twenty Lanes in Lakewood, Ohio. The venue gave him and the rest of his band cheap beer for free. I’m sitting with him near the bar talking about the tour, Paul McCartney, and getting out of our hometowns. He’s wearing a gray shirt, a shoulder fanny pack, and a pair of PF Flyers. We meander through about fifteen different conversations, but the thing that sticks with me most is that he mentions something about wanting to move away from Detroit and the music scene that comes with it. Ian and his friends used to talk about making it big. “Of course I want to be successful with this music thing, but I’m realistic about it,” Ian says. We’re both millennials dreaming of migrating somewhere better and seeing rock ‘n’ roll in a new light. The closest I’ll ever get to knowing rockstars were my friends back home who wanted to escape the Rust Belt and get to the big city. In both Cleveland and Detroit, there’s an overflow of musicians who don’t know where they’re going but have talent.
In third grade I had this band called Epitaph. It was just me and my pal Jake beating on rocks with sticks in the woods behind our school’s playground. I carried around a copy of Def Leppard’s Hysteria and told him we’d be as great as them one day. I wanted to be a rockstar, but I wasn’t nearly as good as my other pal Steven—who wasn’t in a band at the time, but had long blonde hair, boyish good looks, and could strum the hell out of a guitar. I couldn’t play an instrument for shit, so I’d just sing and beat the hell out of those rocks. Epitaph was a horrible band and I was a horrible frontman. I’d asked Steven to join in fourth grade, but instead we just wrote Star Wars sequels. Steven would later form the band Acid in junior high with this guy named David. They asked me to draw their logo for them, but it was just four big green letters with blood oozing out. I even stole one of my mom’s blank CDs and made a special cover and track listing for them. I don’t think they had one practice, but everyone loved their ambience and the idea that their friends were in a band.
Acid eventually broke up, but I kept the plastic CD case. Everyone has that phase where they want to be the greatest rockstar who ever lived. For a long time I thought it was going to be me. And then for another period of time I thought it was going to be Steven. But now I think it’s going to be Ian Ruhala. He’s everything kids like me pray to be. But he doesn’t care about that, or so he tells me. In the postindustrial Midwestern towns we both grew up in, everyone dreamed of getting away from it all, but few actually did. Steven’s now in California trying to make it big. We talked on the phone a while back and he said he didn’t miss the winters. No matter how far away I get, I can still feel the Ohio cold in my bones. I guess what I’m trying to say is the endless sea of dead shopping malls and broken down steel plants still beckon me home if I get too far away.
Ian, Southern Michigan’s indie darling, is sweating in the basement of this Ohio bowling alley. Madison Avenue is splitting open as the gorgeous architecture of the downtown Cleveland cityscape looms in the distance. Mahall’s glows against the July dusk as Ian shreds through a rendition of his new single “Sorry.” With a caramel-colored Epiphone Casino in hand and his mom standing beside me (His parents came all the way down from Detroit to see the set), Ian’s music parts the crowd like Moses and, in the suburb of a decaying industrial epicenter, we all writhe. There’s no better feeling than seeing someone the same age as you in a band with the hopes of becoming big, knowing the chances are slim, but not giving a fuck regardless.
During his banter, Ian puts an emphasis on being from Detroit. We all have a home and even when we’re far away from it all, we still want to be loved by the people who loved us most and let us go off on our own. There’s about twenty of us down here and a light from the set of lanes downstairs beats against our backs. He wiggles his hips during the guitar solo in “Problems” and everyone loves it. It’s like his record Spoonfed just dropped tonight and the whole Midwest is shaking. He’s closing the set with “Found a Way” and it feels like everything has stopped except for this damn basement. It feels like we’re all going to make it out.
I step out into the hot summer and nighttime has covered Northeast Ohio and the traffic screams from downtown. I can feel the streetlamps glistening against my face. The Mahall’s marquee glows in the warmth and the light pollution from the city coats the horizon before me. It looks like Heaven, but it’s just Cleveland.
All my friends have moved away. They’re all out there doing big things and I’m stuck in Ohio. I’m living in a town on the outskirts of relevancy. But Steven got out. And Ian’s gonna get out, too. I bet Ian has driven home countless nights thinking he’ll never get out of Detroit. As I’m driving home tonight, I keep thinking he’ll make music forever and find a new town that isn’t so rusted. God, I sure hope he does. And I can only imagine if Ian moves on to bigger things and better places, he’ll still feel Detroit’s cold in his bones.
A couple months after HALA’s “What Is Love? Tell Me Is It Easy?” reached a million streams on Spotify, I found the track listing and cover art for the forgotten Acid album. It was hiding underneath seven years of dust and a hundred old drawings. I thumbed through all of the songs and thought back on Steven signing fresh lyrics on the spot in study hall and I remembered how his smile was as wide as his face. How we told each other we’d make it big. How it didn’t really matter if we ever got there or not.
Matthew Mitchell is a Midwestern writer pursuing a BFA degree in creative writing at Hiram College. His work has been published in Lunch Ticket and is forthcoming to Clockhouse, Mantra Review, and The Oakland Arts Review. When he’s not writing, he’s either running a vegetarian kitchen in Ohio or watching Twin Peaks.