Michael Bay plays guitar at the epicenter of the Cleveland blues world. As a mentor of sorts to the scene around him, he works both on- and off-stage to ensure a thriving music community around the region.
Last summer, I spent several weeks hanging out at his band’s weekly blues jams and talking about life over bowls of pho. The story that came out of all that shows a man who’s spent his life giving back to those around him. Bay is not only an unbelievably talented guitarist, but he’s also a empathetic, caring person – the kind of soul that makes this world spin ’round.
There is a very old saying in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that tangos off the tongue like so: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Bodhisattvas have been riffing on that one for centuries.
In present-day Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Bay is working through a simple chord progression, methodically embracing the neck of his Fender Telecaster. Not so much the Buddhist he may outwardly appear, he is rather a guitarist. He is practicing. And as the shadows shrink back against the walls of his Tremont storefront on this quiet Tuesday morning, he will practice some more.
“I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he says, looking up from his instrument only to confirm how deeply he means this. The clean tone of his guitar contrasts against his raspy voice, and the words hang sweetly in the air. A cat named Goober perches on a nearby windowsill and surveys the neighborhood, occasionally casting a glance back at Bay, who is still flexing a bluesy lick.
The guitarist might be talking about how he met his girlfriend Denise Graham, about whom he speaks with Neruda-inspired love. He might be talking about how the guitar hanging on his wall right there—that Orville Les Paul he’s treasured for years—made its way back to him after being stolen one gray afternoon in Lakewood. He might yet be talking about a Wednesday night in 1994 that altered the musical landscape in this town forever.
Surely, though, luck has quite little to do with any of this. Bay’s been practicing since he was a young kid from the neighborhood whose name no one knew. And the practice is everything.
“It will become what it becomes if you let it,” he says, discussing the music he’s working on. Or is he talking about life? “Be in this moment now and listen—and let it evolve.”
Note: I’ll be featuring a longform story each day for the foreseeable future on this website (some will be pieces I’ve written, others will be stories I’ve read by others). “The Guitarist” is one of my favorites from my own archives over the past year. Tomorrow, my latest story, “The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga” will be published online and featured here.