You Can't Switch Off the Sun: The Sad and Not-So-Sad Story of Paranoid Lovesick

by Joe Oestreich

In April of 2002, Watershed jerked our Econoline to a stop in front of the Beachland Ballroom. That night's opening band, we'd spent the last half-hour making wrong turns while arguing over the Rand McNally — giving ourselves an accidental tour of East Cleveland. Now we were late for soundcheck. Except we weren't. From the curb we could hear the headliner, Paranoid Lovesick, tuning up for their check. A shotgun snare roll. The bass's E-string rumble. A Rickenbacker chord so bright it seemed to cut glass block. Then, with two floor tom hits, PL launched into The Who's “So Sad About Us,” a cover so perfectly matched for the band playing it — lyrically and sonically — that at least two of the four Watersheds shot our fists into the air.

It may be that truck stop coffee and the 140-mile drive up from Columbus had us wired, but heard through the Beachland's brick walls, this Cleveland band's take on Maximum R&B was transcendent. I'd listened to a whole lot of Who, and I'd never heard this song sound better. Standing on the sidewalk, our drummer smashed air-toms and cymbals along with the sloppy-great Keith Moon fills. Our guitarist made an involuntary windmill. I sang the harmony parts out loud, thinking that if my job was to explain rock music to Martians, I'd have them land their saucers right here, right now, on Waterloo Road, Cleveland, Ohio. “If you don't like this sound,” I'd say, “you might as well fly your little green asses on home.”

By the time PL hit the bridge, we weren't playing air-anything. All four of us were nodding in silent admiration, our hands in our pockets, heads titled and listening like the RCA dog. So sad about us. What a beautiful racket.

On the surface there was nothing sad about Paranoid Lovesick. These were four of the funniest, most good-natured guys we'd come across in our ten-plus years of touring. Most nights in Rock Club, USA, the bands who've been squeezed together on the bill communicate via cocky silence or a ridiculous indie-cred pissing contest. You don't make many friends on the road. That's why, when you do meet a band you actually, ahem, like, you cultivate that relationship. You trade phone numbers. You open for one another. You steal from each other's bar tabs and hit on each other's girlfriends. Watershed had been Paranoid Lovesick fans from the night in the early nineties when we first met. It had taken maybe half a set for us to hear that their songs were in the 99th percentile for catchiness. Plus they could sing. And play their instruments — which isn't a given or a necessity. But as good as they were on stage, they were even more charming just sitting at the bar cracking wise.

PL has swapped-out rhythm sections a time or two, but the quintessential line-up — the one they always returned to — was the one we shared the Beachland stage with in 2002. Like The Beatles or The Who, all four guys had distinct personalities. The appropriately named Bill Stone handled rhythm guitar and vocals, and he had a knack for fusing stray riffs and throwaway vocal lines into songs you could sing along to. He was the Steady One, the rock whose mild demeanor held the operation together. Lead guitarist Rick McBrien was the Unlikely One — unlikely because, while the other three worked day jobs that left calluses, Rick was an attorney. And he was a relocated Detroiter. And he was carrying twenty pounds too many. No matter. His solos were melodic as George Harrison's and reckless as Rick Nielsen's. He was also the funniest guy in a band of funny guys. Drummer John Potwora was the Impetuous One. Quick to quit the band, quick to join back up. And hell on the skins. He was half-Starr and half-Moon, which means in a perfect world he would have drummed for the Dave Clark Five. Kurt Maracz played bass. With his tinted lenses and taste for the sauce, he was the Cool One. I always wondered (a) if he was on Quaaludes, and (b) if he'd give me one. Like all cool rockers, Maracz wasn't the most reliable dude in the world. He'd often flake out and skip rehearsal or studio time. But he wrote and sang some of PL's best songs, including his masterpiece of ennui, “Drag” (chorus: Damn it, what a fucking drag x 4). He was a bit of a fuck-up who often left the other guys waiting, but he was a talented fuck-up. And as Joe Strummer once said about Mick Jones, “You can wait for talent.”

Frankie LaRocka, Watershed's A&R man at Epic Records, once said this to me about Paranoid Lovesick: “They look like four schmucks who walked straight out of the john and onto the stage.” With their wide faces and Slavic noses, PL never looked like rock stars — not even when decked out in suits and skinny ties. Still, in 1995 LaRocka and other major-label reps started showing up at Peabody's Down Under and The Grog Shop to see them. Thanks to the success of bands like Teenage Fanclub and The Posies — and the renewed interest in Alex Chilton and Big Star — power-pop was the flavor of the moment. It didn't get much poppier than PL, and the A&R sharks took notice. There was blood in the water. Paranoid Lovesick had, to use mid-nineties vernacular, buzz. The schmucks were now the cool kids, the go-to guys for the high-profile shows. They landed on the bill with Weezer and opened for Oasis on the British band's first-ever US date. Drew Carey showed up to one of their Peabody's gigs.

Paranoid Lovesick became more self-effacing with success. Most bands — Watershed included — sent postcards that made every out-of-the-way gig sound as important as a slot on Saturday Night Live, but PL published their mailing list flyers as a satire magazine. The Subterrestrial Glamorous Pop Hymnal barely mentioned the band's shows. Instead it featured Onion-style articles — and this was before anybody outside of Wisconsin had ever heard of The Onion — with headlines like, What Should a Mother Tell Her Daughter About Men's Underwear? and Gang-Raped By Fate…AGAIN! I can't do any of this justice here, but trust me: PL to Offer Band Franchises…PL Unveils Songwriting Machine!…Secrets of Music Explained…That shit was funny.

But the most hilarious piece is the one in which PL takes on Jon Bon Jovi and his claim that he'd seen a million faces and rocked them all. “That's a pretty cocky thing to say,” PL writes in The Subterrestrial. “Jon would have had to play fifty consecutive shows to 20,000 persons apiece and rocked so inconceivably hard that NOT ONE FACE was left unrocked.” Then, “using complex actuarial tables and ticket sales figures” PL calculates their own faces-seen-to-rocked ratio at 39.4%, placing them somewhere between Sandy Duncan and Up With People on the face-rocking chart. With any justice PL and their smart pop songs will be revered for time in memoriam. But if they are somehow remembered for just this one Bon Jovi bit, I'll die smiling.

Paranoid Lovesick never landed a record deal. By 1996 the A&R scouts had moved on to the next Next Big Thing, and PL was just another Cleveland band, slugging it out in the trenches. Which isn't to say they were defeated or that the songwriting suffered. They were good guys with great songs before the suits weaseled onto the guest list, and they were good guys with great songs after the suits disappeared. The big break never came, but a few little ones did. PL's version of “Icicles” was included on a Badfinger tribute album, a collection that also featured Aimee Mann, The Knack, and The Plimsouls. And in Northeast Ohio they continued to draw respectable, if not huge crowds. Most importantly, however, they started recording with Bill Korecky.

Like the best producers, Korecky pushed to band to be not only better than they'd ever been, but better than they ever thought they could be. The songs from this period — never officially released, but recorded under the working title, Suburban Pop Allegro — became the staple of their live sets for the next six years. On “Supersonic,” “Orbit Baby,” and “Superclean,” for instance, we hear a band whose writing, playing, and arrangements brim with confidence. The Korecky partnership would eventually lead to “Marginalia,” a song — despite its vaguely gynecological-sounding title — that features the single best chorus PL ever wrote. This is the chorus that should have paid off the band's mortgages. And their kids' kids' college.

The Suburban Pop Allegro track I always find myself returning to is the mostly-instrumental “No Pain Part Two.” The haunting melody of Rick McBrien's guitar line seems to suggest that underneath Paranoid Lovesick's pop-and-sunshine veneer — behind the hooky songs and witty newsletters — there is, and always was, considerable pain. You can hear pain in this song. Just as you could hear it their version of “So Sad About Us,” rumbling out onto the sidewalk and down Waterloo Road.

On that April night at the Beachland, PL closed their set with an older tune called “Velvet.” It was after last-call, and there was almost nobody left in the bar. Watershed was still there, of course. And the bartender and the soundman. A PL girlfriend or two. But the door guy had slipped out along with almost everybody else. As the band took the song into the long instrumental ending, there were now maybe ten of us watching. And yet John Potwora was banging his drums and smashing his cymbals like he was playing Shea Stadium. He kicked over his floor tom. Then his ride cymbal. But he kept on going without missing a beat. Not that McBrien would have stopped anyway. He was soloing like he'd invented the guitar, like he'd invented the guitar break. He was, in a word, slaying. And he'd been doing it for a good five minutes. To an empty house. Watershed's guitarist shot me a look that said, Do you fucking believe this?

We didn't know it then, but this was the last song Paranoid Lovesick ever played live. After the Beachland show, the band continued studio work, but bassist Maracz had starting skipping sessions again, and the going was just too damn slow. Nobody could generate much enthusiasm. Besides, McBrien's wife Nicole was pregnant. So in the summer of 2002, after nearly ten years together, the band decided to take a break. They'd regroup after Rick's child was born. In October, he and Nicole gave birth to a daughter, Catherine. And in February 2003, ten months after going on hiatus, Paranoid Lovesick made plans to start practicing again. They scheduled a rehearsal for Sunday the ninth. But it never happened. In the early morning of Saturday, February 8, Rick McBrien died of a heart attack. He was 34 years old.

These days Bill Stone has a kid of his own, but he still writes songs and plays guitar. He recently joined up with Kurt Maracz in a new band called Sky Dragster. By day, he and Maracz are Cleveland-area home inspectors. They often drive across town to Bay Village to help Nicole and Catherine McBrien with home repairs. Shortly after McBrien death, Potwora — under the name John E. Midnight — began hosting a weekly radio show called, “Dig, Baby, Dig! The ‘60s Rock and Roll Excavation.” Always a stellar drummer, he was an even better DJ. But now, after five years, Potwora has quit the DJ gig. Might he, Stone, and Maracz play music together someday? Nobody's saying, but word is they have gotten together to talk music. That might have to do.

Obviously there was no way to see any of this coming on that night at the Beachland Ballroom. As Potwora kicked over another cymbal stand and McBrien wrestled another note from his guitar, I sipped a Pabst tall boy and thought it'd be just fine with me if PL's set never ended. It did end, of course. About two minutes later. And unceremoniously too, if I remember right. The band just kind of ground to a stop. While a half-dozen of us politely clapped, Paranoid Lovesick unplugged their amps and set down their guitars. The bartender put the chairs up on the tables. The soundman pulled the faders down to zero. Then we all packed up and went home.

Joe Oestreich, July 2008

Rick McBrien passed away unexpectedly in Feburary of 2003. The rock machine of Paranoid Lovesick has been left in the garage to rust away in quiet dignity.

Over the summer of 2009, John and Bill finished mixing the last unreleased tracks. This fall, PL will re-release the Molly EP, with some extra tracks, and for the first time ever, both un-released full lengths will be available. The release is tenatively scheduled for November, at David Bash's International Pop Overthrow concert series at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland OH.

Thanks for caring, peace.