CLEVELAND -- When I told friends I was excited to be going to Cleveland recently – and not just because I got a ticket to the 27th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony – they thought I was joking. After they saw I was earnest, they paused, then asked, ‘Why does Cleveland have the Rock Hall of Fame anyway?’ People tend to wonder that when they’re not making fun of Cleveland, the so-called "Mistake by the Lake," a smoke-choked town with underachiever sports teams and a river that caught fire in 1969. One recent poll of cities with negative connotations had three Ohio cities in the Top 10, Cleveland being the worst. Tina Fey even dared to compare the city to a sandwich in an episode of Thirty Rock a couple seasons ago. A sandwich! But thankfully good travel is perception blind. Once on the ground, it’s about finding places where you can merge with locals in believe in the places they live. Even in Cleveland, where I’d learn, floods with infectious, if cheeky, pride – evident in its 1970s "Cleveland: You Gotta Be Tough" T-shirts and the tongue-in-cheek ‘Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video’ that triumphed the city’s homeless. Locals may pause before talking about Cleveland, but once they start, they don’t stop. One refrain I heard over all town reinforces the built-up love: "People who move away are like rubber bands. They always move back." I met up with a few who did, including Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson, who left a Wall Street job a few years ago to cook up Cleveland’s best (and biggest) hot dogs around a huge oval bar in a 1940s-era live venue in the emerging Gordon Square District, a couple miles west of downtown. Watterson says Cleveland’s size and ‘blue collar spirit’ lets a venue be open to a grab-bag of themes. He hosts hugely popular polka nights, invites the Cleveland Orchestra and local scientists, in addition to a stage for indie rock bands. "We’re able to do good things in Cleveland." Rock music often goes hand in hand with food. And food is quite good. Across town in University Heights, Melt Bar & Grilled goes off on grilled cheese sandwiches (with added ingredients like bratwurst, chorizo, crab cakes and peanut butter). It’s run like a rock band, with album-cover menus and a fan base patterned after the KISS Army. A gritter Cleveland classic, the Euclid Tavern is a century-old bar that was used in the Michael J Fox and Joan Jett movie "Light of Day" (local Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails plays on the stage in the film). Sliders at lunch are a buck. If you go in alone, you’ll up chatting quickly. A 24-year-old artist in cowgirl boots called the city "Believeland." She explained, "We’re on the verge now." A 40-something regular in a tie broke in, "Yeah, we’ve been saying that since the ‘90s." Another: "Since the ‘80s." The artist said, "Yeah, but you have to believe." It’s said Cleveland has more music venues than Austin. The best venue, in a revived Collinwood (several miles east of downtown), is Beachland, made over from an old Croatian social hall. The bar in back is filled with retro signs and orange walls, the raised stage is watched over by folky Croatian murals, and a vintage shop downstairs sells old T-shirts and vinyl 'til midnight. When I took in a show, local bands were impersonating this year’s inductees to the hall of fame. I cornered the "Donovan" band after their set, and ended up with an eager hour-long chat on the sidewalk. One member, David Allan, told me: "Cleveland rocks in a less transparent way than New York does. It’s like you want to give someone a hug after a show, buy them a beer and go get a pierogi." I sort of felt like I’d been hugged. Of course, Cleveland’s greatest attraction is the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, on the shore of Lake Erie. And it is simply a gift to anyone with a leather jacket or stack of old mix tapes in their closet. Built in a pyramid by IM Pei, it runs the course from blues and gospel through rock and hip-hop. There’s Elvis cars and original handwritten lyrics by John Lennon and the Doors, of course, but the best are the unexpected surprises like Jimi Hendrix’s drawings of college football players and a hilarious 1966 hate letter to the Rolling Stones, written in cursive. "I’m speaking on behalf of 643 kids who all HATE YOU." But why is it here? The term "rock and roll" began in Cleveland, when DJ Alan Freed used the term coined by a record store owner in 1952 to attract more white kids to R&B music. It caught on. And Cleveland’s connection didn’t stop. The first film footage of Elvis was made at a daytime show with Bill Haley and the Comets at Brooklyn High here (it’s long been lost, now considered the holy grail of rock). A few weeks later, with the aid of a Cleveland DJ, Elvis broke out on national TV. Musicians like David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and Rush only broke the U.S. through Cleveland’s super-charged radio scene. Plus, it’s worth pointing out, Cleveland was the first city to come up with the millions of dollars to bring in the hall of fame. It’s the right home for it. As Ian Hunter sang in 1979, "Cleveland Rocks." The lyric doesn’t play around. It just says it straight. Cleveland does rock. And you don’t have to go far to find it.