The New Cars: People either love them or they hate them. And to be honest, I haven’t heard of many yet who love them.
I’ll say right up front that I don’t know a whole lot of deep details about The New Cars. The basic strokes are that in 2005 Greg and Elliot joined with Todd Rundgren (vocals, rhythm), Kasim Sulton (vocals, bass) and Prairie Prince (drums) to put together a band where Greg and Elliot could play the classic Cars tunes in addition to creating some new music. They released one album (It’s Alive!) in May of 2006 that contained a bunch of live recordings of songs by The Cars, a couple of Todd Rundgren songs, and three “The New Cars” originals. They toured a bit, playing small venues, and wrapped things up by the fall of 2007.
From what I understand, Greg and Elliot would have preferred a true reunion of The Cars. Sadly, this was not going to happen since Benjamin was gone, David ‘amicably declined’ as he had retired from the music scene by then, and Ric was not interested. Though there are reports that Ric ‘gave his blessing’ to the guys for the project, other interviews imply that Ric made it hard on Greg and Elliot to proceed, and in the end the aggravation and hassle just weren’t worth it.
I haven’t invested a lot of time in their music; I think mostly because I do not enjoy listening to Todd Rundgren at all; I’m just NOT a fan of his. I have clicked on The New Cars’ original song, “Not Tonight” a few times and I liked it well enough; it’s fairly rockin’, and really, who can resist an Elliot Easton solo? Not me. I took the time to listen to “More” and “Warm” and they’re not bad. I also enjoyed reading an interview with the bass player, Kasim Sulton, who had some nice things to say about trying to fill Benjamin’s role.
But I’ve never attempted to listen to anything else they’ve played, and I’m certainly not interested in any song they cover that was originally sung by my man. Not fair of me, maybe, but there it is.
The one reason I *do* care about The New Cars is because of Elliot.
In my all-time-favorite Elliot interview ever, he shared the history of and his heart about The New Cars, and I’ve had a soft spot for that project ever since. He laid a lot of info out there (starting at about 1:36:30), but here’s what he said that touched me the most:
“That music is my recorded legacy and I wanted to play it, and the joy in people’s faces when you’d play that solo in “Best Friend’s Girl” and they’d elbow each other: ‘look, he’s doing it, he’s playing the solo!’and some of them would almost have tears in their eyes and stuff and it just meant the world to me, and it was just so satisfying and fun to do…”
You’ve just got to hear his voice, too, when he’s talking about it; very moving. Ah, Elliot! So I’ll never be grumpy about Greg’s and Elliot’s attempt to pull The Cars back onto the stage. I stand by them and their efforts 100%.
And now to the real reason I actually started this post in the first place! It came about because a friend of mine introduced me to Doug Powell. Never heard of him? Neither had I, until this recent conversation. It turns out that Doug, who is a well-respected and very talented singer/songwriter/multi-instrument musician, was first contacted by Elliot to front The New Cars. In fact, Doug wrote a handful of AMAZING songs for the project, only to be passed by for Todd Rundgren (ironically, Powell’s former boss), whom the band apparently felt would draw more of an audience.
Here’s the skinny according to Wikipedia (because I’m just not willing to do a ton of additional research on this subject):
“In late 2004 Powell was contacted by Elliot Easton, guitarist for The Cars. Easton had heard Powell’s recording of Candy-O and was impressed enough to ask Powell to be the singer of The New Cars, a reformation of The Cars without Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr (who had died). Powell began working on demos for the project and completed six demos. However, as the plans for the band evolved The Cars decided to bring in a higher profile singer, and settled on Todd Rundgren. Powell released the six demos as well as other leftover songs on Four Seasons, released on the Paisley Pop label.”
After listening to Doug’s songs, I’m very surprised that he was passed over. The music is really so great; Doug finds a way to maintain the sound of The Cars without being a copycat of them. He brings a fresh sound, his own style, to tracks that you might actually believe could be The Cars when those first measures roll out.
I can’t help but wonder if Elliot’s and Greg’s project might have had better success if they had not tried to stay under the umbrella of The Cars brand (avoiding the hassles with Ric) and instead went out as an entirely new band, with a unique name and with Doug Powell leading the charge. I mean, they still could have done The Cars’ classics, right? But they would also have had a great source of new material, and since Doug was relatively unknown in the public’s eye he wouldn’t have brought a reputation with him; no preconceived notions.
That’s all water under the bridge now, I guess; too late to change things. And skimming the full Wikipedia article about Doug Powell reveals that his interests are varied and intense; he hasn’t been sitting around crying over the lost opportunity (see what he’s up to by clicking here). Still, Doug’s songs are definitely worth taking the time to listen to. I’ll post a link to a playlist for him. To the best of my knowledge, the songs he wrote for The New Cars project were titled Feel For You, Runaround, Lies, Fire and Ice, One Good Reason, and Chained. Enjoy!
[A little side note: apparently Doug performed Candy-O for the CD called Substitution Mass Confusion, a compilation of recordings of bands playing tribute to The Cars. I haven’t heard Doug’s track yet; the CD itself is fairly expensive and Candy-O is not one of the few youtube uploads from it. I *am* curious though, and plan to get my hands on it sometime in the future.]
When I see any picture of Benjamin my heart responds differently depending on when the photo was taken. Always it’s a powerful response, but with a shine all its own for each layer of Benjamin’s life. I don’t have concrete, defining explanations for these descriptors; I think it’s just what my mind created as the culmination of lots of research, pondering and speculation.
I think of him like:
1965-1967: young, world at his feet
1968-1976: the struggle, edge of success, striving and optimistic
1977-1984ish: powerful, sexy, confident, “take what you want”
1985-1988ish: bored, searching, caught in the middle, frustrated, unfocused, losing it all
1988-1993ish: lost, bitter, self-destructive, hurting
1993-1996ish: trying hard to find healing
1997-1999: feeling good, optimistic, free
1999-2000: making amends, letting go, at peace
Not sure I have my dates exactly where I want them… need to hone that a bit, maybe. As I continue in my journey with him there is a good chance that these impressions may evolve and change, but these are the colors of my Benj world right now.
“I think I was born a musician, actually. I didn’t really have that much choice, you know. Had no interest in anything else; I didn’t really like school that much, but you know like I grew up on the early radio stuff with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper and Carl Perkins and Elvis, and Johnny Cash’s thrown in there… a whole lot of rockabilly. I started out playing actually rockabilly.” — Moving In Stereo: A History of The Cars, The Source radio show, April 1982
How did you get the name Big People? “We were looking for names and nothing stuck, Pat was talking to some guy back home and the guy asked him what he was doing and Pat said, ‘I am playing in this new band with Jeff Carlisi, Liberty Devitto and Benjamin Orr,’ and the guy says, ‘Man, that sounds like some big people,’ and that’s how we got the name.” — Jeff Carlisi, member of Big People and former guitarist for 38 Special; Swampland interview, October 2001.
“It is true that many creative people fail to make mature personal relationships, and some are extremely isolated. It is also true that in some instances trauma, in the shape of early separation or bereavement, has steered the potentially creative person toward developing aspects of his personality which can find fulfillment in comparative isolation.” –Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self
You know me by now. When I love-love-love something I feel compelled to research-research-research it. After the Benjamin bomb went off for me I immediately dove into finding out everything I could about The Cars, and in doing so stumbled across a whole little collection of wonderful music by an “almost famous band,” Cap’n Swing. If you didn’t already know, Cap’n Swing (CS) is the band Ric and Benjamin formed just before The Cars, and it was truly a ‘diamond in the rough.’
Coming up with the facts about CS has been harder than I thought it would be, and I have ended up with more unanswered questions than I started with. Even the most basic detail, like when they actually formed, is hard to nail down, in part because Ric and Benjamin tried several combinations of bands that wove in and out and around each other; and partly because I don’t think any of the guys were particularly nerdy-obsessive-fact-recorders… at least, not that I’ve heard. But I’ll start with what I’ve been able to scratch up:
The band was made up of Benjamin Orr on vocals, Ric Ocasek on rhythm guitar and vocals, Elliot Steinberg (soon to be Easton) on lead guitar, Todd Roberto on bass, Danny Shiftlin (not sure of the spelling of his last name) on piano, and Glenn Evans on drums (later replaced by Kevin Robichaud after Glenn decided to move on).
At least four of these guys already had a history together by the time CS formed, which I believe was around 1975-76. Of course, Ric and Ben had been a team for a good 7-8 years by this time. Elliot had joined them during their Ocasek and Orr days, playing regularly at the Idler in Harvard Square around 1974-75ish. Glenn had worked with Ric and Benjamin on their recordings for an Ocasek and Orr demo tape in 1975. I don’t know any history for Todd or Danny… and where are they now? Wish I knew.
One of the earliest dates I can find for a CS performance is May 11, 1976, which was touted as their “world debut.” The band developed quite a following in the Boston area in 1976, gaining the attention of popular local deejay Maxanne Sartori, who went crazy over them after seeing them perform at the WBCN Newbury Street Music Fair. She added more than one of their songs to her playlist (possibly including “Come Back Down” and “Strawberry Moonlight”), further increasing the attention the guys were getting around town.
Excited by their growing popularity they took a shot at getting a record deal. Sometime in the fall of 1976 (I believe October 4th and/or 5th?) the band went to Max’s Kansas City in New York to play for some big name management companies, including those who handled Kiss and Aerosmith. Elliot recalls, “The general consensus was that there was great potential but that we really needed to consolidate our sound, look, and image.” (Rock Solid interview, July 31, 2014) Though Elliot characterizes their retreat as “coming home with our tails between our legs,” the guys took this constructive criticism to heart and set to making some very defined and proactive changes behind closed doors, which signaled the end of Cap’n Swing and the birth of The Cars — but I’ll write more on that in Part 2.
In the meantime, let’s get to Cap’n Swing’s music. I am addicted to this ‘crazy rock and roll!’ Many of their songs are in my daily listening rotation, and I am frequently swept away to pleasant places in my mind by that free-flowing, easy 70s sound. It’s interesting how the personality of Cap’n Swing’s music bounces back and forth between several genres: there’s the laid-back “keep on trucking” groove, some finger-snapping jazzy snazz, a little bit of lounge music stylings, and harder rock and roll with a more driving beat and prominent guitar… then there’s some Peanuts-style cartoon music mixed in there for good measure. Haha!
The lyrics are uniquely Ric’s, of course. I feel like he was (and always is, really) on the edge of a relatable truth and it’s often something I can grasp personally, but it would be difficult to define the meaning of it for someone else. Elliot is masterful with his tight riffs, Danny keeps the music flowing along, and Todd and Glenn give the songs their backbone. My friend, Kathy B, put it this way: “I love the live music, the raw energy. The not-so-refined sound makes you feel the excitement of them knowing they were on the tip of wild success. For a band that was supposedly distant with their audience you can hear them interact at times. Ben especially on some songs has trouble containing his excitement, which is quite irresistible from our shy boy.”
Without an instrument in his hands Benjamin channels his energy and creativity into his vocal work. His voice is sultry, demanding, sardonic. He goes high and low, growls roughly and harmonizes beautifully. He fiddles with pronunciations, experiments with his word endings and adds melodic variations to lyrics he has to repeat multiple times, playing with syllables and stretching out vowels with more freedom and abandon than he would later display in The Cars. If you ask me, some of Benjamin’s best vocal work is preserved here in these Cap’n Swing demos.
I do get a little impatient with the music in one respect. In my opinion, Cap’n Swing hadn’t quite mastered the skill of knowing when to end a song, or how to limit the performance of one instrument in such a way as to make it effective without dragging the song down. Solos from the lead guitar, piano, and bass often carry on for quite a while (one of my pet peeves, as you know), and even seem to be competing with each other from time to time. I’m over it now, but it took some effort. ::wink::
My other gripe probably only exists because of hindsight. Danny’s playing on the keys is great, but I miss the sheer variety of sounds that Greg brought to the table with his synthesizers, saxophone, and general noisemakers. Of course, had I been sitting in a bar listening to Cap’n Swing live I’m sure my ears would have been thrilled, but since I can’t unhear Greg’s amazing contribution after the fact, I find it lacking in CS whether I want to or not.
[Heck, who am I kidding? If I had been sitting in a bar listening to CS live I wouldn’t have even known there was a piano player in the room, or anyone else for that matter; it would have been all about the Benj!]
Sorting out their songs has taken a bit of work. I’m just including titles that I have at least *some* concrete evidence for, and given Ric’s reputation for prolific song writing, I’m sure there are many tunes the band played that I am not aware of. I think I’ve got it straight, but help me out if I’m off track, would you?
Okay, here goes, starting with the easiest to track:
On July 13, 1976, Captain Swing recorded a series of demos at Great Northern Studios in Boston. The finished product included the following eleven songs:
Toby Goldstein asserts in her book, Frozen Fire, that Cap’n Swing was playing You’re All I’ve Got Tonight as well.
With all of these great songs I am hard-pressed to try to pick a favorite. “Come Back Down” was the first CS song I listened to, and it blew me away; it is certainly one I never get tired of playing. But then again, I feel the same about “Strawberry Moonlight,” “So Far Away,” “Jezebel,” “You’re Always Brighter,” “Twilight Superman”… Oh heck! All of them! Let me just encourage you to give each one a try. With the diversity of genres CS was fooling around with you’re sure to find something that tickles your fancy. Let me know what you end up with!
It would be truly unfair of me if I neglected to say that I am VERY grateful for the answers, direction, and best guesses of two amazing Cars encyclopedias, J and J. They were both unceasingly patient with all of my questions and clarifications, even though I’m sure I drove them crazy. I continue to find the Fanorama to be such a terrific group of people!
In describing what he was most proud of about The Cars: “Enjoying the music that we played and still having it recognized by the kids… the kids of the kids that used to be at the concerts. Good camaraderie, glad we’re all friends and lived through all that for about ten years apiece. It’s been great fun. Proud to do that; they’re great people. ‘Bout it.” — The Cars Live DVD, final interview, 2000
I’m honored to get to publish this poignant tribute to Benjamin Orr, written by a woman who was deeply moved by the reality of who he was. Thank you for sharing with me, Cathy, and for bringing me to a closer understanding of our beloved Benjamin.
Life Goes By
Life goes by and in a moment it is gone.
Benjamin Orr died today.
Actually it was two days ago, but it was in this morning’s paper
It was a shock to see, even though I knew it was coming.
I spoke of his untimely death on Tuesday in fact.
I’ve been told that I will inherit a ring he designed for a lady love,
Upon her death.
She is my friend.
It is because of her that his death should even touch me, but it does.
She is also the reason that for a brief moment in time
Our lives intertwined.
I was a young kid in my early twenties and he was a rock star.
(in a band my boyfriend even liked!)
But he was her boyfriend and so I tried to treat him as such.
The gold records hung on his home studio walls
as he and I sat there and conversed.
I asked him about Mick Jagger after he mentioned him first.
I was a bit taken back as he replied, “He is just a person”
or something to that effect.
I realized at that young age from him that day
That I should always remember that a celebrity is a person.
My friend and Ben took Spike and me
Out on Ben’s boat.
Actually we never left the Charlestown dock.
He gave me a Cars shirt and a bottle of champagne.
The four of us sharing an afternoon in the sun.
I can’t recall what birthday it was…
But it was a moment in time I will never forget!
Not because he was a celebrity,
But because to a twenty something year old kid
He took the time to show her that he was a person
Just like the rest of us.
Now twenty something years later I’m older now than he was then
I think I understand what he tried to teach me that day
Speaking at Benjamin’s memorial service: “In all that time I knew Ben, he and I never had an angry word for each other. When I was younger, I took it for granted. Now that I’m older and have interacted with a lot of people, I can see what a rare thing that is. Ben was what I call a feel-good person. When you were around him, you couldn’t help but feel good.” — John Matuska, former band mate from The Grasshoppers, Rolling Stone Magazine, November 13, 2000