Live Aid: “It’s good to see you again!”

In a November, 1986, interview, when asked what his most memorable moment with The Cars was, Ben responded, “Oh… Probably Live Aid, I would say. We had a really nice time there and it was great playing for the world.”


There were a lot of BIG things about the 80s: big hair, big shoulder pads, big technology (have you seen the size of those portable phones?). And right in the middle of it (literally: middle of the decade, middle of the year, and middle of the month) was the mother of all 80s bigness: Live Aid. Capturing the world’s attention for about 16 hours on July 13, 1985, a bevy of the biggest names in music took turns busking on stages on both sides of the globe in an unprecedented charity concert to raise money for famine relief. Ultimately, the event set the Guinness World Record for the Largest Simultaneous Rock Concert TV Audience, was viewed by about 1.9 billion people in 150 countries, and reportedly raised around £150 million. See what I mean? BIG.

In the United States, things kicked off at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at 9 a.m., and while there is SO much to talk about in regards to this iconic concert, it’s only natural that I narrow the discussion down to the parts that pertain to our boys.

I believe The Cars took the stage at just after 5:30 p.m. They played four songs, opening with “You Might Think,” and then moving through “Drive,” “Just What I Needed,” and “Heartbeat City.” There’s lots to unpack here, and indeed, I’m not sure where to start but… how about we get the stink out of the way first?


The Collins Intrusion

Any serious Cars fan who’s watched this footage knows exactly what I’m talking about. For whatever reason, the powers-that-be felt it was of the utmost importance to document Phil Collins’ lackluster arrival in the U.S., and they had no compunction about cutting away from The Cars’ performance to bore us with the publicity grab. Yes, yes, I’ve heard that it was somehow a newsworthy feat that he performed ‘on both sides of the Atlantic,’ playing a short set in Wembley Stadium and then flying to Philly in a Concorde jet, blah blah blah. For lovers of The Cars, the time the broadcasters dedicated to the stunt was insulting.

And it’s not like they only mentioned it during an intermission, or cut in just once. The Collins Intrusion began early on, biting into the footage of The Cars’ first song, and then kept popping up with frustrating frequency. For what? The video feed of his arrival was totally boring! At least he could have done some cartwheels on the tarmac or something. Give me something to look at, for cripe’s sake. And you know what’s even more pathetic? After all that hoopla, Collins only played two songs, and then filled in a bit here and there. Certainly nothing to write home about.

Okay, okay. Enough of that, although I will mention that that little trick festered in comedian David Juskow’s brain for years, and inspired him to later write the Cars mockumentary Turbocharge: The Unauthorized Story of The Cars. Love it or hate it (I think it’s hilarious!), the film is part of the Fanorama. You can read more about it here, if you dare: The time has come for Turbocharge!

Alrighty… moving on!


Let’s take a minute to hang this performance on the Cars’ timeline. The band toured heavily in the latter half of 1984 behind their fifth album, Heartbeat City. As they moved into 1985, they took a break from The Cars ‘proper’ and invested varying levels of energy elsewhere. Elliot performed a handful of gigs promoting his solo album, Change No Change, and Ric was working on his second solo project, This Side of Paradise. And somewhere in there, the band was recording “Tonight She Comes” and making decisions about their Greatest Hits album, which would be released in October of that year.


NERD ALERT: Fun facts about the way that stage worked:

As you can imagine, the logistics of moving 38 musical acts and all of their various gear on and off the stage in about a 14 hour window could get pretty sticky — and time consuming. In order to speed up the process of switching the bands out, the center of the stage was circular and was divided into halves with a wall of portable screens. It was fitted with a motor that would allow the stage to rotate as a turntable. In this way, bands could be performing on the front half while the next band was setting up behind the screens. When it was time to switch acts, the stage would rotate, bringing the next band forward for their set, and allowing another switcheroo to happen ‘back stage.’ At least, that was how it was supposed to happen.

Wouldn’t you know it? Less than 24 hours before the concert started, the motor on the turntable went kaput — broke — with no time to replace it. Someone had to come up with a plan B, and fast. Here’s how  sound engineer Dave Skaff, who was part of the team in charge of providing for all of the audio at JFK that day, described the solution:

“Between Bill Graham and [legendary stage designer] Michael Tait, they decided it would have to be manually turned—but how? Tait came up with a great solution where they cut pockets around the turntable and put in these metal ‘receivers’ [where you could put in] a Schedule 40 aluminum pipe and now you had something you could push on. Well, they put about 20 of those in and then Bill Graham made a call to the Philadelphia Eagles and they had 20 guys over there as quick as they could get them. The Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line came in and turned the turntable all day—that was pretty wild.”

You can see that solution in play in this photo taken by Elaine Hawkes (shared with permission).

1985 live aid getting ready to play photo by elaine hawkes

Can you imagine how wildly their hearts must have been beating as they slowly rotated to face the audience? The roar of the crowd, the wave of heat, the sea of people gradually coming into view as the band smoothly emerges from behind the scenes… Wowza! What a moment!

By the way, if you want to read more about the insane logistics of organizing the monitors, microphones and mixing consoles for more than 30 bands rotating out at 20-minute intervals in front of 90,000 people, check out this article from Mixonline.


For me, at the age of 15, Live Aid was the altar my best friend and I gathered around that summer day, but I wasn’t really into The Cars back then (for shame! haha). I don’t remember their set, and I certainly didn’t tape it. If it wasn’t for YouTube it would probably be lost to me forever, so I’m very grateful for today’s technology!

There were lots of uploads out there from a variety of sources (the MTV broadcast, some from ABC, and some from the BBC), but it looks like nearly all of them have been pulled from YouTube. For this article, I created a compilation video to pull together The Cars’ Live Aid experience by combining my favorite footage clips in chronological order, but YouTube won’t let me upload it, either. Rats! Oh well, all is not lost. I cobbled together a little playlist that includes most of the videos I had hoped to use. It’s a bit of a choppy fix, but but it’s all I can do. (Yep, I went there.) Oh, and I’ll see if I can get my compilation on my Facebook page at some point, too.

So just to be clear, there is nothing new unearthed here; just everything gathered into one place.


So let’s go ahead and take a closer look at their set. I won’t go over every song with a fine-tooth comb, but I do have a couple of things I want to point out.

“You Might Think”

Not to start off on a weird note, but I paused this video at about 0:16 because I was trying to get a good look at David’s hair; more specifically, his ponytail action. Does he have two? Or is it a half up, half down? I know the headphones are reducing his general fluff on top, and that adds to the unique look. As for Ben, he has a couple of eye-popping bass moves: don’t miss him at 1:13 (right after Ric’s adorable little smile), and that big bass swing at 2:13. Other notable nuggets: Elliot’s guitar solo is sizzling, and Ric’s wearing a snazzy “PARIS” lapel pin.


“Drive”

If you look at the footage carefully, you’ll notice three women standing in the wings off of Elliot’s right. In the “Drive” video you can see them fairly well at 2:14 and 3:28. The blonde woman in the pink on the left is Diane Grey Page, Benjamin’s fiancée. The second woman in pink is Greg Hawkes’ wife, Elaine, and the taller woman with the dark hair in the pale green (or blue?) dress is, I believe, Elliot Easton’s wife, Colleen. I point them out because I think I see a sweet connection happening…

Whatever Ric’s intentions were when he wrote “Drive,” the song had a special meaning for Diane and Benjamin, and every time Ben sang it, no matter where they were, he would make sure to find Diane and attempt to make eye contact. This event is no different. You can see him acknowledge her several times during his performance of the ballad, turning toward her frequently and smiling. When Ben flubs the lyrics a little in the second verse, he catches himself right away. He looks over to the side of the stage toward Diane with a wide, seemingly self-conscious grin and kind of an ‘aw hell’ hand gesture, swinging his arm up expressively. I imagine them sharing a laugh over it later as they relived this magical weekend.


“Just What I Needed”

The band’s performance of “Just What I Needed” is off the hook. It is the highlight of their set for me. The force of Elliot’s solo hits me right in the chest, and then he follows with that outro and my knees get weak. But, naturally, it’s Benjamin that sends the song into the stratosphere. He has me from the start with his jaunty address to the crowd, “It’s good to see you again!” He’s removed his sunglasses, and with the wind gently ruffling his hair, he looks genuinely pleased to share the moment with the 100,000 people bouncing in the stadium in front of him. His voice is clear and strong, his eyes are bright, and with every movement he’s giving off this perfect rock-and-roll swagger vibe tinged with a sheen of giddiness, and then you top all of that off with his flawless physical looks, and is it any wonder that many, many fans say that this footage of JWIN is the spark that ignited their obsession with Benjamin?


“Heartbeat City”

When Ric launches into “Heartbeat City” he is a bit late and has to ditch the first line of the song, but he appears completely serene. It’s funny, too, how everyone gives up lip-syncing to the backing vocals by the end of it. To me, this is the most lackluster song of the set, and it seems like a rather sedate note to end on, but don’t skip it. Elliot’s guitar solo is other-worldly and wonderful to watch.


NERD ALERT: Some gear notes that I stumbled across.

anthologyElliot used two guitars in the set. He started out with a Fender Telecaster in Fiesta Red (the same one he used in the video for “Magic.”) As we know, EE loves his Teles! He kept this one long after Live Aid, but in the mid-90s he had problems with the neck. He loved the body of it so much, though, that rather than ditch it, he had Fender Custom Shop guru Fred Stuart build a new neck and give the gal a makeover. The body was refinished in a distinctive, sparkly lime color with blue and white pinstriping. Many will recognize it from the back cover art of the 1995 Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology.

Roland-GR-700-G-707-Guitar-Synthesizer-371-3-big-1-www-vintagesynthshop-comThe second guitar Elliot played was a bit of an eye-catcher, and represented the latest technology. It was the Roland G-707, a guitar played in conjunction with a synthesizer, and it was perfect for crafting the unique sounds in the song “Heartbeat City.” He had used it during the recording of the Heartbeat City album, and also played it on the subsequent tour. I’m not sure how long Elliot kept it after Live Aid, or if he ever played it for any other gigs beyond that, but it has been up for sale a couple of times on ebay. I think the most recent listing I saw was around 2017.

That gorgeous bass Ben is playing is a Guild Pilot. Anything I know about Ben’s guitars I learned from the excellent file called Moving In Stereo: an instrumental retrospective of Benjamin Orr compiled by Michelle Bourg. You can find the entire photo album on Facebook, but I’ll share the relevant page here. In addition to Michelle’s background on the model, she points out that this is the same bass Ben used in the video for “Tonight She Comes.”

guild pilot
Retrieved from the Benjamin Orr Remembered public Facebook group; created by Michelle Bourg.

There are a small handful of goofs during their set. At the beginning of “Drive” you can hear David’s programmed drums go a little crazy, and Greg’s looking over at him like “Dude!?” I hadn’t realized before that things were going a haywire in the silence before the song started, but at one time there was alternate footage out there that made it really clear (it has since been taken down).

As I mentioned, Ben mixes up the lyric lines in the second verse of “Drive,” singing, “who’s gonna come around” instead of “who’s gonna hang it up.” Right after that, the lush backing vocal track comes in a little too early, beating the chorus. And Ric’s got a few flubs in “Heartbeat City,” as we noted.

I feel like these little stumbles can probably be attributed to several factors: the technical complexity of the music from HBC and the fact that the band had been off tour for several months, along with general (and justifiable!) nerves.

No matter. The Cars were at the height of their popularity. They sounded phenomenal; the crowd loved them. They all looked gorgeous, happy, relaxed. They had the world at their feet, and their performance was (and is) unforgettable. What a beautiful thing!


Notes on the heart-wrenching video

CBC Television (owned by the Canadian Broadcast Company) created the original promotional video that featured harrowing images of the suffering in Ethiopia backed with The Cars’ song “Drive.” Engineer Colin Dean happened to be listening to the song while he was editing footage for a short film, and he found the lyrics and emotion of it to be a moving and appropriate anthem for the desperate fate of the young children he was seeing before him. He added it in. He discusses his memories of that night in this stirring interview clip:

Upon viewing the finished film, David Bowie was so affected that he insisted it be part of the event, even cutting his own set short to make room. Live Aid promoter Harvey Goldsmith remembered, “One afternoon before the concert, Bowie was up in the office and we started looking through some videos of news footage, and we watched the CBC piece. Everyone just stopped. Bowie said, ‘You’ve got to put that in the show, it’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll give up one of my numbers.’ That was probably one of the most evocative things in the whole show and really got the money rolling in.” (“Live Aid in Their Own Words” by Carl Wilkinson, The Guardian, October 16, 2004)

The exposure pushed “Drive” back up the charts in 1985, rising to #4 on the UK Singles Chart. Proceeds from the sales of its re-release were donated to the Live Aid cause, and Ric himself presented a check for 160,000 pounds to charity trustee Midge Ure in 1986.


The Drive Aid Signature Car

Another fundraising element to the Live Aid efforts involved two donated GMC IROC-Z cars. A bunch of the July 13th performers signed the vehicles, their autographs preserved by a clear protective coating. One of the cars was sent off to the GMC Heritage Collection Center for a bit and eventually sold at auction. The other was raffled off as the Drive Aid Signature Car, quickly sold by the winner, and then under the care of a collector for almost 25 years until it was listed for sale again. The two histories get mixed up a bit and I didn’t try to noodle it out. If you’re interested in diving deeper, you might start with the extensive history on this old website, and this more recent information from 2018. What matters here is that documents list Ric and Ben as having applied their signatures, but I’ve only found images of Ben’s (behind the driver’s door) and Greg’s (on the hood on the driver’s side).

22762_172315924981_6061017_n

66465746_1085108211689131_1157038419738624_n

66579974_1085106395022646_1651817595675869184_n


Photo gallery

There are scads of Live Aid photos floating around out there, so I’ll just add a few of my particular favorites here. The first one might seem an odd choice, but it’s just such a tease, with Diane and Ben off to the left, and Ben so obviously engaged in conversation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The Miami Vice thing

In that interview segment toward the end of the playlist, Martha Quinn questions Ben about having to cancel a television appearance to be at Live Aid. It wasn’t just a rumor… I wrote more about that here, if you’re curious: Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity

And speaking of that interview, I just get such a kick out of their flirty little exchange from 1:18-1:40. That woman is a paragon of self-control in the face of Ben’s lavish charm.


Ending on a high note

The Cars’ music shows up a handful of episodes of The Goldbergs. It was fun to hear them mentioned in this clip about Live Aid:

Advertisement

The Selland Arena: “Thank you down here, thank you up there!”

On October 26, 1978, The Cars opened for Cheap Trick at the Selland Arena in Fresno, California. From the looks of this newspaper article in the Fresno Bee on October 20, it was a highly anticipated appearance.

The_Fresno_Bee_Fri__Oct_20__1978_ cropped

What a treat to know that we can still experience that show!

First, the video. You’ve probably seen this before. Sometime at the end of 2018 (I think Octoberish?) this partial footage was shared on YouTube by Fresno Media Restoration (FMR). By the end of 2020 it had disappeared, but luckily, fan Gwyneth Jeffer had the foresight to save it before it was gone. She passed it on to me a while ago to upload it to my YouTube channel and I’m just now getting around to it — yay!

FMR had published the footage in two parts, but I’ve taken the liberty to combine them here in the order of the set. It’s just over 20 minutes long all together, which is about half of the full show. The video shows, to varying degrees, seven of the ten songs of the night. Here’s what they’ve got:

  • 00:00 intro
  • 00:47 “Good Times Roll”
  • 04:26 “Since I Held You”
  • 07:57 “Candy-O” (incomplete)
  • 09:48 “My Best Friend’s Girl” (incomplete)
  • 13:41 “Bye Bye Love” (incomplete)
  • 17:23 “Just What I Needed”
  • 21:00 “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (incomplete)

Take a look:

The guys are so tiny and the lighting is a struggle, and watching it makes me feel like I couldn’t afford a ticket so I had to sneak peeks through a missing board in the fence. Haha! Any view of them live is so great, though. We can find lots of things to gush about!

  • Ric’s cool as a cucumber, as always.
  • It’s an absolute treat to get a nice long look at David playing drums, and…
  • …Ben’s gorgeous in all red and his little black boots! Did you see (at about 11:30) when he moved off to the side to let Elliot have the spotlight during “My Best Friend’s Girl?” I love when he does that!
  • Elliot deserves having all eyes on him during that epic solo. They catch him during “Just What I Needed,” too, and I’m so glad — EE’s energy is hitting the ceiling!
  • We don’t get to see enough of Greg, but there’s a great moment of him in the spotlight during “Bye Bye Love.”

Let’s just focus on Ben here for another minute. He drives me crazy with his little head tosses, those badass rock star poses, and all that 1978 pout. He’s such a natural up there, addressing every corner of the audience, bold and upfront when he chooses to be. He sounds freaking amazing, too. And while Elliot’s energy is obvious in the way he jams his way through the songs, Ben simply exudes it, just standing there. It’s mesmerizing. I think my very favorite little part is at 20:30, when he pulls a stork pose at the end of JWIN. Dude’s on FIRE.

I’ve been wondering why the footage is interrupted by picture fills and dropouts. At first I thought maybe large portions of the original tape were damaged and that’s the best FMR could do to make it whole. Definitely possible, but now I’ve come up with a different little theory.

Friend and fan Jon Mortas mentioned on Facebook that the video was shot with a super 8 camera, and I figure this may account for the frequent intermissions of still photos with the live action. I am NO camera techie, but from what I understand from my cursory research, super 8 film spools could only hold 3 to 5 minutes of footage at a time, so the camera operator would have to stop filming, swap out the cartridge, and then resume recording, accounting for some loss of live footage. There’s a good chance that that is the case here, and that FMR added in still photos (or screenshots) to fill in the gaps so the audio track could continue uninterrupted. This is all just my speculation, of course.

Happily, the rest of the show is not lost to us — at least, not to our ears. I’ve uploaded the full audio recording to my channel for our listening pleasure. Here’s the complete set list:

  • 00:00 intro
  • 01:08“Good Times Roll”
  • 04:50 “Moving In Stereo”
  • 10:30 “Since I Held You”
  • 14:10 “Candy-O”
  • 17:00 “My Best Friend’s Girl”
  • 21:30 “Nightspots”
  • 25:45 “Bye Bye Love”
  • 30:20 “Don’t Cha Stop”
  • 33:56 “Just What I Needed”
  • 38:15 “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (encore)

It’s so great how clear Elliot’s guitar comes through. I think that’s actually my favorite part. And I love the little bits of chatter, but I can’t always tell who says what. I mean, I’m pretty positive that it’s Ben that says ‘thank you’ at 21:14, but does he also say ‘Fresno?’ It sounds weird. Haha! Or at the end, who is encouraging the crowd to “wear a badge for the future?” Is that Ric??

The best is when they come out for the encore and Ben says, “Thank you down here, thank you up there!” (around 38:15). Oh, one more… I can’t make out what Ben’s saying at 33:55; sounds like the recording got clipped a little. Dang it! Oh well. In spite of that and a few other minor flaws, this is an outstanding performance! I hope that all who took the Fresno Bee’s advice would agree. ❤

How about you? What is your favorite video moment? How about the audio? Let me know in the comments below, or via YouTube or Facebook. Enjoy!

The Rat, June 1977: Take Me Now!

Another recording of The Cars at The Rat has surfaced, and it brings with it another rare gem!

I’m just going to jump right to the lightning bolt: they performed “Take Me Now” during the set! As we know, the demo of the song was released on the 1995 Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology, but I believe this is the first time we’ve heard this beautiful ballad played live. A few unfortunate flaws in the original tape mean that some significant sections of the song were lost, but what a treasure nonetheless, and such a clear recording! Ben’s achy vocal is layered so perfectly over Greg’s gentle keyboards and David’s faithful percussion foundation. Ah, it’s just so gorgeous! Someday… someday, I hope we can hear all of the verses. For now… 

As for the full gig, the band played a total of 9 songs in about half an hour. Here’s the set list:

  • “Leave Or Stay”
  • “Cool Fool”
  • “I Don’t Want To” (Elliot on vocals)
  • “I’m In Touch With Your World”
  • “Take Me Now” (!!)
  • “Come Back Down”
  • “See Through My Eyes”
  • “Looking To See You”
  • “You Can Have ‘Em” (aka “Sleepy Wasted Afternoon”)

Notice anything missing? The absence of “Just What I Needed” is a surprise, and leads me to think that they probably did an encore that either didn’t get caught on the tape or wasn’t released with the digitized files.

A little side note: I’m still digging to pinpoint the date of this performance, and to confirm that it is from The Rat. I’m not sure why, but something about the way the guy introduces the band at the beginning seems a little off and it kind of has me questioning the details. It seems like he’s trying to acquaint the audience with the band, but we know that The Cars had played there a bunch of times by this point. Of course, it’s not like I’ve ever even seen a show at The Rat, so what do I know? I may be totally off base, but those bits of info are puzzle pieces I’d like to have firmly in place. I’ll poke around a little more. 

The show seems to get off to a rocky start. After “Leave Or Stay,” the audience is either not paying attention, or they don’t realize the song is over, because there is an awkward moment of silence before the smattering of applause. Ric seems a little grumpy when he says, “There’s a lot of fucking room up here,” possibly referring to the audience area in front of the stage. Perhaps he got even more irritated by the overly-enthusiastic fan (apparently named Roy?) that causes a ruckus during the first half of the set. Or maybe that was just me getting annoyed. Haha!

Happily, the crowd becomes more enthusiastic as the band proves its mettle. Ric, Ben, and Elliot all take turns singing lead, one right after the other, and the contrast in sound and style is obvious but certainly not unpleasant. At a minimum, it underscores just how much talent these guys had to draw from. 

Benjamin Orr by Robert Post, 1977
Benjamin Orr by Robert Post, 1977

Whether he’s on lead vocals or singing backup, Ben weaves his way through the songs, his voice silky and smooth. He puts a more melodic spin on traditionally snarky songs like “Cool Fool” and “See Through My Eyes” than we find on other recordings (“nothin’s free, honey…” mmm). On “I’m In Touch With Your World,” Ben sings backup with an irrepressible seductive mellowness (at 13:03, for example), and his tranquil delivery of “Come Back Down” is flat out hypnotic. 

And since we’re talking about “Come Back Down,” after you soak up Ben’s vocal, I highly recommend that you listen through the song a second time, and maybe a third! You can really pick up the peppy fills in David’s drumming, Ben’s swaying bass, and all of Elliot’s brilliant guitar flourishes. Oh, and Greg’s perfectly understated keyboard outro that kicks in at 19:30… So, so good!

About Elliot: he is definitely delivering the goods in this show. While I understand the band’s decision not to have him continue as a vocalist, it’s always electrifying when EE takes the mic. He rips through a flaming and growly performance of “I Don’t Want To,” the most rollicking song of the whole show. Even as he continues to be a force on backing vocals, his guitar playing never lags. He stretches out some in “Looking to See You,” then he really lays into the audience with his work on “You Can Have ‘Em.” 

Greg is no slouch, either. His inventiveness and dexterity on “I’m In Touch With Your World” are moving the band closer and closer to their final studio version. “Looking To See You” really showcases his keyboard prowess, and it’s the ultimate cherry on top when he pulls out his sax on “You Can Have ‘Em.” Knowing now that it wouldn’t be long before that instrument would begin gathering dust, I just love when we are treated to him playing it in these early recordings.

All the while, David’s impeccable drumming, steady and stylish, is the essential framework of the whole show. No wonder they are screaming for more at the end! 

BONUS: There’s a good bit of audience and stage chatter, which I love (did you hear Ben saying, “I’ll have that, uh… soda… anytime” at 20:50?) It always adds that real-world touch that makes you feel like you’re at one of the tables in the club. I only wish there was more! It seems like there are a few places between songs where the transition is abrupt and I wonder what’s lost. No reason to dwell on that, though, when there is so much to love about this show.

Here’s the full set — take your time! When you’re done, leave me a comment and tell me your favorite part. Enjoy! ❤ 


Please remember that these live audios are not to be bought or sold!

Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and tap on the little bell to get a notification when I upload something new. Also, I’ve started keeping a playlist of the live shows in chronological order. You can check it out here.

We caught another Rat!

We caught another Rat!

Every time something new pops up in the Cars world I am ecstatic on two fronts: first, because another elusive piece of the band’s history has fallen into place, and second, because it bolsters my hope that there is even more yet to be revealed. And that’s on top of the thrill I always feel at just seeing or hearing my forever-favorite band. Anyway, you can imagine my elation when I returned from a recent trip to discover that a VERY cool friend had sent me some VERY cool files: new recordings of The Cars at The Rat!

Now you might remember that The Cars played The Rat for a four-night engagement spanning Thursday, April 28, through Sunday, May 1, 1977. A few months ago I uploaded an audio file from that weekend, though I wasn’t sure which of the dates it was recorded on. Well, with these two totally new shows, I’ve been told that they are specifically from April 30th, so they would be the Saturday night performances. As you’ll see below, each set offers us a previously unpublished gem, which makes these audios even more delightful.

In case you haven’t seen it before, on the right is an advertising flyer from that weekend. The Cars shared the bill with The Good Rats. I’m not sure who was the headliner; the way the ad is designed makes it look like The Cars were the big draw, but they were a fairly new band at the time (though the members themselves were not unknown). I think The Good Rats were still enjoying the regional success that followed their 1974 and 1976 albums, and they were coming up from New York, so they might have been a bigger deal? Oh, and each of The Cars’ sets was only about 1/2 an hour long, which seems more like a warm-up than a main event.

Okay, I got off track there, because I’m sure it doesn’t matter who was the headliner, but I was trying to imagine the order of the night. I’m going with The Cars, then The Good Rats, then repeat. There, I feel better now that I have that settled. Haha!

No more goofing off — let’s dive right in. Here’s the first set list, with the audio below:

  • 00:00 Leave Or Stay
  • 03:04 Cool Fool
  • 05:48 You Can’t Hold On Too Long
  • 08:54 Don’t Cha Stop
  • 12:25 My Best Friend’s Girl
  • 16:23 Gimme Little Sign (Brenton Woods cover)*
  • 19:40 I Don’t Want To (Elliot Easton on vocals)
  • 22:18 Strawberry Moonlight
  • 25:16 You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
  • 29:54 Just What I Needed

Some of my reactions to this set:

  • A lot of times when you go to shows, the crowd doesn’t seem to pay too much attention to the opener. The band might start, but people are still milling about, greeting friends, ordering drinks, and so on. I’m sure that was the case here, too, but the recording also picks up the sounds of cheers and whistling from the crowd at the beginning. I love it!
  • You have to know that I am thrilled that these recordings have come out of hiding — thrilled. But… there is one eensy weensy thing I wish I could change: I noticed that most of the transitions between songs have been edited out. That’s a little bit of a bummer because I feel like we can often glean several tasty bites of mood and personality from those breaks. Oh well! Not everyone’s as obsessed as we are. Better to have it with some edits than to not have it at all!
  • Let’s discuss the duo vocals on “You Can’t Hold On Too Long.” I have to admit it makes me wrinkle my nose a bit. Is it because I’m too in love with the album version? Or is it more that Ric’s voice clashes too much with Ben’s in this case? I mean, obviously there are many recordings where the two share the vocal duties successfully, but the disparity in their styles just doesn’t seem to blend well here.
  • I wish I could hear the what’s going on in the background after “You Can’t Hold On…” because I want to know what Ben is responding to when he says, “It’s not called that at all.” Sounds like he’s feeling squirrely!
  • I love Greg’s keyboard riff behind the chorus of “My Best Friend’s Girl” — it’s catchy! On the other hand, the absence of Elliot’s guitar solo is tragic. I’m glad that was eventually remedied; it totally changed the whole vibe of the song.
  • The big surprise in this set is the band’s cover of “Gimme Little Sign” by Brenton Wood (which I also carved out and posted separately). It’s been known in the Fanorama for a long time that they played this in their early days, but this was the first time I heard it. It’s great! Ric takes the lead vocals, but Ben’s voice is prominent in the chorus. Not sure who is doing the falsetto backing vocals, but there’s strong speculation that it’s Elliot. Hopefully someday we’ll have a definitive answer!
  • Here’s another recording of “I Don’t Want To” with Elliot on lead vocals. I think there is only one other published performance of this one, captured during the March 21, 1977, show when they opened for Bob Seger. Man, I love this song! I still need to get a lyrics post done for this — SO funny! Hey wait… there’s that high voice in the back again, but it sounds like Ben? Hmmm, the falsetto mystery continues…
  • By the end of the set the crowd is fully involved; you can hear them screaming and cheering as the band launches into “Just What I Needed” as their last song of the set. Hard to tell if it’s an encore but I would guess it is. Ben still hasn’t got those lyrics down all the way (LOL) but his adlibs are undeniably yummy. Elliot’s guitar melody during the chorus, which is rather hidden in the studio version, is front and center in this recording, and it freaking ROCKS.
  • “Thank you very much, we’ll see you in the neighborhood. Bye bye!” — Ben ❤

Whew! What an electrifying ride!

I wonder what they did while The Good Rats were playing? Probably changed their clothes, had some drinks and a few smokes, maybe put on a hat? Maybe they held court in dark corners and chatted up the girls.

This is a little bit of a detour, but if you’re a visual person like me you might get a kick out of it. I recently isolated a portion from an old Boston television program that showed footage of the inside of The Rat. If you have a few extra minutes, click on this video for a peek at what the venue probably looked like when The Cars were playing there.

Okay, let’s move on to their second performance that night:

  • 00:00 Bye Bye Love (Ric Ocasek on vocals)
  • 04:20 You Can Have ‘Em (aka Sleepy Wasted Afternoon or Blue Moon Saloon)
  • 07:21 Ta Ta Wayo Wayo
  • 10:08 Jezebel*
  • 15:48 Take What You Want
  • 21:41 My Best Friend’s Girl
  • 26:06 Something Else (Elliot Easton on vocals; Eddie Cochran cover)
  • 28:50 Just What I Needed
  • 32:35 Cool Fool (encore)

Let’s jump right into it:

  • The guys start off with a sizzler! (Mmm, Ben on the harmonies during “Bye Bye Love.”) Ric seems to loosen up a bit vocally on this performance so it’s not too unpleasant to have him taking the lead. Greg is killing it on keys, too.
  • I know I don’t comment about him much, but man, David’s playing really catches me in “You Can Have ‘Em.” He’s always so steady and solid back there, and I certainly can’t escape his perfect fills and flourishes here. Dude is on fire!
  • This set offers another tasty — and previously unpublished — surprise: “Jezebel!” I’ve loved this tune since I first heard Cap’n Swing’s demo of it, but I did not know that Ric had held onto it to include in The Cars’ repertoire. I definitely like the CS version better, although Ben’s vocals are luscious, no doubt about it. This song is great, too, because it is one of the few Cars songs that gives Elliot room to really stretch out and shine.
  • Elliot puts in another blistering performance on the mic with “Something Else.” That cover is so perfectly suited for him, and Greg’s scrumptious saxophone adds even more heat to it.
  • They attempt to close out the show with “Just What I Needed,” but the audience is wild for an encore. I particularly relate to the shrieking girls, who you know just want to see more of Ben. Haha! They return and launch into “Cool Fool” with swagger and energy. The crowd loves it.

And then it’s over. Another half an hour of raw talent from a band on the verge of changing the face of music. How fortunate we are to get to listen to the past!

I’ve given you a lot to unpack so I’ll leave you to it. Let me know what other bits and pieces stand out to you from these two terrific performances. Have fun!

*previously unpublished

Cover image photo credit: Larry Bouchie


Please remember that these live audios are not to be bought or sold!

Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and tap on the little bell to get a notification when I upload something new. Also, I’ve started keeping a playlist of the live shows in chronological order. You can check it out here:

Live at Boston University: Short and Sweet

I recently received a treasure trove of live shows from a very cool friend and Cars fan, along with permission to share them. Because it makes the most sense, and because I’m a big nerd, I’ve decided to upload them in chronological order to my YouTube channel, and post a little write-up here with whatever little deets I can dig up about the performance, along with my own $.02.

The first one I did was The Cars opening for Bob Seger at the Boston Music Hall on March 21, 1977. If you missed that one, you can read it here: The Cars and Bob Seger: Yay for Snowstorms!

stephenshermanbostonphotog-1568865106022
Photo credit: Stephen Sherman, 1977

This second audio is another oldie: The Cars at Boston University. There was no specific date for this show when it was given to me, other than March of 1977. I think it must have been recorded sometime toward the end of the month because both Ric and Ben mention Maxanne Sartori leaving WBCN, and her last day was April 1, 1977. This is just a short four-song set, but it sounds like it was part of a larger concert with multiple bands (based on the blurb from the emcee at the end).

The Cars kick it off with “Just What I Needed.” It’s an interesting version. In some of the earlier Cars recordings Ben seems to mimic Ric’s low, draggy vocal style, and he kind of starts off that way here, but then I love how bits of natural Ben break out here and there. It’s a treat, too, to get to hear Elliot’s guitar parts so clearly.  Obviously the song was still evolving at this point (though I do think Ben flubbed the words at :53, as opposed to it being a lyric that was later changed). I can’t tell for sure who is singing back up… is that Ric, maybe? It doesn’t really sound like any of the guys to me. Oh, and I did click backwards a few times to listen to Ben’s little laugh at about 1:45.

When Ric takes over the mic after that song, it’s really cool to hear how relaxed he sounds. He drops the clues for us about the date and purpose of the show, and then introduces “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It doesn’t sound like Greg was incorporating all of his instrumental gew-gaws quite yet, although I do hear a toot or two on the whistle and a few other odd little sounds here and there. I love it!

From there, Ben leads the band into “Cool Fool” and there is no trace of Ric impressions… it’s a full-on vocal Ben fest. The whole performance smokes: Elliot is off the chain, ripping it up left and right. David can’t be thrown off the beat for anything, and Greg holds it all up with his subtle keyboard work and the reappearance of that whistle. Dudes must have been sweating after that one!

maxanne
Maxanne Sartori. Image retrieved from the internet.

As the crowd swells with cheers of approval, I adore Ben’s response: “Thanks! Okay… this one’s our bye-bye song and for our very special friend, Maxanne.” The band jumps into “Strawberry Moonlight” with a raucous energy; the perfect way to end their set.

The last little snippet of audio features an announcer indicating that The Cars are just one of the bands that will be playing that day, but then he gets cut off and it’s a bummer because I feel sure he would have identified the occasion for the concert. Oh well, it’s better than nothing. I have my fingers crossed that someone reading this might have memories of that show they’d like to share with us. That would be cool!

Cleveland Circle, uncut

One of the most exciting articles I’ve written for my blog is the piece I did with Leo Yorkell, published on February 14, 2019. I remember my curiosity when he first contacted me through Twitter, and how fun it was to talk with him on the phone. He was so genuine and funny, and his love for Ben was unmistakable. I was thrilled with his insights into Ben’s life in the mid-90s and how he fit the puzzle pieces together of Ben’s softball-playing adventures. Then he really blew me away when he started digging around and unearthed old photos, videos, and newspaper clippings (like the one below) that had long been packed away, and generously shared them! 

Benfull cropped 2
Photo credit: Ethan Thomas, The Sentinel (Rochester), September 11, 1997

One of the treasures Leo had found was the video footage he shot of Ben playing in Cleveland Circle, Boston, in the summer of 1997. As part of this month’s #CelebratingBenjaminOrr tributes, we’ve uploaded Ben’s full 6-song set, uncut, including the previously unreleased performance of “Stay The Night.”

This short show is one hit after another, and is sprinkled liberally with Ben’s winning smiles. Beyond that, here are half a dozen other notable nuggets:

  1. 0:16 Ben cuts it close when mounting the stage and gets to the mic just in time for his first line, but remains unruffled even as his guitar strap refuses to cooperate.
  2. 1:45 The ORR band’s cool arrangement of “Let’s Go” has Rich Bartlett and John Kalishes trading guitar licks while Ben looks on.
  3. The run of Ben’s facial expressions between 5:20 and 5:30 is priceless.
  4. What a treat to catch glimpses of Edita and young Ben in the audience, and to see how even from the stage Ben adores his son. We can also see the late Dave Tedeschi at both the beginning and end of the show. 
  5. 12:24 Ben acknowledges someone else in the crowd. Does he say Vinny? Maybe Vin Kalishes is there? Is it the same person Brad smiles at at 10:18 and Ben at 10:30?
  6. At 15:20 Ben flubs the lyrics, and then tucks his arm behind his back, causing Tom to laugh. How much you wanna bet he was flipping the bird?

What else stands out to you? 

Enjoy the video, and please comment below to join me in giving a grateful shout out to Leo for his role in keeping Ben’s legacy alive! ❤ 

The Cars and Bob Seger: Yay for Snowstorms!

So we know the story about Roy Thomas Baker driving out to see The Cars play in a snowstorm at the end of 1977, and everyone shaking hands on going to England with him to produce the first album. Well, that wasn’t the first time The Great Snowflake proved fortuitous for the band. Mother Nature gave our boys a little gift at the beginning of that year when they were just starting out.

Bob_Seger_-_Night_MovesIn March of 1977, Bob Seger was riding high on the huge success of his recently released breakthrough album, Night Moves. Though it was his ninth studio album, it was the first one to catapult him into nationwide success and his first to go platinum. He had booked a show at the Music Hall in Boston for Friday, March 18, with Derringer as his opening act. [Nerd alert: Seger had not headlined in Boston before. Another first for him!]

Friday arrived and Derringer opened the show as planned, but Bob got stuck. Heavy snowfall prevented his plane from landing and he was forced to fly back to New York. Apparently Derringer had finished their set before the postponement announcement came, and, amazingly, they played another rockin’ set before the fans were sent home.

The concert was rescheduled for Monday, March 21, but Derringer was not able to play that date for some reason. I didn’t do deep research on the ‘why’ behind that because what matters is that the opener slot was left vacant. Even up to the day of the show, the replacement act had not been announced: the newspaper ad stated, “It is expected that a local band will open tonight.”

stephenshermanbostonphotog-1568864708165
The Cars by Stephen Sherman, 1977; shared with permission.

The Cars were still fairly new at that time — in terms of the combination of members, anyway. Greg had joined the band sometime in January as the fifth and final Car part (groan!), and their first live show all together was at The Rat on February 7. In Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, we learned that band manager Fred Lewis convinced music promoter Don Law to let The Cars slip onto the bill for that Seger show, though they only had a handful of gigs in the bag.

Obviously, this was a terrific stroke of luck for The Cars. Not only did it give them a chance to reach a greater audience, but it also put them on the radar of the bigger wigs in the music industry. Yay for snowstorms!

So let’s get to the actual recording. I wish it was video footage! Still, I am so grateful for this auditory treat. The person who captured the concert on tape showed up just a bit late, so we miss a smidge of the first song. The Cars’ set lasted just under 30 minutes, and included:

  1. “Bye Bye Love” with Ric on vocals.
  2. “I Don’t Want To,” sung by Elliot.
  3. “Leave or Stay”
  4. “You Can Have ‘Em,” also known as “Sleepy Wasted Afternoon.” [Sweet Ben jumping the starting gun! ❤ ]
  5. “Don’t Cha Stop” (called “Don’t You Stop”), with a Greg synth riff in place of EE’s later solo and some slippery vocal timing on the chorus.
  6. “Come Back Down”
  7. “Strawberry Moonlight”

I couldn’t find a written review of The Cars’ performance (I guess Bob Seger was terrific!), but the crowd sounds appreciative of the band in the audio file. I also don’t know the number of people actually in the audience, but I think the seating capacity of the Music Hall was around 3,500, which was quite a bit more than The Rat held. Haha!

A few notes:

  • It’s cool — and a little strange! — to experience these early incarnations of “Bye Bye Love” and “Don’t Cha Stop.”
  • We definitely hear a little more addressing of the crowd than Ric usually participated in during a live show.
  • I love the little bits of banter that Ben sneaks in, like when he mentions the ‘strange people up there in the balcony’ around 12:25.
  • And is that Greg that says, “Good Lord! Look at that!” right before Ben’s comment?
  • And speaking of Greg, listen for his badass saxophone work!
  • Also, don’t miss Ben’s introduction to “Come Back Down” at about 16:12.

Oh, and about “I Don’t Want To”… I think this is an original Cars’ song because of the way Ric introduced it, even though I’ve never heard of it referred to anywhere else in The Cars’ discography. I wonder who wrote it? Probably Ric, I know, but it seems like something Elliot could have penned. I’ll have to do a lyrics post for it, too, because this song is hilarious. And does anyone else feel their heart rate spike when Ben sings, “bay-be bay-be bay-be, bay-bay!” or is it just me? I think that’s my favorite part of the whole show.

Okay, your turn! Click below to listen to one of the earliest published recordings of The Cars. Enjoy!

#CelebratingBenjaminOrr

I love that “Dirty Water”

Back in February I was poking around on Facebook and I stumbled across this hidden gem that Boston musician (and Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music) Lisa Guyer posted back in 2014:

hatch shell facebook

Confused GIF-downsized_largeWhat the heck? Here was an event Ben was involved in that I had never heard of before, and with another of my favorite Boston rockers, Charlie Farren! Lisa’s post gave me some obvious clues to the story behind the photo and I was eager to start digging.

Initially, there wasn’t much to find. At the end of the day my little file consisted of the Facebook screen shot above, one newspaper clipping, and a newfound familiarity with the Hatch Memorial Shell and the song “Dirty Water” by The Standells.

Though I couldn’t find an exact listing for it on the Guinness Book of World Records website, apparently there is a category for most guitarists (or musicians?) playing one song for the longest period of time. In 1994, 1,322 guitarists jammed with Randy Bachman to “Taking Care of Business” for 68 minutes and 40 seconds, and I think that was the record… But then it gets kind of confusing, because there seems to be some crossover between setting a record for the largest guitar ensemble playing one song, and the largest guitar ensemble playing one song for the longest time, and I just can’t figure it all out right now so… let’s just settle on knowing that in 1997, hundreds of guitar players and musicians in Boston gathered in attempt to break a Guinness world record by playing “Dirty Water” by The Standells for a really long time.

That song, by the way, is a beloved Boston anthem. The tune has been cranked for cheering crowds after home victories by the Bruins and the Red Sox since about 1995. Written by Standells producer Ed Cobb and released in 1965, the lyrics draw attention to some of the less savory elements of Boston history and what used to be the disgustingly polluted Charles River, and yet the singer declares, “I love that dirty water. Boston, you’re my home!” The simplicity of its garage rock beat and catchy riff seal the deal as a natural song choice for tackling this world record (whatever exactly it may be).

And the venue… Officially titled the Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell, Bostontonians have been enjoying a variety of free outdoor concerts, movies, and public events at the Hatch Shell for over 90 years. Its unique structure is located on the Charles River Esplanade and is surrounded by a large and inviting lawn. The Shell’s spacious wooden interior, which is famous for regularly accommodating the Boston Pops Orchestra, provides plenty of room for multiple guitarists, drummers, and keyboard players to spread out. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Hatch Shell - Concerts and Movies (With images) | Outdoor stage ...

After gleaning these tidbits, I had to table the topic. But a most happy circumstance has brought it back to the forefront! Jonathan R. discovered and generously shared a very recent YouTube upload of some live footage from this event ~ including Benjamin!

There are actually five video clips all together. I’ve created a playlist of the segments in chronological order.

The video clips armed me with new keywords to search and angles to pursue, and I was able to find a couple more articles from The Boston Globe. Here are some additional factoids I picked up:

  • The Dirty Water Guitar Marathon took place on September 13, 1997.
  • The event was the brainchild of Promotions/Artist Relations Director Candi Bramante (now Bettencourt). Candi’s family owned Daddy’s Junky Music, and this gathering was, in part, a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that beloved New England guitar and audio equipment chain. She’s also the one that uploaded the footage to Youtube. I’m SO grateful she did!
  • The original vision for the record-breaking attempt was hammered out and refined at the Hard Rock Cafe in March of 1997 with input from Charlie Farren, Johnny A (Peter Wolf) and Brandan Sweeney (Notary Public), among others. Those who met together were hoping for around 3,000 guitarists to join the cause.
  • The entry fee to register as a player was only $5. Part of the proceeds from the event were donated to charity, including contributions to the House of Blues Foundation and the Bob Woolf Charitable Foundation.
  • 56749225_1206984519483899_3958792582175129600_o
    Event t-shirt (image retrieved from the Benjamin Orr Remembered Facebook group)

    Lisa Guyer and Mama Kicks performed as the ‘house band’ and backed the other musicians for the entire show. Wowza! No wonder she said in her Facebook post that the song now makes her cringe a little!

  • Many other Boston legends are seen in the footage, like Rich Bartlett, Tom Hambridge, Hirsh Gardner, John Muzzy, and Phil Bynoe. I can’t make out some of the names that the announcer says in the videos so if you recognize any other artists, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
  • hatch-shell-dirty-water_Lj7LH1AS
    Back of event t-shirt (image retrieved from All About The Benjamin Facebook group)

    Other musicians slated to play (but I’m not positive that they did) were Barry Goudreau, John Cafferty, Gary Gramolini (of the Beaver Brown Band), Jon Butcher, Johnny A, Stu Hamm (Joe Satriani), and David Minehan (The Neighborhoods). You can see the highlighted guests on the back of the event t-shirt to the right. I wonder if any of the coordinators kept their final list of all the participants?

  • The whole swarm ended up playing “Dirty Water” continuously for one hour and 29 minutes, which reportedly set a record for the longest time a band (the rockers on stage) played one song for an audience. Unfortunately, the gig only ended up with about 1,200 registered guitarists, which was 400 short of setting the Guinness record they were actually targeting. It certainly wasn’t a bust, though: amateurs, professionals, and spectators alike all had a great time, coming together as a Boston rock-and-roll family. ❤

You know, there were at least a half a dozen photographers crawling on and around that stage. What a treasure it would be if they would dig out their booty and share photos of the show with us! Pretty please?

And while we’re at it, I would love it if Candi Bettencourt would upload the entire uncut footage. Even if it’s not the best camera work, fans would rejoice in being able to experience this bit of Boston history with so many incredible musicians.

ben
Ben, AJ Wachtel, AJ’s son, Harrison

There are a couple of cool photographic dots we can connect here, by the way.

First, this is the same event our friend AJ Wachtel told us about; it was the last time he remembers getting to hang out with Ben. This photo on the right is from that day — click here to read the full article.

Also, Mazarkis S. pointed out that this event is also the likely location of another classic Ben photo. It’s kind of tricky, because Ben wore his ABATE shirt a couple of times (I’m thinking particularly of Ben with Tom Hambridge at the Snowfest in Two Rivers, Wisconsin), but based on the color of the lanyard and access pass, I believe Mazarkis is right.

cleaned up
Not sure to whom the photo credit belongs, but the original was cleaned up here by Becky B.

That’s about all I could come up with. I’ll post the newspaper articles in an album on Facebook. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that maybe others will chime in with their memories, photos, or videos of that day. I remain optimistic that more bits o’ Benjamin history will surface; surely there is more to discover!


Whenever I am researching something specific like this, I end up going down sooooo many little rabbit holes, which is frustrating because it then takes forever for me to finish an article, but it’s also cool because I tend to discover some pretty interesting stuff. Here are a couple of the ‘bonus features’ I found when I was working on this article.

  • This hilarious 2020 commercial features a snippet of “Dirty Water.”
  • The Standells were central characters in an episode of The Munsters!
  • Last one: Created from a block of silicon, and based on the Fender Stratocaster, the world’s smallest guitar is about the size of a single human blood cell and has strings that can be plucked. Seriously! Basic nerd link: click here. Super-science-nerd link: click here.

nano guitar

Okay, enough of that. I’ll leave you with this bit of grand delight. Enjoy!

Boston GIF-downsized_large

Cool Happenings at the CNE

1984 gettyimages-1168829522-2048x2048About half way through their Heartbeat City tour, The Cars stopped in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and played at the CNE Grandstand (formally known as the Canadian National Exhibit Stadium). Though the band wasn’t in town for long, a couple of cool things took place at that August 8, 1984, show.

Before I get to those unique happenings, let me get a little bit of business out of the way. I don’t have a ton of background on the concert itself, simply because I just haven’t had time to do in-depth research, but I do believe that this was the second time the band performed at the CNE, having stopped there during the Panorama tour. They weren’t strangers to Toronto, though; they also played at the El Mocambo for the debut album, and at the Maple Leaf Gardens in support of Candy-O. And I know that the Canadian press wasn’t super impressed with this particular show, but then, they never really seemed to be in The Cars’ corner over the years (with the exception of writer Peter Goddard).

Wang Chung was the opening band, and then our band took the stage. I’m not positive that this is the actual set list played that night, but here is what The Cars worked through on August 6 and August 10 (both the same), so it’s gotta be close.

  1. Hello Again
  2. It’s Not the Night
  3. Touch and Go
  4. Candy-O
  5. Looking for Love
  6. Gimme Some Slack
  7. Jimmy Jimmy (Ric Ocasek song)
  8. Just What I Needed
  9. A Dream Away
  10. Cruiser
  11. Drive
  12. You Might Think
  13. My Best Friend’s Girl
  14. Magic
  15. Let’s Go
  16. Encore: Heartbeat City
  17. Encore: You’re All I’ve Got Tonight

And while though those two paragraphs above are a bit light on details, I DO have an excellent eyewitness account of the concert to share. Fellow Cars fan Doug Parsons was just 16 years old when he stumbled into the chance to see The Cars live. Rather than try to retell his experience in my own words, I’ll let you read his take on how The Cars rocked his world:

I was born and raised in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The Cars never played in Atlantic Canada when they toured, which was very frustrating to me, as they were my favourite band. It was only through a rather strange sequence of events that I got to see them in Toronto in the summer of 1984.

Earlier that year, I made a new friend and I spent a lot of time with him that spring. We really were an “odd couple” … we basically had nothing in common except that our older brothers knew each other. He lived with his father in Dartmouth, but his mother lived in Toronto. Sometime in June, he mentioned to me that he was going to visit his mother in the summer for three weeks and asked if I would like to go along. Having never been to Toronto, I was obviously excited to go. I didn’t expect that my parents would let me go, but they did, so I ended up going with him.

He had a girlfriend there, and I REALLY liked his girlfriend’s best friend (sounds almost like a Cars song, doesn’t it?). So one night we were over at his girlfriend’s house, and while I was unsuccessfully trying to chat up her friend, I heard over the radio that was on in the room that The Cars were going to be playing at the CNE Grandstand … and it was WHILE we were in Toronto! Needless to say, I immediately starting bugging my friend to go to the concert with me, which he unenthusiastically agreed to do.

So fast forward to the night of the concert. We got on the bus to the CNE, and after about 20 minutes my friend says, “I think we are going the wrong way.” So he asked the bus driver, and indeed we were going the wrong way. Fortunately, we made it to the CNE while Wang Chung were still on stage. I heard them play “Dance Hall Days” and they sounded great, but I was really only interested in seeing The Cars perform.

So, after what seemed like a LONG intermission … the lights went down, and the crowd started to roar … and then I heard “Hello…hello again!” And I was up on my feet and I didn’t sit down until the lights went back up. I had seen a few concerts in Dartmouth, but nothing of this magnitude. The stage layout was so futuristic with all of the TV screens playing exotic-looking videos. And song after song that I had played on my record player so many times … “Let’s Go” … “Cruiser” … “Just What I Needed” … and on and on. But the two songs that REALLY blew me away were “Good Times Roll” and “It’s Not the Night.” I was not expecting “Good Times Roll” to have such a cranked-up guitar sound, and as much as I liked the album version, I LOVED the live rendition. “It’s Not the Night” was just plain amazing, with all of the layered synthesizers and Ben’s incredible vocals. It really gave me chills.

This was my first outdoor concert, and the beautiful weather and the excellent acoustics of the CNE made it a truly sublime experience. To this day, it remains my all-time favourite concert.

And my friend? TOTALLY indifferent. Sat for the entire concert and said afterward that he found it boring. Like I said, we really were an odd couple. After we got home, we basically stopped talking to each other, which was probably for the best, as he started to associate with some rather unsavoury characters.

And my best friend’s girlfriend’s friend? Turned out that she liked my best friend’s little brother. Just like in a Cars song.

Oh man, I can just feel his heart start to race when he heard those opening lyrics, can’t you? I love that he shared his memories with us! And from his account we can determine that the set list that night did vary a bit. Good to know!

Okay… so the first cool thing. According to one review (from The Toronto Star, August 9, 1984, pictured below), there were only about 8,000 people in attendance. Interestingly, one of those people was none other than the actor, Rob Lowe!

Now, you all know who Rob Lowe is, right? Having made his acting debut at the age of fifteen in a short-lived sitcom in 1979, Rob burst into the 80s movie scene in the coming-of-age classic, The Outsiders. From there it was silver-screen sailing, as he starred in one Brat Pack classic after another, establishing himself as a teen idol and relentless heartthrob. A sex tape scandal in 1988 knocked his reputation for a loop for a bit, but he continued to work steadily, and in the 2000s, he reclaimed his status as an acting force to be reckoned with (and still just as handsome as ever!) on the set of The West Wing and beyond.

Well, rumor has it that Rob was a big fan of The Cars during his high school days. He’s alluded to it himself on Twitter, and actress Melissa Gilbert (among others) has reminisced about driving around and listening to The Cars with Rob. Coincidentally, The Cars used a little snippet of Rob’s appearance on Andy Warhol’s TV in their mini-documentary about the making of the video for “Hello Again.” Check it here at 1:50. Anyway, in 1984 Rob was in Toronto filming Youngblood with co-stars Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Gibb. On the night of the Cars’s show at the CNE Grandstand, photographers spotted him in the crowd enjoying himself. Awesome! I wonder if he got to visit backstage and meet the band?

Oh, and if you needed to see that photo of Ben from the article a little clearer… here it is. It’s very similar to the one by Philip Kamin in the Peter Goddard book; the one that Kurt Gaber uses for the memorial shirts. What a stunner!

1984 by John Mahler
In Toronto, 1984. Photo by John Mahler.

Now the second cool thing.

While The Cars were in the Toronto area, they were presented with an award for selling over 200,000 units of Heartbeat City — also known as ‘going double platinum’. A little blurb about it was printed in RPM Weekly on September 22, 1984, with a bit of a grainy photo. Luckily Louise Potts posted a clearer version of the picture on Facebook.

RPM Weekly
REM Weekly, September 22, 1984

1984 toronto double platinum
“Double platinum for Heartbeat City to The Cars at CNE Grandstand from WEA’s Larry Green, Kim Cooke, Randy Sharrard, Garry Newman and Roger Desjardins.” – RPM Weekly, September 22, 1984. Photo courtesy of Louise Potts.

Isn’t that great? I love when these little puzzle pieces fit together, and what a treat to get a glimpse of the other commitments that filled the band’s time while they were on the road. The obsession continues!

(Oh, and here’s an extra little factoid: Greg’s double platinum award sold at auction in March of 2019 for $400. Wowza!)

lf (1)

20 Years Ago: Big People!

Two thousand nineteen marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the last band Ben ever played in: Big People!

Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, is an amazing resource for background on this band (and Ben’s whole life, obviously!), with a whole chapter devoted to how the group came together, including quotes from all the major players. I’ll just give a brief summary here:

Originally the brainchild of drummer Michael Cartellone (Damn Yankees, Lynyrd Skynyrd), Big People was a supergroup consisting of guitarist Jeff Carlisi (38 Special), guitarist and keyboard player Pat Travers (Pat Travers Band), and vocalist and rhythm guitarist Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent). The initial purpose was to play a few weekend club sets and enjoying jamming together, but others in the business suggested they push forward as a full-time band.

Ben was approached to join the group as the bass player in March of 1999. Cartellone ended up being hired to play drums for Lynyrd Skynyrd before Big People could really get off the ground, but fortunately Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) was at the tail-end of his commitment to Billy Joel and he was free to join this exciting new endeavor.

from liberty 2
Big People in 1999. Photo courtesy of Liberty DeVitto.

Big People pulled together a setlist that was packed with hits, as each member brought the best of their rock-and-roll resume to the stage. Under the encouragement and wisdom of manager Charlie Brusco (and later Billy Johnson) and tour manager Joe Dlearo, the band began rehearsals in April, 1999, and the guys knew they had stumbled on something great. In Let’s Go! Pat Travers said, “At the rehearsal studio for our first play together, I suggested playing ‘Just What I Needed,’ and when Derek, Ben and I sang together for the first time, wow! What a blend. Our three voices, with myself on the bottom, Derek on top and Ben singing the lead, had this amazing sound to me that was tight and sweet.” (p.180)

As the guys played together over the next few months, their harmony continued to build, both in rock-and-roll badassery as well as in friendship. They were picking up more and more gigs, and the audiences loved  them. Eventually they landed a tour with Styx, which gained the band even more exposure. They were really clicking along and had plans to write original material together.

It was also during this time that Ben met Julie Snider, the woman to whom he would soon become engaged, and who would tenderly and tirelessly care for Ben until the end of his life. Footage and photos of Ben during this time show him to be relaxed, happy, and looking much more youthful than he did in the mid-90s.

There are SO many great quotes in Joe’s book about all of this, and I’ll feature some of them in future “In other words:” posts, but you’ve just got to read the book to get a true feel for the promise and excitement that everyone was feeling about Big People’s potential.

I recently had the honor of connecting with both Liberty DeVitto and Jeff Carlisi and asking them about their time with Big People. They each have such fond memories of those idyllic days, and find it hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since they were all rockin’ together.

And while I don’t want this article to be a downer, we can’t ignore the fact that it sucks so much that it all had to end. Ben really was the hinge that held it all together, and when he passed away in October of 2000 the band’s momentum fell flat. Their manager prompted the guys to hire a new bass player and get back in the game after Ben died, but their hearts just weren’t in it anymore.  Jeff told me, “We didn’t have any interest in keeping it going once Ben was gone.” Liberty echoed that sentiment when he said, “When we lost Ben we lost a rockstar. There was no sense in going on. We love Ben. He was a great guy and a great singer and player.”

rockfest 1999 first show by eddie duggan
Courtesy of Eddie Duggan

Big People’s first official show was on July 24, 1999, up in New Brunswick, Canada, at a place known at the time as Shediac Can-Am Speedway (now called the Shediac Centre for Speed). The three-day weekend event, called Rockfest ’99, featured acts like Nazareth, Collective Soul, ZZ Top, Styx, and April Wine.

The guys were excited on their flight to Canada, eager to make their public debut. The show itself went well. Like all bands playing out for the first time, there were rough edges to smooth out, but Jeff felt really good about the music and about the natural chemistry between the guys. “I remember calling my wife after the show and saying, ‘It’s like I’ve always been in this band all my life.'”

Their second playout followed in August of that year, at a festival called Itchycoo Park ’99: The Camping Experience. This is the show I really want to focus on here, since it’s one we can actually watch.

flyerHeld in the middle of a big farm field in Manchester, Tennessee, Itchycoo was kind of an unusual event in its day in that it combined a music festival with camping. It was a bit of a throwback to Woodstock in that way, and is considered an early (if unsuccessful) forerunner to long-established camping concert events like Bonnaroo (which is held on the same site), Sonic Bloom, and Coachella.

Looking at the extensive list of bands on the bill, this event should have been an absolute smash (at least in my opinion!). It featured some of the most iconic names in music history, including Sammy Hagar, Joan Jett, Paul Rodgers, Styx, Ann and Nancy Wilson… so many legends! Check out the posters below; you won’t believe it. And the whole weekend — all four days — for only $80. Holy cow!!

As you can see, early advertisements of the original lineup don’t list Big People, but later they were added to the roster to perform on Thursday, August 12, at 4:00, sandwiched between Rick Springfield and Mark Farner. Jeff believes they actually played Friday, probably between Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and preceding John Entwistle of The Who, and the event guide (above right) supports that schedule. Of course, the actual slot doesn’t matter;  Big People was going to take the stage!

As it would turn out, the event organizers were in for a pretty crushing blow. Expecting to draw at least 60,000 people (but hoping for 80,000), the event actually only sold around 20,000 tickets. On top of that, the Tennessean reported a few other stink bombs:

  1. a few of the acts were no-shows, including Ann and Nancy, who were slated as the grand finale
  2. the agency providing security for the event departed in mid-afternoon on Sunday, causing the officials to recruit spectators as security guards for the remainder of the festival
  3. promised electrical hookups for RVs weren’t provided
  4. vendors complained bitterly about the lack of communication, poor overall organization, and puny profits.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Itchycoo Park festival did not return the next year. Interestingly, only three years later the Bonnaroo festival would sell out their event on the same site, and that event has continued to be a roaring success for nearly twenty years.

As for the Big People experience? Luckily for us, we can witness it ourselves, even 20 years later.

The band launches into “Just What the Doctor Ordered” with guns blazing. Liberty’s explosive drumming and Derek’s vigorous vocals let you know that in spite of the smaller-than-anticipated turnout, these guys are here to kick ass. And they do! Every one of them are masters of their craft, seasoned professionals with the hearts of grown-up kids looking to jam with their buddies. So much freaking talent on that stage!

derekDerek acts as the main frontman for the group, playing to the crowd and ushering each song into the next. He is a natural showman, animated at times, clearly thrilled to interact with the audience. We can excuse him for fumbling around the lyrics a bit  because his voice is an indomitable siren call to rock.

liberty.gif

I’m addicted to watching Liberty play. Always a splashy drummer, his movements are exuberant and fluid, his sticks clearly an extension of his arms. I simply canNOT sit still when he’s going at it.

jeff.gifJeff Carlisi roams the stage unruffled. At times he stands facing the crowd with all the aloof confidence of young Caesar, at other moments he is grinning like a kid at his first rock concert. When it’s his turn in the spotlight he steps up to the edge of the stage and blazes through his solos with restraint, like it’s just a walk in the park.

pat.gifPat Travers definitely brings the most ‘hard rock’ attitude to the stage, wowing the crowd with his passionate guitar playing. His performance of “I La La La Love You” is captivating. I love it, too, how he covers the keyboard parts for “Let’s Go” by handling most of it on his guitar and later switching to the synthesizer.

And then there’s Ben. He smiles throughout the show, looking much more lit up and youthful than he has in so long (compare this to his performance at Viele’s Plant just a year before). His vocals are strong and sexy. And the camera clearly loves Ben. There are many slow pans, capturing his content, cat-that-ate-the cream looks. Later, when he removes his sunglasses, we can see he is clear-eyed and happy. Serene. At peace. It’s so great to see him connecting with crowd, and joking around with his bandmates. 

ben.gif

The stifling heat threatens to make things difficult. Big fans are set up around the stage, but it’s clear the guys are affected.  Derek mentions it a couple of times, Liberty is pouring water over his own head, and the guys are mopping their faces between songs. At one point Pat stores his guitar pick on his cheek, apparently adhering it there with his sweat (ew! lol). But there’s Ben, looking as cool as a cucumber in his heavy leather jacket and shades. Electric angel rock-and-roller all the way, baby!

Big People’s happy, confident chemistry is palpable. Derek’s hyper-puppy energy offsets the cool demeanor of Pat and Jeff as they volley through their lead guitar solos like it’s the US Open. Liberty’s energy is both controlled and contagious, while Ben is, as always, unassuming and quietly badass. They are on a big stage but they make it feel more intimate by the way they interact, trading smiles, jokes and rock-and-roll flirts with each other through the set. All five connecting, all five communicating with each other.

It’s obvious these guys love each other so much, and that is something that both Liberty and Jeff emphasized to me. Jeff said, “In those two years or so, the six of us [including Julie] traveling on the road… we lived so much life together. That’s the best part about that whole thing: those relationships. They changed my life.”

from jeff carlisi 2.JPG
Big People, 1999. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi.

Jeff has given me the go-ahead to start a Facebook group for Big People. Please come join! It will mainly serve as a centralized collection site for all information and memorabilia I can round up about the group, as well as biographical tidbits and current happenings of the various members. Jeff indicated that as he came across stuff in his own files he’d send it to me to share, and I am hopeful that others will contribute as well. And of course, I welcome all fans to chime in with their thoughts, memories, and photos, too.

I’m hoping to write lots more about Big People in the future. In the meantime, please click below to enjoy the one concert we currently have access to, live at Itchycoo Park!

Setlist:

  1. “Just What the Doctor Ordered” (Ted Nugent)
  2. “Just What I Needed” (The Cars)
  3. “Caught Up In You” (38 Special)
  4. “I La La Love You” (Pat Travers)
  5. “Let’s Go” (The Cars)
  6. “Hold On Loosely” (38 Special)
  7. “Bye Bye Love” (The Cars)
  8. “Hey Baby” (Ted Nugent)
  9. “Boom Boom, Out Go the Lights” (Pat Travers Band)

Enjoy!

John Ward Hickernell: A Moment in Time

“There are decent people, even in rock and roll. If all you’ve been exposed to are the crazy ones, and then you run into a cool one, it sticks in your head.”

For John Ward Hickernell, Benjamin Orr was one of the cool ones.

smile 03John recently posted some eye-catching photos on Facebook of Ben at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. No surprise that they grabbed my attention, since I’d never seen them before, but John’s explanation of the pics had me even more curious: it turns out he had happened upon the small group behind the scenes while The Cars were waiting to take the stage of a major concert. Wow, that seems pretty lucky, huh?

Would John mind sharing more details of his memories with us? Not at all! He assured me, “It was a pretty cool day, and time has passed, and people are passing, too, and just seems kind of cool to get the photos out there, and the story, and the pin, and the whole nine yards. I don’t feel like I own them; I just happened to catch the moment.”

Don’t you just love the kindness of people? Thank you so much, John ~ let’s dig in!

It turns out that The Cars were in Cleveland to play at the World Series of Rock (WSoR). The concert was originally scheduled to take place on August 5, 1978, with Fleetwood Mac headlining, joined by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Blue Öyster Cult, and The Cars. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham fell ill but rather than cancel, the August 5 show was rescheduled for August 26. Unfortunately, that bumped Seger and BÖC from the bill; they were replaced with Eddie Money and Bob Welch.

Aug 5 ticket
Image via liveauctioneers.com

The Cars had been touring behind their debut album since June with almost no break. They had played a sold-out concert at Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom on July 18, which would have definitely been a homecoming show for Ben, and in fact, you can hear him acknowledge it on stage at the end of “Bye Bye Love.” Their performance, which was broadcast live on local station WMMS (and released on vinyl in 2018 as The Cars’ first official ‘live’ album), was packed with precision, perfection, and an abundance of attitude, proving to yet another eager audience that The Cars were a force to be reckoned with.

Still, with only “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on the radio to recommend them, The Cars were generally considered ‘new’ and had much to prove. Playing the WSoR with its crowd of more than 70,000 fans was a considerable step up from the 2,000 at the Agora, and was likely the largest audience the band had played in front of to date. I imagine they were nervous, excited, and probably still a little stunned at how well the debut album was being received around the country.

65143458_10211848908537456_8200270329700941824_n
Image via fleetwoodmac.net

It’s worth noting that the order of the WSoR lineup that day was determined by the traveling schedules of the acts. Eddie Money kicked off the show, followed by Todd Rundgren; they both had flights to catch so they went on early. The Cars played their set next, then Bob Welch, who was arriving from St. Louis, played fourth. Of course, the fiery finale featured Fleetwood Mac. A review of the concert from Cleveland Scene writer Dave Voelker pointed out the unique position The Cars were in.

“The Cars were left with the unenviable task of following Rundgren’s ecstatic set — a position they wouldn’t have had if Todd & Co. didn’t have to play in Chicago later that same day,” he wrote. “They’re still a little unseasoned, but I’m confident that many in the audience now know there’s a lot more to the Cars than their main claim to fame, ‘Just What I Needed.’ Particularly, the raw power of ‘Don’t Cha Stop’ and ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ seemed formidable and impressive, marking this sharp new band as an attention-worthy contender.”

Jane Scott from The Plain Dealer noticed, too. In her August 28 review she wrote, “The Cars, an up-and-coming Boston band, had fans dancing across the field with its ‘Just What I Needed’ and ‘Best Friend’s Girl.’” Clearly, our boys could handle playing for such a huge crowd.

Without going too deep into the WSoR’s colorful history, let me give you a quick overview of this popular but short-lived concert series. From 1974 to 1980, legendary Cleveland concert promoters, brothers Jules and Mike Belkin, worked diligently (if gingerly) with officials from the Cleveland Municipal Stadium to host a run of summer concerts featuring the hottest rock bands of the day. Each event included multiple acts on the bill, and fans packed the playing field and bleachers of the open-air venue for hours, partying to icons like The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith.

And when I say ‘partying’ I DO mean partying. The festivals quickly gained a reputation for being rowdy and dangerous, riddled with drugs, alcohol, and varying levels of stupidity and crime.  And this show was no different. Though The Plain Dealer reported that the crowd of 73,000 was considered one of the best-behaved audiences in recent attendance, the police still had their hands full. Several violent incidents occurred before, during, and after the show, including multiple stabbings, robberies, and an accident in which a man fell from the upper deck during the concert while swinging from the rafters and was transported to the hospital in critical condition.

john rocking with estes bros
2nd from left: John rocking with The Estes Brothers, c. 1975.

But none of that was on the radar of twenty-one year old John Ward Hickernell, a self-described “musician-artist-hippie-type kid who would to go any extreme to make art.” As a multi-instrumentalist himself, John was chasing the rock-and-roll dream (most notably playing guitar for The Estes Brothers). His focus wasn’t the fame and the glory, but experiencing the creative ecstasy of it all, and he pursued art in any and every form. Is it any wonder, then, that Todd Rundgren was his role model?

He explains, “Todd’s always been my creative inspirational individual. I’ve always been awed at what it must be like to possess that kind of creativity, like ‘what am I going to do today? Because I can do just about anything and if I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to learn how.’”

John’s mission, in addition to capturing the day on film, was to try to make a connection with Todd, and here’s where his personal story begins. I had the privilege of chatting with John and listening as he related his experience behind the scenes at the World Series of Rock.

John began, “Back in those days concert security was much different than today. Maybe one guy to watch over a massive area of space, and that guy was more than likely a hippie, too. I’m sure that I looked the part with my vest with many pockets of film and my shoulder bag and camera, out on safari shooting pictures. So with a few words to the one lone security guy he let me pass right on through and into a closed-off section of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.”

65318285_10211848907257424_5904929116821389312_n
Cleveland Municipal Stadium, August 26, 1978

The day was oppressively hot, made more intense by the sun beating down and the mash of the crowd. The stadium was bursting with happy-go-lucky music fans and John documented the sight, snapping pictures as he worked his way along the near-empty concrete walkways enclosing the open-air venue. Coming to the end of one of the first-level ramps he noticed a small handful of people milling around. As he drew nearer he was able to identify Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek, and Todd Rundgren in the group.

todd 01.jpg
Todd Rundgren and Utopia

John’s dream was about to come true; his hero, Todd, was within a few concrete feet of a handshake! But can you believe it? “[Todd] was hanging around and I ran out of film,” John groaned. “As I loaded a fresh roll I looked for him and he was gone, heading to the stage with Utopia. So I ended up with one ‘lone shot.’”

A disappointing turn, for sure, but not all was lost. John dug The Cars, too. He remembered Ben as a local kid from his days on The Gene Carroll Show, and was happy to see him now in this more personal setting. John could see that Ben had a special guest with him – his mother – and John was leery of interrupting the band’s privacy, but it ended up being a very relaxed scene.

middle finger 02.jpgJohn recalled, “Ben was very nice. At first I thought he may have been a bit pissed that I was shooting pics and invading a moment. I do have one picture I came across and he was with his mom, and he’s adjusting his glasses… he’s doing a ‘middle finger glasses adjustment.’ At the time, me being a little bit naïve, I kinda thought okay, maybe he’s not quite happy with me taking pictures. Of course, now I know that that’s kind of an inside thing in the music business: if someone’s got an attitude with you they’ll adjust their glasses with their middle finger.

“But after exchanging a few niceties with Ben that tone faded; he was cool and he smiled more, and he didn’t give me the finger anymore.” John laughed.

Still, John hung back, but he could see how attentive Ben was to his mom. John respectfully observed the way “Ben was close to her the whole time, pointing things out, like out in the crowd and the bleachers, and stuff like reminiscing about being in the stadium for other events, ball games ….that’s what I with bettygathered. And the physical resemblance they had was very obvious. She seemed a bit taken back. She smiled a lot but didn’t say anything to me.”

Though the encounter was just a moment in time, it struck a chord deep down in John that has resonated over the years. As I listened to John share, I was really moved by his heartfelt reflections. “Being a Cleveland boy myself, I can remember going to Indians games there as a child; I’m sure he and his family did as well, so you know it could’ve just as easily been me. And [The Cars] were on the edge of being a huge success. So I totally had a tie to that whole feeling, or imagining how he must’ve felt, for sure. You know, the ‘local boy does good’ sort of thing. We ALL dreamed of that! There it all was right in front of me. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Made it all the more heartbreaking when he passed.”

John quietly focused on taking photos, storing up tangible snapshots to accompany the impressions in his head.

“Ric kind of acted like he might have been a little bit self-conscious,” John reminisced. “That’s just my personal take on it. They were very nice. I took dozens of photos, taking time to chat. I will say that after a bit they seemed to be posing, so it got intense because I was the only guy there with a camera.”

John was gracious enough to share several of his terrific photos of Ben and Ric with us from that day:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At one point, Ben gave John a gift: a little white promotional Cars pin, which John has kept all these years. “He just reached in his pocket and he pulled out a pin and he says, ‘Hey man, I hope they turn out good,’ [referring to the photos],” John remembered. “He asked me if I was with the Scene, a Cleveland music rag paper that we all lived for each issue! I let him know that I wasn’t, but I worked for the company that printed Scene and that I actually ran a press that printed it.”

 

As they wrapped up their time together, Ben asked John to send him some of the photos if they turned out. And that was it. “I don’t think they were up there for more than half an hour, and then they receded back into the bowels of the stadium.”

Thrilled with his encounter, John continued to hang around in the relative quiet of the concrete passages backstage. He absorbed Utopia’s set with rapture. “I remember how cool ‘Eastern Intrigue’ sounded in the stadium from backstage. It was so great: no bounce, no echo like you would hear being out front, or anywhere else in that stadium for that matter.” He doesn’t remember much else in terms of the music that day; he was more into documenting the show with his camera. But while John wasn’t focused on the Cars’ set itself, it’s not because he didn’t have an appreciation for the band or their music. In truth, his feelings are quite the opposite.

“You know, it’s all timing. Sometimes all the planets line up and something unpredictable happens, and that’s kind of the way it was with The Cars. If you look at the end of the 70s, we’d been through glam rock and glitter, and Bowie and Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed… tons. And then of course there was disco and stuff like that, but The Cars really had a different writing style that was clearly evident in the way they played, and their persona just pushed it over the edge. They really were a bridge into the next realm.

“I remember seeing them at Live Aid in the 80s. They were well-established stars at that point. Ben was talking to a VJ from MTV; he was obviously having a good time, acted a bit buzzed, smoking a cigarette, it was a hell of a party. That was the last I saw of him other than magazines and videos.

“All musicians dream of success; they just do. [The Estes Brothers] had gotten very close just a year and a half earlier, so I felt a deep connection to all that: the road that musicians take and keep trying time after time. I know he did, as well. We all do. There are thousands who chase it their whole lives —  damn good musicians. So I always felt that connection. Thinking about the moment in the stadium… it held deep meaning for me.”

ben 03.jpg

And Ben?

“It’s hard to explain how I felt about him, but I could relate, maybe… just a sad story to me. That’s all there seemed to be for me for a lot of years. I was down more than I was up. But avoiding useless rambling… Seeing him with his mom [in Cleveland] was personal for me. And for him.”

John concluded emphatically, “You can tell all you need to know about a person sometimes from just one gesture. The mere fact that he had his mom there tells you the kind of person he was. What else do you need to say? That pretty much told me how cool he was.”


Oh, P.S.! John did end up meeting Todd many years later! John recounted, “For many years I was always like a step behind him ‘til finally in ’08 or ’09 they had an exhibit at the Rock Hall. He was there doing a meet-and-greet type sort of thing and oh my gosh, the line of people went all out the Rock Hall, down to East 9th Street, so I’m standing in line, you know, and I get up to where I’m inside the building and I could see him, and then… well, of course, they had to go.”

So John bought a ticket to the museum anyway, figuring since he’s there he might as well look at his exhibit. He went downstairs and there was no one down there, but then he said, “All of a sudden these two big doors swing open and here comes this whole troop of people: Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, the curator, a couple security guards, a photographer, his wife Michelle, and their son Rebop. That ended my days of being two steps behind him. I got to meet him and take a ton of pictures of that. I’ve met him a bunch of times since.”

Yay!  I love happy endings!


My main sources:

  1. The first place I looked? Deanna Adams’ definitive guidebook of Cleveland rock history: Rock and Roll and the Cleveland Connection, pages 243-244.
  2. This invaluable scan and this one, from World Series of Rock concerts at Cleveland Stadium 1974-1980 on Facebook, gave me great info on the August 26 show.
  3. This terrific piece by Matt Wardlaw provided some Agora info and the cool quote from Dave Volker.
  4. I got so much wonderful input from this great WMMS Facebook group!
  5. And a little Wikipedia, of course!
  6. All photos courtesy of John Ward Hickernell (except as noted) and used with permission. Thank you for your generosity, John!

 

Behind the Scenes at Viele’s Planet

VPreaderboard
Screenshot courtesy of Tracey L.

It’s not often that we get to hear what goes on before and after a concert. I’m thrilled and grateful that I had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of this special show, thanks to David Curry, Chuck Nolan, and Jeff Viele.

Viele’s Planet was a popular adult bar and concert venue in Springfield, Illinois, from July of 1994 to October of 2006. The owner, Jeff Viele, specialized in booking original music acts, and also sometimes catered to younger music enthusiasts by hosting non-alcoholic, all-ages shows for the local community. The location accommodated about 400 people, and featured a stage and a long dance floor area as well as patron seating. Through the years, artists such as AFI, Mojo Nixon, and Metal Church played there. And guess who else? That’s right, our favorite guy!

Jeff Viele contacted Orr’s management when his good friend, Chuck Nolan, began campaigning to get Benjamin to come for a show. Chuck was (and is) a huge Cars fan, and he had met Benjamin during a show in Quincy, Illinois, in 1997. Chuck invested a lot of time and energy in getting to see one of his rock heroes play live in Springfield. Between Jeff and Chuck, arrangements were made for Benjamin to perform at Viele’s Planet on August 15, 1998.

Preparations leading up to the day of the event involved collecting the supplies and equipment required on Benjamin’s professional rider. Included on this list was a drum set. Benjamin’s management was very detailed about the specifications they wanted. Chuck contacted a local music store, brought in the faxed specs, and was assured that the owner would have it all available on the day of the show. Chuck stayed on top of things, phoning the store the week of the performance to make sure everything was coming along.

“We show up the day of the show, and the owner is acting like he hadn’t thought about any of this since the first time we spoke!  He’s like, ‘Uh, uh… oh! Here’s some sub-Kmart-level drum kit you guys can have tonight.’ Unbelievable!” Chuck groans.  “Here I am greeting rock royalty, my childhood hero with my tail between my legs! It was obvious this substandard drum kit wasn’t going to work.” He’s able to laugh about it now. “Thankfully, I had made some calls, and my friends in a band called The Love Hogs (who were scheduled to open) were in possession of a great drum kit and they came through for us. Heart attack averted!”

August 15th arrived. Around 3 pm, Benjamin walked into Viele’s, looking like a classic biker dude, with his sleeveless black t-shirt and his shaggy blonde hair flowing from under the bandana tied around his head. He and his tour manager, David Tedeschi, took a seat at the bar while Jeff bustled about getting ready for the night. Chuck soon joined them. They made small talk about where Benjamin lived, his kids, and his motorcycles. Chuck had designed some huge subway flyers to promote the show, and they caught Benjamin’s eye in the bar. He was so impressed that he asked if he could have a couple to take home to frame and put in his children’s rooms. Of course, they let him.

ChuckandBen1998-2
Benjamin and Chuck Nolan (photo courtesy of Chuck Nolan)

While Benjamin’s road crew was getting things set up on the stage, Chuck had plenty of time to chat with Benjamin. They got to talking about Benjamin’s set list, and Chuck mentioned some of the deeper cuts that he’d enjoy hearing Ben perform, like “Down Boys” and “Think It Over.” Ben responded that he’d love to play other Cars’ songs, but he only had permission to do certain numbers.

They also talked quite a bit about The Cars and the possibility of a reunion. Chuck tried delicately to approach the subject of the band’s break up, but “like a true gentleman, Benjamin would not go into specifics.” Chuck does remember that after a few moments of quiet contemplation, Benjamin said something along the lines of, “You know, I want you to know something. I was never mad at any of the other guys. Ric is the only one I had a beef with at the time, and honestly, I’m not even mad at him anymore.” (Please remember that Chuck is paraphrasing to the best of his memory; it’s not gospel.)

With the band and the soundman finished setting up, Benjamin did his vocal sound check as well as the sound check for the drums. Click here to see RARE and amazing footage of Benjamin playing the drums for “Just What I Needed” — shared by Chuck Nolan and uploaded by Dave Curry. (Thank you SO much, Chuck!) Once they got the technicalities squared away Benjamin and his team headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

17742155_1394515600607270_963308310_n
Promotional flier designed by Chuck Nolan (photo courtesy of Jeff Viele)

In addition to the bar’s own advertising, Viele’s had teamed up with local classic rock station WYMG to heavily publicize Benjamin’s performance. The radio station invited Ben out to the Illinois State Fair where they were promoting him and the show. After dinner, Jeff and Chuck drove Benjamin out to the fairgrounds. The parking was terrible and they had bit of a walk ahead of them. Jeff was worried that they wouldn’t get Benjamin to his location on time, but luckily Jeff recognized a guy zipping around in a golf cart. The friend gladly agreed to let the guys hitch a ride to the Miller beer tent, where Benjamin arrived for his interview as scheduled.

In the meantime, Dave Curry and his good friend Tom arrived at Viele’s around 7 pm. (Both men had also met Benjamin in 1997 at the Quincy show.) Tom had made arrangements to hand off a copy of the book Frozen Fire  to David Tedeschi. The two spent the next several hours with Tedeschi and some of the other crew members, thumbing through the book and chatting easily about the early days of The Cars. Dave remembers, “Tom and I had recently found a warehouse online that had copies of the book very cheap, so we had purchased multiple copies. Well, all of the crew guys wanted one. I had more than a dozen at my apartment (which was five minutes away) so I went back home and got them. I even got a copy for Benjamin.”

Before long, folks started arriving for the show. “Regarding the turnout, I’m sorry to say it wasn’t good,” Chuck laments. “We had booked it on the last night of the Illinois State Fair.  Springfield’s music scene is, for the most part, apathetic but on a State Fair night, your average middle-aged Cars’ fan was probably home passed out, with a belly full of corn dogs!” Estimates for the show range from 50 to 100 people. “I never heard Jeff Viele complain, either,” Chuck continues. “I think the memories were priceless to him.”

viewfromthestage
View from the Viele’s Planet stage (photo courtesy of Jeff Viele)

It was nearly 11:00 pm when Benjamin and his band took the stage at Viele’s Planet. The ORR band was made up of Rich Bartlett on lead guitar, Tom Hambridge on drums, Chris Lannon on bass, Tommy West on keyboards, and Benjamin on rhythm guitar.

Chuck describes the experience. “The band members were top-notch professionals, and to hear that voice in your local watering hole was very surreal! Rich Bartlett was particularly impressive, hitting all of Elliot’s signature phrasings, but adding his individual sense of flair. I thought Ben picked great songs from The Lace, and the live delivery had even more heart than the LP.” In spite of the small turnout, Chuck says, “Overall it was like seeing an arena level show with a private party vibe. Everyone there was a true fan.”

The entire show is available on Youtube (link below); it was filmed by the late Pat Egizi. Here is the set list:

  1. Too Hot To Stop
  2. Just What I Needed
  3. I’m Coming Home Tonight
  4. Funtime
  5. Candy O
  6. Let’s Go
  7. Drive
  8. Spinning
  9. Even Angels Fall
  10. Moving In Stereo
  11. Bye Bye Love
  12. Encore: Stay The Night, I Am

As we often see with his late 1990s shows, Benjamin played it ‘fast and loose’ with the lyrics. You can tell he is having fun with it, bantering with the audience. During his performance of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” he sings, “Last night Chuck was down in the lab talking to Dracula and his crew…” Chuck got a kick out of that, of course!

After the show Benjamin and the crew headed downstairs, which served as a kind of ‘dressing room’ for the band. Dave, Tom and Chuck all hung out there, too. Benjamin sat on the couch with a beer, signing autographs and chatting with people. Dave was able to talk with him for a while. Ben’s pleasure was obvious when Dave offered him the copy of Frozen Fire, in which Dave had written, “Benjamin — Thanks for coming our way. Dave Curry, Springfield, IL.” Benjamin carefully tucked into his black leather shoulder bag nearby.

dave.vieles.1998.jpg
Photo courtesy of Dave Curry

He signed Dave’s copy of The Lace, and Dave also asked if he would autograph a couple of the promo fliers for his nieces. Ben signed the first one using a black pen, which didn’t show up very well. He apologized and was going to switch to a pen with silver ink instead, but Dave explained with good humor that his nieces were eight-year-old twins, and that it would be near-pandemonium if Dave brought two fliers that were not identical. Benjamin kind of laughed and shook his head, and he happily obliged. (Dave recently discovered that his niece Melissa still has hers, pictured right. Isn’t that so sweet?)

Both Dave and Chuck remember that Benjamin enjoyed talking about his son. “He was a proud father, showing everyone a picture of his son,” Chuck recalls. Dave confirms with a laugh, “He had pictures of Ben Jr. that he took out and showed me. Lots of Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles on that kid, as I remember.”

DaveandBenjamin1998-2
Benjamin and Dave Curry (photo courtesy of Dave Curry)

They both also recognized the sincere kindness and humility in Benjamin’s character. Dave had acted as a guest DJ on a local radio show earlier in the year, and he related to Benjamin that as part of his set he played a few songs from The Lace. Benjamin’s surprise was genuine, and his “thank you” was both humble and sincere.

Chuck remembers that at the end of the night “Ben shook my hand and said ‘ciao’ in that deep, resonate voice… Not an iota of rock star attitude in him, a good guy.”

It was after 3am when Jeff Viele finally locked up and left his bar. He headed over to a local late-night diner called Mr. Ted’s. Now this place was a little rough, as you can imagine… it was the catch-all eatery for everyone leaving the bars and trying to sober up before heading home. There was one particular fry cook that was a bit surly and would engage in yelling matches with the clientele.

For whatever reason, it turned out that this night was Jeff’s turn to bump heads with the cook, and as they were exchanging loud insults with one another the door to the restaurant opened and low and behold, who should be standing there? That’s right: “It was Benjamin and his manager. They took one look around the place and you could tell by their expressions they were NOT impressed… they turned right back around and walked out,” Jeff laughs. “That was embarrassing!”

BenLeavingMrTedsCNphoto1998
Rich Bartlett, Benjamin Orr, and David Tedeschi high-tailing it out of Mr. Ted’s. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Nolan)

View the entire show here: