Crystal Gerard: A Pursuit of Passion

Anything and everything music: live bands, spinning records, dance clubs, photography, creative coifs…  All her life, Crystal Jane Gerard has had a passion for rock and roll and a relentless determination to pursue it. And she’s proved it time and again: from writing an enthusiastic A+ English paper about meeting Adam Ant, to skipping a day of beauty school to catch John Waite leaving his hotel after a show, to walking out on a job for Benjamin Orr.

original cars pin croppedSince her early days in high school, Crystal has loved The Cars, especially Benjamin Orr, and everyone knew it! Her yearbooks were riddled with comments (and even sketches of Ben!) from friends who would mention her obsession when they would sign off for the summer. She had all The Cars’ albums and would pore over her collection, tallying which songs were Ben’s and which were Ric’s. Most of her favorite songs were Ben’s.

Right after graduating high school, Crystal attended beauty school, finished her certification in 1985, and launched into a career as a hairdresser. She had the world at her feet: she was young and pretty, she loved her job, and she spent all of her free time immersed in the music world.

In November of 1987, The Cars were touring behind their sixth album, Door to Door. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, tensions within the band were running hot. Ben was traveling separately from the rest of the members, and while it is true that he did not enjoy flying, I believe it was also a way for him to separate himself from spending more time than necessary in a work situation that had grown intolerable to him.

To that end, Ben had his own tour bus and his own travel itinerary. The Cars played in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 25, 1987, and then Ben and his bus left for the next destination: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After about a six-hour trip, he arrived on Thursday, November 26. The band was scheduled to play the MECCA Arena on Friday, November 27.

On that Thursday night, Crystal was hanging out at her favorite new wave dance club, Park Avenue. In Milwaukee in the 80s, Park Avenue was the place to ‘see and be seen.’ The venue sometimes hosted over-the-top theme nights that literally led to lines of hundreds of people waiting to get in.

I found these photos of the club online. Though they were taken around 1992 when Park Avenue reopened as Nitro, I understand that they are similar to how Park Avenue looked in the late 80s.

And it was here that, much to her delight and awe, Crystal saw Benjamin Orr standing at the bar. “I’m shy, but I had to talk to him or I’d forever regret it!” she said. “I went up to him and he was very nice. I don’t recall the conversation, but I did mention that I was a hairdresser. He said he needed his hair done before the show! I was thrilled and a bit nervous at the chance to not only have met, but to do hair for my teenage idol. He said I could come to his tour bus to do it.

“The next day, I told the salon I worked at that this amazing opportunity came up, that I could do a famous musician’s hair, and I had to take the afternoon off. For some reason they didn’t see the value in it and wouldn’t let me go.”

Crystal was not a slacker by any means; her job was important to her and this was a serious decision. But there was no way… NO WAY!… that she was going to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime chance. “Well, I got fired,” she continued. “I followed my heart and chose rock and roll over my job, and I’ve never regretted it, even for a moment.”

After thirty-three years, many of the finer details of Crystal’s experience that day are gone. As best as she can remember, the tour bus was parked near the loading area behind the MECCA Arena. She can’t recall if Ben showed her around the bus or not, but the two got settled in the main living area, where she cut and colored his hair, likely washing and rinsing in the small kitchen sink. “I packed up my gear, out came the foils, scissors, and so on, and I went to work.”

Crystal has generously shared her before, during, and after pictures with us. As you can imagine, she treasures these photos! A friendly reminder: If you share them on social media, please do NOT crop out the watermark!

01 before

02 during

03 after

The process took a couple of hours, and Ben was low-key and friendly. Crystal remembers that one thing they talked about was scuba diving, as it was one of Ben’s hobbies. Though she considered herself a newbie hairdresser at that time, Ben was happy with her work, and he invited her to come to the show that night, giving her tickets and backstage passes.

“I brought my bestie and ‘partner-in-crime’ and we got to go backstage. We briefly met the other Cars and I had them sign my Creem magazine. Paulina Porizkova was doing some sort of needlepoint work. Ben was eating jalapeno peppers out of the jar and offered some to us. He loved them! I took another photo of Ben before he opened the door to go onstage.”

creem magazine signed watermark

04 before going onstage

That November 27 show at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee rocked. The tickets were only $16.50 — can you believe it? The set list included:

  • “Tonight She Comes”
  • “Touch And Go”
  • “Double Trouble”
  • “My Best Friend’s Girl”
  • “Everything You Say”
  • “Since You’re Gone”
  • “Fine Line”
  • “Let’s Go”
  • “Strap Me In”
  • “Candy-O”
  • “Moving In Stereo”
  • “Dangerous Type”
  • “Drive”
  • “You Are The Girl”
  • “Good Times Roll”
  • “You Might Think”
  • “Hello Again”
  • “Just What I Needed”
  • “Magic”

Crystal and her friend had a blast! Here are a couple of shots from the concert:

concert 01

concert 02

Ben generously invited Crystal and her friend to see The Cars play at another nearby show the following weekend, and they were happy to attend. Crystal had printed one of her photos of Ben and he signed it “love Ben Orr” (see above).

concert 03She later had the pleasure of seeing The Cars play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York in 2011, where Ric also signed one of her photos from that long-ago show. It gave her goosebumps to hear their wonderful music played live again, though she missed Ben very much.

Even though she is to not be able to bring all the particulars of that first weekend fully back to life, the experience of doing Ben’s hair shifted the course of her career. “Benjamin was my first celebrity client, and [working with him] inspired me to later pursue this type of clientele because to me, musicians usually have the most creative looks. Image is everything onstage.”

Crystal would go on to ‘brush the rock and roll hair’ of many other notable rock stars, including Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Butch Walker and the Marvelous 3, Brett Anderson from the Donnas, the Cocktail Slippers, Dale Watson, The Struts and The Posies.

The day after her October 2 birthday in 2000,  Ben passed away. Crystal heard it on the radio and she was crushed. “I felt this personal connection because I did his hair. I felt close to him; I loved him all my life. He was so kind.” She couldn’t help but cry at the loss; Benjamin had changed her life. She will always be grateful to him for the way he influenced her career.

Crystal moved to New York City twenty-six years ago in order to pursue her passions.  “A lot of people do many creative things at once. You can’t do that in a lot of cities,” she noted. She has stayed close to the music biz: She was a New Music Scout for Little Steven’s Underground Garage from 2006 to 2017, while maintaining her salon clientele. She also worked as a DJ at NYC’s Beauty Bar for many years, and spun an eclectic mix of garage rock from the ’60s-’80s for the SXSW festival and other special events. In fact, she DJ’d for The Empty Hearts in New York in 2017… but that is another story for another time. Stay tuned!

adam ant by crystal gerard
Adam Ant by Crystal Gerard

Today, Covid-19 has limited her DJ work, but Crystal is not letting go of her musical pursuits. She is in the process of creating an Instagram page to showcase her incredible rock photography, a skill she’s had a lot fun cultivating over the years. She is also available for hair appointments. If you’d like to connect with her, you can shoot her an email at crystalblu1966@gmail.com!

I’m so grateful that Crystal was willing to share her experience and her passion with us! ❤


I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to Kat F. for making me aware of Crystal’s story. Thank you, my friend!

All photos are courtesy of Crystal Jane Gerard (unless otherwise noted) and shared with permission.

Sources:

  1. I used this article from onmilwaukee.com for the background information on Park Avenue.
  2. I retrieved the photos of Nitro from mkelgbthist.org.

Dan Isenberg: Slam dunk!

Dan Isenberg: Slam dunk!

When Dan Isenberg (known professionally as Dan Eye) made the flight from Michigan to California in the summer of 1988, he expected big things. After all, he was on his way to witness the last battle for the NBA Championship between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was going to be exciting! What he did not anticipate was that he would be the jumper in the ultimate alley-oop play of the weekend.

Musically speaking, I mean. 

Alley-oop: “An alley-oop in basketball is an offensive play in which one player throws the ball near the basket to a teammate who jumps, catches the ball in mid air and slam dunks it before touching the ground.” — Wikipedia

Once Dan arrived in California and got himself all checked in to his hotel room, he met up with a couple of his college buddies from Oklahoma Christian University that lived in the area: Troy and Jon Jon. It was June 18, the day before Game 6 of the NBA series, and he had some time to play and explore. Their first destination was Universal Studios. It was there that Troy would throw Dan the (metaphorical) ball, and Dan would fly with it and slam dunk it into history.

I felt all of the importance and impact and thrill of this event as Dan enthusiastically recounted to me one of the best memories of his life.

So let’s travel back in time to 1988:

pistons logo“I was in my 3rd season working for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and I was an account executive, early in my career, selling Pistons season ticket packages. When the Pistons made it to the NBA finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, they flew all of us employees [to California] for Game 6 and Game 7. I was out there and I decided to go to Universal Studios, and one of my buddies, Troy, he just said, ‘Hey Dan! That’s Benjamin Orr of The Cars!’”

They were all standing in the gift shop at Universal Studios, and Troy had seen Benjamin walk in. Ben was wearing sunglasses, and he was strolling hand-in-hand with a petite blonde woman, and the two had begun shopping. When Troy pointed them out to Dan, Dan was a little starstruck. With Troy’s encouragement, Dan took the leap. 

“I just simply went up to Mr. Orr and I’ll be darned, he was just shopping with a real pretty blonde woman,” Dan remembered. “I don’t know if it was his wife or a girlfriend, but sure enough, she was with Benjamin, and she realized that I recognized him. She also, and this is just me talking… she also kind of knew to just keep shopping and let me get my photo taken with Benjamin Orr. I thought that was kind of cool, you know?

“I just said, ‘Excuse me, hey Benjamin’ and I just said, ‘I’m Dan Eye. I work for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and I’ve got my camera with me and I’m a big fan of The Cars, and I was just wondering if I could just maybe get my photo taken with you?’ And he said, ‘Sure!'”

The woman subtly kept shopping while Ben turned to Dan. The two posed together for this photo, snapped by Jon Jon. 

1988.06.19-21 in Los Angeles by Dan Isenberg
Benjamin Orr and Dan Isenberg, Universal Studios, June 18, 1988. Photo courtesy of Dan Isenberg; shared with permission.

“I said, ‘Here’s my business card. If you are ever in Detroit, you can just simply call my direct line on that card, and I’ll make sure that you and a guest get two phenomenal seats for any game that you ever want to see.’ And he just looked at my card, and with his thumbs up he said, ‘Basketball?! Okay!’ and I said, ‘All right!’

“And then Jon Jon said, ‘Now, are you guys from Boston?’ and Benjamin said, ‘No, no, we’re not from Boston. You know, The Cars, we’re kind of from maybe a little bit of Cleveland, a little bit here, maybe a little bit there.’ I thought that was a cool, cool answer.”

Dan asked Benjamin if they could get one more photo together in case the first one didn’t turn out so great. “And he said, ‘Sure! Sure, Dan.’ And that’s when he said my name! Because he looked at my business card, you know? And that made me feel so cool that Benjamin Orr said, ‘Sure, Dan! Sure! Yeah!’ And to this day I’ll never know if Benjamin Orr said my name because he saw my name on my card, or because he said, ‘I’m going to hang onto this guy’s card because I want two front row seats for the basketball game next time I’m in town!’” Dan said, laughing.

“And I loved it! I thought, ‘I’m with Benjamin Orr!’ I just loved that guy!”

In spite of looking high and low, Dan can’t find that second photo, but he remembers it very well.

“It had me and Benjamin, and it had that beautiful woman that he was with. She did have like a little sunny summer dress on. And she was really, really pretty. A very classy woman. And I was like, wow, this is so cool, because Benjamin Orr isn’t with, like, some blonde bombshell like Pamela Anderson. We would all think that our favorite rock stars who are so cool looking, like Benjamin, you would expect him to be with some kind of pin-up model.

“I have only met two guys in my life that I can say, ‘Holy smokes, these are two of the coolest looking guys ever!’ And the two of them are Benjamin Orr and Rob Lowe!” Dan exclaimed, laughing again. (And guess what? Coincidentally, Dan had just met and interviewed Rob Lowe only days before at one of the other games! How terrific is that?)

“And then, you want to know what is so funny? I just went, ‘Wow! I got my photo taken with Benjamin Orr of The Cars!’ And I just called every one of my college classmates from Rochester College and Oklahoma Christian University.”

Dan was a massive Cars fan in the 80s, their music streaming out of his dorm room on a regular basis. In fact, when The Cars played Cobo Arena in Detroit back on February 12, 1982, Dan and his college friends went all out. “We ALL totally dressed up, and dressed up like the ‘new wave’ look of The Cars. We took photos of ourselves; we had a professional photographer!”

“When we were at that concert, my date was Melanie, a beautiful little redheaded classmate of ours. She and I were so punked out and we were in the new wave look, and we just held onto each other and we danced and danced, kissed and kissed, we were just jamming all night… jamming together to The Cars!

“They ended with ‘Shake It Up’ and all of us were underneath a little corridor at the entrance of the arena, and there was a loose board or something, like metal or whatever… we took our elbows and went choon choon choo-choo-choon, choon choon choo-choo-choon [banging elbows against it to the beat], and we were just jamming away again to the music…  It was just SHAKE.IT.UP! And when we left, we felt like we had been through a war!”

Philadelphia 76ers v Detroit Pistons
Bob Seger at a Pistons game, April 26, 2005. Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dan has never forgotten the experience of meeting Ben, even after all these years. He went on to have a very successful career with the Pistons, and as part of his job, he was the personal account executive for Bob Seger for 18 years. He explained, “I worked with his agent and on many occasions, I’d have to see Bob at halftime and give him extra VIP parking, playoff tickets, and sometimes concert tickets. One game, I said ‘Hey Bob, here’s your Dixie Chicks tickets.’ He always called me Daniel, and said, ‘Thanks, Daniel! Are you going to the concert?’ I said ‘Yes, and my wife and I are sitting right behind you!’ Bob clapped and jammed to almost every song and turned around to high five me after ‘There’s Your Trouble!’ He truly is the nicest guy EVER!!! 

“I busted my butt for Bob Seger. One time Don Henley and Glenn Frey of The Eagles called Bob Seger and said, ‘Can you get us two tickets for the Pistons game for Game 5 when The Lakers play The Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals?’ and Bob Seger said, ‘Let me call Daniel!’ And I go, ‘I got this.’ And I said, ‘Bob, I just want you to know, I’m only doing this because I love you, and I love rock stars, and Bob? I once got my freaking photo taken with Benjamin Orr of The Cars!’” Dan recalled, cracking up. “Oh man, Bob Seger laughed!”

“Since then, I’ve gotten my photo taken and been backstage with Ted Nugent and Aretha Franklin. I met Ronnie Wood. I’ve met Burton Cummings, Joe Walsh, Dolly Parton. I’ve met Ringo Starr… but Benjamin Orr in California? I felt like I was really in the presence of the music that I grew up with. I’ve just always had the greatest luck ever for meeting my musician idols, my heroes. But it all started in 1988… I met Benjamin Orr! And I was like, man, where do you go from the top?”

Slam dunk!


Random thoughts:

  • I loved chatting with Dan! He was so energetic and fun to talk to, and genuinely eager to share. Thanks again, Dan!
  • Too bad Ben never called Dan up for tickets. Rats!
  • I sent Dan a couple of photos of Diane Page from 1986 and he was able to confirm that the beautiful blonde Ben was with was her. ❤ 
  • June, 1988, was about 6 months after The Cars officially disbanded. Ben looks happy and relaxed here, and I’m so glad to see it.
  • He also looks very tan! I wonder if he was mainly living in Kauai during this first half of the year?
  • In spite of his touristy button-up shirt, he’s still full-on rock star, with his studded leather bracelet and his sunglasses hanging off his chest. The epitome of cool!
  • And speaking of bracelets… I can see his treasured cuff next to his watch. ❤
  • I wonder if the necklace he’s wearing is that gold dolphin one he wore in some of the Door to Door promo photos?

Jeff Carlisi: Hold on Loosely

It’s no secret that Jeff Carlisi was heavily influenced by The Cars when he co-wrote what may well be 38 Special’s most recognizable and beloved song, “Hold On Loosely.” He is unfailingly candid about it whenever he tells the story of its creation. But it wasn’t just that one song: The Cars and Benjamin Orr would play a pivotal role in Jeff’s musical career long after he fiddled around with those first chugging 8th notes.

1000full-38-special.jpg
38 Special: L-R Jeff Carlisi, Steve Brookins, Don Barnes, Donnie Van Zandt, Larry Junstrom, and Jack Grondin

38 Special was a popular 80s band out of Jacksonville, Florida. Well, I guess I should say they still are, since they just announced a new tour for 2020, though I believe Don Barnes is the only original member remaining. Anyway, the group of high school pals started churning out Southern rock songs in 1974 but, in Jeff’s words to me, “the first couple of albums were garbage and got no play.” Jeff felt the band was stuck trying to imitate the genre’s icons of the day, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Marshall Tucker Band. In doing so, they were failing to set themselves apart from the rest of the swamp.

In 1979 they got an infusion of fresh water (see what I did there?) when Jim Peterik, co-founder of the band Survivor, joined their songwriting sessions. Their third album, Rockin’ Into the Night, finally put the band on the charts when the title track peaked at #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. 38 Special was finally getting some national attention, but they were still sputtering a bit to find their signature sound.

Jeff clearly remembers the first time he heard “Just What I Needed.” He told me, “I was driving in my car and JWIN came on the radio. I thought I was going to throw up. I thought it was terrible; I couldn’t switch the radio station fast enough.” But within two weeks he couldn’t get enough of it, drawn in by the simplicity and genius of the riffs and the infectious chorus.

As Jeff explains in this video excerpt from iVideosongs, he started messing around with that beginning riff and it morphed into the backbone of “Hold On Loosely.” Don Barnes and Jim Peterik loved it, adding lyrics and fleshing out the music. It was a huge hit, and all of a sudden 38 Special was a staple on both rock and pop radio. Over the next decade the band released “Caught Up In You,” “If I’d Been the One,” “Back Where You Belong,” “Like No Other Night,” and on and on… They now had a sound all their own, featuring, as Jeff aptly calls it, “the ever present 8th note.”

Because of that little opening riff in “Just What I Needed,” Jeff believes that The Cars helped boost them out of the mire 38 Special was stuck in and put them on the road to success.

“I think the one band that I owe the most credit to as far as really hitting my stride as a songwriter, especially when 38 Special started becoming successful in the early 80’s, was the Cars…I really owe Ric Ocasek (the Cars’ leader) a lot of credit as far as enlightening me into how you can create something different, very original and unique – that when you hear it on the radio for the first time it’s like ‘whoa, it’s that band.’ Some people say ‘as soon as I hear your songs on the radio I know that it is 38 Special because nobody else does it that way.’” — Jeff Carlisi, American Songwriter interview, July 1992.

When Jeff left 38 Special in 1996, he could not have predicted that The Cars — or at least, one member of The Cars — would have an even deeper impact on his life.

38 Special and The Cars were both at their most popular in the 80s, though the two groups didn’t really cross paths. Jeff never met any members of the band until 1999, when he and Ben ended up together in the supergroup Big People. Jeff recalled in the book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, “Derek picked Ben up at the airport, and I was in awe of this guy. I’ll never forget the first time he walked through the door for rehearsal and I said, ‘Hey, you’re Ben Orr!’ and he just said with a smile, ‘So, that’s what I’ve been told.'”

carlisi_orr
Backstage at a Billy Joel concert, 1999. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi.

When they were pulling together each individual member’s contribution to the setlist, Ben made it clear that he would only perform Cars’ songs that originally featured his vocals. Jeff was surprised to learn that Ben actually sang many of the band’s hits; like so many others, he assumed it was all Ric on the albums. Learning the songs for Big People elevated the music to a whole new level for Jeff. “I was always a casual fan, but I became a much bigger fan of The Cars after playing those songs with Ben.”

One day Jeff tried to explain to Ben how “Hold On Loosely” came from “Just What I Needed.” He even went as far as playing the two riffs side by side to illustrate the influence for Ben. Remembering, Jeff laughs, “Ben just looked at me, and he had that dry wit, you know. He said, ‘Sorry, pardner. I just don’t hear it.'”

The friendship between Jeff and Ben was immediate and permanent; they were as close as brothers. They had so much in common: the music in their blood, their deep love for kids, and the desire for copious amounts of hot sauce. They were even near the same size physically, though Jeff told me with a laugh, “His feet were much smaller than mine. I couldn’t figure out how he could walk around on such tiny feet!”

While Julie Snider, Ben’s fiancée, was tirelessly and tenderly caring for Ben’s every need throughout his illness, Jeff with right there with her. Together they saw to it that Ben’s last weeks were as active and comfortable as Ben wanted them to be.

Jeff finally met the other members of The Cars when he attended the video shoot for the band’s last interview in August of 2000. Ben emphasized that he really wanted Jeff to be there, and that he was looking forward to introducing Jeff to the other guys. Jeff remembers Ric as being rather stoic and aloof, but overall everyone was friendly.

from-jeff-carlisi-4.jpg
At Ben’s insistence that Jeff be in the photo, Jeff decides to play it goofy. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi, August, 2000.

After Ben’s memorial service in Cleveland, Jeff went to lunch with Greg Hawkes and David Robinson and enjoyed swapping stories with them about Ben and their respective bands. It was good to connect; it was good to bond through Ben.

After Ben passed away, Julie gifted Jeff with an incredible treasure: Ben’s Gibson EB-6. Jeff had long admired it, and Julie assured him that Ben would want him to have it. It remains one of Jeff’s most cherished possessions to this day, a tangible reminder of the love of a best friend, gone too soon.

Isn’t it so incredible that 40 years after Jeff was repulsed and then inspired by “Just What I Needed,” Ben would come along and rock Jeff’s world once again? It’s a beautiful thing. ❤


A couple of additional factoids (because how can I not include a number list?):

  1. “Hold On Loosely” was the 13th video played on the first broadcast of MTV. Jeff vividly remembers a cameraman from MTV coming out to film their live show, back when ‘music television’ was an untried concept. He recounts the memory at about the 17 minute mark in the Youtube video from iVideoSongs.
  2. jeff bookJeff has always had a huge desire to connect kids and music. In 2003 he founded Camp Jam Co., an organization that hosts a variety of music experience programs for learners of all ages and skill levels, in cities all across the nation.
  3. Wanting to also come alongside adults, in 2009 he co-wrote a book called Jam: Amp Your Team, Rock Your Business. He weaves his personal rock-and-roll success story with sage advice for business executives looking to rise to the top of their game. (True to form, he gives full inspirational credit to The Cars.)
  4. Jeff will be a guest on Madame Perry’s Salon on January 27, 2020. Listeners can call in and ask questions during this interview. The studio number is 646-716-9922. Tune in!
  5. I’ve included a few more videos below, including another example of Jeff talking about how “Just What I Needed” influenced 38 Special, as well as some original performances by 38 Special, The Cars, and Big People.

Now, it’s time to rock!

Chris Morris: “Cleveland Rocks!” and The Cars

with Chris Morris
Chris Morris and me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, April 16, 2018

Imagine for just a minute… What if there was one HUGE rock concert? The most talented and influential singers and musicians of all time, sharing a gigantic stage together? Elvis Presley, The Kinks, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Heart, Joan Jett, Prince, on and on, somehow coordinating this perfect, all-night jam session. What would that look like?

That’s a question that renowned visual journalist and illustrator Chris Morris asked himself back in January of 2012, “What if I drew everybody who’s in the Rock Hall?” Simultaneously, the idea also somehow floated out of his mouth and into the ears of the staff at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, with whom he was brainstorming ways to honor the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions coming to town that April.

Chris has spent over 30 years in the field of journalism using his artistic abilities to help readers process devastating national news, follow sports and stats, and chuckle at the foibles of politicians and celebrities.  His experience – and his skills – stretch across a broad spectrum.  Do yourself a favor and take a minute to read this great article from Joe Milliken and Standing Room Only; it will give you a more in-depth look at Chris’s varied career. But there in 2012, he sat a little stunned, realizing what he had just committed himself to with his spontaneous daydream.

After his co-workers gave him the thumbs up on the project, he returned to his office to do a little math. At that time, there were 542 performers inducted in the Hall of Fame (he narrowed it down to only those that would appear on stage), and he had eight – only 8 – weeks to research and create drawings of all of them! With all of the additional band members, Chris would have to average about 22 people a day in order to meet the deadline.

chrismorrisposter
2018 Cleveland Rocks! poster; The Cars in inset. Artwork by Chris Morris.

He chose a simple caricature style and limited himself to a black-and-white color palette, and he dove in. The illustration was done in a computer drawing program called Adobe Illustrator. He would look at photos of the individuals on one screen and draw them in the application on another screen. Some days, he said, the subjects would “fall out of the pen;” other days were a struggle, but he finished (two days early!) and the end product, a collage poster called Cleveland Rocks!, was magnificent.

He’s continued to add the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performer inductees every year (the number of people currently hovers around 700), and it’s been a joy for him to watch the poster grow. And now we catch up to him in 2018: The Year of The Cars.

In addition to being a unique and talented illustrator, Chris is a pretty big music fan – and he’s always loved The Cars. “I lived in Boston when I was 12 in 1976, and then we moved to Dallas, Texas, so the Cars were a touchstone from home when they broke big. I saw them live on the Panorama tour in 1980.” He had long been anticipating their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with the 2018 ceremony taking place in Cleveland, Ben’s hometown, he just had a feeling the time was right. So while many were scheduling flights and choosing their outfits for the big night (including yours truly), Chris’s preparations for Rock Hall week were unique.

Now I can’t imagine a cooler gig than to get paid for studying the faces of The Cars; what could be better? Well, that’s what Chris got to do, but for him it’s all part of the process. “Like I do with any of the bands I draw for that poster, I always look at lots of videos and stills to get the little things right, like the instruments and clothing, and then make the likeness from many points of reference. I might get the hair from one photo and the clothing from another. Beautiful people are harder to draw because it doesn’t take much to make it fall apart. But if someone has big ears, you can’t go wrong drawing BIG ears.“

It wasn’t too difficult for Chris to get a handle on the visual reality of The Cars. That doesn’t mean it didn’t take some thought; as with all of Chris’s art, he wanted to do it well. “I had a really strong idea of their looks ahead of time. Ric almost draws himself. Benjamin’s mouth and heavy-lidded eyes are key; Ric’s nose and Elliot’s glasses. Little elements like that – pieces of the sum – have to be right or it all looks wrong and unfamiliar.”

Of particular artistic influence was the footage of The Cars’ performing “Candy-O” during their Musikladen set, one of Chris’s favorite videos. “I love how Benjamin sets his effects and then backs away, points toward Elliot, and then the song starts. And then 30 seconds in, Greg comes in with the sleigh bells. I drew those into his hand for the band image.”

Chris was meticulous about other details, as well. Take Benjamin, for example. In the main caricature Chris did for the poster, Benjamin is playing his Music Man Stingray bass. When Chris wanted to add color to a separate print of the band, he didn’t just make the bass red, he created a second drawing.  He explained, “The Vox bass worked great in the version with the red on black and white, because it was a red bass, you know? But his shoes were also important, the slightly elevated heels. It would be like drawing Prince in flat shoes would look wrong. So all those little things have to be right or the fans who really know this stuff would bust my balls.”

It’s this honesty in his work that makes Chris such an impactful artist. Fans look at the final product and see that he cares about the nuances of his subject. “I did that for every musician I drew. Angus Young plays an SG pretty consistently – a Les Paul would look wrong; Chas Chandler (of The Animals) carries his bass high on his chest and Paul Simonon of The Clash wears his low. I have a cigarette stuck in the strings at the top of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar because he used to do that. Those kind of details make the poster accurate in the little ways that people who KNOW will notice.”

Having now drawn in the neighborhood of 700 figures for the Cleveland Rocks!  poster, Chris definitely has his methods down. But he found out early on that Cars followers are a little different than other artists’ fans, in terms of their eagerness.

David Curry was the first to reach out to Chris and let him know that the Fanorama was looking forward to seeing how the artwork was going to turn out. Chris stayed in touch and as soon as he had a finished piece to share, David posted it on Twitter and Facebook. The enthusiastic response was more than Chris expected. He answered by increasing the variety of Cars’ products on his website. “It was phenomenal,” he said with a laugh. “Many thanks! It pushed me to look for new ways to expand the line and make merch available that didn’t exist yet.”

Chris’s interest in people goes deeper than studying their unusual facial features; he cares about their stories, too. As Rock Hall weekend approached, his mind was preoccupied with Benjamin. Of course he knew Ben was a Cleveland native and that he was laid to rest only about an hour away, and he felt it was likely that many people would be paying their respects to Ben. He decided to visit the site on the Friday before, with the intention of connecting with some fans and putting together a respectful piece for The Plain Dealer honoring Ben’s memory.

“I went there hoping to meet and talk to some people and make a ‘sketchbook’ of sorts, something meaningful and spontaneous. I’ve done that type of art before and it’s interesting to see the variety of faces and the quotes from the fans. But I had the cemetery to myself. I’ve been in journalism for 31 years so I’ve seen a lot, but that is a special thing, seeing and being at such a serene, personal place. It was humbling, and a beautiful day. Things like that are powerful,” Chris reflects.

Rather than documenting the impressions of others, Chris was left with his own thoughts as he captured the morning on video. By the end of the weekend Ben’s grave would be covered in mementos, but for now, only the soft breeze spoke to the peace and solace Chris found.

“I would look around, amazed really that I had this time to myself. It was quiet except for the birds and I could take the pictures I wanted, shoot some videos, and luckily I made one that was reflective of the peaceful atmosphere. The sun was slowly gliding across the polished stone, birds singing. It was a nice moment.”

I was fortunate enough to get to meet and spend a little time with Chris during the induction weekend. He went out of his way to attend an author event that Joe Milliken and I were hosting, and then met up with us again on Monday at the museum. After I returned home I received a package from him containing some of his amazing artwork. I definitely rank Chris as one of the kindest people in Cleveland.

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Ben beach towel; artwork by Chris Morris

Visit Chris’ website to see his line of cool Cars stuff at https://chrismorrisillustration.com/product-tag/cars/. Along with his terrific t-shirts and posters he has phone cases, mugs, totes… and the beach towels are to die for!  Please also follow Chris on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/chrismorrisillustration/ and on Twitter @camorris.

Joe Milliken: Signature Move

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Joe Milliken, 2017.

March 24, 2018. Sitting at the desk he has labored at for more than a decade, surrounded by his wife and young daughter, music journalist Joe Milliken applies his signature to the publishing contract with a flourish. This day has been a long time coming, and marks the end of a fulfilling, though sometimes grueling, road.

It’s official. The biography of Benjamin Orr is going to be published.

Still fresh from the experience, Joe said,  “Saying it was simply a ‘feeling of accomplishment’ seems like an understatement. But yes, when I signed that publishing agreement and realized that a publisher believed in my project, I felt a sense of accomplishment, pride, relief, and personal growth.”

Many of you are familiar with this project… some of you have been waiting for what seems like ages. And while you may have wondered if Joe Milliken’s biography of Benjamin Orr would ever reach the shelves, no one has stressed and speculated over this labor of love more than the author himself.

“I started this back in 2007. There were a few gaps along the way where I had to set the project aside for stretches because of life circumstances, but essentially, I have worked on this book in my spare time for eleven years… Yes, it has been a long process,” Joe sighed. (In addition to freelance writing, Joe works overnight shifts at the Brattleboro Retreat, a locked-down psychiatric hospital in Vermont.)

So let me assure you right here at the beginning: Benjamin’s story IS going to be told! As of this date, Joe is scheduled to submit his completed manuscript, artwork, and photographs to Rowman & Littlefield Publishers by May 1st, and the book is tentatively slated to be on shelves by the beginning of November, 2018. Such great news!

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Door to Door photo shoot, 1987. Photo by Marco Glaviano, used with permission.

While Joe considers this endeavor to be his ‘life’s work,’ it wasn’t so much the passion for writing that set him on this path… it was rock and roll.

An artist at heart, Joe earned an associate’s degree in visual arts, but discovered along the way that writing might actually be the way to go to if he wanted to use his creativity to earn a buck. And while he spent time as a local sports writer, it was really music he had a passion for. From that day in the 7th grade when his buddy, Ed Faxon, brought a 45-single of Aerosmith’s “Come Together” to school and played it in music class, Joe was hooked. “Aerosmith hit me like a sledgehammer. After that, it was ALL rock music, ALL the time!”

[Incidentally, it was this same Ed who nicknamed Joe “the Jock of Rock” back in the day, a moniker that still identifies Joe in the Facebook world – find and like his music page here.]

“Music is easily my favorite hobby, but I could not carry a tune if it had a handle on it! Therefore, since I couldn’t become a musician, I’d write about it instead. Writing allowed me to kill two birds with one stone; it became both my way of getting involved in music, and my artistic/creative outlet.”

After ten years or so of rock journalism, and being published in newspapers and national magazines like Goldmine and The Alternate Root, Joe was eager for more. He had been kicking around the idea of writing a book for a while, but he admits that Ben and The Cars would not have been his first choice. “However, once I started investigating Ben’s life, I realized that there was a whole story about his early life in Cleveland where he grew up that I had no idea about, and neither did many other Cars’ fans.”

The suggestion actually originated from a member of a Cars fan group, who found Joe’s profile online and believed he could be a good fit for sharing Benjamin’s story: Joe himself hailed from Boston, resided in Vermont (where Ben also lived toward the end of his life), and was a rock-loving music journalist who listed The Cars as an influence. Joe spent about a month exploring and contemplating before he finally committed to the project. Once he was in, he was ALL in, heart and soul.

“My goal was to paint the clearest picture possible of Ben’s entire life, not just his life as a member of The Cars. This is a biography about a hard working musician who had one goal: to be in a successful national band. It’s not meant to be a ‘Cars book,’ although, of course the band is prominent in the narrative.”

It’s not your  stereotypical ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’ rock biography, either. Joe confirms, “This is not a backstage exposé, but rather the story of an extremely gifted, hard-working musician who knew exactly what he wanted to do in life from a very early age… and he achieved it.”

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A bit of Joe’s research. Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

Because Joe could not talk to Benjamin himself he knew he would have to dive into an intensive interview process. For the first year, he did a lot of research, mapping out Benjamin’s life from his birth to his death, and then he created a basic story structure. From there, he started conducting interviews with anyone and everyone he could find who knew Ben, filling in the gaps in his draft with their quotes and stories as he went along.

Joe interviewed well over 100 people for this book and overall, it was a great experience — but it was not always easy; not by a long shot. “The one big obstacle I faced was that some people who knew him were a little leery at first simply because Ben was a very private man, and of course, they didn’t know me from a hole in the wall! In some cases, it took me a long time to gain people’s trust before they would open up to me… understandably so.” For a few of Ben’s contacts, it took years.

Even once lines of communication were firmly established, further assurances were sometimes necessary. “There were times I needed to show an interviewee the excerpt from the manuscript in which they participated in order to get their final approval. It certainly shows just how much people really cared about how Ben is portrayed in this book.”

In spite of its challenges, the interview process was obviously essential, and it gave Joe such a wide lens for getting to know Benjamin. Additionally, some long-held misconceptions were set straight and new pockets of information uncovered. Especially helpful were friends and bandmates from Ben’s early years (Joe fondly calls them his “Cleveland Connection”) who gave insight into the activities, motivations, and personality of the young man who would grow up to make such an indelible mark on the music world.

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Benjamin Orzechowski, age 16. Ben Orr Collection, used with permission.

And Joe would discover that a common thread ran through Ben’s relationships, from beginning to end.

“So many interviewees talked about his kindness and generosity towards his family and friends. Ben was hard to get to know, but once you did and he trusted you? You were a friend for life and he would do anything within his power for you.”

And though he never put himself in the spotlight, Ben was a man of great love and loyalty. “What moved me the most is his generosity. He did so many things for people that no one ever knew about… not even his bandmates. He didn’t talk or brag about these gestures, and many of them were not small things, believe me. Also, I love how he never forgot about his friends growing up. Like I said, if you were his friend, you were his friend for life.”

Joe didn’t get everyone he wanted in the book, but the majority of people he approached were kind and helpful, and their love for Benjamin was palpable. He did talk to a large variety of people, including family members, two of the four members of The Cars, musicians, label executives and music industry personnel, studio engineers, rock photographers and personal friends.

In addition to sharing their stories, many people also gave Joe the gift of photographs. “The photos are a big part of this project. I have collected over 500 of them spanning Ben’s entire life, many of which are from folks’ personal collections and that have never been seen or published. Choosing the final photos for the book might have been the most daunting task of all!”

[Now if your first thought after reading that was, “Holy wow! Five hundred??? I wanna see them ALL!” I’ve got some super good news: Joe mentioned that he is considering following the biography with a special edition “photo book” to share many more of the photos he’s collected with the hardcore fans. Fingers (and toes) crossed!]

While Joe considers the interview process one of the most challenging obstacles of this project, it wasn’t the only aspect that kept him on his toes. “I had to learn to take everything I heard with a grain of salt, for you can’t believe everything you are told. Luckily, as time went on, I got better at filtering out the bullshit and ‘making it real.’”

Benjamin’s absence is felt keenly by Joe. In fact, the list of interview questions he would have loved to discuss with Ben is long. “First, I would just like to talk to Ben about his music tastes… his favorite bands in different stages of his life and why. Who his favorite singers were, his favorite albums, what musicians influenced him the most…. things like that. I would also ask him what his earliest memory of performing was, and at what moment did he realize this band he was now in was going to be world famous. I’d ask what his favorite Cars’ album is and what was his most memorable moment in The Cars. On a more personal level, I would ask him who the love of his life really was.”

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Photo courtesy of Rhino Records

And if Joe could have spent time with Benjamin during his life? “I want to hang out with Ben from June 1979 to June 1980,” Joe confided. “The Cars were riding the success of their debut album (my second favorite) and about to release their second album, Candy-O, which is my favorite Cars album. The Cars were the hottest band in America at that time and Ben was finally a true rock star and enjoying the fruits of all his labor… and the girls were everywhere! (laughing)”

While Joe can never go back in time, he has gained the next best thing. “Knowing Ben inside and out like I do now… I am able to appreciate him as a person and not just as a rock star in a band. Even though I never met him, I kind of feel like I did.”

Joe is pretty tight-lipped when it comes to revealing too many details about the contents of the book itself (rats!) so we’ll have to wait for the fall, when I hope to get my hands on an advance copy and write a review to publish here (stay tuned!).  In the meantime, what is next on the horizon for Joe Milliken?

His own music and arts website, Standing Room Only, keeps him quite busy, and he still does freelance writing (in fact, he’ll be covering April’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Benjamin’s hometown of Cleveland for Goldmine magazine). Eventually he’d like to write another music-related book, but he knows that by signing the publishing agreement with Rowman he’s kicking off the marketing and promotion phase of this project, and that will take much of his time and energy in the foreseeable future.

Still, he’ll be riding the emotional high of this writing milestone for some time to come. “I’ve had so much fun and am so honored to tell Mr. Orr’s life story, words just can’t describe it!”

In order to make sure you don’t miss the latest updates, author events, discount promotions, and other book-related Benjamin tidbits, ‘like’ Joe Milliken’s Facebook  page dedicated to the book and/or follow the project on Twitter (@benorrbook). You can also email Joe directly at BenOrrBook@gmail.com to receive email communications  (and it can’t hurt to give him a shout out in favor of that future photo book!).

Scott Bell: Making a Connection

Do you remember those late night infomercials they used to play on television in the 1990s, advertising ‘greatest hits’ music compilations? Back before the internet and iTunes could put together your mixes for you? Well, I don’t know how successful those efforts were at actually selling products, but I do know they sold one young kid on his future: “I can remember seeing a ten second spot of The Cars’ ‘Just What I Needed’ promo video; seeing these guys in ties and aviator shades; Benjamin Orr playing a Stingray bass with bleach-blonde hair, and I thought, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’”

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Scott Bell, 2016

And that is precisely what he went on to do. Scott Bell was instantly hooked on that addictive sound of The Cars, and it would help to define his career. Though Benjamin passed away before Scott’s first professional project even got off the ground, Scott would end up making a connection with his rock hero in a unique and unexpected way.

Born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1979, Scott has spent his life pursuing music. Not long after seeing his first glimpse of The Cars, Scott picked up the bass in 1992 and began learning how to sing shortly thereafter. Benjamin’s voice was the perfect teacher.

“When you’re learning how to control your voice, his songs are the perfect template. His nuances, his throat, arrogant strut, pompous bravado, and his phrasing… somehow I found when I was learning how to sing, I could also do that. Take something like ‘All Mixed Up.’ In that song Benjamin’s range is all over the place and really, that’s an ideal song for someone who wants to learn how to sing! It even has falsetto!”

Scott began singing and playing in bands at the age of 15, playing local parties and every gig they could get in the Windsor area, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he went professional with his talents. His band, Solidarity, had modest success with their single “Transgression,” from their 2005 Materializer album. Later, he released two albums with Doug Peters under the name Peters and Bell . The year 2009 saw Scott’s first solo album, The Voyage, which he describes as “a very Vangelis-meets-Oldfield ambient project.”

After that, Scott changed directions a bit. “Benjamin was about 31 when he recorded [‘All Mixed Up’]. He was already a seasoned singer, he had already cut his teeth blowing out PA systems in clubs for years. So, when I was about 31, I kind of left on my own on the music scene and I thought that I would like to try performing some cover songs to post on Youtube. The first band that came to mind was The Cars.”

Scott began working on covers of his favorite songs from Benjamin’s vocal catalog, including his solo album, The Lace, and selections from Benjamin’s unreleased tracks. Working alone in his own home studio, which was still under construction, he recorded all the parts fairly quickly. He started with “In Circles” and “Just What I Needed” (“Horrible guitar solo and all!” he laughs) and uploaded them to Youtube in the fall of 2010. About a year later he added “Stay the Night” and “Coming Home Tonight.” Another groan. “’Stay The Night?’ It’s funny. I can’t listen to my version of it now, it’s so bad. I should re-record it properly!” Rounding out his collection and with his studio now complete, he added “Cruiser” and “Don’t Tell Me No” this spring. (Here is a full playlist of Scott’s covers.)

Scott was inspired when he heard that The Cars would be reuniting for another album and tour. “I knew that they weren’t going to replace Benjamin and that Greg would be playing all of the bass parts, but something inside me said to do a few tracks, just in case. What’s the worst that could happen, right? I’d die for THAT gig!”

And of course, he was right: The Cars did reunite… and they were not in the market for a bass player. As it turns out, though, Scott’s Youtube uploads brought him as close as he could come to standing in for Benjamin as one could expect at the time. Not for The Cars, but in an another, more unusual circumstance.

About 600 miles south of Scott, a charity album was in the works benefitting the rare but serious childhood condition known as Kawasaki Disease. Part of that project included a song that was originally written by Benjamin Orr and Diane Grey Page sometime in the mid-1980s, and never released to the public. Left largely unfinished, the composition was completed and polished around 2011, and a search was begun for a vocalist who could do justice to this rare piece of Benjamin’s legacy.

In late 2014 Scott was contacted out of the blue by a music producer in Nashville, Tennessee. Apparently someone had passed on the videos of Scott’s cover tracks and wanted Scott to have a go at this new song. He recorded a rough vocal track and sent it off. While his interest was piqued in the project, he tried to keep his expectations low about what the outcome might be. He didn’t hear anything back for about a year. Then in October of 2015 he received an email letting him know that Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes were ready to record the track, along with famed drummer John “JR” Robinson, and would Scott be interested in officially joining in on the project?

Scott jumped at the chance. With Benjamin gone, Scott felt that this project was the closest he was ever going to get to collaborating with the artist who had basically taught Scott to sing. Not only that, but getting to work with Elliot and Greg – members of the band who had set the musical standard for Scott’s career – was a dream come true. Within a week he was on his way to Nashville to join a host of talented musicians united for a common cause.

“Elliot, Greg and I all stayed at this great house that was rented for us in Franklin, Tennessee, about 50km outside of Nashville, where we got to hang out and get to know each other before we recorded this new song. Both great guys, we hit it off right away. Had a cocktail or two and both of them were very open to any Cars-related questions that I threw at them. I’m sure they got the vibe that I was a bit of a superfan, but I thought I played it pretty cool.”

On a Friday morning, the guys got busy. They were driven to Dark Horse Studios, where they met up with JR and the rest of the recording team. Scott describes the day:

“Everyone had done their homework, so everything went very smooth. Elliot, Greg, and JR laid their parts down on the first day and then Greg started his keyboard overdubs early that evening. Watching them was truly awe-inducing. This was a level of professionalism I had never seen.”

Gregelliot-e1497410697842.jpgScott continues, “JR ripped through the song and I think the third take was THE one. Such power and precision. Elliot’s guitar parts were all done pretty quick as well, and watching him build the structure of the song is something that I’ll never forget. Hearing that signature tone come from the studio monitors as he was sitting next to me was a dream come true. Greg experimented with some of his overdubs and magically, The Cars were stamped all over this thing. When we listened back to the mix, it was pretty powerful and I remember Elliot saying to me, ‘This is the closest thing to a new Cars song they’re gonna get!’”

After wrapping up things at the studio for the day, everyone headed to downtown Nashville for dinner and drinks. The down-time spent together, just getting to know each other and establishing a relaxed vibe, was very important in the success of the project. “There was absolutely no pressure from anyone and the guys believed in me, so it was all done out of love: love for one another and love for the music. Of course, it was all done for charity, and if you can have a good time and make great music, that makes it even better!”

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Dark Horse Studios

On Saturday morning, Scott met up with Cameron Browne, a terrific engineer and fellow Canadian, in the studio. They had the place to themselves. They made some coffee, relaxed and chatted a bit, and then got to work cutting Scott’s vocals. “We punched through the song in about an hour and we were very happy with it. Cameron was extremely supportive and made the recording process as easy as possible.”

(Scott was kind enough to put together a video of ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the recording process; I’ve included it at the end of this article after the video for “Open Your Eyes.” I also want to jump in here and say that Scott’s vocals are terrific. You definitely get the spirit of Benjamin coming through his delivery, but he adds his own flair and personality to the recording. I can’t help but think Benjamin would be honored and pleased with what Scott has done.)

Elliot, Greg and JR arrived at the studio in the afternoon. You might think that Scott would be shaky, having two of his rock-and-roll heroes critiquing his vocal work, but that wasn’t the case at all. “I wasn’t even really nervous or apprehensive about them hearing my vocals because we had already spent a lot of downtime together hanging out, and it was all very relaxed and comfortable.”

The next step was recording the background vocals. Elliot and Greg joined Scott in the booth. Because everything was friendly and natural, it was easy for Scott to take in the advice from these two seasoned professionals. “Elliot would give me little tidbits on how Benjamin used to sing with them, which harmonies to go for, and Greg was helping with my breathing and trying to get the most out of our takes.”

“They told me stories about how Mutt Lange used to drag them over glass cutting background vocals, take after take, and shared awesome stories about Roy Thomas Baker and his famous multi-layered background vocals.” Scott absorbed it all, learning from these artists he admired so much.

It was a very exciting and moving piece of the project for Scott. “That was a real highlight for me, singing between those two like Benjamin had done so many times before on Cars tracks.” But it went deeper than that. “There were a couple of moments while singing and my eyes would close and I could feel something go through me. Positively spiritual. I don’t know what it was but I definitely had Benjamin in mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in that room with us.”

By Saturday night the recording was finished, and the results were left to be mixed and mastered. Other musicians involved with the charity project began showing up, and Scott spent time hanging out and making new friends and musical connections; relationships that Scott knows will last a lifetime.

Since working on the “Open Your Eyes” project, Scott has joined a band called Mrs. Fox — kind of a funk-meets-rock sound. They just released their debut album, Make It Quick, in May of this year. They play around the Windsor, Ontario, area, and have some exciting festival shows coming up this summer. Check out their music here, or take a listen on youtube, and like them on Facebook to hear the latest news.

In addition to playing in Mrs. Fox, Scott is working on his next solo album and hopes to have it completed by the end of the summer. Send him a friend request on Facebook (he loves to meet Cars fans!) or keep an eye on my Facebook page for news of that upcoming release.

Looking back, Scott is grateful for his unique experience. “That was a very special project, and I hope that something comes of it one day. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with my childhood – and adult – heroes.” (As of the time of this writing, the status of this charity project is unknown.)

Even deeper is the satisfaction Scott carries of having honored Benjamin with his vocal performance. “More than anything, I wanted to have a performance that Benjamin would be proud of. I wanted to sing it in his style but still be myself… I feel that I achieved it and I am very proud of it.”

Here’s that awesome behind the scenes footage:

All photos courtesy of Scott Bell and used with permission.

Moving In Stereo: from Craigslist to the House of Blues

Moving In Stereo: from Craigslist to the House of Blues

If the number of people who play air guitar against their knee while they drive is any indicator, gazillions of us wish we could recreate the incredible music of our favorite artists. To stand on a stage and be *that* cool — even for five minutes — is the stuff of fantasies for most, but these guys make it their reality.

“We’re not a look-alike band and probably never will be. We’re not 20 anymore and we don’t think that wigs will work for us, so we’re focusing more on getting the sound right,” keyboard player Lars Altvater says. “We want to deliver an authentic experience that recreates the sound of The Cars as close as possible.”

DSC07689.jpgAnd that’s exactly what local tribute band Moving In Stereo did on March 10, 2017, when they headlined the House of Blues in Cleveland, Ohio. With a set list that included “Just What I Needed,” “Since I Held You,” and “You Might Think,” these five guys had the crowd dancing in the palm of their collective hand. The stage crew was tight, the energy in the audience was crazy, and the band was on their game. From beginning to end, the place was rocking.

Matt Fuller, the bass player, describes their encore: “Opening that show was a great local tribute to Tom Petty called Shadow of Doubt. We’d never played with them before… they were really great guys and put on a great show. We asked them to come out and sing ‘Good Times Roll’ with us and they were absolutely in to it!” They brought the house down.

Playing such an historic venue was a dream come true for all five members of this tribute band. Drummer Noah Patera says, “Having seen many of my favorite bands playing there, I was completely humbled to have an opportunity to play on that stage. It was an experience I will never forget.”

A little over three years in the making, the members of Moving In Stereo have combined their passion and talent to put them on the map. In addition to Lars on keyboards, Matt on bass and lead vocals, and Noah on drums, the group is rounded out with Bob Heazlit on lead guitar, and Danny Ayala on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. They all agree that their meeting was serendipitous… and a little unusual.

The Craigslist ad was titled: “Something/Anything” – a plea sent out by Matt for a musical connection. Having played in various original and cover bands through the years, by 2013 he was looking for a new project, something “musically fun, something I grew up with.” Matt and his childhood friend (and guitar player), Bob, had been kicking around a variety of ideas with little success.

Meanwhile, in the same town but unknown to either Matt or Bob, keyboard player Lars was having his own rock and roll issues. “Noah and I played in an 80s band together that started to fall apart. We were trying to get another band started, but we didn’t find the right people and we couldn’t get anything going.” He, too, employed Craigslist as a means of finding what he wanted: he posted an ad looking for musicians to form a tribute band for The Cars. The response? “Noah answered. He had no idea it was me,” Lars laughs.

Lars did see Matt’s ad, however, and called him up. The two met for beers and felt a compatibility, so Matt called Bob and invited him to join them at the bar. Bob explains, “We’re talking and I’m going on and on about my dark vision for this original project. So Lars says, ‘Well, my neighbor Noah is a drummer and we’re trying to put together a Cars tribute band.’ Matt and I look at each other, pause for a moment, and say, ‘Well, that’s kind of genius.’”

So right then and there the three musicians agreed on some Cars’ songs to learn to play (“Just What I Needed,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”), and then set a date for a run through.

The guys met at Noah’s house and started jamming, and the verdict was immediate and spjLAspjMFspjNPspjBHspjDAunanimous. “As the first strains of ‘Just What I Needed rang out, it was apparent that musically this was going to be very good. It was The Cars. Bonus? These were really good guys,” Bob observed.

Because all of them were big fans of The Cars, the four fell easily into the roles they filled: Matt covering Benjamin, Noah as David on the drums, Lars playing out Greg, and Bob as a right-handed Elliot. Now all they needed was someone to represent Ric. Though none of the guys tried to imitate the physical look of the Cars’ members, they knew that talent as well as stage presence would be important in finding this last piece of the puzzle.

Bob reflects, “Spoiled with how easily the four of us came together, none of us knew how difficult it was going to be to find Ric.  I don’t know why we were so surprised.  Ric really is the icon in The Cars.  Taking nothing away from Ben (whom I prefer vocally), when people think of The Cars, the vision of Ric’s gaunt face, wispy black hair and shades to match is the face you see in your mind.  Finding a guy to play that character should have been hard, and it was.”

Initially Pat Grieshammer took the spot. An easy going guy with tons of experience and talent, Moving In Stereo was able to polish their set list and start playing gigs. Unfortunately, Pat moved on to another band and it looked like this Cars tribute band was going to stall… until Danny Ayala came on the scene.  “I’ve always been a huge fan of The Cars’ music. Lars tried a few times to bring me into the project in the early going, but it was just bad timing for me because of other projects I was involved in,” Danny explains.

Matt says of the change, “It was a perfect fit: he was a huge Cars fan, he wanted to put in the work necessary to make the project successful, and he’s a GREAT guy. As soon as we walked on stage with him we knew it was right… so did the audience!”

Once their lineup was complete, growth came quickly, and their like-minded attitude toward honoring The Cars has contributed to their success. “One thing that we wanted to establish early on is that we are not a traditional ‘bar band.’ We love playing everything from The Cars, but your typical bar crowd wants variety. We’re playing The Cars, like it or leave it!” Matt laughs.

Bob adds, “These songs demand focus, and playing them as note-perfect as you can while preserving the feel and spirit of the music: that is and will continue to be the first priority. The next step is to really develop the stage show, the lighting, the props; to deliver the experience of what it was like to be a at Cars’ show in the 80s. In that sense we’ve really only scratched the surface.”

DSC07547.jpgAlong those lines, the guys try to recreate the look of the band in clothing and instrumentation… but that can be pretty expensive. Matt says, “We get as close as we can without having to sell our houses!”

The five guys in the band are united in their vision for Moving In Stereo. Bob lays it out this way:  “The goal of the band is fun.  Plain and simple.  Fun for the audience.  Fun for us.  The way you achieve that is to honor these great songs and performances, and replicate them to the best of your ability and never settle for ‘well, it’s close.’  When we learn these songs we research sheet music, isolated guitar tracks, live footage… info on the gear they used, the effects they used, the samples they used. Ultimately, I would hope that we do a good enough job that if [the original Cars members] ever became aware of us they would appreciate what we are doing and say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

The band is already working on their concert calendar for this summer – but you won’t just see them in any old place.  “We carefully consider the shows we book. We want to make sure we’re playing the type of shows that can deliver that concert experience, more than background music for someone playing pool and having a couple beers,” Bob explains.

Matt agrees. “We partner up with other similar tribute acts and make it an event. We give folks a night of great music! All of the Cars’ fans come out and they sing along and they cheer when we play things like ‘Since I Held You’… it’s a pretty great experience.”

If you’re in Ohio, don’t miss the opportunity to experience Moving In Stereo live. Check out their website for their current show schedule. Also follow Moving In Stereo on Facebook here, and on Twitter here.

(All photos by Mat Luschek Photography; used with permission)

Dante Tomaselli: Eyes That Never Blink

It is 1978. The scene opens with an eight year old boy roaming through a record store in a mall. He is drawn to the face of a beautiful woman, laughing openly and gripping a steering wheel. He recognizes this image; he has seen it before in his siblings’ album collection. He has spent a lot of time examining it front and back, inside and out. He finds it wild, mysterious, a little menacing… He buys the 8-track (his first musical purchase ever) and takes it home. It is, of course, The Cars’ self-titled debut album.

In the darkness of his room, he lies on his bed and listens to “Moving In Stereo.” The composition takes him on a “very mystical, space-like journey.” The sounds, the lyrics, the vocals, all stimulate his imagination. He is electrified… he is hooked. He can’t get enough of the intricate, melodic music; he plays the album over and over. He can’t know that those addictive sounds will blend with other strong influences in his life and set him on a course that will define his career and his ability to release his energy into the world… but they do.

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Dante Tomaselli on the set of Torture Chamber, 2012

February, 2017. Meet Dante Tomaselli: filmmaker, electronic music composer, and soundscape artist. After studying at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and the New York School of Visual Arts, Dante went on to produce four feature films, all of which he wrote, directed, and scored on his own. He has also composed three dark ambient albums, with a fourth due to be released in 2017. (See his project list below.) Dante feels the influence of The Cars in all he creates.

“The band has a painterly style. The lyrics and sounds are usually a touch surreal, dreamlike. There is something bright and cheerful on the surface yet the core is often moody and dark. The effect is intoxicating… That’s what I try to do with all of my films and music.”

In Dante’s field, this is particularly important. He works in the realm of horror surrealism. This is not the same category as the traditional scary movie genre like “The Shining” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” though he was heavily influenced by such classics as a child. Instead, Dante’s films and music are more representative of the chaos and lack of logic found in one’s own nightmares; the images and emotions that overwhelm the mind in such a state of dark fear.

Because Dante has sound-color synesthesia, certain sounds produce colors and patterns that are projected right out in front of him, like a slide projector. For example, when he hears rain, he’ll see little fiber optic dots, floating specks of colored light, even if he’s indoors. When it comes to The Cars, Dante says listening to them in the dark creates different colors and shapes depending on the song. “I’m triggered by certain kinds of baritone sounds and Moog-like synthesizers. Low-toned and crispy glacial sounds… they glow. Synths are yellow, gold or white. Ric Ocasek’s voice is always dark purple and Ben Orr, royal blue.”

Most of the time, Dante is swirling in a whirlpool of pictures and sounds, which he channels into his work. “Everyone who loves music knows that pleasurable feeling of being completely swept away in a song. The Cars opened that door for me time and time again.”

Dante recalls his first exposure to the Panorama album. “I was 10 and it was 1980. I was in my sister’s room… I remember staring at the cover and back and inner sleeve, reading the bizarre lyrics in a daze. I was in love with their first two albums and was foaming at the mouth to experience Panorama. Soon it was playing on her excellent stereo and I was one of those people that never needed to warm up to Panorama… for me, everything just clicked.”

“You Wear Those Eyes” was one song that immediately jumped out at Dante.

“When I first heard it, I was shocked. ‘You Wear Those Eyes’ didn’t sound like a normal song in any way. I couldn’t believe that the beat – the electronic crashing sound – kept repeating itself over and over. It never stopped. I thought it was very bleak and cold. Yet there was an underlying warmth in Ben Orr’s rich vocal bass sounds and deep hypnotic voice. I enjoyed Elliot Easton’s churning, flickering guitar; the hallucinogenic lyrics. Greg Hawkes’ 3-D-like electronic soundscapes trapped me in a synth pop dungeon.”

For a man who is so visual, it is no surprise that “You Wear Those Eyes” would encapsulate him in such a strong, unusual visual atmosphere: “I imagine what it would look like to see eyes that never blink. I visualize a missing link. Something that’s never been seen or discovered. Very weird, disconnected imagery, no doubt.”

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From Dante’s next project… eyes that never blink?

And yet, in spite of the strangeness of these internal images, Dante is not uncomfortable with what he sees. “Ric Ocasek’s trancelike lyrics command me to just take my time. He sings, ‘it’s not too late.’ Buried deep underneath the unconventional and intoxicating atmosphere, there’s a hopeful, reassuring message.” For Dante, “You Wear Those Eyes” evokes a feeling of safety.

Dante also appreciates how Ric and the band leave it up to the listener to decipher the meaning of a song. They set up a mood… a vision… and release it into the world, much like Dante himself does.

Because his films and soundscapes are so specifically in the horror realm, you won’t find a piece in his catalogue that screams out “The Cars!” However, on his most recent project, an ambient soundscape called Witches, there is a song titled “Kundalini Serpent”. It is an instrumental but Dante says, “it does have that galloping, percolating Cars’ vibe.” Witches is set to be released this spring.

In the meantime, Dante has two horror films in development. He is working closely with a terrific seasoned writer, Michael Gingold, on the screenplays. While he enjoys all aspects of the creation process, Dante is looking forward to focusing more exclusively on the music side. “Music will always be with me, no matter what. I can be all alone. I don’t need a crew and $500,000. I created all my albums in my home recording studio.”

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Dante’s dog, Trippy

He also enjoys recharging his creative energy by watching horror films, playing with his dog, visiting the beach or the woods near his home in New Jersey, and listening to great music, including The Cars (of course), Depeche Mode, Laurie Anderson, Coil, Vince Clarke, Wendy Carlos, Jean Michel Jarre, and John Carpenter.

Dante credits The Cars on everything that he creates for himself. “I want to say thank you to The Cars over and over. It’s a humble feeling of appreciation and giving back.”

Be sure to say hello to Dante if you see him around the various Cars Facebook fan groups, and keep up with his latest projects by visiting his website here. You can also listen to his music on his Pandora channel.

Filmography:

DESECRATION (1999) Image Entertainment
HORROR (2002) Elite Entertainment
SATAN’S PLAYGROUND (2006) Anchor Bay Entertainment
TORTURE CHAMBER (2013) Cinedigm

Discography:

SCREAM IN THE DARK (2014) Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio
THE DOLL (2014) Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio
NIGHTMARE (2015) Elite Entertainment & MVD Audio

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Kirk Johnston: Living Full Circle

I imagine Benjamin Orr would be surprised if he knew just how long and how far his legacy has spread. Sixteen years after his death, and more than 30 years since Live Aid (arguably the pinnacle of his days in the spotlight), the memory of his contribution to music history continues to motivate and influence people all over the world. Indeed, many have been so inspired that one can see Benjamin’s fingerprints in the focus of their adult lives.

I have had the privilege of meeting one man for whom this is particularly true – and many of you know him, too. Kirk Johnston is a singer and guitar player from Texas who has devoted his time and talents to paying homage to Benjamin.

Though no one in his immediate family played instruments themselves, Kirk grew up experiencing a huge variety of sound. His mom and grandmother listened to just about anything from the 50s, 60s, and 70s eras, and his father might have Led Zeppelin blasting one minute and George Jones the next. Kirk was hooked! His grandmother would take him to the local record store where he could buy 45s for about $1.25 and play them on his Dukes of Hazzard record player. By the late 80s his dad had given Kirk his turntable and records, and Kirk used them to build a full stereo system, complete with cassette and CD capabilities. He was about 10 years old when he first picked up a guitar, and ended up taking lessons twice a week until about the age of 14. He was hugely influenced by The Cars and Benjamin Orr.kirk2

In fact, Kirk’s earliest music memories are sewn with Cars’ songs; he remembers seeing the videos for “You Might Think” and “Drive” on MTV as a young boy. Later, Kirk was deeply impressed with the strength and texture of Benjamin’s voice, saying, “He has the coolness of Elvis and the range of Roy Orbison, but in an absolutely unique and brand new way.” He marveled at Benjamin’s work on “Just What I Needed”, “Let’s Go”, “It’s Not The Night”, and his solo album The Lace.

Benjamin’s hit song “Stay The Night” stood out to him in particular. “I think it’s a very romantic and confident song that is way deeper and more than a one night stand.” Kirk’s imagination was kindled with a desire to cover the song himself. But it wasn’t just the man’s musical contributions that affected Kirk. Watching Benjamin’s humble coolness, his stage presence, and his warm demeanor out of the spotlight all left a mark on Kirk and increased his admiration for Benjamin, securing him as a life-long role model for this young guy from Texas.

Kirk spent nearly ten years as the lead guitarist in a band called Snowblind. They traveled all over Texas and played coast to coast, from the Whiskey a Go Go in California to CBGB’s in New York, and released two albums of original music. During that time Kirk met Mark Younger-Smith, a talented writer, musician, and producer who has worked with artists like Billy Idol and INXS. Mark produced a couple of songs for Snowblind, and it wouldn’t be too long until he and Kirk would work together again.

As an adult, the idea of doing his own version of “Stay the Night” consumed Kirk for about a year. He started putting out feelers with Diane Grey Page, Benjamin’s estate, and others who could help him get his project off the ground. He approached his friend from the Snowblind days and Mark agreed to take on the project, and pre-production meetings began in the fall of 2012. Because this was the only song Kirk originally planned to record, he and Mark really took their time getting the sound to come out the way Kirk envisioned it.  He had already developed the keyboard lead from Ben’s original into a unique guitar riff. He also used 3 different guitars on various parts of the song:  a 1984 ES 335, a 1978 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe and a 1992 Fender Telecaster.

By early 2013 they had both an album mix and an extended mix in the can.  The fun thing about listening to Kirk’s version is that it is not simply a straight-up cover of Benjamin’s song; Kirk captures the overall spirit of the original, but he adds in his own flavor: a little tropical feel with the percussion, the sweetness of the swaying background vocals, and a touch of Texas twang.

Because the project had been so fulfilling and Kirk’s creativity was still flowing, he began to consider other songs that would blend well with his style. His kirk1continuing admiration for 80s music showed itself in the list of titles he would record next: “Hands To Heaven” by Breathe, “Wouldn’t It Be Good” by Nick Kershaw, and Ric Ocasek’s “Emotion In Motion.” He also recorded a duet with his wife, Kari, using Adam Schlesinger’s “Way Back Into Love.” Kirk and Mark bundled the five songs together and released the group on CD in December 2013 (and digitally for Spotify and iTunes in 2014) under the title Full Circle.

Though he knew that the Full Circle project was a labor of love and a true tribute to Benjamin, Kirk wasn’t satisfied that he had done all he could in Benjamin’s memory. In 2014, he contacted the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCan) and arranged to have all of the proceeds from his recording of “Stay The Night” donated to their foundation in Benjamin’s name.

Kirk’s next inspiration came with “Wonderful One” by Page & Plant. Again Mark was the producer, and while they worked on the recording during the winter of 2014 the two began to talk about rounding out the Full Circle EP into a full album. More influential artists came to Kirk’s mind as he chose “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” by Dwight Yoakam, “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies, and “Words of Love” by Buddy Holly.

He also contributed his own original song to the album, “Oh Baby It’s True”, which has an unintended Beatles’ charm to it. Kirk’s own experiences out and about in the world met up with his early music foundation, and once his mind started forming the initial flavor the rest of the song just took off.

The final piece was “Drive”, originally performed by The Cars and sung by Benjamin. This song had a huge impact musically on Kirk throughout his life, and getting to remake it was an exciting and emotional venture. He added his own optimistic, comforting nuances to the music and vocals, and brought out Greg Hawkes’ signature synthesizer sound by having the four background vocalists sing the lines. The result is an organic, pretty love song that honors the original and encompasses Kirk’s own signature sound.

It seems only fitting and right that the recording of Full Circle should begin and end with Benjamin Orr, one of the strongest musical influences in Kirk’s life.

kirk3The completion of the second batch of songs and the mixing of the album was done as 2015 came to a close. Kirk switched gears and spent the fall making videos for some of the songs (check them out here on his Youtube channel). After the album was released in the spring of 2016 Kirk was off on a trip to Liverpool to do a promotion there. Toward the end of the year he worked up a terrific fundraiser for PanCan featuring a deluxe version of the Full Circle LP (which includes the extended versions of “Stay The Night” and “Hands To Heaven”) along with a wonderful limited-edition “I Wage Hope” 5 x 7 print of Benjamin as our Electric Angel Rock-and-Roller.

Kirk met his wife Kari, who is also a singer, in 2006, and they enjoy writing songs together. Future projects may include an album of duets with her, and will certainly encompass more creative endeavors from Kirk. In the meantime, Kirk has a heart to continue to promote Benjamin’s legacy. “Benjamin deserves so much credit for his contribution to music and I am very happy to be a part of pushing the music forward in some way.”

While he contributes to, and works for, his family’s business, making music is his full-time job. “On the music side I am doing things on a DIY basis and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What you see is what you get; there are no smoke and mirrors. Sometimes I may be on a particular track over a week or I may be editing one music video over two days. I love every moment. My home is really peaceful for that … Mr. Orr even blinks the lights at me now and then if I am working on a Cars number.”

To keep up with Kirk and his future projects, follow him on Twitter: @KirkJohnstonTX