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.
Since 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!
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.”
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”
- “Moving In Stereo”
- “Dangerous Type”
- “You Are The Girl”
- “Good Times Roll”
- “You Might Think”
- “Hello Again”
- “Just What I Needed”
Crystal and her friend had a blast! Here are a couple of shots from the concert:
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).
She 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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.
- I used this article from onmilwaukee.com for the background information on Park Avenue.
- I retrieved the photos of Nitro from mkelgbthist.org.