Once upon a time, in the peaceful hamlet of Allston, Massachusetts, a diabolical plot was carried out: the murder of Michael Mackin! But who could be so evil? So cunning? And so sure that he… or she… could escape detection?
Okay, that’s not exactly what happened… er, at least not for real.
On August 8, 1987, Boston’s public access television station, WGBH, hosted a benefit as part of their annual fundraising events. The theme was “Murder at MYSTERY! Mansion” and those in attendance were charged with the task of solving a faux crime, specifically, figuring out who murdered Channel 7 reporter Michael Mackin. Other local celebrities and notable personalities were there, too, and, as witnesses to the ‘death’, were considered suspects.
One gentleman at the charity event was Massachusetts State Police (MSP) Corporal Bob McKeon. Bob was recruited as a volunteer by Carole Nash, owner of the Nash Modeling Agency in Boston, to play the part of the arresting officer at the end of the evening.
As best as Bob can recall from this night over thirty years ago, the excitement got underway while the volunteer actors were gathered on a stage and the guests were mingling nearby. The lights suddenly went out, and when they came up again, Mike Mackin was dead on the floor — the game was afoot! After his body was removed, guests had to interact with the suspects to try to determine who was responsible for the terrible tragedy.
Bob himself was downstairs in a private room, waiting for his cue for the grand finale. He wasn’t privy to all that was happening above so he isn’t sure how Vincent Price fit in, or if a dinner was served, or in what ways the guests obtained clues to solve the mystery. But he was far from bored: Mike Mackin was brought into the room from the stage, and the two had fun shooting the breeze while the event continued upstairs. A little later, Bob had the pleasure of chatting with Benjamin Orr and Diane Page for a bit when they stepped away from the action of the stage.
While Ben and Diane stayed close together most of the evening, Ben made his way down to the room for a short break. He and Bob conversed easily as they found they had obvious common interests. “Ben was a supporter of the MSP. He asked me about my career. Apparently he was friendly with some of the Troopers on the Mass Pike [located in Weston] and mentioned going to the shooting range with a couple of them. He spoke well of the Massachusetts State Police.”
Diane joined them shortly afterwards. Bob found Diane and Ben to be refreshingly genuine and open, and he enjoyed their quiet chat very much.
Eventually it was Bob’s turn to make his appearance in the drama. He headed back upstairs and prepared for his signal calling him to emerge through the curtain.
“When it came time to see who was responsible for Mackin’s murder, I walked onto the stage. I stood out like a sore thumb being dressed in two-tone blue and not black and white like everyone else,” Bob recalled. He played his part perfectly. “I slowly walked past all the alleged suspects and returned to Diane and arrested her for the murder. Then I surprised the crowd by arresting Ben as a co-conspirator before and after the fact.”
The evening was a success, and remains a wonderful memory for Bob.
“It was all in good fun and they raised a sizable sum of money during the event. I was happy they took a photo of myself with Carole, Diane, and Ben. It is a great memory of a fun event. I found Diane and Ben to just be normal folks when I was one-on-one with them. Ben was really nice and I felt sad when he passed.”
Of course, the ‘charges’ were dropped and no one’s permanent record was affected, though Ben did leave a favorable lasting impression on Bob McKeon.
Thank you so much for sharing your little bit of Ben history with us, Bob! ❤
Back in February I was poking around on Facebook and I stumbled across this hidden gem that Boston musician (and Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music) Lisa Guyer posted back in 2014:
What the heck? Here was an event Ben was involved in that I had never heard of before, and with another of my favorite Boston rockers, Charlie Farren! Lisa’s post gave me some obvious clues to the story behind the photo and I was eager to start digging.
Initially, there wasn’t much to find. At the end of the day my little file consisted of the Facebook screen shot above, one newspaper clipping, and a newfound familiarity with the Hatch Memorial Shell and the song “Dirty Water” by The Standells.
Though I couldn’t find an exact listing for it on the Guinness Book of World Records website, apparently there is a category for most guitarists (or musicians?) playing one song for the longest period of time. In 1994, 1,322 guitarists jammed with Randy Bachman to “Taking Care of Business” for 68 minutes and 40 seconds, and I think that was the record… But then it gets kind of confusing, because there seems to be some crossover between setting a record for the largest guitar ensemble playing one song, and the largest guitar ensemble playing one song for the longest time, and I just can’t figure it all out right now so… let’s just settle on knowing that in 1997, hundreds of guitar players and musicians in Boston gathered in attempt to break a Guinness world record by playing “Dirty Water” by The Standells for a really long time.
That song, by the way, is a beloved Boston anthem. The tune has been cranked for cheering crowds after home victories by the Bruins and the Red Sox since about 1995. Written by Standells producer Ed Cobb and released in 1965, the lyrics draw attention to some of the less savory elements of Boston history and what used to be the disgustingly polluted Charles River, and yet the singer declares, “I love that dirty water. Boston, you’re my home!” The simplicity of its garage rock beat and catchy riff seal the deal as a natural song choice for tackling this world record (whatever exactly it may be).
And the venue… Officially titled the Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell, Bostontonians have been enjoying a variety of free outdoor concerts, movies, and public events at the Hatch Shell for over 90 years. Its unique structure is located on the Charles River Esplanade and is surrounded by a large and inviting lawn. The Shell’s spacious wooden interior, which is famous for regularly accommodating the Boston Pops Orchestra, provides plenty of room for multiple guitarists, drummers, and keyboard players to spread out. Isn’t it gorgeous?
After gleaning these tidbits, I had to table the topic. But a most happy circumstance has brought it back to the forefront! Jonathan R. discovered and generously shared a very recent YouTube upload of some live footage from this event ~ including Benjamin!
There are actually five video clips all together. I’ve created a playlist of the segments in chronological order.
The video clips armed me with new keywords to search and angles to pursue, and I was able to find a couple more articles from The Boston Globe. Here are some additional factoids I picked up:
The event was the brainchild of Promotions/Artist Relations Director Candi Bramante (now Bettencourt). Candi’s family owned Daddy’s Junky Music, and this gathering was, in part, a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that beloved New England guitar and audio equipment chain. She’s also the one that uploaded the footage to Youtube. I’m SO grateful she did!
The original vision for the record-breaking attempt was hammered out and refined at the Hard Rock Cafe in March of 1997 with input from Charlie Farren, Johnny A (Peter Wolf) and Brandan Sweeney (Notary Public), among others. Those who met together were hoping for around 3,000 guitarists to join the cause.
The entry fee to register as a player was only $5. Part of the proceeds from the event were donated to charity, including contributions to the House of Blues Foundation and the Bob Woolf Charitable Foundation.
Lisa Guyer and Mama Kicks performed as the ‘house band’ and backed the other musicians for the entire show. Wowza! No wonder she said in her Facebook post that the song now makes her cringe a little!
Many other Boston legends are seen in the footage, like Rich Bartlett, Tom Hambridge, Hirsh Gardner, John Muzzy, and Phil Bynoe. I can’t make out some of the names that the announcer says in the videos so if you recognize any other artists, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
Other musicians slated to play (but I’m not positive that they did) were Barry Goudreau, John Cafferty, Gary Gramolini (of the Beaver Brown Band), Jon Butcher, Johnny A, Stu Hamm (Joe Satriani), and David Minehan (The Neighborhoods). You can see the highlighted guests on the back of the event t-shirt to the right. I wonder if any of the coordinators kept their final list of all the participants?
The whole swarm ended up playing “Dirty Water” continuously for one hour and 29 minutes, which reportedly set a record for the longest time a band (the rockers on stage) played one song for an audience. Unfortunately, the gig only ended up with about 1,200 registered guitarists, which was 400 short of setting the Guinness record they were actually targeting. It certainly wasn’t a bust, though: amateurs, professionals, and spectators alike all had a great time, coming together as a Boston rock-and-roll family. ❤
You know, there were at least a half a dozen photographers crawling on and around that stage. What a treasure it would be if they would dig out their booty and share photos of the show with us! Pretty please?
And while we’re at it, I would love it if Candi Bettencourt would upload the entire uncut footage. Even if it’s not the best camera work, fans would rejoice in being able to experience this bit of Boston history with so many incredible musicians.
There are a couple of cool photographic dots we can connect here, by the way.
First, this is the same event our friend AJ Wachtel told us about; it was the last time he remembers getting to hang out with Ben. This photo on the right is from that day — click here to read the full article.
Also, Mazarkis S. pointed out that this event is also the likely location of another classic Ben photo. It’s kind of tricky, because Ben wore his ABATE shirt a couple of times (I’m thinking particularly of Ben with Tom Hambridge at the Snowfest in Two Rivers, Wisconsin), but based on the color of the lanyard and access pass, I believe Mazarkis is right.
That’s about all I could come up with. I’ll post the newspaper articles in an album on Facebook. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that maybe others will chime in with their memories, photos, or videos of that day. I remain optimistic that more bits o’ Benjamin history will surface; surely there is more to discover!
Whenever I am researching something specific like this, I end up going down sooooo many little rabbit holes, which is frustrating because it then takes forever for me to finish an article, but it’s also cool because I tend to discover some pretty interesting stuff. Here are a couple of the ‘bonus features’ I found when I was working on this article.
This hilarious 2020 commercial features a snippet of “Dirty Water.”
The Standells were central characters in an episode of The Munsters!
Last one: Created from a block of silicon, and based on the Fender Stratocaster, the world’s smallest guitar is about the size of a single human blood cell and has strings that can be plucked. Seriously! Basic nerd link: click here. Super-science-nerd link: click here.
Okay, enough of that. I’ll leave you with this bit of grand delight. Enjoy!
About half way through their Heartbeat City tour, The Cars stopped in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and played at the CNE Grandstand (formally known as the Canadian National Exhibit Stadium). Though the band wasn’t in town for long, a couple of cool things took place at that August 8, 1984, show.
Before I get to those unique happenings, let me get a little bit of business out of the way. I don’t have a ton of background on the concert itself, simply because I just haven’t had time to do in-depth research, but I do believe that this was the second time the band performed at the CNE, having stopped there during the Panorama tour. They weren’t strangers to Toronto, though; the also played at the El Mocambo for the debut album, and at the Maple Leaf Gardens in support of Candy-O. And I know that the Canadian press wasn’t super impressed with this particular show, but then, they never really seemed to be in The Cars’ corner over the years (with the exception of writer Peter Goddard).
Wang Chung was the opening band, and then our band took the stage. I’m not positive that this is the actual set list played that night, but here is what The Cars worked through on August 6 and August 10 (both the same), so it’s gotta be close.
It’s Not the Night
Touch and Go
Looking for Love
Gimme Some Slack
Jimmy Jimmy (Ric Ocasek song)
Just What I Needed
A Dream Away
You Might Think
My Best Friend’s Girl
Encore: Heartbeat City
Encore: You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
And while though those two paragraphs above are a bit light on details, I DO have an excellent eyewitness account of the concert to share. Fellow Cars fan Doug Parsons was just 16 years old when he stumbled into the chance to see The Cars live. Rather than try to retell his experience in my own words, I’ll let you read his take on how The Cars rocked his world:
I was born and raised in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The Cars never played in Atlantic Canada when they toured, which was very frustrating to me, as they were my favourite band. It was only through a rather strange sequence of events that I got to see them in Toronto in the summer of 1984.
Earlier that year, I made a new friend and I spent a lot of time with him that spring. We really were an “odd couple” … we basically had nothing in common except that our older brothers knew each other. He lived with his father in Dartmouth, but his mother lived in Toronto. Sometime in June, he mentioned to me that he was going to visit his mother in the summer for three weeks and asked if I would like to go along. Having never been to Toronto, I was obviously excited to go. I didn’t expect that my parents would let me go, but they did, so I ended up going with him.
He had a girlfriend there, and I REALLY liked his girlfriend’s best friend (sounds almost like a Cars song, doesn’t it?). So one night we were over at his girlfriend’s house, and while I was unsuccessfully trying to chat up her friend, I heard over the radio that was on in the room that The Cars were going to be playing at the CNE Grandstand … and it was WHILE we were in Toronto! Needless to say, I immediately starting bugging my friend to go to the concert with me, which he unenthusiastically agreed to do.
So fast forward to the night of the concert. We got on the bus to the CNE, and after about 20 minutes my friend says, “I think we are going the wrong way.” So he asked the bus driver, and indeed we were going the wrong way. Fortunately, we made it to the CNE while Wang Chung were still on stage. I heard them play “Dance Hall Days” and they sounded great, but I was really only interested in seeing The Cars perform.
So, after what seemed like a LONG intermission … the lights went down, and the crowd started to roar … and then I heard “Hello…hello again!” And I was up on my feet and I didn’t sit down until the lights went back up. I had seen a few concerts in Dartmouth, but nothing of this magnitude. The stage layout was so futuristic with all of the TV screens playing exotic-looking videos. And song after song that I had played on my record player so many times … “Let’s Go” … “Cruiser” … “Just What I Needed” … and on and on. But the two songs that REALLY blew me away were “Good Times Roll” and “It’s Not the Night.” I was not expecting “Good Times Roll” to have such a cranked-up guitar sound, and as much as I liked the album version, I LOVED the live rendition. “It’s Not the Night” was just plain amazing, with all of the layered synthesizers and Ben’s incredible vocals. It really gave me chills.
This was my first outdoor concert, and the beautiful weather and the excellent acoustics of the CNE made it a truly sublime experience. To this day, it remains my all-time favourite concert.
And my friend? TOTALLY indifferent. Sat for the entire concert and said afterward that he found it boring. Like I said, we really were an odd couple. After we got home, we basically stopped talking to each other, which was probably for the best, as he started to associate with some rather unsavoury characters.
And my best friend’s girlfriend’s friend? Turned out that she liked my best friend’s little brother. Just like in a Cars song.
Oh man, I can just feel his heart start to race when he heard those opening lyrics, can’t you? I love that he shared his memories with us! And from his account we can determine that the set list that night did vary a bit. Good to know!
Okay… so the first cool thing. According to one review (from The Toronto Star, August 9, 1984, pictured below), there were only about 8,000 people in attendance. Interestingly, one of those people was none other than the actor, Rob Lowe!
Now, you all know who Rob Lowe is, right? Having made his acting debut at the age of fifteen in a short-lived sitcom in 1979, Rob burst into the 80s movie scene in the coming-of-age classic, The Outsiders. From there it was silver-screen sailing, as he starred in one Brat Pack classic after another, establishing himself as a teen idol and relentless heartthrob. A sex tape scandal in 1988 knocked his reputation for a loop for a bit, but he continued to work steadily, and in the 2000s, he reclaimed his status as an acting force to be reckoned with (and still just as handsome as ever!) on the set of The West Wing and beyond.
Well, rumor has it that Rob was a big fan of The Cars during his high school days. He’s alluded to it himself on Twitter, and actress Melissa Gilbert (among others) has reminisced about driving around and listening to The Cars with Rob. Coincidentally, The Cars used a little snippet of Rob’s appearance on Andy Warhol’s TV in their mini-documentary about the making of the video for “Hello Again.” Check it here at 1:50. Anyway, in 1984 Rob was in Toronto filming Youngblood with co-stars Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Gibb. On the night of the Cars’s show at the CNE Grandstand, photographers spotted him in the crowd enjoying himself. Awesome! I wonder if he got to visit backstage and meet the band?
From The Toronto Star, 1984
From The Toronto Star, 1984
Oh, and if you needed to see that photo of Ben from the article a little clearer… here it is. It’s very similar to the one by Philip Kamin in the Peter Goddard book; the one that Kurt Gaber uses for the memorial shirts. What a stunner!
Now the second cool thing.
While The Cars were in the Toronto area, they were presented with an award for selling over 200,000 units of Heartbeat City — also known as ‘going double platinum’. A little blurb about it was printed in RPM Weekly on September 22, 1984, with a bit of a grainy photo. Luckily Louise Potts posted a clearer version of the picture on Facebook.
Isn’t that great? I love when these little puzzle pieces fit together, and what a treat to get a glimpse of the other commitments that filled the band’s time while they were on the road. The obsession continues!
(Oh, and here’s an extra little factoid: Greg’s double platinum award sold at auction in March of 2019 for $400. Wowza!)
Two thousand nineteen marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the last band Ben ever played in: Big People!
Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, is an amazing resource for background on this band (and Ben’s whole life, obviously!), with a whole chapter devoted to how the group came together, including quotes from all the major players. I’ll just give a brief summary here:
Originally the brainchild of drummer Michael Cartellone (Damn Yankees, Lynyrd Skynyrd), Big People was a supergroup consisting of guitarist Jeff Carlisi (38 Special), guitarist and keyboard player Pat Travers (Pat Travers Band), and vocalist and rhythm guitarist Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent). The initial purpose was to play a few weekend club sets and enjoying jamming together, but others in the business suggested they push forward as a full-time band.
Ben was approached to join the group as the bass player in March of 1999. Cartellone ended up being hired to play drums for Lynyrd Skynyrd before Big People could really get off the ground, but fortunately Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) was at the tail-end of his commitment to Billy Joel and he was free to join this exciting new endeavor.
Big People pulled together a setlist that was packed with hits, as each member brought the best of their rock-and-roll resume to the stage. Under the encouragement and wisdom of manager Charlie Brusco (and later Billy Johnson) and tour manager Joe Dlearo, the band began rehearsals in April, 1999, and the guys knew they had stumbled on something great. In Let’s Go! Pat Travers said, “At the rehearsal studio for our first play together, I suggested playing ‘Just What I Needed,’ and when Derek, Ben and I sang together for the first time, wow! What a blend. Our three voices, with myself on the bottom, Derek on top and Ben singing the lead, had this amazing sound to me that was tight and sweet.” (p.180)
As the guys played together over the next few months, their harmony continued to build, both in rock-and-roll badassery as well as in friendship. They were picking up more and more gigs, and the audiences loved them. Eventually they landed a tour with Styx, which gained the band even more exposure. They were really clicking along and had plans to write original material together.
It was also during this time that Ben met Julie Snider, the woman to whom he would soon become engaged, and who would tenderly and tirelessly care for Ben until the end of his life. Footage and photos of Ben during this time show him to be relaxed, happy, and looking much more youthful than he did in the mid-90s.
There are SO many great quotes in Joe’s book about all of this, and I’ll feature some of them in future “In other words:” posts, but you’ve just got to read the book to get a true feel for the promise and excitement that everyone was feeling about Big People’s potential.
I recently had the honor of connecting with both Liberty DeVitto and Jeff Carlisi and asking them about their time with Big People. They each have such fond memories of those idyllic days, and find it hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since they were all rockin’ together.
And while I don’t want this article to be a downer, we can’t ignore the fact that it sucks so much that it all had to end. Ben really was the hinge that held it all together, and when he passed away in October of 2000 the band’s momentum fell flat. Their manager prompted the guys to hire a new bass player and get back in the game after Ben died, but their hearts just weren’t in it anymore. Jeff told me, “We didn’t have any interest in keeping it going once Ben was gone.” Liberty echoed that sentiment when he said, “When we lost Ben we lost a rockstar. There was no sense in going on. We love Ben. He was a great guy and a great singer and player.”
Big People’s first official show was on July 24, 1999, up in New Brunswick, Canada, at a place known at the time as Shediac Can-Am Speedway (now called the Shediac Centre for Speed). The three-day weekend event, called Rockfest ’99, featured acts like Nazareth, Collective Soul, ZZ Top, Styx, and April Wine.
The guys were excited on their flight to Canada, eager to make their public debut. The show itself went well. Like all bands playing out for the first time, there were rough edges to smooth out, but Jeff felt really good about the music and about the natural chemistry between the guys. “I remember calling my wife after the show and saying, ‘It’s like I’ve always been in this band all my life.'”
Their second playout followed in August of that year, at a festival called Itchycoo Park ’99: The Camping Experience. This is the show I really want to focus on here, since it’s one we can actually watch.
Held in the middle of a big farm field in Manchester, Tennessee, Itchycoo was kind of an unusual event in its day in that it combined a music festival with camping. It was a bit of a throwback to Woodstock in that way, and is considered an early (if unsuccessful) forerunner to long-established camping concert events like Bonnaroo (which is held on the same site), Sonic Bloom, and Coachella.
Looking at the extensive list of bands on the bill, this event should have been an absolute smash (at least in my opinion!). It featured some of the most iconic names in music history, including Sammy Hagar, Joan Jett, Paul Rodgers, Styx, Ann and Nancy Wilson… so many legends! Check out the posters below; you won’t believe it. And the whole weekend — all four days — for only $80. Holy cow!!
Early ad, from the Itchycoo Park Facebook page
Schedule, from the 45worlds.com
Event guide, from the Itchycoo Park Facebook page
As you can see, early advertisements of the original lineup don’t list Big People, but later they were added to the roster to perform on Thursday, August 12, at 4:00, sandwiched between Rick Springfield and Mark Farner. Jeff believes they actually played Friday, probably between Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and preceding John Entwistle of The Who, and the event guide (above right) supports that schedule. Of course, the actual slot doesn’t matter; Big People was going to take the stage!
As it would turn out, the event organizers were in for a pretty crushing blow. Expecting to draw at least 60,000 people (but hoping for 80,000), the event actually only sold around 20,000 tickets. On top of that, the Tennessean reported a few other stink bombs:
a few of the acts were no-shows, including Ann and Nancy, who were slated as the grand finale
the agency providing security for the event departed in mid-afternoon on Sunday, causing the officials to recruit spectators as security guards for the remainder of the festival
promised electrical hookups for RVs weren’t provided
vendors complained bitterly about the lack of communication, poor overall organization, and puny profits.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Itchycoo Park festival did not return the next year. Interestingly, only three years later the Bonnaroo festival would sell out their event on the same site, and that event has continued to be a roaring success for nearly twenty years.
As for the Big People experience? Luckily for us, we can witness it ourselves, even 20 years later.
The band launches into “Just What the Doctor Ordered” with guns blazing. Liberty’s explosive drumming and Derek’s vigorous vocals let you know that in spite of the smaller-than-anticipated turnout, these guys are here to kick ass. And they do! Every one of them are masters of their craft, seasoned professionals with the hearts of grown-up kids looking to jam with their buddies. So much freaking talent on that stage!
Derek acts as the main frontman for the group, playing to the crowd and ushering each song into the next. He is a natural showman, animated at times, clearly thrilled to interact with the audience. We can excuse him for fumbling around the lyrics a bit because his voice is an indomitable siren call to rock.
I’m addicted to watching Liberty play. Always a splashy drummer, his movements are exuberant and fluid, his sticks clearly an extension of his arms. I simply canNOT sit still when he’s going at it.
Jeff Carlisi roams the stage unruffled. At times he stands facing the crowd with all the aloof confidence of young Caesar, at other moments he is grinning like a kid at his first rock concert. When it’s his turn in the spotlight he steps up to the edge of the stage and blazes through his solos with restraint, like it’s just a walk in the park.
Pat Travers definitely brings the most ‘hard rock’ attitude to the stage, wowing the crowd with his passionate guitar playing. His performance of “I La La La Love You” is captivating. I love it, too, how he covers the keyboard parts for “Let’s Go” by handling most of it on his guitar and later switching to the synthesizer.
And then there’s Ben. He smiles throughout the show, looking much more lit up and youthful than he has in so long (compare this to his performance at Viele’s Plant just a year before). His vocals are strong and sexy. And the camera clearly loves Ben. There are many slow pans, capturing his content, cat-that-ate-the cream looks. Later, when he removes his sunglasses, we can see he is clear-eyed and happy. Serene. At peace. It’s so great to see him connecting with crowd, and joking around with his bandmates.
The stifling heat threatens to make things difficult. Big fans are set up around the stage, but it’s clear the guys are affected. Derek mentions it a couple of times, Liberty is pouring water over his head, and the guys are mopping their faces between songs. At one point Pat stores his guitar pick on his cheek, apparently adhering it with his sweat (ew! lol). But there’s Ben, looking as cool as a cucumber in his heavy leather jacket and shades. Electric angel rock-and-roller all the way, baby!
Big People’s happy, confident chemistry is palpable. Derek’s hyper-puppy energy offsets the cool demeanor of Pat and Jeff as they volly through their lead guitar solos like it’s the US Open. Liberty’s energy is both controlled and contagious, while Ben is, as always, unassuming and quietly badass. They are on a big stage but they make it feel more intimate by the way they interact, trading smiles, jokes and rock-and-roll flirts with each other through the set. All five connecting, all five communicating with each other.
It’s obvious these guys love each other so much, and that is something that both Liberty and Jeff emphasized to me. Jeff said, “In those two years or so, the six of us [including Julie] traveling on the road… we lived so much life together. That’s the best part about that whole thing: those relationships. They changed my life.”
Jeff has given me the go-ahead to start a Facebook group for Big People. Please come join! It will mainly serve as a centralized collection site for all information and memorabilia I can round up about the group, as well as biographical tidbits and current happenings of the various members. Jeff indicated that as he came across stuff in his own files he’d send it to me to share, and I am hopeful that others will contribute as well. And of course, I welcome all fans to chime in with their thoughts, memories, and photos, too.
I’m hoping to write lots more about Big People in the future. In the meantime, please click below to enjoy the one concert we currently have access to, live at Itchycoo Park!
I always have a short list of mysteries I wish I could solve about Ben’s life. In the number one spot is the location of the apartment fire that he survived four decades ago. It always seemed strange to me that information about such a monumental event could remain so elusive. In 2016, I started poking around for clues about Boston-area fires and collecting the puzzle pieces in a file, hoping to be able to snap them all together someday. It proved pretty difficult, and I was hitting wall after wall.
During that time I met Joe Milliken and we became friends. As I got to know him better and understood his heart for the book he was writing about Ben, I quietly resolved to set aside certain areas of my research because I didn’t want to scoop him on stuff. I just felt it was the right thing to do, you know? So I closed the file on the fire.
I kept that decision to myself until long after he invited me to help with the book. When it eventually came up, I learned that, unfortunately, he didn’t know the specifics of the location either. But low and behold, after the book was published, a reader stepped forward and emailed Joe with a previously-unknown-to-me-but-very-viable possibility: a five-alarm fire at 101-103 Tremont in the early hours of December 9, 1979. Knowing how important it was to me personally to investigate this bit of Ben’s history, Joe very generously passed the tip to me and turned me loose.
I eagerly jumped down the research rabbit hole. My digging for details led me to Charlie Vasiliades. Not only has he lived in the neighborhood of the fire for more than 60 years, but he has an incredible memory and a huge heart for history. He serves as the vice president of the Brighton Allston Historical Society, and is affectionately nicknamed the ‘mayor of Oak Square’ due to his longtime dedication to community activism. Charlie was instrumental in bringing this story to life.
My fundamental premise:
Located on the west side of the district of Brighton is an upscale, hilly little neighborhood called Oak Square. It is conveniently located near several universities, and is less than a 20 minute drive from downtown Boston. The area boasts a quiet “village” feel amidst its pretty residential areas, while having easy access to all of the opportunities and conveniences of the big city.
Back in 1979, near the outskirts of Oak Square, two brick apartment buildings were nestled into a little wooded hillside on Tremont Avenue. The twin six-story complexes were owned by Joseph Lombardi and were fairly new, having been constructed in 1973. Each building was made up of two wings joined with a central lobby/foyer area, and topped with tiers of penthouse apartments. One was addressed as 101-103 Tremont, the other as 109-111 Tremont. These Google images below show the front and top of present-day 109-111 Tremont, an exact duplicate of its sister complex that used to stand to its right.
Both buildings were fully occupied in 1979, providing homes for an estimated 300 people, including small families, elderly couples, college students, and business professionals. I believe that Benjamin lived there, too.
After receiving that tip from Joe this past summer, I have scoured records and resources to try to track down the facts, but as of this writing, I have been unable to find actual legal documentation that Ben lived in this building (the landlord’s office and all of the records were destroyed with the structure). I’m laying my claim for Ben’s residency based on circumstantial evidence:
Oak Square residents remember that one of the tenants was a member of The Cars.
Steve Berkowitz’s quote in Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars confirms that Ben lived in Brighton in 1979-1980.
Articles and posts that mention the fire always put it around the beginning of the year 1980.
In the press kit for Candy-O, the notes narrate that Ben had recently moved into a new apartment. He is quoted as saying, “I’m on the top floor and there’s a valley below me, and another hill about a mile away. You can see the treeline and stuff.” This description fits in with the topography of Oak Square.
Of the other fires I’ve researched in that area and from that time period, this is the only one that comes close to fitting in with the window of information available.
That terrible fire:
Sunday, December 9, 1979.
Charlie Vasiliades was a young college student and a night owl by nature. He lived with his family in a house built into a hillside overlooking much of the Oak Square neighborhood. The view was beautiful, though sound tended to be amplified from the streets below. On this night, the temperature dipped below freezing and a light dusting of snow covered the ground as Charlie relaxed in front of the television.
Shortly after midnight Charlie began to hear sirens swelling and fading outside his home. Just one at first, which was not unusual, but soon another followed, and then several more in rapid succession. He stepped out on his porch where he could see down to the main street. Emergency vehicles were racing by, accumulating about three blocks west and down the hill from his house. The night sky was illuminated with an eerie orange glow and smoke billowing up into the dark. His ears were assaulted with a cacophony of sirens piercing the air for about a good hour. It was past 1 a.m. when he returned inside and made his way toward bed. As curious as he was, he knew he would only be in the way if he showed up on the scene.
At the fire station, the first tones had sounded at 12:25 a.m. after a resident of 101 Tremont pulled the fire alarm in the laundry room, possibly on the second floor. Witnesses inside observed smoke coming from both the elevator shaft and the trash compactor room as they headed out of the building. Investigators later confirmed that the fire did indeed start in the 101 building in the trash compactor, though they could not determine what sparked it.
Many residents reported that there had been several minor fires and at least one false alarm in the complex in recent weeks, so when the fire alarm sounded in the middle of the night, they weren’t too worried. They shrugged on their jackets and hustled out of their apartments empty-handed, expecting to be allowed to return to their beds in short order. Several walked over to the lobby of 109 Tremont to keep warm while they waited to hear the ‘all clear.’ (A short time later, when that building was evacuated, they returned to the street and were shocked by what they saw.)
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
A second alarm was struck at 12:46 a.m., a third at 12:57 a.m., a fourth at 1:05 a.m., and the fifth at 1:21 a.m. Trucks from Newton and other Boston firehouses raced to the scene to lend support. Bolstered by strong winds, the fire was fierce and all-consuming, relentlessly eating away the interior walls and blasting the glass out of windows. At the peak of the battle, 150 firefighters and over 40 emergency vehicles were working in tandem to defeat the flames.
It was wise of Charlie to stay put. The whole situation was a terrifying mess. Emergency responders were hindered by the hundreds of displaced residents, concerned neighbors, and curious spectators who clogged the area around the buildings even as police officers attempted to keep them out of the danger zone.
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
By around 2:15 a.m. the authorities believed the fire was under control, but suddenly a gush of flames bolted up the back of the building, broke through the roof, and began to devour the other half of the structure, 103 Tremont. Steel railings melted and the wall between the conjoined buildings collapsed. Flames shot out of the roof high into the night, scattering embers. In an attempt to keep the aggressive flames from grabbing other structures, neighbors were evacuated and firefighters hosed down the surrounding homes as well as Our Lady of the Presentation Church, which stood up on the hill behind the apartment complex. The Boston Globe reported that the heat was so intense it could be felt in the middle of the street. It took more than an hour to regain control.
Members of the American Red Cross were at the scene almost immediately, setting up a disaster shelter in the church to provide warm blankets, hot drinks, and comforting refuge throughout the long night. The fire was contained by 3:30 a.m., though firefighters would continue to work on extinguishing the blaze as the sun came up. Three days later some of the debris was still smoldering.
Charlie remembers seeing coverage of the disastrous fire on the morning news. “The footage showed practically every single window opening, as well as the roof, was pouring out orange flames. It was a very distinctive sight in my memory.”
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
The level of devastation hit home when he went outside. “I remember going out into my backyard. It was a clear, sunny day in December, kind of cold. I found big chunks of burnt out wallpaper and debris in the garden. It was really quite startling.”
Charlie got dressed and walked down to the fire site. The street was still teeming with onlookers, and fire trucks were everywhere. The blaze was out; the entire complex was destroyed. Describing what he saw, Charlie explained, “The building was kind of a ziggurat style, set back on the hill with three levels. To its immediate right there were public stairs that connected the street the fire was on to another major street up behind the site.
“You could see that it was literally a ruin,” he continued. “Except for the very front wings of the building, the entire structure had collapsed in on itself. The walls were standing, but the windows were just gaping holes into nothing. In the two front wings, I remember the top floor had burned. A couple of rooms on the bottom floor in the front arms had not burned, but that was about it. The firemen were still pouring water into the building. It was quite a scene.”
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
It is incredible that in the middle of such a powerful disaster, there were no casualties and no critical injuries. Many residents were rescued from the building using aerial ladders. At least 40 residents were treated on the scene for exposure, cuts, bruises, and smoke inhalation. More than 20 people, including nine firefighters, were transported to a nearby hospital for further care. But everyone got out alive and burn-free. Overall, a wide ribbon of gratefulness wove its way through the shock of the night.
Still, the aftermath brought a different kind of devastation: over 140 tenants were left without their homes, their treasured possessions, and the common necessities for everyday living. People lost everything in those apartments. Every. single. thing. Furniture, clothing, photographs, money, medications, legal documents. Grief and fear threatened to overtake many of the victims as they considered their irreplaceable belongings and the prospect of finding a new home in the middle of a citywide housing shortage.
But they weren’t left on their own. Over the next several days Red Cross volunteers worked tirelessly to meet the victims’ immediate basic needs: a place to stay and food to eat, vital medications, clothing vouchers, and guidance for the first critical steps necessary to start over again. In addition, the community banded together to find ways to help:
The owner of the destroyed complex joined in the search for long-term housing solutions, too, making it a priority to take care of his former residents.
A neighboring superintendent set up a Brighton Fire Victims Fund at a local bank to field monetary donations. The balance of approximately $2,500 was evenly distributed among victims after February 28, 1980.
In January of 1980, the Brighton-Allston Clergy Association announced it would be holding a “Fire Dance” benefit and buffet to raise funds for those still without a permanent home. The successful event brought in over $4,000, and was used to purchase appliances, furniture, and other staples for the families.
A tangible sense of love and support blanketed the victims of the fire. One resident felt that the disaster may have been “a gift from God” because it forced people to get to connect. He was quoted in the Allston Brighton Citizen Item as saying, “Previously we were all strangers but as a result of the fire we found out that they weren’t strangers, but friends I hadn’t met.”
And then, somehow, life went on. In February of 1980, investigators ruled the fire was accidental, and commended the firefighters on the scene for doing an excellent job battling the conflagration.
The site of 101-103 Tremont was eventually demolished, cleared out, and left vacant for nearly forty years. Finally, in 2016, developers broke ground on the lot and began construction of a new housing facility called 99 Tremont. Similar to the original structure, this complex included 62 living units, but it was also fitted with all sorts of special amenities, like a fitness center, game room, and lounge. These luxury apartments and condos became available in the spring of 2017.
If Ben did live in this building, as I believe he did, he would have occupied one of the rooftop penthouse apartments (as he described living on the top floor). Those apartments were completely obliterated, and Ben lost all of his possessions, save for “his new genuine wolf coat, which he had bought in Canada,” as mentioned by Steve Berkowitz in Let’s Go! on page 117. His guitars, his art; his clothing and photographs and souvenirs. Even his wallet and identification (read the book to see how that played out!). He must have been devastated.
But still, knowing of Ben’s kind heart, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had given money to help the other residents whose lives were upended. He probably did even more for the ones he knew better. I wonder what kind of neighbor he was; if he kept to himself or if he was proactive about meeting others. Maybe he flirted shamelessly with the elderly ladies who saw him as a surrogate son. Haha! Surely he was helpful and considerate, and I suspect he didn’t draw a bunch of attention to his rockstar status.
Berkowitz goes on to say in that passage of the book that right after the fire, they got on a plane and “were headed to Los Angeles for recording sessions.” I’ve been mulling this over to determine how it may or may not support the timeline of the Tremont fire.
If Berkowitz meant they were heading out to record Panorama, that would have happened in April or May of 1980, as I believe that is when that album was recorded, so this Tremont fire would not be the one. However, The Cars played shows in Inglewood, California, on December 19 and 20 of 1979. Could it be that this is where they were headed on the plane? Perhaps Berkowitz just made a mistake in recalling the band’s destination? Joe has made attempts to clarify that information for me but no luck yet.
Mercifully, life went on for Ben, too. I believe that he may have stayed with Elliot in Weston after the fire, before purchasing his own house nearby in March. He would own that Weston house until 1996.
Pending any new information, I feel like I can put this mystery to rest. It was actually quite heart-wrenching to immerse myself in all of this, to think about what Benjamin might have experienced and felt. I suspect many of you will feel the same way. I am incredibly grateful that he was unharmed physically… it could have been so much worse.
**12.16.2019 UPDATE: I posted this article on Facebook and Greg Hawkes confirmed that this was indeed Ben’s building:
It’s finally here, people: Turbocharge: The Unauthorized Story of The Cars is available on Amazon Prime! Regular followers of the podcast will know just how much my co-host Dave Curry and I have longed for this day! The journey goes back over a decade…
Dave remembers when this film was completed in 2008, and there were posts popping up on social media about some screenings in New York. For many Cars lovers, the thrust of the movie was perplexing and unclear. A website to promote the film was also launched, featuring some bizarre clips and puzzling images that could only serve to mystify fans even more. Dave’s curiosity was piqued and never quite subsided, even as chatter about the movie eventually cooled. In time, it seemed the reality of this little film was sinking into the depths of Fanorama folklore, with only odd blips of its existence evidenced on its equally fading website.
But like Gage coming back to life in Pet Sematary, awareness resurfaced when the writer of the film, David Juskow, brought up Turbocharge on his personal podcast in December of 2017. Its revival spurred Dave into action, and he began a little Twitter campaign prodding Juskow to dust off the film and share it with us for review on our NiGHT THOUGHTS Podcast. His efforts were successful and Dave and I were allowed a private online screening. We were electrified by the movie, recognizing it as a hilarious and wonderful tribute to The Cars, and we strongly encouraged (begged?) Juskow to reconsider releasing it to the rest of the world. And so here we are!
**Before I get into my review/history of Turbocharge I am going to issue a DISCLAIMER: I know there’s been lots of recent discussion about who we would cast in a serious movie about The Cars. Let me state unequivocally that this movie is NOT a serious movie about The Cars! While much of the band’s true history is represented, this is a parody, an exaggeration, and at times a downright fabrication of events for comedic purposes. As Dave Curry said on our podcast, “In order to enjoy this film, you have to set aside what you know about Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr, Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, and David Robinson, and you have to accept them as these characters in this film.” If you can do that, you will love this movie!**
Created more as an act of rebellion, New York comedian, writer, and filmmaker David Juskow was fed up with the stereotypical ‘serious’ rock biopic. One night in 2005, after nearly gagging on the cheesy dialog and overbearing drama in Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story, he had had enough. It was the final push he needed to pursue his own project.
“I made Turbocharge out of spite, let’s just say that. It is completely spoofing the genre of any biopic that’s been made of a music band. That is exactly what it is,” Juskow told me with finality.
It’s no secret that The Cars were crazy-popular throughout the late 70s and on into the 80s, but intuitive fans recognize that they were never ones to really push themselves into the spotlight. No exhaustive merchandising, far-reaching world tours, or relentless appearances on the late night television circuit. As a whole, they were a low-key and private band, holding the media at arms’ length and creating an air of mystery about their deeper identity. Did they have a story to tell?
Juskow believed they did.
Exaggerated personalities, terrible wigs, and an unorthodox plot make this hilarious film the breath of fresh air the genre needs. Narrated by a snowman a la Rankin/Bass, the story revolves around The Cars’ reputation for being robotic and boring during live shows, and their supposed determination to correct that perception with the fans. Running alongside that thread is the assertion that bassist Ben Orr was secretly plotting to wrest the control of the group from co-founder and songwriter Ric Ocasek. In an unexpected twist, Phil Collins is delightfully in the middle of it all.
Sure, Juskow pokes fun at the band, but he’s not vicious. He respects all five members very much. “Nothing about the movie is mean-spirited,” he assured me. “I can’t make a movie like that. It’s always got to have goodness in it.” And it’s not like he had to make a bunch of stuff up; Juskow would soon discover that The Cars’ own history easily leant itself to comedic treatment.
On the whole, David Juskow is a man of strong, immediate emotions paired with a very thin verbal filter, pretty standard on the streets of Brooklyn (“People either love me, or they really, really dislike me,” he laughs). Fortunately he grew up in the riotous era of late 1970s television and he generally sees the world through sitcom lenses. Juskow takes timeless gags and bits from those classic shows and weaves them into his standup act. His penchant for spotting the ridiculous moment, his ironic delivery, and his spot-on celebrity impressions soften his edges with his friends and fans. Those talents also lead him to create great comedy.
The idea for Turbocharge actually materialized in the mid-80s during Juskow’s college days. The Heartbeat City album took his ears by storm. He remembered, “I thought it was the greatest album I had ever heard in my life, and ‘You Might Think’ – the song itself – just completely spoke to me. I went backwards from there and started worshipping all of their stuff. The videos made no difference to me, it really was the music, and I just really got into that Heartbeat City album. Greg Hawkes’ influence in that stuff really worked for me and that’s why I really liked them. They just had such interesting melodies and electronic keyboards. And then I was just obsessed with everything they did.”
Lightning hit in the summer of 1985. Juskow’s voice escalated with emotion as he explained, “I remember exactly where I was during Live Aid. I was at this party in Rochester, New York, and I was waiting and waiting for The Cars to come on. Everybody was outside but I’m just waiting for them to be on, and then they get cut off by Phil Collins! And I was like, ‘What?! How could you do that to my boys?!’
“Being a huge fan of The Cars at that time I was so angry that they got shafted that it turned to comedy in my mind. I was like, ‘Someday I’m going to depict that!’”
Two decades later, the time had come. The 20th anniversary of Live Aid unearthed Juskow’s earlier grudge over the Phil Collins fiasco, and that, coupled with his disgust over the Def Leppard movie, prompted him to approach his good friend, television industry veteran Memo Salazar. “I said to him, ‘Let’s just do this. It will be stupid, but it will be brilliant… in a way,’” he laughed.
Memo said he might do it if Juskow wrote the script, and so it was on. Juskow spent the next several months researching The Cars’ history, confirming things he already knew and then going deeper. And the further he dug, the funnier it became. The peculiarity of Ric and Ben’s early partnership, The Cars ‘trashing’ a hotel by leaving pictures askew, the perceived disaster of the Panorama album… it was the oddities in the band’s journey that propelled everything forward with the movie.
Not only that, but the band members’ public personas were ripe for humorous distortion. David Robinson, the consummate ladies’ man – you just had to have that character brought out. And Ric’s exaggerated awe of anyone who does anything ultra-creative, Elliot’s stony seriousness that was masking his sharp wit, and the sweet-faced Greg, who surely must have been hiding a side of snark behind that smile.
“You couldn’t even make a serious biography about these guys. It would have to be hilarious. They are a true rock and roll band who are a bunch of nerds, and I knew I must tell this story in a nerdy way… and yet we all know they rock.”
Juskow does take an obvious amount of creative license, but many of his conjectural elements are a weighty mix of fact and thoughtful contemplation. He fleshes out underlying fan controversies… questions like why didn’t Ben sing more? Was Ben ambitious? Did Ric and Ben reconcile before Ben passed away? Juskow speculated about what might have been bubbling up in Ben. “It’s weird. He clearly has a better singing voice. He’s clearly more attractive. And in my mind I’m saying, ‘what’s going on behind the scenes? Why don’t I do a movie just saying how angry this guy is? He doesn’t have any songwriting talent so he gets screwed.’”
“Everybody takes liberties for drama purposes,” Juskow went on. “What would you have if you didn’t have a fun antagonist? C’mon, you need someone to get mad about Andy Warhol: ‘You hired this guy? Are you kidding me?’”
And there’s the difference: Juskow’s forays into embellishment are not designed to evoke emotion with the cookie-cutter ‘climb to fame’ struggles of the typical rockumentary… they’re just damn funny.
The cast is largely made up from Juskow’s comedy family and ‘friends of friends,’ including Kevin Kash, Rachel Feinstein, Jonathan Katz, Irene Bremis, H John Benjamin, John Samuel Jordan, David Engel, Tom Shillue, and Dave Attell. Juskow himself plays Ric Ocasek. Out of necessity, the lines were few and far between for his character. “There was no way I could direct and be in the movie; it was too complicated. It was way easier to just be silent and ‘tortured.’”
The soundtrack includes music from Eric Barao, The Cautions, Frank Stallone, and a couple of Cars-flavored tunes written by Juskow himself.
As I mentioned above, the film originally opened in 2008 with a few private screenings in the New York area, but Juskow didn’t pursue much more exposure than that. He felt it was a bit of a niche film and was afraid there wouldn’t be much of an audience out there, but we know there is! The playful humor and witty references will hit home with Cars fans and lovers of 80s culture alike. You can check it out on Amazon Prime by clicking here: Turbocharge! Watch it, and then find me on Facebook or comment below to tell me what you think!
On meeting Ric Ocasek: “I thought he was very intelligent and very tall. The moment I laid eyes on him, I could talk to the guy. I don’t get that way with a lot of people. But Ric was like some guy I grew up with.” — from “Benjamin Orr: The Cars’ Mr. Casual Steps Out” by Rob Tannenbaum, Musician Magazine, March 1987