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
Okay… this is just one of those ‘rabbit hole’ things I stumbled across. I was working on my obsession of clipping out Cars references in television and movies and I came to Circuit City.
From 2004-2006, Circuit City used “Just What I Needed” in their ad campaign to try to revive the suffering sales of their consumer electronics chain. As awesome as the song is, it couldn’t work any magic (groan) for Circuit City, and the company filed bankruptcy in 2008. Here are the deets on that advertising plan:
Though The Cars had allowed their music to be used in many movies prior to this, I think this might be the first time that it was part of an ad campaign. I’m not positive on that, though, so if someone knows otherwise, please let me know. Of course, several other Cars songs have made there way to commercials since then. As you may or may not know, I’ve got a Youtube playlist where I’m trying to gather all those bits:
I do remember an interview where Ric Ocasek felt sure that he wouldn’t permit his songs to be used in such a way. He was speaking with the late Bob Coburn on Rockline in 1987. Here’s the clip:
I suppose Ric must have had an offer that made it worth his while. Not that I’m complaining; I love it when I see commercials featuring the music of my favorites. Not only does it make me happy and hyper because I dig the song, but I think it’s an important part of continuing a band’s legacy, and it is instrumental in introducing classic music to a new generation of listeners. And this current generation needs to hear The Cars! As always, though, I do hope that all of the members of the band gained financially from the deal (not that that is any of my business, really, but I do think about those things).
Anyway, here is a compilation of all of the Circuit City commercials that I could find, and now I can cross this one off my list. Haha!
With the passing of Ric Ocasek on September 15, the world has gone into mourning. Rock legends and up-and-coming musicians (and everyone in between) have been paying tribute to him all week long, in all sorts of meaningful ways: posting photos, tweeting remembrances, and singing his songs in live sets across the country. Not only do they celebrate the man they loved and admired, but they give us a gift in revealing more about who Ric really was. I am deeply appreciative.
Seeing all of the headlines day after day, my sixteen-year-old daughter remarked, “Wow. I didn’t think it would be this big of a deal.” You see, here in my house, my family obviously knows about my fixation with Ben and The Cars, and they lovingly humor me about it, but they think it’s just my ‘little thing.’ They don’t know how important The Cars have been to the world at large, and none of them really understand how much the band matters to me. They don’t get that it is more than just an obsession or a hobby. Ben, Ric, David, Greg, Elliot… these guys move me. Their music is part of my brain matter, intimately inseparable from my emotions and memories. Their existence is important to my existence. And when they are no longer leaving fingerprints in this world, I feel it deep down inside. Not many of my peeps around here get that.
And so it has been all the more precious to me to see how the Cars fans have come together over the news that Ric is gone.
A few years ago someone coined the term ‘Fanorama’ to encompass the members of the Facebook groups and Twitter pages (and anywhere on social media, really) who regularly check in to geek out about The Cars. Over the years I’ve developed many solid relationships inside the Fanorama; people who I may or may not have ever met in ‘real life’ but that are part of my daily landscape. And while I’ve long considered them friends, I believe that Ric’s death has made us a family.
When someone you love dies you automatically want to go to others who also loved that person and express your shock and sadness. You want to share the memories and pictures, you want to cry together and tell of regrets and give words of hope. It’s a natural human response, right? “Misery loves company.” And you bond as brothers and sisters in your grief.
And that’s what we did, our Fanorama. When Ric died, we virtually looked at each other in disbelief and said, “tell me it’s not true!” We collapsed on each other’s shoulders and cried together in grief. We gave strength and we took strength and we squeezed each other’s hands and asked, “how are you holding up?” We wrapped our arms around each other and held on tight and assured each other, “it’s going to be okay.” And we shared memories, music, stories, artwork, awe, laughter, frustration, gratitude. I felt it — I still feel it — every time I get on social media, the healing comfort of my dear Cars family.
I find that in the midst of this devastating loss there is so much love. It’s a beautiful thing.
So many offerings I’ve seen and heard this week have helped me, but I think this video comes the closest to encompassing my emotions in a visual form. I woke up the morning after Ric passed away feeling confusion and achy longing and at a bit of a loss. My FB feed was flooded, but this post from Becky B caught my eye. As I watched the incredible video she created, the tears came again, but as much pain as I felt watching it, it was different somehow. I saw the celebration of Ric and Ben. Her tribute skillfully addressed the hurt and the healing and the hope, all at the same time.
The song choice, the photos and live footage, the spiritual aura… I’m not sure how to explain my impressions. I’ll just let you watch it. Be sure to grab some tissue.
I send out a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Becky. I can’t imagine how late she stayed up the night Ric left us in order to create this tribute, but I’m so glad she did. It went straight to my heart.
And thank you, my Fanorama family. Being able to stay in touch with you this week has been such a consolation to me, and I know you are comforting one another, too. We’ll see each other through this, like a family should.
You probably already know that. Of course you do. It is all over every newswire; the world is in mourning.
I’m touched by the number of friends and fans that have contacted me to make sure I was aware, to see if I was okay, and to share their tears with me. Thank you for that. It is both overwhelming and comforting to be a part of so much heartbreak. There is shelter in our mutual grief, and I am grateful for the sincere connection with so many people who love the band I love.
Like many Benjamin Orr fans, when I first started learning all about Ben and researching the history of The Cars, I immediately adopted the opinion that Ric was the bad guy. I couldn’t see the necessity and beauty of his role; I only saw things in the negative: lead vocal distribution, video screen time, touring and merchandising decisions. It’s no secret that he was highly controlling (he admitted it himself more than once) and that he gained the most financially from the band’s success, and I felt that he often came across as arrogant and self-absorbed in those early interviews. I pinned everything on him: certainly the break-up of the band, as well as Ben’s drinking, Ben’s sadness, and Ben’s lack of commercial success in those turbulent 1990s.
It was my friend and podcast partner, Dave, who helped me unclench my fist. We’ve always shared a friendly “Team Ric vs. Team Ben” rivalry, and through many lengthy discussions he chipped away at my tunnel vision and illuminated the human side of Ric, the likeable side. My perception slowly shifted.
I acknowledged that Ric was the one who wrote the music that moved me, the lyrics that resonated. I admitted that I loved a lot of the songs Ric sang. I was reminded that he was Ben’s steadfast partner in chasing the dream, the two of them trekking from state to state in one band or another, both aware (subconsciously or not) that they needed each other to make it. Ric introduced us to David, Elliot, and Greg, too, when he finally solidified The Cars. I saw how in his later years Ric mellowed, spoke kindly of Ben and the band, and communicated his deep respect for the men with whom he made his mark. All these things softened me.
I’m not saying that Ric didn’t play a significant part in all of the ugly, he doesn’t get a ‘pass’ by any means. And I’m not claiming to know how deep his regrets may or may not have been. But I do believe that Ben and Ric made amends before Ben died. I believe that Ric’s love for Ben was sincere and deep, in spite of whatever divided them in the past. Elliot, Greg, and David all speak of Ric with the affection and loyalty that reflects the thick bonds of brotherhood they all shared. If those who were actually hurt by Ric can forgive him, how can I, an outside observer, hold a grudge?
I’ve grown to genuinely admire and respect Ric so much over the last two years. He was intelligent, creative, talented, and he was an integral part of the band I love the most in this world. His death is a terrible blow, a sucker punch. Tears came unexpectedly; many, many tears. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d have to say goodbye to my rock idols someday… but not Ric. Not now.
There’s just such a finality in Ric’s death. It’s the end of an era. There is really no moreCars. There will be no more albums, no more tours. And what of the fabled vault? It’s excruciating to accept that so much history may be gone forever, too.
And so I focus on gratitude.
Thank you for all that your music gives me, Ric: the hyper, the healing, the escape. Thank you for the way you gave me Ben. Thank you for providing the platform for David and Greg and Elliot. Thank you for performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2018 so I could see The Cars live. Thank you for changing the course of music history.
I don’t know exactly how the afterlife works but I suspect (and hope) that you and Ben are reunited, rockin’ and happy. Rest in peace.
“There are decent people, even in rock and roll. If all you’ve been exposed to are the crazy ones, and then you run into a cool one, it sticks in your head.”
For John Ward Hickernell, Benjamin Orr was one of the cool ones.
John recently posted some eye-catching photos on Facebook of Ben at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. No surprise that they grabbed my attention, since I’d never seen them before, but John’s explanation of the pics had me even more curious: it turns out he had happened upon the small group behind the scenes while The Cars were waiting to take the stage of a major concert. Wow, that seems pretty lucky, huh?
Would John mind sharing more details of his memories with us? Not at all! He assured me, “It was a pretty cool day, and time has passed, and people are passing, too, and just seems kind of cool to get the photos out there, and the story, and the pin, and the whole nine yards. I don’t feel like I own them; I just happened to catch the moment.”
Don’t you just love the kindness of people? Thank you so much, John ~ let’s dig in!
It turns out that The Cars were in Cleveland to play at the World Series of Rock (WSoR). The concert was originally scheduled to take place on August 5, 1978, with Fleetwood Mac headlining, joined by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Blue Öyster Cult, and The Cars. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham fell ill but rather than cancel, the August 5 show was rescheduled for August 26. Unfortunately, that bumped Seger and BÖC from the bill; they were replaced with Eddie Money and Bob Welch.
The Cars had been touring behind their debut album since June with almost no break. They had played a sold-out concert at Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom on July 18, which would have definitely been a homecoming show for Ben, and in fact, you can hear him acknowledge it on stage at the end of “Bye Bye Love.” Their performance, which was broadcast live on local station WMMS (and released on vinyl in 2018 as The Cars’ first official ‘live’ album), was packed with precision, perfection, and an abundance of attitude, proving to yet another eager audience that The Cars were a force to be reckoned with.
Still, with only “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on the radio to recommend them, The Cars were generally considered ‘new’ and had much to prove. Playing the WSoR with its crowd of more than 70,000 fans was a considerable step up from the 2,000 at the Agora, and was likely the largest audience the band had played in front of to date. I imagine they were nervous, excited, and probably still a little stunned at how well the debut album was being received around the country.
It’s worth noting that the order of the WSoR lineup that day was determined by the traveling schedules of the acts. Eddie Money kicked off the show, followed by Todd Rundgren; they both had flights to catch so they went on early. The Cars played their set next, then Bob Welch, who was arriving from St. Louis, played fourth. Of course, the fiery finale featured Fleetwood Mac. A review of the concert from Cleveland Scene writer Dave Voelker pointed out the unique position The Cars were in.
“The Cars were left with the unenviable task of following Rundgren’s ecstatic set — a position they wouldn’t have had if Todd & Co. didn’t have to play in Chicago later that same day,” he wrote. “They’re still a little unseasoned, but I’m confident that many in the audience now know there’s a lot more to the Cars than their main claim to fame, ‘Just What I Needed.’ Particularly, the raw power of ‘Don’t Cha Stop’ and ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ seemed formidable and impressive, marking this sharp new band as an attention-worthy contender.”
Jane Scott from The Plain Dealer noticed, too. In her August 28 review she wrote, “The Cars, an up-and-coming Boston band, had fans dancing across the field with its ‘Just What I Needed’ and ‘Best Friend’s Girl.’” Clearly, our boys could handle playing for such a huge crowd.
Without going too deep into the WSoR’s colorful history, let me give you a quick overview of this popular but short-lived concert series. From 1974 to 1980, legendary Cleveland concert promoters, brothers Jules and Mike Belkin, worked diligently (if gingerly) with officials from the Cleveland Municipal Stadium to host a run of summer concerts featuring the hottest rock bands of the day. Each event included multiple acts on the bill, and fans packed the playing field and bleachers of the open-air venue for hours, partying to icons like The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith.
And when I say ‘partying’ I DO mean partying. The festivals quickly gained a reputation for being rowdy and dangerous, riddled with drugs, alcohol, and varying levels of stupidity and crime. And this show was no different. Though The Plain Dealer reported that the crowd of 73,000 was considered one of the best-behaved audiences in recent attendance, the police still had their hands full. Several violent incidents occurred before, during, and after the show, including multiple stabbings, robberies, and an accident in which a man fell from the upper deck during the concert while swinging from the rafters and was transported to the hospital in critical condition.
But none of that was on the radar of twenty-one year old John Ward Hickernell, a self-described “musician-artist-hippie-type kid who would to go any extreme to make art.” As a multi-instrumentalist himself, John was chasing the rock-and-roll dream (most notably playing guitar for The Estes Brothers). His focus wasn’t the fame and the glory, but experiencing the creative ecstasy of it all, and he pursued art in any and every form. Is it any wonder, then, that Todd Rundgren was his role model?
He explains, “Todd’s always been my creative inspirational individual. I’ve always been awed at what it must be like to possess that kind of creativity, like ‘what am I going to do today? Because I can do just about anything and if I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to learn how.’”
John’s mission, in addition to capturing the day on film, was to try to make a connection with Todd, and here’s where his personal story begins. I had the privilege of chatting with John and listening as he related his experience behind the scenes at the World Series of Rock.
John began, “Back in those days concert security was much different than today. Maybe one guy to watch over a massive area of space, and that guy was more than likely a hippie, too. I’m sure that I looked the part with my vest with many pockets of film and my shoulder bag and camera, out on safari shooting pictures. So with a few words to the one lone security guy he let me pass right on through and into a closed-off section of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.”
The day was oppressively hot, made more intense by the sun beating down and the mash of the crowd. The stadium was bursting with happy-go-lucky music fans and John documented the sight, snapping pictures as he worked his way along the near-empty concrete walkways enclosing the open-air venue. Coming to the end of one of the first-level ramps he noticed a small handful of people milling around. As he drew nearer he was able to identify Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek, and Todd Rundgren in the group.
John’s dream was about to come true; his hero, Todd, was within a few concrete feet of a handshake! But can you believe it? “[Todd] was hanging around and I ran out of film,” John groaned. “As I loaded a fresh roll I looked for him and he was gone, heading to the stage with Utopia. So I ended up with one ‘lone shot.’”
A disappointing turn, for sure, but not all was lost. John dug The Cars, too. He remembered Ben as a local kid from his days on The Gene Carroll Show, and was happy to see him now in this more personal setting. John could see that Ben had a special guest with him – his mother – and John was leery of interrupting the band’s privacy, but it ended up being a very relaxed scene.
John recalled, “Ben was very nice. At first I thought he may have been a bit pissed that I was shooting pics and invading a moment. I do have one picture I came across and he was with his mom, and he’s adjusting his glasses… he’s doing a ‘middle finger glasses adjustment.’ At the time, me being a little bit naïve, I kinda thought okay, maybe he’s not quite happy with me taking pictures. Of course, now I know that that’s kind of an inside thing in the music business: if someone’s got an attitude with you they’ll adjust their glasses with their middle finger.
“But after exchanging a few niceties with Ben that tone faded; he was cool and he smiled more, and he didn’t give me the finger anymore.” John laughed.
Still, John hung back, but he could see how attentive Ben was to his mom. John respectfully observed the way “Ben was close to her the whole time, pointing things out, like out in the crowd and the bleachers, and stuff like reminiscing about being in the stadium for other events, ball games ….that’s what I gathered. And the physical resemblance they had was very obvious. She seemed a bit taken back. She smiled a lot but didn’t say anything to me.”
Though the encounter was just a moment in time, it struck a chord deep down in John that has resonated over the years. As I listened to John share, I was really moved by his heartfelt reflections. “Being a Cleveland boy myself, I can remember going to Indians games there as a child; I’m sure he and his family did as well, so you know it could’ve just as easily been me. And [The Cars] were on the edge of being a huge success. So I totally had a tie to that whole feeling, or imagining how he must’ve felt, for sure. You know, the ‘local boy does good’ sort of thing. We ALL dreamed of that! There it all was right in front of me. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Made it all the more heartbreaking when he passed.”
John quietly focused on taking photos, storing up tangible snapshots to accompany the impressions in his head.
“Ric kind of acted like he might have been a little bit self-conscious,” John reminisced. “That’s just my personal take on it. They were very nice. I took dozens of photos, taking time to chat. I will say that after a bit they seemed to be posing, so it got intense because I was the only guy there with a camera.”
John was gracious enough to share several of his terrific photos of Ben and Ric with us from that day:
At one point, Ben gave John a gift: a little white promotional Cars pin, which John has kept all these years. “He just reached in his pocket and he pulled out a pin and he says, ‘Hey man, I hope they turn out good,’ [referring to the photos],” John remembered. “He asked me if I was with the Scene, a Cleveland music rag paper that we all lived for each issue! I let him know that I wasn’t, but I worked for the company that printed Scene and that I actually ran a press that printed it.”
As they wrapped up their time together, Ben asked John to send him some of the photos if they turned out. And that was it. “I don’t think they were up there for more than half an hour, and then they receded back into the bowels of the stadium.”
Thrilled with his encounter, John continued to hang around in the relative quiet of the concrete passages backstage. He absorbed Utopia’s set with rapture. “I remember how cool ‘Eastern Intrigue’ sounded in the stadium from backstage. It was so great: no bounce, no echo like you would hear being out front, or anywhere else in that stadium for that matter.” He doesn’t remember much else in terms of the music that day; he was more into documenting the show with his camera. But while John wasn’t focused on the Cars’ set itself, it’s not because he didn’t have an appreciation for the band or their music. In truth, his feelings are quite the opposite.
“You know, it’s all timing. Sometimes all the planets line up and something unpredictable happens, and that’s kind of the way it was with The Cars. If you look at the end of the 70s, we’d been through glam rock and glitter, and Bowie and Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed… tons. And then of course there was disco and stuff like that, but The Cars really had a different writing style that was clearly evident in the way they played, and their persona just pushed it over the edge. They really were a bridge into the next realm.
“I remember seeing them at Live Aid in the 80s. They were well-established stars at that point. Ben was talking to a VJ from MTV; he was obviously having a good time, acted a bit buzzed, smoking a cigarette, it was a hell of a party. That was the last I saw of him other than magazines and videos.
“All musicians dream of success; they just do. [The Estes Brothers] had gotten very close just a year and a half earlier, so I felt a deep connection to all that: the road that musicians take and keep trying time after time. I know he did, as well. We all do. There are thousands who chase it their whole lives — damn good musicians. So I always felt that connection. Thinking about the moment in the stadium… it held deep meaning for me.”
“It’s hard to explain how I felt about him, but I could relate, maybe… just a sad story to me. That’s all there seemed to be for me for a lot of years. I was down more than I was up. But avoiding useless rambling… Seeing him with his mom [in Cleveland] was personal for me. And for him.”
John concluded emphatically, “You can tell all you need to know about a person sometimes from just one gesture. The mere fact that he had his mom there tells you the kind of person he was. What else do you need to say? That pretty much told me how cool he was.”
Oh, P.S.! John did end up meeting Todd many years later! John recounted, “For many years I was always like a step behind him ‘til finally in ’08 or ’09 they had an exhibit at the Rock Hall. He was there doing a meet-and-greet type sort of thing and oh my gosh, the line of people went all out the Rock Hall, down to East 9th Street, so I’m standing in line, you know, and I get up to where I’m inside the building and I could see him, and then… well, of course, they had to go.”
So John bought a ticket to the museum anyway, figuring since he’s there he might as well look at his exhibit. He went downstairs and there was no one down there, but then he said, “All of a sudden these two big doors swing open and here comes this whole troop of people: Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, the curator, a couple security guards, a photographer, his wife Michelle, and their son Rebop. That ended my days of being two steps behind him. I got to meet him and take a ton of pictures of that. I’ve met him a bunch of times since.”
Today I woke up to the sad news that Dante Rossi passed away.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dante in Cleveland less than six months ago, where he was hale and hearty (and very charming!) and having the time of his life. We were all gathered to celebrate the release of the book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars. Dante played a significant role in Ben’s career back in Ohio in the 1960s, and it was fitting for him to shine in the spotlight at that event. Many of us were eager to thank him for his music, his meaningful relationship with Ben, and for coming and honoring Ben’s memory with us.
Dante was the vocalist and rhythm guitar player who originally started The Grasshoppers, securing Joe Mayer as manager and lining up a record deal for the band. When he decided to leave the group in 1964, it opened the door for Ben to audition to take Dante’s place. As we now know, Ben got the job, and the popularity, exposure, and experience of playing with The Grasshoppers were instrumental in helping Ben achieve his rock-and-roll dreams.
As for Dante, he joined up with another group of great musicians and formed The Dantes, which were renamed The Tulu Babies before ultimately settling in under the name The Baskerville Hounds. Between 1964 and 1972 the Hounds (as they were sometimes known) revelled in much local and national success, playing extensively in the greater Cleveland area and opening for such acts as The Rolling Stones and Sonny & Cher. In turn, The Baskerville Hounds had acts like The Shangri-Las, The Tree Stumps (featuring Michael Stanley) and The Grasshoppers open for them during the peak of their popularity.
The first hit for the guys was recorded in 1965 while they were still The Tulu Babies. It was called “Hurtin’ Kind” and not only was it a local smash, but it was popular in the UK as well, being covered by many British acts and even appearing in the soundtrack for the 2000 film Gangster No. 1 starring Malcolm MacDowell.
In 1967, the fame of The Baskerville Hounds continued to climb with the release of their self-titled album, which featured two singles that put them on the Billboard Hot 100 chart: “Debbie,” (#99) and “Space Rock part 2” (#60). The popularity of the latter track was reinforced when it was played so often on Cleveland’s hit television show Ghoulardi it became an unofficial theme song. The Hounds had a third song grace the Billboard chart in 1969 when they released “Hold Me” (#88).
[I’ve been listening to many of their songs today as I write this. If you’d like to explore their sound, the playlist I’ve created should help you get started.]
The band ultimately dissolved in 1972 (though there would be some reunions in later years) and Dante changed professions, opening Dante’s Barber Shop near Ben’s childhood home in Parma Heights. Dante and Ben stayed close long after Ben left Cleveland and hit it big with The Cars, and Dante was one of the speakers at Ben’s memorial service in 2000.
Dante said in Let’s Go!, “When The Cars finally got their record deal, I remember being invited to a Christmas party at Benny’s mother’s house and everyone was just so proud. Benny was thrilled; he just sparkled! All the hard work and fighting through adversity had finally paid off. Think about all the talented musicians out there that never make it, never end up being heard, but Benny had the tenacity and determination to see it through, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled for him.”
I’m so grateful I got to meet Dante in person and shake his hand; I’m thankful I got to tell him how much I appreciated all he did for Ben. It’s comforting to think that Dante and Ben may now be reunited and rocking together in their prime. May it be so.