Behind the Scenes at Viele’s Planet

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Screenshot courtesy of Tracey L.

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

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

Jeff Viele contacted Orr’s management when his good friend, Chuck Nolan, began campaigning to get Benjamin to come for a show. Chuck was (and is) a huge Cars fan, and he had met Benjamin during a show in Quincy, Illinois, in 1997. Chuck invested a lot of time and energy in getting to see one of his rock heroes play live in Springfield. Between Jeff and Chuck, arrangements were made for Benjamin to perform at Viele’s Planet on August 16, 1998.

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

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

August 16th arrived. Around 3 pm, Benjamin walked into Viele’s, looking like a classic biker dude, with his sleeveless black t-shirt and his shaggy blonde hair flowing from under the bandana tied around his head. He and his tour manager, David Tedeschi, took a seat at the bar while Jeff bustled about getting ready for the night. Chuck soon joined them. They made small talk about where Benjamin lived, his kids, and his motorcycles. Chuck had designed some huge subway flyers to promote the show, and they caught Benjamin’s eye in the bar. He was so impressed that he asked if he could have a couple to take home to frame and put in his children’s rooms. Of course, they let him.

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Benjamin and Chuck Nolan (photo courtesy of Chuck Nolan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video clips of most of the show are available on Youtube (link below); it was filmed by the late Pat Egizi. Here is the set list:

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

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

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

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Benjamin and Dave Curry (photo courtesy of Dave Curry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Candy-O and the Monitor Mix-Up

Candy-O and the Monitor Mix-Up

Released on June 13, 1979, The Cars’ sophomore effort, Candy-O, would be certified platinum in less than two months, and would soar as high as #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and #4 on RPM Canada. Its first single, “Let’s Go,” would jump to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the follow up release, “It’s All I Can Do,” would peak at #41. Candy-O‘s iconic album cover, painted by Alberto Vargas, would be talked about for years. And all this while The Cars’ self-titled debut album, released almost exactly one year prior, was still riding high: Billboard Magazine’s chart for the “Top Pop Albums of 1979” lists The Cars at #4 and Candy-O at #82. Needless to say, this band was on fire.

But this Candy-O story begins at the very beginning, and doesn’t end until more than three decades later…

(Quick disclaimer: I am fairly confident that these next four photos I am including of Cherokee Studios and the mixing equipment are indeed of Cherokee, but are likely NOT how the studio looked when The Cars recorded there in 1979.)

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David Bowie outside Cherokee Studios, 1975

In February of 1979, The Cars packed up their gear and headed to Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles, California, to record their second album. Originally started as the venture of three brothers on a ranch, by 1979 Cherokee Studios had moved to Fairfax Avenue and was a hot spot for many of the world’s top recording artists. By the time The Cars arrived, Cherokee had already turned out albums for Steely Dan, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel, ELO, Jeff Beck, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart, Hall & Oates, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Journey, Neil Diamond, The Jacksons… the list goes on and on.

Cherokee was an unusual studio at the time because it operated independently of any record label. Additionally, the years the Robb brothers had spent as struggling musicians prior to opening their studio made them keenly aware of the importance of an ‘artist-friendly atmosphere.’ They also outfitted their Fairfax location with state-of-the-art equipment and acoustics. It’s no wonder that in his autobiography, Beatles producer Sir George Martin dubbed Cherokee Studios the best studio in America.

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Believed to be Studio 1 @ Cherokee

Generally when a band gets ready to record an album the first thing they do is create a monitor mix. I do not know what The Cars’ actual setup was at Cherokee, or which of the three studios the band worked in, but it’s likely that their work day looked something like this: the band goes into the big room and sets up their instruments. A series of microphones are positioned all around the studio to capture the sounds from each individual band member. David’s drums (which might be enclosed in some kind of clear paneling to avoid sound from the other instruments “bleeding” into his mics) would have 6 to 8 mics around his kit at each of the various drum pieces (kick, snare, high hat, etc). Each of the other guys would have a mic for their instrument and a mic for their vocals.

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Trident A-Range-24

At one end of the studio there is another little room (the control room) separated from the band by a big window, and in that little room sit the producer and sound engineer. In front of them is a huge board with all sorts of slider switches and dials and lights — this is called a monitor console, or a mixing table. Each microphone near the band feeds the sounds it captures into a specialized channel where it is recorded in isolation from the other sounds. Those channels are then accessed and arranged by the producer and sound engineer on the monitor console. Nerd fact: at Cherokee Studios they used the legendary Trident A-Range 24-channel monitor (only 13 of the original models were ever manufactured), and they were the first studio in America to do so. BUT Greg Hawkes indicates that this album was recorded on Roy Thomas Baker’s personal 40-track machine, which was an unusual recorder in the industry at the time.

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Believed to be Studio 3c at Cherokee

Once everything is set up and ready to record, the band plays their song and the music is captured as described above. The producer and sound engineer adjust levels on the console to get the desired balance from the mics and to construct the basic foundation of the song, listening to the music through the large monitor speakers in the control room (pictured above, on top of the console). The resulting track is called a ‘monitor mix.’ This recorded mix is then used by the band to perfect the production of the individual parts of the song. Wearing headphones and listening to a customized playback of the monitor mix, each band member can re-record their part, locking into the pieces of the composition they need to hear to bring out the best in their own performance.

For example, in order to really nail his guitar solo, Elliot may need to zero in on the drums and bass parts. The sound engineer can fiddle with the sliders on his console and make it so that what Elliot hears in his headphones is largely the rhythm section, while the synth and vocals are toned way down or not audible. This gives him the reference points he needs to play to. At the same time, maybe Benjamin needs to hear David’s kick drum pumped up a bit to keep his tempo on track, and the rhythm of Greg’s riffs to sing along to. The sound engineer can make that happen.While the band plays on, the guys in the control room continue to finesse and adjust the mix on the console, moving closer to the final product.

So The Cars spent February of 1979 at Cherokee, recording, mixing and preparing the entire Candy-O album; getting it just how they liked it. When it was finally ‘in the can’ they packed up and headed back to Boston with their completed master tapes, leaving the monitor mix tapes stored in the Cherokee tape vault.

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The Candy-O Monitor Mix Tapes

Fast forward to sometime in 2001. A listing shows up on ebay for two reel-to-reel tapes of “The Cars’ Candy-O Demos” for auction. It appears that a former employee of Cherokee Studios, now residing in California, has some authentic vintage recordings to offer. (Interesting side note: the same seller had also listed similar items from Led Zeppelin and Elvis). A longtime Cars  fan — we’ll call him Phil — triumphantly wins the auction and, thrilled to have these alternate recordings of some of his favorite songs, has a local recording studio transfer the tracks to CDs. He shares a few copies with his trusted friends. He sees nothing wrong with this since he owns the sound recordings now.

Fast forward again, this time to 2014. By now these alternate recordings have been out for over ten years. They have been shared and shared again among the Fanorama, and eventually uploaded onto youtube. Toward the end of the year, our very own David Curry (the genius behind @Night_Spots) decides to feature one of the songs on his tumblr page. Low and behold, Les Steinberg (Elliot Easton’s brother), comes across Dave’s post and hears this version of “It’s All I Can Do” that he’s never heard before.

10882267_953263848018021_7631285565900893425_nSince he already had a working relationship with Dave, Les contacts him and asked him where the recording came from. Dave, surprised that Les has no idea about the mix tapes, explains their history. Les enthusiastically encourages Dave to contact his friend from whom he originally received the recordings to see if the tapes are still around. He indicates that he is sure The Cars’ management would be thrilled to buy back the tapes for their own collection. Dave agrees to contact Phil, and in the meantime, Dave mails his personal CD copy of the mixes to Les for the Steinberg family to keep.

It is the end of November, 2014, when Dave contacts Phil. As fate would have it, after holding on to the tapes for 13 years, Phil finally had a need to sell them and had just completed an ebay transaction less than a month prior to Dave’s message, sending them off to the next happy owner. Though he would have very eagerly just GIVEN the tapes to The Cars, they are out of his hands.

Unfortunately, now that the word is out that the original reel-to-reels have surfaced, it becomes important to The Cars’ camp to track them down. It turns out that those mixes had been stolen from Cherokee’s tape vault and sold illegally (unbeknownst to any of the Fanorama). This makes Phil understandably nervous — to be somehow connected to stolen intellectual property (even though he is innocent of any wrongdoing) — and so Dave offers to act as a mediator between Phil and The Cars; a natural role since he is already openly connected to both parties.

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David Curry, 2014

Now the task falls on Dave to facilitate the tracking down of the reels. Luckily the new owner (who is also eager to avoid a legal hassle) agrees to let them be repurchased. A flurry of emails zips back and forth across the country over the early weeks of December as arrangements are made to have them shipped to Dave’s place of work. After he signs for them he is a little stunned, realizing that he is holding a piece of precious Cars history. “When I got the tapes home, I told my wife about their significance and snapped a few photos. I was in Cars heaven! That lasted about 20 minutes… It suddenly occurred to me that I was now responsible for their care. At that point, I wanted them out of my house as soon as possible.”

After a couple of back and forth emails from Cars management, David is told that Jeff Kramer, the owner of OK Management, will be giving him a call on a specified date. The working hours come and go without a call. An email at the end of the day explains that Kramer was “meeting all day with Dylan.” Dave is asked to contact Brian Higgins. On December 18th Brian arranges for FedEx to pick up the reels and expedite them to their rightful owners, where they are received in California on December 19, 2014.

dave3[Dave’s involvement in this was truly motivated by kindness and his love for The Cars, and he expected nothing in return. It is still pretty cool, though, that he received a copy of Move Like This, signed by all of the band members, as a ‘thank you.’]

Wow, what a history! How exciting for the Cars group to get those original recordings back! And wouldn’t it be great if Rhino Records compiled them along with the Candy-O album and made a deluxe version, like they did with the debut? We can only keep our fingers crossed… In the meantime, you can hear the monitor mix tracks for yourself by exploring this playlist on youtube. Enjoy!

Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity

Miami Vice: Missed Opportunity

I love the way he says this:

Caller: “Have you ever considered going into acting, and if so, what kind of roles would you like to take part in?”  Benjamin: “I considered it… but nothing’s come my way…” (laughing) — Rockline interview, 1987

Well, we know of at least one opportunity he had, but it didn’t work out — dang it!

Miami Vice was a hugely popular television show from 1984 to 1989. It starred Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as undercover detectives whose job was to rid Miami of drug lords, sleazeballs, and other bad dudes. Unlike the normal fare in the ‘cops and robbers’ genre, Miami Vice skillfully threaded their episodes with cool clothing (starting a whole new fashion trend!) and cutting edge music.  The show often featured popular rock-and-rollers of the day, like Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, Ted Nugent, Gene Simmons, Sheena Easton, Power Station (and plenty of great actors, too)… the list goes on and on. It is a great tragedy that Benjamin Orr’s name is not on that list.

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Apparently Benjamin was scheduled for a cameo appearance on Miami Vice in 1985, but the day set aside for him to film his part was the same day The Cars were to appear on stage at Live Aid. Since he later mentions Live Aid as his most memorable experience with the band, I’m SO glad they did it. And their performance there is EPIC, one of the best… but , oh, how I would have loved to see him act! Could you imagine? His incredible looks, that low voice, his stony facial expressions; maybe even featuring a song with his vocals (a la Glenn Frey and Smuggler’s Blues)… it all seems so perfect for him! It’s a shame he never got a second chance.

Benjamin was asked a few times what he thought about acting. Here are a couple of other clips of his responses…

 

What do you think? What kind of roles would have liked to see him play — leading man, action hero, villain? Comment below or find me on Facebook!

The Cars and the RRHOF: Who Cares?

The Cars and the RRHOF: Who Cares?

Quite a few people (translation: Cars fans) are pretty upset about The Cars not getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) this year. I’ve been asked my thoughts about it a couple of times, and personally, I swing back and forth between frustration and apathy. Since I am SO crazy about this band, it is hard for me to be objective about what they ‘deserve’ with relation to achieving induction; I am completely driven by my love for those five guys and their incredible music. Even so, I am able to form an opinion based on concrete evidence. But before stating my honest (and hopefully, rational) thoughts on the subject, let me try to give a basic factual framework to build on.

First I had to understand just how the Rock Hall worked. I am very grateful to the posts on the Iconic Rock Talk Show blog for giving me the rundown in concise, humorous, educational articles.

In a nutshell, the artists that make the official ballot are chosen by a nominating czwsxtpwiaacrlocommittee made up of 28 members from the music industry (musicians, executives, managers, journalists, etc.). Once the nominees are chosen the ballot goes out for votes in two ways: first, 800+ ballots are mailed out to more music industry professionals, including the living members already inducted into the Rock Hall. They get to vote for their top five artists to get in.

Secondly, a fan poll is set up where any Tom, Dick and Harry can vote for their faves to be inducted. The top five vote-getters in the fan poll get ONE additional ballot vote, to be counted with the other 800+ ballots from the industry. Does that make sense? It’s important that it does, because as fans we need to understand that placing in the top five of the fan poll does NOT mean our band will earn automatic induction into the Hall of Fame.

Historically (since the fan poll was instituted in 2012) the band that finishes FIRST in the fan poll has been inducted, but finishing first is NOT a guarantee, nor is it inherently stated in the induction criteria.

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The next question I had to tackle was: do The Cars deserve to be in? Now, things might get muddy here emotionally but I’m going to try to stay on track. For the record, here is what the Rock Hall website puts forth as the criteria for eligibility for the Hall of Fame:

“Artists—a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians—become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”

Okay, the first one is easy: “25 years after the release of their first record.” Since The Cars released their debut album in 1978, they were eligible for induction in 2003. Whew.

Next up: “…demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent…” I understand that this is a matter of opinion for each person casting a ballot. Of course, there is NO question in my book.

  1. Ric was an amazing lyricist and visionary, and his vocal styling was unique and well-suited to the songs he sang.
  2. Benjamin’s vocals were unfailingly beautiful and varying in range and delivery, and his bass playing was both melodic and powerful.
  3. Elliot’s lead guitar contributions were non-egocentric, masterful and relevant to each song.
  4. Greg was an incredible multi-instrumentalist, and his synthesizer sounds were bursting with creativity and style.
  5. The edgy and intelligent rhythms that David maintained, in addition to his artistic and architectural contributions to the band, formed the scaffolding that all of the other elements relied on.
  6. These five men consistently interlocked in live performances, recreating their studio sound with near perfection, often coming across better live than on vinyl.

Musical excellence and talent? Yeah, they’ve got that.

Third criteria: “…had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll…” I do think this can be a tricky one to measure, especially for the layman (namely ME) who doesn’t have a bunch of statistics to lean on (shocking, I know). But with all that I’ve read, I DO know that The Cars qualify in these ways:

EVOLUTION: The Cars are widely credited with a) infusing new sound into a stagnant roster of late seventies music — a fancy way of saying that no one sounded like they did; b) bridging the gap between traditional rock-and-roll and pop music; and c) paving the road for a whole new genre of music: New Wave. [Side note here: One afternoon my 17 year-old son, who is heavily into dubstep, was turning his nose up at my Cars music, and I sternly told him that he should send Greg Hawkes a thank you card for all that he did in pioneering the use of synthesizers and electronics in the music world! Of course, my son didn’t appreciate that very much. Haha!] They were also on the cutting edge of music video production and promotion.

DEVELOPMENT: Additionally, ALL of the members of the band have worked on numerous projects outside of The Cars, supporting and growing other artists in a wide variety of genres and through many methods (production, promotion, writing, background vocals, session instrumentation, etc.), not to mention their own solo work.

PRESERVATION: Further, music by The Cars shows up just about everywhere: in movies, children’s programs, commercials, and in 2016 as a constant presence in a new CBS television series called BrainDead. Their sound is as addictive, influential, and necessary to today’s culture as it ever was.

I know I painted with some broad strokes there — just trying to keep it simple when I could go on and on and ON… but that’s my case for eligibility and I’m standing firm on it.

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So how have The Cars done so far? They were nominated for the first time in 2015 (for induction in 2016), finished third in the fan poll (less than a tenth of a percentage point behind second place) and failed to get inducted. There was some amount of controversy surrounding the voting process. Under poor management by the Rock Hall, the poll appeared to have been hacked allowing computer ‘bots’ to submit millions of votes unchecked. Though no one was accused outright, a shadow was cast on the five bands that benefited from the suspected activity (including The Cars) and the reputation of the RRHOF Fan Poll took a major blow.

The Cars made the nomination ballot again in 2016 (for induction in 2017), and again, questionable management and murky communication by the RRHOF threw the whole fan poll into chaos. This time the Rock Hall apparently held back a slew of votes while they were verifying the integrity of those votes, and then dumped them all into the poll in one day. This made the overall totals for a bunch of the nominees go crazy and changed the order of the leaders. While no band was knocked out of the top five, The Cars were the only ones negatively affected, dropping from #3 to #5 in the rankings. They were not chosen for induction. Which brings us to where we are today…

The question I can’t help but ask now is: how much do The Cars themselves really want it? The fan poll voting was open from October 18 through December 15, 2016. The official Cars’ Twitter and Facebook pages were largely silent, doing almost nothing to encourage the fans to vote. Even “The Cars Nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum” Facebook page (which is run by Les Steinberg, Elliot Easton’s brother, but not officially endorsed by The Cars) stopped promoting daily activity in the fan poll ten days before the voting closed. Is this indicative of the band members’ desire to get into the Rock Hall?

In 2011 Ric Ocasek was asked by Stephen Colbert, “Why aren’t you guys in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” and Ric answered, “You know I really don’t know. I don’t know if I want to be in it.” (The Colbert Report) When the 2015 ballot was announced David Robinson said, “It is what it is, but actually I don’t pay any attention to that whatsoever. It isn’t anything we’ve strived for, let’s put it that way.” (The Boston Globe); and Elliot indicates in this 2014 RockSolid interview excerpt below that he’s not losing any sleep over whether The Cars are in the Rock Hall.

And all of those votes for The Cars in the fan poll this year? With little encouragement coming from the band’s official pages, the “Fanorama” stepped up and led a grassroots campaign that held The Cars solidly in the top 5 (in spite of the RRHOF’s voting mess). Twitter pages like @Night_Spots, @Tracey2063, and @JWINZombieGirl, along with Facebook fan groups like “The Cars” and “Benjamin Orr Remembered,” all contributed DAILY reminders and links to vote, which were shared and retweeted time and again, reminding people to make their voice heard. I am so proud of our dedicated fan base — how we love our boys!

So if it’s no big deal to them, why should I care one way or the other? Here are MY reasons I want The Cars inducted (in no particular order):

  1. They are deserving of it (see paragraphs above) and I want their contribution to rock 14993335_593020314240592_8536782637626328485_nand roll history to be acknowledged and recognized by their peers.
  2. I want Benjamin’s memory brought into the spotlight and honored all over the world.
  3. I love them! Their music moves me in every mood and brings me joy daily.
  4. I want an excuse to see the four remaining members together on stage again.
  5. I want to be able to say “BOOYAH!” to those naysayers that look down on my love for The Cars.

My final thoughts? I’m disappointed but not devastated. They have proven their relevance over the years, influenced countless bands that came after them, and wrote a soundtrack for my life that will never change. Whether they ever get into the RRHOF or not, The Cars will always be number one with me!

[All Cars graphics courtesy of @Night_Spots; image of the RRHOF ballot from Twitter]

Touch and Go (oh oh oh!)

There are a few songs in The Cars’ collection that, when I first heard them, I gave them a decided ‘thumbs down.’ During my early explorations of the Panorama album, I can clearly remember sitting in the kitchen and saying to my husband, “This song is just so hokey, with its ‘doong da da doong da da doong’ cowboy rhythm. Sounds like a weird western thing going on.”

Can you imagine?

No surprise that now I listen to it constantly and consider it one of the high points among (ten) high points on Panorama (which is now my favorite record!). Not sure exactly what changed my mind but I think it was Elliot and that hot solo. More about that in a minute… Let’s start with some basic facts. Released as a single on August 25, 1980, “Touch and Go” is the second track on that album, the first of three sent out, and the only song to chart from Panorama, reaching #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was written by Ric Ocasek and produced by Roy Thomas Baker. “Down Boys” was on the flip side.

One of the things you immediately notice in the song is the complexity of the tempo during the verses, and then the change up when they move to the bridge and chorus. In my highly technical mind (ha!) I think to myself, “Wow, that sounds so tricky and awesome!” But people who understand the REAL way music works call it polymeter: using two different time signatures simultaneously. I learned about it from this educational blurb:

“‘Touch And Go’, a hit single by The Cars, has polymetric verses, with the drums and bass playing in 5/4, while the guitar, synthesizer, and vocals are in 4/4 (the choruses are entirely in 4/4).” — Guitar Alliance

touchandgogregcountMy mind, while sincerely nerdy and fact-based, is not super flexible, and concepts like this are somewhat slippery for me to get a grip on. The best way for me to grasp it was by watching Greg count the beat on his fingers during this performance on Fridays (aired September 19, 1980). Luckily no one’s going to test me on it, so I just took enough knowledge to increase my appreciation for the song (and my admiration of the band) and tucked it away; I encourage you to do the same.

The other notable thing about this song — and really, it’s the ultimate, BADASS, off.the.chain, “WTF did I just hear?” portion of this song — is Elliot’s guitar solo. This was decidedly the game changer for me, the element of this song that pulled me in initially and still won’t let me go.

As we know, Elliot has always been the master of crafting the perfect punch for the typical 15 to 30 seconds he might have to make his mark in a song, and his work here in “Touch and Go” just might be his best overall. I am blown away every time I hear it! For a full forty seconds he builds and layers, and takes me higher every step of the way, ending at the perfect peak before dropping me back into the soft lap of Ric’s vocals and Benjamin’s swaying bass. But did you know that this beautiful creation almost didn’t make it into the final recording?  Elliot tells the story himself in this audio clip from my all-time favorite EE interview:

[Pat at RockSolid has given me permission to make and publish that audio clip, but I highly encourage you to take the time to listen to the full 2-hour interview with Elliot; it is funny, poignant, and extremely insightful. You can download it and take it with you on your morning commute, during a long run, or while you’re doing chores around the house. You won’t regret it!]

As to the lyrics for “Touch and Go,” Ric is quoted as giving a rare interpretation of his own writing on page 60 of the book Frozen Fire, by Toby Goldstein: “This is one of those songs about people having a difficult relationship and not understanding why they’re having problems, but they put up with the uncertainty anyway.” Makes sense to me; more so than my 11 year-old son’s take on it: “Touch and go. That’s the same as hit-and-run, right?” Hm, I actually think I could buy into that explanation, too…

The icing on this musical cake is, of course, Benjamin. I cannot resist that wonderful bass sound, alternately rollicking and gentle, pulling me through the song. I love the live footage where I get to study Benjamin’s hands making it happen.

Though “Touch and Go” was released almost a year before MTV successfully launched video music television in the United States, The Cars were, as always, thebouncerwhalomparkin with the pioneers of technology and new music frontiers. They teamed up with Gerald (Jerry) Casale of Devo to produce a ‘short band film’ (sometimes called a ‘pop clip’) to go with the song — not a common practice among artists at the time but growing in popularity. The second verse of the song was omitted, shortening it up a bit.  The official video was filmed at historic Whalom Park in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1980. The park closed its doors on September 4, 2000, but you can still see two of its popular rides in the video: the Whalom Park Carousel and The Bouncer (pictured).

I love the opening shot of the hands putting the picture disc on the turntable… I don’t know why, but that just is SO cool to me. I also love the parts where Ric is singing in the near-dark and the boys emerge one by one, slowly gliding through our field of vision. And Elliot spinning on The Bouncer with his guitar — could he be any more badass? Even without the special effects and high tech equipment that are available for today’s music video productions, this cutting-edge gem delivers some great visual tidbits.

Here are a few more things about this song that maybe you hadn’t heard yet:

  1. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon mentioned “Touch and Go” specifically in the last interview of his life. Check it out  here. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, feel free to skip ahead; the relevant discussion starts at 1:41:00 and lasts about one minute.
  2. The song did better globally: it peaked at #2 on the French Singles Chart and #16 in Canada.
  3. “Touch and Go” has been compared musically to “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police, and “You Got Lucky” by Tom Petty, both released after Panorama, and both possibly influenced by The Cars.
  4. Whalom Park’s ride, The Bouncer, had a strong reputation for making people vomit… Wonder if any of the guys were queasy after shooting the video?
  5. The filming of “Touch and Go” was  possibly the second music video The Cars made. The first might have been the fun and funny spy video they filmed for the song “Panorama,” which was also directed by Gerald Casale, along with co-director Chuck Statler (known as the ‘godfather of the music video’). I can’t find a production date for “Panorama” so I can’t say with certainty which came first, but it is listed first on Gerald Casale’s videography, which I’m assuming is chronological.

Here’s the link to the official music video. I also posted the lyrics here if you want to sing along (skipping that second verse, of course). Enjoy!

Cars + Books = My Happy Place

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I am a book freak (along with my other little obsessions) and of course I love The Cars, so imagine my giddiness when those two worlds collided and I found myself with a (near) complete collection of written-and-bound material on my boys!

I do qualify my statement by saying ‘near’ complete, because I know that Ric has some other printed material out there; poetry and what not. I confess I’m not really looking for those so much — unless, of course, I happen to come across the little pamphlet that Ric hand-made and would leave lying around in bookstores back in the 1970s… Now THAT would be a treasure, indeed.

In the meantime, I’ve very happy with my little stash. They’ve been great sources of photos, quotes and information about this wonderful band. Here’s a short description of each (hoping to eventually write reviews of all of them). Clockwise from the top left:

Robus Books: The Carswritten by Stacy Leigh, photography by Philip Kamin; published by Robus Books, 1985. (ISBN: 0-88188-364-6) First one pictured, but last one I bought. I wasn’t aware of this book until my Cars buddy, Timothy, pointed it out to me and then (of course) I went on a relentless search to find it. It’s an elusive one, but I was able to pick up my not-entirely-pristine-but-pretty-close copy off of Amazon for about $15. A steal!

The Cars, written by Peter Goddard, photography by Philip Kamin; published by McGraw-Hill, 1986. (ISBN: 0-07-033498-6) Another hard-to-afford book, but I managed to win it on ebay for just under $50. SO worth it! Nice large format and beautiful photographs.

Super Groups, written by Cynthia Dagnal; published by Tempo Books, 1981. (ISBN: 0-448-17228-3) This book covers several bands and contains a significant chapter on The Cars. You can generally find it on Amazon on the cheap. Lots of great coverage considering the band was only 3 years old at the time.

Lyrics and Prose, written by Ric Ocasek; published by Blue Rider Press, 2012. (ISBN: 978-0-399-16370-8) Huge collection of… well… lyrics and prose. LOL Great reference book and fun to see some of Ric’s handwritten pages. Picked this up on Amazon, too.

Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars, written by Toby Goldstein, photography by Ebet Roberts; published by Contemporary Books, Inc., 1985. (ISBN: 0-8092-5257-0) I wrote an in-depth review of this book already, not knowing it would inspire one of the biggest sweetie pies in the world to send me a copy! My dear sister-in-the-Cars, Leigh, ‘shocked me into sense’ by giving me this book as a gift, and I am forever grateful. Not only do I enjoy the book, but her generosity at a time when we hardly knew each other just floored me. The Fanorama never ceases to amaze me.

As difficult as it can be to purchase some of these, there is hope of getting your hands on them… I was able to check several of them out through the inter-library loan system (I LOVE my local library!) before I bought them. Although I guess that’s no guarantee you’ll get to read them: one friend of mine checked out Frozen Fire only to find that all of the pages about Benjamin were torn out. Go figure!

Thanks again, Leigh, for providing that final piece, and to Timothy for alerting me to the existence of the white Robus book!

The Swing of Things, Part 2: From the Cap’n to The Cars

The Swing of Things, Part 2: From the Cap’n to The Cars

This isn’t going to be your usual summary.

This transition period in Cars’ history has been documented many times in books, interviews and magazine articles, and I’m not planning to rehash all of the fine details here. I’m going to attempt to fill in some of the holes (though many remain) and answer a few of the questions surrounding the shift from an “almost famous band” to one with skyrocketing success.

In Part 1 of my narration I left off when I got to the autumn of 1976, with the members of Cap’n Swing (Ric Ocasek on rhythm and vocals, Benjamin Orr on vocals, possibly Glenn Evans on drums, Todd Roberto on bass, and possibly Danny Schiftlin on keys) returning home from their big audition in New York. They were ready to revamp Cap’n Swing with a tighter, more defined look and sound, in line with the feedback they had received from their trip . This process would involve several crucial changes, and as the leader of the group, it was up to Ric to make some tough decisions.

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Ric and Benjamin shared the lead vocal responsibilities, and I understand that sometimes Benjamin played a variety of percussion-type instruments when he was not singing, like tambourines, cowbells, and other bits. For the most part, though, Benjamin was just there with a microphone in his hand, or he’d “stand there with his hands in his pockets — nothing dynamic.”¹

While many listeners could have been perfectly satisfied with that role for Benjamin, famed Boston deejay Maxanne Sartori didn’t agree. She said, “I told Ben he’s got to have something in his hands. He used to be a lead singer without any instrument. And he’s probably the most photogenic of anyone in the band, but he didn’t look comfortable on the stage at that time. He just looked foolish standing out there with nothing to do with his hands and nothing to do with his feet.” After a conversation with Ric she went on to suggest that Benjamin take over on bass guitar.² Inevitably, that meant that Todd Roberto was out.

Since writing Part 1 of this history I have learned that Todd Roberto has been playing bass for Vista Hill for the last several years. You can learn about that band and take a listen by clicking here.

Glenn Evans, the drummer, left Cap’n Swing of his own choice, as he shared in a public facebook post: “After losing my shirt in this band and waiting about a year for the pending recording contract, I left Cap’n Swing. Everything was too ambiguous for me at the time and I was not making the best decisions. My last gig with the band was three nights on Nantucket, very late on my van payments, all the band’s equipment in my truck as I come off the ferry in Hyannis with Elliot Steinberg (Easton) in the passenger seat and fifteen dollars in my pocket for three nights’ work.”

I am not sure if Glenn was still with the band when they auditioned in New York, but I do know that he played the drums on many of the demos recorded by Cap’n Swing, including ones that received a great deal of airplay on the radio and propelled the band into Boston popularity. I believe Glenn continues to drum, sing and produce today. You can check out his website here.

Glenn was replaced by Kevin Robichaud. And of course we know that sometime during those last months of 1976 Kevin was then replaced with David Robinson. Fortunately for Ric, this wasn’t just a changing of the drummer. David brought not only his amazing talent for percussion, but also his eye for style, his ability to streamline the look of the band, his creativity in album art and set design — and a new name for the band: The Cars.

And usually the next line in retellings of the band’s history says something like, “and Greg Hawkes rejoined the band and The Cars were formed.” They use ‘rejoined’ because Greg used to play with Ric and Benjamin back in oh-about-1974ish when they were all in a band together called Richard and The Rabbits, and Greg had also done some demo work for them as well.  Now here is where things went off on a new track for me.

While I was researching the info on Cap’n Swing at the end of August, I came across this quote from Greg in Philip Kamin and Peter Goddard’s book, The Cars (p.68): “They [Ric and Ben] had been together for three or four shows as The Cars before I joined. In fact, I heard them as The Cars sometime in January 1977.” Uh… come again? I had never heard this before; that there was a time period when The Cars did *not* include Greg. I was half convinced it had to be a mistake in the book. I started keeping my eyes out for any other source that could dispute or verify this little nugget.

dannylouis-2Barely a month later I got another ‘Cars history’ shock. A photo surfaced on ebay (seen here, left) which rocked my world. This picture, which was taken by Duana Lemay, was listed as a vintage original promo group photo of The Cars from 1976 . My jaw dropped. Clearly, that is NOT Greg on the right, and of course it confirmed what I had been chewing on about the band’s timeline of members. So who the heck was this guy??? (Incidentally, the photo would go on to sell for just over $70.)

Well, certainly  I wasn’t the only one who was thrown off by it, and while I asked around, trying to puzzle it out, my very intelligent friend, @Night_Spots, did a very intelligent thing and straight-up asked Elliot Easton. Duh! Brilliant! So here’s what he found out.

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Oh, Danny Louis! Of course! Mystery solved, right? Hahaha. C’mon. You know it’s not that easy for me. So many questions! Is Danny Louis one and the same with the elusive Danny Schiftlin? Or were there two Danny piano players? Had Ric already decided he wanted Greg, and Danny Louis was filling in until Greg finished with Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture? Or did Ric decide to add Greg in after the band was underway?

Okay, okay. In the overall scheme of things I guess it doesn’t really matter. Danny Louis has been rocking for over a decade with Gov’t Mule and gone on to terrific success of his own as a highly talented multi-instrumentalist. (See what he’s been up to by clicking here.) And of course we know that Greg was a perfect fit for The Cars. Still, I wonder. I like to have all the little slots on my chart filled in (no surprise), and these questions are leaving some uncertainties in my path. Can’t *quite* close the book on this chapter…

Greg or no Greg, The Cars’ official debut performance was on December 31, 1976, at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. What I wouldn’t give to have seen that show!

You know, as I shuffle through all of this research and spend time pondering those winter months of 1976, I can’t help but tingle at the thrill of these guys being on the cusp of their wild success; a rise so quick and so high that it would leave them all feeling a bit stunned (at least for a little while). Such exciting times! Still striving, still tweaking; all five of these talented men doing what they loved. The hours spent in Ric’s basement falling into place with each other, refining, learning; maybe discussing the ‘what ifs’, getting their hopes up one more time but not too high… laughing and working and playing and cementing themselves together into what many of us consider to be one of the greatest bands of all time: The Cars.

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¹Goldstein, Toby. Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars. Chicago:Contemporary Books. 1985. p. 17

²Kamin, Philip. The Cars. New York: McGraw Hill. 1986. p. 16