Do you remember that cool story Barry Marshall told us about hearing David Robinson play the Syndrums live for the first time, back in 1977? Well, I had the pleasure of talking with the gentleman who worked with David on integrating that technology, so let’s pause our Boston Boys series and take a closer look at that.
Andy Bergsten and his company, Bergsten Music Inc., has been providing professional event production services (musical instruments, sound equipment, stage lighting, etc.) to musicians and venues for over 40 years. Their list of clients reads like the ‘who’s who’ of the music industry, beginning with Van Morrison and continuing on with Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Nirvana, The Cars , Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Elton John… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
In fact, here’s an interesting tidbit in his history: Andy was the one who literally pulled the plug on the 1994 Green Day show when the free concert escalated into a riot. Not familiar with that fiasco? Check this out:
Not only was Andy a natural salesman, he was (and is!) a musician himself. Back in the mid 70s he was the bass player for Munson & Valentine, a folk-duo-turned-folk-rock band that was getting radio play with their single, “Blow On By.” Andy went on to play with neoswing legends Bellevue Cadillac, earning 11 Grammy nominations and touring the world in the sixteen years he was with them. He currently jams with Border Road , a South Shore band that includes Chuck McDermott (Wheatstraw). On occasion, he also plays bass and is the musical director for Denny Dias (Steely Dan) and friends.
“Blow On By” by Munson & Valentine
Andy at The Paradise with Syndrum, 1978
Andy on the left with Bellevue Cadillac
And back in 1977, he put his fingerprints on The Cars’ iconic debut album. Fortunately for us, Andy has spent time during the pandemic quarantine writing out some of the more memorable experiences of his career, so we get to read the details of his collaboration with David Robinson in his own words!
The Syndrum was an electronic drum invented by studio musician Joe Pollard in 1976. Joe was a friend of a legendary sound engineer Stuart “Dinky” Dawson who worked with artists like The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and many more. My wife, Margaret, took a job working in the office of Dawson Sound around 1974 and at the time I was going to Berklee College of Music. In late 1976, Joe Pollard was looking for a New England sales rep to handle sales of his drums so he turned to Dinky. Well, Dinky turned to me as I was just about to graduate from Berklee, and so began the adventure.
I took it upon myself and began marketing it like I did my bands over the years. I knew every music store in New England from gigging so I began to visit the stores and try to sell them a very expensive item that was way over their budget; boy, was I naïve! Then I approached some of the well-known drummers in New England and got a quick lesson on endorsements… they all wanted a set for free.
Around this time, I got a call from the office that David Robinson of The Cars was very interested in the drums. He was very aware of the tom-tom sound that they made as it was all over the airwaves, and he was eager to find out what else they could do. I didn’t know The Cars , but did know of the band Cap’n Swing, who played venues that I was playing. I had a single out which was playing on Boston stations with the band Munson & Valentine, and I think David and I looked at each other as peers who were experienced skilled musicians.
At the time, because of a stall in production, I had the only set in New England that was available for demonstrations and studio work. I called David and set up a time where I could demo the drums. Shortly after that call I went into Boston to meet David at his apartment on Commonwealth Ave that I believe he shared with Elliot Easton, The Cars’ guitarist. David and I drove together in my van to a rehearsal room in Allston where I set up the Syndrums and showed him the multiple sounds the drums could make. I was the only rep for Syndrum that was a professional musician, and artists appreciated that I could suggest spots in their tunes that Syndrum sounds would work. David caught on quickly and immediately saw the wide potential for them, kinda like a kid in a candy store. It was a very relaxed and friendly time.
After the demo we went back to his apartment where Elliot was and hung out for a bit. The Cars had received some advance money to do their first album and David not only bought a set from me, but ordered a second set of four that came through Wurlitzer Music in Boston. The next time I saw him was at the Rex ballroom where I brought supplies for the drums to him. I hung in the Green Room with them until they went on.
The crowd was into the fresh sound of the Cars, as it was the beginning of the “new wave” of music and a refreshing change from disco. As I remember from the Rex show, David used the descending tom-tom sound on a lot of stuff — the sound like in “My Best Friend’s Girl.” He also used some of the more synth sounds, like the rising “space effect” using 2 oscillators.
Looking back at what David did with the Syndrums, I always felt that he used them more creatively than most, and he was the only artist that used eight Syndrums.
At the time, you could hear the tom-tom sound in songs like “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “McArthur Park,” and many disco tunes. Many people came to think that the tom-tom sound was the only sound they made. The Syndrum got nicknamed the “disco drum,” and as disco faded during the early ‘80s, so did the Syndrum. Sadly, the 10,000 plus sounds the drum could make never got used the way they could have. Many years later there was a resurgence and interest in them, but over time other electronic drums hit the market and offered a greater variety of usable sounds.
For me, the Syndrums were my introduction to a new world where people rented musical instruments, and I began getting requests for other items. I always felt that I needed to say yes [to inquiries], so when requests came in I found a way to get what was needed by borrowing from other musicians or just going out and buying things used out of the want ads. It was basic music industry things like Fender amps, drum kits and eventually a keyboard or two. The Syndrum was by far the most unique item I had, but they opened the door.
During the next few years I gained a reputation for having good equipment and being on time so venues began to come to me for their music instruments needs. The backline industry was in its infancy and though I wasn’t on the ground floor, I was at least on the first floor. In 1978, I was trying to sell an electronic drum set to stores which was way above their budget, $1500 at the time. I hit all the music stores that I knew from gigging without any luck. The sale to David was my first sale and I look at it as the beginning of a company that, up until the Covid issue, was supplying instruments and sound to over 2000 shows a year. Do the math on that!
~ Andy Bergsten
Shortly after working together on David’s new gear, Andy and David were interviewed for this article that ran in The Boston Phoenix on May 16, 1978. What a boon that Andy still had a copy of it for us to read!
I’m always fascinated with the behind-the-scenes details of Cars history, and I love that Andy was able to give us some insight into what David was doing, tucked away at the back of the stage. Thank you so much, Andy!
One of The Cars’ songs that has such an unforgettable Syndrum sound in my ears is “Good Times Roll.” You can’t go wrong with that incredible intro! It is the perfect opener for the album, and for those early live shows, too. Enjoy!
At long last, here is the next installment of my Boston Boys series. Let me just warn you, this one is a bit of a doozy.
We left Part 1 having learned that Barry Marshall had established a working relationship with Elliot Easton as a session musician, and with a hint about another recording job Barry pulled Elliot in on. That project was the album First World Blues (FWB) by The Montgomerys.
At the time I initially got in touch with Barry, FWB had just been released. Having learned that Elliot played on ten of the twelve tracks, I was eager to hear it and promote it. I immediately fell in love with the record and, wanting to go deeper, I connected with Peter Montgomery, the band’s founder, lead vocalist, and songwriter. When I offered to do a write-up about his project, I had no idea of the rabbit hole it would take us down… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a step.
Raised in Scituate, Peter Montgomery was just a kid when Barry was establishing himself in the Boston music scene. Peter remembered, “We have to rewind back to when I was 12 years old because my mother hung around Barry. My father was a dentist and we lived in this huge mansion but it was always filled with hippies… my mom was like this hippy guru, and Barry was one of those hippies. He was kind of a radical. He and my mother fought the Scituate police on a lot of issues, and they were both active in the school and learning disabilities, and stuff like that. That’s why they were friends even though they had this huge age difference.”
Peter openly admits that he was – and is – a bit of a handful. Dyslexia, struggles with ADD, and a general lack of maturity dictated his early years, but his irreverent sense of humor carried him through a lot. His boyish good looks and roguish charm didn’t hurt, either.
“Barry was a musician and he played in one of the first bands that I knew of, and so I kind of idolized him. He taught me my first chords on the guitar.” Peter confessed that he was a terrible student: his timing was always off, his memory was awful, and he couldn’t ever seem to learn an entire song. But he was determined to play and spent countless hours practicing (though with little progress). “Barry was a gentle soul, so he didn’t do an impatient thing or get frustrated. He would teach me songs I already knew on the radio, like The Beatles and Neil Young and stuff like that. As long as I’d get a little bit of the song it would be enough for me to keep practicing.”
As a teen, Peter found songwriting to be an outlet, a way to process his emotional highs and lows. “My songwriting was bad and childish when I was young. I thought words didn’t matter enough to take all that seriously when it came to writing catchy songs!” he reflected. Though he feels like his early efforts really sucked, he would eventually steer his talent into a style of expression that combined the best of his personality with cathartic output. In other words, smart-ass songs that gave him a better handle on life.
Peter was 25 years old when he pulled together his first band. “When I first started The Irresponsibles in 1985 it was with this other guy named Domenic Laudani. Even though he had only just learned to play guitar, he had this instant ability to write songs, like way better than me. I had to do a lot of catch-up. Frankly, I think it was him that, in my mind, kind of spurred me on to be a better songwriter.” Rounding out the group were Chris Capen on drums and Jim Mather on bass.
Over the next ten years, The Irresponsibles ventured out of Scituate and began playing all around the greater Boston area and into New York, gathering a larger and larger following as they went. It was kind of a slow build. The Irresponsibles’ sound was a little ahead of its time… or a little behind the times, depending on how you looked at it. While the world was largely mimicking Flock of Seagulls hairdos or skittering left and right to MC Hammer, Peter was writing songs that tipped a hat to those Beatles tunes he learned as a kid, laced with his own wry sense of humor and offbeat style. By the early 90s, the musical trend had shifted to welcome his pop-rock stylings, and things were starting to pick up.
The band dug into their own pockets to release their first album, Aggravator, in 1992. Peter is not particularly proud of it; it was an effort that started in 1985 and limped its way through growing pains and personnel changes. “It’s a terrible album,” he groaned. “I mean, you can really hear the struggle.” By the time it was in their hands, the band lineup had settled into Peter on lead vocals and rhythm guitar (which he felt he could finally manage), Dave Thomas on lead guitar, Mark Nigro on bass, and Dan Rudack on drums.
Half the songs on the record were produced by Barry Marshall, and half were produced by the late John Kalishes. Kalishes was best known in Boston as the hard-rocking lead guitarist in the band Susan. He was later a fixture at The Bell Buoy in Scituate, where Peter would meet him and ultimately bring him on board to work with The Irresponsibles.
Life was getting busy for Peter. The band’s manager, John Lay (Squeeze, Robyn Hitchcock), arranged for the group to contribute five songs to a fifteen-song compilation CD called Snacks and Prizes, with Peter producing alongside Barry Marshall. Lay also pushed to book gigs in the more mainstream venues in and around Boston. The band released their second album, Big Orange, with production duties once again divided between Barry and Kalishes. They were getting ink in the Boston papers and their shows were packed; people were really taking notice of this impertinent and catchy band.
During the mid-90s, Peter’s home was the epicenter of an active party scene. “I lived at this unbelievable place called The Glades, which was John Quincy Adams’ descendants’ summer housing, and it was on this beautiful peninsula of land surrounded by ocean. Everybody wanted to hang out where I lived,” he explained. His spacious apartment offered plenty of room for gathering, as well as gorgeous views and access to the beach. There were always girlfriends, rotating roommates, and a variety of buddies coming and going.
John Kalishes showed up quite a bit, accompanied by his good friend, Benjamin Orr. The two loved to fish and would hang out on the shore with their poles. They would bring their catch up to the apartment and cook it up for everyone, often staying and partying into the evening.
Of course, Peter knew who Ben was; he remembered The Cars from back in the late 70s. “For a whole entire summer they played at this small club in Scituate Harbor where I grew up, at The Bell Buoy. Everybody used to go to see them for like $2.00 before ‘Just What I Needed’ broke. And they would play at house parties. I think they even rented a house in Scituate at one time. They were all around.” While The Cars were making a name for themselves, Peter was still noodling with those half-song riffs. “I was 18, and I was even immature for 18, so I hadn’t quite gotten my shit together as far as rock-and-roll or anything,” he laughed.
And now, years later, here was Ben bustling about in Peter’s kitchen. But when I asked Peter for more specific details about Ben being at the house in 1995, he was at a bit of a loss. “I didn’t pay any attention to Ben. It was kind of like hero worship in reverse… or something. I didn’t want him to think that I thought he was awesome, so I stayed away from him.” With audible remorse, he lamented, “I don’t know what it was, but I was kind of a dick to him… It’s bizarre. And I regret the hell out it.”
I encouraged him to elaborate. He said, “I did something wicked creepy, and I don’t know why. That guy could’ve been a really good friend of mine. He told me Big Orange was great. It’s not like I hated him or anything. I just kind of ignored him. I acted like he was no big deal.
“I think the first time I was ever with him – before he went to The Glades or anything – it was me, Kalishes, and Ben at this local favorite pub called Jamie’s Pub. It was just the three of us sitting at a table and Kalishes went to the bathroom and there was a silence, and that’s when Ben goes, ‘I really like your album, Big Orange.’ And I go, ‘Wow, thanks a lot. That means a lot, coming from you.’ And then we both went quiet, and Kalishes came back and we ate lunch,” Peter chuckled at the awkward memory.
His tone changed as he continued his story. “So then later on, Ben and Kalishes come to The Glades a lot to go fishing and hang out in my apartment and cook fish, and that’s where the story comes in where Ben stepped on the cat [from Peter’s girlfriend at the time; see the image to the right]. I don’t remember any of that because I didn’t really try to ingratiate myself, I didn’t hang out with Kalishes and Ben, which… I wish I did! I mean, I could have been great friends with that guy, and I just didn’t seize that opportunity, which is a shame,” Peter said, exasperated with himself.
“And it gets worse because,” he went on haltingly, “I think through Kalishes, I ended up opening up for them [Ben’s ORR band] a couple times, and one particular time… I’m sure it was the last time… it was at some dinner theater, down Cape Cod? And before we started our show, just for the heck of it I just kind of mockingly… I started playing ‘Just What I Needed.’ And Ben pulled the plug on us, and he was wicked pissed off.”
Several others remember that night, too. On the happy side, Ben was proudly showing off his infant son. With his blonde hair and his sleeveless shirt, “he looked like a proud Nordic Viking displaying the fruit of his loins!” Peter laughed. “He was carrying his kid up high, just wandering around the room.”
Behind the scenes it was a different story. Tensions were running high because The Irresponsibles were being treated poorly by the sound crew — “like piss,” one band member said. They were confined to a little sliver of the stage, having been required to set up in front of Ben’s gear. They weren’t allowed to use the ORR equipment, either, so the drummer was forced to squeeze his kit on sideways. Their promised soundcheck never happened because the stage hands took forever in trying to figure out ORR’s fog machine. They were all wondering why they were even asked to play? They felt very unwelcome, and they were all mad.
On top of all that, the club was packed with familiar faces, adding to Peter’s heightened emotions. Unfortunately, he chose a retaliatory response.
Peter had a nasty back-and-forth with the crew, and then, yes, he mocked “Just What I Needed.” As The Irresponsibles launched into their set, Peter vaguely remembers seeing Ben talking to the sound guys at the back of the house. The band had only gone through maybe four songs when somebody came to the side of the stage and told Peter they were all done. That’s when he found out Ben was so angry, though Ben didn’t say a word.
In the moment, the band was unruffled; there was a bit of a mutual ‘fuck you’ vibe going around. Most of the crowd assumed they were just a short opener, while others realized what had taken place. Peter didn’t care. In fact, he stayed at the club and partied with his friends for most of Ben’s set. He and Ben didn’t speak.
Ben never came back to The Glades after that gig.
Looking back, trying to analyze his own actions, Peter can’t excuse what he did, mocking Ben. He was angry, sure, but he sees now how foolish he was. With his cavalier attitude and an immature sense of humor, he had a bit of a habit of being mindlessly inappropriate, insensitive even, and had gotten himself into trouble more than once. In this case, it cost him what could have been a great relationship with Ben.
Peter paused for a long moment. “It’s very, very, very, very, very regrettable for me.” The sorrow in his voice was sincere as he said, “Yep, I know… I guess I’m kind of a prick… it was completely the wrong thing to do. The big fucking blunder of a lifetime.”
At the time, though, he charged on. It finally looked like The Irresponsibles were going to snag the brass ring when they won Musician Magazine’s 1996 Best Unsigned Band competition from a pool of 3,000 entrants. They were given thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and were featured in Musician Magazine and Billboard, but even better than all that, one of the judges – and one of Peter’s guitar heroes – wanted to work with The Irresponsibles!
Adrian Belew is probably best known for the nearly 30 years he spent as a guitarist and frontman of the progressive rock group King Crimson. He has also racked up an impressive resume as a solo artist, session player, touring musician, guitar designer, and mobile app creator. In 1996, he was a hot producer with his own private label, having handled a little-known Christian band, Jars of Clay, whom he launched into the mainstream with their crossover hit single, “Flood.” And now Adrian was looking at Peter’s band, and Peter was jacked.
The Irresponsibles were signed to Belew’s label, with a specific goal in mind: to get the band sold to a bigger fish. In 1997, Belew produced a seven-song EP called Backwards Boy, which was intended to be a marketing tool to entice another label. When they didn’t get any bites, Belew agreed to record additional songs and repackage Backwards Boy as a full-length album called When Pigs Fly.
Though the effort generated some positive attention, it ultimately stalled in terms of propelling The Irresponsibles to the next level of exposure. It was disappointing all the way around, but Belew believed in the band and, in 1999, tried one more avenue. Peter recalls, “I thought I’d never hear from him again, but he figured we could have kind of one more shot if we toured with him. So, to his credit, he invited us on a really extensive 2-month tour of the US, and it was a blast. That was one of the best times of my life.”
Through the summer of 1999 The Irresponsibles performed an unplugged set in front of Belew’s acoustic Salad Days tour, playing in states like California, Colorado, New York, and Tennessee. “It was great, but again, nothing really happened for us as far as getting bigger. It was lucrative; we sold a ton of CDs, we made money, but nothing in the way of our future prospects occurred,” Peter sighed. “So when I got home I ended up meeting the girl that I had kids with, and we all [The Irresponsibles] just kind of fell apart.”
[I put together a playlist of most of The Irresponsibles’ music I could find on YouTube. There are so many addictive songs there! Some of my favorites are “Aggravator,” “Self-Sabotage,” “Character Assassination,” and “Top of the World.” Oh, and “Lobster Boy” is a hoot. I hope you’ll do some exploring of your own here:]
The band put out one final full album in 2001, Quality of Life, and started another one, but retreat was necessary. Still, Peter couldn’t let go of music. After a couple of years, the time was right to try something new. He explained, “I was still writing songs and I thought to myself, ‘I’m just going to gather up every best musician I can find in Boston and just form somewhat of a super group,’ and that’s how The Montgomerys started.”
In his 40s at that time, this new project became more about having fun and expressing himself through his writing. “I’m always hopeful that something could happen, like getting a song in a movie, but I’m not out there trying to be Justin Bieber,” he laughed.
The first incarnation of The Montgomerys included Mike Levesque (David Bowie) on drums, Bob Melanson on bass, and Tony Savarino on guitar. They recorded two albums: Unnatural Selection around 2005, and Walkie Talkie in 2009. And then Peter took a detour. His family was falling apart, and he dove heavily into songwriting to cope. Four years later, the result was a deeply personal, heartbreakingly transparent, 16-track concept album called Baby Sunshine, released in 2017 under the name Pete Montgomery, detailing his relationship and breakup with the mother of his kids.
Like those guitar riff sessions from his younger days, it took Peter exhaustive practice until the harder life lessons finally gelled. He emerged from those dark days a little older and a little wiser. Two-thousand-eighteen found him gathering momentum again as he geared up for another Montgomerys album. Not quite subdued, but with an edge of thoughtfulness, he set off writing again, and the result would be one of my favorite albums, First World Blues, released January 1, 2020.
True to form, these new songs are dressed with self-deprecating humor and cheeky honesty. But now there seems to be a sharper intelligence behind his lyrics, a greater sense of purpose born from taking some hard knocks.
The Montgomerys’ personnel shifted a bit before getting into the studio. Mike Levesque remained on drums, and now bassist Mark Nigro, who had been with Peter in The Irresponsibles, came on board. Barry Marshall, having worked on almost all of Peter’s albums, was back in the producer’s chair.
“I’ve been with Barry since I was 12 years old. I strayed off to have Adrian produce us, and I strayed off to make one Montgomerys album without him, but you know, I feel guilty about it (laughing). My loyalty is to Barry.”
Barry brought another meaningful element to this album: his connection with Elliot Easton. And now we’re at the intersection where Peter’s story meshes with Barry’s article.
Peter was keen on the idea of inviting Elliot Easton to work on First World Blues. “Elliot was always my favorite guitar player. It’s just like everybody says: he puts a whole song in this small little part that he’s playing. He can go from one sound to another sound right in the context of one guitar solo. And he can change flavors of it, like he can go from country into heavy metal. He’s the most original guitar player I’ve ever heard, and so tasteful and colorful; there’s so much personality in those leads.”
Barry felt like FWB was a worthwhile project, and so he reached out to Elliot to make arrangements. As before, Elliot was happy to schedule in some studio time.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Elliot writing guitar parts as studio musician. I mean, his own style is so unique and recognizable, and as he’s expressed before in interviews, it’s HIS voice. Obviously, when someone looks to hire Elliot it’s because they want his talent and his style, but as an artist, how do you strike a balance between gaining that delicious Elliot-ness without compromising your own message?
Barry assured me that it was an easy, natural partnership. Elliot’s skill and short, punchy style stay intact, but Elliot is able to understand that it’s not about him. He is open and intuitive; he is able to catch the songwriter’s vision and communicate it through his guitar contributions. And his experience playing on so many different projects across a variety of genres gives him a huge palette to choose from.
“It’s a great experience working with him because he’s very, very quick, and he’s very, very good,” Barry said. “The great thing from a producer’s point of view… I feel like I have a feel for what he can do so that helps to make it easier, and he can read what I’m looking for, and Peter, too. I think he liked Peter’s songs, too, and he would throw out ideas [to enhance the songs].”
Peter agreed. “He has an innate ability to go, ‘Oh, I got something for that,’ and then there it is, which is amazing to me. I’m such a mediocre guitar player that I need to be a good songwriter, because after that, what do I got?” he laughed. “I have to be able to write the songs because I can’t fucking play guitar like Elliot Easton!”
So here’s how it worked. Barry and Peter sent a rough demo to Elliot before flying to LA for the first of four recording sessions. Peter remembers, “The first half of the bunch, I pre-sent him the songs and he actually charted them out. He gave me the signed charts afterwards, which was kind of a thrill, and eventually I’ll probably frame some of them. But I think it was a lot of work because the next time we went down there he said he would just come into the studio and wing it! (laughing)”
Once in the studio, they tackled each song, one at a time. They’d have a little powwow to discuss the heart of the song so that Elliot could catch the vibe and vision, and they’d kick around different possible sounds or maybe a reference to another song. And then Elliot would come back with a ‘how about this solo or that riff’ response. Sometimes Elliot would figure things out right off the top of his head, within five or ten minutes of hearing the song. On average, he could figure out the rhythm and solo parts for a song in about an hour or so, and they’d go ahead and get them recorded.
Barry explained, “One of the key things about doing this is that you certainly don’t want to micromanage it. You want to let him do what he does – that’s why we want him on the record! We’re giving a little bit of guidance, but for the most part, Elliot is coming up with [the guitar parts].”
“Generally we let him go with his amp sounds and he knows exactly what he’s doing and how to get so many different sounds, with the pedal board of course. He’s a great, great session player. He really is. He really knows what he’s doing. I mean, he’s a great player anyway, but he’s particularly a good session player.”
To illustrate the full scope of Elliot’s power, listen to “Why’d He Never Write You A Love Song.” Barry points out, “That’s an example of Elliot doing something that you might have heard him do in The Cars a little bit, but I think that’s slightly outside of his normal. It’s a little bit like he plays in ‘I’m Not The One.’ It’s very mellow but it’s so beautiful. To me, that almost makes the song, you know what I mean?”
Barry and Peter flew from Boston to Los Angeles three times and recorded a total of fourteen songs over four sessions (including some tracks for Barry’s forthcoming album with The Marshalls). The studio itself had beautiful grounds, and even a pool, but this wasn’t a holiday get-away. Everyone was there to work.
For Barry and Elliot, there was some reminiscing about the old days and some joking around; a keyword in a conversation might trigger a memory. They might stop for a quick coffee break by the pool and stretch their legs, but as professionals, both men were aware of the clock. Barry said, “He would take cigarette breaks of course, but he would work pretty straight, definitely.”
Peter remembered, “After about five or six hours he’d get tired, and he’d kind of want to wrap it up, which was understandable, because it must be kind of exhausting to just come up with that stuff. I mean, even him, he can’t just lay it down and it’s perfect. He’s got to get it perfect, so there’s quite a few takes over the song, which I appreciated.”
“I smoked a little bit with him just so I could smoke with a rock star. And then I was really careful not to piss him off once we got back inside because I can piss people off pretty easy, because I’m too much for people, and I think, untethered, I would be too much for him,” Peter laughed. “I’m like that cartoon of that little dog who wants to be friends with the big dog: ‘C’mon Ralph, hey Ralph, let’s go, Ralph! Hey Ralph!’ I wanna make some famous guy my best friend.”
It doesn’t escape Peter that his behavior with Elliot in 2019 is the polar opposite of how he treated Ben in 1995. He explained, “I believe that what I did to Ben was me trying to control that impulse and really, it was idol worship in a way. I love The Cars and I idolize that guy [Ben] and so I was trying to control that.”
He continued about Elliot, “While he’s trying to concentrate you definitely don’t want to have too much chatter or conversation, because he’ll get a little snappy, but if he does get snappy? It’s funny. He’s very witty, a very witty person, which I kind of like. And he’s very nice, too. You can tell he’s got a big heart. You know what? Someone would have to have a big heart to be able to play parts like he plays because that comes from somewhere.”
The results of this studio time are terrific. First World Blues is fast-moving pop-rock album, with a couple of whimsical ballads mixed in to keep it on the rails. The lyrics are sassy and straightforward, the messages go deeper than you’d expect, and Elliot’s guitar elements are perfectly suited for each of the ten tracks he plays on. Check out my write-up at Read~Rock~Review for my full two cents.
Where do we go from here?
You can order your copy of First World Blues directly from Barry Marshall by sending him an email at email@example.com. Also, be sure to join Peter’s Facebook group!
And guess what? Barry’s own album, The Marshall Plan, is slated to come out this fall, including those additional tracks he recorded with Elliot in LA! Hit him up with a friend request on Facebook to keep tabs on his musical projects.
As for the blog… stay tuned, we ain’t done yet! I’ve got few more bits of yarn to unravel from these Boston ties. A Part 3 is in the works, as well as a couple of little fun side trips. Exciting stuff ahead!
[All photos courtesy of Peter Montgomery, unless otherwise noted, and shared with permission. Thank you to everyone who contributed!]
The more I learn about the Boston rock-and-roll scene of the 1970s, the more I am struck with how entrenched and artistically incestuous the players were… and still are! They were in and out of each other’s bands, jammed in the clubs together, shared crash pads and drugs and women. They were all grabbing for that brass ring combo of self-expression and fan-following that meant success. In competition with each other but also in cahoots, many made it, many didn’t. And out of the chaos and the grime and the striving, a welding happened; the unbreakable bond of a brotherhood was forged by survival and experience, and they all felt loyalty to it.
With producer and multi-instrumentalist Barry Marshall, I stumbled across a loose thread of a memory and followed it down and around his unique path in Boston music history, where the friendships cemented in those raucous days would yo-yo throughout his career for the next 50 years.
It kind of started with this: Back in 1980 all five members of The Cars were in the studio to promote the Panorama album with Mark Parenteau on WBCN. Let’s zoom in on one part of the interview for a minute. At about the 16:35 mark, a guy calls in and identifies himself as Edgar (or, more accurately, “Ed-gah”). He makes his comments and asks his question, but during the call he is ‘outed’ by staff member Eddie Gorodetsky, who reveals that the caller is actually named Barry Marshall. David immediately jumps on board with the joke. I snipped that audio out and posted it by itself, if you want to take a listen.
Now fast-forward to a couple of months ago when our good friend Becky B was scouring the internet for photos of Ben. She came across these pictures from a record release party in 1979 for a Boston band called The Marshalls. See Ben and David? And guess who they were posted by? Yup, a guy named Barry Marshall – that name! She immediately recognized the possibility of the connection to the WBCN recording and confirmed that yes indeedy, this Barry is the very same one that called in on that interview forty years ago. Barry was floored when, prompted by Becky, he took a listen to the recording. “I honestly hadn’t thought about that since I did it,” he laughed.
Benjamin Orr at The Marshalls’ record release party, 1979. Courtesy of Barry Marshall, shared with permission.
David Robinson at The Marshalls’ record release party, 1979. Courtesy of Barry Marshall, shared with permission.
Thanks to Becky’s sleuthing, I was able to get in touch with Barry and chat with him about his relationship with The Cars. As it turns out, the bond of friendship between these Boston musicians started early and has remained relevant over all these years.
At the beginning of the 1970s, clubs in Boston were fairly boiling with talented and wild-eyed musicians who were ready to blow the lid off of the music scene. The roster of groundbreaking names is long and stunning (and heavily intertwined!), so for our purposes, I’ll just mention a few. Jonathan Richman and his Modern Lovers were on the scene, with David Robinson on drums. Simultaneously, there was a band called The Sidewinders that was fronted by singer Andy Paley. Andy Paley was friendly with The Modern Lovers, and also good buddies with our drummer and songwriter Barry Marshall, so through Andy, Barry met and became friends with David Robinson in about 1975-76ish. Whew! Did you follow that?
At the time, Barry lived in Scituate, a South Shore community located about an hour southeast of Boston proper. Many Boston bands made their way to the stage of a local club called The Bell Buoy. Barry remembers seeing Cap’n Swing play there a couple of times and he really liked them, taking note of their unique look and sound. “Ben didn’t play bass and was the main singer. I remember him in high boots, like a pirate! Elliot wore a beret a lot. And they had longer hair.”
That would have been about 1976. Not long after that, a new band called The Cars showed up for a gig. Barry recognized Ben and Ric from Cap’n Swing, and low-and-behold, there was David Robinson on drums. Barry was surprised by the visual contrast between the two bands.
“[Cap’n Swing] were still kind of ‘hippy,’ and The Cars completely went in a different look,” he explained, acknowledging how obvious it was that David designed the unique style of The Cars. “I’m one of those people that actually truly believe that David … I mean, all of them were crucial to the success of the band, but David was actually especially crucial because I really saw the difference right away. I really liked the other band a lot, I thought they were really good, but I was completely knocked out as soon as I saw The Cars.”
Barry came to know the other members of The Cars through his early connections. “We were kind of friendly with them from the get-go because of David,” he confirmed. Andy Paley knew Elliot, too, and everyone’s paths crossed and criss-crossed all over the place.
The Cars played at The Bell Buoy probably once a month for about a year, performing four sets a night, three nights in a row. They did some original stuff, but they also sprinkled in covers like, “Love is the Drug” by Roxy Music and “Gimme Little Sign” by Brenton Wood. In fact, Barry vividly remembers Elliot singing, “Something Else” by Eddie Cochran, and that is where Barry’s WBCN comment came from.
Barry genuinely thought Elliot had a great voice and enjoyed it when he sang, but it was pretty obvious that The Cars were settled on just Ric and Ben on vocals. Still, Barry would bring it up just to tease Ric. “I used to joke even when I was playing with them, just before they really took off. I used to needle Ric and say, ‘Oh, you should let Elliot sing more. He’s great!’ and he would actually get almost mad about it. He wasn’t amused!” Barry recalled, laughing. “Although I got along really well with him; I got along with all of them. They were really great.”
But where did “Ed-gah” come from?
Around 1975, Barry and his siblings were striving to get their own band, The Marshalls, off the ground. In order to help make ends meet (and partake of some cool free perks), Barry took up writing in local papers: he wrote opinion pieces and film reviews for publications like The Real Paper and The Boston Globe. When he started writing about the music scene, he recognized that as a musician himself there was a bit of a conflict of interest, and, not wanting to tarnish his credibility, he began writing under the pen name of Edgar Willow. Eventually he gave up the writing gigs as his own music career got more serious and successful, but the alias came in handy for things like calling up his buddies on the radio and busting their balls during their interviews. Haha!
The Marshalls, consisting mainly of the three brothers, Kenny, Kevin, and Barry, and later their sister, Ellie, started playing seriously in 1975. All of them wrote songs, contributing to the fun, happy vibe of the group; they were ambitious and eager. The Marshalls opened for The Cars several times when The Cars were on their way up. Not everyone had heard of them yet, but they were famous around town. “[The Cars] were already known in Boston as being the hot-shit new band in Boston,” as Barry put it.
Because The Marshalls had the connection with The Cars early on, they got the gigs with them; Barry guesses they played about ten openers for them altogether. “And then when they really got going, it was a little bit more difficult to get opening for them, because all of the bands that were a little bit bigger than us in Boston tended to get it then.” And rightfully so, Barry concedes. “It was understandable, why it went that way. But we were still friends with them; everybody was friendly, there was no issue about that. If anything, they were so friendly that they’d have so many people backstage that it was a problem!” he joked.
As The Cars’ popularity grew, and they were getting closer and closer to landing a deal, Barry and David would help each other out when it came to booking shows. Barry explained, “It was like, ‘Hey, I could put together a show at this place in Marshfield called the Rexicana, and if you guys were to open, I would put it together just to play with you all.’ And David might say, ‘Yeah, we need a gig for so and so to come see that weekend.’ That happened with a couple of gigs at The Club in Cambridge, where I put together three nights at the joint with a band called The Criers from NYC, and David mentioned, ‘Oh, we need to play for someone that weekend, would you want to put us on the bill?’ And they played two of the nights, which, of course, were packed! I wasn’t really booking as a job, but I was promoting shows just to get The Marshalls good gigs!”
One night in late 1977, Barry pulled together a gig for The Cars and The Marshalls. They played a weekend at The Rexicana: two nights, sold out, for about 800-1000 people each performance. Unexpectedly, Barry saw a bit of Cars’ history being made.
You know how David plays the Syndrums on “Good Times Roll” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on the first album? Well, those Syndrums were a pretty new technology at the time, and it’s no surprise that David wanted them. Using the advance money the band received from Elektra, David worked with Syndrum rep Andy Bergsten to purchase a set, and the two spent some time fiddling around with them in the studio, figuring out the most effective way to incorporate them into The Cars’ songs.
So on one of those specific nights at The Rexicana, Andy came in and David played the Syndrums for the first time in a live set. Barry was floored when he heard the results. It was SO revolutionary. “Nobody had seen something like that. People in the audience were stunned,” Barry recalled, still impressed with the genius of the sound. “It was amazing.”
Those were exhilarating times. “Opening for The Cars was really fun, first of all, but second of all, it was educational,” Barry emphasized. “We learned a lot about showmanship and about performance and stuff.”
Of course, Ben made a lasting impression. “Ben Orr had a huge influence on every band in Boston. Half the guys in Boston imitated the things that Ben did, if you know what I’m saying,” Barry shared, laughing. “Those looks he would give, and the way he would bend down with the bass, and that ‘pursed lips’ thing! I even did that a couple of times! That little pout that he did, to me he invented that. I mean, I don’t know if he really invented that, but to me he did!”
Barry continued, “I gotta say, I honestly don’t think The Cars might have made it quite like they did – they wouldn’t have been as big if it wasn’t for him, because he sold it in the beginning, he totally sold it.”
But The Cars’ influence went deeper than exuding rockstar sex appeal. Barry had example after example of how his bond with the members of The Cars continued to intersect with the trajectory of his own career.
After The Cars got signed, David bought two brand new sets of Slingerland drums, and he gave Barry a deal on his old ones. In around January, 1978, Barry and his brother went to pick them up from Ric’s house where they were stored. While they were there, Ric started asking them questions about what was happening with their band. At the time, The Marshalls were talking with a manager and there was some interest from a record label and talk of publishing, and it was a bit over Barry’s head; he didn’t quite understand the process. He explained all this to Ric, and Ric said, “Oh, okay… you guys got a little time? Come on in the house and let’s talk and I’ll explain some of this to you.”
Still grateful, Barry explained, “We spent like two or three hours with him, and to this day, that’s the most I ever learned about the music business in the shortest amount of time.” He continued, “For years, later, I taught a lot of that music business stuff and every once in a while I’ll say, ‘well the person who taught me most about this was Ric Ocasek.’”
Remember when I mentioned Andy Paley earlier? Well, in the late 70s Andy was the caretaker of this incredible mansion at the bottom of Beacon Hill that was owned by the Museum of Fine Arts. While he was in residence, he used to throw these amazing, elaborate parties there. In 1979, when The Marshalls released their first album, Andy hosted their record release party, and Ben and David attended (see those two photos above). By this time, The Cars were riding the charts with their debut album and getting Candy-O under their belt, too, so their presence created quite a buzz. “As an element of the party, that was a big deal that they came. A lot of people talked about the party because, ‘oh! The Cars were there!’” Barry laughed.
In some ways, it wasn’t a surprise: the support, the endorsement, the returning of a favor for a Boston brother. “The one thing about The Cars… they were super-supportive of local bands. They were really nice.”
The Marshalls had some local success – and a lot of fun – with their original music, and Barry found his true calling, though not as a drummer. That first album served to showcase Barry’s production skills, and it wasn’t long before other artists were asking him to produce their stuff. Gradually it took on a life of its own, and ultimately Barry ended up carving out a long and varied career as a producer of music and movie soundtracks, while continuing as a performer and session musician.
[You can take a listen to The Marshalls’ original tunes by clicking on this playlist I created. Great stuff!]
In fact, Barry was into producing records when The Cars bought their own recording studio, Syncro Sound, in 1981. He did several projects there, like these charity Christmas albums he produced for WBCN. The Cars let Barry work on them at Syncro Sound basically for cost. Though it was pretty much ‘nose to the grindstone’ when he was focused on a job, Barry could definitely feel the club-like atmosphere. There was always something going on at the studio. The Cars recorded there (of course), and Ric, Elliot, and David were all involved in producing various acts. David lived right around the corner off of Newbury Street and he came in a lot. There was always a steady stream of different people going in and out. “It was definitely a hang.”
Barry owned a video store on the same street. “Very typically people would rent all the video tapes for that place [Syncro Sound] at my store, and so I would see Ric about every other day doing that. He’d come in and get about ten movies just to amuse people to keep them out of his hair when he was working, you know what I mean? So it was enough of a clubhouse that he did that to keep them out of his hair, literally.”
Eventually the studio was sold and Barry didn’t run into the guys much anymore. The years marched on, and the Boston brotherhood stayed intact. Barry worked closely with Andy Paley on the soundtrack for the 1988 film Shag, The Movie, producing two songs with the iconic rhythm and blues singer Lavern Baker. That experience led him into one of the most fulfilling stretches of his career as Ms. Baker’s producer and musical director from 1989 until her death in 1997. It was the best of all worlds for him: he was touring and playing on stage with her in front of thousands of people, jamming with people he grew up idolizing, and running things from the producer’s chair. Even more importantly, Ms. Baker influenced Barry’s growth as a man and a musician.
“If she hadn’t died in 1997 I might still be doing that, because it was that much fun. We had a good relationship; more like a mother-son almost, because at the time I started working with her I was about 37 or 38, and she was about 59-60, so she was an older woman, of course. I loved hanging out with her; I had such a great time. Every day I did with her I learned something about music, and every day I did with her I learned something about life. It was that kind of a thing. It was tremendous.”
Take a minute to enjoy this footage of Barry (on the right with the red guitar) performing with the legendary Lavern Baker in 1991. Man, that woman can SING.
After Ms. Baker passed, Barry turned his attention back to producing music for Boston artists. During these years Barry would run into Elliot from time to time through work with Andy Paley and other common friends in LA. They crossed paths again in 2013 when Barry was producing an album for a fellow Scituate-tonian (I might have just invented that word), Kevin McCarty and his group, Twice Jupiter. Barry invited Elliot to play on the album, and Elliot was terrific. Barry remembers, “I realized this is a guy that is not only a great guitar player, but he really knows how to play sessions; he really knows how to get what you need and fairly quickly.”
Having established a good working relationship, and being highly impressed with Elliot’s professionalism and versatility as a session musician, Barry recently collaborated with Elliot on a much more current album… but the story of that project overlaps with the path of another rocker, a next-generation Boston musician who has Cars threads of his own to weave. Should we be surprised?
Stay tuned: Boston Boys, Part 2 will include the rest of Barry’s story, insight into Elliot in the studio, an encounter with Ben in the 90s, and the journey of a kick-ass new album you’re definitely going to want to hear!
How many times have you seen those cool pictures of Benjamin Orr in a softball uniform and wished you knew the backstory? Well, I am SO excited to tell you that I have recently had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Leo Yorkell (pronounced yor-KELL), the man who organized many of those ball games with Ben, and he has been more than generous in shedding light on that lesser-known piece of history for us!
The groundwork was laid back in 1992, when Leo’s brother Michael started Admit One Productions, an event planning group for charity foundations in the New England area like Big Brothers, police drug abuse awareness programs, and others. The company used a variety of athletes and celebrities to participate in sports competitions and indoor and outdoor concerts to raise money for these worthy causes.
The brothers were always looking for new ideas; ways to keep things fresh. Toward the mid-nineties the idea of high-exposure ‘rock and jock’ charity events was really picking up momentum. Leo’s two favorite fixations had always been music and baseball, and it seemed to him that pairing the two pastimes made perfect sense. He got to thinking… his company was well-versed in organizing softball events, and Michael already had a connection with John Cafferty and the members of the Beaver Brown Band. If the guys could expand their roster to include more musical artists they could establish a mixed team (athletes and musicians) that would play a circuit with enough guys to be able to swap players out and have the means to offer their clients exciting possibilities for future fundraisers.
Move now to the summer of 1995. Boston radio station WBOS 92.9 was doing a “rock n’ jock” softball game and concert in Cleveland Circle for The Genesis Foundation. Leo and Michael went to check it out and see who was involved. The game was fun and well-received, and afterward they decided to mingle and make connections. They saw a lot of familiar faces, as several athletes involved that day had participated in their own shows. They also caught sight of some of their favorite musicians. Leo was making mental notes of who was there: he saw Boston drummer Sib Hashian with his excellent afro, Randy Guss, the drummer from Toad the Wet Sprocket (a favorite of Leo’s), and legendary J. Geils singer Peter Wolf in the ranks. And then he saw Ben Orr.
Leo had been cool as a cucumber rubbing elbows with these other celebrities, but it was all different seeing Benjamin Orr in the crowd. Leo was starstruck.
You see, Leo was (and is, and always will be) a HUGE fan of The Cars. Back in the day, he and his buddies would hang around Syncro Sound Studio on Newbury Street, walking back and forth in front of the building, hoping to run into the band members. A drummer himself, Leo saw David Robinson as a bit of a hero and role model, so much so that Leo bought all of his drum equipment at Jack’s Drum Shop because that’s where David got his stuff. He even went so far as to slip a fan letter under the studio door for David. “It was awful,” Leo laughs about it now. “I was young and such a huge fan, and David was just so cool. Of course, I never heard back from him.” Leo saw The Cars play live on every album tour, and was, like thousands of fans, hugely disappointed when they broke up.
And now here was Benjamin Orr, standing within spitting distance. Sure, he was sporting platinum blonde hair, and he was a little older and a little heavier, but it was definitely Ben. Leo was thrilled. He had to go talk to him; had to take this opportunity to meet this rock icon. Leo’s brother Michael was less impressed but supported Leo’s willingness to strike up a conversation in the hopes that Leo could recruit Ben to work with them in the future.
Leo crossed the parking lot to where Ben had his head in the back of a huge white van with Vermont plates. “It was like a shaggin’ wagon, you know what I mean? And it had this ladder on it up top and very little windows. It looked like it was from the early nineties.” Ben was putting his glove away and getting his gear situated when Leo approached.
“I walked up to him, pretty nervous, and I go, ‘Excuse me, are you Ben Orr?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And inside I was like, ‘Ooooh! Coooool!’” Leo introduced himself and couldn’t help but go into fanboy mode over the band, confessing to the antics of his early years on Newbury Street. “I’m gushing like a little girl, you know? And I’m telling him all this stuff and he’s just listening to me,” Leo laughs. He went on to explain to Ben that he and his brother did similar softball events, about eight to ten games a year in the New England area, and he mentioned that they were always looking for new guys to get involved. “I said to Ben, ‘I saw you play; you play pretty well. Would you be interested in coming and playing in some of our games? If you come and join us we’ll give you first crack, and if you need a hotel room we’ll get you a hotel room, whatever you need. Just let me know.’
“Ben was so cool. He said, ‘Thank you very much. I appreciate all the kind words about the band and me. I would definitely be interested in playing if you want me to, but you can’t go through me. I need you to go through my road manager.’”
That manager was Dave Tedeschi. Dave was there at the game but since everyone was getting ready to leave, Ben gave Leo Dave’s contact information and the arrangements were hammered out later over the phone. Leo’s original offer was, “We’re paying $300. Your guy comes, he signs some autographs, he plays some softball, he talks to some fans and he leaves. It’s like three hours, tops.” Dave was being a typical manager and trying to get more money so they haggled back a forth a bit, and ended up settling on about $400. “I understand the whole business end of things; that’s just the way it goes,” Leo said.
And so began a working relationship between Leo and Ben that bloomed into a sincere friendship, with lots of cool little stories along the way. “Before he came to play with us Ben wanted to meet with us and talk to us and make sure that we were good people,” Leo remembers. Ben was playing a solo concert in Boston with Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons, who was opening up for him. Dave Tedeschi put Leo and his brother on the guest list and they headed down there early in order to spend time with Ben before the show. He was staying at the hotel next door, and Leo remembers meeting the band, with John Kalishes and Tom Hambridge, and Ben mentioning that his dogs had their own room.
The group hung out and chatted, and when it was time for Ben to head over to the venue, Leo and Michael went along. They bumped into Dale Bozzio in passing. Ben introduced them to her and they all laughed over a harmless flirty exchange between Ben and Dale. Dale’s young son was with her dressed in his Catholic school outfit, his little green pants and plaid shirt in amusing contrast to Dale’s teased blonde-and-red streaked hair and sexy 80s outfit. These crazy memories are still cemented in Leo’s mind.
Leo isn’t sure of all of the specifics of the first game that Ben played in, but he remembers that they had some ex-Patriots and some ex-Boston Bruins guys, and John Cafferty was there, too. The lineup also included two members of the Beaver Brown band: saxophone player Michael Antunes (‘Tunes’) and drummer Jackie Santos. The team was called the Legends League, and on this day they were playing against a local police department all-star team. Leo recalls, “We introduced each player and gave some stats about them as they walked onto the field. We played music samples during the introductions, too, which was fun.” Ben, in jersey number 21 (later Leo would give him number 1), took his place in left field, smiling and waving to the crowd.
John Cafferty himself remembered this game fondly and the team’s surprise over their victory against the police department (read his quote about it here). Leo recalls that Ben hadn’t met Cafferty before this game. We know now, of course, that Ben would go on to play with John and other Beaver Brown members in the Voices of Classic Rock a few years later, at John’s invitation. How great it is to make those little connections in Ben’s history!
After the game, Leo observed Ben’s behavior with the fans. The last thing they wanted was a star who was standoffish and picky about autographs but that definitely wasn’t Ben.
“He was freaking awesome! He talked to everybody. I’d been doing this for a few years… I had never seen anybody who was so nice, so kind, so engaging with people, and kids especially. I asked my brother, ‘are you watching this guy?’ He signed everything for everybody. He was just amicable, kind, gentle. He would kneel down to talk to a kid… He actually cared about people, you know?”
In fact, Ben was always the last one to collect his check after the game because he spent so much time with the fans; invariably, Leo would have to walk it over to him.
The summer continued and Ben (and John Cafferty) played often. Dave Tedeschi came to one or two of the early games, too. In fact, Leo remembers one time when their event was scheduled on the same weekend as an annual local Renaissance Fair, where Dave and Ben had apparently stopped. “They showed up with those big-ass giant turkey legs that you get, you know? They’re gnawing away on these things,” Leo chuckles. “I was like, ‘What the hell? You’re going to get greasy fingers before the game? C’mon, man!’ It was hilarious.”
Soon enough Leo was able to deal with Ben directly when it came to scheduling. It was an important milestone for Leo. “When he gave me his phone number I knew that meant he trusted me, that we were friends. I did not take that lightly.” Leo would call him up and give him the details for the next event, and their phone conversations would sometimes turn into chats about everyday life. “As he played more I got to know him a whole lot better,” Leo reflects. “He is one of the top three greatest people I have ever met in my entire life, and I’ve met a LOT of people.”
The games continued over the next two years. Leo has so many great memories of those halcyon summer days. “Ben brought Edita and his son with him a bunch of times. They would pull up in that white van with two big ol’ Doberman pinschers in the back. Ben was so proud of his boy, introducing him as ‘Little Ben’ and pointing out often that he wasn’t a junior. He was the cutest little guy, with his blonde mop-top Beatles haircut.
“At one point we played a weekend series, with a Saturday game in Massachusetts and a Sunday game in Rhode Island. After Saturday’s game Ben was looking for a motel recommendation for himself and his family. I booked the room for him at a place I knew in Rhode Island, and I told him about a drive-in movie theater about a half a mile up the road. The next day when he arrived at the game Ben told me about how they went to the drive-in and had such a great time, and that the motel staff was so friendly. Ben was just so appreciative of me setting it up, and it was such a little thing, you know? But that’s just the way he was.
“There was never any pretense, no ‘rock star’ attitude or expectations. Sometimes athletes would give Ben shit for blowing a play or whatever, saying things like, ‘I hope you don’t play bass like you play softball’ and teasing like that, just goodhearted camaraderie. Ben had a great attitude.”
[Intermission: Leo’s willingness to share his video footage with me was above and beyond! He allowed me to put together a little montage of one of Ben’s games to publish with this article. Click to watch, and then scroll down to read more of Leo’s adventures with Ben!]
In addition to softball, Leo and Michael would organize charity football games. In the fall of 1997 they were putting together a game to benefit the Easton Firefighters and they asked Ben if he wanted to play. He was all in. Leo recalls, “These guys were firefighters, right? They were some pretty tough dudes. Ben was a lineman next to the center, and I was playing as a wide receiver since we were short a player. We had an ex-Patriot guy as the quarterback.”
With about two yards to go to score, the quarterback set up the play in the huddle and the team executed it perfectly. “I catch this touchdown pass and as I’m celebrating I look and Ben is on his ass, just laid out flat, right? He got plowed by a guy on the field… run over like nobody’s business. I immediately ran over there to see if he was alright and he was like, ‘yeah, yeah, I’m good, it’s all part of the game.’
“Now, in all this time I never lost sight of who Ben was, you know? And I know it sounds funny, but I was looking at him down there on the ground and out of nowhere I thought, ‘Jeez! This guy played at Live Aid! And there he is, like a turtle on his back!’ But really, I felt awful. He took a huge hit and he was walking pretty gingerly; it was bad. He had a great attitude about it but I could tell he was hurting. After the game we ended up sitting in his van for a long time, just talking – with those big Dobermans in the back!”
And then there was the music. Ben would let Leo know when he was going to be playing a gig nearby and invite him to come watch and hang out. One of those shows was in August of 1997 in Cleveland Circle. Ben told Leo about it and encouraged him to come. Leo had a connection that allowed him to use some public access TV equipment, so he offered to shoot some of the performance for Ben.
“I said, ‘Cool. I’ll get a camera, I’ll get a tripod, and I’ll film the concert.’ So he came, I saw him pre-show. Edita was there with Little Ben. Ben told me, ‘You know, our keyboard player didn’t show up so I don’t know how the hell we’re going to pull this off, but we’re going to go out there anyway.’ I ended up shooting the whole concert.”
[Another video intermission: here is an excerpt from that show in Cleveland Circle, featuring my all-time favorite, “Bye Bye Love”. It’s SO rockin’! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Leo!]**
“Now, my mom’s favorite song is ‘Drive,'” Leo continued. “I shot the show in August and I had Ben in a game in early September. My mom’s birthday is September 7. So I cut the footage of ‘Drive’ and put it on a brand new tape. I took the camera to the game and asked Ben if he would shoot a little video for me that I could add to ‘Drive’ of Ben wishing my mom a happy birthday. He was immediately excited and responded, ‘Oh, I got this man! Just roll it!’ And he recorded the coolest message just for my mom. She wasn’t expecting it at all and it just blew her away!”
Ben played ball for Leo and Michael from 1996 through the summer of 1998. Michael sold the company in November of 1998, and Leo lost contact with Ben at that point. Time passed as Leo immersed himself in working and traveling for his new job. He thought about Ben often and considered calling him, but life just seemed so busy and the time slipped by. He heard through John Cafferty that Ben was with Big People, and that he was engaged and based in Atlanta, but that was about all Leo knew.
Then one day he was in a hotel in Dallas, Texas, in October of 2000 when he came across a small obituary of Ben in USA Today. It was a terrible blow. “My whole heart sunk. I was pissed at myself for not staying in touch with Ben after the company was sold because he was a good guy. He was my friend. I was devastated.”
Leo had had no idea that Ben had even been ill. Later he saw the final interview where Ben was so sick, and it was awful. “I know this sounds rotten to say, but I was kind of glad that I had cut off ties with him in a way. Seeing him like that, I think I would have lost my shit. It would have been hard to get past; I would have wanted to support him, not feel sorry for him.” Still, his regret over not connecting with Ben before his unexpected passing has changed the way Leo lives today: he makes sure to keep in close contact with those people who are most important to him.
It took a long time for the shock to lessen, though it will never entirely be gone. And now, nearly twenty years later, Leo looks back on those videos he has, the autographed memorabilia that adorns his wall, and sorts through his internal memories with laughter and gratitude.
“Thank you for encouraging me to find the pictures and videos for this article. If it weren’t for you I would have never gone to look for them and see how great those times were. I’m grateful for that. I feel very privileged that I was able to get to know Ben and to share a part of our lives, you know?”
I am so appreciative that Leo took the time to reminisce with all of us! When I thanked him for contacting me and for being willing to tell his stories through my blog, he replied simply, “I love Ben, and I think everybody should know what a great guy he is. I’m so glad to share the joy that is Ben.”
**Update September 27, 2000: We’ve posted the entire uncut show of Ben playing at Cleveland Circle ~ enjoy!!
As we know, Benjamin Orr was always rather reticent when it came to giving interviews, so I always feel like I’ve found a treasure when I come across an article or footage where he shares his thoughts. I love to highlight them in my regular blog feature, “Quoting Benjamin,” but as time has gone on it has been harder and harder to fill that spot.
Earlier this summer my research nerd-twin, Judi, posted a link to an article that quoted Benjamin from an old issue of The Beat magazine that I hadn’t seen before. I noticed that the author of the link and the author of the 1987 interview were one and the same, and I decided to be bold and try to make a connection to see if I could get my eyes on the entire interview. What I ended up with is so much better!
AJ Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist who has rubbed elbows with the best and worst of Boston’s famed music scene, and chronicled it all for posterity. When he heard I was trying to get in touch he responded immediately; I was a bit blown away by his eagerness to help. He offered to scan and send the original article, and ended up finding a vintage issue of The Beat magazine for me in his files. On top of that, he sent me photos of Benjamin that I hadn’t seen before! And when I asked, he was more than willing to tell me of his friendship with Ben, and give me permission to share his stories here.
AJ grew up in New Jersey but headed to Boston University in 1974. He was studying for his MBA when his father passed away and he had to drop out of grad school. He lived in Allston and started hanging out at Bunratty’s, an Irish bar that was teeming with the hottest Boston bands of the day, and it was there that he became friends with legendary entrepreneur Mickey O’ Halloran. The Mick (as he was affectionately known) was a scrappy kid with street smarts who grew up to be one of Beantown’s busiest businessmen.
In addition to managing Bunratty’s (one among many clubs over the years), Mickey and his business partner David Gee (Giammatteo) started up a weekly fanzine called The Beat Magazine – “Best Entertainment Around Town” – in 1984. Seeing AJ’s intelligence and passion for music, Mickey recruited AJ to help document the loud and lively club culture in the greater Boston area. It wasn’t long until he was going to three or four nightclubs a night to see bands play and translating those shows into cover stories, live reviews and tasty tidbits for the magazine’s gossip column, Insignifica.
Mickey O and Dave Gee were good friends with Steve Berkowitz, who had been road manager for The Cars for a decade. By the late 1980s, Berkowitz was involved in supporting another local band, Push Push, featuring the very talented Dennis Brennan playing guitar and fronting the group. Berkowitz had convinced Mickey and Dave to do a cover story on his new band for The Beat. It was first assigned to another writer who did a terrible job; bad enough that Steve complained to the publishers. Who would bail them out? The task fell on AJ.
He was pretty unfamiliar with the band and with Berkowitz, but he agreed to meet with them at a small club in The Fens for an interview.
“The first thing on my agenda to do was to impress them right away to be reassured that I would write a killer story. I was certain that this would greatly please everyone. We sit down at a table and Steve buys us beers. I ordered two drafts and when the beers came I guzzled the big 16 ouncers in a row in five seconds and then burped and told them ‘I was ready for the interview.’ I was sure that guzzling 32 ounces in five seconds would scare the shit out of them and I was surely glad when I saw the looks of horror on all of their faces. Of course, I wrote a fine story that they used for promotion.”
In a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ world, AJ knew he had earned a gimme. He had an idea to ask Berkowitz to repay the favor by connecting him with The Cars for an interview and Berkowitz came through. “I was introduced to Ben Orr over the phone and I made him laugh with a few of my more offhand and off-color comments. We hit it off and kept in touch and hung out from then until just before he died.”
That phone interview with Ben in early October of 1987 resulted in an article published in issue 90 of The Beat later that month, and to backstage passes to a show at the Boston Garden in November during The Cars’ Door to Door tour. “Ben wanted me to be there and he put me on the guest list. Let me tell you, backstage at The Garden is many rooms and is pretty huge. The show was great and I didn’t really bother anyone after it ended. But I DID grab a few band beers!
“We got along from the beginning. I think he liked our shared passion for music and New Wave music. I think he liked my writing style. I know he appreciated my sense of humor. I think he was amused that I was very opinionated and was a typical loud Type A New Yorker, too. He invited me a few times to his nice home in Weston but I just never made it.”
When a journalist and a celebrity develop a bond, a special kind of trust must be established to move from ‘acquaintance’ to genuine friendship. Ben and AJ had a lot in common, but it was AJ’s discretion and sincerity that allowed Ben to relax and enjoy their time together.
“I was a friend AND a fan of Ben’s and always made sure I didn’t overstep my relationship by getting involved in his business world unless he brought it up. Even in his private life, I wouldn’t pepper him with questions about things he didn’t really want to talk about. I think that’s one reason Ben and I got along. He knew that if something was mentioned privately between us it wasn’t gonna end up at the top of my gossip column, Insignifica.”
AJ and Benjamin saw each other often through the 90s. In the same way that AJ’s respect for Ben’s privacy created an easy vibe, Ben’s humble personality made it natural for AJ to forget he was hanging out with a star.
“For a very complex individual, Ben to me was pretty laid back and easy going. He was a very serious person who often smiled and laughed a lot when he was in my presence. I sensed he didn’t feel the need to be the center of attention everywhere he went. He didn’t let his stardom go to his head. He didn’t have five big bodyguards protecting him and keeping fans away whenever he showed up around town. Ben was very approachable and accessible in a way that Ric Ocasek isn’t.
“I remember when his solo album The Lace came out about a year before I originally interviewed him, and we talked privately about his new music. When I told him my favorite song on the release was the rocker ‘Too Hot To Stop’ and then went into a five minute lecture on why I thought it was a great song, I could really tell he was genuinely very happy that I dug it so much. It’s a small thing, but I remember the big smile on his face as I talked.”
AJ remembers Ben as being very personable, and that “he had a small stable of good friends he’d go and socialize with on his time off from his busy schedule recording and touring.” The guys always had a lot of fun when they were together, whether it was knocking back beers at a club or visiting backstage.
“I saw Ben and John [Kalishes] play a gig with Muzz (John Muzzy from Farrenheit- Charlie Farren’s band) behind the kit. Bassist Ben played acoustic guitar and Kalishes played electric guitar. It was at the South Station T stop and I came to the show with my son who was a toddler; so it must have been around 1995. As soon as they finished their set, the guys couldn’t wait to show me ‘backstage’ at South Station and took me downstairs below the station to show me the many rooms and old tunnels with train tracks still on the floor. All three of them acted as tour guides to me and my son and I laughed when I thought how funny it was that Ben, John and Muzzy were showing me around and had so much enthusiasm after playing an hour set. The dressing room dungeon in this generally unknown and rarely seen basement is a place I have never been to again.
“I always felt like I was an equal part of the moment with them and that they enjoyed me being there. Again I was both a friend and a fan of these great musicians. A friend first. A fan second. And that’s the way it worked in our circle.
“I don’t remember why, but once Ben and his friend Gerard met me and my son’s mother, Tina, at the really ritzy Four Seasons. All four of us were dressed up. I had my top hat and was wearing tails, Tina had a mink stole, and Ben and Gerard were in casual nouveau riche; dark suits with no ties and sneakers. We sat around and had drinks and hors d’oeuvres for a few hours before we parted ways.
“Probably the last time I hung with Ben was when I ran into him backstage at The Hatch Shell for a show we had come to see separately with our kids in tow. The kids had met before and his young son and my young son, Harrison, were about the same age Both had very, very blonde hair. I remember watching them playing together, then glancing at Ben’s dyed blonde hair and my very brown locks, and joking that ‘it took the Wachtel family generations to breed the Jewish looks out….’ as Ben grinned and shook his head at me.”
Though their busy schedules didn’t allow Ben and AJ to hang out constantly, AJ treasures the time and the closeness the two shared, and feels Ben’s loss keenly.
“Ben Orr died just way too young. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, his early death and it’s resulting denial of potentiality is both saddening and inconsolable. But we still have his voice and the songs.”
And AJ has his memories, too. I’m honored that he shared them with us!