It reminds me of him.

ben-with-fans“Do you get that a lot? No one ever tries to pick me up.”

“I don’t believe that. To answer your question, it happens occasionally. I’m not often alone when I’m out so I think that limits it to the most brave. They don’t want me, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re attracted to the concept of me, but it’s a fantasy they’ve built. It doesn’t matter if they’re know who I am or not. It’s this.” He waves his had at his face, then shrugs. “The fame helps. At least she didn’t recognize me. That would be a mess.”

I peer into his glass. “Did you get the ‘massive ego’ IPA?”

“I got the ‘realistic’ lager. My looks are an asset, fully monetized.”

I know he’s right. It’s Sam’s public persona, and the same is what Fong Lee said that first day about her fans. What kind of pressure does that create? To be on a pedestal that you never built, and that is a by-product of doing a job to the best of your abilities?

— Lily Chu, The Stand-In

Quoting Benjamin

On the reasoning behind the band name: “Who can forget the day he got his driver’s license? Or his first car, or his first drive-in? If I hadn’t had a car, I wouldn’t have driven over from Parma Heights to Fairview Park to go shopping, and I wouldn’t have met my future wife — Kris King from Bay Village. She’s a curly-haired strawberry blonde. Gorgeous!” — “The Cars take off fast in the record derby,” The Plain Dealer, June 9, 1978.

QuotingB

In other words:

ben and david agora
Ben and David at the Agora, 1978. Photo by Janet Macoska

On the first time he saw Ben play: “I can remember seeing Ben’s and Ric’s names around town as another band, Cap’n Swing, but it wasn’t the same places that I was going to at the time, so I hadn’t gotten to see them play live. Then a mutual friend of mine and Ric’s, Maxanne Sartori, had mentioned them to me, and she thought they were good, so I went and saw Cap’n Swing at Paul’s Mall. They were kind of a mish-mash group of people, and when they came out, Ben was wearing these white satin karate pajamas and flip flops!

“I remember thinking, ‘What kind of look is this?’ Ben only sang and didn’t play the bass, but I did notice right away how great his voice was! The music was quirky-pop sounding, and not really coming from a hip place but a more nerdy place, so I wasn’t overly impressed.” — David Robinson, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken, p. 70.

Andy Bergsten: Connected for a beat

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 & Paul
Paul McCartney and Andy

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.

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.

1977. business card from barry marshall
Andy Bergsten’s business card, circa 1977. Courtesy of Barry Marshall; shared with permission.

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.

Syndrum manualAt 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. 

syndrum set up
A peek at David’s Syndrums on the left, France, 1978

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!

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Syndrum_Cars 78 rescan 1-page-2_3

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!

Review: The Cars Live at the Agora 1978

Here is the 6th piece I wrote for Joe Milliken and Standing Room Only, and it wraps up the series. Though I am adding this to my blog last, it was actually written and published in October of 2017, in between the release of the expanded editions. This is also the review that was quoted on the big screen at a presentation at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 (photo below).


I’m not going to make you wait until the end of this review to give you my opinion: this album is off the chain!

Now remember, I am not an expert on discerning levels of sound quality, or at picking out nuances in the way music is mixed, but I do know how to enjoy a great show, and there is not a single track on this two-album set that disappoints.

While some critics (and concert goers) have been known to whine and fuss about The Cars not being a ‘dynamic’ live act, no one can deny that when it came to the music, this band could recreate their remarkable studio sound flawlessly from the stage. Because of this, many fans have lamented that The Cars never released a live album during their active years together. Sure, there are a handful of bootleg recordings that make their way around the Fanorama, but not a complete live show remastered and released by the band, itself… until this year, that is!

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

On April 22, 2017, Rhino Records put out a limited run of 5,000 copies of one of The Cars’ early live performances as part of the worldwide vinyl movement, Record Store Day.  The Cars Live At The Agora, 1978 documents the energy and the fresh sound of the band at the beginning of their rise to success.

Just to give you some context, The Cars consists of songwriter Ric Ocasek on rhythm guitar, and he trades lead vocals with long-time friend and bandmate Benjamin Orr, the bass player. Elliot Easton handles the lead guitar, while Greg Hawkes works his keyboards and David Robinson keeps everybody locked in with his drums. This five-man lineup started playing together in early 1977, and within 18 months they had a record contract in their pockets and their first album on music store shelves.

With their debut single, “Just What I Needed,” gaining popularity on the airwaves, the band took off on their first major tour, spanning the United States, and including stops in Canada and parts of Europe. The Agora show here, recorded at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on July 18, 1978, for WMMS radio (about a month into their tour), is a shining example of the band’s ability to interlock their individual roles to create a tight, rollicking performance that keeps the listener bouncing from song to song. No, not a bunch of jumping around and physical gyrations, no long monologues or extended soloing by band members, no pyrotechnics; just an ensemble of creative and classy musicians doing what they do best: rocking the house.

The set list for the night is an interesting blend, giving the enthusiastic audience a taste of where these boys have been and where they are going. Not only are there near-flawless performances of all nine incredible songs from their debut album, but The Cars also burn through some raging rockers from their regular club set (the hard-edged “Take What You Want” and the powerful punk of “Hotel Queenie”) and treat the crowd to “Night Spots,” which will show up on The Cars’ future album, Candy-O. They end the concert with a gritty cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” letting Elliot take over the lead vocal on their last song of the night.

Other audio delights pour from the speakers. Listen for Greg’s crazy-cool assortment of eclectic sounds on “I’m In Touch With Your World,” and then catch him later as he pushes the show in a whole new direction with his melodic saxophone (“All Mixed Up” and “Something Else”). Also, I love how you can really hear the power of David’s drums on “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and how Elliot kills it on that classic guitar solo in “Just What I Needed.” My favorite tracks feature Benjamin pouring his all into the vocals, like on “Bye Bye Love” and “All Mixed Up;” you can just feel his racing pulse as he belts it out. And woven throughout the entire show are great harmonies, some highlighted backing vocals, and brief audience interactions that draw a smile.

cars.agora2_
Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

The cherry on top? Rhino Records really nails it with the packaging of this release. The signature red-and-black color scheme of the early Cars’ years, combined with the terrific photos of each band member and the reproduced hand-written show notes displayed on the backside of the album cover – it’s definitely a stare-worthy addition to the vinyl stack. Inside the cover are tucked two records; three of the sides contain the music, and the fourth displays what would prove to be the first in a series of custom etchings to grace the 2017 releases of Cars albums. Awesome!

The vinyl is hard to get ahold of now, though there are still a few copies available floating around online (mostly from Europe). At this time there are no plans for the show to be released on CD; fortunately Rhino has now made it available digitally through several music channels. Click below to download the album. If you don’t have it already, get a copy – it’s a must-have for every Cars fan!

https://rhino.lnk.to/latasmp?ref=http%3A//thecars.org/


 

my writing at the rrhof
My review, quoted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during a listening party for this album in the Foster Theater, 2018. Photo courtesy of David Curry.

Lyrics: All Mixed Up

“All Mixed Up” by The Cars

She shadows me in the mirror, she never leaves on the light

And some things that I say to her, they just don’t seem to bite

It’s all mixed up… it’s all mixed up

It’s all mixed up

 

She tricks me into thinking I can’t believe my eyes

I wait for her forever but she never does arrive

It’s all mixed up… it’s all mixed up

It’s all mixed up

 

She said to leave it to me (leave it to me)

Everything will be alright (be alright)

She said to leave it to me (leave it to me)

Everything will be alright

 

She’s always out making pictures, she’s always out making scenes

She’s always out the window when it comes to making dreams

It’s all mixed up… it’s all mixed up

It’s all mixed up

 

She says to leave it to me (leave it to me)

Everything will be alright (be alright)

She says leave it to me (leave it to me)

Everything will be alright, be alright (be alright)

 

She said to leave it to me (leave it to me)

Everything will be alright (be alright)

She said leave it to me, yeah (leave it to me)

Everything will be alright, be alright (be alright)

 

If you leave it to me everything gonna be alright

Yeah, if you leave it to me

(Be alright, be alright, be alright, be alright… )

Lyrics: Moving In Stereo

“Moving In Stereo” by The Cars

Life’s the same, I’m moving in stereo

Life’s the same except for my shoes

Life’s the same, you’re shaking like tremolo

Life’s the same, it’s all inside of you

 

It’s so easy to blow up your problems, it’s so easy to play up your breakdown

It’s so easy to fly through a window, it’s so easy to fool with the sound

 

It’s so tough to get up, it’s so tough

It’s so tough to live up, it’s so tough on you

 

Life’s the same, I’m moving in stereo

Life’s the same except for my shoes

Life’s the same, you’re shaking like tremolo

Life’s the same, it’s all inside of you

 

Life’s the same, I’m moving in stereo

Life’s the same except for my shoes

Life’s the same, you’re shaking like tremolo

Life’s the same, it’s all inside of you

 

Lyrics: Bye Bye Love

“Bye Bye Love” by The Cars

I can’t feel this way much longer expecting to survive

With all these hidden innuendos just waiting to arrive

It’s such a wavy midnight and you slip into insane

Electric angel rock-and-roller, I hear what you’re playing

 

It’s an orangy sky, always it’s some other guy

It’s just a broken lullaby

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

 

Substitution, mass confusion clouds inside your head

Involving all my energies until you visited

With your eyes of porcelain and of blue, they shock me into sense

You think you’re so illustrious you call yourself intense

 

It’s an orangy sky, always it’s some other guy

It’s just a broken lullaby

Bye bye love

Bye bye love (yeah)

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

 

Substitution, mass confusion clouds inside your head

Well, foggin’ all my energies until you visited

With your eyes of porcelain and of blue, they shock me into sense

You think you’re so illustrious you call yourself intense

 

It’s an orangy sky, always it’s some other guy

It’s just a broken lullaby

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

Bye bye love

Lyrics: Just What I Needed

“Just What I Needed” by The Cars 

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time

‘Cause when you’re standing oh so near I kinda lose my mind

It’s not the perfume that you wear, it’s not the ribbons in your hair

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time

 

I don’t mind you hanging out and talking in your sleep

It doesn’t matter where you’ve been as long as it was deep, yeah

You always knew to wear it well, and you look so fancy I can tell

I don’t mind you hanging out and talking in your sleep

 

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to feed

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to bleed

 

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time time

‘Cause when you’re standing oh so near I kinda lose my mind, yeah

It’s not the perfume that you wear, it’s not the ribbons in your hair

I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time

 

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to feed

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to bleed

 

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to feed

I guess you’re just what I needed (just what I needed)

I needed someone to bleed… yeah yeah… so bleed me

 

You’re just what I needed

You’re just what I needed

You’re just what I needed, yeah yeah yeah

John Ward Hickernell: A Moment in Time

“There are decent people, even in rock and roll. If all you’ve been exposed to are the crazy ones, and then you run into a cool one, it sticks in your head.”

For John Ward Hickernell, Benjamin Orr was one of the cool ones.

smile 03John recently posted some eye-catching photos on Facebook of Ben at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. No surprise that they grabbed my attention, since I’d never seen them before, but John’s explanation of the pics had me even more curious: it turns out he had happened upon the small group behind the scenes while The Cars were waiting to take the stage of a major concert. Wow, that seems pretty lucky, huh?

Would John mind sharing more details of his memories with us? Not at all! He assured me, “It was a pretty cool day, and time has passed, and people are passing, too, and just seems kind of cool to get the photos out there, and the story, and the pin, and the whole nine yards. I don’t feel like I own them; I just happened to catch the moment.”

Don’t you just love the kindness of people? Thank you so much, John ~ let’s dig in!

It turns out that The Cars were in Cleveland to play at the World Series of Rock (WSoR). The concert was originally scheduled to take place on August 5, 1978, with Fleetwood Mac headlining, joined by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Blue Öyster Cult, and The Cars. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham fell ill but rather than cancel, the August 5 show was rescheduled for August 26. Unfortunately, that bumped Seger and BÖC from the bill; they were replaced with Eddie Money and Bob Welch.

Aug 5 ticket
Image via liveauctioneers.com

The Cars had been touring behind their debut album since June with almost no break. They had played a sold-out concert at Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom on July 18, which would have definitely been a homecoming show for Ben, and in fact, you can hear him acknowledge it on stage at the end of “Bye Bye Love.” Their performance, which was broadcast live on local station WMMS (and released on vinyl in 2018 as The Cars’ first official ‘live’ album), was packed with precision, perfection, and an abundance of attitude, proving to yet another eager audience that The Cars were a force to be reckoned with.

Still, with only “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on the radio to recommend them, The Cars were generally considered ‘new’ and had much to prove. Playing the WSoR with its crowd of more than 70,000 fans was a considerable step up from the 2,000 at the Agora, and was likely the largest audience the band had played in front of to date. I imagine they were nervous, excited, and probably still a little stunned at how well the debut album was being received around the country.

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Image via fleetwoodmac.net

It’s worth noting that the order of the WSoR lineup that day was determined by the traveling schedules of the acts. Eddie Money kicked off the show, followed by Todd Rundgren; they both had flights to catch so they went on early. The Cars played their set next, then Bob Welch, who was arriving from St. Louis, played fourth. Of course, the fiery finale featured Fleetwood Mac. A review of the concert from Cleveland Scene writer Dave Voelker pointed out the unique position The Cars were in.

“The Cars were left with the unenviable task of following Rundgren’s ecstatic set — a position they wouldn’t have had if Todd & Co. didn’t have to play in Chicago later that same day,” he wrote. “They’re still a little unseasoned, but I’m confident that many in the audience now know there’s a lot more to the Cars than their main claim to fame, ‘Just What I Needed.’ Particularly, the raw power of ‘Don’t Cha Stop’ and ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ seemed formidable and impressive, marking this sharp new band as an attention-worthy contender.”

Jane Scott from The Plain Dealer noticed, too. In her August 28 review she wrote, “The Cars, an up-and-coming Boston band, had fans dancing across the field with its ‘Just What I Needed’ and ‘Best Friend’s Girl.’” Clearly, our boys could handle playing for such a huge crowd.

Without going too deep into the WSoR’s colorful history, let me give you a quick overview of this popular but short-lived concert series. From 1974 to 1980, legendary Cleveland concert promoters, brothers Jules and Mike Belkin, worked diligently (if gingerly) with officials from the Cleveland Municipal Stadium to host a run of summer concerts featuring the hottest rock bands of the day. Each event included multiple acts on the bill, and fans packed the playing field and bleachers of the open-air venue for hours, partying to icons like The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith.

And when I say ‘partying’ I DO mean partying. The festivals quickly gained a reputation for being rowdy and dangerous, riddled with drugs, alcohol, and varying levels of stupidity and crime.  And this show was no different. Though The Plain Dealer reported that the crowd of 73,000 was considered one of the best-behaved audiences in recent attendance, the police still had their hands full. Several violent incidents occurred before, during, and after the show, including multiple stabbings, robberies, and an accident in which a man fell from the upper deck during the concert while swinging from the rafters and was transported to the hospital in critical condition.

john rocking with estes bros
2nd from left: John rocking with The Estes Brothers, c. 1975.

But none of that was on the radar of twenty-one year old John Ward Hickernell, a self-described “musician-artist-hippie-type kid who would to go any extreme to make art.” As a multi-instrumentalist himself, John was chasing the rock-and-roll dream (most notably playing guitar for The Estes Brothers). His focus wasn’t the fame and the glory, but experiencing the creative ecstasy of it all, and he pursued art in any and every form. Is it any wonder, then, that Todd Rundgren was his role model?

He explains, “Todd’s always been my creative inspirational individual. I’ve always been awed at what it must be like to possess that kind of creativity, like ‘what am I going to do today? Because I can do just about anything and if I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to learn how.’”

John’s mission, in addition to capturing the day on film, was to try to make a connection with Todd, and here’s where his personal story begins. I had the privilege of chatting with John and listening as he related his experience behind the scenes at the World Series of Rock.

John began, “Back in those days concert security was much different than today. Maybe one guy to watch over a massive area of space, and that guy was more than likely a hippie, too. I’m sure that I looked the part with my vest with many pockets of film and my shoulder bag and camera, out on safari shooting pictures. So with a few words to the one lone security guy he let me pass right on through and into a closed-off section of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.”

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Cleveland Municipal Stadium, August 26, 1978

The day was oppressively hot, made more intense by the sun beating down and the mash of the crowd. The stadium was bursting with happy-go-lucky music fans and John documented the sight, snapping pictures as he worked his way along the near-empty concrete walkways enclosing the open-air venue. Coming to the end of one of the first-level ramps he noticed a small handful of people milling around. As he drew nearer he was able to identify Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek, and Todd Rundgren in the group.

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Todd Rundgren and Utopia

John’s dream was about to come true; his hero, Todd, was within a few concrete feet of a handshake! But can you believe it? “[Todd] was hanging around and I ran out of film,” John groaned. “As I loaded a fresh roll I looked for him and he was gone, heading to the stage with Utopia. So I ended up with one ‘lone shot.’”

A disappointing turn, for sure, but not all was lost. John dug The Cars, too. He remembered Ben as a local kid from his days on The Gene Carroll Show, and was happy to see him now in this more personal setting. John could see that Ben had a special guest with him – his mother – and John was leery of interrupting the band’s privacy, but it ended up being a very relaxed scene.

middle finger 02.jpgJohn recalled, “Ben was very nice. At first I thought he may have been a bit pissed that I was shooting pics and invading a moment. I do have one picture I came across and he was with his mom, and he’s adjusting his glasses… he’s doing a ‘middle finger glasses adjustment.’ At the time, me being a little bit naïve, I kinda thought okay, maybe he’s not quite happy with me taking pictures. Of course, now I know that that’s kind of an inside thing in the music business: if someone’s got an attitude with you they’ll adjust their glasses with their middle finger.

“But after exchanging a few niceties with Ben that tone faded; he was cool and he smiled more, and he didn’t give me the finger anymore.” John laughed.

Still, John hung back, but he could see how attentive Ben was to his mom. John respectfully observed the way “Ben was close to her the whole time, pointing things out, like out in the crowd and the bleachers, and stuff like reminiscing about being in the stadium for other events, ball games ….that’s what I with bettygathered. And the physical resemblance they had was very obvious. She seemed a bit taken back. She smiled a lot but didn’t say anything to me.”

Though the encounter was just a moment in time, it struck a chord deep down in John that has resonated over the years. As I listened to John share, I was really moved by his heartfelt reflections. “Being a Cleveland boy myself, I can remember going to Indians games there as a child; I’m sure he and his family did as well, so you know it could’ve just as easily been me. And [The Cars] were on the edge of being a huge success. So I totally had a tie to that whole feeling, or imagining how he must’ve felt, for sure. You know, the ‘local boy does good’ sort of thing. We ALL dreamed of that! There it all was right in front of me. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Made it all the more heartbreaking when he passed.”

John quietly focused on taking photos, storing up tangible snapshots to accompany the impressions in his head.

“Ric kind of acted like he might have been a little bit self-conscious,” John reminisced. “That’s just my personal take on it. They were very nice. I took dozens of photos, taking time to chat. I will say that after a bit they seemed to be posing, so it got intense because I was the only guy there with a camera.”

John was gracious enough to share several of his terrific photos of Ben and Ric with us from that day:

 

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At one point, Ben gave John a gift: a little white promotional Cars pin, which John has kept all these years. “He just reached in his pocket and he pulled out a pin and he says, ‘Hey man, I hope they turn out good,’ [referring to the photos],” John remembered. “He asked me if I was with the Scene, a Cleveland music rag paper that we all lived for each issue! I let him know that I wasn’t, but I worked for the company that printed Scene and that I actually ran a press that printed it.”

 

As they wrapped up their time together, Ben asked John to send him some of the photos if they turned out. And that was it. “I don’t think they were up there for more than half an hour, and then they receded back into the bowels of the stadium.”

Thrilled with his encounter, John continued to hang around in the relative quiet of the concrete passages backstage. He absorbed Utopia’s set with rapture. “I remember how cool ‘Eastern Intrigue’ sounded in the stadium from backstage. It was so great: no bounce, no echo like you would hear being out front, or anywhere else in that stadium for that matter.” He doesn’t remember much else in terms of the music that day; he was more into documenting the show with his camera. But while John wasn’t focused on the Cars’ set itself, it’s not because he didn’t have an appreciation for the band or their music. In truth, his feelings are quite the opposite.

“You know, it’s all timing. Sometimes all the planets line up and something unpredictable happens, and that’s kind of the way it was with The Cars. If you look at the end of the 70s, we’d been through glam rock and glitter, and Bowie and Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed… tons. And then of course there was disco and stuff like that, but The Cars really had a different writing style that was clearly evident in the way they played, and their persona just pushed it over the edge. They really were a bridge into the next realm.

“I remember seeing them at Live Aid in the 80s. They were well-established stars at that point. Ben was talking to a VJ from MTV; he was obviously having a good time, acted a bit buzzed, smoking a cigarette, it was a hell of a party. That was the last I saw of him other than magazines and videos.

“All musicians dream of success; they just do. [The Estes Brothers] had gotten very close just a year and a half earlier, so I felt a deep connection to all that: the road that musicians take and keep trying time after time. I know he did, as well. We all do. There are thousands who chase it their whole lives —  damn good musicians. So I always felt that connection. Thinking about the moment in the stadium… it held deep meaning for me.”

ben 03.jpg

And Ben?

“It’s hard to explain how I felt about him, but I could relate, maybe… just a sad story to me. That’s all there seemed to be for me for a lot of years. I was down more than I was up. But avoiding useless rambling… Seeing him with his mom [in Cleveland] was personal for me. And for him.”

John concluded emphatically, “You can tell all you need to know about a person sometimes from just one gesture. The mere fact that he had his mom there tells you the kind of person he was. What else do you need to say? That pretty much told me how cool he was.”


Oh, P.S.! John did end up meeting Todd many years later! John recounted, “For many years I was always like a step behind him ‘til finally in ’08 or ’09 they had an exhibit at the Rock Hall. He was there doing a meet-and-greet type sort of thing and oh my gosh, the line of people went all out the Rock Hall, down to East 9th Street, so I’m standing in line, you know, and I get up to where I’m inside the building and I could see him, and then… well, of course, they had to go.”

So John bought a ticket to the museum anyway, figuring since he’s there he might as well look at his exhibit. He went downstairs and there was no one down there, but then he said, “All of a sudden these two big doors swing open and here comes this whole troop of people: Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, the curator, a couple security guards, a photographer, his wife Michelle, and their son Rebop. That ended my days of being two steps behind him. I got to meet him and take a ton of pictures of that. I’ve met him a bunch of times since.”

Yay!  I love happy endings!


My main sources:

  1. The first place I looked? Deanna Adams’ definitive guidebook of Cleveland rock history: Rock and Roll and the Cleveland Connection, pages 243-244.
  2. This invaluable scan and this one, from World Series of Rock concerts at Cleveland Stadium 1974-1980 on Facebook, gave me great info on the August 26 show.
  3. This terrific piece by Matt Wardlaw provided some Agora info and the cool quote from Dave Volker.
  4. I got so much wonderful input from this great WMMS Facebook group!
  5. And a little Wikipedia, of course!
  6. All photos courtesy of John Ward Hickernell (except as noted) and used with permission. Thank you for your generosity, John!

 

Lyrics: When You Gonna Lay Me Down

When You Gonna Lay Me Down by The Cars

I was starting to listen to you, you get cheap talk from the avenue

Come on honey, when you gonna lay me down

You were feeding me the ugly stuff, I couldn’t tell if it was a bluff

Come on honey, when you gonna lay me down

 

And I was hung up on your mystery

And you were trying to beg to save my sanity

 

I wanted to be your flair and run my fingers through you long blonde hair

Come on honey, when you gonna lay me down

 

And I was hung up on your mystery

And you were trying to beg to save my sanity

 

I wanted to follow you home and ring you up on the telephone

Come on honey, when you gonna lay me down

I guess I wanted to be your flair and run my fingers through your long blonde hair

C’mon honey when you gonna lay me down

 

I said come on honey, when you gonna lay me down

I said come on honey, when you gonna lay me down?