“We were just beginning to explore new ideas as far as writing together, and unfortunately we never had the opportunity, because within the year Ben was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We lost him October of 2000… What a talent. As Liberty always said, he’s the rock star of the band, but he was natural. He didn’t try; he didn’t have to try. He had a voice that was just unbelievable, and he’d just step up to a microphone and just have this glow about him, you know what I’m saying? It was just magical.” — Jeff Carlisi, guitarist for 38 Special and Ben’s Big People bandmate; interview with Craig Garber and Everyone Loves Guitar, November 26, 2020 (at about 12:47)
In other words:
“So, first day, I remember Ben coming to my house. Somebody picked him up at the airport, and I opened the door and there’s Benjamin Orr in all his glory and his … whatever… and I said, ‘God,’ I said, ‘you’re Ben Orr!’ and he goes, ‘So I’ve been told, pardner.’ He was a character (laughing).” — Jeff Carlisi, guitarist for 38 Special and Ben’s Big People bandmate; interview with Craig Garber and Everyone Loves Guitar, November 26, 2020 (at about 8:44)
In other words:
“[Ben] was not [an introvert]… I like to think more of Ben as, he spoke when he had something to say, which sometimes comes off as being shy or aloof… I’m not so sure, and I guess technically you could say that somebody can walk onstage and perform like he did and still be an introvert; maybe that’s their release. But I saw when Ben was sick, and we were touring and he was battling his cancer, and he would spend time talking to people who had either battled cancer themselves, were just curious, were going through some other trauma in their life, and Ben would take enormous amounts of time being very candid with these folks and talking to them. That’s not an introvert. An introvert runs and hides…
“He was a bit of a quiet person [but] he was very forthcoming with people, loved the human contact… The only thing that would maybe have given you the impression that he was an introvert was that he wasn’t a man of many words, but when he said something it meant something.” — Jeff Carlisi, guitarist for 38 Special and Ben’s Big People bandmate; interview on Madame Perry’s Salon, January 27, 2020 (at about 8:20)
In other words:
“We were all obviously devastated for Ben, but we learned a lot of lessons that last summer. He’d already been diagnosed, and check this out. The doctor says you got three or four months, and we’re not knowing what to say, let alone how to ask the question, and finally it’s kind of like, ‘well…’ Before we could say anything, Ben said, ‘Well, start booking as many gigs as possible. I’m going out the way I came in, doing what I love.’ And it was so inspirational.” — Jeff Carlisi, guitarist for 38 Special and Ben’s Big People bandmate; interview with Craig Garber and Everyone Loves Guitar, November 26, 2020 (at about 14:10)
In other words:
“Ben Orr was our rock star. When he sang ‘Drive’ the girls just swooned… What a great artist he was.” — Liberty DeVitto, long-time drummer for Billy Joel and Ben’s Big People bandmate; interview with Modern Drummer Magazine, July 16, 2020
In other words:
“A man’s man, Ben smoked Marlboro cigarettes, drank alcohol, drove a four-wheel-drive SUV, and chopped wood at his house in the mountains of Vermont. But when he went on stage in his black leather pants, brightly colored shirt, long black trench coat, and black cowboy boots, he drove the ladies wild. I’d look out into the crowd when we played ‘Drive’ and watch all the women smile at Ben, hanging on to every word he was singing.” — Liberty DeVitto, 2020, Liberty: Life, Billy, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Peter Montgomery: Boston Boys, Part 2
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 of 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 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 a 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
- Go deeper with The Montgomerys and all of Peter’s music by subscribing to his new YouTube channel!
- 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 Boston Boys 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!]