Cinders and ashes at the Metro, 1982

Between the tight instrumentation, powerful vocals, and sizzling energy, this short set is a real barn-burner! Today marks the 39th anniversary of the night The Cars showed up as surprise guests at the Metro in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 7, 1982, so let’s take a closer look.

We’ll start with this one lone video:

Though I am optimistic that the band’s whole set was filmed (it had to have been, right???), this is currently the only available footage for us Cars fans. It remains on my list of concerts I hope will someday surface from someone’s basement VHS collection.

Along with this visual remnant, we have some (only 3!) photos that have circulated from that night. They were taken by Michael Grecco, and they.are.GORGEOUS. Feast your eyes!


NERD NOTES

This performance is generally pinned to a Toys for Tots charity gig, but I was going over my notes as I was getting ready to upload the audio of their full six-song set (link below) and I discovered that that might not be the case. Let me lay out what I’ve got for you.

Apparently there was a charity show scheduled to benefit a punk/new wave music magazine called New York Rocker. The publication was in financial straits and was trying to scratch up an infusion of cash. This clip from The Boston Globe on December 6, 1982, sets the stage:

The next we hear about it shows up here: a Boston Globe mention on December 10, 1982, where it’s revealed that The Cars were a surprise guest at the NY Rocker benefit.

One more blip of that benefit, confirming that the purpose was to financially support NY Rocker, appeared just a couple of days later:

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The Boston Globe ~ December 12, 1982

Seems consistent to me. And judging by the publication covers, I could guess that that magazine would be something Ric in particular would be happy to support. In fact, it looks like The Cars themselves might have been included in at least one issue; I’ll have to see if I can track that down at some point.

As for the Toys for Tots benefit, that was a real thing, and The Cars were definitely involved… to a certain extent. They were co-sponsors of the annual Christmas party at the Metro, along with the venue and Warner Elektra Atlantic, where the only price of admission was the donation of a toy for needy children. Boston photographer Derek Szabo saved his 1982 invite and was so kind to share it with me. How cute is this?

 

The festivities included an hour-long open bar and live music, but it does not appear that The Cars were on the roster of performers. Check out this clipping from The Boston Globe, December 17, 1982:

Of course, it is entirely possible that The Cars did play at that party on December 22; I just haven’t been able to find anything to confirm it. If they did, I feel certain that it is different than the “Candy-O” performance footage we see above. 


So let’s get back to that December 7 show. For the most part, the set list has a gritty punk vibe that seems perfectly suited to an audience of New York Rocker readers. Fortunately for us, an audience recording of the full six songs The Cars performed that night has been preserved. It’s not the greatest quality, but it’s a treasure nonetheless.

The band opens with “Out of Control,” a previously unpublished tune that would show up on Ric’s first solo album, Beatitude, apparently released at the end of the month. [A little pet peeve of mine here: another instance of Ric showcasing his solo work during a Cars show, an opportunity apparently not given to Ben or Elliot in later years. Grr!] 

From there they rev things up with a raucous cover of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” and it sounds like all the guys are really enjoying themselves. And Elliot’s solo is blazing! EE continues to drive the show as they blast through  “Take What You Want,” a concert staple that never made it to vinyl. Interestingly, I believe this gig is the last time they played it for an audience.

Now we get to “Candy-O” which, of course, sounds a bit muted compared to the more professional video capture. Still, it’s pretty great! If you recall in the footage, at the end of the song the guys are taking off their guitars and preparing to exit the stage after being on for less than 20 minutes. So now brace yourself: a member of the audience, who is apparently unsatisfied with the very short set, begins booing in protest. Booing! Loudly. And complaining that it’s a ripoff. I mean, I can understand the guy’s disappointment, but it still grates on my nerves to hear him booing my band. Ugh.

Anyway, thankfully, The Cars do return and treat the enthusiastic audience to two more energetic gems.

I love love love the dizzying version of “Let’s Go,” and again, Elliot is just on fire. The big finish comes with “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and please, I am begging you, do NOT miss Elliot’s sassy little guitar riff at 26:46. If an attitude can be summarized in four seconds of music, there it is right there. So freaking great! I swear, there had to be cinders and ashes floating to the ground as those guys took their leave. Holy wow.

Your turn to listen in! Be sure to share your thoughts below.

UPDATE December 11, 2021: A reader pointed out to me the similarity of Elliot’s “sassy little riff” at 26:46 to the “Wake Me Up” demo at 3:08. It blew my mind! Take a listen:

Quoting Benjamin

On his feelings about The Lace: “I did the absolute best I could possibly do under the circumstances. I’m happy with what I have, but it makes me personally cringe when I don’t hear exactly [what I wanted]. Probably no one else would notice except myself and a few other people. It won’t happen like that again. It took me much too long to do this project. I wasn’t thrilled about some of the things that went on [referring to recording in England]. I’m real glad it’s over.” — “The Rewards of Rock Stardom” by Jim Sullivan, The Boston Globe, November 1, 1986

QuotingB

For the record: A Detour with Dr. Gonzo

Here’s a little misconception that popped up during the Christmas season. 

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Image retrieved from Discogs.

Fans were (understandably) lamenting the fact that The Cars never recorded a Christmas song, though one track did come up in conversation. Our good friend and SuperFan Jon M. posted on Facebook about a single called “Dough Ray Me” attributed to ‘Dr. Gonzo,’ and shared the audio of the song. There was some confusion as to if it was actually a Cars recording or not. It sounds suspiciously like The Cars. The vocal could certainly pass for Ben being a complete goofball, and while the lyrics are too straightforward to have been written by Ric, the storyline seems like something that might appeal to the band.

Unfortunately, it’s not our boys, but the post sparked my curiosity.

Jon had also mentioned that Dr. Gonzo did a Christmas spoof of “Just What I Needed,” too. I got to wondering how these funny songs came to be, and if The Cars had any involvement in their creation. I figured I’d take the detour, if nothing else than to store away some more random Cars trivia (!). Through the magic of social media I was able to have a little chat with the talent behind the mic, Mr. John Means, aka Dr. Gonzo.

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Image retrieved from Facebook.

In the early 1980s, when stand-up comedy was thriving, Illinois native John Means landed in San Francisco and found his niche as Dr. Gonzo, “The Doc of Comedy Rock.” He would take the stage with a guitar slung over his shoulder, and he would pepper his joke routine with short bursts of cheeky parodies of the popular songs of the day. “That got me to open for a lot of bands,” John explained, “because I was sort of musical, and that kind of made me the ‘cartoon before the movie’ for a lot of rock bands.”

Enter Roger Clark of Little Roger and The Goosebumps. who had some notoriety (and a bag of legal trouble) in 1978 after his genius mash-up of the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” triggered a cease and desist order from Led Zeppelin management. Roger was compelled to destroy all of the unsold 45s. Of course, he couldn’t take back the radio exposure, and the song, titled “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway),” (later reissued under the name “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”) became a cult classic. Incidentally, Robert Plant would say in 2004 that it was his favorite cover of the song.

Anyway, John teamed up with Roger in 1982 to write and record “Dough Ray Me,” a twist on Roger and Hammerstein’s “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. The gist of the lyrics is that Dr. Gonzo got high and decided to steal Ray’s car, then he crashed it, and now he owes Ray some dough. Very recognizable musical bits from “Just What I Needed” are sprinkled throughout. The 45 was released locally, billed as Dr. Gonzo & the Rent-A-Cars (the Rent-A-Cars were, of course, Little Roger and his Goosebumps), and even got a little radio airplay. “I think Dr. Demento played it, and local bay area stations humored me by putting it on the air a few times,” John chuckled.

With some help from his friends, John also shot a video for the song, featuring the late Monty Hoffman as the angry Ray. MTV was exploding in popularity at the time, so John decided to see if he could get a piece of the action. “We went to LA and went to The Cars’ record company and tried to pitch this thing and see if we could get it on MTV,” he recalled. “We wanted a blessing, we didn’t want to just do it and get in trouble. The MTV people liked it but the record company didn’t want them to release it, so they kind of put a stop to it getting on the air.”

Still, the video survived (and luckily, we can watch it on YouTube!). And there’s that Christmas parody that Jon M. mentioned, too. On an episode of the 80s show Night Flight, Dr. Gonzo takes to a junkyard with his guitar and rocks out an ode to Santa, also using “Just What I Needed.” The clip of that is preserved on Tracey L.’s YouTube channel (including some cute footage of an interview with Elliot!). See both videos below:

“The Cars were just a good vehicle, very recognizable. I could play a couple of chords on the guitar and people would realize I was going to do The Cars. I even did a Ric Ocasek… I’d pull my ears out and look like the fly in that one video and go, ‘Hey, look! I’ve got a rock star in my soup!’ Stupid stuff like that,” John laughed.

“Anybody I ever made fun of is because I was a fan of theirs. Their sound was just so good!” he said.

He always thought maybe he’d meet someone from The Cars but no luck, even when playing in the band’s backyard. “People just loved it when I did [the song] in Boston. It went over well and it was just a lot of fun.”

Throughout the 80s, John opened for some great bands, like Blue Oyster Cult, Night Ranger, Starship, Joe Walsh, and Devo. He also toured extensively with Huey Lewis and The News in 1983-84, and ended up in two of Huey’s music videos — how cool is that? “I got into it to be a stand up comic, not a rock star, but I got to live out my rock-and-roll fantasies, too.”

You can see him here as the ball handler at the Clown Toss booth (from about 1:55 to 2:35):

He also shows up a couple times in this one. You can hear Huey call “Gonzo!” at the 12 second mark, and then John has two little exchanges with Huey, one at 0:25 and another starting at 1:38 as Gonzo models a Back to the Future jacket.

Well now, we found all sorts of fun 80s trivia to tuck away, didn’t we?! And now we’ll return to our regularly scheduled writing. Haha! 

Kevin McCarty: Boston Boys, Part 3

Going back through memories that are over twenty years old can be a little like trying to fish eggshells out of a bowl: dates and details get a little slippery. But there are a few events that are crystalline in songwriter, singer, and guitar player Kevin McCarty’s past, experiences that left a deep, happy groove in his mind’s eye. Benjamin Orr gave Kevin his sincere friendship, along with a handful of rock star moments that Kevin will never forget.

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Scituate Fire Benefit t-shirt. Photo courtesy of Jeff Carlisi.

As with every connection in this series, my introduction to Kevin McCarty came about in a loopty-loop sort of way. It actually started with Jeff Carlisi, believe it or not. Jeff sent me a photo of a concert t-shirt he had been given that used to be Ben’s. The design included four acts on the bill: Benjamin Orr, The Irresponsibles, Black Number Nine, and Kevin McCarty. This was about the same time that I was getting to know Peter Montgomery, and it was my first clue that Peter knew Ben, since he led The Irresponsibles. Well, Peter put me in touch with Kevin (whose name I also recognized from Joe Milliken’s book). Kevin and I hit it off immediately, and we had a great time walking down memory lane together.

Like our other Boston boys, Kevin was born and raised in Scituate, Massachusetts. He picked up a guitar at a young age and jumped on the rock-and-roll road with enthusiasm. He loved the first Cars album and zeroed in on Ben as his favorite from the beginning. Though Ric wrote all the songs, it was Ben’s voice – that voice! – that Kevin connected with.

In the early 1990s, barely out of his teen years, Kevin was working with Brad Delp and his band RTZ (Return to Zero). He headed out on tour with them, starting out as one of the truck drivers as they traveled the country promoting their first album. He worked with such diligence and devotion that by the end of the tour he was given the title and duties of ‘tour manager’ for their last gig. He also gained a tight group of friends.

Now back home, Kevin turned his attention to his own music. In 1993 his band, The Keepers, had some moderate success in the clubs, sharing the bill with acts like The Del Fuegos, The Irresponsibles (with Peter Montgomery), and Charlie Farren. When it came time to record some of his original material, strife inside The Keepers left Kevin without musicians in the studio. His buddies jumped in to help: Brad Delp, drummer Dave Stefanelli, and bass player Tim Archibald. Together they recorded a quick three-song demo tape. And guess what? John Kalishes was the producer.

Kevin had been introduced to Kalishes by their mutual friend, David Tedeschi. At the same time that John was producing Kevin’s demo, John and Benjamin had thrown themselves into writing and recording Ben’s new songs. At some point in 1993, then, John introduced Kevin and Ben, and the two hit it off right away. In spite of the 20-year age difference, they had a lot in common: besides music, both Ben and Kevin were big into fishing and being outdoors, interests that would quickly become their main connection.

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John, Kevin, and Ben up at Kevin’s property in Maine, circa 1994. Photo credit unknown.

“My family – my brothers, sisters and cousins – we all pitched in and bought 40 acres up in Maine just for fun,” Kevin shared. “Ben was a wicked hunter so I said, ‘Yeah, come on up to the property. You can hunt on my property,’ and he was really pumped about that.”

The guys would stuff their gear into Ben’s van, make the long drive north, and settle in for an extended weekend stay. Being out in the woods was enough for Kevin, but Ben was always interested in the possibility of game.

“We’d get an early start on tracking just to see the amount of deer coming through. We went up there a few times. I wouldn’t shoot a thing, neither would John. I’d bring Ben up there, and every now and again Ben would go up there on his own to go see if he could bag something, but as far as I know he never bagged anything on the property. Just a lot of tracking!” he said, laughing.

Time passed and their friendship grew. Kevin never met Ben’s estranged wife, Judith; he recalls that she was in LA in the spring of 1994, and that Ben was going through a hard time because she just didn’t want to come back. He remembers that Ben didn’t have good feelings about the relationship with Judith at that time, and though he didn’t talk much about it, Kevin sometimes had the impression that if Ben was feeling down he’d get ahold of Kevin to just hang out, to have some guy time and take his mind off of what was going on. And so they spent their time pursuing their common hobbies.

On one of those early trips to Maine, Kevin got his first glimpse of Ben’s stalwart kindness. Ben, John and Kevin were heading to the property and John was playing Kevin’s demo for Ben in the van on the way up. “I’ve never been a fan of my own voice, ever,” Kevin confided. “You know, I try… I do. But I’d love to have Ben’s voice!” he chuckled.  “So Ben’s listening to it and when it’s over he turns around to me (as he’s driving and I’m in a captain’s chair in the back of his van) and he said, ‘You have a great voice.’ And I rolled my eyes, and I went [grunt, scoff] ’thanks’… and he got pissed. He goes, ‘Hey! Hey, I never tell anybody anything that I don’t mean. You have a great voice, it’s unique, I like it.’ And said, ‘Alright, hey, I appreciate it.’

“I was so self-conscious about my voice that I didn’t take the compliment directly, but he straightened that right out immediately. And I was like, ‘Okay… wicked sorry!’ My hero just paid me a compliment and I just blew it off, you know?” He laughed again. “I never did that again to Ben because I knew he was a straight shooter. People want to give you a compliment just to try to pump you up and make you feel better and that’s what I thought he was doing to me, but he made it very clear that that’s not what he was doing. He actually enjoyed the music.”

It wasn’t too long after that trip that Ben backed up his compliment with action.

1994.08.17 Rutland Daily Herald inked
The Rutland Daily Herald, August 17, 1994

There’s an annual benefit concert up in Plymouth, Vermont, called the Riverweed Music and Outdoor Adventure Festival. Kevin had played it many times. One day while hanging out at Ben’s place, he mentioned it to Ben and John, as he was gearing up for the coming summer event. Kevin was surprised and excited by Ben’s response. “He was like, ‘Can I play?’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I mean, your hero asks you if he can play? Uh, ‘Yeah! You wanna make a band?’” he related, laughing. “And we immediately came up with a band name and [Ben] goes, ‘Well, what are we playing?’ So I started playing my music and he started learning it on the bass and we went from there.”

Billed as The Beacon Hillbillies, Kevin, Ben, and John organized an acoustic set for the show that included half of Ben’s stuff (his solo material and The Cars) and half of Kevin’s original material. The trio began rehearsing in earnest at Ben’s home in Weston. All of them knew it was just a one-off gig; there was no intention of continuing the band after the Riverweed show.  The collaboration would serve a greater purpose: it would mark Ben’s return to the stage after nearly seven years out of the spotlight. With his new batch of songs and his marriage to Judith foundering, Ben seemed determined to rekindle his career.

This temporary alliance of The Beacon Hillbillies set off a series of dominos falling, one after another, marking new stages in Ben’s personal life as well as his musical career.

The outdoor festival took place on August 21, 1994, at the Hawk Inn and Mountain Resort in Plymouth, Vermont. Arriving there was always a homecoming of sorts for Kevin, as he had played the annual event so often (among other Vermont gigs) and had many friends in the area. Kevin enjoyed introducing Ben to everyone, including Edita Hartig, the young bartender that was serving them as they waited their turn to play. And it was in that bar that Ben suggested to Kevin that the two walk up through the crowd together to take the stage, giving Kevin the ultimate rock star experience as the crowd parted for them.

Kevin first related the story of this cool gig to Joe Milliken for his book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars (p. 165), but he was off on the date. He had told Joe that it was in 1995, and he was so sure it was, but as Kevin and I discussed it more we realized that could not be right. Kevin is unshakable on the fact that he facilitated the first meeting between Ben and Edita at the Riverweed Festival, and I believe he did – in 1994. It turns out that Ben played Riverweed in 1994 and 1995, and that’s why Kevin was confused.

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Kevin and Ben, August 21, 1994. This is the only known photo of The Beacon Hillbillies, courtesy of Kevin McCarty.

The stage was set up in a big open field. A series of bands was scheduled to play from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and those attendees who were there to make a day of it were spread out with their chairs and blankets and coolers in the sunshine. While The Beacon Hillbillies were playing the fans were on their feet, dancing and singing along. Many knew Kevin’s original tunes, and fans went nuts when a Cars song came up in the set. Afterwards, Kevin signed autographs alongside Ben and John, a very heady experience.

After the Riverweed show, Ben and Kevin stayed in Vermont for a bit, hanging out with Kevin’s friends. “They had gotten us a badass mansion, so we stayed in it and just hung out there and partied for literally a week and a half.” Kevin remembered. “It was a big deal that Ben Orr was coming to the concert. It wasn’t because I was Kevin McCarty, it was because Ben Orr was coming up.” It was another sampling of how it felt to be a rock star.

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Ben at Riverweed, August, 1994. Photo credit: Chris Kamburoff.

Everybody had a blast, enjoying the posh accommodations as the visit stretched and summer days melted one into another. Edita was among the friends hanging out that week, and she and Ben got to know each other better. She was pretty and sweet, and lots of fun to be around. Believing that things were finally over between Ben and Judith, Kevin was pleased to observe the sweet attraction Ben and Edita felt for each other. “I could tell he really liked her, and she liked him, too. There was a definite chemistry there,” he noted. After ten days or so, Ben returned to Boston but he and Edita kept in touch. Ben was soon traveling up to Vermont to spend time with her.

Meanwhile, Ben threw himself into reentering the Boston music scene. He assembled his first incarnation of the ORR band, including John Kalishes and guitarist Charlie O’Neal, along with bassist Rick O’Neal, keyboardist Igor Koroshev, and drummer John Muzzy. They made their live debut at The Rat on Sunday, December 18, 1994, and from there, booked a series of shows into 1995. Kevin ended up opening for ORR about a half a dozen times, either as a solo acoustic act or with his band, Kevin McCarty and The Wrest.

One of Kevin’s early appearances with Ben was a little rough. “He had me open up for him in Rhode Island. ORR was playing, one of their first major shows. I was the sole opener with just me and my acoustic guitar. I didn’t go over very well, me personally, and for some of the crowd, I guess. I was actually heckled. I had never been heckled in my life! We just had a bad couple of tables out front and they were right in my face. But it still ended up being a great evening. I mean, I was signing autographs right next to Ben; people wanted mine, too!” he chuckled.

And then there was the show advertised on the t-shirt that Jeff showed me: a benefit concert for the victims of a fire in Scituate. All of the bands on the bill were happy to participate. “Ben was always great about that, donating his time. So we all just donated our time and put on a show for everybody. I was proud as a peacock having my face on the same jersey as Ben’s.” [More on that show coming in a separate post.]

Through most of 1995, Kevin and Ben hung out quite a bit. It was a natural, easy friendship. Kevin looked up to Ben so much. Certainly, their common interests, similar personalities, and Kevin’s mammoth respect for Ben played a part in keeping them so close.

It also helped that Kevin didn’t want anything from Ben, other than his friendship. Kevin explained, “He was sweet to a fault, you know? He was nice as nice could be. He and Brad Delp were the same that way. They wanted people who treated them real, like a person and not a party toy. I know that’s one of the main reasons that I was able to hang out with either of them. I just treated him like a normal person, I never asked him for anything. Ben would always check with me if I needed anything, and I’d always say, ‘no, no, I’m fine.’”

But it was obvious that there was a contingent of coat-tail riders and party people that hung around Ben, taking advantage of his generosity, and it seemed to Kevin that it was very wearing on Ben. “And once again, I don’t want to say I know that for a fact, but I do know those people very well, and I witnessed the party that wouldn’t stop. I think it was a little overwhelming and Ben just didn’t like that. We had more fun just in the woods. That’s where we enjoyed our time.”

I could hear the smile in Kevin’s voice as he wound his way back through those idyllic days in his mind.

Often times, it was Ben, John, David, and Kevin out on David’s boat on the ocean near Scituate Harbor. They’d spend the day noodling around in the studio and then go fishing into the night, eventually finding a place to dock and party. Sometimes they’d head over to The Glades to cook up their catch, hang out with Pete Montgomery, and have a ‘romping good time.’

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John, friend Eric, Ben and David night fishing. Photo credit unknown.

“We did so many different things! He actually gave me one of his Harleys, which I wouldn’t take. And he goes, ‘Well, it’s yours. Nobody else is going to ride it. I won’t let anybody else ride it, it’s yours.’ And I said, ‘Ben! [with exasperation] Ben, you don’t have to give me a Harley!’ and he said, ‘Nah, I don’t want anybody else to ride it. I only want you to ride it.’ So that would be a thing: we’d go up and ride. I just left it in his garage and I’d go up there and go for a ride every now and again.

“Fishing, camping, touring around… We loved to go to the old ‘mom and pop’ shops wherever we were and find the grossest thing to eat and dare the other one to eat it, you know, like the old eggs that looked like they had been there for 30 years. He had some dried fish jerky that was the grossest thing on the planet. It was so salty, I mean, as soon as you opened it up the entire vehicle smelled like low tide. It was horrific! And we would dare each other to finish it – it was something that his dad used to eat all the time and he hated it. But he would say, ‘Oh wait, I know! This is the grossest thing ever!’ and so of course, me always looking up to Ben, I was like, ‘I’ll go for it. Absolutely.’ John wouldn’t, but Ben would always get me into the ‘gross stuff’ eating contest,” he remembered, laughing.

And hot sauce? “Oh yeah, I’m still into the hot sauce! I love it!”

Another memory popped into Kevin’s mind. “I actually wrote one line in one of his songs on [Ben’s unfinished solo] album. It was funny.” It was a fishing day, and Kevin had headed over to John’s to pick him up, and the two planned to go meet Ben at the harbor. Kevin walked in to find John not anywhere near ready to go. “John was still in his sweatpants and a lot of nothing and I’m like, ‘Dude!’ and he was like, ‘I’m stuck!’ and I go, ‘What do you mean?’ and he goes, ‘I’m stuck on this song. I just can’t figure out what to do.’

“John was a great writer. And I asked, ‘Whatta you got?’ and he said, ‘I sent you a message in a sake bottle, it crashed on the rocks…’ and I said, ‘Aw, man.’ He goes, ‘You know what I mean? I ended it. Where do you go from there? It crashed on the rocks.’ And I said, ‘… and shattered something awful.’ And he said, ‘Oh my god! YES! Kevin! Yeah, finally!’ He was all excited that he could come out because he wasn’t going to leave the house unless he got that, and it just happened to just run right through my head and come out my mouth. And he got up and got dressed and we went out and had some fun. I was glad I could help. But that was my only contribution to anything in the band ORR. That was it!”

Kevin remembers that Ben had a great since of humor and loved to play tricks on people. One night after fishing for stripers on the ocean, they landed at one of their usual spots: a local Chinese restaurant where they would hang out and party. The place had karaoke going on, and at one point the guy running the machine asked Kevin if he’d take a turn with the mic.

Kevin wasn’t inclined to do a song (karaoke wasn’t really his favorite thing), but he said he’d think about it. When Kevin returned to the table, Ben wanted to know what was going on. After Kevin filled him in, Ben saw an opportunity to have some fun. “Ben said, ‘Kevin, tell you what. Go up to him, tell him to play ‘Drive,’ and just take the microphone and walk away.’” Kevin followed directions and passed the mic to Ben under the table. They were sitting in the back corner, in a private spot and Ben sang “Drive” karaoke.

Kevin laughed as he remembered, “And everybody in the room’s going, ‘Oh my god, this guy sounds just like the guy!’ and they’re all looking around trying to see who is singing the song and Ben’s just ducked down in the corner singing ‘Drive.’ That was SO much fun! I mean, at the end everybody was like, ‘that was awesome!’ and everybody’s looking around going ‘who sang that?’ And Ben handed me the mic underneath the table and I put it behind my back and walked it back up to the guy and I hand him the mic. That was awesome, that was a great night.”

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Invitation for the 1994 Christmas party at The Rat (not the same year that Kevin and Ben went). Photo credit: Vin Kalishes

“But that’s the way he was, he was really a kick in the pants. He had jokes like when we went to the Rathskeller Christmas party… Ben and I went there, we got invited by Jimmy, the owner, and there was a pizza joint right next door and we went in there to get pizza and we’re sitting down waiting for our pizza. The booths are kind of weird, as in… you’re sitting in a booth, Ben and I are across from each other in a booth, and then there’s a short wall, and then another booth on the other side, to your right or left, whatever way you’re facing. And they call out ‘the pizza’s ready’ and Ben hops up and I go, ‘I got it’ and Ben says, ‘No, I got it’ – like I said, never lets you pay for anything. And the girl [in the next booth] leans over and says, ‘Oh my god, that guy looks exactly like the guy from The Cars!’ and I said, ‘He does, doesn’t he?’ and she goes, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it.’

Ben sat down and they started eating, and the gal got up and went to the restroom. Kevin tells Ben what she said. “After she comes back she says something to Ben, too, telling him he looked just like the guy from The Cars. And Ben responded, ‘Really? Do I? Wow. Which one?’ and she’s says, ‘Ben Orr,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, no kidding! Aw, well, thanks!’”

The girl is still looking over, just sure that it must be Ben. “And I’m sitting there across the table, me, like the little dog going, ‘Can I tell her? Can I tell her?’ and he sees it on my face and he says, ‘You want to tell her don’t you?’ And I said, ’Yeah, I really do,’ and he says, ‘Go ahead.’” So Kevin tells her and she’s thrilled, gushing over Ben a bit, “…and he signs up whatever she wants and he’s just as sweet as hell, but he originally left her hanging, just for the fun of it,” Kevin snickered.

“But that’s about it with me and Ben. Man, we just really enjoyed our time together. We just had a blast and it was like mentor and student times, you know? That’s how I feel about our relationship. We were blood-related, even though we weren’t, and it was mentor and student.”

Gradually, though, the time they spent together diminished. Ben’s relationship with Edita Hartig grew more serious, and he spent less and less time in the Boston area, preferring to be in Vermont when he wasn’t on stage. “He ended up going up there more often on a solo mission and then decided to rent a house up there, I believe, at first. There’s a big ranch up there, and I think he ended up buying it… I think he did. And then he redid the studio. He had a big horse arena for Edita and stuff. It was quite an impressive place.”

Kevin recalls that John Kalishes stayed in the guest house at the Vermont place for a time while the two were continuing to write and work together, while Edita lived with Ben in the main house.

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Ben and his son, circa 1996. Retrieved from Pinterest.

On September 29, 1995, Edita gave birth to Ben’s only biological child, Benjamin Charles Joseph. By all accounts, Ben’s son, whom he referred to as ‘Lil Ben,’ was the pride of his heart, and more of Ben’s time and attention were devoted to his family.

Though their outdoor adventures naturally took a backseat, Kevin always felt that he and Ben were solid friends, so he was surprised when their last interaction was somewhat awkward and painful. A few years had passed since the two had talked, and by this time Kevin had moved up to Vermont himself. He had started the Kevin McCarty Band and was at a point where he was ready to record an album, and he thought about how great it would be to collaborate with Ben again.

“And when I called him to do that, he was very standoffish on the phone. He was like ‘why are you calling me for this?’ and I said, ‘Whoa…’ and I said, ‘Because I look up to you and I’ve always appreciated what you put out, and you’d be a big help.’” Kevin didn’t find out until later that Ben was battling cancer at that time. “To be honest with you, I think he… well, he knew he was a hero of mine, as well as a good friend, and I really think he just didn’t want me to see him… I feel like if he was healthy he would have been excited to do it; that’s how he was. I think he just didn’t want to work with me. Not like that. He said, ‘Alright, well I’ll tell you what. I’ll think about it and I’ll give you a call back.’ And then I didn’t hear from him again so… and he passed away shortly after that.”

Kevin was devastated by the news of Ben’s death. “I was in my house in Vermont and my brother called. He wanted to get in touch with me as quick as possible so I didn’t hear it from anybody else,” Kevin recalled quietly.

“Ben was just such a real human being and a caring human being,” he said with feeling. “He meant what he said, said what he meant. He would do anything for you. He wouldn’t let you pay, anywhere we went, he wouldn’t let me pay. I’m like, ‘come on, dude’ and he’d say, ‘no, come on, I got it. Don’t worry about it. I got it.’ You know? He was just sweet… He was as sweet as they make ‘em. His soul, you know…” he trailed off, getting a hold of his emotions.

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Kevin McCarty, circa 2013

“Remember in Joe’s book when Ben looked at me in the bar?” he continued thoughtfully. “And he was like, ‘what do you say you and I just walk up through it?’ I mean, there were hundreds of people there, and we decided, let’s just walk up through the middle of them all, and I knew he was doing that just for me. Everybody’s going to recognize Ben. You just look around and all these people are like, ‘[gasp]’ and they’re parting, it’s like parting an ocean and we’re walking through the ocean, and everybody’s patting us on the back and putting their hands out to shake, and I mean, he made a young rocker’s life in that moment, you know?” he said.

“We could have easily gone up and gotten a car and been driven backstage but he knew it would make a difference in my life, and I’m forever thankful for that experience. It’s one of those ones that just… you know, my family still tells the story, the people that were there. So to make somebody’s life like that, and it was very conscious of Ben, he knew what he was doing, and he knew that I was a good friend and he did me tenfold on that. That is what I’ll always remember.”

Ben made it about Kevin, not about Ben, Kevin emphasized. “For that one moment, I was as big of a rock star as he was. It’s like he said, ‘This is what it feels like. Let me give you that experience.’ And that … I mean, I don’t know anything sweeter than doing that for someone who has been playing music all their life and trying to succeed and not quite getting it, you know?”


Some notes:

  • ICYMI: Read the rest of the Boston Boys series here: Part 1: Barry Marshall and Part 2: Peter Montgomery
  • Kevin packed all of his worldly goods into his car and moved to California in 2001. Shortly after he arrived, he was robbed — everything that was not on his person was stolen. All of his clothes, personal treasures, photos, master tapes, demos, important papers… everything. Such an awful loss for him! Unfortunately, this also means he has no visual memories to share with us from this time period. 😦
  • In later years, Kevin had the pleasure of working with Elliot Easton in the recording studio. Stay tuned for a separate article on that!
  • Also, check out this cool footage I found of The Rat and Pizza Pad (with a little glimpse of Captain Nemo’s Pizza) from 1985. Kevin isn’t sure which of those pizza places was the location of Ben’s little prank on the female fan. No matter; it’s so cool to visit the places that made up Ben’s world!

Cleveland Circle, uncut

One of the most exciting articles I’ve written for my blog is the piece I did with Leo Yorkell, published on February 14, 2019. I remember my curiosity when he first contacted me through Twitter, and how fun it was to talk with him on the phone. He was so genuine and funny, and his love for Ben was unmistakable. I was thrilled with his insights into Ben’s life in the mid-90s and how he fit the puzzle pieces together of Ben’s softball-playing adventures. Then he really blew me away when he started digging around and unearthed old photos, videos, and newspaper clippings (like the one below) that had long been packed away, and generously shared them! 

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Photo credit: Ethan Thomas, The Sentinel (Rochester), September 11, 1997

One of the treasures Leo had found was the video footage he shot of Ben playing in Cleveland Circle, Boston, in the summer of 1997. As part of this month’s #CelebratingBenjaminOrr tributes, we’ve uploaded Ben’s full 6-song set, uncut, including the previously unreleased performance of “Stay The Night.”

This short show is one hit after another, and is sprinkled liberally with Ben’s winning smiles. Beyond that, here are half a dozen other notable nuggets:

  1. 0:16 Ben cuts it close when mounting the stage and gets to the mic just in time for his first line, but remains unruffled even as his guitar strap refuses to cooperate.
  2. 1:45 The ORR band’s cool arrangement of “Let’s Go” has Rich Bartlett and John Kalishes trading guitar licks while Ben looks on.
  3. The run of Ben’s facial expressions between 5:20 and 5:30 is priceless.
  4. What a treat to catch glimpses of Edita and young Ben in the audience, and to see how even from the stage Ben adores his son. We can also see the late Dave Tedeschi at both the beginning and end of the show. 
  5. 12:24 Ben acknowledges someone else in the crowd. Does he say Vinny? Maybe Vin Kalishes is there? Is it the same person Brad smiles at at 10:18 and Ben at 10:30?
  6. At 15:20 Ben flubs the lyrics, and then tucks his arm behind his back, causing Tom to laugh. How much you wanna bet he was flipping the bird?

What else stands out to you? 

Enjoy the video, and please comment below to join me in giving a grateful shout out to Leo for his role in keeping Ben’s legacy alive! ❤ 

The Cars and Bob Seger: Yay for Snowstorms!

So we know the story about Roy Thomas Baker driving out to see The Cars play in a snowstorm at the end of 1977, and everyone shaking hands on going to England with him to produce the first album. Well, that wasn’t the first time The Great Snowflake proved fortuitous for the band. Mother Nature gave our boys a little gift at the beginning of that year when they were just starting out.

Bob_Seger_-_Night_MovesIn March of 1977, Bob Seger was riding high on the huge success of his recently released breakthrough album, Night Moves. Though it was his ninth studio album, it was the first one to catapult him into nationwide success and his first to go platinum. He had booked a show at the Music Hall in Boston for Friday, March 18, with Derringer as his opening act. [Nerd alert: Seger had not headlined in Boston before. Another first for him!]

Friday arrived and Derringer opened the show as planned, but Bob got stuck. Heavy snowfall prevented his plane from landing and he was forced to fly back to New York. Apparently Derringer had finished their set before the postponement announcement came, and, amazingly, they played another rockin’ set before the fans were sent home.

The concert was rescheduled for Monday, March 21, but Derringer was not able to play that date for some reason. I didn’t do deep research on the ‘why’ behind that because what matters is that the opener slot was left vacant. Even up to the day of the show, the replacement act had not been announced: the newspaper ad stated, “It is expected that a local band will open tonight.”

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The Cars by Stephen Sherman, 1977; shared with permission.

The Cars were still fairly new at that time — in terms of the combination of members, anyway. Greg had joined the band sometime in January as the fifth and final Car part (groan!), and their first live show all together was at The Rat on February 7. In Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, we learned that band manager Fred Lewis convinced music promoter Don Law to let The Cars slip onto the bill for that Seger show, though they only had a handful of gigs in the bag.

Obviously, this was a terrific stroke of luck for The Cars. Not only did it give them a chance to reach a greater audience, but it also put them on the radar of the bigger wigs in the music industry. Yay for snowstorms!

So let’s get to the actual recording. I wish it was video footage! Still, I am so grateful for this auditory treat. The person who captured the concert on tape showed up just a bit late, so we miss a smidge of the first song. The Cars’ set lasted just under 30 minutes, and included:

  1. “Bye Bye Love” with Ric on vocals.
  2. “I Don’t Want To,” sung by Elliot.
  3. “Leave or Stay”
  4. “You Can Have ‘Em,” also known as “Sleepy Wasted Afternoon.” [Sweet Ben jumping the starting gun! ❤ ]
  5. “Don’t Cha Stop” (called “Don’t You Stop”), with a Greg synth riff in place of EE’s later solo and some slippery vocal timing on the chorus.
  6. “Come Back Down”
  7. “Strawberry Moonlight”

I couldn’t find a written review of The Cars’ performance (I guess Bob Seger was terrific!), but the crowd sounds appreciative of the band in the audio file. I also don’t know the number of people actually in the audience, but I think the seating capacity of the Music Hall was around 3,500, which was quite a bit more than The Rat held. Haha!

A few notes:

  • It’s cool — and a little strange! — to experience these early incarnations of “Bye Bye Love” and “Don’t Cha Stop.”
  • We definitely hear a little more addressing of the crowd than Ric usually participated in during a live show.
  • I love the little bits of banter that Ben sneaks in, like when he mentions the ‘strange people up there in the balcony’ around 12:25.
  • And is that Greg that says, “Good Lord! Look at that!” right before Ben’s comment?
  • And speaking of Greg, listen for his badass saxophone work!
  • Also, don’t miss Ben’s introduction to “Come Back Down” at about 16:12.

Oh, and about “I Don’t Want To”… I think this is an original Cars’ song because of the way Ric introduced it, even though I’ve never heard of it referred to anywhere else in The Cars’ discography. I wonder who wrote it? Probably Ric, I know, but it seems like something Elliot could have penned. I’ll have to do a lyrics post for it, too, because this song is hilarious. And does anyone else feel their heart rate spike when Ben sings, “bay-be bay-be bay-be, bay-bay!” or is it just me? I think that’s my favorite part of the whole show.

Okay, your turn! Click below to listen to one of the earliest published recordings of The Cars. Enjoy!

#CelebratingBenjaminOrr

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.

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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.

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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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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!

Peter Montgomery: Boston Boys, Part 2

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.”

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Peter Montgomery, 1992

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.

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Dominec Laudani and Peter Montgomery, 1985.

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 aggravator covermean, 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.

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Big Orange. L-R: Mark Nigro, Dave Thomas, Peter Montgomery, Dan Rudack

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John Kalishes in the studio, around 1992

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.

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Ben Orr and John Kalishes. Image retrieved from the internet; photo credit, date and location unknown.

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.”

the glades
The Glades.

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.

ben stepped on cat story peter montgomery lesley borrelli
From Lesley Borrelli; shared with permission.

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.

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The view from Peter’s apartment at The Glades with the tiny Boston skyline off on the right. Photo courtesy of Lesley Borrelli; shared with permission.

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.

when pigs flyThe 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:]

quality of life

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.

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Elliot Easton, June, 2019. Photo retrieved from Facebook.

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)”

ee sheet music
Elliot’s handwritten charts.

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.”

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Peter, Barry, and Elliot in the studio. Photo courtesy of Barry Marshall; shared with permission.

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 barry_marshall@emerson.edu. 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!]

Barry Marshall: Boston Boys, Part 1

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.

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?

the bell buoyAt 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!

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Edgar Willow review, The Boston Globe, December 20, 1979

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.”

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Business cards from Barry’s wallet, 1977. Courtesy of Barry Marshall; shared with permission.

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!”

The Marshalls Barry on left
The Marshalls (that’s Barry, smoldering on the left)

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.

1977. business cards back side
Back of the Andy Bergsten business card. Courtesy of Barry Marshall; shared with permission.

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. shagThe 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!


Here’s a little Barry Marshall bonus: a snippet of an episode of Joe Viglione’s Visual Radio show featuring Barry and Fox Pass co-founder Jon Macey. I love it!

Bob McKeon: Ben Orr, under arrest?

Once upon a time, in the peaceful hamlet of Allston, Massachusetts, a diabolical plot was carried out: the murder of Michael Mackin! But who could be so evil? So cunning? And so sure that he… or she… could escape detection?

Okay, that’s not exactly what happened… er, at least not for real.

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The Boston Globe, August 6, 1987

On August 8, 1987, Boston’s public access television station, WGBH, hosted a benefit as part of their annual fundraising events. The theme was “Murder at MYSTERY! Mansion” and those in attendance were charged with the task of solving a faux crime, specifically, figuring out who murdered Channel 7 reporter Michael Mackin. Other local celebrities and notable personalities were there, too, and, as witnesses to the ‘death’, were considered suspects.

One gentleman at the charity event was Massachusetts State Police (MSP) Corporal Bob McKeon. Bob was recruited as a volunteer by Carole Nash, owner of the Nash Modeling Agency in Boston, to play the part of the arresting officer at the end of the evening.

As best as Bob can recall from this night over thirty years ago, the excitement got underway while the volunteer actors were gathered on a stage and the guests were mingling nearby. The lights suddenly went out, and when they came up again, Mike Mackin was dead on the floor — the game was afoot! After his body was removed, guests had to interact with the suspects to try to determine who was responsible for the terrible tragedy.

Bob himself was downstairs in a private room, waiting for his cue for the grand finale. He wasn’t privy to all that was happening above so he isn’t sure how Vincent Price fit in, or if a dinner was served, or in what ways the guests obtained clues to solve the mystery. But he was far from bored: Mike Mackin was brought into the room from the stage, and the two had fun shooting the breeze while the event continued upstairs. A little later, Bob had the pleasure of chatting with Benjamin Orr and Diane Page for a bit when they stepped away from the action of the stage.

While Ben and Diane stayed close together most of the evening, Ben made his way down to the room for a short break. He and Bob conversed easily as they found they had obvious common interests. “Ben was a supporter of the MSP. He asked me about my career. Apparently he was friendly with some of the Troopers on the Mass Pike [located in Weston] and mentioned going to the shooting range with a couple of them. He spoke well of the Massachusetts State Police.”

Diane joined them shortly afterwards. Bob found Diane and Ben to be refreshingly genuine and open, and he enjoyed their quiet chat very much.

ben by bob mckeon
L_R: Bob McKeon, Carole Nash, Diane Page, and Benjamin Orr, August 8, 1987. Photo courtesy of Bob McKeon, shared with permission.

Eventually it was Bob’s turn to make his appearance in the drama. He headed back upstairs and prepared for his signal calling him to emerge through the curtain.

“When it came time to see who was responsible for Mackin’s murder, I walked onto the stage. I stood out like a sore thumb being dressed in two-tone blue and not black and white like everyone else,” Bob recalled. He played his part perfectly. “I slowly walked past all the alleged suspects and returned to Diane and arrested her for the murder. Then I surprised the crowd by arresting Ben as a co-conspirator before and after the fact.”

The evening was a success, and remains a wonderful memory for Bob.

“It was all in good fun and they raised a sizable sum of money during the event. I was happy they took a photo of myself with Carole, Diane, and Ben. It is a great memory of a fun event. I found Diane and Ben to just be normal folks when I was one-on-one with them. Ben was really nice and I felt sad when he passed.”

Of course, the ‘charges’ were dropped and no one’s permanent record was affected, though Ben did leave a favorable lasting impression on Bob McKeon.

Thank you so much for sharing your little bit of Ben history with us, Bob!  ❤

I love that “Dirty Water”

Back in February I was poking around on Facebook and I stumbled across this hidden gem that Boston musician (and Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music) Lisa Guyer posted back in 2014:

hatch shell facebook

Confused GIF-downsized_largeWhat the heck? Here was an event Ben was involved in that I had never heard of before, and with another of my favorite Boston rockers, Charlie Farren! Lisa’s post gave me some obvious clues to the story behind the photo and I was eager to start digging.

Initially, there wasn’t much to find. At the end of the day my little file consisted of the Facebook screen shot above, one newspaper clipping, and a newfound familiarity with the Hatch Memorial Shell and the song “Dirty Water” by The Standells.

Though I couldn’t find an exact listing for it on the Guinness Book of World Records website, apparently there is a category for most guitarists (or musicians?) playing one song for the longest period of time. In 1994, 1,322 guitarists jammed with Randy Bachman to “Taking Care of Business” for 68 minutes and 40 seconds, and I think that was the record… But then it gets kind of confusing, because there seems to be some crossover between setting a record for the largest guitar ensemble playing one song, and the largest guitar ensemble playing one song for the longest time, and I just can’t figure it all out right now so… let’s just settle on knowing that in 1997, hundreds of guitar players and musicians in Boston gathered in attempt to break a Guinness world record by playing “Dirty Water” by The Standells for a really long time.

That song, by the way, is a beloved Boston anthem. The tune has been cranked for cheering crowds after home victories by the Bruins and the Red Sox since about 1995. Written by Standells producer Ed Cobb and released in 1965, the lyrics draw attention to some of the less savory elements of Boston history and what used to be the disgustingly polluted Charles River, and yet the singer declares, “I love that dirty water. Boston, you’re my home!” The simplicity of its garage rock beat and catchy riff seal the deal as a natural song choice for tackling this world record (whatever exactly it may be).

And the venue… Officially titled the Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell, Bostontonians have been enjoying a variety of free outdoor concerts, movies, and public events at the Hatch Shell for over 90 years. Its unique structure is located on the Charles River Esplanade and is surrounded by a large and inviting lawn. The Shell’s spacious wooden interior, which is famous for regularly accommodating the Boston Pops Orchestra, provides plenty of room for multiple guitarists, drummers, and keyboard players to spread out. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Hatch Shell - Concerts and Movies (With images) | Outdoor stage ...

After gleaning these tidbits, I had to table the topic. But a most happy circumstance has brought it back to the forefront! Jonathan R. discovered and generously shared a very recent YouTube upload of some live footage from this event ~ including Benjamin!

There are actually five video clips all together. I’ve created a playlist of the segments in chronological order.

The video clips armed me with new keywords to search and angles to pursue, and I was able to find a couple more articles from The Boston Globe. Here are some additional factoids I picked up:

  • The Dirty Water Guitar Marathon took place on September 13, 1997.
  • The event was the brainchild of Promotions/Artist Relations Director Candi Bramante (now Bettencourt). Candi’s family owned Daddy’s Junky Music, and this gathering was, in part, a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that beloved New England guitar and audio equipment chain. She’s also the one that uploaded the footage to Youtube. I’m SO grateful she did!
  • The original vision for the record-breaking attempt was hammered out and refined at the Hard Rock Cafe in March of 1997 with input from Charlie Farren, Johnny A (Peter Wolf) and Brandan Sweeney (Notary Public), among others. Those who met together were hoping for around 3,000 guitarists to join the cause.
  • The entry fee to register as a player was only $5. Part of the proceeds from the event were donated to charity, including contributions to the House of Blues Foundation and the Bob Woolf Charitable Foundation.
  • 56749225_1206984519483899_3958792582175129600_o
    Event t-shirt (image retrieved from the Benjamin Orr Remembered Facebook group)

    Lisa Guyer and Mama Kicks performed as the ‘house band’ and backed the other musicians for the entire show. Wowza! No wonder she said in her Facebook post that the song now makes her cringe a little!

  • Many other Boston legends are seen in the footage, like Rich Bartlett, Tom Hambridge, Hirsh Gardner, John Muzzy, and Phil Bynoe. I can’t make out some of the names that the announcer says in the videos so if you recognize any other artists, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
  • hatch-shell-dirty-water_Lj7LH1AS
    Back of event t-shirt (image retrieved from All About The Benjamin Facebook group)

    Other musicians slated to play (but I’m not positive that they did) were Barry Goudreau, John Cafferty, Gary Gramolini (of the Beaver Brown Band), Jon Butcher, Johnny A, Stu Hamm (Joe Satriani), and David Minehan (The Neighborhoods). You can see the highlighted guests on the back of the event t-shirt to the right. I wonder if any of the coordinators kept their final list of all the participants?

  • The whole swarm ended up playing “Dirty Water” continuously for one hour and 29 minutes, which reportedly set a record for the longest time a band (the rockers on stage) played one song for an audience. Unfortunately, the gig only ended up with about 1,200 registered guitarists, which was 400 short of setting the Guinness record they were actually targeting. It certainly wasn’t a bust, though: amateurs, professionals, and spectators alike all had a great time, coming together as a Boston rock-and-roll family. ❤

You know, there were at least a half a dozen photographers crawling on and around that stage. What a treasure it would be if they would dig out their booty and share photos of the show with us! Pretty please?

And while we’re at it, I would love it if Candi Bettencourt would upload the entire uncut footage. Even if it’s not the best camera work, fans would rejoice in being able to experience this bit of Boston history with so many incredible musicians.

ben
Ben, AJ Wachtel, AJ’s son, Harrison

There are a couple of cool photographic dots we can connect here, by the way.

First, this is the same event our friend AJ Wachtel told us about; it was the last time he remembers getting to hang out with Ben. This photo on the right is from that day — click here to read the full article.

Also, Mazarkis S. pointed out that this event is also the likely location of another classic Ben photo. It’s kind of tricky, because Ben wore his ABATE shirt a couple of times (I’m thinking particularly of Ben with Tom Hambridge at the Snowfest in Two Rivers, Wisconsin), but based on the color of the lanyard and access pass, I believe Mazarkis is right.

cleaned up
Not sure to whom the photo credit belongs, but the original was cleaned up here by Becky B.

That’s about all I could come up with. I’ll post the newspaper articles in an album on Facebook. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that maybe others will chime in with their memories, photos, or videos of that day. I remain optimistic that more bits o’ Benjamin history will surface; surely there is more to discover!


Whenever I am researching something specific like this, I end up going down sooooo many little rabbit holes, which is frustrating because it then takes forever for me to finish an article, but it’s also cool because I tend to discover some pretty interesting stuff. Here are a couple of the ‘bonus features’ I found when I was working on this article.

  • This hilarious 2020 commercial features a snippet of “Dirty Water.”
  • The Standells were central characters in an episode of The Munsters!
  • Last one: Created from a block of silicon, and based on the Fender Stratocaster, the world’s smallest guitar is about the size of a single human blood cell and has strings that can be plucked. Seriously! Basic nerd link: click here. Super-science-nerd link: click here.

nano guitar

Okay, enough of that. I’ll leave you with this bit of grand delight. Enjoy!

Boston GIF-downsized_large

A Case for the Tremont Fire

A Case for the Tremont Fire

The desire to dig:

I always have a short list of mysteries I wish I could solve about Ben’s life. In the number one spot is the location of the apartment fire that he survived four decades ago. It always seemed strange to me that information about such a monumental event could remain so elusive. In 2016, I started poking around for clues about Boston-area fires and collecting the puzzle pieces in a file, hoping to be able to snap them all together someday. It proved pretty difficult, and I was hitting wall after wall.

During that time I met Joe Milliken and we became friends. As I got to know him better and understood his heart for the book he was writing about Ben, I quietly resolved to set aside certain areas of my research because I didn’t want to scoop him on stuff. I just felt it was the right thing to do, you know? So I closed the file on the fire.

I kept that decision to myself until long after he invited me to help with the book. When it eventually came up, I learned that, unfortunately, he didn’t know the specifics of the location either. But low and behold, after the book was published, a reader stepped forward and emailed Joe with a previously-unknown-to-me-but-very-viable possibility: a five-alarm fire at 101-103 Tremont in the early hours of December 9, 1979. Knowing how important it was to me personally to investigate this bit of Ben’s history, Joe very generously passed the tip to me and turned me loose.

I eagerly jumped down the research rabbit hole. My digging for details led me to Charlie Vasiliades. Not only has he lived in the neighborhood of the fire for more than 60 years, but he has an incredible memory and a huge heart for history. He serves as the vice president of the Brighton Allston Historical Society, and is affectionately nicknamed the ‘mayor of Oak Square’ due to his longtime dedication to community activism. Charlie was instrumental in bringing this story to life.


My fundamental premise:

Located on the west side of the district of Brighton is an upscale, hilly little neighborhood called Oak Square. It is conveniently located near several universities, and is less than a 20 minute drive from downtown Boston. The area boasts a quiet “village” feel amidst its pretty residential areas, while having easy access to all of the opportunities and conveniences of the big city.

Back in 1979, near the outskirts of Oak Square, two brick apartment buildings were nestled into a little wooded hillside on Tremont Avenue. The twin six-story complexes were owned by Joseph Lombardi and were fairly new, having been constructed in 1973. Each building was made up of two wings joined with a central lobby/foyer area, and topped with tiers of penthouse apartments. One was addressed as 101-103 Tremont, the other as 109-111 Tremont. These Google images below show the front and top of present-day 109-111 Tremont, an exact duplicate of its sister complex that used to stand to its right.

Both buildings were fully occupied in 1979, providing homes for an estimated 300 people, including small families, elderly couples, college students, and business professionals. I believe that Benjamin lived there, too.

After receiving that tip from Joe this past summer, I have scoured records and resources to try to track down the facts, but as of this writing, I have been unable to find actual legal documentation that Ben lived in this building (the landlord’s office and all of the records were destroyed with the structure). I’m laying my claim for Ben’s residency based on circumstantial evidence:

  • ben mention croppedOak Square residents remember that one of the tenants was a member of The Cars.
  • Steve Berkowitz’s quote in Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars confirms that Ben lived in Brighton in 1979-1980.
  • Articles and posts that mention the fire always put it around the beginning of the year 1980.
  • In the press kit for Candy-O, the notes narrate that Ben had recently moved into a new apartment. He is quoted as saying, “I’m on the top floor and there’s a valley below me, and another hill about a mile away. You can see the treeline and stuff.” This description fits in with the topography of Oak Square.
  • Of the other fires I’ve researched in that area and from that time period, this is the only one that comes close to fitting in with the window of information available.

That terrible fire:

Sunday, December 9, 1979.

Charlie Vasiliades was a young college student and a night owl by nature. He lived with his family in a house built into a hillside overlooking much of the Oak Square neighborhood. The view was beautiful, though sound tended to be amplified from the streets below. On this night, the temperature dipped below freezing and a light dusting of snow covered the ground as Charlie relaxed in front of the television.

Shortly after midnight Charlie began to hear sirens swelling and fading outside his home. Just one at first, which was not unusual, but soon another followed, and then several more in rapid succession. He stepped out on his porch where he could see down to the main street. Emergency vehicles were racing by, accumulating about three blocks west and down the hill from his house. The night sky was illuminated with an eerie orange glow and smoke billowing up into the dark. His ears were assaulted with a cacophony of sirens piercing the air for about a good hour. It was past 1 a.m. when he returned inside and made his way toward bed. As curious as he was, he knew he would only be in the way if he showed up on the scene.

At the fire station, the first tones had sounded at 12:25 a.m. after a resident of 101 Tremont pulled the fire alarm in the laundry room, possibly on the second floor. Witnesses inside observed smoke coming from both the elevator shaft and the trash compactor room as they headed out of the building. Investigators later confirmed that the fire did indeed start in the 101 building in the trash compactor, though they could not determine what sparked it.

Many residents reported that there had been several minor fires and at least one false alarm in the complex in recent weeks, so when the fire alarm sounded in the middle of the night, they weren’t too worried. They shrugged on their jackets and hustled out of their apartments empty-handed, expecting to be allowed to return to their beds in short order. Several walked over to the lobby of 109 Tremont to keep warm while they waited to hear the ‘all clear.’ (A short time later, when that building was evacuated, they returned to the street and were shocked by what they saw.)

A second alarm was struck at 12:46 a.m., a third at 12:57 a.m., a fourth at 1:05 a.m., and the fifth at 1:21 a.m. Trucks from Newton and other Boston firehouses raced to the scene to lend support. Bolstered by strong winds, the fire was fierce and all-consuming, relentlessly eating away the interior walls and blasting the glass out of windows. At the peak of the battle, 150 firefighters and over 40 emergency vehicles were working in tandem to defeat the flames.

It was wise of Charlie to stay put. The whole situation was a terrifying mess. Emergency responders were hindered by the hundreds of displaced residents, concerned neighbors, and curious spectators who clogged the area around the buildings even as police officers attempted to keep them out of the danger zone.

By around 2:15 a.m. the authorities believed the fire was under control, but suddenly a gush of flames bolted up the back of the building, broke through the roof, and began to devour the other half of the structure, 103 Tremont. Steel railings melted and the wall between the conjoined buildings collapsed. Flames shot out of the roof high into the night, scattering embers. In an attempt to keep the aggressive flames from grabbing other structures, neighbors were evacuated and firefighters hosed down the surrounding homes as well as Our Lady of the Presentation Church, which stood up on the hill behind the apartment complex. The Boston Globe reported that the heat was so intense it could be felt in the middle of the street. It took more than an hour to regain control.

Members of the American Red Cross were at the scene almost immediately, setting up a disaster shelter in the church to provide warm blankets, hot drinks, and comforting refuge throughout the long night. The fire was contained by 3:30 a.m., though firefighters would continue to work on extinguishing the blaze as the sun came up. Three days later some of the debris was still smoldering.

Charlie remembers seeing coverage of the disastrous fire on the morning news. “The footage showed practically every single window opening, as well as the roof, was pouring out orange flames. It was a very distinctive sight in my memory.”

The level of devastation hit home when he went outside. “I remember going out into my backyard. It was a clear, sunny day in December, kind of cold. I found big chunks of burnt out wallpaper and debris in the garden. It was really quite startling.”

Charlie got dressed and walked down to the fire site. The street was still teeming with onlookers, and fire trucks were everywhere. The blaze was out; the entire complex was destroyed. Describing what he saw, Charlie explained, “The building was kind of a ziggurat style, set back on the hill with three levels. To its immediate right there were public stairs that connected the street the fire was on to another major street up behind the site.

“You could see that it was literally a ruin,” he continued. “Except for the very front wings of the building, the entire structure had collapsed in on itself. The walls were standing, but the windows were just gaping holes into nothing. In the two front wings, I remember the top floor had burned. A couple of rooms on the bottom floor in the front arms had not burned, but that was about it. The firemen were still pouring water into the building. It was quite a scene.”

It is incredible that in the middle of such a powerful disaster, there were no casualties and no critical injuries. Many residents were rescued from the building using aerial ladders. At least 40 residents were treated on the scene for exposure, cuts, bruises, and smoke inhalation. More than 20 people, including nine firefighters, were transported to a nearby hospital for further care. But everyone got out alive and burn-free. Overall, a wide ribbon of gratefulness wove its way through the shock of the night.

Still, the aftermath brought a different kind of devastation: over 140 tenants were left without their homes, their treasured possessions, and the common necessities for everyday living. People lost everything in those apartments. Every. single. thing. Furniture, clothing, photographs, money, medications, legal documents. Grief and fear threatened to overtake many of the victims as they considered their irreplaceable belongings and the prospect of finding a new home in the middle of a citywide housing shortage.

But they weren’t left on their own. Over the next several days Red Cross volunteers worked tirelessly to meet the victims’ immediate basic needs: a place to stay and food to eat, vital medications, clothing vouchers, and guidance for the first critical steps necessary to start over again. In addition, the community banded together to find ways to help:

  • The owner of the destroyed complex joined in the search for long-term housing solutions, too, making it a priority to take care of his former residents.
  • A neighboring superintendent set up a Brighton Fire Victims Fund at a local bank to field monetary donations. The balance of approximately $2,500 (about $7,900 today) was evenly distributed among victims after February 28, 1980.
  • In January of 1980, the Brighton-Allston Clergy Association announced it would be holding a “Fire Dance” benefit and buffet to raise funds for those still without a permanent home. The successful event brought in over $4,000 (about $12,600 today), and was used to purchase appliances, furniture, and other staples for the families.
  •  A tangible sense of love and support blanketed the victims of the fire. One resident felt that the disaster may have been “a gift from God” because it forced people to get to connect. He was quoted in the Allston Brighton Citizen Item as saying, “Previously we were all strangers but as a result of the fire we found out that they weren’t strangers, but friends I hadn’t met.”

1940_photoAnd then, somehow, life went on. In February of 1980, investigators ruled the fire was accidental, and commended the firefighters on the scene for doing an excellent job battling the conflagration.

The site of 101-103 Tremont was eventually demolished, cleared out, and left vacant for nearly forty years. Finally, in 2016, developers broke ground on the lot and began construction of a new housing facility called 99 Tremont. Similar to the original structure, this complex included 62 living units, but it was also fitted with all sorts of special amenities, like a fitness center, game room, and lounge. These luxury apartments and condos became available in the spring of 2017.


My speculations:

If Ben did live in this building, as I believe he did, he would have occupied one of the rooftop penthouse apartments (as he described living on the top floor). Those apartments were completely obliterated, and Ben lost all of his possessions, save for “his new genuine wolf coat, which he had bought in Canada,” as mentioned by Steve Berkowitz in Let’s Go! on page 117. His guitars, his art; his clothing and photographs and souvenirs. Even his wallet and identification (read the book to see how that played out!). He must have been devastated.

But still, knowing of Ben’s kind heart, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had given money to help the other residents whose lives were upended. He probably did even more for the ones he knew better. I wonder what kind of neighbor he was; if he kept to himself or if he was proactive about meeting others. Maybe he flirted shamelessly with the elderly ladies who saw him as a surrogate son. Haha! Surely he was helpful and considerate, and I suspect he didn’t draw a bunch of attention to his rockstar status.

berkowitz
Berkowitz flying with the band in 1979

Berkowitz goes on to say in that passage of the book that right after the fire, they got on a plane and “were headed to Los Angeles for recording sessions.” I’ve been mulling this over to determine how it may or may not support the timeline of the Tremont fire.

If Berkowitz meant they were heading out to record Panorama, that would have happened in April or May of 1980, as I believe that is when that album was recorded, so this Tremont fire would not be the one. However, The Cars played shows in Inglewood, California, on December 19 and 20 of 1979. Could it be that this is where they were headed on the plane? Perhaps Berkowitz just made a mistake in recalling the band’s destination? Joe has made attempts to clarify that information for me but no luck yet.

Mercifully, life went on for Ben, too. I believe that he may have stayed with Elliot in Weston after the fire, before purchasing his own house nearby in March. He would own that Weston house until 1996.

Pending any new information, I feel like I can put this mystery to rest. It was actually quite heart-wrenching to immerse myself in all of this, to think about what Benjamin might have experienced and felt. I suspect many of you will feel the same way. I am incredibly grateful that he was unharmed physically… it could have been so much worse.

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**12.16.2019 UPDATE: I posted this article on Facebook and Greg Hawkes confirmed that this was indeed Ben’s building:

greg confirmation