Chris Morris: “Cleveland Rocks!” and The Cars

with Chris Morris
Chris Morris and me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, April 16, 2018

Imagine for just a minute… What if there was one HUGE rock concert? The most talented and influential singers and musicians of all time, sharing a gigantic stage together? Elvis Presley, The Kinks, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Heart, Joan Jett, Prince, on and on, somehow coordinating this perfect, all-night jam session. What would that look like?

That’s a question that renowned visual journalist and illustrator Chris Morris asked himself back in January of 2012, “What if I drew everybody who’s in the Rock Hall?” Simultaneously, the idea also somehow floated out of his mouth and into the ears of the staff at Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, with whom he was brainstorming ways to honor the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions coming to town that April.

Chris has spent over 30 years in the field of journalism using his artistic abilities to help readers process devastating national news, follow sports and stats, and chuckle at the foibles of politicians and celebrities.  His experience – and his skills – stretch across a broad spectrum.  Do yourself a favor and take a minute to read this great article from Joe Milliken and Standing Room Only; it will give you a more in-depth look at Chris’s varied career. But there in 2012, he sat a little stunned, realizing what he had just committed himself to with his spontaneous daydream.

After his co-workers gave him the thumbs up on the project, he returned to his office to do a little math. At that time, there were 542 performers inducted in the Hall of Fame (he narrowed it down to only those that would appear on stage), and he had eight – only 8 – weeks to research and create drawings of all of them! With all of the additional band members, Chris would have to average about 22 people a day in order to meet the deadline.

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2018 Cleveland Rocks! poster; The Cars in inset. Artwork by Chris Morris.

He chose a simple caricature style and limited himself to a black-and-white color palette, and he dove in. The illustration was done in a computer drawing program called Adobe Illustrator. He would look at photos of the individuals on one screen and draw them in the application on another screen. Some days, he said, the subjects would “fall out of the pen;” other days were a struggle, but he finished (two days early!) and the end product, a collage poster called Cleveland Rocks!, was magnificent.

He’s continued to add the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performer inductees every year (the number of people currently hovers around 700), and it’s been a joy for him to watch the poster grow. And now we catch up to him in 2018: The Year of The Cars.

In addition to being a unique and talented illustrator, Chris is a pretty big music fan – and he’s always loved The Cars. “I lived in Boston when I was 12 in 1976, and then we moved to Dallas, Texas, so the Cars were a touchstone from home when they broke big. I saw them live on the Panorama tour in 1980.” He had long been anticipating their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with the 2018 ceremony taking place in Cleveland, Ben’s hometown, he just had a feeling the time was right. So while many were scheduling flights and choosing their outfits for the big night (including yours truly), Chris’s preparations for Rock Hall week were unique.

Now I can’t imagine a cooler gig than to get paid for studying the faces of The Cars; what could be better? Well, that’s what Chris got to do, but for him it’s all part of the process. “Like I do with any of the bands I draw for that poster, I always look at lots of videos and stills to get the little things right, like the instruments and clothing, and then make the likeness from many points of reference. I might get the hair from one photo and the clothing from another. Beautiful people are harder to draw because it doesn’t take much to make it fall apart. But if someone has big ears, you can’t go wrong drawing BIG ears.“

It wasn’t too difficult for Chris to get a handle on the visual reality of The Cars. That doesn’t mean it didn’t take some thought; as with all of Chris’s art, he wanted to do it well. “I had a really strong idea of their looks ahead of time. Ric almost draws himself. Benjamin’s mouth and heavy-lidded eyes are key; Ric’s nose and Elliot’s glasses. Little elements like that – pieces of the sum – have to be right or it all looks wrong and unfamiliar.”

Of particular artistic influence was the footage of The Cars’ performing “Candy-O” during their Musikladen set, one of Chris’s favorite videos. “I love how Benjamin sets his effects and then backs away, points toward Elliot, and then the song starts. And then 30 seconds in, Greg comes in with the sleigh bells. I drew those into his hand for the band image.”

Chris was meticulous about other details, as well. Take Benjamin, for example. In the main caricature Chris did for the poster, Benjamin is playing his Music Man Stingray bass. When Chris wanted to add color to a separate print of the band, he didn’t just make the bass red, he created a second drawing.  He explained, “The Vox bass worked great in the version with the red on black and white, because it was a red bass, you know? But his shoes were also important, the slightly elevated heels. It would be like drawing Prince in flat shoes would look wrong. So all those little things have to be right or the fans who really know this stuff would bust my balls.”

It’s this honesty in his work that makes Chris such an impactful artist. Fans look at the final product and see that he cares about the nuances of his subject. “I did that for every musician I drew. Angus Young plays an SG pretty consistently – a Les Paul would look wrong; Chas Chandler (of The Animals) carries his bass high on his chest and Paul Simonon of The Clash wears his low. I have a cigarette stuck in the strings at the top of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar because he used to do that. Those kind of details make the poster accurate in the little ways that people who KNOW will notice.”

Having now drawn in the neighborhood of 700 figures for the Cleveland Rocks!  poster, Chris definitely has his methods down. But he found out early on that Cars followers are a little different than other artists’ fans, in terms of their eagerness.

David Curry was the first to reach out to Chris and let him know that the Fanorama was looking forward to seeing how the artwork was going to turn out. Chris stayed in touch and as soon as he had a finished piece to share, David posted it on Twitter and Facebook. The enthusiastic response was more than Chris expected. He answered by increasing the variety of Cars’ products on his website. “It was phenomenal,” he said with a laugh. “Many thanks! It pushed me to look for new ways to expand the line and make merch available that didn’t exist yet.”

Chris’s interest in people goes deeper than studying their unusual facial features; he cares about their stories, too. As Rock Hall weekend approached, his mind was preoccupied with Benjamin. Of course he knew Ben was a Cleveland native and that he was laid to rest only about an hour away, and he felt it was likely that many people would be paying their respects to Ben. He decided to visit the site on the Friday before, with the intention of connecting with some fans and putting together a respectful piece for The Plain Dealer honoring Ben’s memory.

“I went there hoping to meet and talk to some people and make a ‘sketchbook’ of sorts, something meaningful and spontaneous. I’ve done that type of art before and it’s interesting to see the variety of faces and the quotes from the fans. But I had the cemetery to myself. I’ve been in journalism for 31 years so I’ve seen a lot, but that is a special thing, seeing and being at such a serene, personal place. It was humbling, and a beautiful day. Things like that are powerful,” Chris reflects.

Rather than documenting the impressions of others, Chris was left with his own thoughts as he captured the morning on video. By the end of the weekend Ben’s grave would be covered in mementos, but for now, only the soft breeze spoke to the peace and solace Chris found.

“I would look around, amazed really that I had this time to myself. It was quiet except for the birds and I could take the pictures I wanted, shoot some videos, and luckily I made one that was reflective of the peaceful atmosphere. The sun was slowly gliding across the polished stone, birds singing. It was a nice moment.”

I was fortunate enough to get to meet and spend a little time with Chris during the induction weekend. He went out of his way to attend an author event that Joe Milliken and I were hosting, and then met up with us again on Monday at the museum. After I returned home I received a package from him containing some of his amazing artwork. I definitely rank Chris as one of the kindest people in Cleveland.

BenBeachTowel.jpg
Ben beach towel; artwork by Chris Morris

Visit Chris’ website to see his line of cool Cars stuff at https://chrismorrisillustration.com/product-tag/cars/. Along with his terrific t-shirts and posters he has phone cases, mugs, totes… and the beach towels are to die for!  Please also follow Chris on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/chrismorrisillustration/ and on Twitter @camorris.

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Episode 27: Rock Hall Recap Part 1

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In this first of two parts of the “Cleveland Rocks!” series, Donna gushes about her trip to Benjamin’s hometown and all that she experienced there, including promoting the upcoming Benjamin Orr biography, hanging out with beloved friends from the Fanorama, and meeting THE David Robinson.

 

Stay tuned for part two coming the end of April, which will feature a roundtable discussion of the ceremony itself with dear friends of the show Jenny Durgin and Kurt Gaber, while Dave (who is remaining spoiler-free until the May 5th broadcast on HBO) listens in and makes smart-aleck comments.

iTunes.jpgI’ve got the all-important links for you — and we’re adding a new one:

  1. NiGHT THOUGHTS The Cars Podcast is now on iTunes! We are gradually updating it with previous podcasts, but you can jump in with the most current ones now. Subscribe and listen here!
  2. Find us on Facebook! Join the Night Thoughts Podcast group.
  3. Subscribe to our youtube channel and never miss a show. You can take a listen to the older shows, too; start from the beginning and get to know us.
  4. Rico can’t do it all… send us an email! We want to hear your questions, comments, complaints. Contact the pod at nightthoughtspodcast@gmail.com.
  5. Do NOT miss out on our cool Cars merch! Treat yourself to some goodies at Tee Public!
  6. Find us on Twitter for more cool Cars stuff! Follow Dave here and Donna here.

Enjoy!