Regarding how Benjamin would feel about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction: “He grew up in Parma Heights, Ohio… There was a weekly TV show he was on called Upbeat and The Grasshoppers were the big stars of it. He was a good-looking 16-year-old singing wonderful songs with that great voice. He’s been inundated with music since he was a kid. He was pretty proud to have come from Cleveland.” — Ric Ocasek, Rolling Stone magazine, December 13, 2017
“Benjamin. He would have loved this night, right here, in his hometown of Cleveland, this city that was so proud of him. His beautiful voice, solid bass playing and good humor was such a huge part of the band’s success. Not a bad-looking guy either!” — Elliot Easton, in his acceptance speech during The Cars’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, April 14, 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.
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.
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.
“I just want to start off with a little known fact about The Cars. When we started the band Ben was supposed to be the lead singer and I was supposed to be the good-looking guy in the band. But after the first gig that changed. I got demoted to just the songwriter.
It’s hard not to notice that Benjamin Orr is not here. He would have been elated to be on this stage, receiving this award, in his hometown. It feels quite strange to be up here without him, and we miss and love him dearly.” — Ric Ocasek, in his acceptance speech during The Cars’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, April 14, 2018
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.
I’ve got the all-important links for you — and we’re adding a new one:
- 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!
- Find us on Facebook! Join the Night Thoughts Podcast group.
- 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.
- Rico can’t do it all… send us an email! We want to hear your questions, comments, complaints. Contact the pod at email@example.com.
- Do NOT miss out on our cool Cars merch! Treat yourself to some goodies at Tee Public!
- Find us on Twitter for more cool Cars stuff! Follow Dave here and Donna here.
Speculating on how Benjamin would have reacted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction: “Ben would be overjoyed. He’s from Cleveland. Ben has been sort of a legend in Cleveland since he was a teenager. The town would go crazy if he were still alive and made a comeback appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” — David Robinson, Rolling Stone magazine, December 13, 2017
Today they announced that The Cars would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the “Class of 2018.”
I’ve been anticipating it, of course; it’s been on my mind for months. I’m not very well versed on all the ins and outs of the Rock Hall in general; never paid a whole lot of attention over the years because I like what I like and don’t really care what awards my favorites garner. When I joined The Cars world it became a ‘thing’ for me to put on the watchlist, because the guys were eligible in 2003 and nominated in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and as fans we wanted them IN. So I researched a bit; tried to figure out how it mattered overall, and how much it mattered to me. I love the band and I believe they deserve to have their name on that roster, for those who think the roster is important. But really…
Whenever anything with the band happens, a lot of my heart celebrates and gets so happy and excited, but I also get so achy, thinking of you and knowing you’re gone and unable to put your living fingerprint on all of this. Benjamin, would you care? If you were still here, how much would it matter to you? That’s what I keep thinking about… and so I speculate and ponder and take my best guesses about how you would feel.
People talk about what a private person you were. Shy and reserved offstage, somewhat of a ‘closed book’ about your innermost thoughts and feelings. Genuinely humble and unpretentious; able to separate yourself from your rockstar life. I think about you off in the woods, fishing and hunting, or out on your boat, breathing in the tangy air. Your quiet, solitary pursuits… but that wasn’t all of who you were.
You were a Cleveland native. You loved your city and your hometown fans; your loyalty was obvious and enduring. And you are adored and respected by your town. What a delight it would have been for you to come home, triumphant! The enthusiastic celebrations in your honor would have pleased you very much and overwhelmed your humble heart, I think.
From your youngest days you were making music, but it wasn’t enough to just play it, you wanted others to hear it. You dropped out of high school to pursue your dreams, leaving your home and relationships behind in the quest for that break through… for the opportunity to find an outlet for your talent. Your abilities were all over the board: that voice that could move mountains, those talented hands. You played drums, rhythm guitar, bass, keyboards… you did whatever it took to be on the stage. There was music in you that needed to get out.
And there was a performer’s soul in you that needed your essence to be heard.
You loved touring; being on the road. You put your heart into your shows, and you made time to connect with your fans. You played right up until a week before your death, until your body said ‘no more.’ You went out doing what you loved to do.
To be recognized by a large group of your peers, after all of these years, for your influence on music history and the part you played in the legacy of rock and roll… I think you would have loved it. I can just see your humble smile, with that little air of surprise and delight. I can imagine the deep satisfaction radiating from you. Ah Benjamin, how I would love for you to be here! To have one more moment in the sun before it sets on The Cars.
Seeing the induction will be bittersweet, Benjamin. Your name will be mentioned, and lots of attention drawn to your amazing talents and irreplaceable contributions; with any luck your voice will ring out over the crowd. I will be so happy that the world will have their eyes and ears on your music, just how you liked it.