The Gifts of “Let’s Go”

The Gifts of “Let’s Go”

(Header photo courtesy of Natalie Gaber)

I’m groggy, lying in my bed Sunday morning. I have to check out of my hotel in half an hour but I don’t want to start a new day. How could Saturday night have flown by so quickly? Images keep flooding my mind, little snippets of conversations to replay, impressions to sort and kind words to tuck away in my heart… elements of a gift. And Ben… so much Ben in the air!

If I could just turn back the clock and experience the night of January 12 all over again.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

Admittedly, I almost get off on the wrong foot. I take a few wrong turns trying to get to the venue and I’m about 15 minutes late; it is a relief to finally see the shining logo of the Music Box Supper Club beckoning me in the dusk. I whisper, “Okay Ben, here we go,” as I give a little tug on my memorial pendant.

From the minute I pull into the valet lot my mind is going over the to-do list: scope out the concert hall, find the production team, preview the slideshow, time cues, guest list adjustments… Heading up the stairs and ah, there’s Joe! Yay, Neil and Diane are here! Hugs all around. Wait, where is David Spero? On his way? Got it.

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Joe, Donna, Lars, and Matt. Photo courtesy of Matt Fuller.

The guys from Moving In Stereo are here, too! I make sure to give Matt Fuller, the bassist and co-vocalist for the band, an extra-tight hug. I am so grateful for all he did to connect us with Colleen, the owner of the venue, and to secure the gig for tonight. He’s been on board since the first hint of the event and was invaluable in my planning. I am introduced to drummer Bryan Beyer and keyboardist Joshua Hartman who are both filling in tonight. Noah Patera is unable to be here on his drums, but it turns out that Lars Altvater’s prior commitment has been cancelled. Rather than pull Josh off the keys, though, Lars chooses to spend the evening taking photographs and mingling. Like the other members of the band, Lars is the definition of class and professionalism. Rhythm guitarist and co-vocalist Danny Ayala and lead guitarist Bob Heazlit greet us with huge smiles and hearty hugs, too. I am so happy to see these talented men again!

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Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

Leaving the band to finish their dinners, Joe and I go check out the concert hall. The space is terrific: a nice-sized stage with plenty of room for the video to be shown on both the left and right of it. Tables fan out into the large seating area, and a well-equipped bar is conveniently off to the right. The servers are bustling around getting ready for their night as we preview the video setup — it’s excellent!

Ah, here’s David Spero. Okay, up on the stage, figuring out logistics. I see people are starting to trickle in. Do I know them? Are they from the Fanorama? But I don’t want to be awkward and stare, and oh yes, I need to grab drinks for Joe and David, find a portable mike for the Q&A session, and figure out where the Mac’s Backs Books rep is going to set up — oh hey, she’s here and has it all under control. I should have known. Suzanne from Mac’s Backs Books has these events down to a science and is a joy to work with. Perfect!

Before I know it the place is filling up. I’m so giddy to greet my beloved friends and to make connections with others I’ve only known in text. Lots of hugs and happiness everywhere; the place is crackling with energy. And it’s already time to pull Joe from the foyer where he’s been signing books and get him to his position on the stage. But first… the green room. We need to refocus. I give Joe a minute of quiet to breathe, to settle down and plant his feet. We both need it, actually.

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Photo by Michael Kenny.

Now I cue the production guys, the house lights go down, and David Spero welcomes the guests. The video plays off perfectly and Ben’s presence fills the room. We see him grow from infant to teen to rock star, moving through the success and difficulty in his life, his unmistakable charisma intact. I can’t help but seek out the faces of those who knew Ben best to catch their reactions; my heart swells as I see their approval and happiness. I feel like creating this tribute with photos and music is one of the gifts I offer for the event and I am thankful it seems well received.

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David Spero and Joe. Photo courtesy of Becky Broderick.

People continue to arrive as David introduces Joe and the two begin their talk like old buddies. All eyes are on them. The first of two of ‘the most beautiful moments of the night’ happens when David asks Ben’s former bandmates to stand and be recognized. A handful of men rise from around the room, and the crowd answers with hearty applause. Joe makes sure to mention Chris Kamburoff (Mixed Emotions) by name, who couldn’t be here because of health issues, and encourages Chris’s son, Ashton, to stand in his father’s place. More applause… and tears, too. Precious.

We take a few questions from the audience but the time has evaporated and I give David Spero the ‘five minutes’ signal. He wraps it up like a pro, and it’s time for me to escort Joe back out to the foyer. As we wind our way through the crowd people are shaking Joe’s hand, clapping him on the back, congratulating him. His smile is huge. Moving In Stereo is taking command of the stage and the slideshow is playing again for those who missed it as we make our way out to the table, where a line of people are already waiting for a signature.

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Moving In Stereo takes the stage. Photo courtesy of Linda Strong Beyer

I wish I could be in two places at once, both sitting beside Joe hearing all of the amazing Benjamin stories people are sharing with him as he signs their books and poses for pictures, and simultaneously rocking out near the stage to the pulsing sounds of the greatest Cars tribute band ever. Instead I go back and forth between Joe in the foyer and the guests in the concert hall, trying to greet everyone without being a creeper… I just want to hug each one and tell them how grateful I am that they came and that they have made my night so special just by showing up.

Throughout the evening I witness so many ways that this show has brought people together. I overhear happy exclamations of, “Hey man! It’s so great to see you again!”, observe pockets of social media friends meeting and hugging, am asked to take group photos of tablemates. Two Cleveland radio legends carve out time for a chat and an interview together. Fans stop me to ask about my Benjamin Orr t-shirt, and I am able to lead them right to the artist in the audience. The grandson of one of Ben’s early friends is a fledgling guitar player, and after the show I take him to meet the members of Moving In Stereo, where they talk about Les Pauls and check out the view from the stage. And I have the privilege of meeting people who read my blog or listen to the podcast and hear their words of encouragement. It is all so dear to me!

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Me with Joe Kurilec of the Mixed Emotions. Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

I am also fortunate to encounter people who are important bricks in the tower of Cleveland rock history: Harry Harwat, Dante Rossi, Wayne Weston, Joe Kurilec, John Gardina, David Spero… ordinary looking people that you might pass on the street, but who played such foundational roles in Benjamin’s success, and I know that this night is also for them; it is about their legacy, too. I’m honored to have them sign my copy of the book.

And the band… THE BAND! I catch snippets of songs as I’m moving about, enjoying my favorites like “Let’s Go.” “Gimme Some Slack,” and “It’s All I Can Do.”  From time to time I stop at the table where my dear friends Kurt, Nat, and Dave are, and we look at each other and gush, “these guys ROCK!” but I don’t really get a chance to focus on the show until a bit later when Joe has a break in the autograph action and he’s able to come join the party. We rock out to “Good Times Roll” and “Just What I Needed” and people are dancing and singing along and the room is packed… it’s so awesome! Even with two stand-ins the music is so tight and true and my adrenaline soars even higher.

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John Gardina plays “Drive.” Photo courtesy of Becky Broderick.

Toward the end of the band’s hour-and-a-half set, the second of ‘the two most beautiful moments of the night’ takes place. One of Ben’s former bandmates, Mixed Emotions bassist John “Johnny Joe” Gardina, has come to the event. It takes some persuading, but he is finally convinced to join Moving In Stereo onstage for an encore performance of “Drive.” It’s so touching to see the smile on the face of this talented and humble man as he picks out the bassline to one of the most memorable songs Benjamin Orr ever sang. The way he stands toward the back like Ben used to, and how he adds his own flair to the melody, and shyly accepts the cheers of the crowd… All these little things reflect how much Johnny Joe loves and honors Ben.  It is both tender and badass at once, and a highly fitting way to end the night.

Now maybe you already know this about me: I’m not a professional publicist. I am a homeschooling mom with four kids and I’m a bit of an organizational freak, so while I know how to boss people around and get things done, I’ve never put together a shindig this big. Joe took quite a gamble, placing the responsibility of this event in my hands. And I know this night is not about me, not in the slightest. But I gotta tell you, as I look around at about 300 people partying over Ben and the book, I feel pretty proud of myself. No catastrophes, no resorting to Plan Bs, no disappointments, and Joe is rosy-cheeked with happiness. A definite success.

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Me with author Deanna Adams. Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

The cherry on top? One of my writing heroes, accomplished Cleveland author Deanna Adams, is in attendance, and when I meet her she praises me loudly for all the work I’ve done promoting Let’s Go!, and she announces that she wants me to be the public relations coordinator for her next book. I won’t hold her to that second part of it, but I take it as a very sweet and meaningful compliment, and I feel it deeply.

The lights come up but the connections continue. More introductions are made, hellos and goodbyes, group photos. My voice is a bit hoarse, but I can’t stop smiling. It’s all been so lovely! As Joe and I prepared for this night, I kept telling him, “Don’t be nervous. These people just want to party with you. You’ve already given them your gift.” And now I realize, as I run my fingers over my Benjamin Orr memorial pendant (as I’ve done so often this evening), that this party itself was full of gifts, too, that every attendee generously gave to us.

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In other words:

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

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Ric speaking during The Cars’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, April 14, 2018. Photo credit unknown. 

In other words:

eerrhof.jpg“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

Chris Morris: “Cleveland Rocks!” and The Cars

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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.

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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.

In other words:

ric induction“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

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!

In other words:

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

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Benjamin Orr and David Robinson, 2000