We caught another Rat!

We caught another Rat!

Every time something new pops up in the Cars world I am ecstatic on two fronts: first, because another elusive piece of the band’s history has fallen into place, and second, because it bolsters my hope that there is even more yet to be revealed. And that’s on top of the thrill I always feel at just seeing or hearing my forever-favorite band. Anyway, you can imagine my elation when I returned from a recent trip to discover that a VERY cool friend had sent me some VERY cool files: new recordings of The Cars at The Rat!

Now you might remember that The Cars played The Rat for a four-night engagement spanning Thursday, April 28, through Sunday, May 1, 1977. A few months ago I uploaded an audio file from that weekend, though I wasn’t sure which of the dates it was recorded on. Well, with these two totally new shows, I’ve been told that they are specifically from April 30th, so they would be the Saturday night performances. As you’ll see below, each set offers us a previously unpublished gem, which makes these audios even more delightful.

In case you haven’t seen it before, on the right is an advertising flyer from that weekend. The Cars shared the bill with The Good Rats. I’m not sure who was the headliner; the way the ad is designed makes it look like The Cars were the big draw, but they were a fairly new band at the time (though the members themselves were not unknown). I think The Good Rats were still enjoying the regional success that followed their 1974 and 1976 albums, and they were coming up from New York, so they might have been a bigger deal? Oh, and each of The Cars’ sets was only about 1/2 an hour long, which seems more like a warm-up than a main event.

Okay, I got off track there, because I’m sure it doesn’t matter who was the headliner, but I was trying to imagine the order of the night. I’m going with The Cars, then The Good Rats, then repeat. There, I feel better now that I have that settled. Haha!

No more goofing off — let’s dive right in. Here’s the first set list, with the audio below:

  • 00:00 Leave Or Stay
  • 03:04 Cool Fool
  • 05:48 You Can’t Hold On Too Long
  • 08:54 Don’t Cha Stop
  • 12:25 My Best Friend’s Girl
  • 16:23 Gimme Little Sign (Brenton Woods cover)*
  • 19:40 I Don’t Want To (Elliot Easton on vocals)
  • 22:18 Strawberry Moonlight
  • 25:16 You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
  • 29:54 Just What I Needed

Some of my reactions to this set:

  • A lot of times when you go to shows, the crowd doesn’t seem to pay too much attention to the opener. The band might start, but people are still milling about, greeting friends, ordering drinks, and so on. I’m sure that was the case here, too, but the recording also picks up the sounds of cheers and whistling from the crowd at the beginning. I love it!
  • You have to know that I am thrilled that these recordings have come out of hiding — thrilled. But… there is one eensy weensy thing I wish I could change: I noticed that most of the transitions between songs have been edited out. That’s a little bit of a bummer because I feel like we can often glean several tasty bites of mood and personality from those breaks. Oh well! Not everyone’s as obsessed as we are. Better to have it with some edits than to not have it at all!
  • Let’s discuss the duo vocals on “You Can’t Hold On Too Long.” I have to admit it makes me wrinkle my nose a bit. Is it because I’m too in love with the album version? Or is it more that Ric’s voice clashes too much with Ben’s in this case? I mean, obviously there are many recordings where the two share the vocal duties successfully, but the disparity in their styles just doesn’t seem to blend well here.
  • I wish I could hear the what’s going on in the background after “You Can’t Hold On…” because I want to know what Ben is responding to when he says, “It’s not called that at all.” Sounds like he’s feeling squirrely!
  • I love Greg’s keyboard riff behind the chorus of “My Best Friend’s Girl” — it’s catchy! On the other hand, the absence of Elliot’s guitar solo is tragic. I’m glad that was eventually remedied; it totally changed the whole vibe of the song.
  • The big surprise in this set is the band’s cover of “Gimme Little Sign” by Brenton Wood (which I also carved out and posted separately). It’s been known in the Fanorama for a long time that they played this in their early days, but this was the first time I heard it. It’s great! Ric takes the lead vocals, but Ben’s voice is prominent in the chorus. Not sure who is doing the falsetto backing vocals, but there’s strong speculation that it’s Elliot. Hopefully someday we’ll have a definitive answer!
  • Here’s another recording of “I Don’t Want To” with Elliot on lead vocals. I think there is only one other published performance of this one, captured during the March 21, 1977, show when they opened for Bob Seger. Man, I love this song! I still need to get a lyrics post done for this — SO funny! Hey wait… there’s that high voice in the back again, but it sounds like Ben? Hmmm, the falsetto mystery continues…
  • By the end of the set the crowd is fully involved; you can hear them screaming and cheering as the band launches into “Just What I Needed” as their last song of the set. Hard to tell if it’s an encore but I would guess it is. Ben still hasn’t got those lyrics down all the way (LOL) but his adlibs are undeniably yummy. Elliot’s guitar melody during the chorus, which is rather hidden in the studio version, is front and center in this recording, and it freaking ROCKS.
  • “Thank you very much, we’ll see you in the neighborhood. Bye bye!” — Ben ❤

Whew! What an electrifying ride!

I wonder what they did while The Good Rats were playing? Probably changed their clothes, had some drinks and a few smokes, maybe put on a hat? Maybe they held court in dark corners and chatted up the girls.

This is a little bit of a detour, but if you’re a visual person like me you might get a kick out of it. I recently isolated a portion from an old Boston television program that showed footage of the inside of The Rat. If you have a few extra minutes, click on this video for a peek at what the venue probably looked like when The Cars were playing there.

Okay, let’s move on to their second performance that night:

  • 00:00 Bye Bye Love (Ric Ocasek on vocals)
  • 04:20 You Can Have ‘Em (aka Sleepy Wasted Afternoon or Blue Moon Saloon)
  • 07:21 Ta Ta Wayo Wayo
  • 10:08 Jezebel*
  • 15:48 Take What You Want
  • 21:41 My Best Friend’s Girl
  • 26:06 Something Else (Elliot Easton on vocals; Eddie Cochran cover)
  • 28:50 Just What I Needed
  • 32:35 Cool Fool (encore)

Let’s jump right into it:

  • The guys start off with a sizzler! (Mmm, Ben on the harmonies during “Bye Bye Love.”) Ric seems to loosen up a bit vocally on this performance so it’s not too unpleasant to have him taking the lead. Greg is killing it on keys, too.
  • I know I don’t comment about him much, but man, David’s playing really catches me in “You Can Have ‘Em.” He’s always so steady and solid back there, and I certainly can’t escape his perfect fills and flourishes here. Dude is on fire!
  • This set offers another tasty — and previously unpublished — surprise: “Jezebel!” I’ve loved this tune since I first heard Cap’n Swing’s demo of it, but I did not know that Ric had held onto it to include in The Cars’ repertoire. I definitely like the CS version better, although Ben’s vocals are luscious, no doubt about it. This song is great, too, because it is one of the few Cars songs that gives Elliot room to really stretch out and shine.
  • Elliot puts in another blistering performance on the mic with “Something Else.” That cover is so perfectly suited for him, and Greg’s scrumptious saxophone adds even more heat to it.
  • They attempt to close out the show with “Just What I Needed,” but the audience is wild for an encore. I particularly relate to the shrieking girls, who you know just want to see more of Ben. Haha! They return and launch into “Cool Fool” with swagger and energy. The crowd loves it.

And then it’s over. Another half an hour of raw talent from a band on the verge of changing the face of music. How fortunate we are to get to listen to the past!

I’ve given you a lot to unpack so I’ll leave you to it. Let me know what other bits and pieces stand out to you from these two terrific performances. Have fun!

*previously unpublished

Cover image photo credit: Larry Bouchie


Please remember that these live audios are not to be bought or sold!

Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and tap on the little bell to get a notification when I upload something new. Also, I’ve started keeping a playlist of the live shows in chronological order. You can check it out here:

Live at Boston University: Short and Sweet

I recently received a treasure trove of live shows from a very cool friend and Cars fan, along with permission to share them. Because it makes the most sense, and because I’m a big nerd, I’ve decided to upload them in chronological order to my YouTube channel, and post a little write-up here with whatever little deets I can dig up about the performance, along with my own $.02.

The first one I did was The Cars opening for Bob Seger at the Boston Music Hall on March 21, 1977. If you missed that one, you can read it here: The Cars and Bob Seger: Yay for Snowstorms!

stephenshermanbostonphotog-1568865106022
Photo credit: Stephen Sherman, 1977

This second audio is another oldie: The Cars at Boston University. There was no specific date for this show when it was given to me, other than March of 1977. I think it must have been recorded sometime toward the end of the month because both Ric and Ben mention Maxanne Sartori leaving WBCN, and her last day was April 1, 1977. This is just a short four-song set, but it sounds like it was part of a larger concert with multiple bands (based on the blurb from the emcee at the end).

The Cars kick it off with “Just What I Needed.” It’s an interesting version. In some of the earlier Cars recordings Ben seems to mimic Ric’s low, draggy vocal style, and he kind of starts off that way here, but then I love how bits of natural Ben break out here and there. It’s a treat, too, to get to hear Elliot’s guitar parts so clearly.  Obviously the song was still evolving at this point (though I do think Ben flubbed the words at :53, as opposed to it being a lyric that was later changed). I can’t tell for sure who is singing back up… is that Ric, maybe? It doesn’t really sound like any of the guys to me. Oh, and I did click backwards a few times to listen to Ben’s little laugh at about 1:45.

When Ric takes over the mic after that song, it’s really cool to hear how relaxed he sounds. He drops the clues for us about the date and purpose of the show, and then introduces “I’m In Touch With Your World.” It doesn’t sound like Greg was incorporating all of his instrumental gew-gaws quite yet, although I do hear a toot or two on the whistle and a few other odd little sounds here and there. I love it!

From there, Ben leads the band into “Cool Fool” and there is no trace of Ric impressions… it’s a full-on vocal Ben fest. The whole performance smokes: Elliot is off the chain, ripping it up left and right. David can’t be thrown off the beat for anything, and Greg holds it all up with his subtle keyboard work and the reappearance of that whistle. Dudes must have been sweating after that one!

maxanne
Maxanne Sartori. Image retrieved from the internet.

As the crowd swells with cheers of approval, I adore Ben’s response: “Thanks! Okay… this one’s our bye-bye song and for our very special friend, Maxanne.” The band jumps into “Strawberry Moonlight” with a raucous energy; the perfect way to end their set.

The last little snippet of audio features an announcer indicating that The Cars are just one of the bands that will be playing that day, but then he gets cut off and it’s a bummer because I feel sure he would have identified the occasion for the concert. Oh well, it’s better than nothing. I have my fingers crossed that someone reading this might have memories of that show they’d like to share with us. That would be cool!

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.”

stephenshermanbostonphotog-1568864708165
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

Crystal Gerard: A Pursuit of Passion

Anything and everything music: live bands, spinning records, dance clubs, photography, creative coifs…  All her life, Crystal Jane Gerard has had a passion for rock and roll and a relentless determination to pursue it. And she’s proved it time and again: from writing an enthusiastic A+ English paper about meeting Adam Ant, to skipping a day of beauty school to catch John Waite leaving his hotel after a show, to walking out on a job for Benjamin Orr.

original cars pin croppedSince her early days in high school, Crystal has loved The Cars, especially Benjamin Orr, and everyone knew it! Her yearbooks were riddled with comments (and even sketches of Ben!) from friends who would mention her obsession when they would sign off for the summer. She had all The Cars’ albums and would pore over her collection, tallying which songs were Ben’s and which were Ric’s. Most of her favorite songs were Ben’s.

Right after graduating high school, Crystal attended beauty school, finished her certification in 1985, and launched into a career as a hairdresser. She had the world at her feet: she was young and pretty, she loved her job, and she spent all of her free time immersed in the music world.

In November of 1987, The Cars were touring behind their sixth album, Door to Door. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, tensions within the band were running hot. Ben was traveling separately from the rest of the members, and while it is true that he did not enjoy flying, I believe it was also a way for him to separate himself from spending more time than necessary in a work situation that had grown intolerable to him.

To that end, Ben had his own tour bus and his own travel itinerary. The Cars played in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 25, 1987, and then Ben and his bus left for the next destination: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After about a six-hour trip, he arrived on Thursday, November 26. The band was scheduled to play the MECCA Arena on Friday, November 27.

On that Thursday night, Crystal was hanging out at her favorite new wave dance club, Park Avenue. In Milwaukee in the 80s, Park Avenue was the place to ‘see and be seen.’ The venue sometimes hosted over-the-top theme nights that literally led to lines of hundreds of people waiting to get in.

I found these photos of the club online. Though they were taken around 1992 when Park Avenue reopened as Nitro, I understand that they are similar to how Park Avenue looked in the late 80s.

And it was here that, much to her delight and awe, Crystal saw Benjamin Orr standing at the bar. “I’m shy, but I had to talk to him or I’d forever regret it!” she said. “I went up to him and he was very nice. I don’t recall the conversation, but I did mention that I was a hairdresser. He said he needed his hair done before the show! I was thrilled and a bit nervous at the chance to not only have met, but to do hair for my teenage idol. He said I could come to his tour bus to do it.

“The next day, I told the salon I worked at that this amazing opportunity came up, that I could do a famous musician’s hair, and I had to take the afternoon off. For some reason they didn’t see the value in it and wouldn’t let me go.”

Crystal was not a slacker by any means; her job was important to her and this was a serious decision. But there was no way… NO WAY!… that she was going to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime chance. “Well, I got fired,” she continued. “I followed my heart and chose rock and roll over my job, and I’ve never regretted it, even for a moment.”

After thirty-three years, many of the finer details of Crystal’s experience that day are gone. As best as she can remember, the tour bus was parked near the loading area behind the MECCA Arena. She can’t recall if Ben showed her around the bus or not, but the two got settled in the main living area, where she cut and colored his hair, likely washing and rinsing in the small kitchen sink. “I packed up my gear, out came the foils, scissors, and so on, and I went to work.”

Crystal has generously shared her before, during, and after pictures with us. As you can imagine, she treasures these photos! A friendly reminder: If you share them on social media, please do NOT crop out the watermark!

01 before

02 during

03 after

The process took a couple of hours, and Ben was low-key and friendly. Crystal remembers that one thing they talked about was scuba diving, as it was one of Ben’s hobbies. Though she considered herself a newbie hairdresser at that time, Ben was happy with her work, and he invited her to come to the show that night, giving her tickets and backstage passes.

“I brought my bestie and ‘partner-in-crime’ and we got to go backstage. We briefly met the other Cars and I had them sign my Creem magazine. Paulina Porizkova was doing some sort of needlepoint work. Ben was eating jalapeno peppers out of the jar and offered some to us. He loved them! I took another photo of Ben before he opened the door to go onstage.”

creem magazine signed watermark

04 before going onstage

That November 27 show at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee rocked. The tickets were only $16.50 — can you believe it? The set list included:

  • “Tonight She Comes”
  • “Touch And Go”
  • “Double Trouble”
  • “My Best Friend’s Girl”
  • “Everything You Say”
  • “Since You’re Gone”
  • “Fine Line”
  • “Let’s Go”
  • “Strap Me In”
  • “Candy-O”
  • “Moving In Stereo”
  • “Dangerous Type”
  • “Drive”
  • “You Are The Girl”
  • “Good Times Roll”
  • “You Might Think”
  • “Hello Again”
  • “Just What I Needed”
  • “Magic”

Crystal and her friend had a blast! Here are a couple of shots from the concert:

concert 01

concert 02

Ben generously invited Crystal and her friend to see The Cars play at another nearby show the following weekend, and they were happy to attend. Crystal had printed one of her photos of Ben and he signed it “love Ben Orr” (see above).

concert 03She later had the pleasure of seeing The Cars play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York in 2011, where Ric also signed one of her photos from that long-ago show. It gave her goosebumps to hear their wonderful music played live again, though she missed Ben very much.

Even though she is to not be able to bring all the particulars of that first weekend fully back to life, the experience of doing Ben’s hair shifted the course of her career. “Benjamin was my first celebrity client, and [working with him] inspired me to later pursue this type of clientele because to me, musicians usually have the most creative looks. Image is everything onstage.”

Crystal would go on to ‘brush the rock and roll hair’ of many other notable rock stars, including Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Butch Walker and the Marvelous 3, Brett Anderson from the Donnas, the Cocktail Slippers, Dale Watson, The Struts and The Posies.

The day after her October 2 birthday in 2000,  Ben passed away. Crystal heard it on the radio and she was crushed. “I felt this personal connection because I did his hair. I felt close to him; I loved him all my life. He was so kind.” She couldn’t help but cry at the loss; Benjamin had changed her life. She will always be grateful to him for the way he influenced her career.

Crystal moved to New York City twenty-six years ago in order to pursue her passions.  “A lot of people do many creative things at once. You can’t do that in a lot of cities,” she noted. She has stayed close to the music biz: She was a New Music Scout for Little Steven’s Underground Garage from 2006 to 2017, while maintaining her salon clientele. She also worked as a DJ at NYC’s Beauty Bar for many years, and spun an eclectic mix of garage rock from the ’60s-’80s for the SXSW festival and other special events. In fact, she DJ’d for The Empty Hearts in New York in 2017… but that is another story for another time. Stay tuned!

adam ant by crystal gerard
Adam Ant by Crystal Gerard

Today, Covid-19 has limited her DJ work, but Crystal is not letting go of her musical pursuits. She is in the process of creating an Instagram page to showcase her incredible rock photography, a skill she’s had a lot fun cultivating over the years. She is also available for hair appointments. If you’d like to connect with her, you can shoot her an email at crystalblu1966@gmail.com!

I’m so grateful that Crystal was willing to share her experience and her passion with us! ❤


I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to Kat F. for making me aware of Crystal’s story. Thank you, my friend!

All photos are courtesy of Crystal Jane Gerard (unless otherwise noted) and shared with permission.

Sources:

  1. I used this article from onmilwaukee.com for the background information on Park Avenue.
  2. I retrieved the photos of Nitro from mkelgbthist.org.

Review: The Cars Live at the Agora 1978

Here is the 6th piece I wrote for Joe Milliken and Standing Room Only, and it wraps up the series. Though I am adding this to my blog last, it was actually written and published in October of 2017, in between the release of the expanded editions. This is also the review that was quoted on the big screen at a presentation at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 (photo below).


I’m not going to make you wait until the end of this review to give you my opinion: this album is off the chain!

Now remember, I am not an expert on discerning levels of sound quality, or at picking out nuances in the way music is mixed, but I do know how to enjoy a great show, and there is not a single track on this two-album set that disappoints.

While some critics (and concert goers) have been known to whine and fuss about The Cars not being a ‘dynamic’ live act, no one can deny that when it came to the music, this band could recreate their remarkable studio sound flawlessly from the stage. Because of this, many fans have lamented that The Cars never released a live album during their active years together. Sure, there are a handful of bootleg recordings that make their way around the Fanorama, but not a complete live show remastered and released by the band, itself… until this year, that is!

cars.agora1_
Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

On April 22, 2017, Rhino Records put out a limited run of 5,000 copies of one of The Cars’ early live performances as part of the worldwide vinyl movement, Record Store Day.  The Cars Live At The Agora, 1978 documents the energy and the fresh sound of the band at the beginning of their rise to success.

Just to give you some context, The Cars consists of songwriter Ric Ocasek on rhythm guitar, and he trades lead vocals with long-time friend and bandmate Benjamin Orr, the bass player. Elliot Easton handles the lead guitar, while Greg Hawkes works his keyboards and David Robinson keeps everybody locked in with his drums. This five-man lineup started playing together in early 1977, and within 18 months they had a record contract in their pockets and their first album on music store shelves.

With their debut single, “Just What I Needed,” gaining popularity on the airwaves, the band took off on their first major tour, spanning the United States, and including stops in Canada and parts of Europe. The Agora show here, recorded at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on July 18, 1978, for WMMS radio (about a month into their tour), is a shining example of the band’s ability to interlock their individual roles to create a tight, rollicking performance that keeps the listener bouncing from song to song. No, not a bunch of jumping around and physical gyrations, no long monologues or extended soloing by band members, no pyrotechnics; just an ensemble of creative and classy musicians doing what they do best: rocking the house.

The set list for the night is an interesting blend, giving the enthusiastic audience a taste of where these boys have been and where they are going. Not only are there near-flawless performances of all nine incredible songs from their debut album, but The Cars also burn through some raging rockers from their regular club set (the hard-edged “Take What You Want” and the powerful punk of “Hotel Queenie”) and treat the crowd to “Night Spots,” which will show up on The Cars’ future album, Candy-O. They end the concert with a gritty cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” letting Elliot take over the lead vocal on their last song of the night.

Other audio delights pour from the speakers. Listen for Greg’s crazy-cool assortment of eclectic sounds on “I’m In Touch With Your World,” and then catch him later as he pushes the show in a whole new direction with his melodic saxophone (“All Mixed Up” and “Something Else”). Also, I love how you can really hear the power of David’s drums on “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and how Elliot kills it on that classic guitar solo in “Just What I Needed.” My favorite tracks feature Benjamin pouring his all into the vocals, like on “Bye Bye Love” and “All Mixed Up;” you can just feel his racing pulse as he belts it out. And woven throughout the entire show are great harmonies, some highlighted backing vocals, and brief audience interactions that draw a smile.

cars.agora2_
Photo courtesy of Joe Milliken.

The cherry on top? Rhino Records really nails it with the packaging of this release. The signature red-and-black color scheme of the early Cars’ years, combined with the terrific photos of each band member and the reproduced hand-written show notes displayed on the backside of the album cover – it’s definitely a stare-worthy addition to the vinyl stack. Inside the cover are tucked two records; three of the sides contain the music, and the fourth displays what would prove to be the first in a series of custom etchings to grace the 2017 releases of Cars albums. Awesome!

The vinyl is hard to get ahold of now, though there are still a few copies available floating around online (mostly from Europe). At this time there are no plans for the show to be released on CD; fortunately Rhino has now made it available digitally through several music channels. Click below to download the album. If you don’t have it already, get a copy – it’s a must-have for every Cars fan!

https://rhino.lnk.to/latasmp?ref=http%3A//thecars.org/


 

my writing at the rrhof
My review, quoted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during a listening party for this album in the Foster Theater, 2018. Photo courtesy of David Curry.

Quoting Benjamin

Regarding The Cars’ stage presence: “We play the way we want to play. We concentrate on what we’re playing, so we don’t dance around. We did the acrobatics long before The Cars, so there’s no point in doing it again. We’re The Cars. So look at us. That’s what we’re here for.” — from “Benjamin Orr: The Cars’ Mr. Casual Steps Out” by Rob Tannenbaum, Musician Magazine, March 1987

waiting1

 

John Ward Hickernell: A Moment in Time

“There are decent people, even in rock and roll. If all you’ve been exposed to are the crazy ones, and then you run into a cool one, it sticks in your head.”

For John Ward Hickernell, Benjamin Orr was one of the cool ones.

smile 03John recently posted some eye-catching photos on Facebook of Ben at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. No surprise that they grabbed my attention, since I’d never seen them before, but John’s explanation of the pics had me even more curious: it turns out he had happened upon the small group behind the scenes while The Cars were waiting to take the stage of a major concert. Wow, that seems pretty lucky, huh?

Would John mind sharing more details of his memories with us? Not at all! He assured me, “It was a pretty cool day, and time has passed, and people are passing, too, and just seems kind of cool to get the photos out there, and the story, and the pin, and the whole nine yards. I don’t feel like I own them; I just happened to catch the moment.”

Don’t you just love the kindness of people? Thank you so much, John ~ let’s dig in!

It turns out that The Cars were in Cleveland to play at the World Series of Rock (WSoR). The concert was originally scheduled to take place on August 5, 1978, with Fleetwood Mac headlining, joined by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Blue Öyster Cult, and The Cars. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham fell ill but rather than cancel, the August 5 show was rescheduled for August 26. Unfortunately, that bumped Seger and BÖC from the bill; they were replaced with Eddie Money and Bob Welch.

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Image via liveauctioneers.com

The Cars had been touring behind their debut album since June with almost no break. They had played a sold-out concert at Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom on July 18, which would have definitely been a homecoming show for Ben, and in fact, you can hear him acknowledge it on stage at the end of “Bye Bye Love.” Their performance, which was broadcast live on local station WMMS (and released on vinyl in 2018 as The Cars’ first official ‘live’ album), was packed with precision, perfection, and an abundance of attitude, proving to yet another eager audience that The Cars were a force to be reckoned with.

Still, with only “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on the radio to recommend them, The Cars were generally considered ‘new’ and had much to prove. Playing the WSoR with its crowd of more than 70,000 fans was a considerable step up from the 2,000 at the Agora, and was likely the largest audience the band had played in front of to date. I imagine they were nervous, excited, and probably still a little stunned at how well the debut album was being received around the country.

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Image via fleetwoodmac.net

It’s worth noting that the order of the WSoR lineup that day was determined by the traveling schedules of the acts. Eddie Money kicked off the show, followed by Todd Rundgren; they both had flights to catch so they went on early. The Cars played their set next, then Bob Welch, who was arriving from St. Louis, played fourth. Of course, the fiery finale featured Fleetwood Mac. A review of the concert from Cleveland Scene writer Dave Voelker pointed out the unique position The Cars were in.

“The Cars were left with the unenviable task of following Rundgren’s ecstatic set — a position they wouldn’t have had if Todd & Co. didn’t have to play in Chicago later that same day,” he wrote. “They’re still a little unseasoned, but I’m confident that many in the audience now know there’s a lot more to the Cars than their main claim to fame, ‘Just What I Needed.’ Particularly, the raw power of ‘Don’t Cha Stop’ and ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ seemed formidable and impressive, marking this sharp new band as an attention-worthy contender.”

Jane Scott from The Plain Dealer noticed, too. In her August 28 review she wrote, “The Cars, an up-and-coming Boston band, had fans dancing across the field with its ‘Just What I Needed’ and ‘Best Friend’s Girl.’” Clearly, our boys could handle playing for such a huge crowd.

Without going too deep into the WSoR’s colorful history, let me give you a quick overview of this popular but short-lived concert series. From 1974 to 1980, legendary Cleveland concert promoters, brothers Jules and Mike Belkin, worked diligently (if gingerly) with officials from the Cleveland Municipal Stadium to host a run of summer concerts featuring the hottest rock bands of the day. Each event included multiple acts on the bill, and fans packed the playing field and bleachers of the open-air venue for hours, partying to icons like The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith.

And when I say ‘partying’ I DO mean partying. The festivals quickly gained a reputation for being rowdy and dangerous, riddled with drugs, alcohol, and varying levels of stupidity and crime.  And this show was no different. Though The Plain Dealer reported that the crowd of 73,000 was considered one of the best-behaved audiences in recent attendance, the police still had their hands full. Several violent incidents occurred before, during, and after the show, including multiple stabbings, robberies, and an accident in which a man fell from the upper deck during the concert while swinging from the rafters and was transported to the hospital in critical condition.

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2nd from left: John rocking with The Estes Brothers, c. 1975.

But none of that was on the radar of twenty-one year old John Ward Hickernell, a self-described “musician-artist-hippie-type kid who would to go any extreme to make art.” As a multi-instrumentalist himself, John was chasing the rock-and-roll dream (most notably playing guitar for The Estes Brothers). His focus wasn’t the fame and the glory, but experiencing the creative ecstasy of it all, and he pursued art in any and every form. Is it any wonder, then, that Todd Rundgren was his role model?

He explains, “Todd’s always been my creative inspirational individual. I’ve always been awed at what it must be like to possess that kind of creativity, like ‘what am I going to do today? Because I can do just about anything and if I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to learn how.’”

John’s mission, in addition to capturing the day on film, was to try to make a connection with Todd, and here’s where his personal story begins. I had the privilege of chatting with John and listening as he related his experience behind the scenes at the World Series of Rock.

John began, “Back in those days concert security was much different than today. Maybe one guy to watch over a massive area of space, and that guy was more than likely a hippie, too. I’m sure that I looked the part with my vest with many pockets of film and my shoulder bag and camera, out on safari shooting pictures. So with a few words to the one lone security guy he let me pass right on through and into a closed-off section of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.”

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Cleveland Municipal Stadium, August 26, 1978

The day was oppressively hot, made more intense by the sun beating down and the mash of the crowd. The stadium was bursting with happy-go-lucky music fans and John documented the sight, snapping pictures as he worked his way along the near-empty concrete walkways enclosing the open-air venue. Coming to the end of one of the first-level ramps he noticed a small handful of people milling around. As he drew nearer he was able to identify Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek, and Todd Rundgren in the group.

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Todd Rundgren and Utopia

John’s dream was about to come true; his hero, Todd, was within a few concrete feet of a handshake! But can you believe it? “[Todd] was hanging around and I ran out of film,” John groaned. “As I loaded a fresh roll I looked for him and he was gone, heading to the stage with Utopia. So I ended up with one ‘lone shot.’”

A disappointing turn, for sure, but not all was lost. John dug The Cars, too. He remembered Ben as a local kid from his days on The Gene Carroll Show, and was happy to see him now in this more personal setting. John could see that Ben had a special guest with him – his mother – and John was leery of interrupting the band’s privacy, but it ended up being a very relaxed scene.

middle finger 02.jpgJohn recalled, “Ben was very nice. At first I thought he may have been a bit pissed that I was shooting pics and invading a moment. I do have one picture I came across and he was with his mom, and he’s adjusting his glasses… he’s doing a ‘middle finger glasses adjustment.’ At the time, me being a little bit naïve, I kinda thought okay, maybe he’s not quite happy with me taking pictures. Of course, now I know that that’s kind of an inside thing in the music business: if someone’s got an attitude with you they’ll adjust their glasses with their middle finger.

“But after exchanging a few niceties with Ben that tone faded; he was cool and he smiled more, and he didn’t give me the finger anymore.” John laughed.

Still, John hung back, but he could see how attentive Ben was to his mom. John respectfully observed the way “Ben was close to her the whole time, pointing things out, like out in the crowd and the bleachers, and stuff like reminiscing about being in the stadium for other events, ball games ….that’s what I with bettygathered. And the physical resemblance they had was very obvious. She seemed a bit taken back. She smiled a lot but didn’t say anything to me.”

Though the encounter was just a moment in time, it struck a chord deep down in John that has resonated over the years. As I listened to John share, I was really moved by his heartfelt reflections. “Being a Cleveland boy myself, I can remember going to Indians games there as a child; I’m sure he and his family did as well, so you know it could’ve just as easily been me. And [The Cars] were on the edge of being a huge success. So I totally had a tie to that whole feeling, or imagining how he must’ve felt, for sure. You know, the ‘local boy does good’ sort of thing. We ALL dreamed of that! There it all was right in front of me. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Made it all the more heartbreaking when he passed.”

John quietly focused on taking photos, storing up tangible snapshots to accompany the impressions in his head.

“Ric kind of acted like he might have been a little bit self-conscious,” John reminisced. “That’s just my personal take on it. They were very nice. I took dozens of photos, taking time to chat. I will say that after a bit they seemed to be posing, so it got intense because I was the only guy there with a camera.”

John was gracious enough to share several of his terrific photos of Ben and Ric with us from that day:

 

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At one point, Ben gave John a gift: a little white promotional Cars pin, which John has kept all these years. “He just reached in his pocket and he pulled out a pin and he says, ‘Hey man, I hope they turn out good,’ [referring to the photos],” John remembered. “He asked me if I was with the Scene, a Cleveland music rag paper that we all lived for each issue! I let him know that I wasn’t, but I worked for the company that printed Scene and that I actually ran a press that printed it.”

 

As they wrapped up their time together, Ben asked John to send him some of the photos if they turned out. And that was it. “I don’t think they were up there for more than half an hour, and then they receded back into the bowels of the stadium.”

Thrilled with his encounter, John continued to hang around in the relative quiet of the concrete passages backstage. He absorbed Utopia’s set with rapture. “I remember how cool ‘Eastern Intrigue’ sounded in the stadium from backstage. It was so great: no bounce, no echo like you would hear being out front, or anywhere else in that stadium for that matter.” He doesn’t remember much else in terms of the music that day; he was more into documenting the show with his camera. But while John wasn’t focused on the Cars’ set itself, it’s not because he didn’t have an appreciation for the band or their music. In truth, his feelings are quite the opposite.

“You know, it’s all timing. Sometimes all the planets line up and something unpredictable happens, and that’s kind of the way it was with The Cars. If you look at the end of the 70s, we’d been through glam rock and glitter, and Bowie and Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed… tons. And then of course there was disco and stuff like that, but The Cars really had a different writing style that was clearly evident in the way they played, and their persona just pushed it over the edge. They really were a bridge into the next realm.

“I remember seeing them at Live Aid in the 80s. They were well-established stars at that point. Ben was talking to a VJ from MTV; he was obviously having a good time, acted a bit buzzed, smoking a cigarette, it was a hell of a party. That was the last I saw of him other than magazines and videos.

“All musicians dream of success; they just do. [The Estes Brothers] had gotten very close just a year and a half earlier, so I felt a deep connection to all that: the road that musicians take and keep trying time after time. I know he did, as well. We all do. There are thousands who chase it their whole lives —  damn good musicians. So I always felt that connection. Thinking about the moment in the stadium… it held deep meaning for me.”

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And Ben?

“It’s hard to explain how I felt about him, but I could relate, maybe… just a sad story to me. That’s all there seemed to be for me for a lot of years. I was down more than I was up. But avoiding useless rambling… Seeing him with his mom [in Cleveland] was personal for me. And for him.”

John concluded emphatically, “You can tell all you need to know about a person sometimes from just one gesture. The mere fact that he had his mom there tells you the kind of person he was. What else do you need to say? That pretty much told me how cool he was.”


Oh, P.S.! John did end up meeting Todd many years later! John recounted, “For many years I was always like a step behind him ‘til finally in ’08 or ’09 they had an exhibit at the Rock Hall. He was there doing a meet-and-greet type sort of thing and oh my gosh, the line of people went all out the Rock Hall, down to East 9th Street, so I’m standing in line, you know, and I get up to where I’m inside the building and I could see him, and then… well, of course, they had to go.”

So John bought a ticket to the museum anyway, figuring since he’s there he might as well look at his exhibit. He went downstairs and there was no one down there, but then he said, “All of a sudden these two big doors swing open and here comes this whole troop of people: Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, the curator, a couple security guards, a photographer, his wife Michelle, and their son Rebop. That ended my days of being two steps behind him. I got to meet him and take a ton of pictures of that. I’ve met him a bunch of times since.”

Yay!  I love happy endings!


My main sources:

  1. The first place I looked? Deanna Adams’ definitive guidebook of Cleveland rock history: Rock and Roll and the Cleveland Connection, pages 243-244.
  2. This invaluable scan and this one, from World Series of Rock concerts at Cleveland Stadium 1974-1980 on Facebook, gave me great info on the August 26 show.
  3. This terrific piece by Matt Wardlaw provided some Agora info and the cool quote from Dave Volker.
  4. I got so much wonderful input from this great WMMS Facebook group!
  5. And a little Wikipedia, of course!
  6. All photos courtesy of John Ward Hickernell (except as noted) and used with permission. Thank you for your generosity, John!

 

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.