Catching up with the legendary Cars keyboardist during a rare club gig
I never saw The Cars in the clubs during their formative days and I’m guessing neither did you.
I moved to Boston fall of 1978, just missing that oft-exciting period when a band’s getting its best stuff together, gearing up to make their first album. There was a ton of hard work put in pre-signing, pre-recording that first album – one of the best debuts of its time – and they ground it out at Boston’s gritty Rat club and elsewhere quite a bit. But the near-immediate success of The Cars with that hit-packed album – it came out 44 years ago on June 6th – jettisoned them up to star status and out of clubland in short order.
Sure, they were an opening band at first: For Foreigner, The Kinks, Bob Seger, others. But they were soon arena headliners and a platinum level act: Their first five albums hit that platinum plateau, the first one six times over.
The quintessential ‘80s new wave American band, The Cars broke up in early 1988. Singer-bassist Ben Orr died in October of 2000; singer-guitarist-chief songwriter Ric Ocasek died in September of 2019. There was a brief reunion and album, Move Like This, in 2011, with keyboardist Greg Hawkes handling Orr’s bass parts.
On the first Friday in June, we Boston-based Cars fans got a treat: Hawkes – who’s been busy over the years as a sideman for Todd Rundgren, the Motels and the Turtles – hooked up with a Boston septet called Eddie Japan and they put together a corker of a show at our local City Winery. (It was 15 tickets shy of a sellout of 280, with people coming from as far away as Colorado and Florida; tickets went between $20 and $30.)
And it was something that might have come as a shock to the many that did see The Cars in an arena. The Cars were – let’s face it – often rather remote and sterile in that cavernous environment.
Hawkes and Eddie Japan rocked. Yeah, they synth-rocked, too – that’s Hawkes’ forte – but there was appropriately blistering electric guitar from Eric Brosius and Bart LoPiccolo and thundering, precise rhythm from drummer Chuck Ferreira and bassist Charles Membrino. Hawkes, whose position in The Cars was to the side, stage left, was on the front line, joining singers David Santos and Emily Drohan. It’s not that this meant it was excessively synth-heavy; it meant Hawkes – yes, the name brand in the band – was in prime position to step out and reminisce and sporadically tell Cars tales.
“It is a little different.” Hawkes says, of the stage placement, “but it gives me the opportunity to talk about the songs between the songs. It’s a big part of it, in a way, explaining myself, putting my own comments to things, little stories I can still remember.”
As such we heard that those first three singles all clocked in – initially, times did change later – at 3:44. We were told their third album, Panorama, was, uh, not well received by critics and the Boston Phoenix opined “The Cars run out of gas.” That John Lennon was talking about his song, “(Just Like) Starting Over” as being like a ‘50s song but with a modern feel, like The Cars “Touch and Go.” Clearly, Hawkes – who played with Paul McCartney on his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt – was chuffed by that. (A young Hawkes saw The Beatles play Suffolk Downs August 18, 1966; he was going to see McCartney and company play Fenway Park in a few days, the tickets a Father’s Day gift from his son, Ian.)
At City Winery, Eddie Japan and Hawkes took the idea of a tribute band to a whole other level.
“If you’d told me 44 years ago, I’d be playing this now I’d think you’re crazy,” Hawkes said from the stage.
It wasn’t his idea, Hawkes told me later. The musicians in Eddie Japan are huge Cars fans – the influence shows in their music, too – and Hawkes contributed to a couple of tracks on their 2017 album, Golden Age.
“We met Greg at [Somerville, Massachusetts rock club] Johnny D’s in December of 2015 when we were touring with The Motels,” says Eddie Japan’s Santos. “We were starting a new record right after that and we thought it would be fun to collaborate with someone of Greg’s stature and experience. With his former band Tribe, our guitarist Eric Brosius had worked with Greg many years before, so there was already a connection We were thrilled when Greg said he would like to take part in producing the Golden Age record.”
On doing this kind of show, Hawkes says, “When Eddie Japan played the Lizard Lounge [a rock club in Cambridge, Massachusetts] for a CD release party, I sat in and we did three or four Cars songs. They approached me [later] and said, ‘What if we did a whole set of Cars songs?’ I said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ I was fairly resistant to doing it. I had to mull it over. I had to take Chuck the drummer out for lunch three times. I agreed to it once to see how it goes. We played [a Somerville, Massachusetts club in August 2019] The Burren. Low pressure. And I had a great time. I enjoyed doing it a lot more than I thought I would. I’ve been getting so much positive feedback from people coming to the shows.”
There have only been eight of them – the furthest afield was in May of this year at the Landis Theater in Vineland, New Jersey. And no, there’s no plan to make this a habit or tour. Hawkes calls what they’re doing “an occasional ongoing occurrence.”
“I’m still not too comfortable touring,” he says, “what with all the pandemic still going on and even going to New Jersey I felt like I was leaving my New England comfort zone. I know people touring and who have gotten it and had to postpone shows. I turned down three tours with Todd [Rundgren] as I’m just too nervous about it.”
And it felt like that from the get-go with the bang-bang-bang of those first thing singles, played live: “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed.”
Now, as I said, I never saw the young Cars in clubland, but it felt, to me, like this is sorta what it might have been like given (of course, there’s no Orr and Ocasek singing and the lead vocals were mostly handled by Santos). Did this, for Hawkes, have echoes of early Cars, down in the Rat basement or whatever?
“In a way, yes,” he says. “Part of that might be Eddie Japan’s enthusiasm. They really do a great job of learning all the parts and figure out the drum machine sound. They definitely have put a lot into it. So, their enthusiasm along with playing in smaller venues – it is more direct. When you’re playing bigger places, for me it is a little more remote just by the nature of it. The Cars didn’t go out of their way to …” Here, Hawkes – who was the most visibly animated Car on stage – pauses.
I mention mine (and others) perception of the arena-level Cars as being icy, remote and stoic. “That’s a valid perception of the band,” Hawkes says, “and it’s not inaccurate. … With The Cars, especially around the Heartbeat City era , we were performing along with sequencers. A lot which was good and bad. For myself, even though I might have been one of the guys who was encouraging that, at the time, these days when performing I prefer to do it as little as possible. Just one song ‘Since You’re Gone,’ the quick part that starts the song that uses drum machine sequencer. Everything else is played completely live.
“We were looser in our Rat phase, more aggressive, I guess. We had that enthusiasm. We wanted to show people we could do this. You have that drive to succeed.”
So, at some real level, for Hawkes this is fun and games time. They climbed the mountain, had a pretty good time of it. This is not, to mix metaphors, quite a “victory lap” per se, but time to get some kicks, a chance to get out, play the songs that brought him and the band fame and fortune. Without any pressure to make more of it or take it further.
It should be noted this is not Hawkes’ first time spinning the wheels of the old vehicle. There were the New Cars in 2007 – Hawkes, guitarist Elliot Easton, Todd Rundgren, The Tubes drummer Prairie Prince on and either Kasim Sulton or Adam Ellis on bass. In May of 2011, supporting the Move Like This album, Hawkes, Easton, Ocasek and drummer David Robinson played a handful of small theater/club gigs and at Lollapalooza.
One nice wrinkle about the Hawkes/Japan set: While Santos sings most leads – and he’s got the Orr and Ocasek tics and tone just right – Drohan sings lead on “Just What I Needed,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” Both of those from The Cars were explicitly male-centered – duh – and they did capture the tenor of the times – ironic pickups, temporary release, no promises of love everlasting. Just having Drohan sing those, well, “I love her voice – they both do a great job – but I like the other perspective, switching the gender.”
I’m quite certain women approached nightlife and potentially fleeting relationships in a not dissimilar manner. Detached quick hits.
Drohan also sang lead on “Cruiser,” “Dangerous Type,” “Bye Bye Love,” “All Mixed Up,” and The Motels’ “Only the Lonely, one of only two non-Cars songs. The other choice was also Hawkes-centric, Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light.” Hawkes and company played 21 Cars songs, hits and deep catalog
Obviously, it’s been a symbiotic relationship for Eddie Japan. “We’ve become a better band as a result of these shows with Greg,” says Santos. “Playing those superbly crafted songs has informed our own music and made all of us better musicians and performers. It’s also added this wonderful extra layer to being in a band. We get to do our own music, but we also have this special gift of presenting The Cars music with Greg. We consider ourselves very lucky.”
It doesn’t hurt their visibility, says Santos: “Playing with Greg these last few years has definitely exposed Eddie Japan to folks who might not have otherwise heard of us. There is a very active Facebook group dedicated to Greg, and it’s been lovely to be welcomed and embraced by the group’s members. People who come to the shows often ask about our original music, so it’s nice that they are curious. We’re releasing a record soon and Greg plays on two tracks, so I imagine his fans will enjoy hearing his keys on new music.”
As to The Cars back in the club days and how it compared to this night, I turned to M. Howell, a longtime friend and former Boston Phoenix music critic, saw The Cars back in the day (and also attended the Hawkes/Japan gig).
He writes: “In the autumn of 1977, as [college station] WTBS and [commercial powerhouse] WBCN gave them airplay they had a visibility other bands couldn’t match, The Cars were a hard-working club band playing a low-rent array of struggling clubs equipped with difficult stages and dubious sound systems, playing for sweaty youths who might be punks or art students or often both. The titans of Live Aid, Friday’s, SNL, and arenas across the globe were far in the distance.
Back then, Ben Orr would shamelessly wink and flirt, Elliot Easton would get all pumped for his turn at the mic (“Something Else”), Ric Ocasek would chuckle as he chewed gum. Irresistible hooks, skittery rhythms, and beat poetry into one big bubble. David Robinson oversaw everything from the back. Greg Hawkes bobbed off to the side – we mostly saw him during the four-guitar encore, “Take What You Want.”
That’s The Cars I first took notice of and the one I followed around [from club to club]. Greg Hawkes/Eddie Japan wasn’t exactly that. But it’s the closest I’ve come in a long while.