Elliot Easton played lead guitar and sang backing vocal for the Cars.
I arrived in Boston in the fall of 1972 to attend the Berklee College of Music from Massapequa Long Island, where I grew up. I got off the train at South Station with my suitcase in one hand and my guitar case in the other, got a taxi to take me to the dorm at 150 Mass. Ave., and so began my life-changing adventure in this strange new city, finally on my own and living away from home.
After a few years at Berklee I got to the point where I just wanted to play, and at that time the curriculum was much more limited, compared to what they offer today. I left school, got an apartment with a few friends and slowly began to work my way into the local live music scene. I started pretty much at the bottom-first playing bass, and then guitar in a country band in the area of Boston known as the “Combat Zone.” We played 6 sets a night, from 8PM till 2AM for $25 dollars a night each, and that was enough to be able to stay in Boston and not have to move back home.
Sometime in 1974 or 1975, my roommate answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix for a sound man to mix a band for their live shows. The band was called Richard and the Rabbits, a name I found out later, was given to them by Jonathan Richman. Anyway, I went along with my roommate Allan Kaufman (eventually another important member of the Boston scene) to the Balaroo Skating Rink somewhere outside of town, where Richard and the Rabbits were playing at a Warner Brothers party for the band Foghat. Allan got the gig and that band consisted of Ric Ocasek, Ben Orr, Greg Hawkes and a different guitarist and drummer. As soon as I heard the band, and especially the songs, I knew that I wanted to play with those guys, and eventually got my chance when the Rabbits disbanded.
Ric and Ben began playing as a duo at a little pub in Cambridge called The Idler, just acoustic guitar and bass. They sat on stools and sang some of Ric’s songs and also some cover tunes. Allan, still their soundman, would get the levels on the 2 mics and then jump up onstage and play percussion with them, which was his other great love. So…………all through this period he kept hyping them on his “roommate who plays amazing guitar,” and that they should give me a try. That chance came when we formed a new band, pre-Cars, called Cap’n Swing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I had to audition. This took place at Ben’s apartment in Sommerville. I went over there to jam with Ric and Ben and my introduction to Ben went like this: Ben, sitting across from me with his arms folded in front of him says to me, “OK, play something amazing”. Naturally I was paralyzed and couldn’t play a thing, but eventually we all relaxed and had a good time playing together! Cap’n Swing was doing pretty well, and Maxanne Sartori was playing our demo tape a lot on WBCN, so we were getting decent gigs. We went down to NYC to play a “showcase gig” at Max’s Kansas City in 1976 for some of the biggest management companies of the time, like Leiber and Krebs and Bill Aucoin, and they all had the same comments: great songs, but too many extended solos that needed to be more concise, and this one really got us, because we knew it was true: they said the band had no image. Ben was just singing lead and they said that the bass player looked like a Grateful Dead roadie, the drummer should be playing in a fusion band and that visually we were basically all over the place and musically we needed to really tighten things up!
We went back home to Boston with our tails between our legs but accepted the criticism in a positive way, and that led to the formation of The Cars. We put Ben back on bass where he belonged, got David Robinson from the Modern Lovers (and more recently DMZ) to join the band on drums, and Greg Hawkes returned from his gig as one of Martin Mull’s Fabulous Furnitures to play keyboards.
The band was always strongly connected to Boston, and even later on after we were making records and touring, we were still referred to as a “band from Boston” and probably always will be, even though David is the only Boston native!
I have such great memories of playing the Rat for Jimmy Harrold, Mitch the doorman, all the bands just hanging out on off-nights and having a great time. It was a true scene, our own little Cavern Club in Boston instead of Liverpool! The Paradise too.
Sometimes the whole thing seems like a dream, and in the case of The Cars those dreams came true beyond any of our wildest imaginings and none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for the strong local music scene and the support from all the college students and radio for local bands playing original music, where anywhere else the clubs wanted only top-40 hits.
It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Elliot Easton, January 2021
Published on February 11, 2021