Any retrospective on the music of the late 1970s and 1980s has to include some focus on the new wave rock legends, The Cars. A debut album that stayed on the charts for 139 consecutive weeks, winners of the first MTV “Video of the Year” award in 1984, creators of what would become the haunting signature song for Live Aid (“Drive”) — they are more than deserving of their 2018 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
While all of the band members generally resisted the limelight, bassist Benjamin Orr was arguably the most private — and most sought-after — of the five. Blessed with versatile vocal chords, unwavering musicianship, and an irresistible physical appeal, fans of Benjamin ‘the rock star’ fell hard and with no hope of recovery. But once the show was over and the lights went down, Benjamin flipped a switch. He was a normal guy; he avoided photographers, shunned interviews, and led a low-key lifestyle in the quiet, upscale town of Weston, Massachusetts. Of course, this air of mystery only added to his magnetic reputation, but he continued to keep to himself. When he succumbed to cancer in October, 2000, at the age of 53, it seemed the curtain had closed on his story forever.
First-time author (and long-time music journalist) Joe Milliken has spent the last eleven years researching Ben’s life in an attempt to pull back that curtain with his biography Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, due to be released on November 11, 2018. The book follows Benjamin through others’ eyes as he pursued his rock-and-roll dreams from his happy days as a teen star in Cleveland to the open-minded bars of Boston, to the comforting arms of Atlanta — not ruthlessly, but with a humility and steely determination that left those around him in awe.
This biography has been a long time coming, and marks the end of a fulfilling, though sometimes grueling, road. And while devoted fans may have wondered if Milliken’s biography of Benjamin Orr would ever reach the shelves, no one has stressed and speculated over this labor of love more than the author himself.
“I started this book project back in 2007. There were a few gaps along the way where I had to set the project aside for stretches of time because of life circumstances, but essentially, I have worked on this book in my spare time for eleven years …Yes, it has been a long process,” Joe sighed. (In addition to freelance writing, Joe works overnight shifts at the Brattleboro Retreat, a locked-down psychiatric hospital in Vermont.)
While Joe considers this endeavor to be his ‘life’s work,’ it wasn’t so much the passion for writing that set him on this path. It was rock and roll.
An artist at heart, Milliken earned an associate’s degree in visual arts, but discovered along the way that writing might actually be the way to go to if he wanted to use his creativity to earn a buck. And while he spent time as a local sportswriter, it was really music he had a passion for. From that day in the 7th grade when his buddy, Ed Faxon, brought a 45-single of Aerosmith’s “Come Together” to school and played it in music class, Joe was hooked. “Aerosmith hit me like a sledgehammer. After that, it was all rock music, all the time!”
“Music is easily my favorite hobby, but I could not carry a tune if it had a handle on it!” Milliken admits. “Therefore, since I couldn’t become a musician, I’d write about it instead. Writing allowed me to kill two birds with one stone; it became both my way of getting involved in music, and my artistic/creative outlet.”
After ten years or so of music journalism, and being published in newspapers and national outlets like Goldmine, Rock Cellar, Seven Days and The Alternate Root, Joe was eager for more. He had been kicking around the idea of writing a book for a while, but he admits that Ben and The Cars would not have been his first choice. “However, once I started investigating Ben’s life, I realized that there was a whole story about his early life in Cleveland where he grew up that I had no idea about, and neither did many other Cars’ fans.”
The suggestion actually originated from a member of a Cars fan group, who found Milliken’s profile online and believed he could be a good fit for sharing Benjamin’s story: Joe himself hailed from The Cars’ hometown of Boston, resided in Vermont (where Ben also lived toward the end of his life), and was a rock-loving music journalist who listed The Cars as a lasting influence. Joe spent about a month exploring and contemplating before he finally committed to the project. Once he was in, he was all in, heart and soul.
“My goal was to paint the clearest picture possible of Ben’s entire life, not just his life as a member of The Cars. It’s not meant to be a ‘Cars book,’ although, of course the band is prominent in the narrative.”
It’s not your stereotypical ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll’ celebrity biography, either Joe confirmed. “This is not a backstage exposé, but rather the story of an extremely gifted, tenacious musician who knew exactly what he wanted to do in life from a very early age … and he achieved it.”
The first thing that impressed me while reading Let’s Go! was the writing style. Milliken uses a distinctive technique where he introduces a player in Ben’s life and then lets that person fill in the narrative with his or her quote. I thought it might be jarring to have the flow stop and another voice come in, but it’s really so perfect. It’s truly like a camera cuts to the significant person and you hear them talking about Ben, coming across more like a documentary than a novel.
Because Joe could not talk to Benjamin himself, he knew he would have to dive into an intensive interview process. For the first year, he did a lot of research, mapping out Benjamin’s life from his birth to his death, and then he created a basic story structure. From there, he started conducting interviews with anyone and everyone he could find who knew Ben, filling in the gaps in his draft with their quotes and stories as he went along.
Milliken interviewed well over 100 people for this book and overall, it was a great experience — but it was not always easy; not by a long shot. Joe explained, “The one big obstacle I faced was that some people who knew him were a little leery at first simply because Ben was a very private man, and of course, they didn’t know me from a hole in the wall! In some cases, it took me a long time to gain people’s trust before they would open up to me … understandably so.” For a few of Ben’s contacts, it took years.
Even once lines of communication were firmly established, further assurances were sometimes necessary. “There were times I needed to show an interviewee the excerpt from the manuscript in which they participated in order to get their final approval. It certainly proved just how much people really cared about how Ben is portrayed in this book.”
Though this part of the journey was daunting at times, it wasn’t the only aspect of the project that kept Joe on his toes. “I had to learn to take everything I heard with a grain of salt, for you can’t believe everything you are told. Luckily, as time went on, I got better at filtering out the bullshit and ‘making it real.’”
In spite of its challenges, the interview process was obviously essential, and it gave Milliken such a wide lens for getting to know Benjamin. Additionally, some long-held misconceptions were set straight and new pockets of information uncovered. Especially helpful were friends and band mates from Ben’s early years (Joe fondly calls them his “Cleveland Connection”) who gave insight into the activities, motivations, and personality of the young man who would grow up to make such an indelible mark on the music world.
Having Benjamin’s loved ones tell about him in their own words is brilliant. I watched the mosaic of Ben’s past growing in clarity and color, expanding in texture, as I read their stories. They draw in details of his early years, fill out his days of fame and fortune, and reveal some sweet surprises along the way. It is such a perfect format to document the life of a man who never enjoyed talking much about himself. The result is simultaneously masculine and tender; a very respectful, very real tapestry of who Benjamin was.
And Joe would discover that a common thread ran through Ben’s relationships, from beginning to end.
“So many interviewees talked about his kindness and generosity towards his family and friends. Ben was hard to get to know, but once you did and he trusted you? You were a friend for life and he would do anything within his power for you.”
And though he never put himself in the spotlight, Ben was a man of great love and loyalty. “What moved me the most is his generosity,” Joe continued. “He did so many things for people that no one ever knew about … not even his band mates. He didn’t talk or brag about these gestures, and many of them were not small things, believe me. Also, I love how he never forgot about his friends growing up. Like I said, if you were his friend, you were his friend for life.”
Milliken didn’t get everyone he wanted in the book, but the majority of people he approached were kind and helpful, and their love for Benjamin was palpable. I was impressed with the long roster of interviewees, including Ben’s former band mates (two of the four members of The Cars, among many other big names), record executives, iconic photographers, media personnel, key women in his life, and friends who had known him intimately.
Another element that I love about this book is that there is no ‘tell-all’ mentality anywhere to be found. The author skillfully balances the heady experiences of a world-famous rock star with the reality of a deeply private, kind-hearted and loyal man. For example, I can see in places where he’s walked that fine line of honoring Ben and respecting his relationships while maintaining the honesty of his attraction to and of other women. Or the struggles Ben faced with the dissolution of The Cars and finding his way back to the stage. Milliken is gentle with the truth, letting the other voices tell their story and leaving it up to the reader to ‘read between the lines’ if they are so inclined.
When asked how he made decisions about what to leave in and what to take out, Milliken said, “Every time I came to a place where I had to walk the line of Benjamin’s privacy, I had his son in my head. I would ask myself, ‘What would young Ben think of this?’” It seems to have been the perfect measuring stick.
In addition to sharing their stories, many people also gave Joe the gift of photographs. “The pictures are a big part of this project. I have collected over 500 of them spanning Ben’s entire life, many of which are from folks’ personal collections and that have never been seen or published. Choosing the final photos for the book might have been the most daunting task of all!” There are more than 30 black-and-white images woven through the chapters. The book also includes a timeline of bands, a selected index, and a list of everyone the author interviewed over the years.
Benjamin’s absence is felt keenly by Joe. In fact, the list of interview questions he would have loved to discuss with Ben is long. “First, I would just like to talk to Ben about his music tastes … his favorite bands in different stages of his life and why. Who his favorite singers were, his favorite albums, what musicians influenced him the most, why he loved Elvis (like me) so much, things like that. I would also ask him what his earliest memory of performing was, and at what moment did he realize this band he was now in was going to be world famous. I’d ask what his favorite Cars’ album is and what was his most memorable moment in The Cars. On a more personal level, I would ask him who the love of his life really was.”
And if Joe could have spent time with Benjamin during his life? “I want to hang out with Ben from June 1979 to June 1980,” Joe confided. “The Cars were riding the success of their debut album (my second favorite) and about to release their second album, Candy-O, which is my favorite Cars album. The Cars were the hottest band in America at that time and Ben was finally a true rock star and enjoying the fruits of all his labor … and the girls were everywhere! (laughing)”
While Joe can never go back in time, he has gained the next best thing. “Knowing Ben inside and out like I do now … I am able to appreciate him as a person and not just as a rock star in a band. Even though I never met him, I kind of feel like I did.”
Milliken definitely passes that sense of warm familiarity to his readers in Let’s Go! Between the unique writing style, the candid memories of many important people, and the generous number of previously unpublished photos, Benjamin Orr’s inspiring story comes to life in these pages.