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New biography reveals what drove Benjamin Orr of The Cars

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New biography reveals what drove Benjamin Orr of The Cars (photo by Vernon Gowdy)

More than 11 years after setting out to write the first biography of Benjamin Orr – enigmatic co-founder, co-lead singer and bassist for The Cars, Vermont-based music journalist Joe Milliken says he is thrilled to be able to share so much first-time information about the late charismatic singer and musician.

Milliken’s book, “Let’s Go: Benjamin Orr and The Cars,” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) was written with input from more than 120 of Orr’s family members, friends, bandmates and associates – many of them speaking on the record for the first time.

“There were times when I wondered if I would ever see the finish line,” Milliken said of his book released earlier this month.

From Orr’s early Cleveland years to the time of his death from pancreatic cancer in October 2000, Milliken’s book vividly portrays Orr as a driven musician and loyal friend. We see how eager he was to pay his dues to achieve the kind of success he saw in his mind. During the interview process, Milliken discovered a few common threads about the musician as revealed by those closest to him.

“Ben was fiercely loyal to his friends and he was a very private person,” Milliken said, adding that he had to earn the trust of some of his interview subjects before they would allow their quotes to be used in the book.

“At the beginning, they didn’t know who I was, and they were very cautious about talking to me. Because Ben was a very private guy, they didn’t want to betray that trust. Some people were happy to talk from the get-go because they were happy that a book was finally being written about Ben.”

According to Milliken, Orr had two carefully divided personas – public and private.

“Ben was unique in that he almost had a split personality,” he explained. “He was a completely different person offstage than he was onstage. It was almost like he flipped a switch to become a rock and roll star.”

Onstage with The Cars, Orr was mysterious and impenetrable with commanding star quality.

“The moment he walked offstage, he flipped a switch and was just like a normal, regular guy with no ego,” Milliken said. “Ben was unfailingly kind and generous to his friends.”

In “Let’s Go!,” Milliken cites numerous examples of Orr’s loyalty to those closest to him.

“You’ll read that after The Cars became huge, whenever the band would go through Ben’s hometown of Cleveland, he would call the friends that he grew up with to let them know he was coming to town,” said Milliken. “He would hook them all up with tickets to the show and backstage passes and he would have limousines pick them up at their homes. He didn’t just do this once – he did it every time he came home.”

As Milliken accumulated interviews, he realized he was sitting on a wealth of never before heard stories and details about Orr’s life in and out of The Cars, as well as first time information surrounding the arc of the band’s late ‘70s to mid-‘80s career peak.

“There were a number of times when I would finish an interview and say to myself: ‘Nobody has heard this before. I can’t wait to get this in writing,’” Milliken said.

Elektra Records label rep George Daly’s scoop of record god Clive Davis in signing The Cars is a quintessential tale of industry one-upmanship.

“These label reps saw the radio tip-sheets and noticed this unsigned band was getting airplay in Boston,” Milliken said. “A couple of them actually went to this now defunct punk club known as The Rat (Boston’s infamous Rathskeller) to see The Cars. George Daly was tipped off by his sister who said ‘You’ve got to see this band’ so he showed up, and was so impressed, he drew up an informal contract that night on a beer napkin outlining the terms of a five-album deal with Elektra. Getting stories like that directly from the people involved was pretty exciting.”

The Cars ultimately recorded six albums for Elektra during Orr’s lifetime, selling well over 30 million units to date.

When surviving members Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton, David Robinson and Greg Hawkes reunited in 2011 for a well-received seventh album – “Move Like This” - Orr’s absence was tangible although one of his bass guitars was utilized during the sessions by Hawkes. The Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.

Following the band’s not-so-amicable dissolution in 1988, Orr formed his own band – ORR - and later participated in a super group of sorts called Big People. The lineup included Pat Travers, Jeff Carlisi of .38 Special, Derek St. Holmes of Ted Nugent’s band and drummer Liberty DeVitto of Billy Joel’s band. Orr was on tour with Big People when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000.

“I interviewed all of those guys for the book,” Milliken said. “They told me that they started noticing changes to Ben’s appearance before he was diagnosed. His skin seemed to be a different color and they wondered if he had hepatitis.”

When Orr was diagnosed, his doctors suggested that he cease touring with Big People to regain some strength to endure treatment, Milliken adds.

“Doing concerts is not exactly a good formula for trying to get healthy. But Ben wouldn’t listen to his doctors. He said ‘When I can’t stand up and play anymore, that’s when you’ll know it’s over. But until then, we’re rockin’ on.’”

Orr performed a final concert with Big People literally days before he passed. A month or so earlier, he flew to the east coast to participate in a filmed interview reunion with his former Cars bandmates. The 45-minute interview was included as a bonus feature for a DVD containing a 1979 live performance. During the interview (easily found on YouTube) we see a shockingly gaunt Orr surrounded by his bandmates at a seemingly happy reunion.

“I think they all stepped back and said ‘This is crazy. We need to come together,’” Milliken said of the last time all five members of The Cars were in the same room. “The day before it was filmed, they all had dinner together and hung out. I think Ben’s illness had them forgetting about any problems they had with each other. We see them burying the hatchet and kind of saying ‘Let’s be here for Ben.’”

A singular presence onstage and devoted friend and family man in his private life, Benjamin Orr comes to life in Milliken’s book, thanks to first-hand accounts and anecdotes provided by people who knew him best, along with a gallery of many previously unpublished photos – many from private collections. “Let’s Go!” is an intimate portrait of one of rock’s most talented voices and musicians.

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