As we know, Benjamin Orr was always rather reticent when it came to giving interviews, so I always feel like I’ve found a treasure when I come across an article or footage where he shares his thoughts. I love to highlight them in my regular blog feature, “Quoting Benjamin,” but as time has gone on it has been harder and harder to fill that spot.
Earlier this summer my research nerd-twin, Judi, posted a link to an article that quoted Benjamin from an old issue of The Beat magazine that I hadn’t seen before. I noticed that the author of the link and the author of the 1987 interview were one and the same, and I decided to be bold and try to make a connection to see if I could get my eyes on the entire interview. What I ended up with is so much better!
AJ Wachtel is a long-time entertainment journalist who has rubbed elbows with the best and worst of Boston’s famed music scene, and chronicled it all for posterity. When he heard I was trying to get in touch he responded immediately; I was a bit blown away by his eagerness to help. He offered to scan and send the original article, and ended up finding a vintage issue of The Beat magazine for me in his files. On top of that, he sent me photos of Benjamin that I hadn’t seen before! And when I asked, he was more than willing to tell me of his friendship with Ben, and give me permission to share his stories here.
AJ grew up in New Jersey but headed to Boston University in 1974. He was studying for his MBA when his father passed away and he had to drop out of grad school. He lived in Allston and started hanging out at Bunratty’s, an Irish bar that was teeming with the hottest Boston bands of the day, and it was there that he became friends with legendary entrepreneur Mickey O’ Halloran. The Mick (as he was affectionately known) was a scrappy kid with street smarts who grew up to be one of Beantown’s busiest businessmen.
In addition to managing Bunratty’s (one among many clubs over the years), Mickey and his business partner David Gee (Giammatteo) started up a weekly fanzine called The Beat Magazine – “Best Entertainment Around Town” – in 1984. Seeing AJ’s intelligence and passion for music, Mickey recruited AJ to help document the loud and lively club culture in the greater Boston area. It wasn’t long until he was going to three or four nightclubs a night to see bands play and translating those shows into cover stories, live reviews and tasty tidbits for the magazine’s gossip column, Insignifica.
Mickey O and Dave Gee were good friends with Steve Berkowitz, who had been road manager for The Cars for a decade. By the late 1980s, Berkowitz was involved in supporting another local band, Push Push, featuring the very talented Dennis Brennan playing guitar and fronting the group. Berkowitz had convinced Mickey and Dave to do a cover story on his new band for The Beat. It was first assigned to another writer who did a terrible job; bad enough that Steve complained to the publishers. Who would bail them out? The task fell on AJ.
He was pretty unfamiliar with the band and with Berkowitz, but he agreed to meet with them at a small club in The Fens for an interview.
“The first thing on my agenda to do was to impress them right away to be reassured that I would write a killer story. I was certain that this would greatly please everyone. We sit down at a table and Steve buys us beers. I ordered two drafts and when the beers came I guzzled the big 16 ouncers in a row in five seconds and then burped and told them ‘I was ready for the interview.’ I was sure that guzzling 32 ounces in five seconds would scare the shit out of them and I was surely glad when I saw the looks of horror on all of their faces. Of course, I wrote a fine story that they used for promotion.”
In a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ world, AJ knew he had earned a gimme. He had an idea to ask Berkowitz to repay the favor by connecting him with The Cars for an interview and Berkowitz came through. “I was introduced to Ben Orr over the phone and I made him laugh with a few of my more offhand and off-color comments. We hit it off and kept in touch and hung out from then until just before he died.”
That phone interview with Ben in early October of 1987 resulted in an article published in issue 90 of The Beat later that month, and to backstage passes to a show at the Boston Garden in November during The Cars’ Door to Door tour. “Ben wanted me to be there and he put me on the guest list. Let me tell you, backstage at The Garden is many rooms and is pretty huge. The show was great and I didn’t really bother anyone after it ended. But I DID grab a few band beers!
“We got along from the beginning. I think he liked our shared passion for music and New Wave music. I think he liked my writing style. I know he appreciated my sense of humor. I think he was amused that I was very opinionated and was a typical loud Type A New Yorker, too. He invited me a few times to his nice home in Weston but I just never made it.”
When a journalist and a celebrity develop a bond, a special kind of trust must be established to move from ‘acquaintance’ to genuine friendship. Ben and AJ had a lot in common, but it was AJ’s discretion and sincerity that allowed Ben to relax and enjoy their time together.
“I was a friend AND a fan of Ben’s and always made sure I didn’t overstep my relationship by getting involved in his business world unless he brought it up. Even in his private life, I wouldn’t pepper him with questions about things he didn’t really want to talk about. I think that’s one reason Ben and I got along. He knew that if something was mentioned privately between us it wasn’t gonna end up at the top of my gossip column, Insignifica.”
AJ and Benjamin saw each other often through the 90s. In the same way that AJ’s respect for Ben’s privacy created an easy vibe, Ben’s humble personality made it natural for AJ to forget he was hanging out with a star.
“For a very complex individual, Ben to me was pretty laid back and easy going. He was a very serious person who often smiled and laughed a lot when he was in my presence. I sensed he didn’t feel the need to be the center of attention everywhere he went. He didn’t let his stardom go to his head. He didn’t have five big bodyguards protecting him and keeping fans away whenever he showed up around town. Ben was very approachable and accessible in a way that Ric Ocasek isn’t.
“I remember when his solo album The Lace came out about a year before I originally interviewed him, and we talked privately about his new music. When I told him my favorite song on the release was the rocker ‘Too Hot To Stop’ and then went into a five minute lecture on why I thought it was a great song, I could really tell he was genuinely very happy that I dug it so much. It’s a small thing, but I remember the big smile on his face as I talked.”
AJ remembers Ben as being very personable, and that “he had a small stable of good friends he’d go and socialize with on his time off from his busy schedule recording and touring.” The guys always had a lot of fun when they were together, whether it was knocking back beers at a club or visiting backstage.
“I saw Ben and John [Kalishes] play a gig with Muzz (John Muzzy from Farrenheit- Charlie Farren’s band) behind the kit. Bassist Ben played acoustic guitar and Kalishes played electric guitar. It was at the South Station T stop and I came to the show with my son who was a toddler; so it must have been around 1995. As soon as they finished their set, the guys couldn’t wait to show me ‘backstage’ at South Station and took me downstairs below the station to show me the many rooms and old tunnels with train tracks still on the floor. All three of them acted as tour guides to me and my son and I laughed when I thought how funny it was that Ben, John and Muzzy were showing me around and had so much enthusiasm after playing an hour set. The dressing room dungeon in this generally unknown and rarely seen basement is a place I have never been to again.
“I always felt like I was an equal part of the moment with them and that they enjoyed me being there. Again I was both a friend and a fan of these great musicians. A friend first. A fan second. And that’s the way it worked in our circle.
“I don’t remember why, but once Ben and his friend Gerard met me and my son’s mother, Tina, at the really ritzy Four Seasons. All four of us were dressed up. I had my top hat and was wearing tails, Tina had a mink stole, and Ben and Gerard were in casual nouveau riche; dark suits with no ties and sneakers. We sat around and had drinks and hors d’oeuvres for a few hours before we parted ways.
“Probably the last time I hung with Ben was when I ran into him backstage at The Hatch Shell for a show we had come to see separately with our kids in tow. The kids had met before and his young son and my young son, Harrison, were about the same age Both had very, very blonde hair. I remember watching them playing together, then glancing at Ben’s dyed blonde hair and my very brown locks, and joking that ‘it took the Wachtel family generations to breed the Jewish looks out….’ as Ben grinned and shook his head at me.”
Though their busy schedules didn’t allow Ben and AJ to hang out constantly, AJ treasures the time and the closeness the two shared, and feels Ben’s loss keenly.
“Ben Orr died just way too young. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, his early death and it’s resulting denial of potentiality is both saddening and inconsolable. But we still have his voice and the songs.”
And AJ has his memories, too. I’m honored that he shared them with us!
AJ currently writes for Blues Music Magazine; read his latest CD reviews on pages 65 and 71 in the October issue. You can also follow him on Facebook. I hope you’ll let him know how much we appreciate him keeping Ben’s legacy alive!