Two thousand nineteen marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the last band Ben ever played in: Big People!
Joe Milliken’s book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, is an amazing resource for background on this band (and Ben’s whole life, obviously!), with a whole chapter devoted to how the group came together, including quotes from all the major players. I’ll just give a brief summary here:
Originally the brainchild of drummer Michael Cartellone (Damn Yankees, Lynyrd Skynyrd), Big People was a supergroup consisting of guitarist Jeff Carlisi (38 Special), guitarist and keyboard player Pat Travers (Pat Travers Band), and vocalist and rhythm guitarist Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent). The initial purpose was to play a few weekend club sets and enjoying jamming together, but others in the business suggested they push forward as a full-time band.
Ben was approached to join the group as the bass player in March of 1999. Cartellone ended up being hired to play drums for Lynyrd Skynyrd before Big People could really get off the ground, but fortunately Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) was at the tail-end of his commitment to Billy Joel and he was free to join this exciting new endeavor.
Big People pulled together a setlist that was packed with hits, as each member brought the best of their rock-and-roll resume to the stage. Under the encouragement and wisdom of manager Charlie Brusco (and later Billy Johnson) and tour manager Joe Dlearo, the band began rehearsals in April, 1999, and the guys knew they had stumbled on something great. In Let’s Go! Pat Travers said, “At the rehearsal studio for our first play together, I suggested playing ‘Just What I Needed,’ and when Derek, Ben and I sang together for the first time, wow! What a blend. Our three voices, with myself on the bottom, Derek on top and Ben singing the lead, had this amazing sound to me that was tight and sweet.” (p.180)
As the guys played together over the next few months, their harmony continued to build, both in rock-and-roll badassery as well as in friendship. They were picking up more and more gigs, and the audiences loved them. Eventually they landed a tour with Styx, which gained the band even more exposure. They were really clicking along and had plans to write original material together.
It was also during this time that Ben met Julie Snider, the woman to whom he would soon become engaged, and who would tenderly and tirelessly care for Ben until the end of his life. Footage and photos of Ben during this time show him to be relaxed, happy, and looking much more youthful than he did in the mid-90s.
There are SO many great quotes in Joe’s book about all of this, and I’ll feature some of them in future “In other words:” posts, but you’ve just got to read the book to get a true feel for the promise and excitement that everyone was feeling about Big People’s potential.
I recently had the honor of connecting with both Liberty DeVitto and Jeff Carlisi and asking them about their time with Big People. They each have such fond memories of those idyllic days, and find it hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since they were all rockin’ together.
And while I don’t want this article to be a downer, we can’t ignore the fact that it sucks so much that it all had to end. Ben really was the hinge that held it all together, and when he passed away in October of 2000 the band’s momentum fell flat. Their manager prompted the guys to hire a new bass player and get back in the game after Ben died, but their hearts just weren’t in it anymore. Jeff told me, “We didn’t have any interest in keeping it going once Ben was gone.” Liberty echoed that sentiment when he said, “When we lost Ben we lost a rockstar. There was no sense in going on. We love Ben. He was a great guy and a great singer and player.”
Big People’s first official show was on July 24, 1999, up in New Brunswick, Canada, at a place known at the time as Shediac Can-Am Speedway (now called the Shediac Centre for Speed). The three-day weekend event, called Rockfest ’99, featured acts like Nazareth, Collective Soul, ZZ Top, Styx, and April Wine.
The guys were excited on their flight to Canada, eager to make their public debut. The show itself went well. Like all bands playing out for the first time, there were rough edges to smooth out, but Jeff felt really good about the music and about the natural chemistry between the guys. “I remember calling my wife after the show and saying, ‘It’s like I’ve always been in this band all my life.'”
Their second playout followed in August of that year, at a festival called Itchycoo Park ’99: The Camping Experience. This is the show I really want to focus on here, since it’s one we can actually watch.
Held in the middle of a big farm field in Manchester, Tennessee, Itchycoo was kind of an unusual event in its day in that it combined a music festival with camping. It was a bit of a throwback to Woodstock in that way, and is considered an early (if unsuccessful) forerunner to long-established camping concert events like Bonnaroo (which is held on the same site), Sonic Bloom, and Coachella.
Looking at the extensive list of bands on the bill, this event should have been an absolute smash (at least in my opinion!). It featured some of the most iconic names in music history, including Sammy Hagar, Joan Jett, Paul Rodgers, Styx, Ann and Nancy Wilson… so many legends! Check out the posters below; you won’t believe it. And the whole weekend — all four days — for only $80. Holy cow!!
Early ad, from the Itchycoo Park Facebook page
Schedule, from the 45worlds.com
Event guide, from the Itchycoo Park Facebook page
As you can see, early advertisements of the original lineup don’t list Big People, but later they were added to the roster to perform on Thursday, August 12, at 4:00, sandwiched between Rick Springfield and Mark Farner. Jeff believes they actually played Friday, probably between Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and preceding John Entwistle of The Who, and the event guide (above right) supports that schedule. Of course, the actual slot doesn’t matter; Big People was going to take the stage!
As it would turn out, the event organizers were in for a pretty crushing blow. Expecting to draw at least 60,000 people (but hoping for 80,000), the event actually only sold around 20,000 tickets. On top of that, the Tennessean reported a few other stink bombs:
a few of the acts were no-shows, including Ann and Nancy, who were slated as the grand finale
the agency providing security for the event departed in mid-afternoon on Sunday, causing the officials to recruit spectators as security guards for the remainder of the festival
promised electrical hookups for RVs weren’t provided
vendors complained bitterly about the lack of communication, poor overall organization, and puny profits.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Itchycoo Park festival did not return the next year. Interestingly, only three years later the Bonnaroo festival would sell out their event on the same site, and that event has continued to be a roaring success for nearly twenty years.
As for the Big People experience? Luckily for us, we can witness it ourselves, even 20 years later.
The band launches into “Just What the Doctor Ordered” with guns blazing. Liberty’s explosive drumming and Derek’s vigorous vocals let you know that in spite of the smaller-than-anticipated turnout, these guys are here to kick ass. And they do! Every one of them are masters of their craft, seasoned professionals with the hearts of grown-up kids looking to jam with their buddies. So much freaking talent on that stage!
Derek acts as the main frontman for the group, playing to the crowd and ushering each song into the next. He is a natural showman, animated at times, clearly thrilled to interact with the audience. We can excuse him for fumbling around the lyrics a bit because his voice is an indomitable siren call to rock.
I’m addicted to watching Liberty play. Always a splashy drummer, his movements are exuberant and fluid, his sticks clearly an extension of his arms. I simply canNOT sit still when he’s going at it.
Jeff Carlisi roams the stage unruffled. At times he stands facing the crowd with all the aloof confidence of young Caesar, at other moments he is grinning like a kid at his first rock concert. When it’s his turn in the spotlight he steps up to the edge of the stage and blazes through his solos with restraint, like it’s just a walk in the park.
Pat Travers definitely brings the most ‘hard rock’ attitude to the stage, wowing the crowd with his passionate guitar playing. His performance of “I La La La Love You” is captivating. I love it, too, how he covers the keyboard parts for “Let’s Go” by handling most of it on his guitar and later switching to the synthesizer.
And then there’s Ben. He smiles throughout the show, looking much more lit up and youthful than he has in so long (compare this to his performance at Viele’s Plant just a year before). His vocals are strong and sexy. And the camera clearly loves Ben. There are many slow pans, capturing his content, cat-that-ate-the cream looks. Later, when he removes his sunglasses, we can see he is clear-eyed and happy. Serene. At peace. It’s so great to see him connecting with crowd, and joking around with his bandmates.
The stifling heat threatens to make things difficult. Big fans are set up around the stage, but it’s clear the guys are affected. Derek mentions it a couple of times, Liberty is pouring water over his head, and the guys are mopping their faces between songs. At one point Pat stores his guitar pick on his cheek, apparently adhering it with his sweat (ew! lol). But there’s Ben, looking as cool as a cucumber in his heavy leather jacket and shades. Electric angel rock-and-roller all the way, baby!
Big People’s happy, confident chemistry is palpable. Derek’s hyper-puppy energy offsets the cool demeanor of Pat and Jeff as they volly through their lead guitar solos like it’s the US Open. Liberty’s energy is both controlled and contagious, while Ben is, as always, unassuming and quietly badass. They are on a big stage but they make it feel more intimate by the way they interact, trading smiles, jokes and rock-and-roll flirts with each other through the set. All five connecting, all five communicating with each other.
It’s obvious these guys love each other so much, and that is something that both Liberty and Jeff emphasized to me. Jeff said, “In those two years or so, the six of us [including Julie] traveling on the road… we lived so much life together. That’s the best part about that whole thing: those relationships. They changed my life.”
Jeff has given me the go-ahead to start a Facebook group for Big People. Please come join! It will mainly serve as a centralized collection site for all information and memorabilia I can round up about the group, as well as biographical tidbits and current happenings of the various members. Jeff indicated that as he came across stuff in his own files he’d send it to me to share, and I am hopeful that others will contribute as well. And of course, I welcome all fans to chime in with their thoughts, memories, and photos, too.
I’m hoping to write lots more about Big People in the future. In the meantime, please click below to enjoy the one concert we currently have access to, live at Itchycoo Park!
“I’m real casual with the whole thing. It’s tough to be the best at anything, and I don’t really strive to be the best bassist in the world.” — from “Benjamin Orr: The Cars’ Mr. Casual Steps Out” by Rob Tannenbaum, Musician Magazine, March 1987
Panorama: My favorite album, and my favorite album cover! Gorgeous, right? Simple, clean, and badass.
Here’s a misconception we can clear up pretty quickly:
Cars’ drummer David Robinson is sometimes credited with painting the flag for the cover of the Panorama album. This Nightflight article states it, and I believe Wikipedia reported that at one time, too. Did you believe it? I did!
Well, it’s not so. David himself set the record straight in a Facebook post:
That’s pretty definitive!
And of course we know that Paul McAlpine did the rest of the photography for the record, including the very cool cover art on the back, and the lovely album sleeve.
Heck, he took a ton of great photos of the band! If you’re not familiar with his work, do a quick Google search of “paul mcalpine the cars” and prepare to be amazed!
I do have to say, David’s “obviously” in his comment above made me feel a little foolish, because I did not doubt his ability to make a painting that looked so great. Was that naive of me? My husband did a pretty decent job with the duplicate he painted for me, so I thought, “Why not?” 😉
“Our objective was to make a very radio-sounding pop record. And the songs dictated that direction. They weren’t the type of thing you’d want to superimpose some kind of quirky approach to, just to be interesting. Since it’s very pop-sounding, some people are just gonna turn off to it right away. But if people listen to it carefully, there’s some real interesting textural stuff going on there.” — Larry Klein, co-producer of The Lace, from “Benjamin Orr: The Cars’ Mr. Casual Steps Out” by Rob Tannenbaum, Musician Magazine, March 1987
I always have a short list of mysteries I wish I could solve about Ben’s life. In the number one spot is the location of the apartment fire that he survived four decades ago. It always seemed strange to me that information about such a monumental event could remain so elusive. In 2016, I started poking around for clues about Boston-area fires and collecting the puzzle pieces in a file, hoping to be able to snap them all together someday. It proved pretty difficult, and I was hitting wall after wall.
During that time I met Joe Milliken and we became friends. As I got to know him better and understood his heart for the book he was writing about Ben, I quietly resolved to set aside certain areas of my research because I didn’t want to scoop him on stuff. I just felt it was the right thing to do, you know? So I closed the file on the fire.
I kept that decision to myself until long after he invited me to help with the book. When it eventually came up, I learned that, unfortunately, he didn’t know the specifics of the location either. But low and behold, after the book was published, a reader stepped forward and emailed Joe with a previously-unknown-to-me-but-very-viable possibility: a five-alarm fire at 101-103 Tremont in the early hours of December 9, 1979. Knowing how important it was to me personally to investigate this bit of Ben’s history, Joe very generously passed the tip to me and turned me loose.
I eagerly jumped down the research rabbit hole. My digging for details led me to Charlie Vasiliades. Not only has he lived in the neighborhood of the fire for more than 60 years, but he has an incredible memory and a huge heart for history. He serves as the vice president of the Brighton Allston Historical Society, and is affectionately nicknamed the ‘mayor of Oak Square’ due to his longtime dedication to community activism. Charlie was instrumental in bringing this story to life.
My fundamental premise:
Located on the west side of the district of Brighton is an upscale, hilly little neighborhood called Oak Square. It is conveniently located near several universities, and is less than a 20 minute drive from downtown Boston. The area boasts a quiet “village” feel amidst its pretty residential areas, while having easy access to all of the opportunities and conveniences of the big city.
Back in 1979, near the outskirts of Oak Square, two brick apartment buildings were nestled into a little wooded hillside on Tremont Avenue. The twin six-story complexes were owned by Joseph Lombardi and were fairly new, having been constructed in 1973. Each building was made up of two wings joined with a central lobby/foyer area, and topped with tiers of penthouse apartments. One was addressed as 101-103 Tremont, the other as 109-111 Tremont. These Google images below show the front and top of present-day 109-111 Tremont, an exact duplicate of its sister complex that used to stand to its right.
Both buildings were fully occupied in 1979, providing homes for an estimated 300 people, including small families, elderly couples, college students, and business professionals. I believe that Benjamin lived there, too.
After receiving that tip from Joe this past summer, I have scoured records and resources to try to track down the facts, but as of this writing, I have been unable to find actual legal documentation that Ben lived in this building (the landlord’s office and all of the records were destroyed with the structure). I’m laying my claim for Ben’s residency based on circumstantial evidence:
Oak Square residents remember that one of the tenants was a member of The Cars.
Steve Berkowitz’s quote in Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars confirms that Ben lived in Brighton in 1979-1980.
Articles and posts that mention the fire always put it around the beginning of the year 1980.
In the press kit for Candy-O, the notes narrate that Ben had recently moved into a new apartment. He is quoted as saying, “I’m on the top floor and there’s a valley below me, and another hill about a mile away. You can see the treeline and stuff.” This description fits in with the topography of Oak Square.
Of the other fires I’ve researched in that area and from that time period, this is the only one that comes close to fitting in with the window of information available.
That terrible fire:
Sunday, December 9, 1979.
Charlie Vasiliades was a young college student and a night owl by nature. He lived with his family in a house built into a hillside overlooking much of the Oak Square neighborhood. The view was beautiful, though sound tended to be amplified from the streets below. On this night, the temperature dipped below freezing and a light dusting of snow covered the ground as Charlie relaxed in front of the television.
Shortly after midnight Charlie began to hear sirens swelling and fading outside his home. Just one at first, which was not unusual, but soon another followed, and then several more in rapid succession. He stepped out on his porch where he could see down to the main street. Emergency vehicles were racing by, accumulating about three blocks west and down the hill from his house. The night sky was illuminated with an eerie orange glow and smoke billowing up into the dark. His ears were assaulted with a cacophony of sirens piercing the air for about a good hour. It was past 1 a.m. when he returned inside and made his way toward bed. As curious as he was, he knew he would only be in the way if he showed up on the scene.
At the fire station, the first tones had sounded at 12:25 a.m. after a resident of 101 Tremont pulled the fire alarm in the laundry room, possibly on the second floor. Witnesses inside observed smoke coming from both the elevator shaft and the trash compactor room as they headed out of the building. Investigators later confirmed that the fire did indeed start in the 101 building in the trash compactor, though they could not determine what sparked it.
Many residents reported that there had been several minor fires and at least one false alarm in the complex in recent weeks, so when the fire alarm sounded in the middle of the night, they weren’t too worried. They shrugged on their jackets and hustled out of their apartments empty-handed, expecting to be allowed to return to their beds in short order. Several walked over to the lobby of 109 Tremont to keep warm while they waited to hear the ‘all clear.’ (A short time later, when that building was evacuated, they returned to the street and were shocked by what they saw.)
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
A second alarm was struck at 12:46 a.m., a third at 12:57 a.m., a fourth at 1:05 a.m., and the fifth at 1:21 a.m. Trucks from Newton and other Boston firehouses raced to the scene to lend support. Bolstered by strong winds, the fire was fierce and all-consuming, relentlessly eating away the interior walls and blasting the glass out of windows. At the peak of the battle, 150 firefighters and over 40 emergency vehicles were working in tandem to defeat the flames.
It was wise of Charlie to stay put. The whole situation was a terrifying mess. Emergency responders were hindered by the hundreds of displaced residents, concerned neighbors, and curious spectators who clogged the area around the buildings even as police officers attempted to keep them out of the danger zone.
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
By around 2:15 a.m. the authorities believed the fire was under control, but suddenly a gush of flames bolted up the back of the building, broke through the roof, and began to devour the other half of the structure, 103 Tremont. Steel railings melted and the wall between the conjoined buildings collapsed. Flames shot out of the roof high into the night, scattering embers. In an attempt to keep the aggressive flames from grabbing other structures, neighbors were evacuated and firefighters hosed down the surrounding homes as well as Our Lady of the Presentation Church, which stood up on the hill behind the apartment complex. The Boston Globe reported that the heat was so intense it could be felt in the middle of the street. It took more than an hour to regain control.
Members of the American Red Cross were at the scene almost immediately, setting up a disaster shelter in the church to provide warm blankets, hot drinks, and comforting refuge throughout the long night. The fire was contained by 3:30 a.m., though firefighters would continue to work on extinguishing the blaze as the sun came up. Three days later some of the debris was still smoldering.
Charlie remembers seeing coverage of the disastrous fire on the morning news. “The footage showed practically every single window opening, as well as the roof, was pouring out orange flames. It was a very distinctive sight in my memory.”
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
The level of devastation hit home when he went outside. “I remember going out into my backyard. It was a clear, sunny day in December, kind of cold. I found big chunks of burnt out wallpaper and debris in the garden. It was really quite startling.”
Charlie got dressed and walked down to the fire site. The street was still teeming with onlookers, and fire trucks were everywhere. The blaze was out; the entire complex was destroyed. Describing what he saw, Charlie explained, “The building was kind of a ziggurat style, set back on the hill with three levels. To its immediate right there were public stairs that connected the street the fire was on to another major street up behind the site.
“You could see that it was literally a ruin,” he continued. “Except for the very front wings of the building, the entire structure had collapsed in on itself. The walls were standing, but the windows were just gaping holes into nothing. In the two front wings, I remember the top floor had burned. A couple of rooms on the bottom floor in the front arms had not burned, but that was about it. The firemen were still pouring water into the building. It was quite a scene.”
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
Retrieved from 105firephotos.com
It is incredible that in the middle of such a powerful disaster, there were no casualties and no critical injuries. Many residents were rescued from the building using aerial ladders. At least 40 residents were treated on the scene for exposure, cuts, bruises, and smoke inhalation. More than 20 people, including nine firefighters, were transported to a nearby hospital for further care. But everyone got out alive and burn-free. Overall, a wide ribbon of gratefulness wove its way through the shock of the night.
Still, the aftermath brought a different kind of devastation: over 140 tenants were left without their homes, their treasured possessions, and the common necessities for everyday living. People lost everything in those apartments. Every. single. thing. Furniture, clothing, photographs, money, medications, legal documents. Grief and fear threatened to overtake many of the victims as they considered their irreplaceable belongings and the prospect of finding a new home in the middle of a citywide housing shortage.
But they weren’t left on their own. Over the next several days Red Cross volunteers worked tirelessly to meet the victims’ immediate basic needs: a place to stay and food to eat, vital medications, clothing vouchers, and guidance for the first critical steps necessary to start over again. In addition, the community banded together to find ways to help:
The owner of the destroyed complex joined in the search for long-term housing solutions, too, making it a priority to take care of his former residents.
A neighboring superintendent set up a Brighton Fire Victims Fund at a local bank to field monetary donations. The balance of approximately $2,500 was evenly distributed among victims after February 28, 1980.
In January of 1980, the Brighton-Allston Clergy Association announced it would be holding a “Fire Dance” benefit and buffet to raise funds for those still without a permanent home. The successful event brought in over $4,000, and was used to purchase appliances, furniture, and other staples for the families.
A tangible sense of love and support blanketed the victims of the fire. One resident felt that the disaster may have been “a gift from God” because it forced people to get to connect. He was quoted in the Allston Brighton Citizen Item as saying, “Previously we were all strangers but as a result of the fire we found out that they weren’t strangers, but friends I hadn’t met.”
And then, somehow, life went on. In February of 1980, investigators ruled the fire was accidental, and commended the firefighters on the scene for doing an excellent job battling the conflagration.
The site of 101-103 Tremont was eventually demolished, cleared out, and left vacant for nearly forty years. Finally, in 2016, developers broke ground on the lot and began construction of a new housing facility called 99 Tremont. Similar to the original structure, this complex included 62 living units, but it was also fitted with all sorts of special amenities, like a fitness center, game room, and lounge. These luxury apartments and condos became available in the spring of 2017.
If Ben did live in this building, as I believe he did, he would have occupied one of the rooftop penthouse apartments (as he described living on the top floor). Those apartments were completely obliterated, and Ben lost all of his possessions, save for “his new genuine wolf coat, which he had bought in Canada,” as mentioned by Steve Berkowitz in Let’s Go! on page 117. His guitars, his art; his clothing and photographs and souvenirs. Even his wallet and identification (read the book to see how that played out!). He must have been devastated.
But still, knowing of Ben’s kind heart, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had given money to help the other residents whose lives were upended. He probably did even more for the ones he knew better. I wonder what kind of neighbor he was; if he kept to himself or if he was proactive about meeting others. Maybe he flirted shamelessly with the elderly ladies who saw him as a surrogate son. Haha! Surely he was helpful and considerate, and I suspect he didn’t draw a bunch of attention to his rockstar status.
Berkowitz goes on to say in that passage of the book that right after the fire, they got on a plane and “were headed to Los Angeles for recording sessions.” I’ve been mulling this over to determine how it may or may not support the timeline of the Tremont fire.
If Berkowitz meant they were heading out to record Panorama, that would have happened in April or May of 1980, as I believe that is when that album was recorded, so this Tremont fire would not be the one. However, The Cars played shows in Inglewood, California, on December 19 and 20 of 1979. Could it be that this is where they were headed on the plane? Perhaps Berkowitz just made a mistake in recalling the band’s destination? Joe has made attempts to clarify that information for me but no luck yet.
Mercifully, life went on for Ben, too. I believe that he may have stayed with Elliot in Weston after the fire, before purchasing his own house nearby in March. He would own that Weston house until 1996.
Pending any new information, I feel like I can put this mystery to rest. It was actually quite heart-wrenching to immerse myself in all of this, to think about what Benjamin might have experienced and felt. I suspect many of you will feel the same way. I am incredibly grateful that he was unharmed physically… it could have been so much worse.
**12.16.2019 UPDATE: I posted this article on Facebook and Greg Hawkes confirmed that this was indeed Ben’s building:
This whole song makes me reflect on Ben’s later years, and brings to mind pieces of the mosaic like the band’s break up, his romantic relationships, his musical direction… and how he might have coped with all of that. I do believe that he was strongly loved during those hard years; I only hope he recognized it and took it to heart.
“Most were being good for goodness’ sake but you wouldn’t pantomime
You are more beautiful when you awake than most are in a lifetime
Through the haze that is my memory, well,
You stayed for drama though you’d paid for a comedy
I know I can be colorful, I know I can be gray
I know this loser’s living fortunate and I know you will love me either way”