March 24, 2018. Sitting at the desk he has labored at for more than a decade, surrounded by his wife and young daughter, music journalist Joe Milliken applies his signature to the publishing contract with a flourish. This day has been a long time coming, and marks the end of a fulfilling, though sometimes grueling, road.
It’s official. The biography of Benjamin Orr is going to be published.
Still fresh from the experience, Joe said, “Saying it was simply a ‘feeling of accomplishment’ seems like an understatement. But yes, when I signed that publishing agreement and realized that a publisher believed in my project, I felt a sense of accomplishment, pride, relief, and personal growth.”
Many of you are familiar with this project… some of you have been waiting for what seems like ages. And while you may have wondered if Joe 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 back in 2007. There were a few gaps along the way where I had to set the project aside for stretches 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.)
So let me assure you right here at the beginning: Benjamin’s story IS going to be told! As of this date, Joe is scheduled to submit his completed manuscript, artwork, and photographs to Rowman & Littlefield Publishers by May 1st, and the book is tentatively slated to be on shelves by the beginning of November, 2018. Such great news!
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, Joe 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 sports writer, 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!”
[Incidentally, it was this same Ed who nicknamed Joe “the Jock of Rock” back in the day, a moniker that still identifies Joe in the Facebook world – find and like his music page here.]
“Music is easily my favorite hobby, but I could not carry a tune if it had a handle on it! 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 rock journalism, and being published in newspapers and national magazines like Goldmine 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 Joe’s profile online and believed he could be a good fit for sharing Benjamin’s story: Joe himself hailed from 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 an 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. This is a biography about a hard working musician who had one goal: to be in a successful national band. 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 and roll’ rock biography, either. Joe confirms, “This is not a backstage exposé, but rather the story of an extremely gifted, hard-working musician who knew exactly what he wanted to do in life from a very early age… and he achieved it.”
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.
Joe 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. “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 shows just how much people really cared about how Ben is portrayed in this book.”
In spite of its challenges, the interview process was obviously essential, and it gave Joe 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 bandmates 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.
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. He did so many things for people that no one ever knew about… not even his bandmates. 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.”
Joe 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. He did talk to a large variety of people, including family members, two of the four members of The Cars, musicians, label executives and music industry personnel, studio engineers, rock photographers and personal friends.
In addition to sharing their stories, many people also gave Joe the gift of photographs. “The photos 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!”
[Now if your first thought after reading that was, “Holy wow! Five hundred??? I wanna see them ALL!” I’ve got some super good news: Joe mentioned that he is considering following the biography with a special edition “photo book” to share many more of the photos he’s collected with the hardcore fans. Fingers (and toes) crossed!]
While Joe considers the interview process one of the most challenging obstacles of this project, it wasn’t the only aspect that kept him 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.’”
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…. 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.”
Joe is pretty tight-lipped when it comes to revealing too many details about the contents of the book itself (rats!) so we’ll have to wait for the fall, when I hope to get my hands on an advance copy and write a review to publish here (stay tuned!). In the meantime, what is next on the horizon for Joe Milliken?
His own music and arts website, Standing Room Only, keeps him quite busy, and he still does freelance writing (in fact, he’ll be covering April’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Benjamin’s hometown of Cleveland for Goldmine magazine). Eventually he’d like to write another music-related book, but he knows that by signing the publishing agreement with Rowman he’s kicking off the marketing and promotion phase of this project, and that will take much of his time and energy in the foreseeable future.
Still, he’ll be riding the emotional high of this writing milestone for some time to come. “I’ve had so much fun and am so honored to tell Mr. Orr’s life story, words just can’t describe it!”
In order to make sure you don’t miss the latest updates, author events, discount promotions, and other book-related Benjamin tidbits, ‘like’ Joe Milliken’s Facebook page dedicated to the book and/or follow the project on Twitter (@benorrbook). You can also email Joe directly at BenOrrBook@gmail.com to receive email communications (and it can’t hurt to give him a shout out in favor of that future photo book!).