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 (about $7,900 today) 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 (about $12,600 today), 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:
It’s funny how my little obsession can change courses. Since Joe Milliken brought me on board to assist him with the publishing and promoting of Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, it’s still been ‘all Ben, all the time’, but rather than researching and gushing and pondering (and writing about it all), my main Ben focus has been doing everything I can to share the book (and through it, Ben’s legacy) with the world at large. This has been an honor and a delight to me, though it hasn’t left much time for me to immerse myself in just HIM, purely for pleasure.
After the Cleveland book event in January my schedule eased up a bit; not quite the pressure cooker it had been leading up to that party. Coincidentally, around that same time my sweet friend Ingrid (who also happens to be a research genius) pointed me in the direction of some photos of our man that I hadn’t seen before, and down the rabbit hole I went. Something about seeing rockstar Ben through new lenses has pulled me back into his bubble of beauty and I’m enjoying just sitting back and adoring him again.
I’ve posted my favorites of the photos on Facebook, but I realize not everyone who reads this blog uses social media. So here you go:
The pictures are outtakes of the Candy-O album cover photoshoot and were taken by Jeff Albertson. Here is the link to the full stash, which includes some great photos of the whole band, as well: Candy-O Outtakes. Aren’t they amazing?
Of course, thinking about posting those here on my blog reminded me of a few other things that I’ve put on Facebook and Twitter in the last few months, but that haven’t found their way to an article here yet. Brace yourself!
These pics below were taken by Peter Simon and were part of a series of photos labeled “CARS!” ca. 1984. I love them!
Oh, and this! A devoted fan found it last fall and posted it in one of the groups, and was very generous to give me permission to share it. Now, even though the interviewer comes across as a putz, and Ben seems a little out of sorts at the beginning, and there is that watermark to contend with… still, isn’t it fabulous? Live interview footage of Ben is SO rare! I am hugely thankful we have it.
And here are the most recent photos that I’ve posted over there: Ben from 1981. You know I love those Panorama days! And that jacket with the #11 domino on the sleeve? Squeeeee!
I do have a bunch of other photos on Facebook, as well as videos of things like The Cars’ appearances on Saturday Night Live. If you’re already part of the flow, come find me on my sweetpurplejune page! If you’re not signed up for Facebook, I hope you’ll consider giving it a try. There are lots of Ben delights to be had. In the meantime, I’ll strive to bring as much of him here as I can. The journey continues!
On the possibility of producing a band: “I want to produce somebody I can really get behind, something really meaty. I know what I want, but it’s really hard to describe. But when it comes along, I’m going to grasp it up and make a knockout record of it.” — Candy-O press kit, 1979
My husband’s brother, D, has always been my rock-and-roll buddy. We’ve talked music from as far back as I can remember, and he is one of only two members of my large extended family that will talk seriously with me about The Cars without looking at his watch. His all-time favorite song of theirs is “Dangerous Type,” the last track on the 1979 Candy-O album.
One might not consider the lyrics of The Cars to be ‘seductive’ in the traditional sense, but when my brother-in-law sings, “Inside angel, always upset. Keeps on forgetting that we ever met. Can I bring you out in the light? My curiosity’s got me tonight,” my sister-in-law blushes and giggles like a schoolgirl.
Such is the provocative power of The Cars!
(Of course, her response may have more to do with the fact that after all these years they are still madly in love, and just about anything he does makes her blush and giggle! haha)
Rock critics agree that “Dangerous Type” is one of the true highlights from Candy-O. Written by Ric Ocasek and produced by Roy Thomas Baker, it was never released as a single but it received a lot of radio play and easily became a fan favorite. This is also one of those songs where, if you really tried to pull a specific message out of Ric’s lyrics, you would likely be left scratching your head. That doesn’t stop any of us from singing along, though, does it? I’m sure each of us has some sort of connection we make with it, which is exactly what Ric wants.
There’s no denying that this song has panache. With every individual element, the guys get in there, throw their punches and then get out. You feel it from the first beats of David’s kick drum, and all through those excellent fills. Greg’s skillfully crafted synth sounds couldn’t be more perfect; I would love to lie across his keyboards and have him play those notes along my spine. Ric’s vocal treatment is flawless, and adds just the right attitude to his cryptic lyrics. Benjamin’s got that pulsing bass line moving things along, and Elliot’s guitar work is no-nonsense and effective…. on out the door, the band entirely locked into that addictive outro.
Take a minute — well, 17 seconds, actually — to appreciate that guitar solo. It emerges from the chorus so subtly: edgy, powerful, and perfectly symbiotic with the keyboards in the background. When he’s made his voice heard Elliot drops us into to the next verse with little fanfare. That transition — from the end of the guitar solo to Greg’s kick-ass synth while Ric sings, “Museum directors with high shaking heads, they kick white shadows until they play dead…” — that is my absolute favorite part. I eagerly anticipate it every time I crank this song.
For our listening pleasure, there is an alternate studio version out there. It surfaced when the Candy-O monitor mix tapes were recovered. It’s pretty similar to the final track, with the most obvious exceptions being the missing guitar solo and a few minor lyric changes. I’m really looking forward to the Northern Studios recording that is slated to come out as a bonus track on the newly expanded Candy-O release, dropping on July 28, 2017 (just around the corner — yippee!). I’m always thrilled to hear something new.
This song has been covered numerous times. The most notable is this terrific version by Letters to Cleo, which was featured in the 1996 movie, The Craft, and included Greg Hawkes sitting in on the synthesizer. Greg also joins the band in their music video! I love love love this rendition! Take a peek here:
It was also covered by Johnny Monaco on the 2005 Substitution Mass Confusion tribute compilation. I haven’t heard that version yet; still trying to pick up that CD on the cheap. I’ve read that it’s well done. Another tribute album, Just What We Needed, came out in 2010 and includes a version by Graveyard School, but I can’t find that CD — cheap or otherwise — anywhere.
And now are you ready for a totally different take on this song? Check out this lush cover by Susan Hyatt, including some gorgeous trumpet playing by Zack Leffew… it’s a little startling, but I like it. From her 2016 album, Pin-ups and Trumpets.
A youtube friend let me know that “Dangerous Type” was also part of a movie soundtrack (though it does not show up on the official soundtrack album). The song plays for over 3 minutes during this transitional scene in the 1980 film, Times Square. Now I confess, I didn’t watch this movie; I generally like films about teenage angst but this one just didn’t appeal to me at all, though I understand that it is somewhat of a cult classic.
A bonus tidbit: on MTV’s first day of broadcasting (August 1, 1981), the 124th video they aired was “Dangerous Type.” I’m pretty sure it was this performance from The Midnight Special (I chose a higher quality of the footage rather than the one with the VH1 logo):
There are several live performances out there to listen to, but we’ll play out the article with this gem: the audio from The Cars’ set at the 1982 US Festival. Their energy is off the charts, Ric adds great flourishes to the lyrics, and Elliot shakes things up with his gritty guitar playing. Enjoy!
About his neighbors’ disco party: “It was the same exact beat for forty-five minutes. It could have been fifteen different songs for all I know. I guess they get machines to play it. I’d saw my fingers off before I’d play that stuff.” — Candy-O press kit, 1979
About Candy-O: “I can’t imagine anyone else doing an album like that and pulling it off the way we did, any more than I can imagine anybody else doing a Beatles album, say. It’s a lot cleaner than the first one and we spent a lot more time working on sound and the clarity of instruments. But it’s still a natural kind of flowing thing; there’s a lot of feeling from every individual involved. Ric and I have been singing pretty well for some time now, but this time out we had the luxury of really getting it down on tape. The blend of our voices is perfect.” –Candy-O press kit booklet, 1979