Book Review: Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars

This review was originally written for and published on my sister site, Read~Rock~Review, on September 11, 2018.


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Written by Joe Milliken, 2018

Format: Book, 216 pages, 30+ photos

Published by Rowman & Littlefield

Website: http://www.benorrbook.com

Notable Quote: “Believe me, Benny just had this incredible electricity about him. He would walk into a room and whether they knew him or not, people just felt there was something special about this guy…. I swear that in the mid-sixties, Benny was like the Elvis Presley of Cleveland.” — Wayne Weston, friend and former bandmate.


My quick 2 cents: Between the unique writing style, the candid memories of many important people, and the generous number of previously unpublished photos, Benjamin Orr’s inspiring story comes to life in these pages. Buy it!

The full scoop:  Any retrospective on the late 1970s and 1980s HAS to include some focus on the new wave rock legends, The Cars. A debut album that stayed on the charts for 139 consecutive weeks, winners of the first MTV “Video of the Year” award in 1984, creators of what would become the haunting signature song for Live Aid (“Drive”) — they are more than deserving of their 2018 induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

While all five guys generally resisted the limelight, bassist Benjamin Orr was arguably the most sought-after — and most private — of the band members. Blessed with versatile vocal chords, unwavering musicianship, and an irresistible magnetism, fans of Benjamin ‘the rock star’ fell hard and with no hope of recovery. But once the show was over and the lights went down, Benjamin flipped a switch. He was a normal guy; he avoided photographers, shunned interviews, and led a low-key lifestyle in the quiet, upscale town of Weston, Massachusetts. Of course, all of this added an air of mystery to his reputation. When he succumbed to cancer in October, 2000, at the age of 53, it seemed the curtain had closed on his legacy forever.

First-time author (and long-time rock journalist) Joe Milliken has spent the last eleven years researching Ben’s life in an attempt to pull back that curtain with his biography Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, due to be released on November 11, 2018. The book follows Benjamin through others’ eyes as he pursued his rock-and-roll dreams from his happy days as a teen star in Cleveland to the open-minded bars of Boston, to the comforting arms of Atlanta — not ruthlessly, but with a humility and steely determination that left those around him in awe.

As a devoted fan of Benjamin Orr, I’ve been researching and writing about him on my personal blog for about three years. When I discovered that this book was in the works, I felt protective of Ben’s privacy and I’ll admit… I was nervous. What if the author revealed information that was too personal? What if he told things that were not fair to tell, with Ben gone and not able to defend himself? Would the author’s sources be credible? And what if… what if I just… didn’t like the book?

My fears were unfounded on all fronts.

The first thing that impressed me was the writing style. The author uses a distinctive technique where he introduces a player in Ben’s life and then lets that person fill in the narrative with his or her quote. I thought it might be jarring to have the flow stop and another voice come in but it’s really so perfect. It’s truly like a camera cuts to the significant person and you hear them talking about Ben, like a documentary rather than a novel.

Having Benjamin’s loved ones tell about him in their own words is brilliant. I felt my heart and mind busily rearranging my personal ‘mosaic’ of Ben, having it grow in clarity and color, adding texture, as I read their stories. It is such a perfect format to document the life of a man who never enjoyed talking much about himself. The result is this masculine and tender, very respectful, very REAL painting of who Benjamin was.

And of course, by ‘rearranging my mosaic’ I mean that I learned a lot of new things about Ben, especially about his early years and what he was like behind-the-scenes. I also connected some dots, confirmed some things I had suspected from my research, and enjoyed some surprising stories.

While I won’t tell you exactly who is in the book, I was impressed with the long roster of interviewees, including Ben’s former bandmates, record executives, iconic photographers, media personnel, key women in his life, and friends who had known him intimately.

Another element that I love about this book is that there is no ‘tell all’ mentality anywhere to be found. The author skillfully balances the heady experiences of a world-famous rock star with the reality of a deeply private, kind-hearted and loyal man. For example, I can see in places where he’s walked that fine line of honoring Ben and respecting his relationships while maintaining the honesty of his attraction to and of other women. Or the struggles Ben faced with the dissolution of The Cars and finding his way back to the stage. Milliken is gentle with the truth, letting the other voices tell their story and leaving it up to the reader to ‘read between the lines’ if they are so inclined.

When asked how he made decisions about what to leave in and what to take out, Milliken said, “Every time I came to a place where I had to walk the line of Ben’s privacy, I had his son in my head. I would ask myself, ‘What would young Ben think of this?'” It seems to have been the perfect measuring stick.

Equally as thrilling as the informative text is the abundance of photos! There are more than 30 black-and-white photographs woven through the chapters, the majority of them new to the public. Such a treat! The book also includes a timeline of bands, a selected index, and a list of everyone the author interviewed over the years.

If there is any drawback to the book, it is that all of my questions were not answered. But how could they be? My curiosity goes way beyond obsession (what IS the story with that one bracelet, anyway???). It’s an impossible task, short of putting Ben’s life under a microscope, which I believe he would have hated.

Others may feel like this book is not ‘sensationalistic’ enough. But the fans… the ones who truly love Benjamin… they will be so moved at the way the author has protected his memory and his legacy. His son, the women in his life, his dear friends, his former bandmates… any and all of the people in those categories… I believe they will finish the book and hug it to their chests and be SO happy at what’s been done for Ben.

Just like me.

Episode 23: The Cars Essential Library

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Graphic by @sweetpurplejune

Our 23rd episode, recorded on the 23rd of February… it’s time to get nerdy!

Dave and Donna take a look at some of the written material floating around related to The Cars. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the biggies are covered, with mentions of tour books, sheet music, liner notes, and appearances in compilations.

They also discuss the unique and rare offerings of Ric Ocasek, as well as the probability of Joe Milliken’s biography about Benjamin coming out in 2018 (click here to message Joe and get on his mailing list).

During the discussion Dave shares a recent email conversation he had with Luis Aira, director of the elusive film Chapter X (among his many other amazing accomplishments), and reveals some inside information Mr. Aira dropped about other never-released projects he worked on with Ric. (Read Standing Room Only‘s article about Luis Aira and his involvement with The Cars here.) Donna plots a chance ‘run in’ with Ric in order to get her hands on all of the hidden stuff that you just KNOW is in that vault of his.

The Midnight Scroll is saved from further colonoscopy PSAs by the emails of three of our favorite listeners: Harold, Kurt, and L. Glenn Douché (pronounced “doo-shay” — it’s French). Dave still manages to get his spam in there, but Harold saves the segment by sparking a quick discussion about Ric’s solo CDs, and Kurt gets the Cleveland vibes going with some great ideas for honoring the band during the RRHOF induction weekend. And uh, L. Glenn… keep us posted on how that Go Fund Me campaign works out for you.

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Dave and Donna close out the episode by picking the winner of the ‘Benjamin Orr swag’ giveaway from episode 22… Congratulations to Beta Sanchez for sending in the right answer! The generous Kurt Gaber will be in touch with you to get your prize to you. Enjoy, Beta, and thanks for listening!

Click below to hear Episode 23, and be sure to subscribe, comment and share. Follow Dave (@night_spots) and Donna (@sweetpurplejune) on Twitter, too! Oh, and don’t forget to send your questions for the ‘Midnight Scroll’ to nightthoughtspodcast@gmail.com. Also, join The Cars NiGHT THOUGHTS Podcast group for all of the little extra uploads you’ll hear about in the show.

 

Book Review: The Cars (Robus)

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The Cars

Written by Stacy Leigh

Photography by Mike O’Brien and Kelly Thompson

Published by Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation

Copyright 1985 by Robus Books

 

 

My quick opinion:

No new info in the text, but the photos themselves make this book worth some effort to acquire. However… don’t break the bank.

My long story:

You might remember that in 2016 I went on a mini-rampage to try to get my hands on any factual or biographical books about The Cars. Just when I had thought my little collection was sufficient, my Cars’ world buddy, Timothy, alerted me to THIS book, which had not yet made my radar. You can imagine my giddiness! I was under the impression that it was by Philip Kamin (see the NERD TOPIC below), so I began scouring the internet for a copy of it.

It proved to be more elusive than I expected, and I ended up stumbling across it on Amazon by accident. The reason I hadn’t been able to track it down was because it was actually listed under Stacy Leigh (the author), and it didn’t have Philip Kamin’s name anywhere on it.

During 1984 and ’85, Robus Books put out a series of biographical discographies covering an impressive selection of the most popular bands of the day, including Madonna, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Howard Jones, Ratt, Van Halen, Wham!, and (of course!) The Cars. I made a cursory attempt to find out more information about the Robus collection but to no avail… I was hoping to discover more of the thought process behind the writing and publishing of this line but only ended up with chirping crickets.

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The Cars, 1980; scanned from the book

Just looking at surface details… I suppose it could have been sold at concerts, but to me, this book comes across as something you might find in a middle school library, with the target audience looking to be about sixth grade and up. The simplicity of the syntax, the large size (it measures 9″x12″), and the limited number of pages point in that direction, and I happily imagine thoughtful teachers encouraging their reluctant readers to choose one of the ‘rock-and-roll’ series for their book report assignment. (Of course, I could be wrong, but my little scenario works for me for now.)

This juvenile approach to the product is not a negative, however. Who doesn’t love a good children’s book? And visually, this one is beautiful. Its 32 (unnumbered) pages are chock full of scrumptious photographs, many in full color, as well as some terrific black-and-white shots. Though my copy did not include it, I understand that the original publication contained a poster of the the band of the image above. True, most of the images (if not all) have circulated on the internet for some time, but there is nothing quite like holding a tangible, large print of those fascinating fellows in your hot little hand. (Bibliophiles, unite!)

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Benjamin and Ric, 1980; scanned from the book

The entirety of the text can easily be read in about 10 minutes (15 if you pace yourself). The format is a simple (if slightly inaccurate) chronological account of the evolution of TheCars, beginning in 1976 and tracking their success through 1984. It is straight narration; no interview excerpts or quotes from the band. Still, the descriptions are nice, and I love this little gem:

 

“Ocasek and Orr were seen as hip prophets of a new era of American rock supremacy, one in which technological sophistication, musical simplicity and sound songwriting craftsmanship would break new ground.” (p. 12)

 

WARNING: NERD TOPIC AHEAD!

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Philip Kamin, via the internet

One thing I find perplexing is the credit for the photography. The book lists Mike O’Brien and Kelly Thompson as the ones responsible, but it seems these photos belong to Philip Kamin. I say that because, 1. the shots are all remarkably similar to the photographs included in the McGraw-Hill book also entitled The Cars (to be reviewed shortly), which were explicitly taken by PK. And by “remarkably” I mean that they are so close, there could be a single shutter click in difference. 2. Philip Kamin claims credit for the book on his website, and 3. he was one of the regular photographers of the band for a time. But then again… many of the other books in the Robus series credit PK with the photography, and his name is emblazoned across the covers, but not this one. Hmmm….

So who are Mike and Kelly? Why are they listed in the book but not Philip? I’m tempted to research it more… I know it’s not a big deal, but little things like that just nibble at me.

The book was printed with a $4.95 price tag, but you won’t find it that cheap these days. Checking the web tonight I see that there are at least two listed on Amazon, one priced near $200, the other, well over that amount. I feel extremely fortunate to have found mine (in pretty good condition)  for right around $15 — a steal, for sure! If it’s not in your budget, all is not lost. Be sure to check with your local library; they may be able to get it through inter-library loan for little or no cost to you. Believe me, it’s worth a try.

Cars + Books = My Happy Place

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I am a book freak (along with my other little obsessions) and of course I love The Cars, so imagine my giddiness when those two worlds collided and I found myself with a (near) complete collection of written-and-bound material on my boys!

I do qualify my statement by saying ‘near’ complete, because I know that Ric has some other printed material out there; poetry and what not. I confess I’m not really looking for those so much — unless, of course, I happen to come across the little pamphlet that Ric hand-made and would leave lying around in bookstores back in the 1970s… Now THAT would be a treasure, indeed.

In the meantime, I’ve very happy with my little stash. They’ve been great sources of photos, quotes and information about this wonderful band. Here’s a short description of each (hoping to eventually write reviews of all of them). Clockwise from the top left:

Robus Books: The Carswritten by Stacy Leigh, photography by Mike O’Brien and Kelly Thompson; published by Robus Books, 1985. (ISBN: 0-88188-364-6) First one pictured, but last one I bought. I wasn’t aware of this book until my Cars buddy, Timothy, pointed it out to me and then (of course) I went on a relentless search to find it. It’s an elusive one, but I was able to pick up my not-entirely-pristine-but-pretty-close copy off of Amazon for about $15. A steal!

The Cars, written by Peter Goddard, photography by Philip Kamin; published by McGraw-Hill, 1986. (ISBN: 0-07-033498-6) Another hard-to-afford book, but I managed to win it on ebay for just under $50. SO worth it! Nice large format and beautiful photographs.

Super Groups, written by Cynthia Dagnal; published by Tempo Books, 1981. (ISBN: 0-448-17228-3) This book covers several bands and contains a significant chapter on The Cars. You can generally find it on Amazon on the cheap. Lots of great coverage considering the band was only 3 years old at the time.

Lyrics and Prose, written by Ric Ocasek; published by Blue Rider Press, 2012. (ISBN: 978-0-399-16370-8) Huge collection of… well… lyrics and prose. LOL Great reference book and fun to see some of Ric’s handwritten pages. Picked this up on Amazon, too.

Frozen Fire: The Story of The Cars, written by Toby Goldstein, photography by Ebet Roberts; published by Contemporary Books, Inc., 1985. (ISBN: 0-8092-5257-0) I wrote an in-depth review of this book already, not knowing it would inspire one of the biggest sweetie pies in the world to send me a copy! My dear sister-in-the-Cars, Leigh, ‘shocked me into sense’ by giving me this book as a gift, and I am forever grateful. Not only do I enjoy the book, but her generosity at a time when we hardly knew each other just floored me. The Fanorama never ceases to amaze me.

As difficult as it can be to purchase some of these, there is hope of getting your hands on them… I was able to check several of them out through the inter-library loan system (I LOVE my local library!) before I bought them. Although I guess that’s no guarantee you’ll get to read them: one friend of mine checked out Frozen Fire only to find that all of the pages about Benjamin were torn out. Go figure!

Thanks again, Leigh, for providing that final piece, and to Timothy for alerting me to the existence of the white Robus book!