On the first time he saw Ben play: “I can remember seeing Ben’s and Ric’s names around town as another band, Cap’n Swing, but it wasn’t the same places that I was going to at the time, so I hadn’t gotten to see them play live. Then a mutual friend of mine and Ric’s, Maxanne Sartori, had mentioned them to me, and she thought they were good, so I went and saw Cap’n Swing at Paul’s Mall. They were kind of a mish-mash group of people, and when they came out, Ben was wearing these white satin karate pajamas and flip flops!
“I remember thinking, ‘What kind of look is this?’ Ben only sang and didn’t play the bass, but I did notice right away how great his voice was! The music was quirky-pop sounding, and not really coming from a hip place but a more nerdy place, so I wasn’t overly impressed.” — David Robinson, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken, p. 70.
On Ben joining The Mixed Emotions: “When he first showed up to our rehearsal I was really impressed. I said to myself, ‘Now here’s someone who has got it all. The musical talent, good looks, and the personality.’ Well, he was cool with the band and joined right then and there.” — Chris Kamburoff, former Mixed Emotions band mate, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken
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Between the unique writing style, the candid memories of many important people, and the generous number of previously unpublished photos, Benjamin Orr’s inspiring story comes to life in these pages.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.
In the rare instances where a band explodes onto the rock scene with a perfect debut album, music critics don’t often hold their breath that the follow-up offering will be able to measure up. In fact, they even have a name for it: the ‘sophomore slump.’ The Cars were one of the exceptions.
Released on June 13, 1979, The Cars’ second effort, Candy-O, would be certified platinum in less than two months, and would soar as high as #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and #4 on RPM Canada. Its first single, “Let’s Go,” would jump to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the follow-up release, “It’s All I Can Do,” would peak at #41. Billboard Magazine’s chart for the “Top Pop Albums of 1979” lists The Cars debut at #4 and Candy-O at #82. Needless to say, the success of The Cars was not ‘just a quirk.’
There is a common creative thread running between the debut album and Candy-O, meshing the sound of the two projects in such a way that you just knew it was The Cars, and that sound… that punchy, fresh, addictive sound… was their identifying signature. It’s really no surprise that they should be linked: several of the songs on Candy-O were already written and floating around at the time of the debut album. The plaintive “Since I Held You” and the hard-rocking “Candy-O,” along with the sardonic “Night Spots” and “You Can’t Hold On Too Long,” were popular numbers played in clubs and concerts before Candy-O was in the record stores.
Though I could go on for paragraphs about the power and appeal of the songs on Candy-O, my purpose here is to examine the newest issuing of this terrific album. Owners of the previously released (and reviewed) The Cars Deluxe Edition had reason to be pretty excited about the prospect of Rhino Record’s newly “expanded” editions of both Candy-O and Panorama (The Cars’ second and third albums, respectively) that came out in July of 2017; surely we would get another delivery of rarities from the Cars’ cache of unreleased audio goodies.
The double album vinyl packaging of the reissue is beautiful. Of course, the 1979 original artwork is there. Opening the gatefold reveals some previously unreleased photographs, including a candid shot of the band, and a series of very cool reference photos of the model Candy Moore, taken for use by Alberto Vargas for painting that iconic album cover. Tucked inside the sleeves are the original lyrics/photo sheet and a set of liner notes from lead guitarist Elliot Easton, written with David Wild. Then the vinyl itself: the remastered audio on two sides, bonus tracks on the third, and a cool custom etching on the fourth side.
The seven bonus tracks are an interesting mix. Rather than recreate the entire original album in demos, as we found with the debut deluxe CD, only five of the eleven songs are represented with alternate versions. “Let’s Go” and “Lust for Kicks,” are included from the previously discovered monitor mix tapes (made public around 2001). Also included is “That’s It,” originally appearing as the B side to the single, “Let’s Go.”
Another little gem is the Northern Studios version of the hilarious and fun-to-sing “They Won’t See You,” a track that was played in the clubs but didn’t make it to vinyl. It’s a delightful peek into Ric Ocasek’s peculiar sense of humor; indeed, the lyrics here inspired my twelve-year-old to declare, “Those guys are weird!” … then he asked me to play it again. Unfortunately, this appears to be the same version released as a bonus track on the 1999 The Cars Deluxe Edition.
The real treat is the previously unreleased music. My favorite, “Candy-O,” appears from a series of recordings done at Northern Studios. Benjamin Orr’s vocal work has such a metallic, powerful sound to it, reflecting an appealing arrogance in his mood not present in the studio version. “Night Spots” and “Dangerous Type” were also done at Northern Studios, and portray that same kind of pleasing vocal strut. You get the impression that the band was feeling confident and riding high on the thrill of their success.
One of the magnetic elements of demo recordings is getting a glimpse of the evolution of a hit. For example, in “Dangerous Type” you can tell there was still some polishing of the lyrics yet to come. The absence of Greg Hawkes’s synthesizer is quite telling as well, clearly emphasizing how vital his bright, melodic contributions are in defining the sound of The Cars.
I confess, I do wish that there had been more in the way of bonus material, especially from those Northern Studios sessions. Really, since the monitor mixes have been out so long, only three of the additional tracks were previously unheard by the public. It’s a bit of a letdown after the generous banquet served on the deluxe edition, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I am truly grateful for another peek into the ‘vault’ of Cars’ material.
These new expanded editions from Rhino Records are available digitally and on CD, as well as the vinyl product reviewed here. If you don’t already have Candy-O in your music library, grab the expanded edition; you won’t be disappointed. We’ll take a look at Panorama in my next review and see what other delights Rhino Records has in store. Stay tuned!
In the summer of 2017, music journalist Joe Milliken invited me to do some writing for his website, Standing Room Only (SRO). I jumped at the chance! The gig grew into an opinion series of six Rhino products backing up to the The Cars Deluxe Edition from 1999, then to the 2017 expanded editions of Candy-O and Panorama, plus Live at The Agora1978 (also released in 2017), and, finally, the expanded editions of Shake It Up and Heartbeat City (released in 2018).
Standing Room Only is dedicated to promoting music, arts, and specialty foods in the northern New England area. Music reviews, concert recaps, and exclusive interviews with badass rockers are the norm, along with lots of attention given to local businesses and arts events, making this a website with something for everyone. Unfortunately, the site is currently undergoing maintenance, but be sure to like Joe’s Facebook page to stay in the loop and be notified when SRO is back online.
With Joe’s permission, I’ve added my SRO writings here on my blog just for kicks. Here’s the first review I turned in: The Cars Deluxe Edition. Enjoy!
The year 2017 is proving to be an exciting one for fans of the 80s new wave rock band, The Cars. After releasing their last studio album, Move Like This, in 2011, the group has been pretty silent in the marketplace (aside from its remaster/reissue project in 2016). It came as a wonderful surprise to learn that Rhino Records organized the release of The Cars’ early Cleveland performance, Live at the Agora 1978, in time for Record Store Day on April 22, 2017. This new offering would have been enough to keep followers at bay for the year, but Rhino rocked The Cars’ world again on May 11th, announcing that they would also be releasing Candy-O and Panorama (The Cars’ second and third albums, respectively) as expanded editions on July 28, 2017… and Cars’ fans began the countdown.
It’s worth pointing out that Rhino gave the band’s debut album some special treatment back in April of 1999, when they released The Cars Deluxe Edition as a two-CD set. In preparing to review these two new 2017 releases, I wanted to take a look at how they compare to that earlier product. Let’s take a quick step back in time and see what Rhino did with that iconic first album.
This two-CD set is packaged in a cool, unconventional tri-fold case, backed by a classic 1978 Ebet Roberts photograph. The first CD contains a remastered production of the original debut album. Fans and critics alike joke that it could pass for a “greatest hits” record, since all nine of the songs received considerable FM airplay and popularity, though “Just What I Needed,” “Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll” may be the best remembered. Nearly 40 years later, every song still holds up to repeated listening.
The second CD in the set is full of rarities and unreleased songs, a veritable auditory feast for serious Cars fans. The first nine tracks are early demos of each of the debut album songs in order (with the exception of “Good Times Roll,” for which a demo could not be found so an early live performance was substituted). Notable gems include the original version of “Just What I Needed” (also known as the ‘demo that got the deal’), a recording of “Moving In Stereo” done in guitarist Ric Ocasek’s basement with only Ric and keyboard player Greg Hawkes present, and the demo for “All Mixed Up” with Ric on the lead vocal, rather than Benjamin Orr.
I got such a kick out of hearing these alternate versions, taking pleasure in the raw quality of the sound, the lyric and instrumental variations, and the evidence of how polished and energetic the band was, even before they were signed to a major record label.
The final five tracks on disc two are previously unreleased demos of songs that were staples at The Cars’ early live shows. You’ll find three solid rockers, a quirky dance tune, and an aching ballad, all of which were crowd favorites for years but never showed up on vinyl.
Binding all of this terrific music together is a 24-page booklet, chock full of photos (including the original album art), lyrics, and liner notes. Maxanne Sartori, the Boston disc jockey largely credited with launching the band, pens her thoughts, and excerpts from Brett Milano’s essay in The Cars Anthology liner notes make an appearance as well. The icing on the cake? Greg Hawkes provides little personal stories and factoids about each entry on the second disc to flesh out the history of the songs… fascinating tidbits for die-hard followers of The Cars, like me!
All in all, this was a superb repackaging of an incredible album, and a must-have for Cars fans. So how will the 2017 expanded editions compare to the deluxe treatment? We’ll take a look in my next review!
“Was this for real? Here was this incredible man I loved saying the most romantic words. He bent down on one knee and pulled out a stunning diamond ring. He brought me to Weston to propose on my birthday… Who could say no to that?
“We were only engaged for a month and we had the most spectacular tropical island wedding in the Fern Grotto in Kauai, Hawaii. Ben planned it all himself while I was working. It couldn’t have been more perfect.” — Judith Orr, excerpt from Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken
“I remember one of the happiest days of my life was when we did our first promotional tour for the album. We were in Cleveland and riding in the backseat of the promoter’s car when ‘Stay the Night’ came on the radio for the first time. We were so excited and yelling like kids!” — Diane Grey Page, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken
“Ben was just a terrific singer… he reminded me of Rutger Hauer but with a great voice! I didn’t know The Cars well in the early days, but got to know Ben a little bit in his post-Cars days. He was a great guy, very talented, and a real pro in the studio.” — Charlie Farren, Boston-area vocalist and guitar player, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, by Joe Milliken
“Our personal relationship had its ups and downs, as Ben was a very complex person and could be moody. Plus, I was only in my twenties, but fortunately we did remain friends through it all. Ben was somewhat intense and seemed introverted, but he was really just taking time to get to know you, then he would open up a little more. He was quite a character once I got to know him, and he always had something fun or creative going on. The man never sat still!” — David Frangioni, recording engineer and producer, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken, p. 159
“Ben was a good friend, and we played a lot of great music together in just a few short years. We were pals. I’ve only known a few great singers who were pure ‘naturals’ like Ben. He just opened his mouth to sing and sounded perfect—like a hit record.
“His musicianship was stellar, and he was just a very fun guy to know and hang out with. He was consistently a good and kind fellow, and I’ll always miss him and remember fondly all the good times we spent together.” — Danny Louis of Gov’t Mule, formerly with Cap’n Swing and founding member of The Cars, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken, p. 65
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 own head, and the guys are mopping their faces between songs. At one point Pat stores his guitar pick on his cheek, apparently adhering it there 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 volley 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 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: