“[Ben] was not [an introvert]… I like to think more of Ben as, he spoke when he had something to say, which sometimes comes off as being shy or aloof… I’m not so sure, and I guess technically you could say that somebody can walk onstage and perform like he did and still be an introvert; maybe that’s their release. But I saw when Ben was sick, and we were touring and he was battling his cancer, and he would spend time talking to people who had either battled cancer themselves, were just curious, were going through some other trauma in their life, and Ben would take enormous amounts of time being very candid with these folks and talking to them. That’s not an introvert. An introvert runs and hides…
“He was a bit of a quiet person [but] he was very forthcoming with people, loved the human contact… The only thing that would maybe have given you the impression that he was an introvert was that he wasn’t a man of many words, but when he said something it meant something.” — Jeff Carlisi, guitarist for 38 Special and Ben’s Big People bandmate; interview on Madame Perry’s Salon, January 27, 2020 (at about 8:20)
“I can remember one time, Ben, Derek, and I going into a dive blues club in Atlanta and the band asked us if we wanted to sit in. When we asked Ben if he wanted to do it he just said, ‘I’m a bass player, not just that guy in The Cars!’ So, we went up there and played and Ben was fantastic!” — Liberty DeVitto, drummer with Big People, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars by Joe Milliken
When I asked Liberty if there was a special story as to why Ben was getting ready to lick him, Liberty replied, “He loved me!!” LOL
Going back through memories that are over twenty years old can be a little like trying to fish eggshells out of a bowl: dates and details get a little slippery. But there are a few events that are crystalline in songwriter, singer, and guitar player Kevin McCarty’s past, experiences that left a deep, happy groove in his mind’s eye. Benjamin Orr gave Kevin his sincere friendship, along with a handful of rock star moments that Kevin will never forget.
As with every connection in this series, my introduction to Kevin McCarty came about in a loopty-loop sort of way. It actually started with Jeff Carlisi, believe it or not. Jeff sent me a photo of a concert t-shirt he had been given that used to be Ben’s. The design included four acts on the bill: Benjamin Orr, The Irresponsibles, Black Number Nine, and Kevin McCarty. This was about the same time that I was getting to know Peter Montgomery, and it was my first clue that Peter knew Ben, since he led The Irresponsibles. Well, Peter put me in touch with Kevin (whose name I also recognized from Joe Milliken’s book). Kevin and I hit it off immediately, and we had a great time walking down memory lane together.
Like our other Boston boys, Kevin was born and raised in Scituate, Massachusetts. He picked up a guitar at a young age and jumped on the rock-and-roll road with enthusiasm. He loved the first Cars album and zeroed in on Ben as his favorite from the beginning. Though Ric wrote all the songs, it was Ben’s voice – that voice! – that Kevin connected with.
In the early 1990s, barely out of his teen years, Kevin was working with Brad Delp and his band RTZ (Return to Zero). He headed out on tour with them, starting out as one of the truck drivers as they traveled the country promoting their first album. He worked with such diligence and devotion that by the end of the tour he was given the title and duties of ‘tour manager’ for their last gig. He also gained a tight group of friends.
Now back home, Kevin turned his attention to his own music. In 1993 his band, The Keepers, had some moderate success in the clubs, sharing the bill with acts like The Del Fuegos, The Irresponsibles (with Peter Montgomery), and Charlie Farren. When it came time to record some of his original material, strife inside The Keepers left Kevin without musicians in the studio. His buddies jumped in to help: Brad Delp, drummer Dave Stefanelli, and bass player Tim Archibald. Together they recorded a quick three-song demo tape. And guess what? John Kalishes was the producer.
Kevin had been introduced to Kalishes by their mutual friend, David Tedeschi. At the same time that John was producing Kevin’s demo, John and Benjamin had thrown themselves into writing and recording Ben’s new songs. At some point in 1993, then, John introduced Kevin and Ben, and the two hit it off right away. In spite of the 20-year age difference, they had a lot in common: besides music, both Ben and Kevin were big into fishing and being outdoors, interests that would quickly become their main connection.
“My family – my brothers, sisters and cousins – we all pitched in and bought 40 acres up in Maine just for fun,” Kevin shared. “Ben was a wicked hunter so I said, ‘Yeah, come on up to the property. You can hunt on my property,’ and he was really pumped about that.”
The guys would stuff their gear into Ben’s van, make the long drive north, and settle in for an extended weekend stay. Being out in the woods was enough for Kevin, but Ben was always interested in the possibility of game.
“We’d get an early start on tracking just to see the amount of deer coming through. We went up there a few times. I wouldn’t shoot a thing, neither would John. I’d bring Ben up there, and every now and again Ben would go up there on his own to go see if he could bag something, but as far as I know he never bagged anything on the property. Just a lot of tracking!” he said, laughing.
Time passed and their friendship grew. Kevin never met Ben’s estranged wife, Judith; he recalls that she was in LA in the spring of 1994, and that Ben was going through a hard time because she just didn’t want to come back. He remembers that Ben didn’t have good feelings about the relationship with Judith at that time, and though he didn’t talk much about it, Kevin sometimes had the impression that if Ben was feeling down he’d get ahold of Kevin to just hang out, to have some guy time and take his mind off of what was going on. And so they spent their time pursuing their common hobbies.
On one of those early trips to Maine, Kevin got his first glimpse of Ben’s stalwart kindness. Ben, John and Kevin were heading to the property and John was playing Kevin’s demo for Ben in the van on the way up. “I’ve never been a fan of my own voice, ever,” Kevin confided. “You know, I try… I do. But I’d love to have Ben’s voice!” he chuckled. “So Ben’s listening to it and when it’s over he turns around to me (as he’s driving and I’m in a captain’s chair in the back of his van) and he said, ‘You have a great voice.’ And I rolled my eyes, and I went [grunt, scoff] ’thanks’… and he got pissed. He goes, ‘Hey! Hey, I never tell anybody anything that I don’t mean. You have a great voice, it’s unique, I like it.’ And said, ‘Alright, hey, I appreciate it.’
“I was so self-conscious about my voice that I didn’t take the compliment directly, but he straightened that right out immediately. And I was like, ‘Okay… wicked sorry!’ My hero just paid me a compliment and I just blew it off, you know?” He laughed again. “I never did that again to Ben because I knew he was a straight shooter. People want to give you a compliment just to try to pump you up and make you feel better and that’s what I thought he was doing to me, but he made it very clear that that’s not what he was doing. He actually enjoyed the music.”
It wasn’t too long after that trip that Ben backed up his compliment with action.
There’s an annual benefit concert up in Plymouth, Vermont, called the Riverweed Music and Outdoor Adventure Festival. Kevin had played it many times. One day while hanging out at Ben’s place, he mentioned it to Ben and John, as he was gearing up for the coming summer event. Kevin was surprised and excited by Ben’s response. “He was like, ‘Can I play?’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I mean, your hero asks you if he can play? Uh, ‘Yeah! You wanna make a band?’” he related, laughing. “And we immediately came up with a band name and [Ben] goes, ‘Well, what are we playing?’ So I started playing my music and he started learning it on the bass and we went from there.”
Billed as The Beacon Hillbillies, Kevin, Ben, and John organized an acoustic set for the show that included half of Ben’s stuff (his solo material and The Cars) and half of Kevin’s original material. The trio began rehearsing in earnest at Ben’s home in Weston. All of them knew it was just a one-off gig; there was no intention of continuing the band after the Riverweed show. The collaboration would serve a greater purpose: it would mark Ben’s return to the stage after nearly seven years out of the spotlight. With his new batch of songs and his marriage to Judith foundering, Ben seemed determined to rekindle his career.
This temporary alliance of The Beacon Hillbillies set off a series of dominos falling, one after another, marking new stages in Ben’s personal life as well as his musical career.
The outdoor festival took place on August 21, 1994, at the Hawk Inn and Mountain Resort in Plymouth, Vermont. Arriving there was always a homecoming of sorts for Kevin, as he had played the annual event so often (among other Vermont gigs) and had many friends in the area. Kevin enjoyed introducing Ben to everyone, including Edita Hartig, the young bartender that was serving them as they waited their turn to play. And it was in that bar that Ben suggested to Kevin that the two walk up through the crowd together to take the stage, giving Kevin the ultimate rock star experience as the crowd parted for them.
Kevin first related the story of this cool gig to Joe Milliken for his book, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars (p. 165), but he was off on the date. He had told Joe that it was in 1995, and he was so sure it was, but as Kevin and I discussed it more we realized that could not be right. Kevin is unshakable on the fact that he facilitated the first meeting between Ben and Edita at the Riverweed Festival, and I believe he did – in 1994. It turns out that Ben played Riverweed in 1994 and 1995, and that’s why Kevin was confused.
The stage was set up in a big open field. A series of bands was scheduled to play from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and those attendees who were there to make a day of it were spread out with their chairs and blankets and coolers in the sunshine. While The Beacon Hillbillies were playing the fans were on their feet, dancing and singing along. Many knew Kevin’s original tunes, and fans went nuts when a Cars song came up in the set. Afterwards, Kevin signed autographs alongside Ben and John, a very heady experience.
After the Riverweed show, Ben and Kevin stayed in Vermont for a bit, hanging out with Kevin’s friends. “They had gotten us a badass mansion, so we stayed in it and just hung out there and partied for literally a week and a half.” Kevin remembered. “It was a big deal that Ben Orr was coming to the concert. It wasn’t because I was Kevin McCarty, it was because Ben Orr was coming up.” It was another sampling of how it felt to be a rock star.
Everybody had a blast, enjoying the posh accommodations as the visit stretched and summer days melted one into another. Edita was among the friends hanging out that week, and she and Ben got to know each other better. She was pretty and sweet, and lots of fun to be around. Believing that things were finally over between Ben and Judith, Kevin was pleased to observe the sweet attraction Ben and Edita felt for each other. “I could tell he really liked her, and she liked him, too. There was a definite chemistry there,” he noted. After ten days or so, Ben returned to Boston but he and Edita kept in touch. Ben was soon traveling up to Vermont to spend time with her.
Meanwhile, Ben threw himself into reentering the Boston music scene. He assembled his first incarnation of the ORR band, including John Kalishes and guitarist Charlie O’Neal, along with bassist Rick O’Neal, keyboardist Igor Koroshev, and drummer John Muzzy. They made their live debut at The Rat on Sunday, December 18, 1994, and from there, booked a series of shows into 1995. Kevin ended up opening for ORR about a half a dozen times, either as a solo acoustic act or with his band, Kevin McCarty and The Wrest.
One of Kevin’s early appearances with Ben was a little rough. “He had me open up for him in Rhode Island. ORR was playing, one of their first major shows. I was the sole opener with just me and my acoustic guitar. I didn’t go over very well, me personally, and for some of the crowd, I guess. I was actually heckled. I had never been heckled in my life! We just had a bad couple of tables out front and they were right in my face. But it still ended up being a great evening. I mean, I was signing autographs right next to Ben; people wanted mine, too!” he chuckled.
And then there was the show advertised on the t-shirt that Jeff showed me: a benefit concert for the victims of a fire in Scituate. All of the bands on the bill were happy to participate. “Ben was always great about that, donating his time. So we all just donated our time and put on a show for everybody. I was proud as a peacock having my face on the same jersey as Ben’s.” [More on that show coming in a separate post.]
Through most of 1995, Kevin and Ben hung out quite a bit. It was a natural, easy friendship. Kevin looked up to Ben so much. Certainly, their common interests, similar personalities, and Kevin’s mammoth respect for Ben played a part in keeping them so close.
It also helped that Kevin didn’t want anything from Ben, other than his friendship. Kevin explained, “He was sweet to a fault, you know? He was nice as nice could be. He and Brad Delp were the same that way. They wanted people who treated them real, like a person and not a party toy. I know that’s one of the main reasons that I was able to hang out with either of them. I just treated him like a normal person, I never asked him for anything. Ben would always check with me if I needed anything, and I’d always say, ‘no, no, I’m fine.’”
But it was obvious that there was a contingent of coat-tail riders and party people that hung around Ben, taking advantage of his generosity, and it seemed to Kevin that it was very wearing on Ben. “And once again, I don’t want to say I know that for a fact, but I do know those people very well, and I witnessed the party that wouldn’t stop. I think it was a little overwhelming and Ben just didn’t like that. We had more fun just in the woods. That’s where we enjoyed our time.”
I could hear the smile in Kevin’s voice as he wound his way back through those idyllic days in his mind.
Often times, it was Ben, John, David, and Kevin out on David’s boat on the ocean near Scituate Harbor. They’d spend the day noodling around in the studio and then go fishing into the night, eventually finding a place to dock and party. Sometimes they’d head over to The Glades to cook up their catch, hang out with Pete Montgomery, and have a ‘romping good time.’
“We did so many different things! He actually gave me one of his Harleys, which I wouldn’t take. And he goes, ‘Well, it’s yours. Nobody else is going to ride it. I won’t let anybody else ride it, it’s yours.’ And I said, ‘Ben! [with exasperation] Ben, you don’t have to give me a Harley!’ and he said, ‘Nah, I don’t want anybody else to ride it. I only want you to ride it.’ So that would be a thing: we’d go up and ride. I just left it in his garage and I’d go up there and go for a ride every now and again.
“Fishing, camping, touring around… We loved to go to the old ‘mom and pop’ shops wherever we were and find the grossest thing to eat and dare the other one to eat it, you know, like the old eggs that looked like they had been there for 30 years. He had some dried fish jerky that was the grossest thing on the planet. It was so salty, I mean, as soon as you opened it up the entire vehicle smelled like low tide. It was horrific! And we would dare each other to finish it – it was something that his dad used to eat all the time and he hated it. But he would say, ‘Oh wait, I know! This is the grossest thing ever!’ and so of course, me always looking up to Ben, I was like, ‘I’ll go for it. Absolutely.’ John wouldn’t, but Ben would always get me into the ‘gross stuff’ eating contest,” he remembered, laughing.
And hot sauce? “Oh yeah, I’m still into the hot sauce! I love it!”
Another memory popped into Kevin’s mind. “I actually wrote one line in one of his songs on [Ben’s unfinished solo] album. It was funny.” It was a fishing day, and Kevin had headed over to John’s to pick him up, and the two planned to go meet Ben at the harbor. Kevin walked in to find John not anywhere near ready to go. “John was still in his sweatpants and a lot of nothing and I’m like, ‘Dude!’ and he was like, ‘I’m stuck!’ and I go, ‘What do you mean?’ and he goes, ‘I’m stuck on this song. I just can’t figure out what to do.’
“John was a great writer. And I asked, ‘Whatta you got?’ and he said, ‘I sent you a message in a sake bottle, it crashed on the rocks…’ and I said, ‘Aw, man.’ He goes, ‘You know what I mean? I ended it. Where do you go from there? It crashed on the rocks.’ And I said, ‘… and shattered something awful.’ And he said, ‘Oh my god! YES! Kevin! Yeah, finally!’ He was all excited that he could come out because he wasn’t going to leave the house unless he got that, and it just happened to just run right through my head and come out my mouth. And he got up and got dressed and we went out and had some fun. I was glad I could help. But that was my only contribution to anything in the band ORR. That was it!”
Kevin remembers that Ben had a great since of humor and loved to play tricks on people. One night after fishing for stripers on the ocean, they landed at one of their usual spots: a local Chinese restaurant where they would hang out and party. The place had karaoke going on, and at one point the guy running the machine asked Kevin if he’d take a turn with the mic.
Kevin wasn’t inclined to do a song (karaoke wasn’t really his favorite thing), but he said he’d think about it. When Kevin returned to the table, Ben wanted to know what was going on. After Kevin filled him in, Ben saw an opportunity to have some fun. “Ben said, ‘Kevin, tell you what. Go up to him, tell him to play ‘Drive,’ and just take the microphone and walk away.’” Kevin followed directions and passed the mic to Ben under the table. They were sitting in the back corner, in a private spot and Ben sang “Drive” karaoke.
Kevin laughed as he remembered, “And everybody in the room’s going, ‘Oh my god, this guy sounds just like the guy!’ and they’re all looking around trying to see who is singing the song and Ben’s just ducked down in the corner singing ‘Drive.’ That was SO much fun! I mean, at the end everybody was like, ‘that was awesome!’ and everybody’s looking around going ‘who sang that?’ And Ben handed me the mic underneath the table and I put it behind my back and walked it back up to the guy and I hand him the mic. That was awesome, that was a great night.”
“But that’s the way he was, he was really a kick in the pants. He had jokes like when we went to the Rathskeller Christmas party… Ben and I went there, we got invited by Jimmy, the owner, and there was a pizza joint right next door and we went in there to get pizza and we’re sitting down waiting for our pizza. The booths are kind of weird, as in… you’re sitting in a booth, Ben and I are across from each other in a booth, and then there’s a short wall, and then another booth on the other side, to your right or left, whatever way you’re facing. And they call out ‘the pizza’s ready’ and Ben hops up and I go, ‘I got it’ and Ben says, ‘No, I got it’ – like I said, never lets you pay for anything. And the girl [in the next booth] leans over and says, ‘Oh my god, that guy looks exactly like the guy from The Cars!’ and I said, ‘He does, doesn’t he?’ and she goes, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it.’
Ben sat down and they started eating, and the gal got up and went to the restroom. Kevin tells Ben what she said. “After she comes back she says something to Ben, too, telling him he looked just like the guy from The Cars. And Ben responded, ‘Really? Do I? Wow. Which one?’ and she’s says, ‘Ben Orr,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, no kidding! Aw, well, thanks!’”
The girl is still looking over, just sure that it must be Ben. “And I’m sitting there across the table, me, like the little dog going, ‘Can I tell her? Can I tell her?’ and he sees it on my face and he says, ‘You want to tell her don’t you?’ And I said, ’Yeah, I really do,’ and he says, ‘Go ahead.’” So Kevin tells her and she’s thrilled, gushing over Ben a bit, “…and he signs up whatever she wants and he’s just as sweet as hell, but he originally left her hanging, just for the fun of it,” Kevin snickered.
“But that’s about it with me and Ben. Man, we just really enjoyed our time together. We just had a blast and it was like mentor and student times, you know? That’s how I feel about our relationship. We were blood-related, even though we weren’t, and it was mentor and student.”
Gradually, though, the time they spent together diminished. Ben’s relationship with Edita Hartig grew more serious, and he spent less and less time in the Boston area, preferring to be in Vermont when he wasn’t on stage. “He ended up going up there more often on a solo mission and then decided to rent a house up there, I believe, at first. There’s a big ranch up there, and I think he ended up buying it… I think he did. And then he redid the studio. He had a big horse arena for Edita and stuff. It was quite an impressive place.”
Kevin recalls that John Kalishes stayed in the guest house at the Vermont place for a time while the two were continuing to write and work together, while Edita lived with Ben in the main house.
On September 29, 1995, Edita gave birth to Ben’s only biological child, Benjamin Charles Joseph. By all accounts, Ben’s son, whom he referred to as ‘Lil Ben,’ was the pride of his heart, and more of Ben’s time and attention were devoted to his family.
Though their outdoor adventures naturally took a backseat, Kevin always felt that he and Ben were solid friends, so he was surprised when their last interaction was somewhat awkward and painful. A few years had passed since the two had talked, and by this time Kevin had moved up to Vermont himself. He had started the Kevin McCarty Band and was at a point where he was ready to record an album, and he thought about how great it would be to collaborate with Ben again.
“And when I called him to do that, he was very standoffish on the phone. He was like ‘why are you calling me for this?’ and I said, ‘Whoa…’ and I said, ‘Because I look up to you and I’ve always appreciated what you put out, and you’d be a big help.’” Kevin didn’t find out until later that Ben was battling cancer at that time. “To be honest with you, I think he… well, he knew he was a hero of mine, as well as a good friend, and I really think he just didn’t want me to see him… I feel like if he was healthy he would have been excited to do it; that’s how he was. I think he just didn’t want to work with me. Not like that. He said, ‘Alright, well I’ll tell you what. I’ll think about it and I’ll give you a call back.’ And then I didn’t hear from him again so… and he passed away shortly after that.”
Kevin was devastated by the news of Ben’s death. “I was in my house in Vermont and my brother called. He wanted to get in touch with me as quick as possible so I didn’t hear it from anybody else,” Kevin recalled quietly.
“Ben was just such a real human being and a caring human being,” he said with feeling. “He meant what he said, said what he meant. He would do anything for you. He wouldn’t let you pay, anywhere we went, he wouldn’t let me pay. I’m like, ‘come on, dude’ and he’d say, ‘no, come on, I got it. Don’t worry about it. I got it.’ You know? He was just sweet… He was as sweet as they make ‘em. His soul, you know…” he trailed off, getting a hold of his emotions.
“Remember in Joe’s book when Ben looked at me in the bar?” he continued thoughtfully. “And he was like, ‘what do you say you and I just walk up through it?’ I mean, there were hundreds of people there, and we decided, let’s just walk up through the middle of them all, and I knew he was doing that just for me. Everybody’s going to recognize Ben. You just look around and all these people are like, ‘[gasp]’ and they’re parting, it’s like parting an ocean and we’re walking through the ocean, and everybody’s patting us on the back and putting their hands out to shake, and I mean, he made a young rocker’s life in that moment, you know?” he said.
“We could have easily gone up and gotten a car and been driven backstage but he knew it would make a difference in my life, and I’m forever thankful for that experience. It’s one of those ones that just… you know, my family still tells the story, the people that were there. So to make somebody’s life like that, and it was very conscious of Ben, he knew what he was doing, and he knew that I was a good friend and he did me tenfold on that. That is what I’ll always remember.”
Ben made it about Kevin, not about Ben, Kevin emphasized. “For that one moment, I was as big of a rock star as he was. It’s like he said, ‘This is what it feels like. Let me give you that experience.’ And that … I mean, I don’t know anything sweeter than doing that for someone who has been playing music all their life and trying to succeed and not quite getting it, you know?”
Kevin packed all of his worldly goods into his car and moved to California in 2001. Shortly after he arrived, he was robbed — everything that was not on his person was stolen. All of his clothes, personal treasures, photos, master tapes, demos, important papers… everything. Such an awful loss for him! Unfortunately, this also means he has no visual memories to share with us from this time period. 😦
In later years, Kevin had the pleasure of working with Elliot Easton in the recording studio. Stay tuned for a separate article on that!
Also, check out this cool footage I found of The Rat and Pizza Pad (with a little glimpse of Captain Nemo’s Pizza) from 1985. Kevin isn’t sure which of those pizza places was the location of Ben’s little prank on the female fan. No matter; it’s so cool to visit the places that made up Ben’s world!
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