Finding Ben Orr

“Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars is unique in a genre where tawdriness and tell-all are common.”

NH writer publishes bio of late Cars bassist

Once upon a middle school Christmas, Joe Milliken asked his dad for a Cars album. He became a fan first via the pages of Creem, Trouser Press and other rock magazines, later as the band became ubiquitous on late 1970s radio.

Born in Boston and raised primarily in North Walpole, New Hampshire, Milliken grew up to be a writer. He freelanced for the record collector magazine Goldmine and other publications, and runs a web site calle Standing Room Only. Recently, he published his first book, about the band that made such an impact on him as a youngster.

Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars is unique in a genre where tawdriness and tell-all are common. Instead of focusing on rock stardom and its trappings, it tries to learn how a young Benjamin Orzechowski – “Benny Eleven Letters” to friends – grew up to be Ben Orr; Cars bassist, singer and general hearthrob, as well as the first Cleveland native inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

It took 11 years for Milliken to complete Let’s Go!, primarily due to a fact he learned early on – Orr was a very private person out of the spotlight. On top of that, he’d passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000. “It’s not like I had a chance to talk to him myself and draw insights,” Milliken said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t have that luxury.”

Many of the people he interviewed were reluctant. “My biggest challenge was as much as they liked what I was doing and thought it was a cool thing, they were also very apprehesive. They’d say to me, ‘Joe, I’m sure you’re a nice guy and your intentions are good, but … I’m a little hesitant to talk to somebody I don’t even know about this man’s life.”

One by one, he won them over, from grade school pals to members of the house band Orr performed with in the early 60s on Cleveland’s version of American Bandstand. Milliken spoke to a huge swath of the Cars’ orbit, though Orr’s bandmates Ric Ocasek and Elliot Easton declined interviews, as did producer Roy Thomas Baker and Maxanne Sartori, a Boston DJ who was key in launching their career.

Milliken did manage to talk with Orr’s two ex-wives, a long term girlfriend, the mother of his son, and the partner at the end of his life, who later managed his estate. “I’m pretty proud to say that all the significant women in his life in the end trusted me enough to participate in the book,” he said. “That really meant a lot.”

The interviews draw a portrait of a young man driven to play music from an early age, first on drums and later guitar. Anyone who’s ever wondered about the journey from musical aspirant to rock star will find many clues in Milliken’s book. It also contains a wide range of photos, from baby pictures to his final appearance with The Cars before his death in 2000.

“A lot of people have asked if I’ll follow up with a book of just photos,” Milliken said at a hometown book launch in October, adding that more than a few women readers who followed his progress on Facebook were a bit crestfallen that Let’s Go! contained more words than images. “I ended up with hundreds of pictures from Ben’s friends.”

His timing is fortuitous. Published by Rowan & Littlefield, it arrives during the holiday gift giving season in the year The Cars were inducted into the Rock Hall. In the spring, Milliken traveled to the ceremony as a menber of the media, and a guest on television and radio stations.

As a native New Englander who grew up admiring one of the region’s most successful bands, it was a dream come true.

“Here I am at media day before the ceremony. I’ve never been to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even Cleveland, and I’m there doing a TV interview,” he said. “It was surreal; I’m a little local guy, being able to participate in all that. Every once in a while I had to pinch myself – am I really doing this?”

Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars
Author: Joe Milliken
Price: $34 hardcover, $29 e-book
More: standing-room-only.info

This story originally appeared in The Hippo, 6 December 2018