BELLOWS FALLS—Joe Milliken still remembers the first time he heard the synthesizer-infused rock ’n’ roll that stormed onto the airwaves in 1978 with the self-titled debut album of The Cars.
From the fire of Elliot Easton’s lead guitar to the ice of Greg Hawks’ synthesizer, “Just What I Needed,” the first single off The Cars, didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in the early summer of 1978.
But the other element that made “Just What I Needed” a top-30 record four decades ago and a staple of classic rock playlists today is that the vocals weren’t provided by the band’s primary songwriter, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Ric Ocasek.
They came from the band’s bassist and Ocasek’s best friend, Benjamin Orr.
In its decade together, the Boston-based band saw much commercial success. And while Ocasek got much of the credit, some of the band’s biggest hits — Just What I Needed, Let’s Go, Drive — were the songs where Orr, a Cleveland native, was the vocalist.
Biography of a hard-working musician
Milliken still ranks The Cars’ first album as one of his favorites, but he never would have imagined being where he is today — writing a biography of Orr, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2000 at 53.
Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars is set for publication on Nov. 15 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
A fan of the band reached out to Milliken 11 years ago suggesting that Milliken would be the perfect fit for the book.
Milliken was from Boston and was living in Vermont, where Orr spent some time during the later years of his life. Perhaps more importantly, Milliken was a music journalist who listed The Cars as one of his biggest influences.
“You’re a writer, and I’m not,” the fan told him. “I think you should write this book.”
Milliken said he started by compiling a “list of about 50 publishers who have published ‘music related’ books, and started contacting them with my query letter and detailed book proposal.”
Six weeks later, he had three offers.
“It literally happened that quickly,” he said.
A rocker’s biography
Let’s Go: Benjamin Orr and The Cars tells the story of the man some described as “The Elvis of Cleveland.” The story is not about the wild lifestyle or backstage shenanigans that many might expect from a rock star’s biography, and not the story of The Cars either, even though both themes are represented prominently in the book.
In its essence, “It’s the biography of a hard-working musician who had one goal since he was 13: to be a rock star,” Milliken said.
Milliken was in a position many biographers find themselves in — when your subject is deceased, you have to find secondary sources to tell the story.
In this case, the author found himself meeting with nearly everyone else who was around Orr — friends, family members, record-company executives, studio engineers, photographers, groupies, and former members of The Cars.
After 130 interviews, a common theme emerged — Benjamin Orr was a fascinatingly private individual. Even while filling the book with what Milliken confidently believes is everything that needs to be included, many things he learned couldn’t be transferred to his pages.
“I bet that half of what I was told was off the record,” Milliken said, noting that many of his sources wouldn’t even talk to him at first. In some cases, Milliken got the reluctant interviewees to relent after agreeing to fact-check and approve quotes prior to publication.
It’s the juxtaposition of Orr’s stage presence and private lifestyle — an aspect of his personality that was present from childhood — that, in part, intrigued Milliken.
“He flipped a switch when he was on stage,” Milliken explained. “It’s like he had two personas to be a rock star.”
Friends or bandmates would explain that Orr was actually one of the more outgoing members of the band, telling stories of the rocker going out into the city after a show and drawing the attention of everyone in the room.
Further discussions with family and friends, however, also revealed that when he wasn’t on tour, Orr could be mistaken for any ordinary guy, one who often kept to himself.
It’s these private tendencies and strong following that has made Milliken a little nervous about putting Orr’s legacy into a book for the public, but he feels lucky to have the opportunity.
When the book is released in November, Milliken hopes to have book readings and signings locally. He also said he’s working on contacting the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to try to hold such an event there.
“It’s an honor to be telling his story to the world,” he said. “It’s corny, but it’s the way I feel.”