Author Interview: Joe Milliken of “Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars”

When the Cars burst onto the music scene in the late 1970s, they were rock’n’rollers in a vast sea of disco dancers, new wavers, and punk rockers, but that wasn’t the only unusual thing about them. All band members but one were in their 30s, most of them had quite a few years of experience as musicians under their belts. Although lanky lead singer Ric Ocasek may be the most prominent face of The Cars, he frequently shared vocalist’s duties with bassist Benjamin Orr, whom he had met in Cleveland, Ohio, a decade earlier. After The Cars broke up in the late 1980s, most of the band pursued other projects, drummer David Robinson leaving the music biz behind entirely. Benjamin Orr sadly passed away in 2000, from pancreatic cancer. Consequently, he did not appear on the one-off album, “Move Like This,” released in 2011, nor was he present when The Cars were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in April 2018. Ric Ocasek remarked in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine: “I think it’s kind of a big thing for me and the band. I know Ben would have been flipped out by it. … It’s certainly a very positive thing.”

Like many fans, I am tickled that in only a couple of months, on November 11, to be exact, Rowman & Littlefield is releasing a brand new biography titled “Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars.” The book is a labor of love by journalist Joe Milliken, who graciously answered a few questions for me.

Stop and Smell the Pages: The Cars are a band that most rock aficionados of a certain age will be familiar with on some level. Yet, the forthcoming book, “Let’s Go! A Biography of the Cars’ Benjamin Orr” obviously focuses primarily on Benjamin. Why did you decide to put him in the spotlight, and who is your target audience?

Joe Milliken: When I was contemplating what music subject my first book would be about, admittedly Benjamin Orr and even The Cars were not at the top of my list even though they are one of my seminal favorite bands. Truth be told, a fan contacted me out of the blue and suggested I write a biography specifically about Orr.

I was unsure but curious, but when I did some research I discovered this whole other aspect of his life that I didn’t realize, and figured a lot of other Cars’ fans didn’t know either. Ben growing up in Cleveland (home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) as a “young celebrity musician” if you will, over a decade before he ever became world famous with The Cars, was the hook I needed to make this book come alive. And did it ever!

My target audience is not only The Cars fans around the world, but rock, new wave and pop music fans alike. There is also special interest in Cleveland where Orr grew up, as well as the Boston area where The Cars signed their first record deal and launched their careers.

SSTP: You’ve already done quite a bit of campaigning for the book release, which is coming up fast. How has the feedback been from the media and music fans?

JM:  We have really gotten some great feedback from the fans who’ve discovered the book and in fact, some fans have been loyal to this project since I started it a decade ago. Our book mailing list has grown to nearly 1,000 fans, my Public Relations Coordinator, Donna Neale, and I have been promoting the book for months and the select media we have contacted so far has been positive. Pre-orders for the book is growing every week and the momentum is building towards the November release.

SSTP: In April, the Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and you attended the event. If you had a free hand and no fund limits, how would you have liked to put together the Cars’ part of the inductee exhibit?

JM: The Cars’ exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was very cool, it was just presented in a very limited space. If I had it my way, there would have been an entire room dedicated to exhibiting “Cars artifacts” and I would have searched out and invited “Cars collectors” around the world to display their treasures for all to enjoy.

SSTP: While Ric Ocasek’s musical style always seems to have a flamboyant edge to it, Benjamin’s style, especially in his solo work, seems far more grounded in traditional rock’n’roll, both musically and lyrically. By this I mean that Ric’s lyrics are often very much open to interpretation, whereas the lyrics to the songs on Benjamin’s solo album, The Lace, seem more like personal vignettes in the vein of traditional storytelling. How do you think his having grown up in Cleveland may have influenced his musical development?

JM: Cleveland (obviously) has a rich rock-and-roll history and it surely influenced Benjamin during his formative years. One of his early bandmates said to me in an interview: “Benny was influenced by Elvis, the Beatles and the British Invasion, and he always loved to play rock-and-roll!”

As for the songs on The Lace being of a personal nature, even though some of the lyrics may pertain to personal feelings, it is not meant to be any kind of narrative of his life, if you will. The songs could be about anyone’s relationships and feelings, and actually can be open for one’s own interpretation.

SSTP: Are there any plans for an international release of the book?

JM: We are lucky to be backed by a major publisher in Rowman & Littlefield, who markets their book releases internationally. Additionally, Donna and I have been working hard to promote the book and have launched a website, a Facebook page (over 1,500 “likes”), and have assembled a growing “promotional team” of enthusiastic fans who are helping to promote the book globally by reaching out to their local medias on our behalf. We currently have promo team members in roughly 30 states, plus Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and England.

SSTP: And finally: If you had the chance to ask Benjamin one question, what would it be?

JM: I’m going to cheat and mention a few questions I would ask Benjamin. On a music level, I would ask him what his top five bands/artists are, what his favorite Cars’ song, and album is, and what was his favorite bass to play. On a personal level I would ask him what the significance is of a modest bracelet he wore for most of his life, and who really was the true love of his life.

Considering the madcap round of interviews Joe has been giving to promote the book release, I very much appreciate his taking the time to answer yet more questions. You can stay up to date on book news on the Let’s Go Facebook page. Scroll down to the official press release below to find even more details on the book, its author, and how to stay in touch!

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Press Release:

Vermont Writer Milliken Has Book Deal to Publish Biography of The Cars’ Benjamin Orr
BELLOWS FALLS, VERMONT – Veteran music journalist Joe Milliken recently announced a publishing deal with the Lanham, Maryland-based publisher Rowman & Littlefield Publishers to produce his first book, a biography about the late Benjamin Orr. Orr was the co-founder, co-lead singer, and bassist for the platinum-selling rock band The Cars. Titled Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, a release date is set for November 11, 2018.
Often considered the band’s heartthrob, Orr possessed an incredible voice, diverse musical talent and rare stage presence, all balanced by a magnetic, yet enigmatic personality, striking good looks, and a relentless determination to reach rock stardom. Born Benjamin Orzechowski (aka “Benny Eleven Letters”) and raised in the Cleveland suburb of Parma Heights, Orr was, prior to becoming a worldfamous rock star with The Cars, a “teen star” as a house band musician for the nationally syndicated television show Upbeat.

A few years later Ben met his musical partner and future Cars’ bandleader, Ric Ocasek, and by 1976 their quest for the perfect blend of songs, bandmates, and musical landscape finally materialized as The Cars. They would go on to sell over 30 million albums worldwide resulting in 15 “Top 40” hits.

From his early success in Cleveland through his stardom with The Cars, to his solo band efforts and eventual rebirth with the emerging supergroup Big People, this definitive account of Orr’s rock-and-roll life is not a backstage ‘tell all,’ but the story of a charismatic musician with a vision, a sense of adventure, and unwavering perseverance. Orr passed away much too young at 53, but he achieved his dream through hard work and determination, a long road that began in Cleveland and culminated with The Cars coming back to his hometown to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April of 2018.

This first-ever biography about Orr spans 11 years in the making, as Milliken draws together interviews with over 120 family members, friends, bandmates, and music associates from Orr’s life, as well as many unpublished and never before seen photos from private collections, to reveal an intimate portrait of one of classic rock’s great talents.

About the Author: Joe Milliken has been a music journalist, editor and website publisher for two decades. A die-hard music fan with a degree in visual arts, Joe turned to writing as his creative outlet, first as a local reporter, then a sports/arts & entertainment editor and freelancer. In 2014, he launched Standing Room Only, a website dedicated to promoting music and the arts on a local (New England) and national level. Originally from Boston, Milliken now resides in southern Vermont with his wife, Kelly, and his children, Nate and Erin.

Learn more about upcoming book-related announcements, events, discounts and author interviews online at http://www.benorrbook.com and http://www.facebook.com/BenOrrBook, by email at benorrbook@gmail.com, or follow @benorrbook on Twitter. Let’s Go! is available for presale at http://www.benorrbook.com.

 

Review: “Victoria of England” by Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell was an interesting character. Due to an extremely unhappy relationship with her parents, she lived with her governess for a long time, until that lady’s death of cancer in the late 1930s. She fell in love with a gay artist and never married. As a tall woman who liked to dress in unusual garb, she certainly stood out. Like her younger brothers, Dame Edith had literary leanings and began publishing poetry before the first World War. She also wrote books on poetry, as well as biographies. “Victoria of England” was first published in 1936.

This fact presents one of the major problems with this work: its wording is often somewhat archaic, which younger readers may find tedious. It is also somewhat repetitive: after all, we do not need reminding that Victoria disliked a certain politician or presented herself as a grieving widow after the early death of husband Albert in every single chapter following the event. If you can look beyond those faults, you’ll be delighted to discover a sprightly, slightly gossipy narrative about Victoria’s early life, her ascension to the English throne, and her adult years, occasionally peppered with personal notes from Dame Edith. Most chapters are augmented with quotes from letters to or from the Queen, excerpts from her diaries, and quotations from contemporary biographers. Unfortunately, we find the sovereign such a private person that her daily routine remains largely unexplained; we do, however, learn that she loved her family, never got over her beloved husband’s death, apparently managed to remain quite diplomatic when dealing with foreign powers, and strongly disapproved of women’s suffrage, somewhat ironic considering that she herself was a woman in charge of a nation and a Commonwealth.

Two chapters seem odd among the rest: Edith Sitwell spends a very thorough bit of time enlightening the reader on the plight of the British laborer of the Victorian age, which is certainly interesting, but entirely out of character from the rest of the biography in tone. The same goes for the odd, rambling listing of fashions of the time, inserted after the French Queen’s visit to London.

As an extra, the new edition of “Victoria of England” also includes 1933’s “The English Eccentrics,” which must have been a very short book indeed, considering it barely seems to take up room at the end of the biography.

“Victoria of England” is published by Agora Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are, as always, my own.

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Review: “Diary of a Beatlemaniac” by Patricia Gallo-Stenman

When Patricia Gallo was thirteen, the Beatles hit the shores of America, and they arrived with a flash and a bang. Legendary Philly DJ, Hy Lit, was instrumental in getting the Fab Four overseas and into the local music hall. Patty and her “Beatle Buddies” quickly become immersed in the cult around the band, writing letters on the boys’ behalf to less-than-favorable reviewers, founding a fan club, sneaking off to movies and gigs, and even befriending actor Victor Spinetti, who appeared alongside the Liverpudlians in all three of their live action films.

When I was thirteen, the Beatles were well beyond broken up, and John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his home in New York City. Instead of the Beatles, I had Depeche Mode. But thanks to my Beatles-loving father, an enthusiasm, nay, almost an obsession for their music had been instilled in me when I was a nipper. For me, it was very exciting to be able to follow Patty’s Beatles experience via the diary excerpts, newspaper articles, and interviews presented in this book. In fact, I was hooked from the get-go, to the detriment of a couple of books which had been in the reading queue much longer. I recognized the thrill, the love, the disappointment of being a devoted fan, marveled at the ingenious gimmick used to announce the arrival of the band in Philadelphia, smiled at the generous spirit of Vic Spinetti towards these young girls. Of course all things, good or not, must eventually come to an end, and when Patty graduates from high school and meets her first boyfriend, the Beatles end up taking a backseat to real life. All too soon, the story and the book were over.

If you are a longtime Beatles fan who can recite not only all lyrics, but also chords to their songs, someone who owns rarities and knows more about the band than they did themselves, this is not a must-read for you. But if you love the music of these boys who were unlike anyone else before them, or if you simply enjoy an engaging yarn, this is definitely for you.

“Diary of a Beatlemaniac” is published by Cynren Press. I received an advance copy from Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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