Published in The Commons: Upcoming Book Pays Homage to "The Elvis of Cleveland"

Vermont author, Milliken chronicles the life of Benjamin Orr of The Cars

* This article was originally published on July 4, 2018, in The Commons, based in Brattleboro, Vt.

BELLOWS FALLS, VERMONT - 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 Hawkes’ synthesizer, “Just What I Needed” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in the early summer of 1978.

Article by Jack Langeloh of The Commons * Photos 1 and 2: "The Elvis of Cleveland" (courtesy of Joe Milliken). Photo 3: Orr with The Cars (courtesy of Billie Flory). Photo 4: Milliken at home in Vermont (photo by Jack Langeloh)

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 the songwriting credit, some of the band’s biggest hits — "Just What I Needed," "Let’s Go," "Moving In Stereo," "Drive" — were all sung by Orr, a Cleveland native.

Biography of a Hard-Working Musician

Milliken still ranks The Cars’ debut 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. 11 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

A fan of the band had reached out to Milliken 11 years ago, suggesting that he 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 also a writer, editor, and music journalist who listed The Cars as one of his biggest rock music influences. “You’re a writer, and I’m not,” the fan told him. “I think you should write this book.”

Milliken said he started looking for a publisher 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 book 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 the band is of course, prominently represented 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 in a successful national band,” 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 interviewing many who were 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 nearly 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 many 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; he was a rock star, but also just a regular guy.”

Friends and 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 almost be mistaken for any ordinary guy, one who often kept to himself.

It’s these private tendencies and a strong, loyal following that made Milliken perhaps a little apprehensive about putting Orr’s legacy into a book for the public, but he also feels very lucky to have the opportunity.

When the book is released in November, Milliken hopes to host author events locally and in Boston, where The Cars were based, and in Cleveland, Orr's hometown and the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He also mentioned contacting the aforementioned Rock & Roll Hall, in hopes of hosting his inaugural book event there.

“It’s truly an honor to be telling Orr's story to the world,” Milliken concluded. “I know it sounds corny, but it’s just the way I feel.”