Photo Courtesy of Diane Grey Page
“The reason it took me so long to do a solo project is that nobody asked me to do one before…”
— Benjamin Orr, Chicago Tribune (1986)
Visit my neck of the woods — Boston, Massachusetts — and talk to any music fan about The Cars. You’re liable to walk away wondering aloud why a statue hasn’t already been erected in the city honoring this new wave-defining quintet.
The tragedy, of course, is that the band – responsible for so many knockout definable hits from ’78 to ’87 — has been without one of the family since 2000. I was in high school at the time and remember hearing the news that bassist Benjamin Orr died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 53.
I haven’t forgotten his name since.
Yet classic rock radio stations — especially any one based in New England — knows where their musical bread is buttered as our Holy Trinity revolves around Aerosmith, the J. Geils Band and the Cars with the ranking order being completely interchangeable. Listen closely and you’ll find that Orr’s voice is still ever-present on the airwaves on an almost daily basis:
“I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time…”
“Let’s go – I like the nightlife, baby!”
“Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?”
The die-hard Cars fans, I’m sure, believe Ric Ocasek, Orr, Greg Hawkes, Elliot Easton and David Robinson are all equal parts amazing. Others may be prone to pit Ocasek against Orr when it comes to who’s the band’s true frontman. For me, it’s no question — Orr is the band’s look, sound and style. You can watch as much live footage of the group as you want; when he’s front and center, Orr is the definition of dynamic and foxy. Just watch him enthrall nearly 100,000 people at Live Aid back in 1985 at the height of his band’s fame — at age 37 no less!
But then something amazing happens when you watch this rock god in the middle of an interview; he becomes a shy, unassuming human who seems to shun the notion of bring the center of attention. One example (see video below) threw me for a complete loop recently.
But for one brief shining moment in 1986, Orr was the center of solo attention for the first time. In October of that year, he would release his first – and ultimately only – solo album, The Lace. Instead of relying on Cars partner Ocasek to supply him with words, Orr opted to write with a new muse, his fiancée Diane Grey Page. She would provide the entirety of the album’s lyrics.
“We were from totally different worlds,” Page told me recently. “I think this probably has a lot to do with the writing of The Lace because Ben had an 8th grade education. Very, very intelligent and bright and street smart but I was an Ivy Leaguer. I think we both thought each other was exotic.”
“When he finally got the chance to write the solo album, he felt very unsure about lyrics,” Page added. “Coming from The Cars, Ric did all of that. I don’t think any of the other guys even attempted to do that.”
Using their relationship as inspiration, the pair spent several months assembling the album’s 10 tracks before flying to England to record the album for Elektra with a core group of musicians, including Larry Klein on keyboards and Orr’s fellow Car Elliot Easton on guitars.
“Stay the Night,” the very first track written by Page, would be the rocker’s only solo Top 40 hit, peaking at Number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100.
While the album faltered commercially compared to The Cars’ entire platinum-selling discography, a modern listen reveals it to be a genuinely strong AOR effort. Though the subject matter is sweet, Orr makes sure to infuse some edge into its tracks. “Too Hot to Stop,” musically can almost double as a Sammy Hagar tune. “Skyline,” featuring Page on background vocals, is Orr’s ode to Boston. “Hold On” has Orr hitting notes he never dare tried with The Cars. “In Circles” is tongue-in-cheek but contains a heartfelt nod to his and Page’s relationship in its closing lyric (“I love you like crazy”).
But while hubris and ego help catapult some rock stars into solo superstardom, this wasn’t to be Orr’s fate, despite a strong effort.
“’Stay the Night’ was huge, but it still didn’t mean he could sit down and write lyrics for the next (album),” Page told me. “He was so insecure that he never could believe that he was as great as he was or that I loved him as much as I did. He was always terrified that it wasn’t true.”
The Lace is sandwiched between The Cars’ monster-selling Heartbeat City album and the group’s final album as a quintet, 1987’s Door To Door. From here, Orr’s life story becomes defined by moments — the breakup of the Cars; the breakup of Orr and Page after eight years together; Orr’s name being back in the cultural mainstream in 2000 when news of his death hits the media.
Though the couple were apart for years, both did reconnect before it was too late.
“I saw him before he died and the nicest thing he said was, ‘I don’t know what went wrong but you were the love of my life,’” Page said. “That meant the world to me.”
“He had a beautiful, large heart,” she added. “When he was himself he was a beautiful human being. He was very aware of his power and his stardom but basically, he was just a really shy, nice guy with demons. That’s how I would characterize it.”
While Orr may have never acknowledged how good he was while alive, I’m happy to be a mouthpiece emphasizing this fact. It’s not every day we encounter a rock and roll Baryshnikov who if still with us would surely be selling out big venues as part of the inevitable comeback tour with The Cars.
The one solace we do have now is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has finally stopped stalling — pun intended — and will induct The Cars in 2018 on their third consecutive try. For Page, having this to look forward is testament to her true love’s staying power.
“He’d be thrilled. He’d be absolutely over the moon,” she said. “I think this would be the icing on the cake to just have their legacy memorialized this way.”
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