Okay, I will admit that not too very long before I started this site, I didn't even know who Benjamin Orr was--or at least I didn't know him by name. This isn't a terribly unusual thing for me in regards to musicians; I'm a bit young to have been into 80's music actually during the 80's, so I'll often be familiar with a band as a whole but not the individual members, and this was the case with the Cars for a long while. I knew and liked a number of their songs, and the video for "You Might Think" is one of my all-time favorites, but if you'd asked me to name the individual band members, I could only have shrugged.
My path to being a Ben Orr fan (or "Ben-thusiast," as I once heard suggested at the original--and, alas, now-defunct--Ben Orr Yahoo Group) was, therefore, rather roundabout. It all began one evening when I was in high school, sometime in the early 1990's, when I heard this amazing song on a local radio station. It had a good groove, nice arrangement, wonderful lyrics, and a jaw-droppingly beautiful vocal--but it was played in the middle of a set, and even though I listened for a while longer, they never gave the title or artist. From the chorus, I thought the song itself might be called "Stay the Night," but that's a pretty common title, and this was before the advent of the Internet--without more information than that, I didn't have a hope of locating a copy. It was very disappointing, because I had really liked the song, but there wasn't much to be done about it, either.
I never forgot about it, though, and I kept hoping that somewhere, sometime, I'd hear it played again, hopefully with some identification. Well, fast-forward ten years, to the winter of 2003. My husband and I were watching the All-Request Hour on VH-1 Classic one evening when they put on this video featuring a very handsome blond singer, and one who sounded hauntingly familiar. And when the chorus started, I literally jumped out of my chair with excitement--I had found my mystery song again at last! I scrambled for pen and paper and wrote down all the identifying info at the end of the video, then as soon as the show was over, I got online and hit Google.
Of course, I felt rather stupid when I figured out that Benjamin Orr was in the Cars, and that he had sung "Drive," one of my favorite songs from them--in all those years, I'd never managed to make the connection between it and my mystery song. And I was dismayed to learn first that Ben had passed away, and then that his solo album (whence "Stay The Night" had come") was very hard to find. Having already waited a full decade to get my hands on my mystery song, however, I wasn't about to be put off, and I did eventually manage to locate an original copy of The Lace--and it's since become one of the most-played albums in my entire collection. I have heard that Ben himself didn't really care for the record very much, as his record label wanted something very radio-friendly and forced him to record the songs much differently than the way they had originally been written. But, if it wasn't the album he set out to make, I surely do love it; as far as I'm concerned, from the opening fade-in of "Too Hot to Stop" to the heart-melting coda of "This Time Around," The Lace is three-quarters of an hour of perfection. The music, the lyrics, Ben's voice... all of it is simply wonderful. Almost any of the tracks could have been hits--"Stay The Night," in fact, made it to #24 on the singles charts--but I suppose if Ben himself wasn't satisfied with the album, that might have been why it was allowed to fade into obscurity...
In my case, however, it was also enough to make me start paying a lot more attention to old Cars videos, and I still cannot quite figure out how it took me so very long to notice Ben. Perhaps because he doesn't get a lot of camera time in the few videos that I had seen with any regularity, or because he changed his look quite a bit between a couple of early Cars albums; he looks really different with dark hair. Whatever the cause, however, I am now past it--I know exactly who to watch for, and drink in every moment. I personally prefer his "blond" look to the "dark" one, but he was hot either way--and Gods above, I have never seen anyone with eyes like his. Even now, with the thought of his death always in the back of my mind, that stare of his can still nail me to my seat, and I don't think I had ever quite grasped how lips could look "kissable" until I started paying attention to Ben. That one particular smile he had, to which I affectionately refer as "The Smirk," is enough to make me start fanning myself. Sexy--good grief, yes!
But--and here we come to the portion of this essay that's been the most difficult for me to write--the more that I have learned about Ben Orr, the more I feel... somewhat sad for him, I suppose. And before I go any further, I should probably state right up front that most of my thoughts here are based squarely on things that I've read, and not on actual knowledge of the man; I certainly never had a chance to know him personally, and so most of this is necessarily pretty speculative. But from what I have heard, I get the sense that despite having had a measure of professional success, Ben was someone who really struggled to find happiness, and missed it as often as not. He also seems to have had... not a dark side, exactly--more like a lot of inner conflict.
Now, I hope I don't lose too many readers here, but the best way I can find to explain my thoughts is to take a look at Ben from an astrological perspective. He was a Virgo in the Western scheme, and a Pig in the Chinese, which is quite a... well, I don't want to say an unfortunate combination of signs, but certainly not one calculated to promote inner peace. According to my sources on this subject, Virgoans tend to the introverted side, while Pigs are much more outgoing. Virgoans are very serious, even depressive; Pigs are cheerful and fun-loving. And Virgoans can be aloof and more than a trifle cold about matters of the heart, while Pigs are described as warm, friendly, fond of company (at least in moderate doses) and who are passionate and deeply sensual when it comes to romance. What a juxtaposition of opposites to be contained within a single individual--and yet, it does seem to fit in with what little I've been able to glean about Ben as a person.
Certainly one gets a radically different description of him from close friends than from those who only encountered him casually, and when I was first researching the Cars, I started to wonder which picture was the "real" Ben Orr--the gentleman who positively oozed charisma and good humor, or the cool and distant rock-god who rarely strung so much as three sentences together during interviews? The truth, I think, is that it was some of both; Ben seems to have had two different "faces" that he showed the world. If he was in a situation where he felt relaxed--with friends, say, or other musicians--the Pig side of him came to the fore, and he could charm your socks off without even thinking about it. But at other times, the Virgoan was dominant, and it was then that he seemed more remote and enigmatic. That Virgo-side was probably what made him fit in so well with the Cars; that whole band was described as "aloof" more than once. And it might have been what made the partnership between Ben and Ric Ocasek work, as well.
That was something else I found a bit puzzling at first. It seemed odd to me that Ben was always kind of "in the background" while he was in the Cars--sure, he sang lead vocals on some of their biggest hits, but Ric did virtually all of the songwriting and was ultimately the one who had the most say in where the band was going. I just couldn't fathom why Ben would not only choose to stay in such a situation, but also profess to be perfectly happy with it. He was an artist, and a talented one--why would he not want more of a say in how that talent was exercised? And particularly when he could easily have been a star in his own right; he certainly had plenty of looks and charisma and stage presence to go along with the talent and the beautiful voice. But if he really was as much of a Virgoan as I think he was, then the whole thing starts to make more sense. In addition to the characteristics I mentioned above, Virgoans also tend to see themselves as less than they truly are. They are perfectionists, so sensitive to details that every small flaw in themselves gets magnified, sometimes out of all proportion, and thus they feel they're never properly prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that life offers them. If this was Ben's own take on himself, then no wonder he was content with letting Ric, who is an Aries and has all of that sign's dynamic energy and assertiveness, take the lead within the band. (I do think that Ben must have been more of a Pig than a Virgo in one sense, however: If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then he was a man of some strong inner passions, indeed. But I also wonder if he held a lot of that inside in the normal course of things, and if perhaps he was drawn to music precisely because it's a more emotional form of communication than mere words.)
Returning to the Ben-Ric partnership, however--alas, it couldn't last forever. People grow and change, and in this case, those changes tore them apart. And despite the fact that Ben was the only member of the Cars ever to have a hit on his own (the aforementioned "Stay The Night") his solo career had its own share of troubles. He was unhappy with The Lace, and a second solo album seems to have been abandoned half-finished--I can only guess at the reasons. He did eventually form another band, called simply ORR, and he was also involved with a band called Big People which had its origins in the Voices of Classic Rock organization, but as far as I'm aware, he never had another commercially released album. Playing live seems to have been one of the few constants in his life, the one thing that he never tired of doing--in fact, he kept performing with Big People even after he was diagnosed with cancer, almost literally until he dropped. His fellow band members, I've read, knew the end was at hand when he told them that they would have to cut "Drive" from their setlist because he was too weak to sing it; Gods, talk about a wrench to the heartstrings!
There's something else, too. Pancreatic cancer is a horrible way to die, and the medical establishment doesn't really know what causes it. But--and you can think whatever you like of this--I've read that in energy medicine, the pancreas is tied to a couple of specific energy centers or "chakras" within the body, and they're the same ones that, on an emotional level, deal with self-esteem, creativity, relationship dynamics, and issues of responsibility and competency in the outside world. It's gut-wrenching to me to think that Ben, who was so talented and so beloved by his fans, might never have truly believed himself worthy of that love, or that there was so much conflict inside him that it was, perhaps, what ultimately took his life. I trust the Goddess, and I know that it all must have had some purpose in the larger scheme of things, but... damn. If there's any accuracy to the picture at all, it's still a terribly tragic fate for a good-hearted man.
So Ben, wherever you are now, I really hope you're happy there, and enjoying all the "warm and gentle summer nights" that you never managed to find while you were here. Rest in peace, sweetie.
Gonna be some sweet sounds, comin' down, on the nightshift
I bet you're singin' proud, I bet you pull a crowd..."
--The Commodores, "Nightshift"