Diane Akins holds up a yen on a silver chain that Cars bassist Benjamin Orr, a Cleveland native, sent her while the Cars were touring Japan in the '80s. In the basement of her Parma house, among the encyclopedias, porcelain knickknacks, and a book on Girl Scout badges, Akins has a veritable shrine to Orr. She's kept everything, from a Christmas card he sent her from Hawaii to his old guitar picks and an out-of-print solo album, 1986's The Lace, which she still plays regularly on a dilapidated hi-fi system.
Akins, who also keeps a couple of albums of Orr's baby pictures and two of his gold records his mom sent to her for safekeeping, says she has held onto old photos, singles, posters, and articles about Orr and his various bands (the Grasshoppers, Mixed Emotions, Milkwood, and the Cars) because they were a part of her youth. Taped to the wall, she has an old cover of Musician magazine that featured the Cars, as well as articles on Orr from Scene and The Plain Dealer.
In the wake of Orr's death last month from pancreatic cancer, Akins's collection has suddenly become useful. She was instrumental in helping provide background information not only for a lengthy Rolling Stone obituary, but also for a memorial held on November 10 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Akins isn't oblivious to the tragic irony, either -- while Orr was alive, she was a good friend, and now that he's passed away, she's become a historian of sorts. Her story is nothing like that of a typical fan.
Akins first met Orr on November 27, 1964, at a Grasshoppers concert at the Cleveland Arena. She still has a poster from the show, where the Grasshoppers opened for the Beach Boys and the Shangri-Las. She went to the concert with a ticket that her mother purchased for her and met Orr through her friend, Grasshopper drummer Sid Turner, who still lives in Cleveland, not far from Akins. Even though she was five years younger than Orr, she quickly became friends with him and says their relationship was always platonic.
"He was just like a brother," she says.
Akins became the branch president of the Grasshoppers fan club and after Grasshoppers gigs would often invite the group back to her parents' house, where everyone would dance until the early hours of the morning -- Akins maintains it was "clean fun" and there was never any illicit behavior going on.
While the Grasshoppers disbanded in the late '60s, it wasn't long before Orr, who was born Benjamin Orzechowski, but went by the nickname "11 Letters," started up another band with singer-guitarist Ric Ocasek. They didn't stay in Cleveland, but moved to various cities before settling in Boston and christening themselves Milkwood (Akins, of course, has the one album the group put out). It was only after changing their name to the Cars, however, that they started to achieve national recognition, and their self-titled debut, released in 1978, went platinum. Ocasek sang most of the time, but Orr took up lead vocals for hits such as "Candy-O," "Moving in Stereo," and "Drive."
Despite achieving major success, Orr still remembered Akins and would leave backstage passes and tickets for her when the Cars were in town. And while Akins didn't keep close tabs on Big People, the Atlanta band that Orr played with until his death, she maintains that her connection with him never diminished throughout the 30-plus years she knew him.
"People ask me what it was like knowing Ben at an early age and then being at the Coliseum with 80,000 people and seeing them screaming and lighting their lighters,'" she says. "It was amazing, and we were really proud of him for accomplishing what he wanted to do."
In fact, she maintains that clairvoyant-like abilities enabled her to communicate with him on another level -- something that goes beyond the mere relationship between an artist and fan. "I always had a connection with Ben," she explains matter-of-factly. "One day in particular, I told my mom, 'You know, Ben's coming over. I got Ben on my mind.' She said, 'No. No. He's in California.' I said, 'No. He's coming over.' It was 2:30 in the morning, and he pulled in. We had no idea he was in town.
"The day he died, I was playing his music, and I told my husband and my dad that Ben was going to die that day," she continues. "[Orr's fiancée] called me the next morning and told me Ben's gone. I said, 'I know.' She said, 'How did you find out?' I said I just knew. I had my psychic thing working."
While Akins says she's followed local acts such as Cloud People and Kid Lonesome, she hasn't found anyone as inspirational as Orr and doesn't exactly share her daughter's affinity for the hard rock act Creed. Akins guards an original photo of the Grasshoppers, which finds them sporting Beatlesque haircuts and matching suits, as if it were a family treasure. While none of the memorabilia is treated with the preciousness that collectors award to such material -- the records are strewn across the family-room table -- it's clear that Akins won't be putting any of it up on eBay anytime soon.
"I'm about the only one with this stuff," she says. "Only Sid and me have a photo of the Grasshoppers, and I told him, 'Guard it with your life.' I wouldn't even give it to the Rolling Stone guy who asked for it. I said, 'Uh-uh.' So we went up to Kinko's and made a copy that night.
"Nobody will get this stuff away from me."