*Photo taken from the internet, from ABC News and likely copyrighted
Well this one is gonna leave a mark… more bad rock and roll news this past weekend when it was announced that the Cars’ lead singer, rhythm guitarist, songwriter and all around seemingly nice guy Ric Ocasek passed away peacefully in his sleep Sunday. On the heels of Eddie Money’s loss on Friday, it was a tough weekend. While my love of Eddie Money may have been singular to me, everybody loves/loved the Cars. My heart goes out to all his family and friends.
People tend to think of music in terms of “decades.” We often hear about the 60s or the 70s when people try to quantify and qualify music. I guess if you’re trying to get your head around a certain era or a certain sound it makes some sense. I don’t think music, music trends or the arc of certain bands’ careers fit neatly into those boxes. The Cars (and well, Eddie Money for that matter) certainly don’t fit neatly into the 70s or the 80s box. There was a decade in music from 1975 to 1985 that you can carve out, with it’s own distinct vibe and that’s where the Cars fit in (and really it’s more like 1978 to 1988). You could argue that with Van Halen, they may have ruled that “sub-decade.” Many of those bands started off as straight forward (for lack of a better description) 70’s rock bands and then morphed in the era of synths, drum machines and MTV to survive the first part of the 80s. No one made that musical transition more seamlessly than the Cars, helmed by Ric Ocasek.
My god, the music this band made was just phenomenal. The Cars sprang seemingly out of nowhere from Boston (although Ric Ocasek and bassist/vocalist Benjamin Orr had been knocking around in bands long before that). They were a quintessential Boston band. Hell, Ocasek had even hired David Robinson of the Boston band The Modern Lovers (Digging In Deeper: B&V Artists/Albums To Expand Your Music Collection – Don’t Be Afraid!) as his drummer… both Ocasek and Jonathan Richman (leader of the Lovers) were huge fans of the Velvet Underground whose music influenced both groups. Inspired and excited with his new drummer, Ocasek responded with a batch of songs that would become the Cars’ (Ocasek, Orr, Robinson with keyboardist Greg Hawkes, and lead guitarist Elliott Easton) masterpiece debut album, The Cars. They should have named that album The Cars Greatest Hits because it is a perfect record – and one of the greatest debut albums of all time. They were able to fuse rock and roll and the blossoming New Wave sound into something uniquely their own. The songs on that debut record… “Good Times Roll,” “Moving In Stereo,” “My Best Friends Girl,” “Just What I Needed.” Big rock with great, twitchy vocals. Ocasek and Orr’s vocals with Easton’s economical guitar solos and Hawkes ever present keyboards was the perfect mix.
They followed up in 1979 with what may be my favorite Cars’ LP, Candy-O. The Vargas painting on the front cover, with a beautiful woman on the hood of a muscle car… it’s iconic to me. There was no sophomore slump for the Cars. You couldn’t escape those first two albums, they were so huge…those records were the soundtrack to my high school years. They’d had so much success Ocasek was able to indulge his more experimental side with their third record, 1980’s Panorama. While that was a commercial and critical setback, it still had some great songs – “Gimme Some Slack,” “Touch And Go,” and a song I like to play for my wife, “Don’t Tell Me No.” I think that’s when I saw them play on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show, the closest I ever got to seeing them live… They rebounded in 1981 with the more “pop” album Shake It Up which has my all-time favorite Cars’ track, “Since You’re Gone.” As a brokenhearted teenager, post-breakup (my first), mooning over lyrics like “Since you’re gone, well, the moonlight ain’t so great” was habitual.
It was 1984’s Heartbeat City that blew the Cars into the stratosphere… they ruled the airwaves and MTV. With hits like “Drive” (sung beautifully by Orr), “You Might Think” and “Magic” the Cars were even bigger than in the early stage of their career – and believe me they were already huge. It was at that time when geeky looking Ric Ocasek ended up dating and marrying supermodel Paulina Porizkova, leading all of us nerds out here to think we had a shot with the prettiest woman in our lives. Any time I saw an average dude with a smokin’ hot lady, I’d say, “That’s the luckiest guy you’re gonna find, this side of Ric Ocasek.” There was a lot of conflict on Heartbeat City – Orr wanted to write more, Robinson was pissed as Ocasek used drum machines vs his drumming. They never quite recovered from that conflict… after the uninspired Door to Door the Cars split up for good. Orr and Ocasek never reconciled and Orr passed in 2000… sad indeed.
The thing that really set the Cars apart, for me, are the lyrics. Ocasek wrote more like the Beat poets he admired than a traditional songwriter who tells a story, like say, Springsteen. The lyrics for “Hello Again” read like a string of bumper stickers: “You might have forgot/the journey ends/you tied your knots/you made your friends/you left the scene/without a trace/one hand on the ground/one hand in space.” That’s a great way to start a song. Bowie is always heralded as the artist who was out there for the misfits. And yes, he was. But Ocasek ranks right up there with Bowie for all of us outcasts. He wrote songs about geeky guys lusting for the prettiest girl in school. It may comes as a surprise to readers of B&V, but I wasn’t exactly “popular” in high school… I blame the acne. Ocasek’s vision spoke to me. He wrote and sang with an icy coolness, a detachment that seemed to come from the outcast, the person sitting on the edge of the party, people watching. And yet, he still wrote with a vulnerability that was so honest. He did all of that while making us want to dance… the music of the Cars, like much of the music of that decade was just fun.
Ocasek went on to produce for a lot of different bands ranging from Suicide to Weezer, to name but a few. Everyone who worked with him raved about what a great guy he was. Ocasek even produced a couple of tracks for No Doubt which I never realized. He could make edgy music yet had a great ear to make songs radio friendly. He had to be amazing to work with in the studio. The Cars did reunite for one last album in 2011, which was sadly long after Benjamin Orr had passed… I wish he and Ocasek could have reconciled prior to Orr’s death… maybe now they can. The resulting 2011 album Move Like This, with the remaining members of the Cars save Orr was one of those unexpected treats and great, late-career albums that B&V was built on. I would recommend it to anybody. It wasn’t Candy-O, but it was a strong record. Sadly now that sound, that voice has been silenced. All I can think regarding Ric Ocasek is, “since you’re gone, well, nothings makin’ any sense.”
RIP Ric Ocasek. Your music will last forever… and not just because of Phoebe Cates’ topless scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, set to “Moving In Stereo.” Although I’m sure that won’t hurt…