Ric Ocasek was a remarkable musician -- a big fan of music, a talented producer. A synthesizer nerd. And a smart, diligent songwriter. His primary songwriting vehicle was his band The Cars. EVERYBODY liked The Cars.
For me, they were the alpha and omega of the 80s, and of New Wave. Their debut album (which the band jokingly referred to as their Greatest Hits) was released in 1978, and really heralded the beginnings of the new wave era. Their last great album was "Heartbeat City", released in 1984, and marked the end of the Golden Age of New Wave, before the dissolution and entropy of the late 80s.
When I hear Ric's voice and songs and I close my eyes, I see Memphis design, angular shapes, primitive computers, and an endless neon grid. The future seems bright, fun, weird, and cool. I think of high school when I hear their music. It came from clock radios and boom boxes and stereos and cars and the PA at school dances. And "Moving In Stereo" was used in a crucial scene in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High". I think of the pin-ups adorning so many Cars records and all the feelings those stirred in my teenage blood.
The Cars always seemed like the perfect band, ready for rock radio AND looking to the future. There's a reason The Pants have the same drums/bass/2 guitars/synth as The Cars.
Ocasek and his friend Ben Orr had been playing music together for many years (they started in *1965*), and hadn't "made it". They'd been a folk project, and a more traditional rock band. The Cars was their last shot, and they put everything they had into it. Their experience and chops finally paid off, to the point that their demo of one of their songs ("Just What I Needed") was getting heavy rotation on Boston stations, where their new band called "The Cars" was based.
It finally all paid off, and the band rattled off a series of albums that at best were wall-to-wall brilliant songs, and at worst were a couple of great singles with solid, just-shy-of-perfect album tracks. Their albums also mirrored the evolution of pop flavors and tastes, with their early records being produced by Roy Thomas Baker, and largely being a rock band that happened to have a synth player to "Heartbeat City", produced by Robert "Mutt" Lange, and being largely synthetic with a few guitar overdubs. Like many 80s acts, The Cars had a distinctive synth sound -- a hard sync Prophet-5 "beeooowp" that immediately conjures up many of their classic synth licks.
Ocasek's songs were striking -- they seemed minimal, clipped, and tight, but still shaded with feeling, mystery, and emotion. They were informed by decades of rock history. He frequently had Ben sing the more emotional or ballad-y numbers and several of the big hits ("Just What I Needed", "Drive", "It's All I Can Do", "Let's Go", "Candy-O") Ben had the better, more expressive voice. Ric's voice was more idiosyncratic, well-suited to the short, elliptical phrases he would write.
Ocasek made a few records on his own, which, while solid, lacked the fire and tension of The Cars' best work. He also was a prolific producer (most notably for legendary punk synth duo SUICIDE) and was briefly an A&R guy for a record label.
The Cars reformed about a decade ago, minus Ben Orr (who died from pancreatic cancer in 2000, slightly older than I am now), and made a solid comeback album called "Move Like This", easily as good as any of their middle-period albums (and better than "Door To Door").
I never met Ric directly, but I'd see him at the occasional party in L.A. . He was hard to miss, because he was super-tall and really gangly, and...he always looked like Ric Ocasek. In all those years, he never really changed his look. Black clothes, black hair in an almost-mullet. Ray-Bans. No mistaking him. I'd catch his eye (well, his Ray-Bans) from across the room, and he'd just raise his drink and an eyebrow. That was all the acknowledgement and encouragement I needed.
Ric was a reminder that you shouldn't give up. That even with a relatively late start (he was in his mid-30's when The Cars broke!), one could still bank on a great career, could still make a big contribution, could still be eternally hip and cool and marry a supermodel.
The worst thing anyone ever said about him was that he was somewhat calculating and career-focused. Well, in this town, who isn't? He'd been around long enough to see what happens if you're not watching out for #1, and at the same time, he often watched out for up and coming bands.
As I said, EVERYBODY liked or loved The Cars. "Just What I Needed", "Best Friend's Girl", "All Mixed Up"...that first album is 41 goddamn years old now. It'd be like listening to music from 1937 when was released. "The Cars" still sounds fresh, and Ric and The Cars had such a distinctive sound that it is easy to hear when we or anyone else is copping their vibe.
We're going to see a lot more rock star deaths in the next few years. At 75, Ric is younger than my Dad. All that hard livin' rock and roll lifestyle is going to catch up to many of them, just like it did to Eddie Money ("only" 70).
Nobody lives forever. But art can live forever, and it can change people's lives and the world. Thank you for the music, Ric.
Here's Ric leading The Cars on "Good Times Roll", the first song from their first record. From 1978, when it came out. This is what they sounded like live. It's no wonder they became stars, with their intense, not-moving-much stage vibe:
"Touch and Go" is a great mid-period song. Only Ric would have dared put out a single with an odd time signature verse, all moody and drifting before changing into one of the poppiest lead-ins to a chorus they would create. Too weird for big chart success, but at least he dared:
...and here's the video for "Hello Again", the first track from their masterpiece "Heartbeat City". This video was directed by Andy Frickin' Warhol (that IS him!) and if you don't blink, you will also see GINA GERSHON! It's maybe not as totally 80s as "You Might Think", but that's been played to death...Check out Ric's freaky charisma and great songwriting: