The Cars’ Ric Ocasek both channelled powerful emotion and seemed to float above it.
One evening in late-nineties Boston, enjoying a little after-work jaywalking between idling cars, I noticed, with a jolt, an S.U.V. creeping toward me. I looked up at the car to see Ric Ocasek behind its wheel. Paulina Porizkova, his wife and a supermodel of otherworldly beauty, was beside him. My alarm turned to delight: I’d marvelled at Ocasek’s mysterious pop magic all my life, and at Ocasek and Porizkova’s mysterious coupledom since the eighties. I also understood that Ocasek wouldn’t run me over. You never questioned Ocasek’s competence and control—especially, one imagined, in a car.
Ocasek, who died on Sunday, at seventy-five, wrote, sang, and played rhythm guitar on an amazing number of great songs with the Cars, the band he co-founded in 1976. (He also produced albums by Bad Brains, Suicide, Weezer, and others.) Ocasek and his bandmate Benjamin Orr met in the sixties, in Ohio, and moved to Boston in the seventies, where they formed the Cars, with Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, and David Robinson, and soon earned a devoted following in bars like the Rathskeller. “Just What I Needed,” with vocals by Orr, got the band signed to Elektra. “I don’t mind you comin’ here / and wastin’ all my time,” Orr sings, and a creepy, jolly synth invites us to wonder why.
Ocasek sang most of their other hits. The Cars combined the pleasures of New Wave synth modernity with the pleasures of bar-band guitar rock, in a style made especially distinctive by Ocasek’s borderline eerie vocals and aesthetic: starkly bold attire, black shades, black hairdo with a hint of fright wig. As a singer and a presence, Ocasek both channelled powerful emotion and seemed to float above it, as mysteriously as the ever-present sunglasses that obscured the look in his eyes. The Cars released their self-titled début in 1978; it was an instant classic. (I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to FM radio in my home town without hearing one of its songs in a rock block.) The album’s first track, “Good Times Roll,” is a strangely dispassionate call to revelry: mid-tempo, instructing, cool, hovering aloof above the notion of good times. It begins with spare, locomotive guitar. Ocasek commands us to let the good times roll, knock us around, make us a clown, leave us up in the air—but it doesn’t sound as if he’s going to do these things. Whereas the beloved 1956 Shirley and Lee song “Let the Good Times Roll” feels like a party—an instant get-on-the-dance-floor—the Cars are doing something stranger. Rock and roll is all about good times, but the Cars aren’t going to just lob them at us: instead, Ocasek invokes them for us to engage in, then leans back to watch what we do, like some kind of good-times fetishist.
His vocals on the album’s other singles retain that weird cool, but they add emotions we can detect, even feel. “My Best Friend’s Girl” begins with penetrating guitar, hand claps, and vocals, but then plunges into friendly pop and gang’s-all-here backup singing. When Ocasek sings “She’s dancing ’neath the starry sky” and adds, “She’s my best friend’s girl / and she used to be mine,” it hurts, sweetly, and we begin to understand him as a human. (Sadness amid others’ revelry: a classic pop-song genre, mood, experience.) “Just What I Needed” continues some of what’s fun about the “My Best Friend’s Girl”—taut beginning, teasing power—but adds further warmth, singsongy synth, even humor. Those appealing joys and tensions mark much of the Cars’ music from that era—“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”; “Let’s Go,” from 1979’s “Candy-O.” Often enough, Ocasek brings the enigmatic tension and the other Cars bring the party: it’s a thrilling complementary energy that keeps a listener wondering and satisfied at once.
Ocasek in his youth.
Since I learned of Ocasek’s death, I’ve been pondering the nature of the Cars’ particular sound, and how, early on, they differed from their fellow New Wave artists and synth enthusiasts. For one thing, they employed the sounds of modernity and machinery without being woo-woo about it; they weren’t art rock à la Bowie and Brian Eno, or Kraftwerk, or Joy Division. Today, I saw that, in 1978, Ocasek, when asked by the Globe about rumors that the Cars had sought production by Eno, said, “No, we have enough oblique strategy already. If we had any more, we’d be on a space capsule headed for Mars.” They didn’t want Mars—they wanted to go their own way, unique and on the ground.
Their single “Shake It Up,” from 1981, surprised me at the time. It sounded disconcertingly poppy, happy—here, Ocasek told us to shake it up and get real loose, and the song actually felt like a party. You could imagine people doing the twist to it. Ocasek himself still might not have been dancing, but the song seemed to mark a distinctive loosening up. My mom bought the album and did aerobics to “Shake It Up,” in our living room, Ocasek gamely singing high “Oo-oo”s in the background; occasionally I, too, would do the move with a quirky jerk.
“Heartbeat City,” released in 1984, marked a further loosening up, and yielded several huge hits: “Magic,” “Hello Again,” “Drive,” “You Might Think.” At that time, I was eleven and listening to a lot of Top Forty with a sense of investment and ownership. I was struck by the Cars’ new vibe. Now their synthesizers evoked something less stern than the machinery of the seventies—something more like waterfalls, fountains, shooting stars, sock hops, wizard dust. At a 4-H summer-camp dance, the d.j. put on “Magic,” and the whole darkened mess hall sang along, a chorus of sweaty, dancing kids shouting in unison. “Summer—it turns me upside down,” we yelled. “Summer, summer, summer.” As ever, Ocasek sang of mirth (“It’s like a merry-go-round”) without embodying mirth, leaving the joy to the other Cars.
“Heartbeat City” also coincided with the dawn of MTV. For music-obsessed kids who gawped at MTV in joyous wonder—until their moms got rid of cable because we spent too much time gawping at MTV in joyous wonder—the Cars were an indelible part of that revelatory moment. “You Might Think,” which won the first MTV Video of the Year, was especially mesmerizing. Watching it, you were amazed by its whimsy—and also at the Cars crossing some kind of Rubicon into a pop-visual realm that hadn’t existed before. Here Ocasek, in his usual Roy Orbison-as-beanpole getup, became a visual motif and a special effect, popping up in a woman’s life in the form of a King Kong, a coat hanger, a periscope in sunglasses, a housefly landing on her nose. The rest of the Cars floated in a sink on a bar of soap. (The first MTV Music Awards were dominated by veteran artists working in a new medium: the Cars, and Herbie Hancock, whose equally mind-blowing “Rockit” had mannequin legs Max Headroom-ing across the screen.) The “You Might Think” video might have been the Cars’ whimsy high-water mark, but it also maintained, and played with, one of the central truths of the band: Ocasek was their master craftsman and their eternally enigmatic center. Even when they entertained you, told you to dance, or showed up in your medicine cabinet, they didn’t seem needy for attention, as other pop acts did. You could rock out as much as Ocasek told you to but never feel like he needed you to admire him. He just seemed like a calm, brilliant, sui-generis force of rock music, doing what came naturally.