"That's true, we did have a certain view of the world: sort of cold but hysterical," says Ric Ocasek, the Cars' lanky, lean-fleshed lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and songwriter. "Actually, as I look back on it, I think it was probably a protective shield more than anything else. We had abruptly moved from a point in our career of being told, 'You're worthless,' to, 'You're everything.' So it wasn't coldness so much as cold anger: we were angry at the people who had failed to understand us before, and angry over what they suddenly expected from us."
Ocasek is stretched out on a settee backstage at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. The Cars are scheduled to take the stage in about thirty minutes, but right now he is content to pass the time discussing a troublesome matter: the Cars' widespread notoriety as a troupe of dispassionate, artful technorockers. To a large extent, that image has been reinforced by the stark, borderline-abstract mood of Panorama, the group's soon-to-be-platinum third album. But in Ocasek's case, that air of coolness has made for a character who seems frequently mysterious and impenetrable — a man who, given the option, would probably rather stare down an audience than accept its applause.
I tell Ocasek that while the Cars were recording the final tracks for Panorama in Hollywood, I used to see him shopping late at night at a neighborhood supermarket. On each of those occasions, it was evident that other shoppers also recognized him; towering well over six feet and outfitted in futurist black-and-white garb, Ocasek's hardly the sort to go unrecognized. But I never saw anyone approach him for an autograph, or even so much as offer him a smile. In fact, people seemed downright leery of him.
"That's because I was cold-looking, right?" Ocasek asks with a disarming smile. "I probably would have said hello to anybody, but I know what you mean. People tell me all the time that I look forbidding or aloof. That doesn't bother me much—I am fairly private, withdrawn and...distant, I guess. But, um, I think that's okay."
Ocasek pauses to light a cigarette. "It's funny, but when I wasn't a so-called star, I still used to get recognized a lot, although for other reasons. I've felt rather like an outcast for most of my life, and I became comfortable with it at a young age. But it's not easy sometimes telling yourself that there's hope for your future, there's a reason to go on." Ocasek sits quietly for several seconds, staring down at his long, bony hands. "I used to think about how it would be turned around someday."
And now that things have turned around?
He shrugs casually. "That's the joke of the whole thing: you can't be loved by everybody. I know that, and I've really come to accept it. That denial of love, in fact, eases my mind."
"Because now, when I put my work out for the" — Ocasek hesitates, then chuckles— "for the dogs, I'm well aware that some will like it and some won't. It's a tough thing to do, but I don't always like to give people what they expect."
It's only fair to note that when Ric Ocasek refers to "the dogs," he's not talking about the Cars' audience — that amorphous but immense body of fans that, in slightly more than three years, has parlayed the group from a Boston-based bar band to one of America's preeminent progressive rock acts. (The band's first two Elektra albums, The Cars and Candy-O, have sold in excess of 6 million records worldwide — The Cars, in fact, is still on the charts—while Panorama vaulted into Billboard's Top Five just four weeks after its late-August release.) Although Ocasek, like the group's other members—bassist Benjamin Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton, drummer David Robinson, keyboardist Greg Hawkes — may not yet understand what it means to have an audience of that size, he certainly would not insult its intelligence.
Instead, Ocasek intends his canine epithet for some former allies who have recently become the Cars' flat-out opponents: the rock press. The fact is, few other bands have enjoyed the almost unanimous critical praise that the Cars received upon their debut only to watch it turn into stinging repudiation soon thereafter.
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