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The Cars Take On Critics

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I'm reminded of a comment that Jon Pareles made about Panorama in a recent Village Voice: "[These] new songs seem designed to separate Cars' fans from the pop crowd: they use odd meters and desperate-sounding chords....The Cars' audience may be loyal enough to follow them this far—who knows if that's what the Cars want?"

This sounded pretty good to me at the time. Now, as I leave the auditorium, I turn the question around in my mind: does the Cars' audience have the Cars by the nose; and, if so, how far will the Cars follow them?

"I don't think we should be that concerned about keeping an audience," says Greg Hawkes, in reply to a moderate version of that last question. "In fact, our overriding aim is to make music that pleases us.

"I mean, we could put out records that are a lot stranger—droning, one-chord dirges that nobody would buy. It's just that we happen to like pop music as well as avant-garde electronic music. That's the idea: to be an innovative pop band and, at the same time, remain entertaining. No question about it, though—the first priority is to be innovative."

It's the morning after the Indianapolis show, and we're seated in a DC-10, en route to Boston, where the Cars have a few days off before journeying to Los Angeles for a guest appearance on ABC-TV's Fridays. In keeping with his role as the Cars' synthesizer technician, Hawkes is fascinated with futurist art styles and science-fiction films. The latter interest, in fact, seems to furnish him with his onstage persona: in concert, Hawkes looks like a diminutive alchemist trying to whip up a new amalgam out of music and electronics.

It's precisely that flirtation with technological images that has subjected the Cars to increasing criticism. Does Hawkes feel that this is a valid gripe?

"Not at all," he replies. "I think we do have a commitment to keep up with technology. I don't think that's a bad thing — actually, it makes us sort of a state-of-the-art band." Hawkes smiles wryly at his pun. "At the same time, it doesn't mean we have to buy or utilize every gimmick that comes out. But we should be aware of the possibilities. In my own case, I'd like to start working more with smaller-format stuff."

I ask him what he means. Hawkes leans forward and pulls a Casiotone M-10—a miniature two-and-a-half-octave-range synthesizer—out of his travel bag. He turns the select switch to the "organ" mode and plays a fragment of Bach's "Air for the G String," then flips it to "flute" and plays the haunting prelude from "Strawberry Fields Forever." For several moments, he stares at his pet portable wonder with undisguised veneration. "The whole point about machines is that you need humans to interact with them; it's people who play or program a synthesizer."

Hawkes packs up his toy, then turns back to me. "I think it's perfectly valid to incorporate new forms of technology into music," he says. "I think of the Cars as an alternative band—an alternative to the stock rock and pop that still dominate radio. We're definitely not a tradition-based band. As far as I'm concerned, there's no reason to stick with any rock & roll traditions. What's the point? Traditions exist so we can go beyond them.

"So, who knows: maybe as we go more and more beyond traditions, our audience will get smaller and smaller." Hawkes ponders that possibility, then shakes his head. "But probably not."

"It's taken two years for the Cars to come out of their shell — or maybe shell shock is a better expression," says Benjamin Orr. "But what we're doing onstage now is as much us as what we were doing two years ago. It's just that we developed at a pace that felt comfortable, without having to contrive any shows of emotionalism."

Orr pauses to take a sip of liqueur, then trades a quiet glance with Elliot Easton. Originally, Orr explains, he had intended to have me over to his house, which he bought after his downtown Boston apartment was recently gutted by a fire that destroyed nearly everything he owned. But the new place is still in disarray, so he and Easton have showed up at my hotel room.

Like everyone else in this group, Orr and Easton make for as unlikely an alliance as one could hope to find in a rock band. Orr, who recently changed his hair from platinum blond to mousy brown — making him look remarkably like a punk version of William F. Buckley Jr. — is probably the Cars' most streetwise member, a by-product of his upbringing in Cleveland, where he teamed up with Ric Ocasek roughly a decade ago. (None of the band members divulges his age voluntarily; Orr and Ocasek sheepishly admit to being somewhere over thirty.) Easton, who recently trimmed his moppish bangs into a sort of punk shag, is one of the Cars' most voluble and articulate members. Yet, for all their surface dissimilarities, Orr and Easton share some strong sentiments about the purpose and destiny of the Cars. In fact, both bristle when asked if they've felt uncomfortable with the magnitude of the Cars' success.

"Magnitude?" asks Orr with mock surprise. "That's a hard concept for me to grasp. I never think about things like that. Magnitude." He laughs and shakes his head.

But, I point out, as groups and artists become more successful, their margin for error seems to decrease. For example, a lot was riding on Candy-O; if it had failed to live up to the commercial standards set by the first album, the Cars could have ended up a one-hit fluke.

Easton fields the question. "What do people expect—for a rock & roll band to be totally uncaring about whether it reaches people, or gets paid for what it does? I mean, look at the Sex Pistols, who swore they would never sell out to the same success scheme, but they were so full of shit. Malcolm McLaren had nothing in mind if not to make them the biggest band he could. The only way you can negate the impact of success is if you want to work for free. And the only way you can do that is if you're subsidized."

But the Sex Pistols broke up over that very predicament.

"True," nods Easton. "But obviously a band working toward longevity isn't about to pull the wool over anybody's eyes and slip out the back door. And all the Cars ever wanted to do was carry on." He leans forward, warming up to the topic. "I'm sorry, but I've never laid awake at night thinking, 'My God, we're getting overpaid for this!' I don't think we've really experienced the conflict that when a band becomes successful, it loses its substance or importance."

Is Panorama, then, an attempt to stretch the Cars' boundaries?

"Well," says Easton, "it's definitely not a rehash of the first two albums, nor is it just some reply to all those fucks who said the last album was nothing more than detached love affairs and hollow relationships. The first time Ric played the new songs for us, I thought they sounded plain weird—like inside-out music.

"Part of the problem for the Cars is defining where we fit in rock & roll. But if a band hopes to make some inroads in radio for new music, then somewhere along the line, you have to reach millions of people. Deep down inside, it's a satisfying thing that our music is at all controversial or disturbing. That means it's a signpost—a point of departure from the rock mainstream.

"And how many times in an artist's or group's career do you get to hit a new plateau?"

David Robinson's fifth-floor town-house apartment is a veritable self-made shrine to a bygone era of calendar-girl art. From every wall, vivid, prismatic portraits of nude and near-nude coquettes — painted in painstaking verisimilitude by pulp realists like Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas—stare out at visitors like a bevy of voracious tarts. But the prize attraction here is the finished original copy of Vargas' Candy-O painting that hangs at the far end of a central hallway.

Standing in front of it, Robinson beams. "Unfortunately, when the record company reproduced it for the album cover, they fucked it up. You can see," he says, pointing to the woman's flowing red tresses, "how they turned her hair into a gaudy orange and made the brush strokes on her torso stick out more."

He turns to lead me back into the living room. "When Candy-O came out, I remember hearing that some women's group was complaining about that painting. I wish they'd come up to me. I'd love to confront somebody who'd call an eighty-five-year-old man's painting of a girl sprawled on a car sexist."

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