The Cars Take On Critics

Page 4 of 5

I hesitate for a moment, then tell Robinson that the picture did seem to portray the woman as something of a hood ornament.

"Oh, yeah?" he replies with a grin, then lets the subject drop.

It's been said that Robinson, a former art student who's won several awards for his work in graphic design, is largely responsible for the Cars' modernistic image-consciousness, and in fact, bestowed the group with its name. ("The concept," Ocasek once said, "was to deface the value of an all-American symbol.") In addition, Robinson also enjoys the most illustrious background of any of the Cars: around 1970, he was the original drummer for Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers — a vital, incredibly influential link between the Velvet Underground-Stooges era and the punk-New Wave movement.

He was also a founding member of Los Angeles' the Pop and then Boston's DMZ before accepting Ocasek's offer to join the Cars.

But, he says, beyond being able to hone his drum style down to metric precision — plus being able to feed his appetite for pinup art—the Cars' success hasn't fazed him much. "I guess it is a fulfillment of some sort," he says, "but it's so far after the fact that it's hard to remember what I really wanted when I started drumming. I mean, I can't even recall half the reasons I got into rock & roll." He glances at one of his nude beauties and shrugs contentedly. "At the same time, I'm perfectly happy. If it ended tomorrow, I'd figure I did great."

But, like Hawkes and Easton, does he feel that the Cars represent a force for change in rock music?

"Um, I suspect we've already had whatever influence we're going to have on mass taste. I agree that rock & roll is an art form, and that to some extent its basic theoretical structure is changing. Yet, when I see that the mass audience accepts a record like Panorama, but still hates most anything that sounds avant-garde or weird, I realize that we probably don't do much to affect the average person's ear. Actually, for its time, I think our first album was one of the most progressive things around."

What, then, does he make of Panorama?

Robinson hesitates, then laughs shyly. "It sounds...eerier, slightly more depressing than I remember it sounding in the studio. This might sound crazy, but I don't always know what Ric's songs are about. In fact, there are some that I have no idea what they're about. Still, when I play my drum part, I have to feel it has something in common with the lyrics. Either I have to imagine what they mean, or I have to start by looking at the words on a page. Sometimes even then they don't mean all that much to me.

"With Panorama, it does seem that a lot of the lyrics are pretty murky. At least I know," he says, chuckling, "I had to play some pretty murky parts."

Maybe it's because of the hour — nearly one a.m. — or maybe just because it's a rare night off from the road — but Ric Ocasek's in a buoyant mood. Dressed as usual in basic charcoal apparel, he greets me at the door of his split-level house, located in a woodsy hamlet north of Boston, and immediately escorts me to his art-nouveau-cum-cubist recording lounge in the basement. "You might find this fun," he says as he pops a cassette into his video recorder.

What appears on Ocasek's television screen isn't a video of the Cars, but instead a performance by Suicide—a contentious, New York-based avant-garde rock duo, infamous for provoking audiences' hostility and, on occasion, violence. Sure enough, something like that is happening here. Lead vocalist Alan Vega jerks and struts around stage like an electroshock equivalent of James Brown, intoning phrases like "America is killing its Jews" in a thick-tongued, soulful voice. Meanwhile, straight man Martin Rev accompanies him with trance-like, droning synthesizer. From my vantage point, it looks like a sometimes hilarious, often riveting experience, but judging from the beer bottles, shoes and expletives being hurled at Suicide, the audience doesn't seem quite so enthralled.

Ocasek, who produced Suicide's second album, Suicide, for Ze Records, is exuberant about the group. "I think Alan Vega is one of the few real artists I've ever met—but he is sort of scary. I was petrified when I first met him, until I realized that he's just this really gentle soul with a tough, Harlem-bred exterior. Actually, what he's doing is more jazz and R&B than rock & roll, though he's instilled it with a punk-minimalist aesthetic. It's monotonous, which I like, because monotony can be soothing. Except Alan's lyrics really aren't soothing at all."

After that, Ocasek plays a cassette of his original, home-produced demos of the songs from Panorama, before the other band members and producer Roy Thomas Baker sleeked and expanded them. These recordings are far stranger and more obsessed-sounding than anything the Cars have yet released. I tell Ocasek, in fact, that I prefer them to the album versions.

Ocasek smiles demurely and drops his limber frame into a small sofa. "I have to admit, in my heart of hearts, that sometimes I do, too. But the band can't always play this stuff the way I envision it." He shrugs resignedly.

This raises an inevitable sticky question: given that Ocasek writes all the material and also sings the bulk of it, are the Cars Ric's band?

"I wouldn't be in a band if I couldn't write all the songs," Ocasek says without a moment's hesitation. "But I respect the abilities of everybody in this group—highly — and they're more or less free to arrange the songs however they like. No matter what people think, the Cars are a democratic band."

But some of the other members, I say, don't seem to have the foggiest idea of what Ocasek's lyrics are about.

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