He sighs deeply and leans forward until his chin is almost draping his knees. "I feel like my lyrics are pretty plain and straightforward in their language," he says in a slow, quiet voice. "The idea behind them is just to set up images that convey an impression or picture, and I don't feel like I should modify my language to fit the expectations of the people who listen to them.
"But," he continues, "that doesn't exactly make my songs evasive or devoid of meaning. Some critics have said that I write about romantic detachment from a cynical perspective. Well, I am concerned about love. I think people play around a lot with each other's heads and hearts, and I really don't witness much love or emotion between people. In fact, in all the situations I see, relationships come apart easily. So I don't think there's any reason for me to write in warm tones about the hope that love offers."
But does that make love any less of a necessity?
Ocasek pauses for several moments. "No. No, love's a necessity, if for no other reason than just to combat loneliness. It's just that people should only expect what they can give themselves, and not what others can give them, in a relationship. 'Love' is such a loose term that I would never invest it with any meaning beyond simply being compatible in a relationship.
"A lot of my songs, like 'Double Life,' are about that act of not expecting. That probably seems like a cynical or detached point of view, but then it is."
Is that refuge in detachment what gives the Cars' music its air of dispassion?
"It's important, I think, that the music complements the lyrics, but I don't believe that either the music or the lyrics are emotionless. I think coldness is an emotion. I feel cold sometimes about what's going on. Other than that, we're not what you'd call a free-form jam band. We try to be precise and tight, but that doesn't make our music 'stiff or 'calculated.' My way of songwriting — even if it seems overly obsessed with form and structure — is just as emotional to me as soul music may be to someone else."
Ocasek stretches out his long frame and fixes me with a serene expression. "To me, music's a powerful emotional force. It can make people cry, feel happy or feel sexual. But more important than all of that, it's a way to communicate without alienating people, a way to get beyond loneliness. It's a private thing people can have for themselves any time they want. Just turn on a radio and there it is: a sense of belonging. Without having to surrender to anybody else's needs."
I come away from my visit with Ocasek feeling both impressed and befuddled. It's hard to tell if the Cars' music—an edifice of opaque lyrics, cool-to-the-touch textures and mathematical rhythms—is designed to keep intruders on the outside or emotions on the inside. Either way, Ocasek, the architect behind it all, seems strangely secure in his declaration that rock & roll is both a forum for aloofness and a means beyond aloneness.
These thoughts take a final turn when I visit the ABC studios in Hollywood to watch a dress rehearsal for the Cars' Fridays appearance. The largely teenage audience is so anxious to see the band, and so indifferent about the show itself, that many in attendance repeatedly interrupt the warmup monologuist's routine with plaintive yelps for "Ben!" and "Ric!"
Finally, exasperated and a little testy, the comedian snaps: "Geez, don't be so impatient — how many other places do you get to see the Cars for free?"
As if they'd been hoping for that kind of straight line, a pocket of girls yells back: "Out in the parking lot!"
When the Cars finally come on, they seem tense and edgy. During the opening measures of "Touch and Go," Greg Hawkes' high-tech synthesizer fizzles, then quits, leaving Ocasek's vocal adrift in an expanse of bass, drums and sparse guitar. Yet, by the end of the performance, Ocasek seems to have come to new terms with the song, transforming it from a statement of unassailable solitude to an assertion of desperate need. In this time and place, there's nothing off-putting or unfeeling about the Cars' music. In fact, it comes across as what Ocasek described it as: "A way to get beyond loneliness."
There is, though, one item of unfinished business: the matter of whether Ocasek's music is progressive art or pretentious entertainment. Well, I don't have any easy answers—but then the Cars don't occupy an easy position. On one hand, their music represents the accumulation or synthesis of a venerable lineage of art-rock purveyors (including David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, et al.), though in a diluted, glassy form. On the other hand, compared to the truly radical innovators—mainly English Brave New Wavers like Public Image Ltd., Joy Division (now called the New Order) and Cabaret Voltaire—the Cars probably seem like a tame, irrelevant tip of the iceberg.
But at the same time, the Cars symbolize, perhaps more popularly than anyone else, the notion that rock & roll is undergoing radical change: a burgeoning movement of art theorists and musicians is trying to transmute the form and content of popular music — to the very degree that form supersedes expression.
For Ric Ocasek, that movement comes as a godsend: "I believe that for a lot of artists today, including myself, the creative or visionary process is the same for rock & roll as it is for painting or literature. But there's also a clear line between art and no art. To me, it's evident which bands are significant and which are not; which are mimics and which are originals.
"I believe the Cars have something to contribute. You have to remember that we've only been together for three albums. I'd be really ashamed if we didn't go way beyond where we are now. I wouldn't offer anything we've done so far as an indicator of what we may sound like later."
Which means that slowly but steadily, Ric Ocasek may be steering the Cars to some unfamiliar destination in the hinterlands of rock & roll. And for better or worse, a lot of us are going along for the ride.
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