It is a subtle, commanding gesture, a firm upward flick of Ric Ocasek's right hand. The Cars – America's biggest New Wave band in the late Seventies and Eighties – are in a Manhattan studio practicing for their first tour in 24 years. They open in two weeks, the same day they release a new studio album, Move Like This, and Ocasek – singer-guitarist and founding songwriter – is playing "Touch and Go," from 1980's Panorama, with drummer David Robinson, guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard player Greg Hawkes. When the song is over, Easton – who also plays a feisty note-perfect version of his solo from the record – looks at Ocasek. "Did I get it right?" he asks. Ocasek's gaunt features crack into a smile. "Sometimes," he says softly.
For Ocasek, that is approval and enthusiasm. Later, after the Cars power through the hard, bleak "Up and Down," also from Panorama, he sits thoughtfully for a moment, then declares, "That sounded good," in a neutral voice, barely above a whisper. "You can't hear him half the time," Robinson says of Ocasek, laughing. "I have to read his lips."
But there is no mistaking the authority carried in that reserve. The Cars, Robinson notes, "was always us helping Ric in what he wanted to do."
"I'm pretty controlling," Ocasek admits in that hypnotizing tone, a couple of weeks before the rehearsal. "When it comes to music," he adds after a short pause. Ocasek is sitting in a lounge at another studio, Electric Lady in Greenwich Village, where he has worked often – recording solo projects and producing albums for younger bands such as Weezer and Bad Religion – since the Cars broke up in 1988.
"Yeah, it has to be a certain way," he goes on. "I never joined a band. I was never in anyone else's band. I was always the first member. And they always had to do my songs. I wasn't going to do anybody else's."
"Songwriting, in a profound way, is Ric's instrument," Easton says. "It's only natural that he would be the sun around which the other planets revolve. The Cars are about the songs, always have been."
Move Like This does not feature the complete original band; bassist-singer Benjamin Orr died of pancreatic cancer in October 2000. On the album, Hawkes shares the bass work with the band's co-producer Jacknife Lee. (Hawkes is playing bass on the tour as well.) But in every other respect – avant-rock tension, AM-radio classicism and the direct-hit choruses in Ocasek's Beat-romance lyrics – new songs like the sparkling rocket "Sad Song" and "Drag on Forever," with its plaintive guitar drone, are spotless updates of the Cars' original nerve and commercial savvy.
Lee, who has also worked with U2 and R.E.M., hears the Cars' influence – especially the emphasis on hooks and clarity – in modern-rock bands like Bloc Party and Phoenix. "We wouldn't have the Strokes," he claims, "if it wasn't for the Cars. Their sound is sleek and orchestral, and no one steps on anybody else's toes."
Formed in Boston in late 1976, the Cars were an immediate success, going multi-platinum with their 1978 debut, The Cars. They ultimately sold a combined 17 million copies of their first five LPs, and their 13 Top 40 singles, all written by Ocasek, covered a brazen spectrum, from the 1979 Beach Boys-Kraftwerk hybrid "Let's Go" and 1981's frothy "Shake It Up" to the fatalistic 1984 ballad "Drive," a Top Three hit sung by Orr in a creamy, haunted baritone. "Ric's got a knack," Hawkes says, "for taking a common phrase like 'You're All I've Got Tonight' [on The Cars] and making a great song out of it."
But Ocasek left the Cars, effectively disbanding the group, following the contentious sessions for the 1987 album, Door to Door, and a robotic arena tour that year. Orr, in particular, had grown distant. He and Ocasek were inseparable after they met in Ohio in the late Sixties, soldiering through failed bands there and in Woodstock and Boston with names like Milkwood, Richard and the Rabbits, and Cap'n Swing. Easton, an ex-Berklee student from Long Island who first played with Ocasek and Orr in Cap'n Swing, remembers a point, between the end of that band and the start of the Cars, when Ocasek considered going solo, "and Ben demanded his way back in. Ric wanted to try it on his own. Ben was not having it."
On his last Cars tour, though, Orr rode on a separate bus, away from the rest of the band, and barely spoke to Ocasek. "He was drinking a little much," Ocasek says gingerly. He also mentions, with discomfort, a day when Orr proposed writing some Cars songs, with his girlfriend contributing the lyrics. "I said, 'That's not gonna happen.'
"We were the best of friends forever," Ocasek says, his fondness tinged with regret. In their initial years together, "sometimes we played his songs. But dear Ben – I could never get into the lyrics. I almost didn't want them part of the thing. Maybe it was the controlling," he concedes.
"Ben sort of caught on a little late about the real dynamics of the band," Robinson suggests. "But we needed him. He was the guy who could go in and sing every song in the first take, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, a cup of coffee in his hand, like it was nothing for him to do."
Ocasek and Orr finally reconciled shortly before the latter's death, while filming interviews in Atlanta for a Cars DVD. Ocasek feels his friend's absence on Move Like This. "I miss his singing, being thrilled by it," he says. "Maybe if Ben had called sometime and said, 'Let's do it again,' I would have thought about it." But the Cars split, Ocasek contends, at the right time. "I know that I didn't care. We left on a high point, and that's it."
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