The Return of The Cars

After 24 years, the ultimate New Wave hit machine roars back onto the road

The Cars, Issue 1132
Daniel Boczarski/Redferns
Ric Ocasek of The Cars.
By |

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."

Ric is completely eccentric, lives in his own time frame," Robinson says, drinking coffee in his one-room art gallery, Windemere, in the Massachusetts seaside town of Rockport. "He probably thinks very little time has gone by."

Robinson was a Boston-scene star even before he joined the Cars; he'd played with Jonathan Richman in the Modern Lovers. Although Robinson never attended college or art school, he was responsible for much of the Cars' visual class, designing album covers and creating the group's striking license-plate logo. Robinson gradually left music after the Cars broke up and, five years ago, opened Windemere, where he sells jewelry of his own design and paintings by local artists. The drummer, now 62 with long, graying hair tied back in a ponytail, had not played rock or a regular kit in years when Ocasek called in December 2009 with an unexpected proposal.

"He said, 'I thought we would do a Cars album, if everybody wants to,'" Robinson recalls. "The thing is, he could have said that at any time in the last 20 years. We would have responded the same way."

Easton, 57, has spent the past two and a half decades combining solo work with session and touring jobs. "The side stuff is not by choice," the guitarist says. "If the Cars had been busy all that time, I would have been perfectly happy."

Ocasek is one of rock's enduring puzzles, both deliberate and enigmatic in his music, manner and choices. Born Richard Otcasek in Baltimore, the son of a NASA systems analyst, he dropped the "t" in the mid-Seventies (Orr also shortened his surname, from Orzechowski) and has always been cagey, for the record, about his age. He admits to being older than 62 (cited in many Internet sources) but not by much: "I'm somewhere around that area."

A mantis invariably dressed in black and shades of gray except for the blood-red lenses in his glasses, Ocasek moves like the songs he writes and how he likes the Cars to play them: with stylish, unhurried purpose, singing and playing his clicking-gallop style of rhythm guitar (a trademark of hits like 1978's "Just What I Needed") with deadpan calm. As a leader, he is more implicit than demanding. In rehearsal, when the Cars play a new song, "Keep on Knocking," Ocasek presses the air with one hand, showing Hawkes how hard to hit a synth chord. "You have to watch," Robinson warns. "Ric could say, 'This is what we're doing.' But he doesn't."

"Ric taped everything – the rehearsals, the shows," Hawkes, 58, says of the Cars' early days. "He was always giving me cassettes: 'Listen to this.' I learned from listening to those cassettes how to play more economically."

Ocasek is also a fascinating mix of mystery and candor when it comes to his private life. Hawkes first met Ocasek at a session for Milkwood's 1972 album – Hawkes played sax on it – and played with him in other bands on the way to the Cars. The two men were in a hotel elevator during a 1979 Cars tour when Ocasek mentioned that his son was coming to the show that night. Ocasek was then married to his second wife, Suzanne.

"It turns out that it was his earlier son, from an earlier marriage, that he never mentioned to me," Hawkes explains. "And it was another year before I found out he had two sons by his first marriage, not just the one who came to the show." Hawkes, a diminutive guy with mop-ish blond hair, laughs brightly. "Ric is not revealing in that personal sense, as in 'Oh, yeah, I've got a couple of other kids.'"

Actually, at Electric Lady, Ocasek talks warmly and openly of his sons – a total of six, including two young boys with his third wife, the former model Paulina Porizkova. The couple met in 1984, when she starred in the video for "Drive," and have been married since 1989. "These are the first two kids I've seen grow up," says Ocasek, who has a house in upstate New York. "My little one is 12 now, plays the violin. He wants to be Paganini."

In the early Eighties, at the height of the Cars' success, Ocasek lived on "12 cups of coffee and no sleep," as he puts it. "It was all about the Cars. There was no domestic life. I was always sad for the children." Ocasek reveals that one son by an earlier marriage is a recovered drug addict. "I'd always think, 'Is it my fault? I could have gone different ways.'"

Ocasek describes his own childhood in Baltimore, and then in Cleveland when his father was transferred there, with zero nostalgia. "It was not tight at all," Ocasek says of his family, which included a younger sister. "I remember when I brought home the first Bob Dylan album and my father going, 'What the fuck is that? I don't want that in my house again.' Or if I brought home a black friend: 'How could you bring a black guy into the neighborhood?'

"I got out quick," Ocasek says crisply. He dropped out of Bowling Green State University in Ohio and met Orr, then began a long haul of constant aspiration and near-misses – "a lot of bands in different cities, with different approaches. All the work before the Cars was just getting to where the songs were good enough."

Between the Cars' breakup and rebirth, Ocasek briefly held an A&R job at the Cars' old label, Elektra, where he tried and failed to sign then-underground acts such as Devendra Banhart and Death Cab for Cutie. He was at his desk one day when a manager (whom Ocasek declines to name) came in, said he represented Hawkes, Easton and Robinson, and pressed for a Cars reunion. Ocasek said no.

"The shit hit the fan," he says. "Lawyers got involved. It must have cost a ton of money in legal fees that I wasted, the Cars wasted, for fucking no reason." Robinson switched sides; Hawkes and Easton toured as the New Cars in 2006-07, with Todd Rundgren up front. The venture ended when Easton snapped his clavicle in a tour-bus mishap. "Maybe it was a message," he says, laughing. Otherwise, he declines to talk about the New Cars.

Nor did Ocasek bring it up when he called Easton and Hawkes about making a new album. "We blasted all that out when we were in the middle of it," Ocasek says. "This was strictly 'Fuck everything that happened before this. This is a new thing.' And it was great."

"Ric seems relaxed and less angry than he was when he was forced on long tours against his will," Easton suggests. "Everybody is more relaxed. It's not the end of the world, like it always seemed."

Hawkes is "pretty optimistic" that there will be more action after this tour. "We can make more recordings," Robinson says, "the same way we did this one. It was so easy, it was ridiculous."

Ocasek is cautious but keen. "It took on more life than I thought it would," he says of the Cars' return. "A lot of bands re-form, do stuff, and they're crap. I know this isn't crap. And the people are good. They always were." Ocasek smiles. "They might even be a little better."

This story is from the June 9th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1132: June 9, 2011
x