David Robinson woke up early on the morning the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their class of 2018. The Cars drummer was told a couple of days earlier by his manager that they’d finally gotten inducted, but he wanted to see the news coverage himself. “I thought the local stations would be covering it,” he says. “Four people called me to say congratulations and I said, ‘Nothing has been on.’ But it came on while I was taking to the fourth person. Luckily they had some nice footage of us playing live, so it was good.”
About three hours later, he called up Rolling Stone to talk about the big honor, why he basically stopped playing drums when the Cars broke up in 1987, the short-lived reunion in 2011 and why he feels late bandmate Benjamin Orr (who died in 2000 at age 53) would have been thrilled by the news.
How do you feel?
Well, we’ve been through it twice already. I just sort of had a feeling we could squeak in this year. But it’s great. It’s great. It’s also a good time for us. Next year is the 40th anniversary of our first album [The Cars]. I’ve been working all this year on a bunch of re-releases. We’ve had some expanded records and I’ve worked on the covers. It’s a good time.
What does this mean to you on a personal level?
I think it’s a nice honor. Like a lot of people, maybe the only thing about the Hall of Fame is that they’ve been inducting things that aren’t rock and roll. I think they should change the name of the place or just re-think what they’re doing. Nina Simone? I’m not sure if she was a big supporter of rock & roll. That seems a little odd to me.
There’s also Dire Straits, Bon Jovi and the Moody Blues. Are you a fan of those groups?
Yeah. That’s great. I’ve voted a few times for other bands, not particularly those bands. [Chuckles.] If it’s going to be sort of historically viable, I’m not sure what their standards are or anything about who they vote for or how they vote and why. At different times I was suspect at who got in and who didn’t, but when I went and looked at who they inducted I was actually pretty impressed. There were so many things I liked and things I felt were important enough to be there. For the most part, we’re in good company. There’s loads of acts that are just fantastic and important in the scheme of things, they are in there. But I’m not so sure about other genres. If they’re going to bring them in there, they should change the name so their customers know what they’re getting.
Do you not see hip-hop as part of rock and roll?
Very seldom. I think if I was in a hip-hop band, I wouldn’t be too impressed if some rock and rollers thought I was a rock and roller.
That’s much closer to rock than, say, hip-hop. Maybe it should be Popular Music Hall of Fame? I don’t know. If you were a rock and roller and went there, some of the stuff would leave you cold.
Are you guys definitely going to perform at the ceremony?
We haven’t talked about it yet. I’m pretty sure we will. I don’t know why we wouldn’t. I gotta drag my drums out and practice a bit.
Performers tend to do three songs.
That’s good. It’s about as many as I can play. [Laughs]
Can you wager a guess as to what they’ll be?
No. I don’t have a clue. We’ve got a lot of songs to choose from. We’ll get together and talk about it. Actually, it’ll be fun. Maybe we’ll even throw a twist on some of the songs or just do something unusual, change it up a bit.
Are you able to imagine an all star jam with you guys, Bon Jovi, Dire Straits and the Moody Blues?
No. [Laughs] The Moody Blues, yes, that’s what I’m anticipating.
Is it true you didn’t play drums from the Cars breakup in 1987 until the reunion in 2010?
Yeah. I didn’t play. I would play once in a while on New Year’s. Even in 2010 and 2011 when we did that project and the short tour, I put my drums in storage with the expectation of taking them out and bringing them home at some point, but they’re still in storage.
Why didn’t you play at all when the Cars were inactive?
When the Cars first broke up, I just needed a break. Also, I was at a time in my life where I was going in different directions with non-musical [projects.] Of course, when we got back together to record it was great and I felt bad. I had really dropped out of it completely. Mostly, I don’t have a place to set things up. I live in an apartment. That’s been part of it. I actually just bought a new drum to add to my kit, but I haven’t checked it to see if it’s going to work. It would be good to get that stuff out and start playing again.
How easy was it in 2010 to get back into the swing of playing?
Back then I worried that I’d physically be unable to play, I’d get tired or get a bad elbow or something. But it turned out that remembering the songs was the problem. I just had forgotten lots of parts to the songs, and in the case of the new songs from the new album, we had never played them together. We had only worked on them to record, so I was really unfamiliar with those. What I had to do was study the songs for the entire tour, and I think maybe by the end of the tour I had successfully learned to play the parts I played on the album. It was weird.
Why weren’t you part of the New Cars with Todd Rundgren?
Umm…Ummm….It was, for me, not the kind of comeback I would have wanted. It wasn’t the right situation for us all to be back together in.
Did they invite you?
Yeah. I had an idea of what we should do, and it wasn’t that type of thing.
Why was the 2011 tour so short?
It was a mostly a promotional tour. We sort of didn’t have time to book more shows. I think we could have played a few more, but logistically it didn’t work out. We weren’t ready to gear up for big tours. That wasn’t our intention at all when the record came out, but we did enjoy doing those 12 shows.
What was it like playing Lollapalooza? All the other shows were theaters and big clubs.
We’d done that before. We played a lot of those kind of shows. We played the Pontiac Silverdome, the stadium they just tried to blow up and it didn’t blow up. You can’t blow it up! We’d played at Cleveland Stadium, which was huge. We played the US Festival, which was at least 300,000 people. Those shows aren’t that great since you’re a little too far removed from the audience, but Lollapalooza was better since it’s a smaller scale. At least I could see the front row.
So why didn’t you decide to do more shows in 2011?
We were old. [Laughs] Touring has never really interested Ric [Ocasek], and now it doesn’t interest me much at all. Making records does, but not so much touring. What was easy when you’re 30 is a lot harder when you’re in your 60s, for a lot of reasons.
Did you enjoy the shows?
Yeah. I like playing. We never would have gone on tour without a record. That’s the thing. We never would have gone on tour just to play old songs.
Do you think there might be a future Cars record and a future tour?
You never know. I didn’t expect us to get back together in 2010.
Do you speak to Ric often?
Fairly regularly, yeah.
How about Greg and Elliot?
I speak with them more so. Greg lives near me. I just saw him with Todd Rundgren last Thursday, as a matter of fact.
How do you think Benjamin Orr would feel about the Hall of Fame?
Ben would be overjoyed. He’s from Cleveland. Ben has been sort of a legend in Cleveland since he was a teenager. The town would go crazy if he were still alive and made a comeback appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When I read about the Cars, critics often write you were better in the studio than on stage. Did that ever bother you?
We actually weren’t, but I think what people were trying to say is that weren’t used to a band just performing their songs. They’re used to a big show. In a way, we tried to make up for it by having interesting stage sets, which sometimes didn’t get much attention, in my opinion. But we weren’t bad live, at all. We just put out a live album that we recorded in Cleveland. I think I maybe had a bootleg version, but never paid much attention to it. But now when I hear it, we were great live. We were incredible, especially back then. I think that people expect a lot of, “Is everyone all right? Clap your hands!” kind of show. We never did that type of thing, ever.
I suppose if you never play again, the Hall of Fame is a nice final chapter to the saga.
Will it be emotional for you?
We were together in 2011 and that feels like a year and a half ago. I just need to break out my old clothes for the show.
What fills your time these days since the Cars aren’t active?
This year, I’ve had to work on a lot of album cover stuff. There’s going to be a surprise when you see one of the album covers I’ve been working on. What I had to do is get extra material, sort of update things, so I would have ended up doing five album covers in one year, expect they pushed back the release dates for Shake It Up and Heartbeat City expanded versions. I think they’re going to come out in February, but I’m having a blast doing that. It’s time-consuming. I have to work on them today as a matter of fact.
I have a shop. I make jewelry. I’m pretty much a civilian. Like I said, I would only play once in a while and it would be New Year’s Eve out in my little Massachusetts town with my friends.
Are you ever recognized in public?
Not now. I have a white beard and long, long hair. It’s so far in my past that most of my friends have never seen me play. They have no idea what I did. They’re like, “Oh, you were in a big band?” I’m a guy mowing lawns and painting houses and stuff.
So there’s never a moment at a restaurant or anything where a fan will spot you?
Not at all. When I went to see Greg with Todd Rundgren people were walking up to me and saying, “We love the Cars!” I could see that none of them recognized me. Eventually one guy came back and apologized and said he was sorry. I said, “That’s okay. I look completely different. Don’t worry about it.”