Starting in the late Seventies, few rockers were as visually iconic as the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who died on September 15th of natural causes; he was 75. Equally iconic was Ocasek’s longtime wife, Paulina Porizkova, the Czech-born model who met Ocasek on the set of the Cars’ “Drive” video in 1984.
The two married five years later, although Porizkova announced last year that the couple had separated in 2017. With their two sons, Porizkova was helping tend to Ocasek after a recent surgery, and it was she who first discovered Ocasek’s body at their townhouse in New York’s Gramercy Park. Earlier this week, Porizkova spoke with Rolling Stone about Ocasek’s life, death, and recent years.
I always said Ric looked like an upside-down exclamation mark. A lot of people found that really forbidding and found him intimidating, which he could very much be. As a person, he could be very aloof and sort of withdrawn. You could be intimidated by his height, thinness, black-clad persona, sunglasses, and all that.
But he had an incredible gentleness about him when you got to know him. If he pushed his sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose and you saw his turquoise eyes, people would know. He had the most beautiful colored eyes, which really surprised people because people often did not see his eyes. And when he looked at you and smiled, it was like, “Oh, my God, he smiled at me! The sun came out — it’s amazing!”
Cars music amuses me endlessly, like when people sing a song like “Let the Good Times Roll” unironically. Did they pay attention to the lyrics? Do you know what you’re singing? These are not happy, cheerful lyrics. The music had the element and the pop and the simplicity and musicality of Buddy Holly, who of course was a major hero of Ric’s, but lyrically, Ric was much starker. He was the guy who liked sweet and dark.
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His decision to leave the Cars [right before he and Porizkova were married] was really a decision to disband the Cars. At that stage, he felt hemmed in creatively. He had been sort of the dictator of a very small country, and I think it was wearing on everybody. All the guys were fond of each other, really, but it had run its course at that time. I know creatively he really wanted to stretch his wings and get a little weirder and a little more esoteric and go in unexpected directions. He had had so much success with the Cars, and I think he was almost bored with it. People expected the Cars thing; the hooks. He was like, “Fuck that, I want to do something else.”
He also detested the whole “Hello, Cleveland!” bit. Even onstage when they would tour, he would try to get it as precise as you could. He really admired James Brown. Brown was completely anal about the perfection of his backup band, and Ric really appreciated it. He could value sloppiness in other artists, if it was part of their art. But it wasn’t him as a person. He was extremely precise as a person.
“He would … get meticulously dressed like he was going to a photo session and go down to the basement and work all day, even if nobody was in the house.”
To other people it seemed like he was chilling out at home with his kids. That’s not actually true. Our house had a studio in the basement; so on days when he didn’t leave, he was still immersed in music 24 hours a day. He was a complete workaholic. He would wake up and get meticulously dressed like he was going to a photo session and go down to the basement and work all day, even if nobody was in the house. You wouldn’t catch him dead in a pair of sweatpants.
I think on his first two solo records he was a little disappointed [with their lack of commercial success] because every Cars record had been a hit. It seemed to be automatic. So he almost expected some of that to rub off on his solo albums even though he was venturing into different terrain. But after the initial two, he went, “OK, you know what? People aren’t buying my records, so I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want. I’m going to do my thing. I’m not doing it for other people, I’m doing it for me.”
And then, of course, Ben got sick [Cars bassist Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000], and that was a real hit for Ric. He didn’t want to speak of it. It was very hard for him. He wrote that song about Ben, “Silver” [on Ocasek’s 2005 Nexterday album], and I think that was the only time I really heard him say how he felt about Ben. They were best friends at one point. Ben’s passing really scared Ric.
Quite honestly, he did the [Cars 2011 reunion] for our boys, who never got to see him as a rock star. He wanted them to see what dad did. I remember this well: Our oldest, Jonathan, was in preschool, and his teacher came up to me after school and said, “We had a meeting in the morning, and we were all talking about what everyone’s parents did. They said, ‘My father’s a doctor’ and things like that.” Jonathan’s answer was, “My dad goes into the basement and my mom sits in the trailer.” I think Ric wanted to show the kids that he did more than work in the basement. The Cars played Lollapalooza, and I have pictures of my boys with the biggest grins ever watching their father. That’s the only moment when they got to see Ric was an artist and not just a man. They were kind of starstruck. It was a gift.
About three to four years before our separation, he played me a couple of tracks he’d done in the basement. It got me so excited. It was entirely new and different and still very him and really hooky. It was like him taken to the extremes — the sweetness of all music with pretty dark lyrics. It had some of his pop sensibilities. He loved Buddy Holly but also the Carpenters and Burt Bacharach. He had a crush on Karen Carpenter for a long time. He adored her voice. And those last songs incorporated all of that. I said, “This is magical — you need to go back and write four more [for an album].” But he never followed up on it. He tried and said, “It’s not coming to me.”
The music business changed, and the way things work now is not what he felt comfortable with. He was more involved with his art in the last two years since our separation. We both talked about how we were desperately trying to create something. I was working on my memoir, and he was trying to write music, and we were both having a rough time of it. There was a period of upheaval for us personally, and I think he could resort to his art as a comfort — whereas to actually be creative musically took too much effort at that point.
His death was not at all related to his heart or his surgery, which was two weeks earlier. I don’t know how much I want to say about the surgery, but it was successful. He was recuperating really well. So his passing was a fucking shock. The night before [his death], I had already made plans, and Jonathan had made plans, so I called my younger son Oliver, who was in school, and asked him if he could come home for the weekend to make sure someone was with his dad Saturday evening. He flew in and was with his dad that night, and on my way back home, I stopped and got some cookies for Ric. When I got there, he was sitting in his usual chair and I said, “I got some gooey cookies,” and he said, “OK, thanks, hon — I had some terrible cookies because I was in the mood for cookies, but I’ll have your gooey cookies tomorrow. I think I’m going to bed early since I‘m feeling a little sore.” And that was the last time I saw him alive.
In the morning, I came [back] and made coffee. It was 10 in the morning, and I said I’m going to peek in and make sure he’s OK. I thought he slept a little too long. He was getting up earlier after his surgery because of hospital protocol. Generally he got up pretty late, 10 or 11. So I peeked into the bedroom, and he was in a position he always slept in — on his back, mouth vaguely open. He would sometimes snore, and he always had one of his hands elegantly folded beneath his chin and his bathrobe next to him. I thought he was asleep.
“We waited, and we got to circle the bed and hold hands and really say goodbye.”
I did some chores and then it was 11, and I thought, “This is weird, there’s something not right about this.” I poured the coffee and came upstairs to give it to him and he was in the exact same position; he hadn’t even moved a little bit. And at that point, I knew, but I couldn’t believe it. I walked up to him and he still looked asleep. Except he was really, really still and his eyes were a little bit open. I thought he was waking up, actually. I was about to wave my hand in front of his face and go, “Hey, I brought you coffee.” But I touched his cheek and it was like touching marble. That was pretty fucking awful.
His manager warned me that as soon as you call 911, watch out, things will start to happen. So I didn’t call 911 for a long time. He had died in the night, not at 4 or whatever they claimed. That’s when I put in the call to 911. I wanted Ric’s sons to get here so we could all say goodbye to him. So we waited, and we got to circle the bed and hold hands and really say goodbye. We were here with his shape for many hours after his death. It was kind of wonderful because we all understood he was gone. He definitely left us. But the minute I called 911, literally two minutes [after], there were paparazzi at our house. That’s just disgusting.
I’m still baffled by [the New York medical examiner’s announcement about heart issues]. Yes, Ric did have emphysema, but it wasn’t very bad; he didn’t need oxygen. He was fine to walk around and do whatever he wanted. He did a lot of walking. And he had atrial fibrillation aggravated by emphysema. But he never had high blood pressure. Attributing it to some super general thing was kind of puzzling to us. We knew he had those issues, but they were all very moderate and manageable. He quit smoking 14 years ago. I don’t exactly understand the postmortem, and I’m so super bummed and pissed off that stuff like this is public knowledge. Thanks — so while we grieve, why don’t you all take apart what my husband died of?
But because of the surgery, all four of us had two weeks together every day. In the weirdest of ways, the surgery was a blessing. We had two weeks of just the four of us watching our favorite TV shows and me cooking or ordering in and hanging out. In this cloud of awfulness, that was a silver lining.
I can’t help but be incredibly grateful. How many people get to pass like that? One of our friends said, “You get to pick your life, and you’re told you get to struggle and then become incredibly successful and influential and meet the woman who adores you and be with her for 30 some years and have a bunch of kids and die in your sleep.” Who wouldn’t volunteer for that one? Who would say no? He was a really, really lucky man.
As told to David Browne