Ric Ocasek was one of the all-time great American songwriters: the spirit of Buddy Holly in the body and mind of Mr. Spock, a new wave eccentric who always wanted to brush your rock & roll hair. That’s why the world is in mourning at the news of his death yesterday, at the age of 75. With the Cars, the Boston legend scored hit after hit, yet he also wrote vulnerable ballads about teen angst with his own distinctive blend of compassion and humor, plus his authentic geek-gulp of a voice. Who else could sing the line “alienation is the craze” and still sound cool? Nobody. “My taste was to always go for that mix, even back in the Sixties,” Ocasek once said. “I obviously was a huge fan of Dylan, but my other favorite band was the Velvet Underground. I always went for the left side of the music brain, too. I loved the Velvet Underground and the Carpenters.”
Only Ric Ocasek could have written brooding laments like “I’m Not the One” or “Bye Bye Love” or “Jimmy Jimmy” or “Double Life.” But only Ocasek could have written “Lust for Kicks,” a totally unironic synth-pop celebration of a happily matched couple of new wave geeks, from the most perfect of Cars albums, Candy-O. The lovers in this song are oblivious to the straight world, as if to suggest that Buddy Holly-style romance was possible if you found somebody as twisted as you. “They’re crazy about each other / Like a misplaced fix / They’re mad about each other / And they blame it all on the lust for kicks” — relationship goals for sure, and a very strange sentiment to hear on Seventies rock radio. Only Ric could have made it ring true, crooning in his wobbly robot-boy voice.
In case you couldn’t guess from his songs, Ocasek was a bit of a teen misfit. As he told Rolling Stone in a 1979 cover story, “I remember staying in a basement in Ohio for four months, going through piano chords three notes at a time to see if they worked.” He spent most of his adolescence in the cellar of his parents’ house, a gangly gearhead loner tinkering with electronics, building transmitters and amplifiers, hiding out from the world. “I must have lived half my life in basements! You know, dark room in the basement, electronics in the basement, arranging songs in the basement, basements — I must love basements!” His original music inspiration was — of course — Buddy Holly, after he heard “That’ll Be the Day” on the radio.
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“Everything is totally sincere, but there’s a lot of sarcasm and some comedy in the lyrics,” Ocasek told Vanity Fair’s Marc Spitz. “I’ve always been a fan of poetry. I grew up with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beat poets. I really followed that stuff for a while. I just love the way people threw words around like they were painting.” Ric followed that ideal faithfully. He didn’t even think “let them brush your rock & roll hair” was a throwaway. “Not in my opinion. It’s like ‘let them do whatever they want to do.’ I’ve probably written some crap lyrics. I’m not proud of the lyrics of ‘Shake It Up.’” (He should have been, though. “Dance all night, whirl your hair, make the night cats stop and stare” — genius.)
He was the ultimate hometown rock hero in Boston — every Eighties kid from Boston had a story about glimpsing Ocasek in the wild. I beheld him on the street once in downtown Boston, on Newbury Street, the fall of 1983, right outside the store where I had just purchased an album. (It was X’s More Fun in the New World.) Ric had been record-shopping too, and now he was getting into his tiny white Mercedes, looking eight feet tall. He glanced around casually with his rock & roll hair and shades. Nobody could possibly look more like a star. (And he scored the ultimate rock-star parking spot right outside the record store.) He always made that kind of impression — I’ll never forget seeing him at MTV’s 20th Anniversary Party in the summer of 2001 — “Live and Almost Legal” — at NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Ric sat by himself in a room full of celebs, perched on a sofa looking so cool that nobody dared approach.
He cultivated an underground mystique, producing artists like Bad Brains (their classic Rock for Light), Suicide (“Dream Baby Dream”) and Romeo Void. (If Ric did nothing with his life except co-produce “Never Say Never,” that would have been enough.) He didn’t see any contradiction between producing those records and cranking out high-tech radio hits. Three of the Cars’ best singles had the distinction of peaking at Number 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Good Times Roll,” “It’s All I Can Do” and “Since You’re Gone.” Did any other band have such bad luck missing the Top 40? Yet somehow that sums up their weird romance with pop.
The Cars were older rock pros who’d already spent years hustling around the Boston scene before they went new wave with the 1978 blockbuster debut. Their first hit, “Just What I Needed,” was built around an oblique reference to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.” (“Wasting all my time-time!”) But it worked — every song remains in rock-radio rotation in perpetuity. Ric made a perfect vocal combo with Ben Orr, pulling off the same “pretty-boy vs. dork” contrast as Cheap Trick. Orr was a smooth blonde idol, while Ric sounded as gawky as he looked. “My Best Friend’s Girl” showed off both their vocal styles, in an ode to nuclear boots and drip-dry gloves. Ric once said he’d never been in any band without Ben — before the Cars, they traveled around the country performing Buddy Holly songs together. As he joked in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech: “When we started the band, Ben was supposed to be the lead singer and I was supposed to be the good-looking guy in the band. But after the first gig that changed. I got demoted to just the songwriter.”
Candy-O was the ultimate Cars album — a concept album about Ric’s favorite topic, which was girls. His songs serenade the kind of girl who’s the “Dangerous Type,” dancing merrily out of the clutches of any boy foolish enough to think he could impress her. Nobody did songs like these as brilliantly as Ocasek — the doomed romance between an awkward twit of a boy and a tough, worldly, risque-mouthed muse. “Let’s Go” was so irresistible with its handclap hooks, no wonder Prince loved to cover it. As critic Abbey Bender has surmised, “Let’s Go” sums up the Cars’ eternal appeal because “most of their songs sound like the soundtrack for a wet T-shirt contest in which the girls support each other and have fun.”
Panorama was the band’s first flop — so bland, most fans didn’t even notice it. But Shake It Up was on the same level as Candy-O. They hit the Top Ten with the title tune, which was basically a remake of Brian Eno’s “King’s Lead Hat,” except with improved lyrics about carefree girls doing their quirky-jerk dance moves, a topic always close to Ocasek’s heart. (Not to mention Eno’s.) It came out right on top of the J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame — a strange moment when Boston post-bar-band new wave was the sound of American rock radio. “I’m Not The One” was a deep cut from Shake It Up, but it’s one of his most touching songs, a tenderly vulnerable synth-pop ballad worthy of O.M.D. or early Depeche Mode. Ocasek sings about youthful misery with his Bowie-esque chorus: “Going round and round / Never touching down.”
He also explored his more personal side on the 1983 Beatitude, his first solo album and his best by a mile. “Jimmy Jimmy” made only a tiny ripple on MTV, but it’s the finest moment from his solo work, going for the dark electro vibe of Suicide with vocoder whispers and robot synth drones, like a creepier update of “Shake It Up.” Ocasek narrates the tale of a troubled teenage boy who doesn’t want to go home and take out the garbage: “You don’t look so good tonight. Are you depressed or something? You look spaced out.” When he asks what’s wrong with kids today, you can hear his compassion for both the sincerely baffled parents and their son.
Heartbeat City went for a relatively anonymous sound — they traded in producer Roy Thomas Baker for Mutt Lange, who smoothed out their kinks and tried pop moves that worked much better for Def Leppard. It’s basically a dry run for the world-beating pop sound Lange perfected a decade later with Shania Twain. (“You Might Think” sounds like the prototype for Shania’s “You Win My Love.”) But it has one of Ocasek’s most beautiful ballads, “Drive,” a serious torch ballad he wrote for Ben Orr to sing, giving his bandmate a chance to play it totally straight for once. The Cars returned a few years later with the half-hearted Door to Door, but “Drive” was really the perfect way for them to sign off.
After the band folded, Ocasek became one of rock’s most consistently in-demand producers, taking charge of albums by everyone from Weezer to Le Tigre to Guided By Voices. He had a brilliant scene in John Waters’ Hairspray as an early Sixties beatnik painter, clad in black and fiending for reefer, while Pia Zadora plays the bongos. He and Paulina Porizkova formed the most iconic rocker/model couple of all time — it was sad for fans when she announced the end of their marriage in 2018, 34 years after they met on the set of the “Drive” video. He and the rest of the Cars (minus Orr, who died in 2000) played their last gig in 2018, the night they got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. For all his fame as a producer, it’s as a singer and songwriter he made his biggest impact. Right to the end, Ric Ocasek kept it real as the authentic voice of teen geek angst — which is why he kept giving us just what we needed. Rest in peace, Ric Ocasek.