Cleveland, Ohio, holds a special place in the heart of Cars frontman Ric Ocasek. It’s the town where he learned to love music and first met his future Cars bandmate Benjamin Orr. It’s the first place he ever played his songs in front of an audience. And on April 14th, he’ll go back there to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s kind of a whole beginning and end,” he tells us by telephone, “although I don’t think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the end, but it’s a long journey that vaguely started in Cleveland and vaguely comes to some resolve in Cleveland again.”
Ocasek spoke to us about the honor, what songs he thinks the Cars will play that night, the possibility of a future Cars album and tour, and why things have never felt the same since bassist Benjamin Orr died in 2000.
Thank you! It’s pretty nice. I’m pretty grateful we were accepted.
How did you first hear about it?
I kind of heard about it this morning when I woke up.
You didn’t hear before?
Last night, late at night, they kind of told me, but I wasn’t really sure since you never know.
What was your first reaction?
It made me feel pretty upbeat. It’s funny. The first time I ever heard Ben [Orr], he was 16 years old and he played on a TV show in Cleveland called Upbeat. He was singing “You Came Into My Life” with his band the Grasshoppers. That was in Cleveland, Ohio, since I used to live there, where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is. I graduated from [Maple Heights] High School in 1963. In fact, the first time I ever played live by myself on acoustic guitar was when I snuck into a folk club to try out. That was quite an experience. Also in Cleveland, first time I ever smoked a joint.
What does this honor mean to you on a personal level?
Gee, any time you get an award for something, whether its a bowling trophy or whatever, you feel a little special from it, I suppose. It’s certainly a wonderful feeling to be accepted by peers and you see the people that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who gets inducted, it’s a positive feeling that you get. I think it’s kind of a big thing for me and the band. I know Ben would have been flipped out by it. I think everyone will be, but I haven’t even spoke to the band today. It’s certainly a very positive thing.
Are you surprised?
Yeah. I don’t know. … I don’t know if every band thinks they’d like to be in it. A lot of years go by and you go, “Gee, I wonder if I’ll ever get in there. Have we done enough music or enough things that were original or different to get you into that situation?” I kind of used to think we were a pretty good candidate. It wasn’t until a few years ago when we first got nominated that I thought, “Wow, we kind of are a candidate.” The first year I was very apprehensive about it, whether we’d get in or not, and we didn’t. The second year I pretty much ignored it. This year I was ignoring it as well, so it was kind of a surprise we got in this year. There were a lot of bands on the list to get in that didn’t get in.
Do you think the band is going to perform at the ceremony?
We probably will. I don’t know in which way we will. I’ve been thinking about that a bit since it came up. There’s all kinds of different scenarios we could do. I don’t know how, but I assume it would be expected and I’d be prepared for that.
Artists usually play three songs. Can you think of three that would sum up the whole career?
Yeah. “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. [Laughs] Let’s see, a good Bob Dylan song. … It’s kind of funny. I think people would want to hear something they know very well. I could go out there and try and be esoteric and play obscure songs from the records, but I think they’ll want to hear something they know. That’s the thing. How should we present it in a different way? Maybe not. Off the top of my head I can imagine “Just What I Needed” and “Drive” or something. That’s what people would expect. There’s no reason to play something they wouldn’t expect.
It’s you guys, Dire Straits, Bon Jovi, the Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Are you a fan of those acts?
I’m a fan of the Moody Blues. I also like Dire Straits. All the bands that got in are definitely worthy of getting in. If you were asking me what music I’d listen to out of those, the ones I’d listen to most would be the Moody Blues since I remember them from the 1960s.
Are you able to imagine an all-star jam with everyone?
I’ve never done that before, but I guess I could as long as I could be in the back. I’d be behind the drums, hiding. We’ve never really been a jam band, but I can see that happening. Maybe.
You think Ben would definitely be thrilled by this, right?
Without a doubt. He grew up in Parma Heights, Ohio. As I said, he was on TV a lot. There was a weekly TV show he was on called Upbeat and the Grasshoppers were the big stars of it. He was a good-looking 16-year-old singing wonderful songs with that great voice. He’s been inundated with music since he was a kid. He was pretty proud to have come from Cleveland. I lived in Cleveland for maybe six or seven years, through high school. Before that I lived in Baltimore, but after Cleveland I traveled everywhere.
Cleveland is pretty dear to me since it was a launching pad for a lot of things. The first time I ever saw the Velvet Underground was in Cleveland. I went to a party at somebody’s apartment with the Velvet Underground. La Cave was a great new-music kind of place in the 1960s. Ohio was good for that. Back then, it was wonderful. Of course, the 1960s were a very vibrant time anyways. Everything was going on between 1963 and 1969 or something. It was pretty exciting.
I saw you guys in 2011 at Roseland Balloom. Why was that tour so brief?
Well, I guess you could blame it on me. I toured a lot when we were the Cars, the five of us. I saw the world. I’ve always been more of a songwriter than a performer. I produce and I love the studio. I’ve always not so much liked touring. That’s kind of the reason. Also, I didn’t want to do things like, “Hey, let’s do some casinos and some boats.” I didn’t want to get into that. That’s just a different reason to do it. That’s really just being mechanical and playing your songs for whatever it is. I have to say that everyone else in the band would have loved to be constantly on the road. There’s a lot of bands that do that. I guess it’s just me personally. I didn’t like that aspect of it as much. I mean, I produced 50 fucking albums, more than 50 actually. There’s a lot of time spent doing things like that that nobody knows about.
Did you have fun playing Lollapalooza and the few shows you did play?
I did like Lollapalooza a lot. I liked the tour actually. After the tour I was like, “Maybe keep going? I don’t know. We kind of already made the decision.”
Are you thinking about a future Cars tour or a future Cars album? Is that even in your head at this point?
It’s funny. Before all this, I was planning on writing a record this year. I don’t know whether I would have put it out myself or asked the Cars to come along. We all live far from each other. I don’t know. Maybe so. Maybe this will be a good reason to do it again, though I really miss Ben as part of the thing. As much as I want it to be the Cars and I love everyone so much in the Cars, without him it just feels different. It feels different.
Do you think about Ben a lot?
He was certainly my closest friend. He was in every band I ever had. It was a pretty close relationship. He crosses my mind a lot. I certainly see pictures of him around or I hear his voice. It’s funny, for some of these re-release things we would find some alternative cuts or things. I’d find demos or recordings where Ben and I played acoustically at Cambridge, Massachusetts, those clubs around Harvard. It was just him and I. They were kind of great. Every time I heard him sing on anything, whether it was a demo or a living room, it always sounded amazing. I could never get over how great his voice was, at least to me. So yeah, I think about him. Unfortunately, there were a lot of artists I was close to we lost in the past couple of years, Alan Vega and a bunch … I guess time rolls on.
Do you have songs written for your next album?
I could easily do a solo album. I have songs. I’ve actually been doing some art shows recently, so I haven’t been doing too much writing, but I certainly have time to. It’s kind of the thing you do anyway, whether you’re going to put them out or not. I couldn’t just stop doing that.
As you said, the Hall of Fame could be the final stand for the Cars, which would be a very appropriate way to wrap it up.
In that way, it would be. It would be a good cap on the bottle. If you had to pick one, I don’t think you could think of one after that as big as that particular situation. I’ve got that in my mind. I’ve thought about that just the way you put it. I thought, “I kind of started playing here and I could stop playing here, in Cleveland. This could be the bookends. One guy on a guitar playing bad songs and then I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 45 years later.”
It’s kind of weird because it’s like a lifetime. It is a lifetime. I had three families during that time. They are like lives that go by and millions of people and things and artists and writers and business people and fans. … It’s a lot of stuff. It’s been a pretty eventful life, I can say.