Ric Ocasek, Cars Singer Who Fused Pop and New Wave, Dead at 75
Ric Ocasek, the idiosyncratic singer and guitarist for the Cars and hitmaking album producer, died on Sunday in his New York City apartment. He was 75. A rep for the NYPD confirmed Ocasek’s death to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was heart disease, according to the New York City medical examiner’s office.
Police officers responded to a 911 call at Ocasek’s home at 140 East 19th Street in Manhattan at approximately 3 p.m. ET, the rep said. Officers discovered Ocasek unconscious and unresponsive. He was later pronounced dead at the scene.
On Monday, Ocasek’s family issued a statement on the Cars’ Instagram, in which they noted that the musician had been recovering from an unspecified surgery at the time of his death. “Our two sons, Jonathan and Oliver, and I were making usre he was comfortable, ordering food and watching TV together,” the statement reads. “I found him still asleep when bringing him his Sunday morning coffee. I touched his cheek to rouse him. It was then I realized that during the night he had peacefully passed on.”
Ocasek’s sons also shared a post in which they noted their father was “a prolific doodler” and included a picture of his last illustration. “His passing was sudden, unexpected and beyond heartbreaking,” they wrote. “Yesterday, we found this last doodle on his armchair. He couldn’t have known what it would end up meaning to us. We love him so much.”
Beginning with the Cars’ self-titled debut, in 1978, Ocasek established himself as a stoic frontman with a sense of humor and melodrama on songs like “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and “Good Times Roll.” As a member of the Cars — he wrote nearly every tune the band recorded — Ocasek helped kick-start the New Wave movement by pinning his disaffected vocals against herky-jerky rhythm guitar, dense keyboards and dance-floor-ready beats, and as one of the group’s lead vocalists, alongside bassist Benjamin Orr, he sang the hits “Shake It Up” and “You Might Think.” After the group broke up, in 1988, Ocasek recorded as a solo artist and worked as a producer, helping to sculpt blockbuster hits like Weezer’s Blue and Green albums and cult favorites like Bad Brains’ Rock for Light.
“Ric meant so much to us,” Weezer wrote in a tribute on Instagram. “He produced three key Weezer albums, Blue, Green and 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and taught all of us so much about music, recording and songcraft. But more importantly he taught us that one can be in a respected position of great power and yet be absolutely humble and have the biggest sweetest heart in the industry.”
Killers frontman Brandon Flowers, who helped induct the Cars into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year, called Ocasek “My first king” on Twitter and shared an email he wrote to the musician, in which he recalled how he discovered the Cars as a teenager. “It set me on the path towards the adult I would become, towards the job I have (which is the best job in the world), even towards the woman I would be blessed to marry,” Flowers wrote.
And Billy Corgan, who produced Ocasek’s 1997’s solo album, Troublizing, recalled his lengthy conversations with Ocasek, as well as the time Ocasek taught him how to play “My Best Friend’s Girl” on guitar. “He picked up a guitar, played it perfectly — he was an ace guitarist — and handed it over,” said Corgan. “The sound, I noted, was exact. It was the pink Fender . . . and I dutifully played the opening riff as he’d showed. So what was the guitar, I asked? Ric pointed at the flamingo in my hands. My jaw dropped. It was THE guitar!”
He was born Richard Otcasek to a Polish Catholic family in Baltimore. His father was a computer systems analyst and sent Ocasek to a parochial elementary school, where he was kicked out in the fifth grade. He told Rolling Stone in a 1979 profile that he couldn’t remember why he’d been expelled, though he said he aspired to be what he called a “drake” (a tough kid). He fell in love with the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” as a child, prompting his grandmother to give him a guitar, though he didn’t take to it immediately. He became a rebel as a teen, running away for weeks at a time to the beach town of Ocean City, Maryland.
His family relocated to Cleveland when he was 16, and he decided to shape up and get solid grades so he could attend a good college, but he ended up dropping out and again became interested in guitar. This time it stuck, and he began writing tunes regularly. “After I started writing songs, I figured it would be good to start a band,” he told Rolling Stone. “Sometimes I’d put together a band just to hear my songs. If a person couldn’t play that well, there’d be fewer outside ideas to incorporate.” One of the musicians Ocasek drafted was Benjamin Orzechowski (who later changed his last name to Orr), who helped record one of the pre-Cars demos.
Ocasek and Orr relocated to New York, Woodstock, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, singing Buddy Holly songs as a duo or playing hard rock to prepare for a gig opening for the MC5. Eventually, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and formed a folk trio called Milkwood, releasing an album in 1972. They both struggled financially — Ocasek worked in clothing stores to keep his family fed — and eventually they met the musicians who would form the rest of the Cars in 1976. Ocasek wrote all the songs and acted as a benevolent dictator.
“The way it worked was, it would either be on a cassette, or Ric would pick up his guitar and perform the song for us,” Cars guitarist Elliot Easton told Rolling Stone in 1979. “We’d all watch his hands and listen to the lyrics and talk about it. We knew enough about music, so we just built the songs up. When there was a space for a hook or a line — or a sinker — we put it in.”
The Cars’ self-titled album, which Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker helmed and recorded in just two weeks, came out on June 6th, 1978, and became a Top 20 hit in the U.S. It was later certified sextuple platinum on the strength of the hits “Just What I Needed” (sung by Orr), “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll.” The record is also home to songs that would become hits later, including “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and “Moving in Stereo” (the latter soundtracking a pivotal scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). “Ric was very, very sober and very down-to-earth, which is rare,” Baker told Rolling Stone.
They swiftly followed it up a year later with Candy-O, which contained the hits “Let’s Go” and “It’s All I Can Do.” By then, New Wave had become more commercially viable and the LP landed at Number Three, subsequently getting certified quadruple platinum. The group had leveled up to being an arena band. The following year’s Panorama made it up to Number Five but was a relative dud; it went merely platinum and contained only one hit, “Touch and Go,” which barely made the Top 40. They corrected course with 1981’s Shake It Up, which they recorded in Boston and was a Top 10 album that was certified double platinum. The album featured the hits “Since You’re Gone” and the anthemic title cut, a Number Four hit.
The band hit critical mass in 1984 with Heartbeat City, an album that issued five Top 40 singles in the U.S.: “You Might Think,” “Magic,” “Hello Again,” “Why Can’t I Have You,” and the monolithic “Drive,” which Orr sang. “Drive” also served as the background music for ads for African famine relief during Live Aid; when the song surged in popularity in the U.K., Ocasek donated his royalties to the Band Aid Trust. Their video for “You Might Think,” in which Ocasek became a voyeuristic fly, bested Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at the MTV Video Music Awards that year and won the first Moonman for Video of the Year. The record, which made it up to Number Three, is now quadruple platinum.
The Cars made one more album, 1987’s Door to Door, but it was another disappointment. “You Are the Girl” was a minor hit, but the LP’s other singles charted in the bottom half of the Top 100. Ocasek called the release “substandard,” and the Cars called it quits the next year over interpersonal tension and malaise. Asked years later about why the band broke up, Ocasek told Rolling Stone, “Life changes, the band attitude and not having a break for all those years — that was all part of it,” he said. “It became a big dark thing. I noticed it on the Door to Door tour. It was the first tour we did that wasn’t fun. Some people took buses, some people took planes. Nobody talked. I was like, ‘This has to stop. We’ll stop in this spot. And I’m not going to go back to this again.’ I held out for 23 years.”
Orr contracted pancreatic cancer in 2000 and died later that year. The band eventually reunited in 2010 and made one final album, the following year’s Move Like This, which made it to Number Seven on the Billboard chart and contained the rock hit “Sad Song.”
The Cars were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, with the organization describing them as “hook-savvy with the perfect combo of New Wave and classic rock.” “Trophies aren’t too important for me,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone at the ceremony. “But I’ll tell you what — it’s better to be in than out.”
Outside the Cars, Ocasek released several solo albums, beginning with 1982’s Beatitude, which kept in line with the Cars’ sound. His biggest solo hit was the gentle and Cars-like “Emotion in Motion,” off his album This Side of Paradise. He released a spoken-word album, Getchertiktz, with poet and Please Kill Me co-author Gillian McCain and Suicide’s Alan Vega in 1996, and put out his last solo LP of music, Nexterday, in 2005.
He launched his production career in 1980 with Suicide’s second album, Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, and went on to produce many albums for the electronic-punk duo. Over the years he also worked with the punk groups Bad Brains and Bad Religion, as well as proto-punk artist Jonathan Richman, whose Modern Lovers were the first band for the Cars’ drummer, David Robinson. Ocasek produced Hole’s major hit cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” for the 1996 soundtrack to The Crow: City of Angels.
He also worked on albums by Nada Surf, Guided by Voices, No Doubt, Le Tigre, and Brazilian Girls, but his biggest successes were made behind the mixing desk for Weezer. Ocasek produced the band’s breakthrough release, 1994’s Blue Album, home to the hits “Undone — The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly,” and “Say It Ain’t So.” Weezer realigned with him again for 2001’s Green Album, which featured the hits “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun,” and 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End.
Ocasek was married three times and was the father of six sons. He met 18-year-old model Paulina Porizkova on the set of the band’s video for “Drive” and fell in love with her, while still married to his second wife, Suzanne. He and Porizkova married in 1989 and announced their divorce last year.
Up to the end, Ocasek was resolute in the vision for his music. Around the time the band released Move Like This, he told Rolling Stone just how much he believed in the album. “A lot of bands re-form, do stuff, and they’re crap,” he said. “I know this isn’t crap.”
The Cars – “My Best Friend’s Girl”
The Cars – “Just What I Needed”
The Cars – “Good Times Roll”
The Cars – “Magic”
The Cars – “Shake It Up”
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