Ric Ocasek didn’t look like he was a day over Candy-O: black jacket flecked with glitter and round, tinted glasses; his tall, stick-insect frame topped by a helmet of jet-black hair. The former guitarist and songwriting brains of platinum pop-art band the Cars, now an in-demand producer (Weezer, Guided by Voices, Le Tigre), took the stage at CBGB on Thursday night to debut songs from his new album, Nexterday, released Tuesday on his own label, Inverse. But when Ocasek opened with a much older song, the electro-lizard crawl of “Moving in Stereo” from 1978’s The Cars, it was a perfect description of Ocasek’s entire life in music — “Moving in stereo . . . shakin’ like tremolo.”
This fifty-minute set was a rare sighting; Ocasek has not performed live since a brief 1997 tour on behalf of his solo effort, Troublizing. Yet the rigorous consistency of his vision — punchy songs with twin roots in garage-punk classicism and future-machine music; detached, telegrammatic verse about intense connections, sung with dry menace — was evident in everything he played, regardless of vintage. Backed by three members of New York noise-pop band the Hong Kong — guitarist Harold Griffin, bassist Ted Casterline and drummer Aaron Carroll — Ocasek stripped the Cars hits “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” down to the bar-band-in-an-art-gallery minimalism I remember from the early Cars and solo demos Ocasek played for me one night in the early Eighties, during an interview at his home studio in Boston.
Much of Nexterday finds Ocasek back in black, building on the shadow rock of his original inspirations: the Velvet Underground, Suicide. At CBGB (where Suicide vocalist Alan Vega was in the house), “Crackpot,” “Bottom Dollar” and “Don’t Lose Me” sounded like they had only been written and recorded a short drive from 1984’s Heartbeat City, minus the keyboards and vocal harmonies. Ocasek dedicated the slow, mourning stomp “Silver” “to my old friend Ben” — the Cars’ singer-bassist Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000. Later, he paid further tribute by playing the sublime “Drive,” Orr’s greatest vocal moment for the Cars, with Hong Kong vocalist Catherine Culpepper at the mike, putting a woman’s spin on the hurt and protectiveness in Ocasek’s lyrics.
With fiendish symmetry, Ocasek ended with the beginning: “Good Times Roll,” the song that opened the first Cars album. Then he strolled off, without an encore, so that the Hong Kong — who are signed to Inverse and have their Ocasek-produced, full-length debut coming early next year — could play their own set. This is a short tour; Ocasek has one more confirmed date, at Harper’s Ferry in Allston, Massachusetts, on October 10th. But it’s good to see him come out of the garage, even for a short ride.