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The Cars: Power Steering

From their carefully customized image to their high-gear sound, Ric Icasek and Co. have a better idea

The Cars

The Cars in Memphis on July 5th,1979.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

F

or some reason, when we’re on tour all our dressing rooms have blackboards. So we chalk up New Laws of the Universe like, “What is not there, will be,” and “All roads lead to other roads.” —Greg Hawkes, keyboardist, the Cars 

Young Richard Otcasek pulled the mysterious little dashboard lever and the car roared. Nice. And no small accomplishment. He’d been working secretly on his father’s Mercury Comet every day after school, getting it ready for the nights when anybody could enter the races at Thompson’s drag strip in Cleveland. Lots of kids brought their family cars, souped up or not, just to try the track. Richard had done that too, but his heap was a loser, a bomb—no torque, no speed, no damned fun. Richard knew automobiles, and he was confident the Comet would never lead the pack.

So he’d “customized” the car’s exhaust pipe. Clandestinely, he’d installed one extra lever on the dashboard—nah, his father wouldn’t notice—that controlled the muffler. One simple tug and he’d be wide open; the putt-putt would turn into a dy-namo. Vrooom. Maybe he’d never burn rubber in the straightaway, but now he’d at least be able to make as much noise as any hot rod in the lineup. Screaming down Thompson’s track, not quite in last place, young Richard Otcasek would be enveloped in the full, rich roar he’d always desired…

A few days later, when the Comet’s muffler broke, there was hell to pay at the Otcasek household. Richard’s father was unforgiving. As he tells the story now, Ric Ocasek (he dropped the t for verbal streamlining) seems quizzical, his azure eyes clouding over as he recalls his father’s reaction. “You know,” he muses somberly, “he never understood why I did it.”

Ocasek drives fast, with one hand on the radio. Along Cambridge’s Massa-chusetts Avenue, which ex-tends from Harvard Square to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and into Boston’s Back Bay, the traffic and pedestrians are, as usual, moving in flagrant violation of both law and common sense. Yet Ocasek, leader and songwriter for the Cars, steers his white Volvo with none of the typical flinching or hasty maneuvering typical of Boston drivers. We pause as a brigade armed with slide rules occupies a crosswalk; Ocasek groans when I mention the Beantown college circuit, but obligingly points out the MIT building in which the Cars played mixers just over a year ago.

Meanwhile, his slim fingers dance upon the radio buttons. Each song gets about seven seconds to prove itself, and if it doesn’t pass scrutiny, Ric punches it into oblivion. After nixing five songs in less than a minute, he shoots a troubled glance my way. “Have you ever noticed?” he ventures, sending the needle one notch further across the dial. “Sometimes they all sound the same.”

I’d been waiting for a Cars song to pop out of the Volvo’s speakers. Ever since their debut on December 31st, 1976, at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, the Cars have been the very model of a modern regional band. They quickly gained a core following at the Rat, a.k.a. the Rathskeller, downtown Boston’s prime New Wave club. In March 1977, a sudden cancellation and some fast talking by Cars manager Fred Lewis netted them the opening slot in a Bob Seger concert at Boston’s 4200-seat Music Hall. By summer, a demo tape that included “Just What I Needed” was heard regularly on local FM stations and the lines for the band’s Rat gigs stretched from Ken-more Square out to Fenway Park. (Well, almost.)

Elektra Records signed the Cars in November and set up a six-week recording schedule for February and March 1978. But it took only twenty-one days in London (twelve to record, nine to mix) to complete their debut LP. Released in June, The Cars will probably be platinum by the time you read this story.
Everybody liked it: New Wavers recognized Ocasek’s Velvet Underground debts and the cunning ambivalence of his lyrics, while rock fans and radio programmers picked up on the catchy tunes and meticulous arrangements. The album has produced two exhilarating hit singles, “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” both propelled by punchy rhythms and Ocasek’s poutful foghorn vocals.

Less than two years after their first performance, the Cars have headlined at such New England arenas as the 14,000-seat Providence Civic Center and the even larger Boston Garden. With characteristic terseness, Ocasek sums up: “We were ready.”

Indeed, it seems the Cars were ready—and not by accident. But what is most intriguing about the band is that its enthusiasm is not apparent. On a personal level, a curious kind of wariness reigns, while musically and in performance, a great deal of careful preparation is in evidence. Just as leader Ric Ocasek once took pains to make his father’s old Comet at least sound like a winner, his group demonstrates a passion for form, while its interest in substance remains undefined. Ocasek’s detached demeanor appears to have rubbed off on the rest of the guys; on- and offstage, emotions are kept in check. But aren’t emotions, and content, what rock is all about?

Ocasek casually leans his rangy frame against a wall of Boston’s Paradise Theater while an opening act drones inside the music room. The place might as well be his, considering that his band sold out six shows in a row last time it played here, headlining what is usually a showcase club. On this weekend night, latecomers straggling through the entrance can’t help gawking at the snazzy outlandishness of Ric’s badge-festooned, black-and-white leather jacket, pleated tan pants and white satin sneakers. College students in down parkas file by until one stops, sizes up Ocasek and inquires, “Are you a Car?” Ric nods. Another devotee. There are 5000 unopened fan letters at the Cars’ Carlisle, Massachusetts, post office box.

The Cars’ smooth ascent followed a decade-long countdown. Ocasek, who claims to be twenty-nine but looks a few years older, says he was in his early twenties when he met Cars bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr (formerly Orzechowski) in the Columbus, Ohio, office of a now-defunct booking agency where they both worked.
Ocasek was born into a Polish Catholic family in Baltimore, the son of a computer systems analyst, and attended a parochial elementary school. He was kicked out in fifth grade for offenses he insists he doesn’t remember. “I wasn’t feeling too good about being pushed around or having to believe in spirits and things,” he minimizes. “There were a lot of fears, a lot of restrictions that people built into your mind.”

Ocasek preferred to hang out with the drakes. “In Baltimore, if you were a drake you were a hardass,” he explains. “Kids would start little gangs and they’d all get matching jackets. Gangs were named after fraternities, for some reason, like Sigma Chi, Phi Delta…. It was rampant, it was fun. You’d have BB guns, shoot pigeons. Nothing really heavy.”

Ocasek’s grandmother gave him a guitar when he was about ten because he was enraptured by the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” (which, if his recollections are accurate, would put his age at about thirty-one), but he gave it up after three months of lessons. As a teenager, Ric prized his independence and rapidly grew estranged from his parents; he’d organize expeditions from Baltimore to Ocean City, Maryland, and hang out on the boardwalk there for weeks at a time. When he was sixteen, his father was transferred in his job and the family moved to Cleveland. During his last two years of high school, Ocasek decided he’d need good grades if he wanted to go to college—so he became a bookworm and got them.

Neither Antioch College nor Bowling Green State University held Ocasek’s interest for long. When he dropped out for good, he returned to guitar, which he approached in typically pragmatic fashion: “I started immediately writing; I thought that was the thing to do. In fact, the first song I ever wrote, I copyrighted. After I started writing songs I figured it would be good to start a band. 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.”

Ben Orr’s approach to rock & roll was a bit more sophisticated. The teenage Or-zechowski had fronted the house band on the Cleveland TV rock show Upbeat, which featured British invaders like the Rolling Stones, Peter and Gordon and the Dave Clark Five. As a child Ben had entertained his parents’ friends by miming Elvis Presley records: “I always knew I had something special,” he says, straight-faced. He dropped out of high school and became involved in Cleveland’s then-modest music scene, writing songs, doing studio production, playing sessions on drums, bass, guitar, keyboards. Three weeks after he met Ocasek, Orr worked on one of Ric’s demos, inaugurating their partnership.

Physically they make an unlikely pair. Ocasek is lanky, obsidian haired, with high, angular cheekbones; Orr is stocky and a bleached blond (including his eyebrows), with a Slavic jack-o’-lantern face punctuated by a cleft chin. Married since 1972, Ocasek is diffident, soft-spoken, while Orr takes pains to be cordial. Onstage, Ocasek hides behind his shades as Orr smiles down at the front rows. Yet Orr, who once rebelled because Upbeat‘s producers habitually told him what to do, is for the moment content to be Ocasek’s accomplice. “I like singing Ric’s stuff,” he says.

Ocasek seems to be strangely persuasive. And there’s something in his presence—his deep-set eyes framed by midnight-black hair, perhaps, or his pallor and elongation—that is almost spectral. Even five-year-old Eron Ocasek treats his father like some supernatural being; when Ric tells Eron one night at home about which guitar is inside a certain closed case, an awed Eron assumes his daddy has X-ray eyes. When Ocasek first started putting together bands, he’d tell the musicians which instrument to play, albeit gently, and each would always go along. He once convinced a friend to quit a solid job and join one of his tentative groups. And while Ocasek insists—correctly—that “all the [musical] parts are what make the Cars the Cars,” his subtle authority centers the group.

“We got along famously,” Orr says of the early days. “It’s one of those things where you have to say nothing—it’s just there. And we just went on, kept going from state to state, doing our thing.”
“I was attracted by Ben’s voice the first night I met him,” says Ocasek. “He was singing Beatles songs, and I thought he had the greatest voice. By now, we know each other so well I hardly talk to him.”

Ocasek and Orr traveled from Cleveland to New York City to Woodstock, New York, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, singing Buddy Holly songs as a duo, playing hard rock as an opening act for the MC5. They’d lie to club owners and do their own songs after contracting to pump out the Top Forty. In band after band, the Oca-sek/Orr axis tightened—a defense against drunken frat kids, poverty, the grind of the road. At one point, Ric was so broke he pawned Ben’s guitar and Orr redeemed it without complaint.

“Once we got run out of town with guns,” Ocasek recounts. “Up in Alpena, Michigan, we were doing a gig in a bar, a deer-hunters’ hangout. After we played a few songs a couple of guys with rifles came up and said, ‘We’re hunting deer up here, but we ain’t looking for you dears. You guys get out!’ They made us leave town that night.”

From the unenlightened Midwest, Ocasek and later Orr worked their way East again. This time they gravitated to the Boston area, with its promise of mental stimulation and plentiful gigs. Ocasek settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard Square, intrigued by the proximity of the famed university. Sometimes he dropped in on lectures for entertainment’s sake. “I knew I was out of place,” he chuckles, “but I enjoyed it.”

Cambridge clubs preferred quiet, thoughtful fare over hard rock, and, casually adopting the prevailing local sound, Ocasek and Orr soon found themselves in a folk trio called Milkwood. “We were playing around town and somebody asked us if we wanted to make a record,” Ocasek relates. “In two weeks we recorded that Milkwood thing.”

Although Ocasek would prefer to forget it, Milkwood’s sole album (1972, Paramount, long unavailable) is merely naive, the product of a Cambridge ethos that encouraged fingerpicking and such spacey songs as “Timetrain Wonderwheel.” Nonetheless, the project had salutary effects: Ocasek learned not to stumble into business deals, and he and Orr were introduced to a future Car—keyboardist/ saxophonist/arranger Greg Hawkes. “He had the simplicity concept,” says Ocasek, “but he wasn’t afraid to do interesting things. I knew he’d be the keyboard player I wanted.”

Hawkes joined one early Ocasek/Orr group, then drifted toward steadier work: Martin Mull’s “Fabulous Furniture” band, studio jobs, a local country-rock outfit called Orphan. He’d sometimes join Ric and Ben for late-night demo sessions at Northern Studios—the struggling band paying for its studio time by doing carpentry work for owner Bill Riseman.

Ocasek became a father in December of 1973, further straining his finances; he and Ben worked in clothing stores to stay solvent. But whenever he came close to bottoming out, Ocasek says, “I’d just break up the band I was in and start working on the next one.”

And he was getting better at assembling them. Ocasek’s early 1976 model, Cap’n Swing, thoroughly impressed Boston DJ Maxanne Sartori. In her two p.m. to six p.m. shift on WBCN-FM, Sartori had helped break Aerosmith, and she consistently boosted area bands. In this case, she was swayed when she heard Cap’n Swing at a station-sponsored Newbury Street Music Fair. “They were amazing!” she recalls. “Here was this band I’d never heard of, that sounded like a cross between Roxy Music and Steely Dan.” Sartori began to play Cap’n Swing demos on her show; the local press was also enthusiastic. Buoyed by such support, Cap’n Swing subsequently showcased for management companies in New York City—and got blown out of the water.

“We took it back to Boston with our tails between our legs,” says Elliot Easton, lead guitarist for both Cap’n Swing and the Cars. Sartori, until recently working in A&R for Island Records in New York, played me a Cap’n Swing tape, and it’s apparent what was wrong: the musicians were overly clever at the expense of the songs; the arrangements weren’t focused.

“Ric made the decision that we were gonna fix it, get rid of people,” says Easton evenly. “When the smoke cleared, it was just me and Ric and Ben, and we got Greg back again.”

The new band still needed a drummer; Sartori says she recommended that Ocasek contact David Robinson, the erstwhile backbone of Boston’s legendary Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and who was then playing with psycho-punk band DMZ. Ocasek played Robinson a tape. “I figured it was worth a try,” Robinson shrugs in retrospect. “It was going to be my last band.”

The basement of Ric Ocasek’s Newton, Massachusetts, carriage house is tiny: an open trapezoid, maybe eight feet wide at the narrow end, with fifteen-foot sides fanning out. Plastered everywhere are black-and-white photos clipped from fashion magazines—one of Sissy Spacek, a few stark Helmut Newtons—and those of an array of futuristic fantasy cars. The pipes are painted black, and the boiler is emblazoned with a psychedelic crescent moon design that Ric reluctantly admits he rendered. Here is where the Cars assembled their hit-bound material during the fall and winter of 1976.

“It was beautiful to put that first bunch of songs together,” Easton says with a grin. “It was the first time it was so easy in any band I’d been in. We knew we wanted to stick it out. 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. 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.”

Roy Thomas Baker, who produced their debut LP and is scheduled to produce their second, marvels at their attention to detail. “They were all very logical,” he says. “They were always thinking ahead. Ric was very, very sober and very down to earth, which is rare.”

“Probably all the songs on the album were worked out down there. I was in the basement all the time,” Ocasek remembers fondly. “I mean, twelve hours a day—make coffee, go back down, just working.”

It wasn’t his first stint underground. In seventh grade, Ocasek had backed off from abusive schoolteachers and immersed himself in photography, particularly the dark, solitary rituals of print-making. For three years, he was fascinated—until electronics became his next obsession: down in the cool, musty air he’d construct transmitters and amplifiers, just as he would later piece together songs and arrangements.

“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. Nobody knew theory, but there were sounds there….” He trails off for a moment. “I must have lived half my life in basements! You know, darkroom in the basement, electronics in the basement, arranging songs in the basement, basements—I must love basements! In high school, when it was almost time for me to leave home anyway, my father told me that I was taking up too much room—in the basement.”

When the Cars finally climbed out of Ocasek’s cellar, they were confident. “We knew we were good before we did our first gig,” David Robinson assures me. Solid tunes and arrangements weren’t enough, however. Robinson, who had supplied the band’s name, was determined to give the Cars a strong visual image as well.

“We played real good,” he explains, “but we looked real funny: tall guys, short guys. Elliot, you would not recognize. Ben used to wear striped bell-bottom pants. They looked like college dudes. When I saw Greg I thought, ‘Another weird-looking guy to deal with.’ He really looked like a hippie—he used to wear corduroy pants and Earth shoes. I’d be showing up in my shag haircut trying to put everything together. Miraculously, it worked.”

Robinson coordinated a red, white and black Cars color scheme “because everybody had a lot of black and white clothes.” Later he and a friend, Jerome Higgins, fashioned an album cover that Elektra’s art department shunted onto the inner sleeve in altered form. (The band reportedly dislikes the LP’s cover art.) Robinson also fabricated stage backdrops and intro tapes, and he encouraged the other Cars to flaunt some stage presence.

“I wanted everybody’s character to be more animated,” he explains. “Greg was little and funny—he should be littler and funnier. Ben was going to be like a sex-symbol-type guy, he should really get into that. Elliot is one of the best guitarists anywhere, so when he does his solo he should play it right in the people’s faces. Ric’s so tall, he just has to stand there and it’s pretty much of a show. Me, I’m just in the back.”

When they played for an audience of fans at a recent Boston press party, the Cars’ strategically heightened contrasts were striking. Orr went all out to ingratiate himself with the dancing women in the front rows, while Ocasek, private even onstage, swayed and waved around his mike like a bare tree in a head wind. Their red, white and black motif is flashy, and they stress the symmetry of Easton’s left-handed guitar against Ric’s right-hander or Ben’s bass (just like the Beatles, Elliot eagerly points out).

In a less-friendly hall like New York’s Palladium, however, the Cars can seem stiff. Ocasek doesn’t want to look “ridiculous” with exaggerated gestures, and he sometimes fails to reflect the band’s energy. (Conveniently, stiffness also suits the Cars’ music; their songs of distanced emotion make an ironic delivery appropriate.)

As we talk in his apartment, Robinson orchestrates an assortment of hit-and-split singles by Old and New Wave acts like the Easybeats, the Critters, Mud, Gruppo Sportivo, Radio Stars, the Merry-Go-Round and Boston legends Barry and the Remains. Inevitably, discussion of the Bean-town scene of the last ten years invokes the Rat—a basement to end all basements.

“Once I saw a rat running around out front” says the owlish Hawkes. “Really—they’d go in under the stage. Pretty treacherous territory, the Rat.”

The Rat is certainly no place to be at midnight on a Sunday. I follow Robinson downstairs—he has to meet a girl about a haircut—to where some twenty regulars are ignoring the band onstage. Two rouged, bottle-blonds dance listlessly near each other; a student couple deliberates leaving; a gaunt, androgynous, Teutonic-looking girl in a half-length blue velvet jacket with studded leather bracelets improvises a jaded slouch. The dust of centuries is clumped on the exposed pipes, and the concrete floor is carpeted with cigarette butts. Most of the singles in the jukebox are local products, with “Just What I Needed” occupying a strategic central position at number 133.

Robinson’s entrance—he’s decked out in leopard-patterned pants and a black leather jacket—causes no great stir. He circulates, lets people shout above the music into his ear, studiously ignores the girl in blue velvet, talks to the band’s guitarist after the set. When we reemerge from this Dissipation Row, he mutters: “It’s still there.”

Early in 1977 the Rat had a different aura. Boston’s newspapers were giving the club extensive coverage, Maxanne Sartori was regularly playing tapes by Rat groups on WBCN, and there was a feeling that Reddy Teddy, Real Kids, Thundertrain, DMZ and Willie “Loco” Alexander would promulgate a new Boston sound. The Cars’ attention to musical detail and to image made them the standard-bearers. Riding everybody’s high hopes, their demo tape made the crucial breakthrough to “heavy airplay” on both WBCN and WCOZ. Their initial following—”slutty girls and strippers from the Combat Zone [Boston’s porno house district],” according to Ocasek—swiftly snowballed. And Sartori is convinced their groundswell success can, and should, happen again.

“There are no regional records any more,” she argues, “but there are plenty of regional tapes. If every radio station took its FCC license seriously—that part about serving the community—then every town would have a Cars.”

Sadly, rock & roll is increasingly dominated by the business of producing platinum records. New artists with a good marketing sense and a flair for calculation have become the big winners, while the rest often get short shrift or even the heave-ho. The Cars and driver Ric Ocasek sometimes seem to fit very neatly into the former slot, being a band that obviously knows how to package itself—and leave out a lot of the noncommercial quirks and wrinkles that lend charm and personality to popular music.
While the band’s sound has an undeniable freshness, much of it is owing to their shrewd amalgam of many late Seventies pop, rock and New Wave styles. And they have handily sidestepped the punk-label pitfalls that might have undermined their cause, keeping the energy on a short leash, presenting themselves as mysterious without seeming aloof or arcane, and demonstrating taste without an off-putting air of artiness. As for content, they maintain that their songs are just songs, with little or no background.

Maybe they’re simply scared, but in a genre once characterized by youthful abandon, the Cars exude caution and control, while their management and record company refuse to divulge the band members’ real ages. As one Boston writer put it, “Like Athena, the Cars were born mature and fully armed.”

Ocasek and I head into Boston to check out a guitar store. Strictly business. “I don’t go out looking for fun,” Ric tells me, his voice dropping. “I think fun’s almost a false sense of ecstasy that people go out looking for. What is fun? I think it’s different for everybody. I just don’t think there’s a general kind of fun. I had fun in the studio, I had fun working things out…. don’t play cards or board games, don’t see any need.”

Instead, he has his little “projects.” When Ocasek and Orr were down to a duo briefly in 1976, Ric and illustrator Laurie Paradise published a fifteen-page booklet of poems and pictures, Freely Sing and Paradise. He left five copies at Grolier Book Shop in Harvard Square on consignment, “just to see if anyone would take it. I never even went back to collect any money—that’s not what I did it for.”

Songwriting also is a project: once undertaken, it must be realized with efficiency. “I never give up on something halfway through,” says Ocasek. “I can feel when it’s coming—the solitude, the speediness. Sometimes I’ll lay down five, seven songs one after the other without stopping to hear them, and then I’ll play them all back to see what they were.”

We park—Ric ignores the expired meter—and walk about half a block before we meet Robinson, who agrees to assist in the deliberations. Inside the guitar shop, a Cars promo photo is posted prominently among the announcements of local club gigs. A white, sleekly futuristic Dean Elite guitar catches Ocasek’s eye; the now image-conscious Ric earlier confided that he chooses an axe “primarily on the basis of how it looks.” The knowing salesman beckons him toward a back room where he unveils a mirror-bright chrome guitar with a wickedly curved, pointed top. “You could take out someone’s eye with that,” Robinson grumbles admiringly, but the chrome guitar plays like tin. No sale.

Afterward, Robinson wants to say hello to a waitress friend, so on the way to the nearby coffee shop where she works, we wander through the sci-fi corridors of the landmark Prudential/Sheraton commercial complex. On display at EA.O. Schwarz is a half-scale model of a yellow Corvette Sting Ray, complete with gasoline engine. Robinson points to it excitedly.

“It’s the perfect car to drive around Boston!” he exults with a laugh. “When somebody crashes into it and destroys it, you could walk away and say, ‘What the hell! It was only a toy.”‘

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