The Cars: Power Steering
For 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 dynamo. 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 Massachusetts 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.”