Ric Ocasek and The Cars Injected a 'Healthy Dose of Weirdness' to the Mainstream: An Appreciation

ISSUE 22 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
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Ocasek in 1988.

The music that Ric Ocasek made as the singer, guitarist and primary songwriter with The Cars is generally filed under New Wave, but it was really a category unto itself. The band's catalog, which has sold 15 million copies in the U.S., according to Billboard estimates, was futuristic yet traditional, visionary yet widely appealing, forged from elements of punk, pop, glam, art and straight-up FM radio rock — even rockabilly. When Ocasek died on Sept. 15 at the age of 75, the outpouring of grief from artists across the musical spectrum — Tim McGraw to Ice-T, Alice Cooper to Beck — was a reminder of the band's rare and universal appeal.

When Killers frontman Brandon Flowers inducted the Cars into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, he noted that they "existed in the highly-coveted sweet spot where credibility and acclaim meets huge commercial success." The Cars would release 13 Top 40 hits in nine years and land five top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, while injecting a healthy dose of weirdness into the mainstream, bringing synthesizers, ironic detachment and surreal imagery (at the Hall of Fame, Ocasek thanked beat poets Richard Brautigan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti) deep into the heart of classic rock.

Born Richard Otcasek in Baltimore, Ocasek's family moved to Cleveland when he was 16. There he met future Cars bassist Benjamin Orr in 1965; the two played in various bands together before relocating to Boston in the early 1970s. After struggling as a folk-rock group called Milkwood, they gradually added keyboard player Greg Hawkes and guitarist Elliot Easton, then finally brought in former Modern Lovers drummer David Robinson to finalize the Cars' lineup in 1976.

Their demo tape reached the national charts before they were even signed, purely on the basis of local airplay on WBCN and WCOZ. The Cars' self-titled 1978 debut is widely considered one of the finest first albums of all time, a pure distillation of their vision that sold over 6 million copies. ("We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars Greatest Hits," Easton later said.)

The initial success of the debut and 1979's Candy-O would be equaled a few years later, when the band's arty sensibility and postmodern visual style proved a perfect match for the early days of MTV. The video for "You Might Think," from the four-times platinum album Heartbeat City, won Video of the Year at the first Video Music Awards in 1984 — beating out Michael Jackson's "Thriller." In 2004, Fountains of Wayne lovingly spoofed the Cars' videos — including the sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High set to "Moving in Stereo" — for their hit "Stacy's Mom."

The Cars broke up in 1988 (they would reunite for one album, Move Like This, in 2011, though Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000) and Ocasek released seven underrated solo albums; the single "Emotion in Motion" was a No. 1 Mainstream Rock hit in 1986.

Along the way, Ocasek, impossibly tall and thin, found outlets for his more left-field musical interests. Even at the height of the Cars' popularity, he produced albums and sessions for numerous alternative acts, including Bad Brains, Guided by Voices, Hole, Suicide, No Doubt and D Generation. In 2003, he took an A&R job with Elektra Records, but he only stayed less than a year.

As a producer, his longest-lasting creative relationship was with Weezer, for whom he produced three albums (the Blue and Green albums and 2014's Everything Will Be Alright in the End). "Ric was so kind to us and never faltered or changed a thing, either personally or professionally, in the three different decades we worked with him," said the band in a statement.

Ocasek was married three times and had six sons. In 2018, Paulina Porizkova — his wife since 1989 — announced that the couple had amicably separated a year earlier, and it was Porizkova who found his unresponsive body in their Gramercy Park townhouse.

Ocasek exuded icy rock star cool, yet was a visible presence in his neighborhood and, by all accounts, an unexpectedly approachable figure at the showings of his visual art that occupied much of his final years. "Success to me," he once said, "is actually being able to write songs and like them when I finish them."

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.


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