The late singer-songwriter-guitarist, found dead on Sunday night (Sept. 15) in his New York apartment, exercised such autocratic control that to this day fans think he sang everything. Which does the legacy of bassist Benjamin Orr — vocalist on “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go” and “Drive,” among others — no favors.
Yet at the peak of the Boston quintet’s pre-MTV era, Ocasek produced acts that didn’t need his ministrations so much as a gentle prod toward a menacing intelligibility. Suicide’s sophomore album Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev (1980) and Romeo Void’s Never Say Never (1981), for example, benefitted from having a pair of ears that understood how, to quote one of his most cynical early lyrics, alienation is a craze — and, more importantly, how alienation needed the looks and the hooks just so.
In the same way that The Cars introduced touches of Roxy Music and Wire to American youth, Ocasek solo presented poptastic appropriations of his production clientele. An outlet for songs he couldn’t fit on Cars albums, a chemistry set with which he’d test aural gewgaws and sonic interventions, the first two Ocasek solo albums Beatitude (1982) and This Side of Paradise (1986) aren’t fresh starts: they’re addenda to an otherwise fertile recording career. These eight tracks define his solo aesthetic.
“Something to Grab For” (Beatitude, 1982)
Released between Shake It Up — whose title track became The Cars’ first top ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100 — and 1984’s mega-selling Heartbeat City, Ocasek’s first solo single got some MTV airplay and peaked at No. 47 on the Hot 100. No rocket science why: Other than a guitar mixed louder than usual and the absence of Benjamin Orr’s harmonies, “Something to Grab For” could’ve appeared on a Cars album.
“Jimmy Jimmy” (Beatitude, 1982)
Eschewing narrative for glittering phrases, Ocasek’s songs worked best as chants, their patinas forcing listeners to reckon with surface-as-depth. “Jimmy Jimmy” is an exception. This clattering, sequencer-led single, perhaps influenced by Ocasek’s production work on spare NYC synth duo Suicide, crawls into the head of a male teen: sullen, misunderstood, and listening to FM radio. (Possibly The Cars, probably Rush’s “Subdivisions.”) Ocasek’s disembodied, strangled voice treats the lyrics as if they were epitaphs—an appropriate response, for if your folks find your copy of Hustler it can feel as if your life is about to end. Then the melody softens as Ocasek reminds Jimmy—reminds us—that “we’re all in this together.” Few songs he wrote for The Cars boast such a grace note.
“Emotion in Motion” (This Side of Paradise, 1986)
Ocasek’s biggest solo hit recasts the lovelorn wistfulness of 1984’s “Drive” into a damp valentine. The candy box sentiments and the guitar arpeggios by Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal mesh all too well, but the vocal approach that worked on “Jimmy Jimmy” creaks like a floorboard in the night. Nevertheless, in a year without Cars product, “Emotion in Motion” connected with listeners and MTV watchers, peaking at No. 15 on the Hot 100 in late 1986.
“Hello Darkness” (This Side of Paradise, 1986)
During the High Reagan Era, all-star solo albums were as common as junk bonds. This Side of Paradise (1986) presents itself as a high-gloss duplicate of 1984’s Heartbeat City; the intimations of dread rise like thought balloons before an army of synthesizers quashes them. This deep cut, co-written with Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes at least honors its title: while the keyboards go bump, guitarists G.E. Smith and Steve Stevens wail over Ocasek’s lyrical decoupage.
“They Tried” (Fireball Zone, 1991)
A few years after The Cars’ ignominious breakup, Ocasek hired Nile Rodgers to add his usual rhythmic finesse to a third solo album. This might’ve made sense in 1986; by the time Fireball Zone was released, the market for this vaporous funk had dissolved. Seek “They Tried,” though: the mildest of finger shakes at conformity, animated by three minutes of sun-kissed acoustic guitars (!) and a whistling keyboard line.
“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Simply Mad About the Mouse, 1991)
With his gaunt undertaker’s frame and cadaverous cheekbone structure, Ric Ocasek was a cartoon’s idea of a human being, so it made sense when he appeared in an animated collection of Disney shorts warbling “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and, in a terrifying orange blazer, looked more inhuman than ever. This cover is creepy as hell, too: a toe tapper that wants to break your toes. When Ocasek blurts, “It’s the truth, it’s actual!” you want to respond, “If you say so, buddy.”
“She’s On” (Quick Change World, 1993)
Greg Hawkes’ distorted synth line following the choppy rhythm guitar hook will surprise no Cars fan. The problem is, it’s 1993, and no one had figured out what The Cars meant at the height of Nirvanamania. Oblivious to subtext and probably to text too, “She’s On” would’ve astounded no one as a new song recorded for 1985’s bar jukebox favorite Greatest Hits; it’s a reminder that the strength of Ocasek’s verse-chorus-verse structures would’ve given cockroaches in a nuclear explosion a test in survivability.
“The Next Right Thing” (Troublizing, 1997)
It took a few years, but chunky riffs over wobbly keyboards made sense again in 1997. With assistance from noted Cars enthusiast Billy Corgan, Ocasek returns with a sound he never abandoned, only it’s more disheveled.