Monday morning when I woke up, I was still trying to process the previous night’s shocking news of the death of Ric Ocasek, the leader of the Cars and producer of great albums by Bad Brains and Weezer, among many others. As I was scrolling through my morning emails, one of the daily gossip newsletters, which I reluctantly subscribe to, reported on his passing alongside much less vital news about the personal lives of Miley Cyrus and Meghan Markle. Ric Ocasek never seemed concerned with informing the world about his personal life, opinions, or anything but his art, so it seemed strange to see this headline alongside stories about tabloid mainstays who seem to share every detail of their lives for hungry social media addicted audiences.
There was never much controversy around Ocasek, although Sunday night as the sad news circulated, there seemed to be disagreement and confusion over his age. The New York Times and other sources reported that he was 75, although public records said that he was 70. It’s obviously something he never cared to clarify. Do we really need to know such details about artists? At any rate, The New York Times later published an entire article about how they ultimately determined his age.
There was a bit of controversy about how to pronounce his name. Most people pronounced it “o-CAY-sick.” But in this video, he introduces himself as “o-CAA-sick” There’s a story that he told Brandon Flowers of the Killers the proper pronunciation hours before Flowers’ speech about the Cars at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Whether or not this is true, Flowers pointed out during his speech that “You’re all saying it wrong!” How many rock stars are ambivalent about how you pronounce their name? The whole idea, for most rock stars, is to get the world to know their name! But Ric Ocasek probably felt that as long as we knew The Cars’ songs — and we knew a lot of them — it was all good.
Speaking of the songs: he didn’t show off there, either. There was a real economy to the Cars’ songs. None of them are too long; there are no indulgences, no wasted notes, no solo sticks around for too long. There’s no fat! Particularly on their self-titled debut, which should go down in rock and roll history as one of the most perfect debut albums ever, along with first efforts by Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Guns N Roses. The Cars was one of the records that kicked off the “new wave” era, but they were somehow not alienating to denim and leather-clad classic rockers. The songs were so undeniably great, they were like Creedence Clearwater Revival for a new era (it’s no surprise that Cars guitarist Elliot Easton would go on to play with CCR’s Doug Clifford and Stu Cook).
No matter what camp you were in, the Cars were cool. They fit in on radio playlists with the B-52s, Talking Heads and the Clash, but also with Journey, Bryan Adams and Foreigner. And, of course, they fit in perfectly on MTV alongside Madonna, Whitney Houston, Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel and Prince (the latter paid the Cars the ultimate compliment by covering “Let’s Go”). The Cars had a brand new sound, but also had a reverence for history: in his acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ocasek recalled hearing Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” which inspired him to play guitar, and clearly continued to influence him for decades to come. The Cars were a rare unicorn in rock music: a band that appealed to everyone while pandering to no one. Ocasek was a lonely outsider who everyone seemed to like. Or at least, they liked his songs.
He always seemed to be a reluctant frontman, and that might have been why he was so good behind the scenes as a record producer for other artists. Even in that role, he seemed motivated by greatness, not album sales. During the Cars’ heyday, he produced albums for underground heroes including Romeo Void, Suicide and Bad Brains (helming the legendary hardcore album, 1983’s Rock For Light). In the ’90s, he produced Weezer’s classic 1994 debut (known as “The Blue Album”), as well as Bad Religion, Nada Surf, D Generation, and Guided By Voices. As his stock was at a new peak in 1997, Billy Corgan produced Ocasek’s Troublizing; the band on the album featured Corgan, Melissa Auf Der Maur of Hole, Brian Baker of Bad Religion (and formerly of Minor Threat), Ira Elliott of Nada Surf, Greg Hawkes of the Cars and Corgan. From there, it would have seemed the perfect time to launch a Cars reunion. But, no such luck.
In 2005, Hawkes and Easton made the ill-advised decision to launch “The New Cars,” with Todd Rundgren filling in for Ocasek. That may have pissed off other frontmen, but Ocasek gave the project his blessing, saying that he wanted his ex-bandmates to be happy. That project wasn’t a big success, and it surely lowered the Cars’ stock. A few years later Ocasek, Hawkes, Easton and drummer David Robinson reunited the band; they opted not to replace the late bassist/singer Ben Orr. On tour, they went out as a four-piece, and Ocasek sang Orr’s songs. Their reunion album, 2011’s Move Like This, saw Hawkes filling in on bass, and was a great, if low-key, album. On the final track, “Hits Me,” Ocasek sang, “I don’t relate to the things they say/And I don’t want to be like them today/I know it’s useless dumb and it’s crass/But I guess I’m just a real outcast.” Amazingly, even after all of his success, he still had the outsider frame of mind. He was cool until the very end. He may not have cared if we’d remember him after he’s gone, but he doesn’t have a choice.