You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Ric Ocasek of the Cars, who passed away this weekend in his New York City apartment at the age of 75, was older or the same age as any of the members of Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks or The Who. Heck, he was only a few months younger than Keith Richards! And yet, we associate him and his groundbreaking, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band more with the fresh energy of the New Wave scene of rock’s third decade than with the era of the art form’s founding figures. I suppose you could chalk it up to Ocasek being the patron saint of the “late bloomer,” serving as a model for artists like Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices (whose 1999 album, Do the Collapse, Ocasek produced).
You might also be surprised to learn that, despite all their success and acclaim and relative ubiquity on late 70s/early 80s FM radio, not to mention regular airplay on MTV in their early days, the Cars never had a Number 1 hit single or album on Billboard’s regular charts. Plenty of close calls, but no chart-toppers (they did reach #1 with Billboard’s Rock charts, but that’s a bit of a cheat in my book). Still, most serious music fans would agree that the Cars’ self-titled 1978 debut is so jammed-packed with familiar songs, from “Just What I Needed” to “My Best Friend’s Girl” to “Bye Bye Love” to “Good Times Roll,” that, as lead guitarist Elliot Easton said of the album, it by itself could have been called “The Cars Greatest Hits.” Nonetheless, a half-dozen more albums and numerous memorable singles were still to come.
Although many of the band’s best-known tracks were sung by bassist Benjamin Orr (who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in 2000), Ocasek was the main songwriter, and he was a master of the glossy power pop tune, full of catchy hooks and wry lyrics, that worked equally well on a muscular, handclap-heavy party jam like “Let’s Go,” or as a melancholy lament like their biggest hit, “Drive.” There is something so accessible about his work that artists as wide-ranging as Nirvana, Prince, Tim McGraw, Poison and even Julio Iglesias could cover his songs completely unironically. And there was something especially appealing about his image as a somewhat gawky, gangly rock star - always hidden behind his sunglasses - that made him seem both down to earth and otherworldly at the same time.
Ocasek was also a supporter of other artists through his production work. He had a long relationship with Alan Vega of the confrontational synth-punk band Suicide and produced an early album from ground-breaking hardcore punk band Bad Brains. He produced Weezer’s debut, and worked with the likes of No Doubt, Jonathan Richman, Romeo Void, Possum Dixon, among numerous others over his career. After the initial breakup of the Cars, Ocasek also released a string of solo albums, as well as occasionally appearing as an actor, publishing a book of poetry, and creating various visual art pieces and paintings.
Pop music is never so simple as it seems at first blush, but Ric Ocasek did seem to have the magic touch to make it seem so. His loss affects me greatly because so much of the Cars’ music encapsulates what I like best in music: indefatigable energy, a sense of play and curiosity, sharp and direct production, and the ability to create something that sounds timeless. In this moment of his passing, I’m reminded that while I do indeed like the nightlife, baby, I also should never forget who is going to drive me home either.