Photo Credit: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
If you lived or worked in New York City in Nineties or after, chances are you spotted Ric Ocasek on the street at least once. It was probably harder to miss the Empire State Building: well over six feet tall and exhibiting the same lanky physical frame, longish hair and sad/curious facial features that had defined his appearance through his four decades as a public figure, by simply walking down the street Ocasek – who died on September 15 at age seventy-five – was impossible to ignore or mistake for another.
The same can be said for the music that Ocasek created in his career, most notably as lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and main songwriter for the Cars. The band debuted in 1978 and was generally viewed as part of the new wave movement. However, the Cars musically sounded like no one else, constructing a seamless balance between guitar and synthesizer – rock’s two dominant instruments that so often seem to be at war with one another – in a way that has arguably never been bested or even equaled.
But there was more to the Cars than just the sound: they also successfully blurred the line between cool and geeky, as Ocasek created themes and wrote lyrics that were intentionally ambiguous. Take, for example, one of their early hits, “Good Times Roll”: “Let the good times roll // Let them knock you around // Let them make you a clown.” The drowning, almost defeatist tune hardly sounds like a party anthem (yet somehow it is – just not everybody’s idea of a party).
“Good Times Roll” was one of three early Cars singles – along with “It’s All I Can Do” and “Since You’re Gone” – which peaked on the Billboard charts at exactly 41, meaning they all stood just at the threshold of the Top 40, essentially velvet roped outside of Casey Kasem’s terrain. Indeed, even though their first two albums (The Cars and Candy-O) went multi-platinum, they were still exactly far enough outside the fringe to remain cool and were able to duck the “overnight sensation” stigma.
In fact, the Cars wouldn’t have a Top 10 hit until their fourth album Shake It Up (1981). The video for the song (the title track) also became an early MTV staple. It was obvious to nearly all that the Cars were custom-made for the music video revolution, which they took full advantage of with their 1984 release, Heartbeat City. This also cemented Ocasek’s role as the visual focal point of the band, even while bequeathing lead vocals – as he frequently did – to bassist Benjamin Orr on “Drive,” which became the band’s highest-charting single (the inclusion of the strikingly beautiful Paulina Porizkova – who would become Ocasek’s third wife – in the video probably didn’t hurt either).
Though originally seen as a peer of groups like Blondie, the Talking Heads and the Police, the Cars never followed those bands into explorations of disco, reggae and rap, only ever following their own musical GPS. Accordingly, it was probably changing trends that brought them to a screeching halt with their 1987 release Door to Door, which listeners welcomed about as warmly as a surprise visit from Jehovah’s Witnesses (although here’s the gospel truth: It’s a very good album, the title track being probably the band’s one true punk song).
Despite his dominating the band’s sound and imagine, in the end it turned out that not only was there no Cars without Ocasek but also vice-versa: except for one Top 20 single (“Emotions in Motion”) Ocasek never managed a successful solo career, while an attempt in the 2000s to create a new version of the Cars fronted by Todd Rundgren was a complete fiasco. Even a reunion album and tour of surviving original members (Orr died in 2000) in 2011 came and went with little notice.
However, Ocasek also spent the past few decades as a greatly sought-after producer for bands like No Doubt, Hole, Bad Religion and – most notably Weezer’s two classic self-title “color” albums, “Blue” (1994) and “Green” (2001). He didn’t have to turn into a giant, as he did in the video for “You Might Think” or even rely upon his natural six-foot-four height: In rock history, Ric Ocasek will always stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd.