Why I Can’t Say Goodbye to the King of New Wave
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, including those who write music and lyrics. Even a six-foot-four, lanky, quirky, draped in black, decidedly different and totally unconventional hero. Not an anti-hero, mind you. A rock hero…masked as the unassuming engine driving The Cars…also known as Ric Ocasek.
It takes a hero to hand out inspiration. Sometimes those heroes masquerade as musicians…and even as artists. I’ll never forget when I came across some of my most meaningful heroes—who have never wavered throughout my life.
In the summer of ‘79, several hits permeated my radio: The Knack’s ‘My Sharona,’ ‘I Was Made For Lovin’ You’ by Kiss, ‘One Way Or Another’ by Blondie, and near constant airplay of Cheap Trick – Live at Budokan with ‘I Want You To Want Me’ paired with ‘Surrender.’ But by midsummer, one catchy tune was really captivating me. So much so, that I just had to finally run down to the record store and pick it up. The iconic tune was ‘Let’s Go’ from the sophomore album Candy-O by The Cars. The track marked the first Top 20 hit for the band, with ‘Let’s Go’ peaking at #14 on the U.S. Billboard charts. I fell in love with that song the moment I heard it—and couldn’t get it out of my head.
“She’s a frozen fire- she’s my one desire.”
~ Let’s Go
I can still remember the excitement of picking up the rather risqué album cover, Candy-O, and listening to that record for hours without end. These were hitmakers unlike any others. The seminal New Wave band’s whole overall sound was mesmerizing- they were different, sleek, unique, stylish, rockin’- most of all, they were cool.
When I first discovered The Cars and saw co-founder Ben Orr on the Candy-O album sleeve, I recognized immediately he was the personification of ‘cool.’ He looked like a rock star. He had the style of a rock star. And he could rock out like a real rocker. Despite all that, he posed with a lollipop for his album pic. What kind of rock star does something like that? Sure, Telly Savalas as Kojak made suckers en vogue during the 70s, but still…who does that?! Ben’s background as a bass player and lead singer helped inspire me to pick up a bass and take up music myself. (Canadian bassist Mike Levine of Triumph also had a hand in that inspiration during my second rock concert ever, but it was Ben’s image that really sealed the deal for me.) Still, it wasn’t long before I started questioning my choice of instrument. I found bass strings to be so bulky and the strain of wrapping my wrist around the bass neck to be a little too demanding. Surely, there had to be an easier path to rock-n-roll glory? Somehow I came to the conclusion that a plain guitar suited me much better- and was actually easier to play. The revelation of how challenging it was to master the bass guitar seemed to elevate Ben Orr’s status even more to me. It felt like a punch in the gut back in 2000 when I learned we had lost Benjamin Orr to pancreatic cancer. He was a shooting star dimmed far too soon.
Yet all these years later, I realize Cars frontman, primary songwriter, and other co-founder Ric Ocasek was the real king of cool…grinning behind those dark specs and usually clad in black leather or some other stylishly sardonic statement. He was a constant genius hiding in plain sight, painting the walls of our lives with words springing from his subconscious and echoing off his peculiar instrumentations. Ric redefined rock stardom, and for that, every lanky introvert in pop music owes Mr. O a debt forever.
Ric was both the driver and the mechanic….tuning up the vehicle to deliver us to a brighter destination where we could always let the ‘Good Times Roll.’
And now Ric Ocasek is gone at age 75. It just doesn’t seem possible. Somehow, it still feels like The Cars were only getting revved up…
The Cars’ music was like a religion to me. Growing up, I felt their songs spoke to me every step of the way. It was more than just the sound track to my teen years, it was a reflection of the unique world we were living in at that time: Free, uninhibited, courageous yet unresolved, ominous, and somewhat disturbing.
Like so many male adolescents of the 1980s, I fell victim to a certain swimming pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High which was forever joined with the hip and edgy sounds of The Cars—etched in our collective minds to make us always ‘Moving in Stereo.’
Back in those days, I used to pick up the rock mags Creem and Hit Parader to stay on top of the latest music news and rumors. This was before we had the luxury of MTV and certainly no internet or social media. The Cars were regulars in those magazines back then, and I read about them all the time to soak up their lifestyles and learn their printed song lyrics. Yes, this era was way before the days of Google!
While the 1980s produced a musical stew full of fanciful sounds- and I found myself seemingly influenced by genres in virtually every direction, there was still no escaping that unmistakable sound of New Wave. It was a sound ushered in by The Cars. Granted, there were plenty of purveyors of New Wave, chief among them included the Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, The B-52s, and Berlin. But no one sounded quite like The Cars, lauding a legacy and style all their own. They crafted a sound which will live on forever—and never fade away. Just as Ric Ocasek’s original musical hero- Buddy Holly- used to sing.
With my own garage bands back in high school, I remember us always making The Cars’ original hit, ‘Just What I Needed,’ a staple of our set selections. Years later in 2005, when my 80s cover band- The Lost Boys- became all the rage in Houston’s Midtown nightlife scene there was no denying the simple influence of The Cars again. Just two years earlier, the first song we ever did together as The Lost Boys was a familiar one: Yep, you guessed it: ‘Just What I Needed.’
Back in 1984, I was so fortunate to get to see The Cars in their prime on the Heartbeat City tour. Watching the band perform live was a bit of a letdown, however. Strangely, Ben Orr was the only band member to talk to the audience and try to generate any kind of live energy. Ric was as stoic as could be, and the other members appeared to follow his lead that evening. Still, I can remember some fans throwing roses at Ben when he sang the band’s big ballad hit, ‘Drive.’ Ben really seemed to want to be more animated than the others to somehow try to get the crowd going. The rest of the band acted as if they were just meeting a contractual requirement for the night. It was no secret Ric did not enjoy touring or even performing live, for that matter. It was well-documented the self-confessed “quirky jerk” did not like large crowds or even mingling with the masses in arenas like the one I saw him performing in. He was not your usual, run-of-the-mill frontman, to be sure. Yet, just over a year later I would come face to face with Mr. Ocasek on his preferred turf- the streets of NYC.
Yes, coincidentally, I came across Ric one-on-one three times later on in my life…twice while I was going to school at NYU and once years later while I was club-hopping in Miami. One thing about Mr. Ocasek- he was a total standout. You couldn’t miss him in a crowd, even if he wanted to be unseen. The first time I saw him he was stepping out of a big black limo just outside his Greenwich Village flat on the legendary Bleecker Street. Another time I ran into him leaving his little hideaway, if I hadn’t looked closer I would have sworn I’d just seen one of the extras in dark sunglasses from the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “unconventional conventionalists.” He smiled with his usual cat-that-got-the-canary grin, exchanged pleasantries and charged forth full of energy and vigor- a remarkable contrast to the timid, practically invisible rock star I had watched in concert a year earlier in a jam-packed Texas arena. More than a decade later in 1999, I was taking in the hip hot spot, Shadow Lounge, in Miami’s South Beach. As I passed the swanky restaurant right next door which featured a see-and-be-seen crowd, I noticed a star couple perched in the front window. When I got to the entrance, I looked up and bewilderedly noticed Ric once again in all his glory, this time with super model wife Paulina Porizkova in tow. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” I thought to myself as we made eye contact and traded winsome smiles again.
No doubt Mr. O was simply living out a lyric he had devised some two decades earlier: “I like the night life, baby!” ~ Let’s Go
Then, about a dozen years later and fresh off the heels of performing at SXSW, I found myself in Los Angeles in May 2011 promoting my own EP which had just been released in December 2010. As I made my way down Sunset Boulevard, I happened to pull up to the Palladium, looked up, and lo and behold….it was déjà vu all over again! There…like an 80s flashback was The Cars reunion concert in the heart of Hollywood- sold out- but with Ric and the guys looking as spry as ever. I began to wonder if there was any place on earth I could venture without running into this guy?!
Of course, Ric’s powerful influence extended far beyond just The Cars. Among other things, he became a contributing force to the Alternative sound emerging from the 1990s. As a producer, he was the architect behind some great albums and hits by bands like No Doubt, Romeo Void, Nada Surf, Hole, Bad Religion, and Weezer. In fact, my favorite Weezer tune, ‘Island in the Sun,’ was produced by Ric and became such a big hit because he fought to have it included on their platinum-selling third album when the label was going to leave it off entirely. Today, it’s only Weezer’s most licensed song, and any 80s fan will tell you the tune would fit right in with any of the Me Decade’s hits back in the day.
There’s also no mistaking the irony that the last live show put on by grunge hero Kurt Cobain with Nirvana featured covers of ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ and ‘Moving In Stereo’ by The Cars. Ric’s reach was deep, for sure.
Even Brandon Flowers of The Killers gave a heartfelt homage to The Cars while inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last year. The ‘Mr. Brightside’ singer had previously paid Ric Ocasek the ultimate compliment in a personal letter…thanking him for his musical influence and calling him his first ‘King.’ I know how he felt.
Back in 1980… I remember the night John Lennon was killed. So many said the former Beatle had been the voice of their generation- and now that voice was silenced. I never thought I would feel the same way about the loss of Ric Ocasek nearly 40 years later, but that’s exactly how it feels. Ric’s songs were so timeless yet richly plugged into a particular time: the best years of my generation.
So, how do you say goodbye to one of your greatest heroes? …Especially one you seem to fatefully keep bumping into across the miles and years of a lifetime?
Perhaps you never say farewell at all. As Ric himself once penned, you just say “Hello.”