Remembering Ric Ocasek, 1944-2019

OcasekSad to hear of the death of Ric Ocasek Sunday at 75. The man most widely known for his elegant electronic pop songs with The Cars may have been equally influential in rock for producing a number of important acts, from Suicide and Bad Brains to Jonathan Richman, Weezer and Guided by Voices.

I had come to appreciate him anew this year after an interview about a coming art show he was having, of all things. The press materials gave his age as five years younger than he apparently was — a casualty of serving youth culture that extended to his jet black hair.

It turns out visual art was something he had been doing for years. I learned about his Baltimore upbringing, his fascination with the Beats, early rock ’n’ roll and his taste in choosing production products in a January 2019 discussion that may have ended up being one of his last interviews.

Of his artistic life in the telephone conversation, he said, “I’ve always gone down that road and tried to explore all those parts of life. I always sought out artists, or writers, different ones, in New York.”

Some of that happened in New York, but he also mentioned a mansion Timothy Leary lived in  Millbrook, N.Y. “He lived in a castle a woman gave him and he was visited by artists, writers and musicians. People like that tend to hang out together. There’s a similarity to them all. There are writers who are fun to be with—not fun maybe, but interesting to be with—and there’s the same with music and art.”

One inspiration for the art and music combo was likely Warhol. “Andy was always part music—he had the Velvet Underground on top of the art. A lot of musicians went to art school. I know musicians who have doctor’s degrees and who were writers.” Better to hang with artists, musicians and writers, he said, than chefs and lawyers.

“I would do some hanging out with Andy. I used to go over to the Factory, where he did a lot of work. Tons of it. He was quiet and introspective. I was quiet too. But he liked to gossip and he had an interesting way to treat the press.”

Ocasek had played a beatnik abstract painter, in fact, in the original 1988 “Hairspray” with John Waters, with whom he shared a Baltimore heritage.

“I was born and raised there until I was 16 and my family moved to Ohio,” he told me. “I loved Baltimore and Ocean City. I’d go downtown to Baltimore Street. I used to live in the suburbs. I lived in Maple Heights and Loch Raven, and I would sneak down when I was 10 or 12 and go down to Baltimore Street. There were all these strip bars down there and the doors would be open. I’d look in and think: ‘Sheesh, what’s going on in there?’”

But there were other temptations downtown. “There was one music store down there. I remember they had a Fretless Wonder, the Black Beauty. I always wanted one. It was one of those things that always struck me. I always thought, ‘I’ve got to try it.’

He started playing in bands after his family moved to Cleveland; he met future Cars bassist Benjamin Orr there and they started a couple of bands in Columbus, then Ann Arbor and finally Boston.

“I had a lot of bands, over a bunch of years,” Ocasek said. “The Cars was the fifth band I had. Each band was a learning experience. You’d get better songs each time and better musicians each time.

“I could tell when we were in Boston playing at the Ground Round with Ben and I, and then a couple of years later we had lines down the street at the Rat. It seemed a big combination of people getting to know the business and the songs.”

In every band he had, he wrote the songs. “That’s basically what I wanted to do. I liked songwriters, I was always attracted to people like Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent in the ’50s, and when the ‘60s came, of course I loved The Beatles, but I also loved the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa. They were more interesting than the straight up pop stuff. Those are the kind of things I had interest in. The kind of stuff I produced as well had the same sort of background, more artistic.”

Yet there was a simplicity to The Cars music, as different as it sounded, that made them catchy. And they had a string of memorable songs — “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Let’s Go,” “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think,” and “Drive.”

Ocasek said “it was wonderful” for The Cars to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year and something of a shock, especially since bands he name checked at the induction dinner had yet to get in, including Devo and Kraftwerk.

“Those are bands that should be in there,” he told me. “They are groundbreaking and they had a lot to do with how music developed.”

He said it was good to get together to play one last time at the induction ceremony. “When we got together, rehearsed for a week and did it, it was pretty darn good,” Ocasek said of their set. “It was almost like we had finished a tour and took a break. Of course, there was no Benjamin Orr there so that was sad.” Orr died in 2000 at 53.

Still active in music, Ocasek said in January he was working on a new solo album, but not producing any new bands at present. But I asked him about a few of his more prominent productions in the past:

Bad Brains: “Bad Brains played in Boston and I went to the show. I might have heard “Pay to Cum” on a jukebox. But I went to the show in Boston I actually ended up lending them my equipment because somebody stole their truck the night they were going to play the show.

“I had a studio in Boston where I got the equipment and I said let’s just do an album, you don’t have an album you just have a cassette, you should have an album out. And they wanted to do that. And we really got a good thing. It was one of the weirdest bands I ever worked with, doing the opposite of what I did. But they were unbelievably deep musicians, much deeper than you would imagine at surface. And we’ve been friends ever since. I did two of their albums.”

Suicide: “I met Alan [Vega] the same way. It was a club. I was freaked out by him. I was scared to go up to Alan—he was pretty aggressive then, pulling people up on stage and confronting them. But he had the anti-show. They would do everything they could to have people throw them off the stage, even when they played in Los Angeles, at Hollywood Bowl. We had them open for us on a tour and we played in arenas, and before they got to their second song, they got booed. He was taunting them and told them the Dodgers sucked, and the next day the press was amazing. All the critics loved them. But the people didn’t get them. They were the real deal, though. Those guys were artists. Alan had a physics degree, but he’d been playing at the Mercer Arts Center since late ’74. Their idea even then was two guys, keyboard, and Alan. They were different.”

Jonathan Richman: “Jonathan Richman I met the first day I moved to Boston. I moved to Cambridge from Ann Arbor, where I had lived briefly. And the first day when I was looking for an apartment, I went down to the housing bulletin board that afternoon at Harvard Square and sure enough, Jonathan and the Modern Lovers were playing for free. And they sounded like the Velvets, so I went up and talked to him. Jonathan was just as weird as anyone else I knew.

“That was 1972 and they were playing the Modern Lovers stuff that would be on the first album. Then lo and behold, in 1978 I ended up getting [drummer] David [Robinson] from the Modern Lovers [into The Cars]. That was a real small world thing. I didn’t even know David. But it was a DJ from Boston who said you should get David Robinson. He was in a band then called DMZ, which was bigger than The Cars at the time. So I asked him, and he said I’ll listen to the songs. He did and joined up.

“I produced Jonathan right around the “Something About Mary” period. I knew Jonathan for a long time and he would hang out when he was in town. He’s a great artist. And he still calls me when he comes to town and says, “We’re playing tonight, do you want to come down?”

Weezer: “I did a few of their albums, the first and the third and then one five years ago. I love Rivers [Cuomo] and that music.

“The first time I heard that, I was in LA driving around in a car. Somebody from Geffen had sent a tape to my hotel, and I was driving around listening to it. I was thinking this band is unbelievably good, they must be a heavy metal band. Their demo was phenomenal. It was extremely muddy, just like the first album. I went to their rehearsal, and they had all these amps turned up to 12. Quite the experience. Everything rattled and they went in and did it. Rivers is phenomenal. And very prolific—he’s got tons of songs you’ve never heard.”

Finally, of The Cars, he said: “I can’t pretend —  it was definitely a pop band and I certainly always loved a good pop song,” Ocasek said. “I always liked great songs, and it didn’t matter if it was from the Carpenters or Lou Reed. As long as they were done well and they weren’t corny or fake.”

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