Usually I turn around tributes to deceased artists as fast as I possibly can, but I got the news about Ric Ocasek on the way back from a performance last night, at a bus stop in Queens, in the throes of a splitting headache. So I slept on it.
But I did find myself grieving — only, not really for him per se. I have no idea if Ocasek was a saint, a prince, or a son of a bitch. My sadness is about nostalgia for my long ago teenagerhood. I thought immediately of my high school girlfriend and my buddies, and memories from 30,40-odd years ago came flooding back, and there you go. The Cars were part of our lives for roughly a decade (1978-88), stretching from my junior high school years to my early ’20s. I am astonished now, looking at their discography, that the chart positions of their singles weren’t higher, because we knew and loved them so well. But there are logical reasons for this. The Cars were a Boston band; I’m from nearby Rhode Island, so there was a certain amount of regional pride. Their LPs, including that one with the Vargas cover, were played at parties and hang-outs. I learned how to dampen a guitar chord by playing “My Best Friend’s Girl”. But that wasn’t all there was to it. After all, Aerosmith were also from Boston and we regarded them with something more like amused scorn. What was special about The Cars was that they hit a very sweet spot. They were classicists; they wrote these very solid songs that spoke to teenagers and that were fully in the tradition of rock and roll at its origin point. The first musical artist who had mattered to Ocasek (b. 1944) as a kid had been Buddy Holly. And these catchy, well-crafted songs reflected those kind of influences. They were fun, but they were also melodramatic and sentimental and weepy. But there was other stuff going on that made them far more interesting. They were one of the few American bands with origins in New Wave to achieve success in mainstream pop. Ocasek himself brought that energy. I found myself referencing his presence here just a few weeks ago. He brought some of the Gothic vibe of a Horror Host to the proceedings both visually and aurally, a little Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Count Five and Zacherle mixed with that Buddy Holly. He was tall, thin, pale, and quite possibly Undead. Ocasek’s mysterious Eastern European origins reinforce the image. His real last name (“Otcasek” ) is Czech and I found it significant to see Andy Warhol in one of the Cars’ old MTV videos this morning. Are those guys brothers from another mother or what? Two cadaverous Czech-Americans from the midwest who hide behind scary sunglasses! Over time, as the ’80s rolled on, Ocasek seemed to morph into a New Romantic, reflecting synth pop English influences of the time. After the Cars broke up, Ocasek went solo, with far less success.
Ocasek was only 75 when he passed away yesterday. We don’t have details except that he was found dead of natural causes in his townhouse by his wife, from whom he had been separated for about a year. That, in of itself, contains a bit of melodrama. But the most characteristic thing he could possibly do going forward is to rise from his coffin.