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The Cool, Perfect Pop Music of Ric Ocasek

The Cars frontman, who died Sunday at age 75, challenged our expectations of how rock stars had to look or act

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When I was 4 years old, I used to run in circles around my parents’ living room listening to the first Cars album. That would be The Cars, from 1978, the album with “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and seven other outrageously perfect pop songs that sounded like the Velvet Underground going undercover to pick up chicks at a video arcade, though obviously only the video-arcade part resonated with me at the time. (I associated the eerie dirge “Moving in Stereo” not with Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but with Darth Vader, because I thought that song, also, was cool as hell even though it scared the crap out of me.)

Anyway, as I ran in circles to The Cars, I would clutch the inner sleeve the vinyl record came in, festooned with black-and-white photos of lanky, glowering gentlemen and foxy ladies and whatnot. Four-year-old me called this sleeve “Cars Paper,” and eventually it got all ripped up, and so my parents bought another copy of The Cars just for the Cars Paper. A couple of years ago they bought yet another copy of the album just to frame that sleeve as a gift to me; it is hanging on the wall behind me as I type this. This being, ostensibly, a eulogy for lanky, glowering, cool-as-hell Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who died Sunday at 75, though in part of course I am also self-indulgently mourning myself at 4 years old, because that is how pop music, at its coolest and eeriest and most outrageously perfect, works.

The Cars emerged from Boston in the late ’70s with world-class power pop tunes and glamorously obtuse New Wave style, whimsically severe and untouchable even at their most accessible. (Asked to contribute to Marooned, a 2007 rock-critic anthology of the single album we’d each take with us if marooned on a desert island, I wrote, like, 3,000 words about just the first 60 seconds of “Just What I Needed,” also from The Cars and one of the most universally pristine and ecstatic songs ever written, particularly the drum roll at the 45-second mark, but ah, there I go, making it about me again.) The Cars were absurdly fun in part, somehow, because they didn’t look very fun, at least onstage. “But what is most intriguing about the band,” Jon Pareles wrote in a 1979 cover story for Rolling Stone, “is that its enthusiasm is not apparent.”

That reticence is mostly down to the man born Richard Theodore Otcasek, a Baltimore native and moderate problem child who eventually dropped the T from his last name to improve wind resistance and remained an affable enigma to even his bandmates. (“He was singing Beatles songs, and I thought he had the greatest voice,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone about his initial attraction to Cars guitarist and crucial co-lead-vocalist Benjamin Orr. “By now, we know each other so well I hardly talk to him.”) The Cars idled at the laser-precise intersection of nerdery and badassery; bulletproof car-stereo anthems like “Let’s Go” to “Touch and Go” were enthusiasm incarnate, as stiff and stone-faced and self-possessed as Ocasek and the boys might be. They were classic rock on contact, burning frigid and blindingly bright from a distant and impossibly cool future that still doesn’t sound like the past 30-plus-years later.

As a kid I gravitated toward the band’s fourth album, 1981’s Shake It Up, which leaned into the video-arcade synthesizer rapture of it all; I loved even just the first 30 seconds of the weeping-raygun power ballad “I’m Not the One” or a goofy, peppy B-side like “Think It Over,” the way all their songs sounded like robots clunkily booting themselves up and awkwardly learning to feel. Ocasek, notably, was already in his mid-30s when The Cars made him famous, and by the time of 1984’s lush Heartbeat City he’d learned to expertly leverage his awkwardness and gangliness in the outlandish videos for MTV staples “You Might Think” (where he cosplays as both a giant and a fly) and “Magic” (where he literally walks on water, the American Jesus of Cool). He was married to supermodel Paulina Porizkova for nearly 30 years; they separated in 2018, the same year the Cars finally made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ocasek exploded any limitations as to who got to be a rock star, and how a rock star had to look or act, and he did it without ever exploding at all.

The Cars broke up after 1987’s Door to Door and stayed dormant save for one reunion album, 2011’s Move Like This, which was better and more vibrant than it had any right to be; Ocasek, in the meantime, reinvented himself as a modest pop superproducer. His best known work in that realm remains Weezer’s 1994 self-titled debut Blue Album, which implanted a recognizable nerd-badass power-pop ethos onto a new generation. (Weezer paid loving tribute to Ocasek upon news of his death, as did everyone from Courtney Love to Nile Rodgers to the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman to El-P.) But Ocasek also produced abrasive noise-rock deities Suicide, and hardcore titans Bad Brains, and fellow Boston unlikely-rock-star superhero Jonathan Richman. He made intellectual pop-punk lifers Bad Religion sound like car-stereo gods; I am in the tank for this guy such that I even love his work on the 1999 Guided by Voices album Do the Collapse, dismissed at the time as a smoothed-over sellout move by underground kings but aching with a monolithic pure pop melancholy I’d long since decided to build my entire life around.

Ah, sorry, there I am again, regaling college coffeehouse open-mic nights with my awkward and gangly and painfully sincere version of the Cars’ “Drive,” a Heartbeat City smash ballad that Ocasek wrote but gave to his old buddy Benjamin Orr to sing because he knew Orr was right for it. “Drive,” also, is one of the most universally pristine and ecstatic songs ever written, a heartbreaker and a life-affirmer. I mourned both him and my 4-year-old self when Orr died in 2000, and here we are again, still running in circles and clutching the things that matter to us until they’re all torn up and even more vital to our very existence. I never talked to Ric Ocasek at all, and yet like millions of devotees I knew him so well, because that, also, is how perfect pop music works.