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Ric Ocasek Was One Of Pop’s Great Mad Scientists

Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit JERNK. Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit JERNK. That’s how the Cars introduced themselves on their very first single, the immortal 1978 banger “Just What I Needed.” That song, like so many other Cars songs, is a marvelous little machine, one that delivers tiny endorphin-rush jolts every few seconds. You could write a senior thesis about the way “Just What I Needed” builds, methodically and masterfully, to its monster-bleat chorus — all the tiny, nasty, meticulous hooks embedded in the climb to its big singalong. And then you could write another thesis about the song’s lyrical construction.

The narrator tries to sound cool and reserved — “I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time” — before suddenly going all-in, his bandmates all shouting over him with jarring and clingy force. “Just What I Needed” is the work of people who have studied and internalized all the glories of pop music and who have then created their own robotic platonic-ideal version of it. It’s the world’s dorkiest stadium-rock anthem, and only Ric Ocasek could’ve written it.

The Cars were the right band in the right place at the right time. They came shooting out of the Boston club-and-college-party circuit at a moment when corporate studio-rock bands were at their peak and when punks and new wavers were just emerging, busting the sound of those behemoths down to its barest elements. Somehow, the Cars were both corporate rock and punk. They brought machine-tooled hooks to the underground and immediately followed it by bringing gawky, twitchy chilliness to the masses. They sounded like they emerged out of a mechanically sealed vacuum — a gleaming product for a new era. But that’s not what they were. They were lifers, veterans of failure, who had finally figured out the sound that would launch them out of obscurity and make them rich and beloved.

Ric Ocasek was not native to punk rock. He was older than that — old enough that he first started playing guitar after hearing Buddy Holly. It showed. Ocasek’s vocal delivery — a perfectly awkward throat-frog hiccup — had more to do with Buddy Holly than with any other singer in rock history. As a teenager, Ocasek moved from Baltimore to Cleveland, where he operated on his father’s beater car, figuring out how to get it to make big vrooming noises at the local drag strip. Benjamin Orr, Ocasek’s future Cars bandmate, was in the house band on the local dance-party TV show. A few years later, they met up at Ohio State University and started a band called Id Nirvana. That was in 1968. New wave was still about a decade away from happening.

For years upon years, Ocasek and Orr gigged around tirelessly, moving from city to city and starting multiple failed bands. They finally settled in Boston. One of the bands they started, a dippy harmony-folk trio called Milkwood, released one album on Paramount Records in 1972. It had songs with titles like “Timetrain Wonderwheel.” Nothing has ever been further from new wave. But Milkwood went nowhere, and until the advent of YouTube, the mere existence of a pre-Cars folk band felt like some impossible rumor.

The Cars started in 1976, and they played their first show at an Air Force base in New Hampshire. The Cars could’ve easily been one more failed Ocasek/Orr venture, but their drummer figured some things out. David Robinson, formerly of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers, liked the songs that Ocasek wrote, and he liked the way Orr and Ocasek played together, but he knew that their presentation wasn’t there yet. So Robinson instituted a dress code. Like the White Stripes a couple of decades later, the Cars would only wear red, white, and black. And Robinson also gave the Cars their name. It’s a perfect band name — one that reflects both classic rock ‘n’ roll teenage kicks and mechanistic assembly-line precision, all in seven letters.

By the time new wave happened, Ocasek was 34. He was a twice-married father of two, and he lied about his age in Jon Pareles’ Rolling Stone cover story on the band. But Ocasek’s age didn’t matter because he didn’t look like he belonged to any age. He looked like a mannequin, or a gollum — a frighteningly tall and pale and skinny vision, one seemingly composed entirely of jagged angles. Onstage, Ocasek was remote and mysterious, never betraying a hint of emotion. It didn’t matter. Scientists don’t need to show emotion.

After all those years of practice and failure, the Cars gelled within a couple of years. In David Robinson’s strictures, Ocasek thrived, writing songs that fed old-timey top-40 thrills through icy, blippy new-wave filters. He sounded like an alien trying to create the feeling of earthling rock ‘n’ roll through pure pastiche, doing better at it than anyone could’ve ever expected. The words he sang — that we should let the good times brush our rock ‘n’ roll hair, that you’ve got your nuclear boots and your drip-dry glove — only barely scanned as human speech. Soon enough, a Boston DJ was playing the demo tapes of the Cars songs “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” on local radio, something that would be unthinkable today. Elektra snapped them up and sent them into the studio with Roy Thomas Baker, the corporate-rock veteran who’d helped Queen and Journey find their sounds. And then the Cars made a couple of miracles.

The first two Cars albums — 1978’s self-titled debut, 1979’s Candy-O — are about as perfect as new wave albums get. Those two albums both play out as ready-made greatest hits LPs. On those albums, grown man Ric Ocasek takes on the aches and longings of teenage life with silly, brittle seriousness. “Moving In Stereo,” for instance, was a song triumphantly, frustratedly horny enough to soundtrack the scene of Phoebe Cates climbing out of the pool in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. “Let’s Go” piles echoing handclaps on top of synthetic strings and bow-bow-bow keyboard noises better than any other song in rock history. Ocasek knew what he was doing.

The Cars’ whole story played out over less than a decade, and it hit all the marks that a cliché rise-and-fall rock-band saga is supposed to hit. There was the difficult third album: 1980’s Panorama, on which Ocasek clearly wanted a little too badly for the Cars to be Wire. There was the triumphant pop comeback: 1981’s Shake It Up, a headlong dive back into hookville. The album where the band drifts a little too far into ultra-produced pop craftsmanship: 1984’s Heartbeat City, wherein the Cars teamed up with Def Leppard and AC/DC crunch-pop master Mutt Lange and scored their biggest-ever hit in the gleaming power ballad “Drive.” And then there was the inevitable falling-off and falling-apart. The Cars broke up in 1988, after the relative failure of their Door To Door album. Ocasek and Orr were estranged until Orr died in 2000.

That whole time, though, the Cars were putting out amazing songs, songs that were built to live forever in radio rotation. Singles like “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and “Good Times Roll” and “Shake It Up” and “Magic” and “You Might Think” are eternal standbys — perfect little nuggets that somehow evoke both Devo and Tom Petty. And while they were never exactly pretty, the Cars turned out to be ideal for the emerging cable channel MTV. At the first-ever VMAs, for instance, the Cars’ “You Might Think” video won Video Of The Year. The video beat “Thriller” and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Every Breath You Take” and “Rockit” — all masterpieces. “You Might Think” probably didn’t deserve to beat fucking “Thriller,” but it’s an amazing piece of work in its own right — a live-action Bugs Bunny video where Ocasek’s gaunt, inexpressive face spends three minutes chasing the same model around, becoming a fly and an alarm clock and King Kong.

Later that same year, the actor Timothy Hutton directed the Cars’ “Drive” video, featuring the implausible pairing of Ocasek and the 18-year-old Czech supermodel Paulina Porizokva. But then it turned out that the pairing wasn’t so implausible after all. Five years later, Ocasek married Porizkova in perhaps the all-time greatest beautiful woman/weird-looking rock star union. And they stayed married for a long time; Porizkova only announced their separation last year.

So the Cars’ run was short, but it was consequential. After the band ended, Ocasek never mustered much of a solo career. He started putting out his own albums in 1982, starting with the pretty-good artier-version-of-the-Cars LP Beatitude. Most of Ocasek’s solo records are arty, insular bug-outs. In a short cameo in fellow freaky-looking Baltimorean John Waters’ 1988 masterpiece Hairspray, Ocasek plays a wild-eyed beatnik. He’s funny in the movie, but he seemed content to play a pretty similar role in his own artistic life.

But though Ocasek never became a solo star, he did something that might be even better: He became one of the all-time great rock producers. The first album that Ocasek produced was 1980’s Alan Vega And Martin Rev: Suicide, the second album from New York synth-trashers Suicide. Suicide’s spartan keyboard throbs had clearly had an effect on Ocasek’s work with the Cars. And in paying that influence forward, Ocasek streamlined Suicide’s sound just slightly while keeping its sketchy intensity intact. That’s a hell of a place to start. (Later on, Ocasek produced two more Suicide albums, as well as a few Alan Vega solo efforts.)

In 1983, when the Cars were ruling MTV, Ocasek produced Bad Brains’ classic Rock For Light, making him one of the first people within the rock establishment to recognize the primal power of hardcore. And in 1994, Weezer became the ultimate beneficiaries of Ocasek’s power-pop instincts when Ocasek produced their self-titled Blue Album. There’s something so beautiful in Ocasek anointing his own deadpan-guitar-pop successors, and in a guy who learned guitar after hearing Buddy Holly being the one who produced “Buddy Holly.” (The other two Weezer albums that Ocasek produced, 2001’s Green Album and 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End, are among their best.)

Over the years, Ocasek put together a hell of a production discography. It’s a stranger list than Ocasek collaborators like Roy Thomas Baker and Mutt Lange would amass, and its diversity is one of its strengths. Ocasek liked working with bands who could write clean, sharp, guitar-based hooks — D Generation, the Wannadies, Possum Dixon — but he could do big-money pop (No Doubt), polemic pseduo-pop (Le Tigre), muscular big-room punk (Bad Religion), and tangled but radio-ready alt-rock (Nada Surf). The first time I saw Guided By Voices, an extremely drunk and ebullient Robert Pollard told the crowd, “I’m 42 years old, and I got an album produced by Ric Ocasek.” Ocasek had just done GBV’s Do The Collapse, and Pollard knew what a big deal that was.

Years after the Cars’ demise, the band retained an enduring coolness that most of their early-MTV peers didn’t share. They were covered by the Smashing Pumpkins and the Deftones and the Melvins and the Red House Painters. In March of 1994, Nirvana played what would turn out to be their final show in Munich. They opened it with a cover of “My Best Friend’s Girl.” Maybe Kurt Cobain, a man who tended to write about different kinds of longing, thought he was being ironic. But I don’t think so. I think one great hook-writer recognized another.

You can cover a Cars song without sounding like an asshole. The Cars came up with these incredible, efficient rock-song blueprints. No matter how many times other bands play with those blueprints, no matter how many directions they push those songs, the Cars songs will still sound like the Cars. Ric Ocasek is gone now, but those glinting diamonds that he created will be around forever. As long as radios exist, those opening notes from “Just What I Needed” will ring out.