Brush Your Rock & Roll Hair, Ric Ocasek’s Gone to Heaven

It was cold, steely but not metal. It swirled and encircled you like a cartoon vine, only it was staccato—and the beat was so evident. A tension to it, a tautness that put you on edge, even as you leaned into it. And that sangfroid vocalist, slightly whiny, absolutely penetrating, higher register than Lou Reed, yet just as disaffected.

When “Good Times Roll” poured out of the crappy school car station wagon’s speakers, it still grabbed you by the ears, or the throat, or the heart. Nothing sounded like it. Punk was more fractious. Rock was more bloated. Pop was more hyper. Disco was, well, shinier.

Like Goldilocks, this—whatever it was—was just right. Terse, hip, cool—and yes, romantic even its alienation. As a kid raised on Holden Caulfield, this singer was New Wave perfection.

And, as Kid Leo throatily told us, he and his partner in The Cars, Benjamin Orr, were from Cleveland, the rock & roll capitol of the world, where Alan Freed coined the phrase, Chrissie Hynde got that famed “Precious”-invoked abortion, Joe Walsh and The Raspberries and Pere Ubu and The Dead Boys had come from, had done it again. Only maybe better.

Ric Ocasek (oh-KASS-eck) was the praying mantis of rock: tall, thin, long limbs, hidden behind dark glasses with the most amazing structured haircut. Never menacing or cruel, only wickedly cool and somehow removed from all the trivial things that hung up so many other oddballs and weirdos.

Weirdos, yes, the mainstream preppy kids didn’t get them in their primary colors that suggested Stephen Sprouse, their downtown GQ chic that took the notion of tailoring to a minimalist sense of liquid movement.

Maybe it was because Richard Otcasek was one more too thin ethnic kid in a city born and built on Italians, Irish, Polish, Croatian, Hungarian, German, Lithuanian and more. While it was a melting pot, and getting over was king, you never truly forgot who or what you were—and that awareness gave all of us an outsider status. Whether you were aggressively identified with your country of origin or not, you knew on a cellular level, you were something more/different/other.

But like Andy Warhol, who came from the next town over in the steel corridor, Ocasek and Orr knew there was more. Dreaming could lead to reinvention; the road could take them to a new kind of self. So off to Boston they went, and germinated, sprouted and brought the alienation and hormonal foment—by way of local Boston rock airplay on WBCN—to a Roy Thomas Baker synth-gilded, minimal but slamming rock project.

And it slammed. Maybe it was the space on their records—room between instruments on the tracks, space between the words, the whip crack beats, the notes unfurled—that left a place for the thrust to get in.

The Cars—now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—were the ones who changed everything. Suddenly, I wasn’t an outlying little girl in a plaid skirt and knee socks being sneered at by the brutal hard punk clerks at Record Revolution on Coventry—the high temple I went to trying to find the latest Stiff release, asking which Akron band was maybe next, or whether Elvis Costello was the Jackson Browne of punk to the spiky-haired checkout guy.

No, The Cars made New Wave safe, but also tough enough for the boys who thought Blondie and The Ramones were trolling the singles of the ’50s and ’60s and The Plasmatics were just shock rock for a new generation. This well-played, well-written, brutally well-recorded music hit the Bad Company/Journey/REO people right between the eyes, and gave the  folks enough loser-ascending narrative and momentum lift to climb onboard.

Suddenly the playlists at the seventh and eighth grade dances were populated by “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Moving in Stereo,” “Just What I Needed.” The herky-jerky dancing giving license to even the most awkward, the clear beat a lighthouse blink of exactly when to step, bounce or lean back. Even the dorky kids could have a moment where their awkward looked like an aesthetic decision.

If Benjamin Orr, with the softer voice, blue eyes and razor-cut blond hair,
was “the dreamboat,” Ocasek was the danger boy. He would stand and watch and wait. He knew things, things he might or might not share. Might or might not lift those ever-present wraparound shades. Might or might not acknowledge
a desire to be loved, even though it was all over the songs.

Who didn’t wanna be the girl with “the suede blue eyes”? Didn’t wanna have nuclear boots and drip-dry gloves? Or be bouncing down the street or dancing ’neath the starry skies with that sort of unselfconscious abandon? And if it had an impact, well, really?

Before there were John Hughes movies, there was The Cars. Then Candy O, with that fuzzy through a vacuum cleaner hose wah-wah tone on “Let’s Go,” that synth-undertow Farfisa curling “Lust for Kicks” and the AOR-living title track. Not as cataclysmic, perhaps, in terms of a discovery that toppled musical cliques, but solidified their place as a rock band that worked for everyone in a way ELO, The Sex Pistols and Tavares never would.

They had a big slot on the World Series of Rock one summer... Was it the Fleetwood Mac headlining one where Stevie Nicks came out to sing on “Ebony Eyes” with Bob Welch? Where Todd Rundgren’s modern interpretative dancer during “Can We Still Be Friends” prompted mockery from the guys I was with, as I tried to explain he was A Wizard, A True Star? Where street-corner rocker Eddie Money opened the day?

Sandwiched in the middle was the one act everyone could agree on. Even the guys who were just there to see hot Stevie were all about the planed and highly constructed New Wave of The Cars. Local heroes, sure. But even more importantly, they stripped things down in what they played, came right for the thorax and worked an art-school deep freeze as they did it.

If Benjamin Orr, with the softer voice, blue eyes and razor-cut blond hair, was “the dreamboat,” Ocasek was the danger boy. He would stand and watch and wait. He knew things, things he might or might not share. Might or might not lift those ever-present wraparound shades. Might or might not acknowledge a desire to be loved, even though it was all over the songs.

I left Cleveland, moved to Florida. Lived out by Military Trail, where nobody ever ventured. Played golf on some of the second-tier clubs and resort courses as a “prep golfer,” as high school teams were then called. I was lost in an unrelatable world of stupid jock boys, feathered-hair girls and an anti-intellectualism that choked me. They didn’t even have real record stores!

Peaches in Fort Lauderdale, a county and a half away, was a high temple I was not allowed to drive to, and the weird record store that smelled of mildew, rotting cardboard and really tired weed nearby was all there was. In a dying strip mall with a grocery store designed for those just above the poverty line, the “record store” catered to those folks and sold white label, generic-black-type eight-tracks and cassettes.

Panorama came in and didn’t move in the redneck town where we lived. I picked it up for 99 cents and lived by the creeping synths of “Touch and Go.” That attenuated “All I need is what you’ve got/All I tell is what you’re not... All you know is what you need, dear/I get this way when you get near...”

My knees would go weak, my pulse would quicken. Then the spaghetti-Western beat/melody would pick up, sweep the redneck awfulness into a neat dust whirl that made me laugh about where I’d been exiled. There was no New Wave antihero coming to save me, no John Cusack type who’d recognize that beyond the monogrammed sweater and sharkskin green golf shorts was an alienated heart looking for an outcast dream.

But the promise of “Misfit Kid,” “Down Boys,” and even “You Wear Those Eyes” reminded me I just had to survive two seasons of high school golf, get to college and believe. There was a tribe out there, waiting for me...waiting for every other disaffected hipster kid who looked around the rah-rah high school shenanigans and rolled their eyes.

College radio set me free. If The Cars seemed to be rutted up, assigned a lesser role in what was current or perhaps a moment of salvation in the rearview mirror, Ocasek’s heart stayed true. He produced Bad Brains. He made more experimental records. He merged with Romeo Void for the incendiary “Never Say Never,” as Deborah Iyall hissed a whole other acid rain of diss at a judging and rejecting guy. Sizzling with menace, she chorused, “I might like you better if we slept together/Something in your eyes says never... Baby, NEVER... say... never...”

Ocasek took the rejection of the too tall, too thin, too nerdy, too introverted boy and turned it inside out for a nurse uniform-sporting, tousled explosion of mahogany curls, buoyantly built Iyall. Suddenly the girl nobody picked was a spider monkey of acrimony and sexual vengeance, morphing every slight into a slow burning, white hot melt you to the core vocal napalmist.

And that was the deal: Ocasek took your pain, your frozen inability to respond, the humiliations dealt and sometimes received without the other person even knowing and transformed it a liberation that was aggressive euphoria.

When Phoebe Cates, the “it” girl of the moment, flashed her billion-watt smile on the diving board in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then bounced on the end—no subtle metaphor there—only one song could play. And play “Moving in Stereo” did, as she took off her bikini top and plunged into the icy blue pool. No telling how many moments of masculine self-abuse were launched by the short clip of Amy Heckerling’s directorial debut, but Cameron Crowe, who wrote the book and script, more than understood.

Acts so vitally aligned to cosmic zeitgeist should never, ever be counted out. When MTV launched, the angular frontman—who seemingly had as much in common with David Byrne as Lou Reed’s downtown aesthetics—was uniquely poised to stand out in the new visual realm.

Shake It Up preceded MTV by just a skosh, but not enough to miss the nascent days of a medium blowing up. The video for the title track won the first MTV Video of the Year Award, and the band’s lean morph suited a channel that usurped terrestrial radio in its ability to light flashfires.

Suddenly, The Cars—my Cars—were back, bigger than ever. The post-art school rock/popists lassoed hooks, used churning grooves, employed those flat vocals against plates of synthesizers, tumbling drums gated for that odd crispness of each beat, the guitars that never ever went away.

Even when Ocasek, clearly the leader, wasn’t the focal point, somehow he rose into a new realm of “wow.” When Orr’s yearning “Drive,” from Heartbeat City, became ubiquitous—and the blue-toned black & white video was airing seemingly hourly, the band Tefloned themselves from burnout by hiring the model of the moment, Paulina Porizkova.

The video, capturing those singular moments of inconsolability, isolation even from oneself, worry for the beloved in such a state, was packed with S-O-S signals of universal recognition. Yes, she was beautiful, but she was each of our doppelgangers with her dark structured bangs, massive cheekbones and lips swollen but not cartoonish. She made out-of-control pain and anguish somehow okay—and Ocasek, locked in a supporting role, as well as a chair in his own sequences, somehow got the girl.

Mantis and the model, even more than beauty and the beast. Beyond a shared Eastern European lineage, though, they were quiet artists, thinkers, seekers, recognizers of how much more pop culture contained. If we failed to recognize that—and most did—there were always the pictures of them at events smiling, showing the joy of being seen and celebrated.

Smiling was another mantle of hope. After being a witness to the kind of pain that paralyzes, after distilling the rage inside, the frustration of spite in a culture of jocko cool, look who got the ultimate girl?! See them laughing! Grinning! Living life, seeking higher ground, finding the kind of connection, inspiration, stimulation we all crave.

And if Ocasek faded a bit from view—his solo albums never had the massive success of his band, though 1986’s This Side of Paradise still occasionally finds its way into the lost hours, especially “Emotion in Motion”—his creative light never dimmed. As a producer, he helmed albums for Bad Religion, Weezer, Jonathan Richman, Nada Surf, The Cribs, Pink Spiders, Suicide and part of No Doubt’s equally ubiquitous Rock Steady.

It was always about the quest—seeking things through music that perhaps could not be realized in normal interaction. In a world that judges by looks—no matter what your mama tells you—Ocasek figured another plane to move the discussion to. It was a place of deeper value, more raw truth and confession, the willingness to put the cards on the table because vulnerability was couched in a tempest of rock/punk/New Wave plumes. It made you dance. It set you free, fist punching the night as sweat rolled down your body. It worked.

I was at a showing of Raising Hell, the wonderful documentary about Texas political columnist Molly Ivins. The unlikely writer used wit to punch holes in hypocritical ballast, pompous assery and a general lack of common sense also tore through what was to bind us together through our “other” status. That’s when my cellphone started vibrating in my pocket in a theater with a strict no texting policy. They’re serious: they’ll pull your well-rounded bottom out of your seat.

How important could be it at 7pm on a Sunday? Right? Emerging from the theater, I looked. Fourteen texts from friends across America. All rock & roll true believers. All faithful acolytes of the way music moves you through the worst and heightens the best.

Still exhausted from eulogizing Eddie Money, with two assignments due, a sore throat most likely from a red eye two nights before, I sat in my car, frozen. Who’s gonna drive you home, indeed. Exhaling more than inhaling, I texted my movie squad, getting a one-word response from Hayes Carll that started with “F.” My thoughts exactly.

Coming out of a movie about someone who transmuted cultural norms and expectations to move through the clogged arteries of “how it’s done” to forge communities of people who thought they were alone, how does this happen? And yet it does.

Jon Pareles, an early champion of the band at Rolling Stone and now lead critic at The New York Times, wrote, “In The Cars, Mr. Ocasek’s lead vocals mixed a gawky, yelping deadpan with hints of suppressed emotion, while his songs drew hooks from basic three-chord rockabilly and punk, from surf rock, from emerging synth-pop, from echoes of The Beatles and glam-rock and from hints of the 1970s art-rock avant-garde.”

Technically, that pretty much nails it. But listening to 1978’s Live From the Agora, tears spill down my cheeks. It’s amazing how knowing innocence can be. I was in many ways a 35-year old cocktail waitress at 12, yet my heart beat for cleaner, simpler things—and raged against how crummy and selfish the world around me seemed. No one’s fault, just the momentum of how it is, what’s expected and the pre-ordained realm of the golden ones who we would never be.

It was all so black-and-white like the checkered flag on the Panorama cover, so cherry-red high-sheen lip gloss and massive white teeth the debut cover promised, so Vargas girl in repose on the Candy-O cover: tropes co-opted for rest of us, storming the walls of Versailles, looking for cake or at least a few songs we can dance to.



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