Since you’re gone: Remembering the Cars' rock pioneer Ric Ocasek, dead at age 75

Ric Ocasek, who with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Cars pioneered — or even defined — the new wave genre and released arguably one of the most perfect debut albums of all time, was found dead Sunday in his Manhattan townhouse at age 75. No official cause of death has been revealed at press time; however, a statement posted on the Cars’ Twitter page, which appears to have been written by Ocasek’s wife Paulina Porizkova, says he died in his sleep after undergoing surgery.

Ocasek’s hiccuppy vocals, deadpan delivery, edgy pop smarts, beatnik-poetry-inspired lyrics, and cool-cat persona helped make the Cars one of the most important bands not just of the ’70s and ’80s, but of all time — a rare act that enjoyed both massive commercial success and critical adoration, both hipster college radio play and high rotation on MTV. Upon hearing the news Sunday afternoon of Ocasek’s death, social media was flooded with tributes from the legend’s grieving peers and collaborators.

Ocasek was born Richard Theodore Otcasek in Baltimore on March 23, 1944. After moving to Cleveland and then Boston, he formed the folk act Milkwood with bassist friend Ben Orzechowski, a.k.a. Benjamin Orr. While Milkwood’s one album, released in 1973, was a flop, the Ocasek-Orr partnership flourished, and the pair eventually formed the Cars with keyboardist Greg Hawkes, guitarist Elliot Easton, and former Modern Lovers drummer Dave Robinson. While Ocasek and Orr shared lead vocal duties, Ocasek penned the majority of the Cars’ clever and unnervingly catchy songs, including their first hit, 1978’s “Just What I Needed.”

It was that short, sharp, snappy tune (featuring Orr singing lead) that helped land the Cars a deal with Elektra Records, when the two-track demo became the most-requested song by a local band in the history of WBCN, a popular rock station in Boston. The official Elektra recording of “Just What I Needed” eventually went to No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 and established the Cars as both critics’ darlings and breakout new wave stars.

The Cars went on to release rock radio staples like “My Best Friend's Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Let's Go,” “Shake It Up,” and “Since You're Gone.” However, a non-single off their Roy Thomas Baker-produced self-titled debut album, the sexy and slithering “Moving in Stereo” (co-written by Ocasek and Hawkes, and sung by Orr), also became one of their signature songs — due to its unforgettable placement in an R-rated poolside dream sequence, starring topless ingenue Phoebe Cates, in the 1982 teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The Cars’ biggest commercial breakthrough, however, was 1984’s high-gloss Heartbeat City. That album — co-produced by Mutt Lange, with nine of its 10 tracks written solely by Ocasek — went to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and yielded five top 40 singles, including the top 10 hits “Drive” and “You Might Think.” The special effects-laden video for the latter song won Video of the Year at the first annual MTV Video Music Awards — beating out Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Ocasek’s body of work outside of the Cars, as a record producer, was just as notable, starting in 1980 with the second album by legendary proto-punk synth duo Suicide; this continued in the ‘80s with credits on seminal recordings by Romeo Void, Bad Brains, Iggy Pop, Bebe Buell, and Lloyd Cole. However, it was his production on the landmark 1994 debut by Weezer, known as The Blue Album, that made Ocasek one of the most sought-after studio wizards of the 1990s and 2000s. Jobs producing acts as diverse as No Doubt, Hole, Guided by Voices, Bad Religion, Mercury Rev, Nada Surf, Le Tigre, Possum Dixon, D Generation, Jonathan Richman, and the Cribs followed, and Ocasek also reunited with Weezer for their 2001 comeback The Green Album and 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End. In 2005, he launched his own Sanctuary-distributed record label, Inverse, to develop new artists.

"I love producing, but I never think of it as overshadowing what I do myself musically, because I think of that as different. This comes from loving to make music and loving to write and loving to make records,” said Ocasek of his production side career during a 1997 Yahoo Entertainment interview to promote Troublizing, his sixth solo album. (Ocasek released seven solo albums total between 1982 and 2005, as well as one spoken-word collaborative album with Suicide’s Alan Vega and Please Kill Me punk anthology co-author Gillian McCain.) Incidentally, by 1997 Ocasek had become such a revered industry figure that Troublizing featured a supergroup backing lineup of Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur, Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot, Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker, and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, the latter also serving as the album’s co-producer.

Ocasek’s profile was lower in recent years, though he found himself back in the news in 2018 when it was announced that he had separated from his third wife, supermodel Porizkova, whom he’d met on the set of the Cars’ 1984 music video “Drive” and married in 1989. Ocasek’s last recorded work was 2011’s Move Like This, the Cars’ well-received reunion album featuring all surviving original band members. (Orr, from whom Ocasek became estranged after the Cars’ breakup in 1988, died in 2000.)

Ocasek released a complete collection of his lyrics for both the Cars and his solo albums, Lyrics & Prose, in 2012, and he also was a prolific artist, regularly showcasing his drawings, photo collages, and mixed-media paintings. After his passing, his sons took to the Cars’ Twitter page to post a photo of his final drawing, a doodle that read: “Keep on laughin’. It is what it is.”

Despite his absence from the scene, Ocasek’s music has endured. As the Killers’ Brandon Flowers said in his passionate Cars induction speech at last year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, “Forty years later, they still sound like a new band to me.” Ocasek’s final live performance with the Cars (with Weezer’s Scott Shriner playing bass and Ocasek handling all vocals) took place at the Rock Hall ceremony in Cleveland on April 14, 2018.

While the Cars were not known for being a particularly mesmerizing concert act, Ocasek explained to Yahoo Entertainment in ’97 why he didn’t find live performance as inspiring as his studio work. "I don't think touring is creative; it's kind of like mimicking what you've already done. I don't really feel like I need the 'applause' thing; it's not built into me," he confessed. "As a performer, I've always had this attitude that I should never prod the audience — that's probably why the Cars were always considered cold. I made it just about the music; I don't really have anything to say. I'm not going to say, 'How ya doing tonight!?' — because some people in the audience will say 'Yeah!' when they're not doing well at all. I don't want to tell the audience what to do or tell them to stand up, and I don't want to tell them a ‘story.’ I don't want to move weird. I'm already weird.”

Which is why it seems fitting to conclude this tribute with a wonderfully weird outtake from Yahoo Entertainment’s 1997 Ocasek interview, as seen below. The man’s music and singularly snarky wit will be missed.

YAHOO: Well, I guess that's all the questions I've got. Is there anything you want me to mention?

OCASEK: Hmmm. Without dirt, there wouldn't be any rain. People hate dirt, but without dirt, we would never have rain. Dirt makes rain; it's called hydroscopic dirt. The dirt that floats up into the atmosphere actually causes the clouds to rain. So without dirt, we wouldn't have any rain.

YAHOO: I learn something new every day.

OCASEK: Well, I usually have nothing to say at the end of an interview. That was the most obscure thing I could think of.

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