Depending on your age and how deeply immersed in music you’ve been, you might know Ric Ocasek—he died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 75—as the frontman of the Cars, the game-changing new wave band you listened to as a kid; as the lifelong champion and producer of game-changing punk and hard-core bands Suicide and Bad Brains; as the producer behind bands ranging from Guided by Voices, Brazilian Girls, and Le Tigre to No Doubt, Weezer, D Generation, Bad Religion, the Cribs, and Nada Surf; as the guy who wrote the song “Moving in Stereo” that soundtracks Phoebe Cates emerging from a pool and removing her bikini top in Fast Times at Ridgemont High; or as the husband of supermodel and Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover star Paulina Porizkova.
For Porizkova, who met Ocasek on the set of the Cars’ video shoot for “Drive” after crushing on him on MTV (on August 1, 1981, its first-ever day of programming, MTV played no less than three different Cars videos), Ocasek was nothing less than “a combination of Mr. Spock, David Bowie, Jesus Christ, and Chopin.” (The two married on St. Barts in 1989 and had two children together.) For everyone else, Ocasek represented nothing less than the missing link between the golden age of 1970s classic rock and the nascent rise of 1980s synth pop, with his particular strain of new wave fusing guitars, keyboards, the insurgent and neurotic yelp and jagged bite of punk, and a glossy sheen of production atop perfectly constructed pop songs. And if that sentence sounds like a description of the Strokes, well, it is; when Julian Casablancas and company covered the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” at the Reading Festival in 2011 with Jarvis Cocker joining them on vocals, the circle was at last squared. (Among the multitude of artists who’ve covered Cars songs: Prince, who let loose an incendiary “Let’s Go” in 2011.)
The Cars put out five indelible albums between 1978 and 1984 and two all-too-delible albums in 1987 and 2011, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year by Brandon Flowers of the Killers, who wasn’t alone in proclaiming the Cars’ self-titled first album “one of the greatest debut albums ever made.” (As Flowers also noted, when a young Kurt Cobain set about teaching himself how to play guitar, among the first tunes he learned was “My Best Friend’s Girl” off that record—and Nirvana paid it forward with a live cover in 1994.) “The Cars had it all,” Flowers continued. “The looks, the hooks, Beat-romance lyrics, killer choruses, guitar solos that pissed off your parents, dazzling music videos. Not to mention the best song in any movie scene that featured a girl slowly getting out of a pool and taking her top off.”
It’s really after the Cars’ breakup in 1988, though, that Ocasek’s true range and bandwidth became apparent—in his solo records (including Getchertiktz, a collaboration with Suicide’s Alan Vega and poet Gillian McCain comprising Beat-esque poetry set to the sound of blistering guitars and brutalist, pummeling sound effects), but also through acting, painting, and drawing. But his production work deserves its own hall of fame entry: Aside from merely drawing attention to bands and artists he liked, the work itself showed Ocasek to be what a musician friend of mine called a true “sonic hero.” To give just one example, Ocasek produced Bad Brains’ seminal Rock for Light in 1983 (for some perspective: here’s a track from that, and here’s what Ocasek was working on with the Cars—and Porizkova—at the time). Eight years later, though, he also spearheaded a monumental reworking of that record. Far behind merely remastering the thing, the new and improved Rock for Light featured more tracks, a different running order of songs, wildly different mixes—and, crucially, a sped-up master tape, which meant that the pitch of everything was raised a half step. Who else but a mad genius does this?
Ocasek and Porizkova—who, according to reports, found Ocasek’s body in his Manhattan townhouse yesterday—quietly separated two years ago, something Porizkova announced on Instagram last year a few weeks after the two appeared happily together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction: “Ric and I have been peacefully separated for the past year. The photos of our family are, in fact, happy family photos; we are just no longer a couple. The love we have for one another is so wide and deep it’s practically tangible, and that sort of love can never disappear.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue