Singer-songwriter Ric Ocasek was the chief architect of the Boston-based New Wave band the Cars, which enjoyed chart success throughout the 1970s and 1980s with such songs as "Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll," "You Might Think" and "Drive," while he also enjoyed industry regard as a producer for such groups as No Doubt, Weezer and Bad Brains. Ocasek's angular and often immobile stage presence echoed the eclectic quality of his songwriting and duties as lead vocalist, which owed equal tribute to both Buddy Holly's hiccupping delivery and the droning sounds of the Velvet Underground while also adding layers of 1960s pop twang and considerable electronic elements. The Cars enjoyed nearly a decade of Top 20 hits between 1977 and the release of their biggest album, Heartbeat City, in 1984, before splitting to pursue respective solo careers. Ocasek's efforts in this regard amounted largely to the Top 20 hit "Emotion in Motion" (1985), while subsequent efforts failed to find a substantive audience. He found greater success as a producer, songwriter and engineer for many alternative rock and punk bands before reuniting briefly with the Cars for their 2011 album Move Like This. Though Ocasek's best latter day efforts were in the studio rather than on stage or the charts, his array of hits for the Cars did much to preserve his status as a leading figure from the New Wave scene.
Born Richard Otcasek on March 23, 1949 in Baltimore, MD, Ric Ocasek was the son of a Polish-born computer systems analyst for NASA who relocated the family to Cleveland, OH following a transfer. Around the same time, the 10-year-old Ocasek discovered rock-n-roll through such acts as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but balked at learning how to play the guitar like so many of his fellow aspiring musicians. He briefly attended Bowling Green University and later Antioch College before deciding to take up the instrument again and try his hand at songwriting. In 1970, Ocasek began collaborating with Benjamin Orzechowski, an Ohio-based musician proficient in several instruments, in a variety of duo and group arrangements. The pair eventually moved to Boston, MA, where they met Berklee School of Music student Greg Hawkes and formed a folk group called Milkwood. The band released a sole album, 1973's How's the Weather, before disbanding. Ocasek and Orzechowski, who soon changed his name to Benjamin Orr, decided to remain partners and launched a new group, Rick & the Rabbits, which drew inspiration from such proto-punk and New Wave acts as the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music. When Hawkes left the act to perform with other groups, Ocasek and Orr performed as an acoustic duo on the Cambridge coffeehouse scene.
Eventually, Ocasek and Orr tried their hand at a group format again, enlisting another Berklee graduate named Elliott Easton for a band initially called Cap'n Swing. After cycling through several lineup changes, they settled on ex-Modern Lovers drummer David Robinson and Hawkes, who returned to serve as keyboardist. After renaming themselves the Cars, the band quickly established itself as leading members of the New Wave movement with such Ocasek-penned songs as the Top 20 pop hit "Just What I Needed," "My Best Friend's Girl" and "Good Times Roll," which blended the sharp songwriting and quirky instrumentation of '60s pop with the harsher guitar drive of punk and the distant, somewhat mechanized delivery of the New Wave scene. By 1979, they had earned two Top 10 albums on the Billboard albums chart, but Ocasek had already begun to explore options as a solo performer and more significantly, as producer for such iconic punk and New Wave acts as Suicide, who tapped him to oversee their first two albums, and the formidable punk-reggae group Bad Brains.
Ocasek released his solo debut album, Beatitude, during a break in the Cars' schedule in 1982. The record failed to match the success of the band, which earned the biggest album of its career with Heartbeat City (1984), which spawned two Top 10 singles in "Drive" and "You Might Think." The album was buoyed considerably by imaginative music videos that played around the clock on the then-fledgling MTV network, including Timothy Hutton's moody effort for "Drive," which featured Polish model Paulina Porizkova. Though married at the time, Ocasek became involved with the 19-year-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, whom he made his third wife in 1989. Meanwhile, the Cars had begun a slow collapse, beginning with a temporary breakup in 1985 following the release of their Greatest Hits album. Ocasek recruited all of his bandmates, save David Robinson, to contribute to his second solo album, This Side of Paradise (1985), which generated a Top 20 hit with "Emotion in Motion." Ocasek and the other members of the Cars would reunite for one more album, Door to Door (1987), which received a lackluster response shortly before their official breakup the following year.
Ocasek dropped out of public view until 1990's Fireball Zone, his third solo album. It failed to generate significant sales and largely set the tone for his subsequent work as a recording artist, which included 1993's Quick Change World and Getchertikiz (1996), a spoken world collaboration with Suicide's Alan Vega. However, he remained in demand as a producer for other music acts, including Weezer (1994's The Blue Album and 2001's Weezer), No Doubt, Bad Religion, Hole, Jonathan Richman and Guided by Voices. During this period, Ocasek also launched a brief promotional tour, his first since leaving the Cars, for his 1997 solo album Troublizing; published a book of poetry; and gave an amusing cameo performance as a manic beatnik in John Waters' "Hairspray" (1988). After giving his blessing to Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton to launch the New Cars, which featured Todd Rundgren on vocals, in 2005, he surprised many by reuniting with all of the original members save Orr, who had died from pancreatic cancer in 2000, for Move Like This (2011), their first album in over 24 years, The record peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, while its lead single, "Sad Song," reached No. 33 on the Rock chart. A brief 11-city tour brought the reunion to a close in the spring of 2011, after which no further plans were made to bring the original members together again.
By Paul Gaita