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Ric Ocasek, co-founder of the Cars, dies at 75

Ric Ocasek, co-founder of the Cars, dies at 75

New wave rock visionary found dead in Manhattan apartment
Ric Ocasek, co-founder of the Cars, dies at 75
Ric Ocasek was the frontman and main songwriter for the Cars. Ocasek is shown performing in New York in 2011.
Photographer: new york times

Ric Ocasek, the songwriter and lead singer for the Cars, was found dead Sunday afternoon at his town house in Manhattan, according to the New York Police Department. No cause of death was available on Sunday night.

It is unclear how old Ocasek (pronounced oh-CASS-ek) was; according to some public records and previous articles, he was 70, but according to other reporting, he may have been 75.

In a string of multimillion-selling albums from 1978 to 1988, Ocasek and the Cars merged a vision of dangerous and romantic night life and the concision of new wave with the sonic depth and ingenuity of radio-friendly rock. The Cars managed to please both punk-rock fans and a far broader pop audience, reaching into rock history while devising fresh, lush extensions of it.

The Cars grew out of a friendship forged in the late 1960s in Ohio between Ocasek — born Richard Theodore Otcasek — and Benjamin Orr, who died in 2000. They worked together in multiple bands before moving to Boston and forming the Cars in the late 1970s with Elliot Easton on guitar, Greg Hawkes on keyboards and David Robinson on drums. It was the beginning of the punk era, but the Cars made their first albums with Queen’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, creating songs that were terse and moody but impeccably polished.

In the Cars, 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. The five albums the Cars released from 1978 to 1984 each sold more than 1 million copies in the United States alone, with ubiquitous radio singles like “Just What I Needed” in 1978, “Shake It Up” in 1981, “You Might Think” in 1984 and “Drive” in 1984; “Just What I Needed” and “Drive” had lead vocals by Orr.

When the Cars were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, the group’s surviving members reunited, joined by Scott Shriner of Weezer on bass. In his induction speech, Brandon Flowers of the Killers described the band as “a slick machine with a 340 V8 under the hood that ran on synergy, experimentation and a redefined cool,” and said they had it all: “The looks, the hooks, Beat romance lyrics, killer choruses.”

Richard Theodore Otcasek was born in Baltimore. His father was a systems analyst for NASA. At the Cars’ Rock Hall induction, Ocasek credited his grandmother for getting him to sing as a child and buying him his first guitar at 14. The family moved to Cleveland when he was a teenager, and he briefly attendeded Antioch College and Bowling Green State University before dropping out and turning to music.

He met Orr in Ohio and, in various bands, they worked their way from the Midwest to the Boston area, where they started a folk-pop trio, Milkwood, that made one album in 1972 before dissolving. Ocasek and Orr continued to work together around Boston; the Cars’ lead guitarist, Easton, joined their mid-1970s band, Cap’n Swing, which got airplay on Boston’s rock radio station WBCN but went no further.

With Easton, Hawkes and Robinson — who had been the drummer for the Modern Lovers, local heroes in Boston — the Cars coalesced in 1976, working on songs in Ocasek’s basement in Newton, Massachusetts. Starting with Ocasek’s basic recordings of the songs, Easton told Rolling Stone in 1978, “We just built the songs up. When there was a space for a hook or a line — or a sinker — we put it in.”

WBCN gave the band’s demo recordings extensive airplay, and Elektra Records signed them. The first Cars album was made in 21 days — 12 for recording, nine for mixing. It would go on to sell 6 million copies in the United States. The band became a staple of FM radio in the late 1970s and of MTV in the 1980s, toying with textures and ironies but sticking to neat pop structures.

Ocasek’s songs were invariably terse and catchy, spiked with Easton’s twangy guitar lines and Hawkes’ pithy keyboard hooks. But they were also craftily filled out by multitracked instruments and vocals. Lyrics that might initially seem like pop love songs were, more often, calmly ambivalent. “Just What I Needed,” the Cars’ first single, revolves around negatives: “I don’t mind you coming here and wasting all my time/’Cause when you’re standing oh so near, I kind of lose my mind.” And the Cars’ biggest United States hit, “Drive,” poses a series of glum questions: “Who’s going to hold you down when you shake?/Who’s going to come around when you break?”

The Cars disbanded in 1988 as Ocasek and Orr grew apart. Ocasek had begun making music on his own while still in the Cars and would eventually release seven solo albums from 1982 through 2005, though without the popularity of his Cars catalog.

While he said he didn’t want people prying into his personal life, “I feel that my song lyrics are kind of an open book,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. “I feel that writing songs for my solo albums is kind of like spilling my guts, telling people how I really feel subconsciously. When I’m writing, it’s like I’m not really in control.”

In 2003, he took a job as senior vice president of artists and repertoire, charged with finding new hitmakers, for Elektra Records, but the label rejected his choices; he lasted less than a year. While in the Cars, he had produced albums for punk pioneers he admired: Bad Brains and Weezer. And after the Cars disbanded, he produced music for Weezer, Bad Religion and No Doubt.

After two previous marriages, Ocasek married model and actress Paulina Porizkova in 1989; they met in 1984 while the Cars were making the music video for “Drive.” She announced in 2018 that they had separated a year earlier. He is survived by their two children, Jonathan Raven Otcasek and Oliver Otcasek, and four sons from previous marriages: Christopher, Adam, Eron and Derek Otcasek.

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