On Sunday, September 15, the news came out that Ric Ocasek was found dead inside his Manhattan townhouse. The lanky lead singer of The Cars was so mysterious that even The New York Times couldn't determine his age at the time of his death in its obituary.
The Cars were blowing the minds of the MTV generation with the dazzling imagery of their music videos. In the video for "You Might Think," Ocasek, born Richard Theodore Otcasek, takes various forms (a fly, King Kong) to win the heart of a model. The song didn't need a flashy video to be a hit. It hooks you right in with a great opening riff, but the band were awarded Video of the Year during the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards.
The Cars also won the heart and mind of the author of this piece, who was a 6-year-old Mormon kid at the time. I could only watch MTV when there was a babysitter present, but Ocasek and the band were laying the groundwork for my musical tastes to come.
The Boston five-piece band had a knack for making the art rock being made in England palatable for American audiences. Ocasek crooning for a woman who "thinks she's in the movies" is straight from Bryan Ferry's lyric playbook. The bright keyboards and tempo of "Shake It Up" were inspired by the forward thinking of Brian Eno's Before and After Science. Even the risque cover of Candy-O, the band's 1979 sophomore effort featuring the work of pinup artist Alberto Vargas, was mild when compared to the blatant nudity of Roxy Music's Country Life.
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This was music that rode the line between rock and New Wave. It fit right in on your favorite classic rock station and your early alternative music playlist. It was tame enough to listen with your parents, but cool enough to be the soundtrack to Phoebe Cates slowly getting out of the swimming pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema). Unlike their peers, they didn't use synthesizers to make their music feel cold and emotionless; they used them as a way to enhance the mood of what the song needed.
The band broke up in 1988 (with a one-off reunion and album in 2011), but Ocasek didn't stop influencing the music I would hold dear to my heart as I became older and didn't let my religion influence my musical tastes. He followed in Eno's footsteps and became a prolific producer, working behind the boards for groups like Suicide, Romeo Void, Nada Surf, Jonathan Richman, Guided By Voices, and most famously, Weezer, for their 1994 debut album. He reportedly despised touring, but he still found a way to shape what the world listened to.
The cliche is that Ocasek's music will live on through the airwaves and smartphones of music lovers everywhere. But what will be missed is that silent cool that Ocasek radiated behind those sunglasses.