Richard Theodore Otcasek turned what we now call classic rock on its ringing ear. Known popularly as Ric Ocasek, his band The Cars blended guitar-based rock with keyboards and angular rhythms and defined much of the New Wave sound. Led by Ric, The Cars towed the 70s into the 80s with their geek-chic, retro-futuristic style. While not a punk, Ric was an underground art-school rebel. He wasn’t goth, but his look inspired that scene. He and the band were video pioneers, embracing the emerging visual component of pop music. As a producer later in his career he worked with a range of artists, including Weezer, Black 47 and Guided by Voices. He was also a painter, which qualifies him for true Renaissance-man status.
In 1978, The Cars sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Everything else that I was listening to at the age of 15 seemed like it came from some glorious past – The Cars were clearly from the future. Ric’s vision of that future was peculiar, but not creepy. I read an article in Rolling Stone that referred to The Cars’ front man as “spectral.” He has forever since been referred to in my circle as Spectral Ric. We even cryptically wrote that moniker on tickets to the 9th-grade dance, except we fucked up and wrote “Spectarl” Ric. If he had known, he probably would’ve worked both words into a lyric.
I recorded a Westwood One broadcast of a Cars concert from their Candy-O tour off the radio. I can still hear Ric in an interview segment saying, “The 70s as a period of time for rock ‘n’ roll was very boring. I can’t even think of a memorable band that came out of the 70s that was that interesting.” I thought this was an outrageous statement. But I think what he meant was that the 70s were a hangover from the 60s. Ric seemed determined to make sure that didn’t happen to the 80s. And a strong case can be made that he succeeded.
I saw The Cars live a couple times and they came off as sort of aloof and calculating; this was also my impression of Ric. While he didn’t invite fans in close, he had a huge influence on me during the most impressionable time of my life. His work guides my attempts at expressionist word painting. And he inspired me to look for the edges of a thing and try and nudge it in a new direction. His voice and that of his friend and bandmate, the late Benjamin Orzechowski (Sexy Ben Orr), will forever be in heavy rotation on the soundtrack in my mind. As so many people have expressed – RIP Ric.