Ric Ocasek, lead singer of The Cars, dies aged 75

Writer of Drive pronounced dead at his Manhattan town house on Sunday

The Cars: Ric Ocasek in 2011. Photograph: Chad Batka/New York Times

The Cars: Ric Ocasek in 2011. Photograph: Chad Batka/New York Times

 

Ric Ocasek, the songwriter and lead singer of The Cars, was found dead on 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 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 nightlife 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.

Drive was their biggest hit, in part after being used during Live Aid, the 1985 concert to raise money for, and awareness of, famine victims in Ethiopia

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 a 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 and again in 1985.

Drive, which was written by Ocasek but sung by Orr, was their biggest hit, in part after being used during Live Aid, the concert organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Band Aid charity to raise money for, and awareness of, famine victims in Ethiopia.

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. 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 six 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, and lyrics that might initially seem like pop love songs were, more often, calmly ambivalent

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 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 catalogue.

Although 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 the model and actor 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.

Ocasek often said that he did not enjoy endless touring, and Easton and Hawkes toured without him – joined by Todd Rundgren as lead singer – as The New Cars from 2005 to 2007. But in 2011, Ocasek regrouped the surviving members of The Cars for a final album, Move Like This, and a tour, although his stage presence had always been diffident. “I don’t think I’m an entertainer,” he told the New York Times in 2011. “I never think, Wow, I can’t wait to get the crowd moving.”

In 1987, Ocasek told the New York Times, “I’m happy that the pop songs have a bit of a twist. When I’m writing, I never know how it’s going to come out. I don’t think, well, I’ve done a catchy one, now I can do a weird one. I read a lot of poetry, and that gives me a wide range of permission to say anything in a song – they’re more twisted than I’ll ever be.” – New York Times