The Mystery of Ric Ocasek: ‘He Tried for Happiness, But Underneath Was a Lot of Pain’Rolling Stone — David Browne
Arriving at Ocasek’s Manhattan address, the bandmates found themselves entering a stately 1850s townhouse with 20-foot-high ceilings, an elevator, a pink pool table, and portraits of Ocasek done by Andy Warhol hanging on the walls. But that was nothing compared to the disorienting feeling of meeting the New Wave icon, who greeted them wearing one of his many elegant suit jackets, like he’d walked out of the video for “Magic” or “You Might Think.” “It would be easy to equate us with four Charlies in the Chocolate Factory,” Sharp recalls. “Ric seemed like he wasn’t of this Earth.”
It was an image well known to millions of people. With his pitch-black hair, pale complexion, and razor-thin frame, Ocasek, who died at 75 on September 15th, was one of the most recognizable figures of the Eighties. “I always said he looked like an upside-down exclamation mark,” says Paulina Porizkova, the Czech-born model who was married to Ocasek from 1989 until their separation in 2017.
His music fit his look: sleek yet moody, charming yet detached. As the main songwriter and guitarist and sometime lead singer of the Cars, Ocasek (pronounced “oh-cass-ek”) mainlined the jittery ebullience of Buddy Holly and the dark punk energy of Lou Reed into the Top 40, while spiking his sleek tunes with barbed lyrics: “I needed someone to bleed,” the Cars offered on 1978’s “Just What I Needed.” “If the goal was to have great success making pop music with a sense of irony,” says Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, “then mission accomplished, right?” That was Ocasek’s voice on many of the Cars’ biggest hits—“My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You Might Think,” “Magic,” “Shake It Up,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” all of which he also wrote. (Bassist Ben Orr took the lead-vocal chores on milestones like “Just What I Needed,” “Drive,” and “Let’s Go.”)
After the Cars breakup in 1989, Ocasek began creating his second legacy: serving as producer, champion and mentor for dozens of semi-established or up-and-coming bands. Ocasek produced records by two generations of punk and indie acts, including Bad Religion, Guided by Voices, Suicide, Bad Brains, D Generation and Nada Surf. “He worked with people and changed their lives together,” says Sharp. “It’s not an understatement to say that my life and all the lives of the guys in Weezer would be completely different without having that connection with Ric.” Recalls Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, “He was really encouraging. He said, ‘You’re an artist. The basics of songwriting is art. You’ve got that.’”
Yet for all the joy he gave to music fans, Ocasek led a somewhat troubled life that included a difficult childhood, three marriages, and the collapse of the Cars, walking away from that band when he was at the height of his fame. “He was somebody who really wanted to be happy and really tried for happiness,” says Porizkova, “but underneath it all was a lot of pain. . . . His pop element was ‘please like me,’ and his dark lyrics were like the hurt little boy.” To outsiders, Ocasek could appear to be distanced and aloof, which Porizkova admits. “You could be intimated by him, his height and thinness and black-clad persona and sunglasses,” she says. “But if he pushed his sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose, you saw his turquoise eyes, and when he looked at you and smiled, it was like, ‘Oh my God, the sun came out!’”
Even Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who met Ocasek in the early Seventies, says he never fully knew his on-and-off bandmate. “In spite of being friends with him and a collaborator for years and years, he was also in certain aspects of his life extremely private,” Hawkes says. “There were a lot of things that were never discussed.”
Born Richard Theodore Otcasek in Baltimore on March 23rd, 1944, Ocasek grew up in the kind of home that can create an inwardly directed artist. “His mom drank a lot and his father was pretty cold to him,” says Porizkova. “His childhood was not a good one.” He would often escape to local boardwalks, sometimes for weeks at a time, and it would be his grandmother, not his parents, who gave him his first guitar when he was about 14. During his teen years, his family moved to Cleveland, where his dad worked as a computer analyst for NASA.
After graduating from high school, Ocasek enrolled in two Ohio colleges, Bowling Green and Antioch, without getting a degree, and eventually turned his attention to music. “I thought that was the thing to do,” he told Rolling Stone in 1979. “Sometimes I’d put together a band just to hear my songs.”
At that point, he returned to music and began writing songs. “I thought that was the thing to do,” he told RS in 1979. “Sometimes I’d put together a band just to hear my songs.” On the Cleveland music scene, Ocasek met Orr, who had paid his dues on the house band of the local rock TV show Upbeat; the two ultimately formed a band, ID Nirvana. By then, Ocasek was married (to his first wife, Constance Campbell, in the early Sixties), and he and Orr spent several years playing around the country as a duo before Ocasek settled down, for a while, in Massachusetts. By then, Ocasek was divorced and had met and wed Suzanne LaPointe, to whom he was married between 1971 and 1988. (He had two children with each of his first wives.)
Around 1972, Ocasek answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix for a singer in a cover band led by guitarist James (then Jas) Goodkind. Goodkind wasn’t impressed with Ocasek’s audition, but afterwards, Ocasek sat down and sang some of his original material. “He had a nice, soft high voice with a vibrato,” Goodkind says. “Cool lyrics, really great changes. I was like, ‘God, this guy, there’s something about him.’ He was very magnetic and charismatic.”
The two began gigging as a folk duo before Ocasek convinced Orr to relocate to the area to turn the group into a Crosby, Stills & Nash-style trio, ultimately named Milkwood after Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood. Signed to Paramount Records, Milkwood made one album, 1973’s How’s the Weather?, that reflected the harmony-laced, soft-rock times as well as the Nick Drake and Fairport Convention albums in Ocasek’s eclectic record collection. (Ocasek’s mustache on the cover was also very Yacht Rock.) The album flopped and the group disbanded the following year; Goodkind remembers his friend being so destitute that he was on welfare.
Although demoralized by Milkwood, Ocasek was driven to succeed and, with Orr, dialed through any number of au current rock styles in the mid Seventies: a harder rock band called Richard and the Rabbits, an Ocasek and Orr folk duo and finally Cap’n Swing, an attempt at Steely Dan-style pop featuring a new guitarist, Berklee College of Music graduate Elliot Easton. But after Aerosmith’s managers harshly critiqued Cap’n Swing after a showcase gig, Ocasek took charge and cleaned house; Hawkes (who had played on the Milkwood album) was recruited on keyboards, along with drummer David Robinson, formerly of groundbreaking proto-punk band the Modern Lovers. In late 1976, the Cars were ready to go.
With the Cars, Ocasek had finally found the right voice and image, even if Orr often sang lead. (Ocasek, then in his thirties, also shaved five years from his age.) “He developed that guitar style, those clicky eighth notes you can hear on ‘My Best Friend’s Girl,’ ” Hawkes says. “And his vocal style got quirkier. He developed that Buddy Holly hiccup phrasing.”
Soon a demo of “Just What I Needed” was getting played on Boston radio, leading to a deal with Elektra Records. In his previous bands, Ocasek had tried to tap into in-vogue styles with mixed success, but the Cars’ self-titled 1978 debut was both his most focused and well-timed work. Produced by Queen collaborator Roy Thomas Baker, who went on to work with the band on several more records, 1978’s The Cars was Ocasek’s Venn diagram—a blend of his radio-ready pop side and his fondness for edgier types like the Velvet Underground. Everything in it–Ocasek’s songs, he and Orr’s alternating lead vocals, Hawkes’ synth hooks—cliqued, and the album would ultimately be certified platinum six times and spawned the hits “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll.”
Later, when he began working with Weezer, Ocasek convinced the band that it shouldn’t work in L.A., its home base, but relocate to New York for the experience, and Ocasek brought up his fond memories of the making of The Cars to convince them. “He said they had spent about two weeks making the first Cars record with Roy Thomas Baker, and they had gone to England to make that first album and they weren’t sleeping in their won beds and not living their normal daily lives,” Sharp says. “He remembered every minute of that recording, even how the food tasted. He could access every moment of that first album.”
With the success of that record, Ocasek’s life was transformed; when Goodkind visited his friend, who had previously lived in a second-floor walkup, he found Ocasek in a new home in tonier Newton, Massachusetts, complete with a circular driveway and a Jaguar. With his newfound clout in the business, solidified with 1979’s Candy-O, Ocasek also ventured outside the band to produce other, even artier and more subterranean bands like Romeo Void and Suicide. He was especially drawn to Suicide, the two-man New York sonic assault. Ocasek saw the band in Boston in 1977 and ended up not only producing their sophomore 1980 album but also inviting them to open for the Cars at select gigs. “In a way, Ric almost would’ve been happier if he could have been in a band like Suicide,” says Hawkes. “A more or less artier, outside band. Some of the pop fame embarrassed him.”
On tour, Cars fans were not amused by singer Alan Vega’s dark baritone and keyboardist Martin Rev’s synth attacks and would frequently boo the band (or hurl rolls of toilet paper at them). But Ocasek didn’t care. “He held to what he liked and what he felt was right,” says Rev. “He didn’t buckle to industry pressure. We did what we wanted to do, and he loved all of it.”
Yet the Cars’ leader quickly began to chafe at the demands of stardom. Hawkes says Ocasek was embarrassed by the simplicity of later hits like “Shake It Up.” And as an audio control freak who admired James Brown’s tyrannical hold over his band, Ocasek was never fond of live performances and their sonic hazards. “He was definitely not one of those ‘Hello, Cleveland!’ kind of guys,” says Easton. “Ric was much happier in the recording studio.”
In 1984, the Cars reached the peak of their success with their fifth LP, Heartbeat City, and its hits “You Might Think” and “Drive.” But the album’s nearly yearlong recording with pop-metal producer Robert “Mutt” Lange left Ocasek drained, and he later expressed those frustrations to recording engineer Chris Shaw, who worked with Ocasek on some of his later solo albums and outside projects. “I grilled Ric about working with Mutt,” Shaw says, “and he said, ‘I never want to make a record like that again. You spend four days getting a bass sound for one song. It’s really demoralizing.’ I think the process took a lot out of him.”
Hawkes agrees that the pop music machinery was beginning to get to Ocasek during this period. “For a while, it inspired him, but the fame thing wore him down,” says Hawkes. “It just seemed like it became more of a chore for him. After Heartbeat City, a lot of seeds of discontent were sown.” Ocasek and Orr had had disagreements dating back to the Milkwood days, but those issues came to a fore when the Cars made their next record, 1987’s Door to Door. “Ben and Ric were not getting along,” Hawkes admits. “The recording sessions were basically unpleasant. In retrospect, we should have had an outside producer to mediate.”
During this period, Ocasek and Porizkova, then one of the world’s best-known and in-demand models, met on the set of the Cars’ 1984 “Drive” video, which was sung by Orr. “Thanks Ben, because it left us the time to woo each other,” she says. “Ben was singing and we were falling in love.” (Ocasek and his second wife would divorce four years later.) Porizkova saw as what she calls “petty disagreements” tore away at the ban. “Ric had been the dictator of a very small country and I think it was wearing on everybody,” she says. “All the guys were really fond of each other, but it had run its course at that time. Creatively he really wanted to stretch his wings and get a little weirder. People expected the Cars thing, the hooks. He was like, ‘Fuck that–I want to do something else.’”
Around that time, Easton stopped by Electric Lady, the Greenwich Village studio that was Ocasek’s favorite place to work. As the two listened to live Cars recordings being prepared for a radio show, Ocasek dropped a bombshell. “We were just sitting and listening and talking, and he just kind of said, ‘You know, I’m think I’m going to leave the group.’ All the blood went to my feet.” It would be more than 20 years before Ocasek would perform with them again.
Ocasek’s post-Cars life began soon after their last album. In 1989, Ocasek married Porizkova; their first son, Jonathan, arrived in 1993, and Oliver followed in 1998. The family settled into their New York townhouse, where Ocasek installed a studio in the basement. Tellingly, the door to his workspace was often propped open with the MTV “Moonman” statuette the Cars had won for Video of the Year in 1984. Recalls Shaw, “I’m sure he was grateful for the award, but it didn’t mean much.”
Whether in his home studio or at Electric Lady, Ocasek was able to make periodic solo albums (like 1993’s half-pop, half-experimental Quick Change World) and devote more time to producing other acts. (Even if he was working alone in his basement studio, he never failed to start by day by donning one of his high-priced suits. “He would make up and get meticulously dressed,” Porizkova says. “You wouldn’t catch him dead in a pair of sweatpants.”) Ever a fan of pop—he had long admired the Carpenters, for instance, and had had a bit of a crush on Karen Carpenter—Ocasek eventually produced three Weezer albums, starting with their 1994 debut, and worked on albums by No Doubt and Nada Surf. “He was super mellow and not full of himself,” recalls No Doubt guitarist Adrian Young of first meeting Ocasek. ‘He wasn’t trying to sell himself. He was self-assured in that way.”
Between his Cars revenue and her modeling income, money wasn’t an issue, and Ocasek was fully able to tap into his underground-music love. “Rivers [Cuomo] and I would grill Ric for back stories [about the Cars],” says Shaw, “and he said he could write a Cars song in five minutes: ‘It’s easy for me to do–I could write a pop song like that. Which is why I gravitate toward the weird stuff because it’s more interesting.’ The pop stuff came naturally but he sunk his teeth into the experimental stuff.”
Ocasek had long been drawn to more underground rock, and as a producer for hire, he was further able to explore that side of him by working more with Suicide as well as the Irish rock band Black 47 and Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill band, Le Tigre. Thanks in large part to Ocasek, the punk band Bad Religion scored its biggest international hit with “Punk Rock Song” (from the Ocasek-produced The Gray Race in 1996) despite concerns from some of the band members that it was too frivolous. “Rick said ‘Shake It Up’ was a song that could’ve done either way as well,” Graffin says. “Sometimes the silly-sounding song can actually be an important song on an album, and he saw ‘Punk Rock Song’ as an important tune on the album.” (As he had done with Weezer, Ocasek played Graffin demos of early Cars songs, featuring just his voice and guitar and maybe a drum machine; “it was his way to disarm the situation, his way of saying, ‘I was here, too,’” says Sharp.)
Porizkova says Ocasek was long drawn to more somber, quirkier subject matter: “When people sing a song like “Let the Good Times Roll’ unironically [“Let the good times roll/Let them knock you around/Let the good times roll/Let them make you a clown”]… did they pay attention to the lyrics? Do you know what you’re singing? These are not happy, cheerful lyrics. The darker stuff is more who he was as a person. … He really tried to put his childhood aside and not revisit it. But what was underneath was a lot of pain.”
Asked by RS in 1997 about a Cars reunion, Ocasek replied, “I have no interest. I’d rather paint, or write, or do anything else. It’s something that was already done, and those records are already locked away. . . . As a rule, I’d rather live in the future than the past.”
By the beginning of this century, the Cars were clearly in Ocasek’s rear-view mirror. “He was still friends with Greg [Hawkes] and brought him in for some arrangement stuff,” says Graffin. “But he expressed frustration at times with his other band members. He was absolutely committed to not getting the Cars back together.” Talking with Ocasek in 1993, Rev recalls a conversation with Ocasek about his disinterest in touring, with the Cars or anyone else: “He said he didn’t want to go on the road anymore,” says Rev. “He said it had messed up his last marriage and he said, ‘I’ve reached a great point in my life and I can do whatever I want.’”
But Ocasek was drawn back into the Cars’ world when Orr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the two reconciled shortly before Orr’s death in 2000. “It really scared and hurt Ric,” Porizkova says. “He wrote that song about Ben, ‘Silver’ [on Ocasek’s 2005 solo album, Nexterday], but I think that was the only time I really heard him say how he felt about Ben.”
Then, in 2006, Easton and Hawkes returned to touring as the New Cars, with Todd Rundgren filling in for Ocasek. Porizkova admits that her husband was “not very fond” of that project, and when a reporter later admitted to Ocasek that he hadn’t seen that incarnation, Ocasek tersely replied, “Good.” Easton, who at the time said Ocasek was supportive of the idea, claims the band didn’t wreck their friendship. “The only time we ever talked about it was when Greg and I were trying to make it okay with the other guys so that we could do it,” he says. “After it was done and over with, we never really talked about it.”
A few years later, the two were talking on the phone and Ocasek mentioned he had written a batch of new songs, and Easton asked if it were time for a new Cars album: “It was silence on the other end of the line, and Ric goes, ‘You know, that’s an interesting idea.’” The surviving Cars eventually reconvened for a new album, 2011’s Move Like This, and Ocasek even agreed to do a brief tour. In 2017, Ocasek explained his decision to RS: “I didn’t want to do things like, ‘Hey, let’s do some casinos and some boats.’ I didn’t want to get into that. … That’s really just being mechanical and playing your songs for whatever it is. I have to say that everyone else in the band would have loved to be constantly on the road. There’s a lot of bands that do that. I guess it’s just me personally.”
Porizkova says her late husband’s primary motivation to hit the road again was not the other Cars but his family. “Our boys never got to see him as a rock star,” she says. “And he wanted them to see what Dad did. It was really sweet.” But when some of the old band tensions resurfaced, Ocasek decided to limit the reunion tour to about a month. “It was hard to get him to agree to do even whatever we did,” says Hawkes. “We were just getting into the rhythm of it, and it was over.”
As Ocasek approached 70, his life and career seemed in a state of flux. He reunited with Weezer to produce 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End. But changes in the music business left him disillusioned (in 2003, he briefly took a job as an A&R executive at Elektra), and creative frustrations began to surface. About three to four years before they separated, Ocasek played Porizkova some of his last recordings — half a dozen new songs in which she felt he revealed more of himself. “It got me so excited,” she says. “It was entirely new and different. Still very him and very hooky, but it was like him taken to the extremes — the sweetness of his music with pretty dark lyrics.” Despite her encouragement, he couldn’t finish the album. “It’s not coming to me,” he told her, and the album (which, Ocasek hinted to RS in 2017, could have morphed into a Cars project) remained unfinished.
In April 2018, Ocasek found himself playing with Hawkes, Easton, and Robinson one last time when the Cars were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s funny, because after that night, I really had a sort of sense of finality about it,” says Hawkes. “I didn’t realize quite how final it really was.” Easton says the band did “a lot of healing” after its induction; he and Ocasek even began exchanging punny texts. But whether or not Ocasek would ever work with them again, or make any music, remained unknown. When Ocasek spoke with RS this July, he said, “I’ve actually been doing some art shows. … but I guess at some point I’m gonna mess around with some more music.” One of his last public sightings was at the New York premiere for Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, in June.
In early September this year, Ocasek underwent surgery (Porizkova declines to give details on the procedure). She and their two sons took turns tending to him as he recuperated at home. On the morning of September 15th, Porizkova peered into his bedroom to find him in his usual sleeping position: on his back, “one of his hands elegantly folded beneath his chin,” she says. About an hour later, she checked on him again. “I touched his cheek, and it was like touching marble,” she says. Realizing he had passed, she summoned family members (including sons from his previous marriages), who gathered around Ocasek’s bed to say goodbye before Porizkova called 911.
The New York medical examiner’s office attributed Ocasek’s death to natural causes related to heart disease, with emphysema listed as a factor. Porizkova says she remains “baffled” by the pronouncement because Ocasek gave up smoking 14 years ago and only suffered from a mild case of emphysema. She calls his death “a fucking shock.” At the same time, she says, “In the weirdest way, the surgery was a blessing. Because of it, all four of us had two weeks together every day. In this cloud of awfulness, that was a silver lining.”
On the day of his New York funeral, Porizkova came across the lyrics Ocasek had written for “Soon,” a ballad on Move Like This that felt like a sequel to “Drive.” But reading them anew, she realized that buried in its pretty melody was a message to her: “I know what I put you through/The time will run away from us like time it will do.”
“I had never really paid attention to it,” she says. “It was a song he had written for me, and it was kind of a hard look into the future. I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ It really got me.” To the end, the deeper truths beneath the shiny surfaces of Ocasek’s music shone through.