Ric Ocasek – circa 1985
“You got your nuclear boots / And your drip-dry gloves” – ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ (Ric Ocasek)
Rock stars are colourful individuals. Almost without exception, they boast unusual looks and garish outfits. One of the more unusual individuals in the rock music field is The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (the surname is pronounced ‘Oh- CASS-ick’). As one of the so-called new wave bands of the late 1970s, the members of The Cars are typically attired in brightly coloured leather, dramatic prints and skinny ties. However, Ocasek is very recognisable because of his physical attributes. “I think that happens a lot because of my awkwardness,” Ocasek says. “I was teased for it when I was a kid, but it worked once I grew up. I don’t pay attention to it really.” Beneath a virtual helmet of dark hair, he is the human equivalent of a stick insect. At six feet and four inches, he is a tall man with gangly limbs and a swaying movement. Paradoxically, while his looks make him shy away from the spotlight, his talent and ego also make him demand to be in charge.
Rick Ocasek is born Richard T. Otcasek on 23 March 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. He is said to have a ‘difficult childhood.’ Young Richard attends a Catholic school. From 5 years of age until he is aged 7, he is an altar boy and sings at funerals. When he is 10 years old, Ric receives his first guitar and starts writing songs. The guitar is given to him by his grandmother. When he reaches seventh grade, Ric is kicked out of Catholic school for ‘irritating the nuns.’ “I wasn’t feeling too good about being pushed around or having to believe in spirits and things,” Ric recalls.
In contrast to his childhood, Rick Ocasek has a ‘relatively calm early adolescence.’ According to Ric, he gets in “with the crowd who were into electronics and good grades.”
The Otcasek family moves to Cleveland, Ohio, when Ric is 16. The reason for the relocation is that Ric’s father gets a job with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Mr Otcasek is a computer analyst. His work includes some ‘top secret’ assignments. Ric recalls one instance when government agents came to the Otcasek house and questioned his mother about the dreams his father had at night. Ric Ocasek attends Maple Heights High School but has difficulty adjusting to life in the Midwest. “I got punched in the face the very first day of school…just because I had my hair dyed blonde…See, it was a trend in Baltimore to dye your hair blonde in the front…Anyway, people stared at me a lot because I was tall and skinny, but later on, it worked to my advantage,” says Ric.
In the mid-1960s Ric Ocasek meets Ben Orr for the first time.
Ben Orr (8 September 1947-3 October 2000) is born Benjamin Orzechowski in Lakewood, Ohio, U.S.A. He is the son of Charles Orzechowski and his wife, Betty Orzechowski (nee Ben). Although he wouldn’t learn about him until very late in life, Ben has a half-brother, Chuck (born in 1926). Ben’s elder half-sibling is the result of an earlier relationship of Ben’s father, Charles. Ben Orr’s parents come from a mixture of Polish, German, Czechoslovakian and German descent. Both Charles and Betty Orzechowski were singers so it is no surprise that they encourage and support their son’s interest in music. Ben loves performing from early childhood. He goes from singing in front of his parents’ friends to becoming a local teen idol. Elvis Presley, the 1950s King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is a big influence on young Ben. The lad learns to play guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. This multi-skilled approach comes in useful. “I’ve changed instruments depending on how much I wanted to keep playing,” Ben explains. “Some bands [I was in] didn’t need [a person on that particular instrument, so I would switch to fit in.]” Ben Orr grows up in Lakewood and Parma, Ohio. He attends Valley Forge High School. Other kids mockingly call him ‘Benny Eleven Letters’ in reference to his lengthy surname, Orzechowski. In 1965 Ben Orr joins a local band called The Grasshoppers as vocalist and guitarist. The Grasshoppers record two singles, ‘Mod Socks’ and ‘Pink Champagne (And Red Roses)’; the latter song is written by Ben Orr. The Grasshoppers become the house band on ‘The Big 5 Show’, a television variety show on local Cleveland, Ohio, station WEWS-TV. Ben is performing with The Grasshoppers on television when he first meets Ric Ocasek, who sees the show. Although the two boys go their separate ways, they are fated to meet again in a few years.
Ric Ocasek graduates from Maple Heights High School. He briefly attends Bowling Green University and Antioch College but drops out to move to Cleveland and concentrate on music.
Circa 1966-1967 Ben Orr’s girlfriend is Nancy Bryson, whose brother plays in The Raspberries, another local group. Ben’s band, The Grasshoppers, disband in 1966 when two members are drafted into the U.S. Army. Ben Orr works with a couple of other bands, Mixed Emotions and then The Colours. Ben is also drafted, but gets a deferment after serving eighteen months in the army.
In the late 1960s-early 1970s Ric Ocasek works various odd jobs as well as being a musician. His other jobs include working in a steel mill, selling business forms and selling clothing. One of the bands Ric works with is an outfit called Leatherwood. It is said that Ric Ocasek ‘marries early in life,’ but this union appears short-lived and details are scarce about this first marriage. The name of Ric Ocasek’s first wife is not publicly known. Ric and his first wife have two sons, Christopher (the elder) and Adam (born in 1970).
Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr meet again in Columbus, Ohio, in 1970. The two young men begin booking bands together. They form a group themselves to perform in and around Ohio State University. Over the next couple of years, Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr play in various bands in Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
By 1972, Ric Ocasek is in a relationship with a woman named Suzanne. Ric and Suzanne have two sons together: Eron (born in 1973) and Derek (born in 1981). Ric and Suzanne eventually marry in 1984.
In the early 1970s Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr move to Boston, Massachusetts. In Boston, Ocasek and Orr join forces with guitarist James Goodkind as a folk rock act called Milkwood. This outfit records one album, ‘How’s The Weather’ (1973), which is released early in the year. The album is ‘ignored’ and Milkwood is soon history. The keyboards on the album by Milkwood are played by a session musician named Greg Hawkes. His future will be entwined with the lives of Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr.
Gregory A. Hawkes is born on 22 October 1952 in Fulton, Maryland, U.S.A. He takes piano lessons as a child. Greg Hawkes attends Atholton High School. At high school, Greg plays in a couple of bands. When he is 14, Hawkes plays guitar in a group called The Aardvarks. His other high school band goes by the name of Teeth. One of Greg’s biggest musical influences is the left field eccentric Frank Zappa whose dark sense of whimsy fits well with Hawkes’ attitude. Greg Hawkes attends Berklee College of Music for two years, majoring in composition and flute. He leaves school to play in various bands.
After Milkwood, Ric Ocasek puts together a new band called Richard And The Rabbits. This group includes both Ben Orr and Greg Hawkes. The name Richard And The Rabbits is suggested by Jonathan Richman, a lovable oddball who is one of Boston rock’s more famous sons.
During this same period, Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr perform as an acoustic duo under the banner of Ocasek And Orr at the Idler coffee house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is not clear exactly when Richard Otcasek became Ric Ocasek or when Ben Orzechowski started using the name Ben Orr but those stagenames are certainly in use at this point, if not earlier. Some of the songs performed by Ocasek And Orr end up being part of the repertoire of The Cars.
By 1974 Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr have a new band called Cap’n Swing. Greg Hawkes is not in this group. Instead, he plays with Martin Mull And His Fabulous Furniture (Martin Mull is an ‘offbeat funnyman’). Hawkes plays flute, saxophone and clarinet with this combo as well as novelty instruments like a xylophone. Although Greg Hawkes is absent, Cap’n Swing includes another significant figure in this saga: Elliot Easton.
Elliot ‘Slick Licks’ Easton is born Elliot Steinberg on 18 December 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. Elliot has a brother, Leslie, and a sister, Lisa. He is drawn to music by the sounds of British pop group The Beatles and U.S. surf rock acts. “All I ever wanted to do since I was 10 years old is to play lead guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band and do it well, do it intelligently,” says Easton. When Elliot plays, he finds he is left-handed. His philosophy is not to treat songs as a showcase for his guitar playing, but rather puts his guitar into the service of the song. “I consider myself the songwriter’s guitarist,” Easton states. Like Greg Hawkes, Elliot Easton studies at the Berklee College of Music.
In Cap’n Swing, Ben Orr is the lead vocalist but does not play any instruments. Ric Ocasek and Elliot Easton are the band’s guitarists. They have ‘a jazzy bass player, which clashes with Ocasek’s more rock ‘n’ roll leanings.’ At first, Glenn Evans plays drums in Cap’n Swing, but later he is replaced by Kevin Robichaud. Guitarist Elliot Easton recalls that, with Cap’n Swing, “We came to New York to play a gig at Max’s [i.e. Max’s Kansas City, a famed punk rock venue]. They sobered us up real quick. They were very critical of the performance and tore it apart. So we went back to Boston with our tails between our legs and rethought it.” Cap’n Swing is rejected by several record labels. Ric Ocasek dismisses the act’s rhythm section and Cap’n Swing breaks up in 1975.
Greg Hawkes is brought back into the fold and Ben Orr’s multi-instrumental talents are put to use as he becomes the bassist for the new, restructured act. The final piece falls into place with the recruitment of drummer David Robinson.
David Robinson is born on 2 April 1949 in Malden, Massachusetts, U.S.A. This means that, although The Cars become famous as a band from Boston, Massachusetts, Robinson is the only Massachusetts native. (Ric Ocasek and Greg Hawkes were born in Maryland, Ben Orr was born in Ohio and Elliot Easton was born in New York.) David Robinson attends Woburn Memorial High School. He goes on to work with Jonathan Richman (the Boston music identity who came up with the name Richard And The Rabbits for an earlier band involving Ric Ocasek, Ben Orr and Greg Hawkes). David Robinson plays in Jonathan Richman’s band, The Modern Lovers (1970-1974). No recordings of this legendary band are released while they are active, but two albums are released after the original Modern Lovers part ways. Those recordings are: ‘The Modern Lovers’ (1976) (recorded in 1971-1972) and ‘The Original Modern Lovers’ (1981) (recorded in 1972). The classic line-up of the group is: Jonathan Richman (vocals, guitar), John Felice (guitar), Jerry Harrison (keyboards) [later of Talking Heads], Ernie Brooks (bass) and David Robinson (drums). David Robinson is let go when Jonathan Richman decides he wants to take the group in a more acoustic direction. Robinson moves to Los Angeles and plays with a group called The Pop. He returns to Boston. “I was in a band sort of just for fun around the time I met Ric [Ocasek],” says David Robinson. “This was a punk band called DMZ.”
David Robinson brings with him a new name for Ric Ocasek’s group: The Cars. So the 1976 founding line-up of The Cars is: Ric Ocasek (vocals, guitar), Ben Orr (vocals, bass), Elliot Easton (guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards) and David Robinson (drums). They play their first show as The Cars at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire on 31 December 1976.
Around this time bassist Ben Orr gets married. His wife’s name is Kris and she is apparently also involved in the music industry. It would seem the marriage is relatively short-lived (1977?-1979?).
In February 1977, The Cars begin playing at The Rat, a venue in Boston, and attracting a following through word of mouth. A demo tape of a song called ‘Just What I Needed’ is sent to influential Boston radio station WBCN and garners a lot of airplay. The Cars spend most of 1977 gigging around the New England area. A nine song demo tape – including ‘Just What I Needed’ – scores them a recording contract with Elektra Records.
The Cars is usually considered to be a new wave band. In the mid-1970s, punk rock stripped away a lot of the pretensions that had accumulated in rock in favour of something more basic. Punk was loud, aggressive and, almost by its nature, destined to self-destruct. New wave supplants punk. New wave preserves punk’s back-to-basics ethos but it is more accessible. New wave is quirky and off-beat rather than openly brutal. In The Cars, the quirky element is usually Greg Hawkes’ keyboards textures which are both hi-tech in a novel way and a bit wilfully weird. The sound of The Cars is a melding of apparently contradictory elements. Ric Ocasek’s compressed guitar sounds itch away while Elliot Easton provides the more fluid lead guitar breaks. Greg Hawkes icy synthesiser tones float through the compositions while David Robinson’s fondness for the artificial sound of syn drums contrasts with his precise and effective fills. Topping it all off is a ‘dead-pan’ vocal delivery in a deep voice (whether it be Ocasek or the slightly higher Orr). The overall effect is a clash of old school smarts with a sheen of new technology, evoking the image of 1950s rocker Buddy Holly in a mad scientist’s lab. The Cars outlive the heyday of new wave and the group is subsequently classed as a synth pop act (due to the prevalence of synthesiser keyboards) or, simply, a pop group.
Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr have something of a push and pull relationship. Ben Orr’s voice is more conventional and he is certainly more traditionally handsome, attributes that see him assert himself. “Ben was the real rock star of the band. He had the look, he had the attitude,” says keyboardist Greg Hawkes. However, Ocasek is clearly the ‘focal point’ of the group. In practice, Ric Ocasek sings the bulk of the lead vocals, but Orr is handed the lead vocals for some of The Cars’ biggest hits. In 2011, Ocasek says, “Ben and I had a real cold war going on that lasted about twenty-three years (i.e. since 1977, about the time The Cars signed a recording contract). I could never really figure out exactly why, but I think there was a lot of jealousy because I wrote the songs and got a lot of attention.”
Ric Ocasek writes nearly all The Cars’ songs. On each album there is usually one track he co-writes with keyboardist Greg Hawkes, but otherwise it is Ocasek behind the steering wheel of The Cars. “Making songs…that’s what I really love the most,” says Ocasek. “As a songwriter, oddly enough, my influences were people like [folk rock icon] Bob Dylan, [late 1960s subversive minimalists] The Velvet Underground, and Buddy Holly. Some psychedelic stuff too.” Ocasek admits that, “My reputation [is] no fun, all gloom, I’m the king of gloom they say. I can be happy alone…Things like writing I do alone.” Guitarist Elliot Easton suggests, “Ric’s lyrics portray a callous, cynical and sarcastic person, but he’s a fairly gentle soul and a very sensitive guy.” Here, unless otherwise indicated, all songs mentioned are written by Ric Ocasek.
Considering The Cars’ career, band leader Ric Ocasek says, “We were kind of a club band that made our own records…I never thought of selling a lot of records. I thought we’d be like a cult band.”
The first single released by The Cars is ‘Just What I Needed’ (US no. 27, UK no. 17, AUS no. 96). It is issued on 29 May 1978. It may be recalled that ‘Just What I Needed’ was the song that – in demo form – first earned them local airplay and then helped them win a recording contract. Ric Ocasek wrote ‘Just What I Needed’ in the basement of a commune in Newton, Massachusetts, where he was staying at the time. Although the song is written by Ric Ocasek, it is bassist Ben Orr who provides the lead vocal for ‘Just What I Needed’. The musical arrangement is sublime, alternating loud and soft sounds while progressively ratcheting up the tension. “It doesn’t matter where you’ve been as long as it was deep,” runs part of the lyric. In reference to this, Ocasek – the song’s author – claims, “Everything is totally sincere, but there’s a lot of sarcasm and some comedy in the lyrics.”
The debut album, ‘The Cars’ (1978) (US no. 18, UK no. 29, AUS no. 35), is released on 6 June. Like almost all of The Cars’ albums, this disc comes out on the Elektra label. ‘The Cars’ is the first of four consecutive albums by the band produced by Roy Thomas Baker. The album cover is a close-up of a toothy young woman behind a transparent plastic steering wheel. The young woman is Russian-born model, singer, writer and journalist Natalya Medvedeva. The album cover was created by the record company but, after the first album, The Cars’ drummer David Robinson acts as their unofficial art director. ‘The Cars’ includes the debut single ‘Just What I Needed’. The group’s leader and chief songwriter Ric Ocasek takes the lead vocal himself for ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ (US no. 35, UK no. 3, AUS no. 67). Thematically, it’s a twist on Elvis Presley’s 1960 song ‘The Girl Of My Best Friend’. When Ocasek sings, “When you bite your lip / It’s some reaction to love-a-huv-a-huv,” his hiccupping vocal evokes Buddy Holly’s mannerisms. While it reminds us of these titans of rock’s past, ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ is still painfully modern. Consider the synthesiser notes played by Greg Hawkes, reminiscent of a deflating balloon, leading to David Robinson’s snappy intro to the “Here she comes again” refrain. ‘Good Times Roll’ (US no. 41), a more measured song, becomes this album’s third single. Also present is ‘Moving In Stereo’, co-written by Ocasek and Hawkes and sung by Orr. Guitarist Elliot Easton says, “We used to joke that the first album should be called ‘The Cars’ Greatest Hits’. We knew that a lot of great bands fall through the cracks. But we were getting enough feedback from people we respected to know that we were on the right track.” ‘The Cars’ is the best album by this band. It is ‘arty and punchy enough to be part of Boston’s new wave scene and yet so catchy that nearly every track lands on the radio.’ ‘The Cars’ stays on the album charts for over two and a half years.
On 3 November 1978 The Cars begin a mini-tour of Europe that includes Germany, France, Belgium and Britain. The Cars’ early singles actually do better in Britain than in their native U.S. perhaps because at the time the British charts are more new wave oriented.
On 25 January 1979 The Cars win the readers’ poll as best new band of the year in the U.S. publication ‘Rolling Stone’. “The first tour [as headliners in 1979] was long and gruelling and still included a lot of small clubs,” says Cars leader Ric Ocasek. “We didn’t really go to the large venues [until the next album or the one after].”
The Cars’ second album is recorded early in 1979 but is not released until months later because their debut is still selling well. ‘Candy-O’ (1979) (US no. 3, UK no. 30, AUS no. 7) comes out on 3 June. The cover painting is the work of famed pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. The girl who models for the cover image, draped across the front of a car, is –coincidentally – named Candy Moore. She played the role of Lucille Ball’s daughter from 1962 to 1965 on the television comedy ‘The Lucy Show’. After ‘Candy-O’ is issued, for a while Candy Moore dates The Cars’ drummer David Robinson. Coming up with material for the group’s second album wasn’t really a problem as The Cars’ leader Ric Ocasek explains: “We had a thirty to forty song club set so when it came to ‘Candy-O’ we had some new songs but [a lot] we could have put on the first album but you just couldn’t put that many songs on a record…Probably seven of the songs were already done.” The first single from ‘Candy-O’ is The Cars’ best individual song, ‘Let’s Go’ (US no. 14, UK no. 57, AUS no. 6). It’s a story of a young temptress, but its chief delights are in the way the musical contributions of the individual members mesh. ‘Let’s Go’ has a lead vocal by bassist Ben Orr. In a self-assured rock star performance, he swaggers through the changes. A squelchy, processed guitar sound shadows the chorus. Volleys of hand-claps keep the energy levels high. The difference between ‘Let’s Go’ and prior hits by The Cars is that it is less heavy, less quirky and more of an irresistible pop song. Ben Orr also handles lead vocals on ‘It’s All I Can Do’ (US no. 41). This forlorn piece has a hard-edged, stuttering arrangement with squealing synthesisers on the chorus. The title track, ‘Candy-O’, is very hi-tech. Overall, the album is considered ‘cold [with] icy organ lines.’
A measure of The Cars’ level of success at this point can be taken from the show they perform in New York’s Central Park to an audience of half a million people on 24 August 1979.
The Cars’ third album is ‘Panorama’ (1980) (US no. 5, AUS no. 19). It is released on 19 August. The cover is a checkered flag, the symbol used to show racing car drivers that the race is over. The painting of the image is the work of The Cars’ drummer, David Robinson. ‘Panorama’ is viewed as ‘more experimental than its predecessors.’ The single from this ‘more ambitious’ set is ‘Touch And Go’ (US no. 37, AUS no. 62). It weaves unsteadily as its paranoid verse tugs against the chipper chorus.
In 1980 Cars bassist Ben Orr meets his second wife, Judith. Like Orr’s first marriage, this too seems to be a relatively short-lived union (1980?-1981?).
Around this time, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton also marries. Details of Easton’s first marriage are scarce. It is known that they were engaged by the summer of 1981 and they eventually go through a divorce in April 2010. Elliot and his wife have a daughter named Sydney.
‘Shake It Up’ (1981) (US no. 9, AUS no. 20), The Cars’ fourth album, is released on 6 November. Mary Ann Walsh is the name of the model on this album’s cover, the girl who is apparently making a milk shake. ‘Shake It Up’ is ‘a more commercial album’ than ‘Panorama’. The title track, ‘Shake It Up’ (US no. 4, UK no. 90, AUS no. 10), is The Cars’ biggest hit yet in their homeland. This song boasts one of Elliot Easton’s most scorching guitar solos – as well as some bone-rattling percussion. “I’m not proud of the lyrics to ‘Shake It Up’,” says the song’s author and vocalist, Ric Ocasek. This just seems to prove that Ocasek is his own harshest critic. Although the title track is quite perky, ‘Shake It Up’ is also home to more melancholy fare. ‘Since You’re Gone’ (US no. 41, UK no. 37) shows the more sombre side of The Cars. Another track from this album, ‘I’m Not The One’, will get a second life some years later.
The Cars go on the road in 1982. Their itinerary includes a gig at the US Festival, a three-day all-star gathering in San Bernardino, California, commencing on 24 September 1982. The US Festival is sponsored by Steve Wozniak, the founder of Apple Computers.
In 1982 Ben Orr, bassist for The Cars, begins dating Diane Grey-Page. Although the couple never marry, their relationship appears longer-lasting than Ben Orr’s two previous marriages.
The Cars’ leader, Rick Ocasek, issues his first solo album on 30 December. ‘Beatitude’ (1982) (US no. 28) includes the single ‘Something To Grab For’ (US no. 47). Greg Hawkes from The Cars plays keyboards on Ocasek’s solo album.
The Cars’ keyboardist Greg Hawkes releases three solo album of his own, ‘Niagara Falls’ (1983), ‘Jet Lag’ (1983) and ‘Backseat Waltz’ (1983).
The Cars reconvene for ‘Heartbeat City’ (1984) (US no. 3, UK no. 20, AUS no. 15), released on 13 March. This album is co-produced by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange and The Cars. ‘Heartbeat City’ proves to be the group’s ‘most successful album’ in commercial terms, with more emphasis on their pop songs. Sonically, the disc may be a little lighter and a little warmer. The album cover is a reproduction of ‘Art-O-Matic Loop di Loop’ (1972), a painting by Peter Phillips. It wraps around from the front cover to the back and its jumble of images includes a car and a pretty girl – the usual markers of a Cars album. ‘You Might Think’ (US no. 7, UK no. 88, AUS no. 24), the first single from ‘Heartbeat City’, is ‘supported by a ground-breaking computer animated video’ that earns it considerable air time on the U.S. music video cable network, MTV. Tongue in cheek, Ric Ocasek intones, “You might think I’m crazy,” before adding, “All I want is you.” Musically, ‘You Might Think’ is a giddy romp, executed at a rapid clip. ‘Magic’ (US no. 12, AUS no. 96) is a song about “Summer / Summer, summer, summer” and love. ‘Drive’ (US no. 3, UK no. 4, AUS no. 10) is the most commercially successful single in the career of The Cars. It is a bruised ballad sung by bassist Ben Orr and is an altogether more serious affair than the two earlier singles from this disc. On the surface, it can be seen as a Romeo’s pick-up line, “Who’s gonna drive you home / Tonight?” but there is a darker side to it. “Who’s gonna plug their ears / When you scream? / You can’t go on / Thinking nothing’s wrong,” it warns. It appears the narrator is addressing someone with a problem handling drugs or alcohol. ‘Drive’ is couched in a haze of pillowy synthesisers and vocal backing chorus lines. “It’s actually very simple,” insists Ric Ocasek. “I would never have thought it was a single when I wrote it.” Ben Orr recalls that, “It had more of a Latin beat to it [originally].” Drummer David Robinson adds, “Kinda like a cha cha.” The video for ‘Drive’ is also significant because it features Czech model and actress Pauline Porizkova, who will come to play a larger role in Ric Ocasek’s life. ‘Hello Again’ (US no. 20, AUS no. 52) features staccato keyboards and is heavy on the synthesisers. The ‘lush ballad’ ‘Why Can’t I Have You’ (US no. 33) is very synthetic and an indicator of how The Cars are drifting away from new wave and into synth pop. The title song, ‘Heartbeat City’ (UK no. 78, AUS no. 75), frets about, “Jacki / What took you so long?” over its bleeps and blurps. Perhaps the subject is the same cause for concern as ‘Drive’? On some early pressings, the song ‘Heartbeat City’ is actually titled ‘Jacki’ – though both titles are frequently repeated in the lyrics. “Basically, that song [‘Heartbeat City’] is like one who had left looking for a better angle on life and returned to find that there is really nothing better on the other side,” says the author, Ric Ocasek.
The Cars perform at the all-star charity concert Live-Aid on 13 July 1985. In their set in Philadelphia, they perform four songs: ‘You Might Think’, ‘Drive’, ‘Just What I Needed’ and ‘Heartbeat City’.
The Cars issue a ‘Greatest Hits’ (1985) (US no. 12, UK no. 27, AUS no. 5) album on 25 October. The identity of the woman whose legs grace the album cover – perched atop a car – is unknown. This disc includes a new song, ‘Tonight She Comes’ (US no. 7, UK no. 76, AUS no. 16), which is co-produced by Mike Shipley and The Cars. The raw carnality of the song is eye-opening, though it is sufficiently ambiguous should a more innocent interpretation be desired. “The record company wanted a new track for the ‘Greatest Hits’ album,” says Cars leader Ric Ocasek, “and I was told in the middle of recording a solo album and that was one of the tracks I didn’t use on the solo album at that point.” ‘I’m Not The One’ (US no. 32, AUS no. 75) from ‘Shake It Up’ is included in a remixed form on this disc and is also released as a single. The glum melancholia of the song is pierced by Greg Hawkes’ synthesised version of a trumpet solo.
The Cars’ guitarist Elliot Easton releases a solo album, ‘Change No Change’ (1985).
The Cars’ leader Ric Ocasek releases his second solo album, ‘This Side Of Paradise’ (1986) (US no. 52), on 15 September. Two singles are lifted from this album, ‘Emotion In Motion’ (US no. 15) and ‘True To You’ (US no. 75).
The Cars’ bassist and alternate lead vocalist Ben Orr releases the solo album ‘The Lace’ (1986) (US no. 86). This spawns the single ‘Stay The Night’ (US no. 24). The songs on this album are co-written by Ben Orr and his girlfriend, Diane Grey-Page. The couple also become engaged in 1986.
‘Door To Door’ (1987) (US no. 26, UK no. 72, AUS no. 26) is a new album by The Cars released on 25 August. The album is co-produced by two members of the group, Ric Ocasek and Greg Hawkes. ‘Door To Door’ departs from the band’s usual formula for its album covers by showing a spread of individual photos of the members of the band. ‘Door To Door’ is said to be the ‘most eclectic’ album in The Cars’ catalogue. ‘You Are The Girl’ (US no. 17, AUS no. 69) is the last major international hit for The Cars. Ric Ocasek and bassist Ben Orr share the lead vocals on this song of admiration and longing that rides a wave of robot-pop and blips along its merry way. ‘Strap Me In’ (US no. 85) has an automotive double entendre. Washes of hard rock guitar are balanced by high vocal harmonies. ‘Strap Me In’ also has an impressive guitar solo from Elliot Easton. Ben Orr provides the lead vocal for ‘Coming Up You’ (US no. 74). “You’re finding out / It’s never quite like it seems…It keeps coming up you again,” he sings in this song about inevitability that bounces across tinkling keyboards. Four and a half of this album’s eleven songs have lead vocals by Orr; this represents a higher proportion than previous Cars’ albums. ‘Door To Door’ ‘fails to approach the success of their previous albums.’
Following ‘Door To Door’, there is speculation that the group is on the verge of splitting up.’ The break-up of The Cars is officially announced in February 1988.
Over the next seventeen years, The Cars’ musical legacy is kept alive in the form of the following compilation albums: ‘Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology’ (1995) [this is a two disc set of forty tracks including demo recordings and non-album B sides of singles as well as the group’s hits]; ‘Shake It Up And Other Hits’ (2001) [a ten track collection]; ‘Complete Greatest Hits’ (2002) (US no. 61) [twenty tracks]; and ‘The Essentials’ (2005) [twelve tracks].
The Cars’ former leader Ric Ocasek splits from his second wife, Suzanne, in 1988. On 23 August 1989 he marries his third wife, Pauline Porizkova, the Czech model and actress he met while making the video for The Cars’ 1984 hit ‘Drive’. Ric and Pauline have two sons: Jonathan Raven (born in May 1993) and Oliver Orion (born on 23 May 1998). Ric Ocasek releases the following albums under his own name: ‘Fireball Zone’ (1991); ‘Quick Change World’ (1993); ‘Negative Theater’ (1993) [his first venture into poetry, released in Europe only]; ‘Getchertikitz’ (1996) with Alan Vega [beatnik poetry set to music and sound effects]; ‘Troublizing’ (1997)’; and ‘Nexterday’ (2005).
The Cars’ former bassist and alternate lead vocalist Ben Orr separates from his fiancée Diane Grey-Page in 1990 after eight years together. After the break-up of The Cars, Ben Orr tours with three different acts: Orr, The Voices Of Classic Rock and Big People. Ben Orr becomes a father with the birth of his son, Ben Jr., on 29 September 1994. Little Ben has a half-sister, Ben’s step-daughter, Sara. The identity of the mother of Sara and Ben Jr. is not public knowledge. In 2000 Ben Orr begins dating Julie Snider and she becomes his fiancée. In April 2000 Ben Orr is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In regard to his illness, Orr states, “If I fall down one day and can’t get up, you’ll know it’s over.” He plays his final show – with Big People – on 27 September 2000 in Anchorage, Alaska. Ben Orr dies from pancreatic cancer on 3 October 2000. He was 53 years old.
The Cars’ former guitarist Elliot Easton works with a couple of ex-members of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the touring band Creedence Clearwater Revisited (1995-1999?).
The Cars’ former drummer David Robinson stops playing music in 1987. Instead, he runs a restaurant.
Rumours of a Cars reunion begin to circulate. However, Ric Ocasek has no interest in touring again. He does give his blessing to The New Cars (2005-2007). This act consists of Todd Rundgren (vocals, guitar), Elliot Easton (guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards), Kasim Sulton (bass) and Prairie Prince (drums). Todd Rundgren is a well-known rock artist in his own right. When they go on tour with fellow new wave veterans Blondie in 2006, The New Cars play some of Rundgren’s past hits as well as those of The Cars. The New Cars release a single titled ‘Not Tonight’ in 2006. ‘It’s Alive’ (2006) is a live album by The New Cars. It has fifteen live tracks (some Todd Rundgren songs included) and three new studio recordings including ‘Not Tonight’.
‘Classic Tracks’ (2008) is another repackaging of The Cars’ past hits.
Greg Hawkes releases ‘The Beatles Uke’ (2008), on which he plays ukulele versions of The Beatles songs.
In 2010 The Cars reunite for the first time in two decades. This time both Ric Ocasek and David Robinson join Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes, so all four surviving members of The Cars are present. David Robinson has to relearn how to play drums though.
‘Move Like This’ (2011) (US no. 7) is released on Hear Music on 10 May. The album is co-produced by Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee and The Cars. The album cover shows the silhouettes of the four members of The Cars, each in front of a different colour. Without the late Ben Orr, the bass parts on the album are played by co-producer Jacknife Lee on some songs and keyboardist Greg Hawkes on other tracks. Although it doesn’t make the charts, the nominal single from ‘Move Like This’ is ‘Sad Song’. In this twitchy, synth-driven piece, Ric Ocasek sings, “It’s just a sad song / It won’t take long.” ‘Blue Tip’ is also on this album.
When The Cars go on tour to promote ‘Move Like This’, Ric Ocasek handles all the lead vocals, including those for the songs that used to feature Ben Orr on lead vocals. Without a bass player, Greg Hawkes plays the bass parts on keyboards.
Although The Cars do not officially split up after ‘Move Like This’, the group ‘enters hibernation.’
Once again, the history of The Cars is repackaged in such forms as these: ‘The Elektra Years 1978-1987’ (2016) [a complete boxed set of The Cars’ albums released on the Elektra label] and ‘Moving In Stereo – The Best Of The Cars’ (2016).
The Cars’ guitarist Elliot Easton marries again. His second wife is named Jill. Easton records the album ‘Easton Island’ (2013) with a group called Tiki Gods. He then becomes one quarter of the group called Empty Hearts: Wally Palmar (vocals, guitar), Elliot Easton (guitar), Andy Babiuk (bass) and Blondie’s Clem Burke (drums). They release the album ‘Empty Hearts’ (2014).
The Cars’ drummer David Robinson runs an art gallery and makes jewellery.
The central figure in the story of The Cars was Ric Ocasek. “People tell me all the time that I look forbidding and aloof. That doesn’t bother me much – I am fairly private, withdrawn and…distant, I guess. But, uh, I think that’s okay,” he said. Under his stewardship, The Cars prospered. They were at their best from 1978 to 1986. ‘The Cars, for all their eclecticism, had a trademark sound from the first’. ‘The Cars were the most successful American new wave band to emerge in the late 1970s. With their sleek, mechanical pop rock, the band racked up a string of platinum albums and top forty singles’.
- ‘The Cars…Up Close’ – Radio interview by Dan Meer (?), MCA Radio Network (26 August 1987)
- inogolo.com as at 26 July 2016
- ‘Vanity Fair’ (U.S. magazine) – ‘Q & A: Ric Ocasek of The Cars’ by Marc Spitz (5 May 2011) (reproduced on vanityfair.com)
- Internet Movie Database – imdb.com – as at 26 July 2016
- wikipedia.org as at 23 July 2016
- kimsites.net – ‘Heartbeat City’ by ‘Kim & Alan’ (2004-2006)
- encyclopedia.com – ‘Ric Ocasek’ by Elizabeth Wenning (1991)
- allmusic.com, ‘The Cars’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 24 July 2016
- songfacts.com – Artisfacts for The Cars – no author credited – as at 25 July 2016
- benjaminorrthelegacy.wix.com by Dawn Marie as at 25 July 2016
- au.pinterest.com/pm/322851867008352532 – posting by Sunni Lynn as at 26 July 2016
- whosdatedwho.com as at 24 July 2016
- liquisearch.com – no author credited – as at 27 July 2016
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 39, 179
- answers.yahoo.com – posting by ‘Jonathan’ (April 2016)
- ‘Rolling Stone’ (U.S. rock magazine) – ‘Friends and Bandmates Pay Tribute to Ben Orr’ by Jeff Niesel (13 November 2000) (reproduced on rollingstone.com)
- ‘New York Times’ (New York, U.S.A., newspaper) – ‘The Return of Ric Ocasek’ – interview conducted by Andrew Goldman (6 May 2011)
- brainyquote.com as at 24 July 2016
- songfacts.com – Re: ‘Just What I Needed’ – no author credited – as at 26 July 2016
- metrolyrics.com as at 26 July 2016
- ‘Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology’ – Sleeve notes by Elliot Easton (Elektra Records, 1995) via 5 (above)
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 62
- ‘The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 290, 294, 301, 344
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: America’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing Limited, 1992) p. 577
- innocentwords.com – ‘Elliot Easton: The Cars’ Signature Guitarist’ – interview conducted by Paul Barrel (1 December 2014)
- goldmine.mag.com – ‘Take a Ride with The Cars’ Elliot Easton’ – interview conducted by Joe Matera (13 April 2010)
- allmusic.com – ‘Ric Ocasek’ by Greg Prato as at 24 July 2016
- therichest.com – ‘Ric Ocasek Net Worth’ – no author credited – as at 25 July 2016
- billboard.com – ‘Biography – Creedence Clearwater Revisited’ by Bruce Eder as at 31 July 2016
- ‘Rock ‘N’ Reel’ (U.S. magazine) – ‘Creedence Clearwater Revisited: Bad Moon Rising (Again)’ by Andrew Darlington – Rock’ N’ Reel No. 32 Spring 1999 (UK – April 1999) (reproduced on andrewdarlington.blogspot.com.au)
Song lyrics copyright Lido Music, Inc. ASCAP/Universal Music Publishing Group
Last revised 3 August 2016