The Cars have for the (almost) four-year existence of my blog been on my “to-post” list. However, as any blogger knows, unless you’re posting just about every single day it takes forever to get to to everything you want to do. I’d heard a Cars tune on the radio and said, “Oh yeah gotta do that,” not realizing that Ric Ocasek had died and that that was likely a tribute to him. So here’s my ME tribute to not only a great band but to a time when great bands were coming out of Boston, an era that is, sadly, largely gone.
Wikipedia: Richard Otcasek was born on March 23, 1944, and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. When he was 16 years old, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, He briefly attended Antioch College and Bowling Green State University but dropped out to pursue a career in music.
Cleveland had a musical variety show called The big 5 show and one of the members of its house band, The Grasshoppers, was Benjamin Orzechowski, aka Benny 11 Letters aka Ben Orr. Orr was lead singer and guitarist and the band actually released a couple of singles including the catchy (if typical for its time) Mod Sox. The tall (6’4″), lanky Ocasek met Orr after seeing him performing on the show. They both kicked around in other bands for a few years before reconnecting in Columbus, Ohio and playing around the Ohio State University campus.
For reasons that escape me – other than perhaps wanting to become big fish in a smaller pond – rather than move to LA or New York the guys chose to relocate to Boston in the early ’70’s. Orr and Ocasek formed a band called Milkwood which which was more of a folk-rock thing and so NOT the Cars their songs sound like they belong on an Eagles or America album.
They released one album called How’s the Weather? with future car Greg Hawks (sic) on tenor and baritone saxophones. (Interestingly, they guy who provided me with my first real stage exposure – John Payne – was also on this album. He also had a part in Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.)
Then we come to Cap’n Swing. I adapted the following from a Facebook tribute to Ben Orr who died in 2000 (at 53) of pancreatic cancer.
“Ocasek and Orr teamed up with future Cars guitarist Elliot Easton (who had also studied at Berklee). Ben picked up the bass and David Robinson joined on drums. Best known for his career with The Modern Lovers, it was Robinson who came up with the name “The Cars,” which led to automobile-related puns.
Ocasek said of the name, “It’s so easy to spell; it doesn’t have a ‘z’ on the end; it’s real authentic. It’s pop art, in a sense.” Greg Hawkes returned to fill the keyboard slot, and the band was on its way. Demo tracks received major drive time airplay on WBCN radio by then DJ’s Maxanne Satori and Oedipus (program manager – ME), recordings that helped pave the way for the Cars band to get a record deal I like to think.”
Showcases were played at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s in N.Y.C on October fourth and fifth 1976 and the Jazz Workshop / Paul’s Mall in Boston, Lil’ Earl”s in Gloucester, MA on the eighteenth through the twenty second, The Club in Cambridge with The Real Kids on July twenty through twenty second and also The Rat* in Boston and a few frat parties in Orono, Maine and in-town Boston.
The Cars played their first show on New Year’s Eve 1976 at Pease Air Force Base (!) in quaint New Hampshire. I cannot imagine how that shit went down. Meanwhile, the band’s demo tape of “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl**” started getting heavy airplay on WBCN (gone) and WCOZ (now a renamed hip-hop station.)
This led to the band’s being signed to Elektra Records. In June of 1978, the band’s eponymous debut album was released. And just like that, the folkies turned rockers (in their early thirties no less), were overnight sensations.
This album sold like the proverbial hotcakes and is on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. AllMusic later said, “All nine tracks are new wave/rock classics” and Elliot Easton said, “We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars Greatest Hits.”
Ric Ocasek wrote pretty much every tune on the album except for “Moving in Stereo” which he co-wrote with Hawkes. He had that gift of saying things that were perverse or sometimes downbeat but giving it a kick so that unless you really listened to the lyrics you didn’t know what the fuck you were singing along with.
Case in point: “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” It appears to be about a guy who’s in a totally fucked-up relationship. And as Ocasek himself said, “When things get too quiet, and you’re willing to put up with any company, or you’re not willing to accept the prospect of being alone, you might find yourself needing what you’ve got.”
Between 1978 and 2011, the band released seven studio albums, only the last one of which did not include Ben Orr who, as mentioned, had by that time passed away.
Another favorite – from 1979’s Candy-O, was “Let’s Go.” (What a fervent time this was with Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces – for just two examples – released that year. They tell me there was also something called disco around at that time but I have no memory of it at all):
I’ll leave you with two more tunes. From 1981’s Shake It Up, the the title tune with a great, all-too-brief (but perfect) Elliot Easton solo. (Never felt like they gave him enough room to cut loose.) And then Ben Orr’s take on the lovely but sad “Drive.”
Per Wikipedia: “In 2005, Easton and Hawkes joined with Todd Rundgren to form a spin-off band, the New Cars, which performed classic Cars and Rundgren songs alongside new material. I wrote about this briefly in my two-part series on Rundgren.
The Cars were inducted (by Brandon Flowers of the Killers) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, fortunately in enough time for Ric Ocasek to enjoy that and participate in it. Ocasek died on Sept. 15, 2019 of cardiovascular disease at the age of 75.
*The Rathskeller (The Rat) was a great, stinking hole of a club in Kenmore Square in Boston about a five-minute walk from Fenway Park. This shithole of a place featured everyone from Aerosmith to the B-52s to Blondie to Buffalo Tom to Stevie Ray Vaughan to ‘Til Tuesday to the Police. Sting name-checked it a few years back when he was in town. Wikipedia refers to it as having been a “dimly-lit, gritty establishment.” That it was. It was our CBGB’s and it is dearly missed.
**Reportedly one of the first songs Kurt Cobain ever learned, Nirvana later played it live.