My reaction after learning that Blue Rider Press, a reputable, if somewhat eclectic imprint of Penguin, planned to publish the collected lyrics of Ric Ocasek, the principal singer-songwriter of The Cars, was why. Was someone clamoring to see the words to “Shake It Up” and “Dangerous Type” together in one volume?
Don’t misunderstand. I like the Cars, or at least I used to, before Boston’s most popular purveyor of the genre known as New Wave began making mediocre records, which happened pretty quickly after their terrific 1978 debut album. Still, thanks to programmers at MTV, I continued to pay attention to the Cars and so did many others. Between their first, eponymous LP and the utterly forgettable “Door to Door” in 1987, when the band finally called it quits, the Cars sold several million records. (Minus bassist Ben Orr, who died in 2000, the group released a CD in 2011.)
But whatever the Cars’ appeal, it wasn’t about Ocasek’s lyrics, which rarely prompted listeners to ponder much beyond girls and, sometimes, moonlight. (I recall — and the book confirms — that Ocasek liked nighttime generally, and the moon, stars, and midnight, in particular.) The Cars were a sum-of-their-parts sort of band; Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, and drummer David Robinson made a sound that, when combined with Ocasek’s reasonably dulcet Morticia-meets-Lou Reed vocals, was distinctive though hardly groundbreaking.
So why the book? It’s got a serious-sounding title, “Lyrics & Prose,” with the songs largely grouped chronologically by album and presented like poems, stark and precious, without narrative or notes explaining what drugs Ocasek may have ingested before writing “blow tray can you see/ fly the pawns curly sight,” or when, precisely, Paulina Porizkova, the onetime Czech supermodel who became Ocasek’s second wife, came on the scene.
Holding the book, I wondered if maybe I was wrong, and Ocasek was, in fact, a genius lyricist. Maybe I’d overlooked his true talent and focused too much on his appearance, which is similar to a praying mantis — if a praying mantis wore mirrored shades and had an ink-black mullet. Alas, I didn’t have to sit with “Lyrics & Prose” too long before I realized I was right.
Lyrics can be literature, no doubt, and if you don’t think so just pick up the collected songs of, say, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, or Bob Dylan, whose words are the subject of serious academic investigation by BU humanities professor Christopher Ricks. That Ocasek’s lyrics are not literature — and, trust me, they are not — is no crime. It doesn’t diminish the value of the Cars’ songs or of Ocasek’s six solo albums (also included here). It just raises a question about the need for this book.
Ocasek’s lyrics are often oblique and, like a lot of rock ’n’ roll songs written by men, preoccupied with the opposite sex. There’s a lot of yearning, some of it affecting, as in “Since You’re Gone” (“I can’t help it everything’s a mess/ I can’t help it you’re so treacherous/ when it comes to tenderness”) or “Bye Bye Love” (“always it’s some other guy/it’s just a broken lullaby”), but much of it is flat and ineffectual, as in “You Are the Girl” (“you are the girl/ that keeps me up at night/ you are the girl/ that makes me feel all right”). Indeed, if not for the beat, a big hit like “Magic” (“oh oh it’s magic/ when I’m with you”) looks downright dumb on the page.
Springsteen-esque storytelling is not Ocasek’s thing, and he’s too cheerful to be compared
to someone like Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. Read aloud — “it’s not the perfume that you wear/ it’s not the ribbons in your hair” — this is fairly mindless stuff, which may explain why the Cars live on today in commercials for Toyota and Circuit City, and not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.