Ric Ocasek was a tall, gangly genius who became a master of nonchalance, a savant of alienation, and a beatnik-spiced songwriter the likes of which rock ’n’ roll had rarely seen.
“Alienation is the craze — and it’s all gonna happen to you,” Ocasek wrote in his song “Double Life” in 1979. As the turbulent, punk-inspired late ’70s gave way to the zany, synth-dominated MTV rush of the ’80s, Ocasek was able to straddle both eras.
He never particularly enjoyed performing — he didn’t jump around like a clown or display the rah-rah, we-love-you-Boston antics favored by many acts. His cool, calm, and collected stage presence sometimes came across as aloof, but he was a very efficient singer and rhythm guitarist. His singing had a clipped, almost spoken-word minimalism to it, as he often alternated vocals with the more traditional but exquisite stylings of fellow Cars singer Ben Orr.
Ocasek’s knowledge of music was remarkably vast, from rockabilly to techno-pop. And his perennially dry, stream-of-conscious wit was at the core of his art. It was ever-present in the many hit songs he wrote for the Boston band the Cars, whose first album in 1978 sold 6 million copies. And it was with him in his post-Cars era when he released solo albums that never sold as well but still saw him trying to outdo himself.
Ocasek, who died at his Manhattan townhouse Sunday at the age of 75, was a towering figure in person, lanky like a long-distance runner, with a proud, against-the-grain intellect that could be intimidating. He was frequently described as a rock poet, but he preferred the term “stenographer of the masses,” he told this writer in a 1979 Boston Globe interview.
Yet he knew the Cars were on rock’s cutting edge — and he joked about it when asked if he had considered hiring a more experimental producer like Brian Eno to handle the second Cars album, “Candy-O.” “No, we have enough oblique strategy already,” he said. “If we had any more, we’d be on a space capsule headed for Mars.”
Ocasek peppered the band’s songs with buoyant, wildly abstract imagery that never fit any simple pop formula. The music and rhythms could be simple and tailored for the dance floor, but the lyrics were often from another planet.
The title track of “Candy-O” is an example: “Obstacles don’t work . . . homogenize . . . decentralize . . . it’s just a quirk, different ways to see you through.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to write about before I do it,” he said. “I look for different things, but I just like to leave things in poetic suspension.”
And in the revealing song “Misfit Kid” from the Cars’ third album, “Panorama,” Ocasek wrote about a “lost and frantic new age romantic . . . I live with absurdity.”
He was happiest when he could put his feet up and relax at the studio the Cars purchased on Newbury Street, called Syncro Sound. The Cars recorded only one album there, but it was an escape for Ocasek, and he reveled in its atmosphere during a couple of interviews I had with him there.
Above all, he was always wonderfully evasive about explaining himself, especially when asked about the Beat-era poets whom he’d clearly studied.
“Oh, I’m into e.e. cummings, [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti and people like that — sort of off-the-wall types,” he said. “But I don’t know what poetry is. I don’t know what comprises poetry. I know what sonnets are, but I don’t know how they work.”
The Cars jumped from playing the Rat in Kenmore Square to headlining Boston Garden in the same year their debut album shook the industry. And it was often assumed that Ocasek must have been firing on psychedelics to write some of those songs, but that was not the case.
“I don’t do any drugs and I don’t even drink. I don’t do any of that crap,” he said in another Globe interview in 1980. “The images just come out of my head. I don’t get them from any outside sources.”
Pressed about his songwriting process, he elaborated. “Do I write the lyrics or the melody first? I’d say a combination of the two. Sometimes I write wherever I am, and all of a sudden it will come to me. It’s like watching a movie. You just have to put the ending on. I just let whatever wants to come out, come out.”
Ocasek also stuck to his values. He and the band were not into corporate sponsorship of their tours. It was a time when the Rolling Stones signed on with Jovan, the Jacksons went with Pepsi, and Rod Stewart with Sony tapes.
“I would never want to endorse anything,” he said in 1984 after the Cars’ “Heartbeat City” album became a smash. “We turned down all the sponsorships we were offered this tour — and we got them from car companies, from stereo companies, clothing companies, all kinds of companies. You can look at it and say, ‘All right, you can make an extra million dollars on your tour that way.’ But then you say to yourself, ‘That’s like being a prostitute. Who needs it? It’s not important enough, and it’s not a good thing to do.’ ”
My last interview with Ocasek was in 1997 when his solo album, “Troublizing,” came out. We met at a cafe in the Back Bay. He was two decades removed from the explosive success of the Cars, but he was older, wiser, and still in the game.
“I remember reading this book about older painters,” he says. “And they were asked, ‘Ok, so you’ve been painting for 20 years and your greatest paintings were 10 years ago. Now what are you trying to do? Are you trying to paint better?’ And they’re all going, ‘Yeah, I’m still trying to paint better. I have more experience and I’m still as motivated.’
“I can relate to that. I certainly don’t want to stop writing songs. It’s something I didn’t just do to make money. I did it because that was something I loved and felt that, even if I wasn’t successful, I would still want to do this. And it’s no different now. The love is still the same.”