Imagine lanky Ric Ocasek folding himself behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Beetle. That’s the car Maxanne Sartori remembers climbing into when she joined the future frontman of the Cars on a trip to New York City, where his band was set to audition for record companies at the hip nightclub Max’s Kansas City.
It was the fall of 1976. Cap’n Swing, Ocasek’s latest band with his longtime friend Benjamin Orr, had been gaining fans around Boston through the support of WBCN, where Maxanne was a popular DJ, known on-air by her first name. When the showcase in Manhattan didn’t amount to anything, Ocasek asked for her advice.
Find another drummer, she told him. Put Ben, who’d been the lead singer, on bass, and take more of the lead vocals yourself. And change the name of the band.
Ocasek took it all to heart. Less than two years later, the Cars were on top of the rock ’n’ roll world, playing a crisp, arty brand of power pop that would lead the way into New Wave. Maxanne, who’d been close to the band, saw Ocasek for one of the last times just a few years later, again at Max’s Kansas City. This time, she says, he was with his new best friend: Andy Warhol. Ocasek called her name, and she turned to see who it was.
“It was cool to see them both in the same frame,” she says.
Ocasek, who died in New York City on Sunday at age 75, “had a unique star quality about him, I thought,” Maxanne says. “He was a poet.”
Tall, thin, and reserved, Ocasek was the band’s creative engine. He guided the Cars — originally just Cars, Maxanne insists, like Talking Heads or Eurythmics — through a fantastically fruitful decade-long career, during which they sold more than 20 million albums, helped institutionalize the look and sound of the early MTV era, and had enough unforgettable hits — “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go,” “Touch and Go,” “You Might Think” — to eventually, belatedly work their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2018.
By then, Ocasek had long since abandoned Boston for New York, where he made abstract paintings, produced bands ranging from Bad Religion to Weezer and Nada Surf, and was a father to six sons, two of them from his third marriage, to the supermodel Paulina Porizkova.
The Cars “were not only commercially but artistically successful,” says Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom, one of a generation of musicians who grew up with the band’s music seemingly omnipresent. “They were an amalgam of bubblegum pop and smart lyrics but nothing too heady, a perfect formula.
“And they were an amazing band, with a guitar player [Elliot Easton] who could do almost anything, a heartthrob bass player [Orr], a drummer [David Robinson] who’d already been in two amazing bands,” the Modern Lovers and DMZ. The fifth member, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, was a former Berklee College of Music student who could play flute and various reed instruments.
“They put it all together effortlessly,” says Janovitz. “Their debut album was jokingly referred to as their greatest hits album. To come out fully formed like that . . .” he says, his voice trailing off.
Buffalo Tom has occasionally covered the Cars’ “It’s All I Can Do” at live shows.
“Everyone covered them,” Janovitz says. The Gigolo Aunts recorded “I’m Not the One”; Letters to Cleo did a version of “Dangerous Type.” More recently, country musicians have been sharing their love for Ocasek’s band. Eric Church has recorded “Just What I Needed,” and Tim McGraw just released his version of the melancholy ballad “Drive,” one of a handful of Cars hits to feature lead vocals by Orr, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2000, at age 53.
Janovitz, who performed with Easton at a benefit event in Los Angeles earlier this year, is still in awe of the way Ocasek insinuated his detached presence and skewed point-of-view into the mainstream of American pop. He was a classic outsider, Janovitz says, a lover of Roxy Music and Beat poetry “whose championing of the band Suicide was one of the all-time great instances of rock star leverage.”
It was Danny Lipman, at the time a record promoter and nightclub investor, who introduced Maxanne to Cap’n Swing. He’d been the Modern Lovers’ manager. After they dropped him, he declined Robinson’s offer to manage his new band.
“Ric loved the Modern Lovers,” says Lipman, who moved to California in the late 1970s and still runs a mortgage company there. For several years he had a syndicated radio show called “Rock Around the World.”
When the Cars broke out, he kicked himself for turning down the manager’s role.
“Who knew they were gonna be such a success?” he says. But he was happy for Ocasek.
“He was a talented guy. The material was offbeat. It was different. He was very sincere, not a gonif at all. He was just trying to make his career happen. He was an artist.”
Ocasek could appear aloof, and his band was sometimes criticized for being undemonstrative onstage. But he was a thoughtful friend, says Maxanne. After she left WBCN for a new job at Elektra Records — by that time, the Cars’ label — he’d stop by her office in LA with gifts: a glass vase, a set of Art Deco bookends.
The band’s winning sound wasn’t so much an accumulation of the various styles Ocasek and Orr had tried out from the earliest days of their friendship in Ohio, Maxanne says. Rather, it was a stripping away.
“You have to jettison,” she says. “Like any art, it’s what you leave out that’s more important. It’s space, man,” she adds with a laugh. “You don’t have to play everything.”
The Cars didn’t play everything. They found their formula, and they stuck to it. What they did play, however, would define a particular space in rock history.