Few people were aware of the debut album by a Boston band called Milkwood when it came out in 1973. Had they picked it up, they would have heard a self-conscious singer narrating his own life story to date: “There was a man from Maryland who said he could not feel/He had a hard time telling just what was real.”
You can hardly recognize it, but that voice belonged to Ric Ocasek, the man who would bring his odd-angled, quizzical worldview into the heart of the pop mainstream within just a few years, with the wildly successful modern pop band the Cars. Ocasek, who died last Sunday of heart disease at age 75, may have had a hard time telling what was real — that Milkwood song is called “Dream Trader” — but the legacy of his most famous band was set in stone long ago.
“Ric had this melodic sense, a way of putting words together, that blew my mind,” says Jim Goodkind, who was the third member of Milkwood alongside Ocasek and his future Cars bandmate Benjamin Orr. “You didn’t always know what he was talking about in his songs, but it still made sense.”
It was Goodkind, in fact, who put the band together. He grew up in Chicago, where he had a garage band in high school called the Squires. After graduating from college in Wisconsin, he hitchhiked to Boston. It was 1971.
Hoping to start another band, Goodkind placed an ad in the Phoenix for a singer. Ocasek answered it.
“He was not super impressive as a lead singer,” recalls Goodkind, who has been living in the San Francisco Bay area since the early 1990s. “Mostly because Ric was unique, and he was unique in a way that would fit certain things and not other things.”
When the audition was over, Ocasek asked if Goodkind would like to hear a few of his own songs. Those songs convinced Goodkind to abandon the idea of the bluesy rock band he’d envisioned in favor of an acoustic duo. Soon Ocasek would suggest they invite his old friend Orr, from Ohio, to come to Boston and join them.
Milkwood was an acoustic trio that focused on three-part harmonies. They made the kind of “soft rock” that was big in those years, by bands such as America and Bread. Goodkind and Orr shared an apartment in Somerville, while Ocasek and his second wife, Suzanne, occupied a second-floor flat in a house nearby.
“He had a magnetic personality, and he was empathetic,” says Goodkind, who was sometimes credited as “Jas” in those years. “We became fast friends. We spent almost every day together for 2½ or three years.”
They often gathered at Ocasek’s apartment. “We’d work on harmonies, eat jellybeans, smoke cigarettes, and think about getting a record deal,” Goodkind says.
The band played gigs at Jack’s, Passim, and other local clubs. They opened for a newcomer named Jackson Browne, and another one named John Prine. Prine said he’d give them a song, but they didn’t record it. (Prine cut “Blue Umbrella” himself in 1973.)
With the help of their manager, Milkwood got signed to a record-label subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. Ironically, given how much Ocasek would be later heralded for his mastery of the recording studio, Goodkind remembers him being “very uncomfortable” during the Milkwood sessions.
Unsurprisingly, the record tanked. All three band members took it hard, but Ocasek maybe most of all.
“The buildup was so high, and the letdown so long,” Goodkind says. “He and Suzie were on welfare for a while.”
Goodkind moved in with his girlfriend, and the bandmates went their separate ways. Ocasek continued to take solo gigs.
“Imagine Ichabod Crane with a beret,” Goodkind says.
Eventually, Goodkind took a job at a company that specialized in album cover design. He was eager to put the old dream of rock stardom behind him.
“I could envision myself doing other things,” he says. Ocasek could not.
“It’s something I think a lot successful musicians have in common. They become successful against the odds, because the odds are never in your favor if you’re a musician. It’s just not something he ever thought about not doing.”
After yet another false start or two, with short-lived bands including Richard and the Rabbits and Cap’n Swing, Ocasek ultimately made music history with the Cars. Goodkind thinks he knows precisely why.
“To his credit, he learned a lot from disappointment. He thought long and hard about mistakes, and what to do about them. A lot of people don’t learn. They keep doing the same stupid stuff, over and over. He’d think about what went wrong, fix it, and move on to the next mistake. And then he’d move on from that one.”
Chris Rhodes, who led a soulful group that played the Boston circuit around that time, says he often bumped into Ocasek and Orr around Harvard Square, “hanging out, wearing plaid cowboy shirts.”
“Next thing you know, they’re playing the Rat. I’ve got to say, it was a brilliant move on their part.”
In early 1978, before the Cars’ debut came out, Ocasek invited Goodkind over to his new home to hear the record. The house had a circular driveway, where he parked the new Jaguar that had taken the place of his old Volkswagen Beetle.
“We smoked a little weed, and he played the album,” Goodkind says. “And I said, ‘Holy [expletive], man, you sound like Queen!’ I mean, the harmonies, those operatic harmonies. That was [producer] Roy Thomas Baker.”
By then, Goodkind was playing lead guitar in a band led by singer Niki Aukema, featuring piano player and future E Streeter Roy Bittan. Goodkind soon moved to New York City, where he watched as Aukema’s career sputtered while the Cars blew up. He bumped into Ocasek a couple of times, once on the street, another at the airport. Then they fell out of touch.
A few years ago, Goodkind retired. He’s since fulfilled a promise he made to himself, to go back to making music. He’s playing in a couple of bands, one of which makes original music and another that plays covers of country hits from the ’90s.
Rhodes, who now lives in Asheville, N.C., where he still plays solo gigs, says Ocasek and Orr, who died in 2000, were rarities in the music world.
“Both Ric and Ben were just really nice guys,” he says. “They weren’t stuck on themselves. They didn’t have a huge ego.
“They were just nice people who just wanted to make music.”