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Ric Ocasek, lead singer for The Cars, dies at 75

Ric Ocasek of The Cars performed during the Lollapalooza music festival at Grant Park in Chicago in August 2011. Nam Y. Huh/AP/File 2011/Associated Press

Ric Ocasek, whose deadpan vocal delivery and lanky, sunglassed look defined a rock era in the 1970s and 1980s as front man and lead songwriter for Boston-based The Cars, was discovered dead Sunday in his Manhattan apartment. He was 75.

The New York Police Department said that officers found Mr. Ocasek at about 4 p.m. after responding to a 911 call. They said there were no signs of foul play and the medical examiner was to determine a cause of death.

The death comes a year after The Cars — with such hits as ‘‘Just What I Needed’’ and “My Best Friend’s Girl” — were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


Mr. Ocasek’s minimalist, half-spoken vocals had established the band’s sound; his lanky frame, vise-narrow face, and sunglasses had formed their lasting image.

Yet, the path to stardom was pock-marked with disappointments for Mr. Ocasek. After struggling to break into the music scene in New York, he found himself living in a friend’s car parked in an underground garage on Broadway.

The songwriter, then known as Ric Ocastek, sought a change of scene and fortunes and moved to Boston to join the still-thriving folk scene.

With longtime pal Benjamin Orzechowski, a bassist who later shortened his name to Orr, he formed several local bands including the folk-rock Milkwood and Cap’n Swing before creating The Cars, with David Robinson, Elliot Easton, and Greg Hawkes.

They were a decade older than many of their modern-rock compatriots but became one of the most essential American bands of the late 1970s and 1980s. In a string of multimillion-selling albums from 1978 to 1988, Mr. Ocasek and The Cars merged a vision of dangerous and romantic night life and the concision of new wave with the sonic depth and ingenuity of radio-friendly rock. The Cars managed to please both punk-rock fans and a far broader pop audience, reaching into rock history while devising new, lush extensions of it.


Mr. Ocasek’s songs drew hooks from basic three-chord rockabilly and punk, from surf-rock, from emerging synth-pop, from echoes of the Beatles and glam-rock and from hints of the 1970s art-rock avant-garde.

The first three songs on their 1978 self-titled first album were all hit singles and remain widely known classics: ‘‘Good Times Roll,’’ “My Best Friend’s Girl,’’ and ‘‘Just What I Needed.’’

The Cars in Memphis, Tenn., 1979. Left to right: Ben Orr, Greg Hawkes, Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton, David Robinson.Redferns/Getty Images/File

They had 10 other singles in the Billboard top 40, and of their six studio albums, four were in Billboard’s top 10.

The band’s commercial peak came with 1984’s ‘‘Heartbeat City,’’ which featured the hit singles ‘‘You Might Think’’ and ‘‘Magic,’’ sung by Mr. Ocasek, and the atypical ballad ‘‘Drive,’’ sung by Orr.

They were an MTV favorite, and the whimsical, partly animated video for ‘‘You Might Think’’ along with the mournful video for ‘‘Drive’’ brought them near-constant airplay on the channel in the mid-1980s.

Maxanne Sartori, the former WBCN disc jockey often credited with breaking The Cars on the radio, previously told the Globe that Mr. Ocasek was reserved even in the band’s early years.

“He’d already been married two times,” she told the Globe in 2018. “He was my plus-one at a lot of places. He was fun to be around, really sarcastic.”

With his gangly frame and his pop-art shirts, he was “quite the odd man out. And I do mean odd,” she said.


By the time Mr. Ocasek and his bandmates debuted The Cars at the Rathskeller in Kenmore Square, their potential was evident, a previous owner told the Globe in 2018.

As Cap’n Swing — which featured Mr. Ocasek, Orr, and Easton — they were “interesting,” said Jim Harold, who owned the Rat. “When they came back as The Cars, even at sound check, you knew these guys were going to be good. It was like, ‘Oh, wow. This was really different.’ They had something no one else had.”

Harold said he admired Mr. Ocasek as someone “who was pretty astute about what he wants, and he gets it done.”

Former Globe rock critic and Berklee School of Music professor Steve Morse described Mr. Ocasek Sunday night as shy and humble.

“He was kind of a musician’s musician, but a reluctant rock star,” he said. “He was a very eccentric guy, a very poetic guy. . . not a dynamic performer whose ego was caught up in the stage.”

While other bands at the time were known for their theatrical performances, Mr. Ocasek preferred to spend time in the studio — including the Synchro Sound recording studio on Newbury Street, where The Cars recorded many of their songs. He eschewed simple love songs and made a name for himself as a lyricist, Morse said.

“He wrote with a lot depth, a lot of wit, a lot of intelligence,” Morse said.

He told Morse in 1997 that stardom had its price.


“You can really be caught up in a lot of weird crap and be pretty nasty and ego’d out during those periods of success,’’ he said. “I certainly tried to keep my feet on the ground during The Cars’ time as best I could.

“I was just trying to be a songwriter and somebody who loved music and believed in music.’’

The band broke up in 1988, but their influence would be deeply felt in the 1990s and beyond. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana covered ‘‘My Best Friend’s Girl’’ at their last live show in 1994. Mr. Ocasek released solo albums, but his main influence was in helping new bands find their voice, verve, and power. Among the artists he produced were Weezer, No Doubt, Bad Religion, and Hole.

He also served as senior vice president of A&R at Electra Records.

Mr. Orr died in 2000. The surviving Cars reunited to release a final album, “Move Like This,” in 2011 and played a sold-out show that year at the House of Blues in Boston.

Then-critic for the Globe Sarah Rodman described the album as “managing the impressive feat of being evocative without sounding retro in a self-conscious, grasping-at-our-youth sort of way.”

“Ocasek — he of the inky black shag and perpetually aloof cool — remains a master of making even the most absurd, oblique, or sappy couplets sound like dynamite truisms handed down from rock ’n’ roll heaven,” Rodman wrote.

Inducting them into the Rock & and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Brandon Flowers of the Killers described The Cars as “a slick machine with a 340 V8 under the hood that ran on synergy, experimentation and a redefined cool.”


Model Paulina Porizkova announced on social media in May 2018 that she and Mr. Ocasek had separated after 28 years of marriage. The pair first met while filming the music video for ‘‘Drive,’’ another Cars hit.

In announcing the separation last year, Porizkova said that their family is ‘‘a well-built car.’’ But she said that ‘‘as a bicycle, my husband and I no longer pedal in unison.’’ Mr. Ocasek, a native of Maryland, had six sons, two from each of his three marriages.

Ric Ocasek and his wife, model Paulina Porizkova, attended the HBO premiere of "Girls" in New York in January 2013.Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File/Invision/AP

Globe correspondent Abigail Feldman contributed to this obituary. Material from The New York Times and Associated Press was also used.