Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll," "Touch and Go"--and you can discern a careful fusion of old-school rock values with new-age components. Ric Ocasek, chief Car and composer, writes lyrics that are arch, self-mocking and slightly distanced, with an emphasis on the perils of computer-age romance. Yet his music is coolly proficient, devoid of the frenzied thunka-thunka and studied incompetence of much New Wave. A complete assembly of old and new--and there, too, decidedly American. Drop the knot, ivory soul Take it on the run The good life is just a dream away --From "A Dream Away," Copyright (c) 1981, Ric Ocasek. Lido Music, BMI
Ocasek, 37, bounces around in striped sweater and sneakers, showing off the Cars' newly finished studio in their home base, the antique heart of Boston. It is a week before the current tour. Syncro Sound, as the studio is called, is in a refurbished brick row house, and features 40- and 20-track recording machines and a 36-channel soundboard overlooking the main studio. There's a smaller studio where the basement once was, and both are set up for video so that all working parties are in view of each other. Altogether, a lean, clean machine.
Blue-stained wood accents the Cars' trademark black-and-white modernism. On the floor are a couple of hot-pink guitars, an idea of bassist Ben Orr for flashing up the visuals of their live show. Everywhere is the smell of newness, a bell-clear aroma of goals accomplished, status achieved.
Ocasek rubs an earringed lobe with one bony finger, shyly smiles. His speaking voice is soft and restrained, a stark contrast to his jittery, interval-jumping vocal style.
"This tour I look forward to. It's only six weeks long, is one of the reasons, so I'll still be excited at the end, I won't be bored with it. And I'm happy with the music from the already-platinum 'Shake It Up' ."
The show is typically high-tech, with a post-modern set design by Stephen Bickford. "It's got a little touch of the '30s in it," says Ocasek, "but it's still very modern."
Last year's "Panorama" album provoked criticism that the Cars were focusing too closely on the future, burying the lyrics' human message under a blanket of technology. "Shake It Up" has generally been hailed as a return to the pop hooks that made instant platinum of their debut and "Candy-O," and Ocasek insists it's possible to accommodate both philosophies.
"I like to acknowledge technology; I'm not afraid of it. So many people are . . . It's funny. You can sell a lot of records and be a success and be up for grabs and then you're not valid anymore because you appeal to the masses. It becomes a trendy thing to cut up the Cars. But we don't seem to have any trouble selling out a concert or making an audience go crazy."
Ocasek has spent the better part of his career, from his formative Baltimore days through the Ohio and Boston club scenes, transposing ideas from imagination to reality. The achievement of this goal, far from swift, was nevertheless complete. Even "Panorama," the Cars' least lauded record, lingered on Billboard's album charts longer than anyone expected.
"It took a while to adjust to not failing constantly," Ocasek says. "When you don't count on many things going right, you get used to that way of thinking." The good life is only a dream away.
An unremarkable student, Ocasek was booted out of sixth grade for "giving the nuns a hard time." His practical education came from forming tentative bands in Cleveland, New York and Detroit before he and bassist Orr settled in Boston. Playing endless bars and clubs was a necessary part of his training, but he reviews it with little nostalgia and less sentimentality. "I did it too many years."
Recently, besides writing for the Cars and producing records, Ocasek has also been working on a book entitled "Prose and Cons." Then there's a 60-minute film called "Chapter X." And, of course, a solo album at tour's end.
Ocasek's solitary style, its emphasis on input without overload, fits the borderline misanthropy that feeds many of the Cars' lyrics. Although he has a relaxed, easy affability, there's more than a little Ric Ocasek in the social-wary protagonist inhabiting many of his tunes: "I'm the American misfit kid/Still wondering what I did . . ."
"That's just the inside tension coming out," he laughs. "It got to a point where I had to decide what I should get tense about. When I'm working, I'm usually alone. You know, alone with the night. And I write in the car a lot. It's a great place to think and wander."
The other Cars are arriving for rehearsal, but Ocasek lingers, stalling against the tug of the road. "Sometimes, in a strange place, I feel like I'm in a dead world, a world that watches too much TV and doesn't have anyplace to eat after 10 o'clock." He rises, smiling and rolling up his sleeves. "But it's still the event of the day."
Ah yes, the event of the day. Today it's a chrome-eyed crazy lurching arhythmically toward the front-office window, screaming oaths and banging with a club on the thick glass window.
Ocasek, guitarist Elliot Easton, Ben Orr in full-length fur and Steve Berkowitz of Lookout Management have been standing around chatting with half-a-dozen roadies, waiting for keyboardist Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson. Tour talk, mostly, jocular and full of interchange. Now, everyone's face wears freeze-frame surprise, and for a full 10 seconds the only motion is outside the window.
Then Berkowitz backs a stunned receptionist away from the glass, and several roadies shout to the madman. This clearly has no effect; if anything, he besieges the barrier with increased determination. Finally, Orr and a couple of roadies run out to give chase.
Ocasek, incredulous, stands near the window while the receptionist dials the police.
Turns out the guy's some sort of Cars fanatic. Easton says he's been coming around since summer, shouting death threats, wearing a mask, sometimes jumping out of alleyways at people.
Orr is clearly shaken and angry. Back in the quiet studio, he sits tensely, doesn't remove his coat. Talking about the Cars requires an effort of concentration, and his speech is whisper-soft and guarded.
"Okay. Whew. What did you think about that screwball, did you get a chance to catch his act? He's mentally disturbed, man, and we can't figure out a way to get him off the street. I don't know why he hangs around, but I know for a fact he doesn't like us at all.
"Keeps you on your toes, though. We're really aware that he's there, and we've tried to get the state to, uh, keep him from harm because one of these days somebody's gonna kill him." He pauses, runs a hand over his eyes as if to erase the subject.
He looks around the studio. "State-of-the-art," he proclaims, making a panoramic gesture. "We can work on video taping, Cars albums, our own individual albums--I'm gonna try to do one. I could let out my feelings producing just as well as playing or singing." It's all part of the dream.
"I want to do some things, a few things I don't want to talk about. I'd like to do some film, be in one, produce one, act, party. I was offered some sort of Spanish conquistador role, an art film." An embarrassed grin crosses his face, and he admits a certain sensitivity to his reputation as the heartthrob of the Cars.
"I'm probably the least frustrated person around. But you sit around too long, you get a little cobwebby, so it's nice to tour once a year or so. Easton enters the studio with some mugs, a couple of bottles of Perrier and a disposition as sunny as Maui, and the conversation turns to his guitar collection, the snobbery on Long Island (his home turf), great groups, bad music. Out in the hall, Ocasek is heard joking with the roadies: "That was no crazy guy, that was one of our critics!" When Orr goes to meet the cop in the front office, he's almost himself again.
David Robinson arrives in black boots, tight pants and freshly cut Day-Glo-and-brown hair, a bit disappointed to have "missed the maniac." A graphic artist as well as a musician, he's responsible for several decorative touches in the studio, in addition to album covers like the one he did for guitarist G.E. Smith's solo debut.
Despite Ocasek's firm steerage, Robinson feels an autonomy he lacked in other bands. "Musically, everybody creates their own part. Even if Ric writes the song and has a lot of parts throughout, we're free to compose our own. Usually we forget who played what later on, anyway. I helped with the arranging some on 'Shake It Up.' I like to think of endings and beginnings, putting choruses in order."
A loud hammering noise threatens to drown Robinson's voice. "The natives are restless," he grins. "They're busy inventing stuff, really. These switching systems and all this electronic stuff, me and my drum roadie and the engineers designed so I could take it on the road. Really elaborate, really sophisticated, and nobody's copied it yet. People come and look at it like spies. In Japan, we caught these guys taking pictures of the back of it, trying to get the specs.
"It's really easy being in this band," he says. "And now, with the studio, it's all here for us. It's what every band dreams of doing." It's my party, you can come It's my party, have some fun It's my dream, have a laugh It's my life, have a half --From "Don't Tell Me No," Copyright (c) 1980, Ric Ocasek. Lido Music, BMI
That night, the Cars meet at a bar called "Spit." Here their comfortable relationship with their fellow Bostonians is most evident. The club is crowded and loud. Orr sits in a corner with a beer and a lady, and although people constantly walk by, glancing in his direction, sometimes saying hello, nobody hassles him for autographs.
When Easton and Robinson arrive, they stand talking outside the club for a few minutes, and though they're undoubtedly recognized, nobody bothers them. On their last night to relax before taking their music to the rest of America, the home-town folks clearly understand the unspoken pact.
It's a measure of respect and admiration befitting artists who've remembered to bring their successes home--the better for those who helped them succeed to realize that the good life is, after all, just a dream away. photo: The Cars, from left: Robinson, Easton, Ocasek, Hawkes and Orr. (By Nick Rosza/1982)