Influenced by classic rockers like Buddy Holly as well as more adventurous acts such as the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music, Mr. Ocasek bridged pop, new wave and hard rock when he and bassist-singer Benjamin Orr co-founded the Cars in Boston in 1976, joined by guitarist Elliot Easton, keyboardist Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson.
Mr. Ocasek (pronounced oh-CASS-ek) wrote nearly all the band’s hits and split vocal duties with Orr, with whom he had played in folk and rock groups for nearly a decade. Their last and most enduring collaboration, the Cars, “drove the fury and intellectual adventure of punk rock out of the underground, firmly and forever into the American mainstream,” according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the Cars last year.
Mixing disco-tinged synthesizer lines and catchy guitar riffs, the Cars emerged from the Boston club scene to become a fixture of MTV and a staple of classic rock and oldies radio stations for decades. Their 1978 self-titled debut, described by the website All Music as “a genuine rock masterpiece,” opened with three straight hit singles: “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed.”
“It’s not the perfume that you wear; it’s not the ribbons in your hair,” Orr sang in the latter, an icy, ambivalent love song typical of Mr. Ocasek’s songwriting output. “I don’t mind you comin’ here — and wastin’ all my time.”
The album remained on the pop charts for more than a year, earned the Cars a Grammy nomination for best new artist and landed at No. 284 on a Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Polished like a classic hot rod — the work of English producer Roy Thomas Baker, known for collaborating with Queen — it helped popularize a new model of slick, radio-friendly guitar pop, and formed a sonic template used by the Cars for the next decade.
They reached the Top 10 four times, with the singles “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think,” “Drive” and “Tonight She Comes,” peaking commercially with the 1984 album “Heartbeat City.” The record was anchored by “Drive,” a lyrically downcast ballad, sung by Orr, that marked the Cars’ greatest international success and featured a music video starring model and actress Paulina Porizkova, whom Mr. Ocasek married in 1989.
While the Cars’ hits were “ingenious pop packages,” New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote in 2011, “behind the songs were some left-field ideas, like the motoric Minimalism of bands like Kraftwerk and Suicide and the spooky possibilities of electronic music.” Mr. Ocasek experimented further in the first of seven solo albums, “Beatitude” (1982) and in his work as a producer, stepping away from his songwriting and performance work to collaborate with acts as varied as Bad Brains, Guided by Voices, Hole, No Doubt, Iggy Pop and Weezer.
“I wanted bands to feel like they were going to get exactly what they wanted without anybody pushing them around,” he told the Times in 2004, explaining why he stepped into a studio role. Known for mentoring aspiring artists, including during a stint in the early 2000s as a senior vice president at Elektra Records, he also cultivated a reputation as something of a control freak.
“Rivers [Cuomo, the lead singer and songwriter for Weezer] gives me 60 songs and I go, ‘I like these 10,’ and he goes, ‘I won’t do any of those,’ and I say, ‘You must,’ and he does them,” Mr. Ocasek told the Boston Globe in 2003. Suicide singer Alan Vega described his collaborations with Mr. Ocasek in less acrimonious terms, telling the Times: “When I work with him, I know I’m in God’s hands.”
Mr. Ocasek was born Richard Otcasek in Baltimore on March 23, 1944, according to New York police records. His family moved to Cleveland when he was a teenager, after his father got a job as a NASA computer analyst.
Mr. Ocasek said he was booted from sixth grade for “giving the nuns a hard time,” and studied at the Ohio schools Antioch College and Bowling Green State University before dropping out. Music offered direction: After receiving a Sears guitar from his grandmother at 14, he began imitating Holly, inspired by the guitarist’s 1957 song “That’ll Be the Day.”
Supporting himself with jobs at U.S. Steel and a wallpaper company, he played alongside Orr in groups such as Milkwood — the band recorded one album, “How’s the Weather” (1972), which was largely ignored — before forming the Cars. As rockers in a disco era, the musicians “felt a bit like crusaders,” Mr. Ocasek later told the Chicago Tribune.
The band broke up in 1988 (in later interviews, the musicians cited exhaustion and burnout) and Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. Mr. Ocasek declined to participate in a reunion group known as the New Cars, which featured singer Todd Rundgren, but rejoined his former bandmates for a subsequent tour and seventh studio album, “Move Like This” (2011).
Over the decades, Mr. Ocasek continued to record as a solo artist, cracking the Top 20 with his 1986 love song “Emotion in Motion” and partnering with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins for the 1997 album, “Troublizing.” He also portrayed a beatnik painter in director John Waters’s movie “Hairspray” (1988); published a 2012 collection of his writing, “Lyrics & Prose”; and exhibited drawings, paintings, prints and photographs.
He had six sons, two from each of his three marriages, and in 2018 his third wife, Porizkova, announced that they had “peacefully separated.” Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In a 1991 interview with the Tribune, Mr. Ocasek recalled that the Cars’ band name was chosen because it signified something disposable, “just like Campbell’s soup cans are disposable, and pop music for that matter.”
“I’m not saying I don’t hope some of the songs I write stay around,” he added. “I hear Muzak versions of ‘Drive’ at the dentist’s office and in the elevator, so that song’s here to stay. . . . Art is a distorted vision of reality that’s presented to people who don’t necessarily need it, but you’d like to give it to them anyway. Songs are like that, too. People don’t have to hear them, but you’d like them to.”
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