It was going to be a two-for-one trip, hanging out with two of the hottest rock bands of the moment: Cheap Trick in Dallas and the Cars in Shreveport, La.
It was 1979. Cheap Trick was a wild ride. Afternoon in-store at a record shop with hundreds of hyper-excited young women, interview, concert and then getting stuck in a hotel room with an acid-tripping would-be groupie whom singer Robin Zander abandoned.
The Cars were a completely different story. The concert was cool, all arty new-wave delivered with self-conscious detachment on a stage bathed in red, white and black. But the interview got canceled because of an emergency band meeting with – get this – their accountant. That’s rock ‘n’ roll for ya.
Of course, my editors were upset that I traveled all the way to Louisiana and didn’t come back with a Cars story. But the band made good: come to Chicago. Ric Ocasek, the eccentric standoffish frontman, will give you plenty of time.
It’s time to recall this story because Ocasek died Sunday in New York at age 75, one year after the Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He was tall, maybe 6 foot 3, and impossibly skinny, maybe 140 pounds. He had big feet. Size 13. And long, dyed black hair, slicked back and, of course, ubiquitous sunglasses. In other words, he looked like a cross between Roy Orbison and Ichabod Crane.
In the afternoon, we went to a super-trendy clothing store, Fiorucci’s, that had a window display promoting the Cars new album. “Fiorucci’s is going to the be Sears & Roebuck of the 1990s,” Ocasek predicted. He shopped and bought some stuff for his wife but not himself.
The two concerts that evening at the Aragon Ballroom were familiar; however, the after-show was anything but. Cars bassist-singer Ben Orr stepped out on an Aragon balcony to get some fresh air. Fans shouted at him from the street below.
Then other band members started tossing guitar picks and fruit out the windows to the fans. They started chanting “Bennie, Bennie, Bennie.”
Before you know it, a crew member led the crowd in a then-popular-in-Chicago chant of “Disco sucks.” And the whole band joined in.
Knock, knock. There was a security guard at the dressing room door. “Stop that. People in the neighborhood don’t like us. You’ll ruin it for all of us, man.”
It was back to the swank downtown hotel. I rode in an elevator with Ocasek, who was gripping a briefcase like a businessman might carry. He had to write postcards to his sons and then we’d talk. Oh yeah, he pulled a lid of weed out of his briefcase. He smoked and talked and I listened.
Equal parts David Byrne, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, Ocasek was surprisingly open and analytical. He talked about moving from Cleveland to Cambridge, Mass., where it was “radical, free and progressive and old as well. It reminded me of England.” He’d sit in on lectures at Harvard.
Ocasek explained the Cars’ obsession with artiness. “We all have a sense of design. Music has a lot to do with design. What not to do. How much to do. We used to be laughed at for looking like this. Art students are odd, eccentric. We’re just somebody trying to change something.”
He then pointed out that he produces other bands, but not established groups. “We should elevate the underground,” he philosophized. (He would later produce Weezer, Bad Religion, Hole and the Twin Cities' own Motion City Soundtrack, among other acts.)
He expounded on the Cars’ stage style, which was stiff, emotionless, cool and Arty with a capital A.
“There are two reasons for that. First, we are opposed to TV-star rock moves – jumping around, playing guitar on your knees. That’s part of what’s old and boring. It’s all the same, just like disco music. The other reason is that there is so much energy in concentration. I’m so involved in what I’m playing. Anyway, doing those things wouldn’t go along with the lyrics.”
Or his personality.
Decades later, a former colleague of mine living in New York socialized with Ocasek because the rock star’s third wife, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, and my friend’s significant other bonded in a class about writing novels. Ocasek was polite but not particularly sociable, my friend observed. It was as if artiste would rather be in the other room working on his music.
But that night in Chicago Ocasek seemed to let his guard down and explain himself. He even took off his dark glasses during the interview.
Ocasek was friendly to fans, too. When he left the Aragon, a redhead with Cleopatra eyes sidled up to him and gushed, “You guys have the neatest shoes and boots of any band.”
The rocker smiled, looked down at his pointed red shoes and thought about the Cars song, “Shoo Be Doo.”
“Thanks,” he told the young woman. “That’s because we’re the SHOE-be-doo-bee-doo band.”