If there were such a thing as a typical rock star, Ric Ocasek would not have been one.
Even the standard description for his most famous band, The Cars, didn’t provide any insight. The Cars are most often called New Wave, a phrase that could really describe, oh, every new sound that’s ever come along in pop music. Disco was a new wave. Hip-hop was a new wave. Rock ’n’ roll itself was a big new wave.
Small wonder that Ocasek, who was found dead in his New York apartment Sunday at the age of 75, took a bemused and somewhat skeptical view of a game he won.
In a 1987 interview, occasioned by the Cars’ last reunion that included cofounder and bass player Benjamin Orr, Ocasek suggested the next “new wave” — the one after the Cars — was invisible.
“Only the indie labels have new bands,” he said, “and you won’t find them on the radio. The only place is a college station from midnight to 3 a.m. They’re the only ones that aren’t afraid to play it.
“On most radio we get ‘classic rock,’ songs from 1969 to 1975, then a few U2 cuts to make it ‘modern.’
“Are there any new bands today at all? Based on radio, you wouldn’t know it.”
He paused for an addendum.
“But radio does like the Cars,” he said. “So I can’t knock ‘em.”
Cut to video. The Cars were among the first wave of artists that fueled the early MTV, when it really was music television. The Cars’s “You Might Think” won video of the year at the first MTV Music Awards, beating Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and some crazy zombie thing called “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.
“I’m proud of ‘You Might Think’,” Ocasek said.
He also said this:
“I think video wears down the mystique of rock ’n’ roll. It used to be that artists hid in their basements for years, then wow! So that’s what the Doors look like.
“And with videos, sometimes you have to reinterpret the vagueness of the song. I like songs to have vague meanings.
“Our video for ‘Shake It Up’ was ridiculous. But I like to do ’em because I like to do little character parts. ‘You Might Think’ was a Saturday morning cartoon, actually.”
He saw no equivalent grey area when he came to licensing Cars songs for commercials, which may help explain why, in an era when every song this side of “Dead Man’s Curve” has been used to sell one automobile or other, you’ve never heard an ad with the Cars’s biggest hit, “Drive.”
“We were approached to license ‘Shake It Up’ for a yogurt ad,” Ocasek said. “I wouldn’t even consider taking the phone call. I didn’t write music to sell products.
“I don’t understand why anyone who is serious about music would ever use it haphazardly like that. Unless they’re only in it for the money.”
Not that writing music doesn’t have its own set of considerations.
“Record companies expect a certain thing,” he said. “If I make a record with white noise droning over spoken poetry, the company would have a heart attack and I’d get eight new fans, all from 13th Street and the Lower East Side.
“Which are the kind of fans I want anyway.”
Except with the Cars, he got millions of fans. Meaning it wasn’t white drone noise and spoken word poetry.
“I’m not a casual writer,” he said. “I don’t write every day, nor could I. I don’t pay attention to time. I don’t like pressure. I’ll go down to the deadline, which sucks me into writing mode.
“When I write, sometimes I try to put complex lyrical ideas into prose forms. A song like ‘Door to Door’ is pretty much a prose piece, and I don’t hear music behind prose.
“But when you write it into a song, it’s different. Just the length of a line can be different.”
So does it become a form of poetry?
“I don’t know about top-40 radio having much poetry beyond pop poetry, which is like ‘pop trainee’ music. It’s not the same as reading more flowing-type poetry.
“Most people think of poetry as very structured. Rock music may be the most unstructured poetry of our time. If you consider ‘Papa Oom Mow Mow’ nonsense verse, then it is.”
All in all, it’s not hard to see why someone like Ocasek’s old friend Maxanne Sartori, the Boston DJ who was among the first to play Cars music, described him as “funny,” “sarcastic” and “odd . . . very odd.”
Of course, that describes a lot of rock ’n’ rollers, with no two descriptions being quite the same.
What did come through is that Ocasek liked 1950s rockabilly and he liked the Smiths. The Cars made music as finger-popping as “You Might Think” and as hypnotic as “Drive,” and in the end, even people who liked them weren’t always sure how to regard them.
It took The Cars 14 years of eligibility to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which finally happened last year after more than a decade in which a parade of lesser artists got there first.
Ric Ocasek quite likely found that a bit bemusing. But if he had a wry way of seeing the wave, or the new wave, in the end he caught it.