TakeMeBack Tuesday: A Previously Print-Only Conversation With Ric Ocasek, 2005

It certainly seems like there’s a full-fledged Cars renaissance going on right now. Flip on the TV and you’ll hear “Just What I Needed,” one of the Boston new-wave outfit’s late-’70s hits, rippling through Circuit City commercials. Not too long ago, you could switch over to MTV and catch Fountains Of Wayne’s kitschy “Stacy’s Mom,” featuring a kiddie quintet dressed in full faux-Cars regalia. Check the production credits on new albums from Le Tigre, the Hong Kong and others, and you’ll see the name of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek. (He’s also produced Weezer, Guided By Voices, Bad Brains, Nada Surf, Black 47 and No Doubt.) In addition, he has managed to squeeze in a new solo album, Nexterday. Released on his Inverse imprint and distributed by Sanctuary Records, Nexterday shares the same sense of hook and melody as the Cars, though it’s matured to new-millennium vintage. The only thing halting a triumphant Cars reunion tour is the death of bassist/singer Ben Orr in 2000. Or maybe the 61-year-old Ocasek’s key creative tenet is to blame. “I made it clear a long, long time ago that I didn’t want to jump back on the bandwagon,” he says. “I prefer to live more toward the future than to revisit the past.”

I first met you on the Panorama tour in 1980. I was a cub reporter, and you invited me back to the Cars’ post-show penthouse party. While we were talking on the balcony, two geeks from a local Cars cover band scampered up to you, holding a pricey album by Milkwood (Ocasek and Orr’s earlier outfit). They gave it to you to autograph; instead, you stared at it for a minute, then tossed it over the railing. The poseurs squealed like little girls as it shattered 27 stories below.
You know, I wouldn’t have thought I was gonna remember what you were gonna say, because obviously I don’t remember every little thing. But I do remember that. In retrospect, I do feel like I should publicly apologize for doing that to those guys. But I was going through a funny thing with Milkwood, because it was old work. Sometimes the Cars would play a gig, and people would bring Milkwood albums and hold them up while I was playing, and Ben and I would look at them and think, “What the fuck? Where’s this Milkwood thing coming from? Where’d they get this Milkwood stuff?” Obviously, it was very different from the Cars. I thought it was like our skeleton in the closet. At this point, I don’t really give a shit. But at that point, I was trying to move forward, and so people bringing in old shit was just annoying. Plus, I didn’t really like the Milkwood album (1973’s How’s The Weather). So maybe tossing another one was a good move.

A writer from Rolling Stone had flown in to interview you that night, and your publicist told me not to talk to you since it was Rolling Stone’s night. You pulled me away from her and said, “Hey, kid. Switch on your tape recorder. Fuck the label; I’ll give you all the quotes you need.” I will never forget that.
Well, I don’t know how to comment on that. I mean, Rolling Stone was great and fun, but you know what I mean. We were always taking around records of Suicide and Iggy Pop and all that shit and making DJs play them on the radio or else we wouldn’t go on the station. So we had that kind of attitude when we were first going. Plus, you get kind of crazy on the road.

Panorama is the Cars’ unheralded masterpiece, where you swerved away from your patented sound into strange new directions.
In a sense, that’s true, because I did purposely try to steer that in a non-pop way. Although in retrospect, it’s still pop. But I was thinking, “I really have to try to bend this now, otherwise it’s always gonna be the same.” And so I did get a bend out of it.

Have you seen the Fountains Of Wayne video?
Yeah. In fact, I even met one of the Fountains guys—I guess it was Adam (Schlesinger)—in a studio one day, and he was a little shy about bringing it up. But they wrote me a letter and asked me if I would be in the video, and I said, “No, but good luck.” I didn’t really want to partake of it. But it was a nice tribute, a nice little thing for them to do. They used a Cars sample; it’s gotta be, because it’s exactly the same sound from that old amp of ours and that guitar. I don’t think anybody could replicate it, so I think they must’ve sampled it. But I’m always flattered if somebody’s paying some kind of homage to us.

Well, the Bravery has a synth-keyboardist who approximates the Cars’ Greg Hawkes.
That’s cool. And the Bravery were on that Cars tribute record (Substitution Mass Confusion, on Not Lame) that, I think, was really just released on the internet. But it’s really good; it’s got some really great versions. There’s, like, 20 bands on there, and a few of the versions are just phenomenal; I wish I would’ve done ’em that way. There’s a really good version (by Butch Walker) of “Best Friend’s Girl” that segues into “Magic” on acoustic. And the Red House Painters did a really good version of “All Mixed Up” (which is not on Substitution Mass Confusion).

One day in the paper, I read that Ben Orr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later, they ran his obituary.
That was crazy. I went to see him. He was pretty strong; I have to say that. Very strong, considering he knew very well that he didn’t have very many days to live. It was very sad. It’s hard to even comprehend, because a year before that, there was nothing wrong. So no one really expected that. To make it more sad, he had a little boy who was about four at that point, and when I went to see Ben in Atlanta, his little boy was there, too. It was sad for me, because I have kids, like, “Oh my God, the poor little kid doesn’t even barely know what’s gonna happen.” I guess I didn’t really believe it. I was asking some people around, “Well, how long do you think?” They were going, “A few weeks.” I said, “Nah. You gotta be kidding.” But there’s no way to get out from under pancreatic cancer, from what I understand. It’s a horrible thing to have.

It’s doubly sad, because the time is perfect for a Cars comeback.
If Ben was still around, I would think about it. And I agree, it would probably be an interesting and fun thing, and I love all the guys in the band. And I know a couple of guys in the band still want to do that kind of thing. Greg, Elliot (Easton, guitar) and David (Robinson, drums) are still around, and it’s been talked about over the years.

Is that why you agreed to license “Just What I Needed” to Circuit City?
Well, a lot of that money goes to the band, too. And maybe I’m a little bit better off than the band, financially, because I do a lot of other things in my life. But I got a little bit of, “Oh, could you please? We could really use it!” I kind of fell to that, even though philosophically, I really never wanted to do that. But after Dylan did Victoria’s Secret, I thought, “If Dylan’s gonna do it and Lou Reed’s gonna do it, maybe I’ll just forget about what I said 30 years ago and do this.” So I did it. Plus, Ben’s estate gets a cut.

I’m surprised that you even had time to make your new album.
I know. I did the album in the basement, really. I did it a couple of years ago, oddly enough. I was gonna release it on an indie label or via the internet, but then Sanctuary heard the record and wanted to put it out.

What is this “nexterday” of which you speak?
You know, what it sounds like: another word for “tomorrow.” It really just came from my four-year-old son, who didn’t know what tomorrow was, so he called it “nexterday.”

And you and (supermodel) Paulina Porizkova are still together.
Oh, yeah. For a good 20 years. And it’s still like we just met about two weeks ago. It was the best move, but I knew that, anyway. After a couple of marriages, I learned some stuff about me and what a marriage should be, how you co-exist with a person. So we made some rules in the beginning about this relationship, ’cause we both worked. We made sure that we didn’t grow separately because of what we were doing individually. I went with her when she worked, she went with me when I did. And we always had a very open communication: no fucking around, no lying, no calling each other “fuckhead” or “bitch.” Just a little respect for the other person. I’m speaking for her as well, but I think we’re pretty happy. We’ve got two children, and it’s pretty cool.

Is there any prime directive when signing a group to your record label?
I’m not looking for pop hits. Just some solid, real-deal stuff.

—Tom Lanham