Music

Seven Times Ric Ocasek Surprised Us, From ‘Hairspray’ to Bad Brains

In a universe of strong and eccentric personalities, Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, who died Sunday at the age of 75, was certainly – and happily – an odd bird.

By most accounts he was quite friendly in person, yet Ocasek, 75, always seemed distant and aloof, as if he was as hermetically sealed off from the rest of pop’s firmament as his music. While that made for adventurous listening within the darker corners of the Cars catalog — their 1979 sophomore effort “Candy O” was downright chilly — it also made their live shows less than eventful.

However, that mirror-shade cool also made the surprises in his career stick out like sore thumbs. And while it’s maybe not shocking that he and Alice Cooper were neighbors in the Hollywood Hills for a time, it did make for some odd-couple photos (above). Here are a handful of moments where Ric Ocasek shook and shocked.

  1. His obsession with the electro-punk duo Suicide
    At the height of the Cars’ initial burst of success in the late 1970s, Ocasek produced the sophomore album from the influential New York duo Suicide, 1980’s “Alan Vega/Martin Rev.” Though part of the epochal NYC punk scene of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and C.B.G.B.’s, Suicide was different from every other act on that scene – and continued to be throughout their career – a vocal/keyboard duo that was radically aggressive, savagely dissonant and manically marauding in sound and onstage. Ocasek smoothed down a few of their rougher edges, on this and several other duo and solo efforts (such as 1983’ “Saturn Strip” from Vega), but never stripped the pair of their raw power or poetry. The Cars even brought Suicide to open their “Candy O” tour, surely opening the eyes and twisting the minds of many a Midwestern kid expecting “My Best Friend’s Girl.”
  1. Producing hardcore legends Bad Brains
    If Ocasek producing Suicide was a surprise, his move to helm the first proper full-length from the deeply influential and blistering Washington, D.C. hardcore band was downright shocking — especially since the group were Rastafarians who also incorporated reggae and funk into their sound. It seemed about as far from the Cars as Ocasek could get, but maybe that was the idea — and his production on 1983’s “Rock for Light” and 1995’s “God of Love” (their first album for Madonna’s then-label, Maverick) brought a cohesion to the Brains’ more disparate elements, and gave vocalist H.R.’s words a stronger presence in the mix.
  1. Producing Celtic rock-rappers Black 47
    As if Suicide and Bad Brains weren’t enough of a challenge, a rough-and-tumble Celtic rock-rap act out of NYC’s folk scene was up next. Somehow, Ocasek managed to make that mess sound clean on the group’s self-released eponymous EP in 1992.
  1. Producing pop titans Weezer
    Ocasek had been largely off the mainstream radar when he was chosen to produce the debut album from Weezer, a band that is considered mainstream now but at the time was the latest buzz-band from L.A. to ink with then-powerhouse Geffen Records. Yet the group needed a strong hand to temper frontman/songwriter River Cuomo’s more indulgent impulses, and Ocasek did just that on the group’s 1994 debut, stripping down the sound to allow the hooks to shine through as much as the quirks — which is something best Cars songs did as well. The album established him as a frontline producer, and while 1996’s “Pinkerton,” the more shambolic, non-Ocasek follow-up, since has been recognized as an overlooked classic, he was back behind the boards for album number three, known as “the Green Album,” in 2001.
  1. His “Negative Theater” poetry book
    Here’s a true rarity: 1993’s “Negative Theater,” an Ocasek solo album released only in Europe, the first edition of which came with a volume of Ocasek’s spare yet dramatic poems. Apparently, this solo album was declined by his U.S. label at the time, Reprise, so Ocasek took it abroad and made his poetry, prose and a handful of self-photographed picture part of the package. Ocasek even has a spoken word album to his name, 1996’s”Getchertiktz” with Alan Vega.
  1. Producing lo-fi indie titans Guided by Voices
    These Ohio-based indie titans built an unlikely career out of the quickly composed and lo-fi pop-rock songs from the brain of frontman/songwriter Robert Pollard. Yet Ocasek tightened up the group’s proudly ramshackle approach and brought out the gleaming pop hooks at the center of many of Pollard’s songs on 1999’s “Do the Collapse.”
  1. And most of all, his cameo in John Waters’ “Hairspray”
    Ocasek sadly never scored any films, however he did make a memorable on-screen cameo during director John Waters’ original version of the since-scrubbed “Hairspray.” Finding a way to be memorable amid a bizarre cast that included Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry as one married couple and Divine and Jerry Stiller as the other was no easy feat, and yet there’s Ocasek, playing a manic artist with a black beret, with his muse – Pia Zadora – by his side. A fantastic off-set photo of the 1988 production is on the late great Divine’s Facebook page, Ocasek also made a cameo appearance in “Made in Heaven, a 1987 comedy that also featured Neil Young and Tom Petty in blink-and-you-miss-them roles.

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