When news of Ric Ocasek’s death spread on Sunday night the word that most frequently appeared on my Twitter timeline was “perfect.”
That was the descriptor applied to various late 1970s-early 1980s accomplishments by The Cars, the New Wave band par excellence fronted by Ocasek, the songwriter and producer who was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Sunday at age 75.
“Perfect” was a word used to describe ingeniously crafted, ridiculously hooky Cars songs like “Just What I Needed” from the band’s 1978 self-titled debut album, and “Dangerous Type” from its 1979 follow-up Candy-O.
It can also justly be applied to pretty much the entirety of The Cars, one of the most fully formed all-killer, no-filler debuts in rock history, with almost each of the nine songs an instant add to the playlists of album rock stations like Philadelphia’s WMMR-FM (93.3).
For Cars’ connoisseurs, however, the flawlessness of Ocasek’s taut, jittery every-note-in-its-right-place songwriting doesn’t stop there, but runs through The Cars (1978), Candy-O (1979), and Panorama, the 1980 album that contained only one hit in “Touch and Go” and was a commercial dud in comparison to its predecessors. (It only sold a million copies!)
Perfect was also a word bandied about over the weekend in connection with the most enduring of the rock radio hits by Eddie Money, the “Two Tickets To Paradise” and “Baby Hold On” singer who died Friday at age 70.
I don’t want to overstate Money’s greatness. He was not an artist with the impact of Ocasek — the Cars leader also racked up a long list of production credits, with artists including Suicide, Romeo Void, Lloyd Cole, Guided By Voices, No Doubt, and most successfully, Weezer.
But like Ocasek, Money — born Edward Mahoney — did make a handful of songs that have that air of perfection that comes with a catchy chorus and a crunchy guitar riff that remains lodged in your memory years after they first wormed their way in.
Money, in many ways, seemed like an ersatz performer: a working-class guy who grew up on Long Island and in Queens who was a little bit Springsteen, and a little Billy Joel. He intended to follow his father into the police force until he realized his long hair wouldn’t be tolerated.
But that didn’t stop him from coming up with enough no-nonsense tunes — including “Take Me Home Tonight,” with Ronnie Spector in 1987 — to sustain a career of more than 40 years. Philadelphia guitar antihero Chris Forsyth paid him a high compliment on Twitter Friday.
“Two Tickets To Paradise” is one of those songs that I’ve never turned off when it comes on the car radio. Total Hunter / Wagner guitar vibes.” (That’s a reference to the revered guitarist combo on Lou Reed’s iconic Rock 'n' Roll Animal live album.)
But besides having band names/brand names that are brilliantly simple, Ocasek and Money have something else in common: Both died at a more advanced age than you might expect for acts that had initial success in the late 1970s.
As music fans brace for the inevitable loss of 1960s era baby boomer heroes, the deaths of Ocasek and Money — and Daniel Johnston, the troubled 1990s indie rock savant who also died last week, at 58 — were surprises.
Both paid their dues before breaking through. That was particularly true of Ocasek, who had been in multiple, more folk-oriented bands for more than a decade before striking gold with The Cars.
But once The Cars hit, the band hit in a big way, with a sleek polished, guitar-and-synth sound that was an arty but also obviously more commercially viable deviation from punk.
The Cars, which included Ocasek-sung hits “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” came out in June 1978, and in December the band was playing the Spectrum, opening for Foreigner. The next summer, the band was back at the South Philly arena, headlining two shows.
That was the summer I spent as many nights as possible using a fake ID to sneak in to a bar in Margate called Gables — now the location of Tomatoes, for you Jersey Shore denizens. The lure was a pair of cover bands whose combined repertoire seemed to be the entirety of The Cars and the other ubiquitous ‘MMR rock album of the era: Cheap Trick at Budokan.
Instantaneous success — as Cars co-leader Benjamin Orr once said: “We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars’ Greatest Hits" — meant the Cars were never as fashionable among tastemakers as, say, the Clash or Pretenders or Talking Heads.
Drive-By Truckers songwriter Patterson Hood, who grew up in Alabama, spoke for many on Instagram when he wrote of Ocasek’s death: “Another piece of my youth gone. … That [stuff] holds up far better than most bands we thought might have been cooler.”
This April, Ocasek had a visual art show of paintings and collages at the King of Prussia Mall. Egged on by a Cars-obsessed editor who worked the “I don’t mind you coming here and wastin’ all my time” first line of “Just What I Needed” into her wedding vows, I interviewed him on the phone.
Many rock stars who take up other artistic pursuits can be standoffish about talking about their music career, insisting on focusing on their work as painters, or whatever they’re up to in their spare time.
Ocasek was perfectly willing to talk about the Cars, while coming off as a strange, charming, funny guy. When I asked him where he was, he said “right outside your house, getting ready to ring your door bell.” (Actually he was in New York.)
The songwriter talked about how he was always more of a creature of the studio than a natural live performer: “I never needed to feel the applause.” He brought up his fondness for Philadelphia, calling the city “one of the top three places for us to play in the U.S.” Much of the live footage in the 2005 performance DVD Unlocked was filmed at the Spectrum.
The Cars broke up in 1988, and when the band’s manager told Ocasek that the band was going to tour in 2006, the singer told him they couldn’t call it The Cars without him, and joked that they could use The New Cars instead. Which they did, with Upper Darby’s Todd Rundgren in the Ocasek role.
In 2011, Ocasek did reunite with his bandmates for an album, Move Like This, and a tour. And though he wasn’t in a hurry to repeat the experience, he wasn’t ruling it out. “If I felt so inspired I would,” he said. “Time’s getting late.”
The Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by Brandon Flowers of the Killers) in 2018. In April, Ocasek said it was more of a big deal for him that he expected it to be. “I didn’t think it would mean much, maybe because I didn’t think I would get in. But then once I did, it meant quite a bit. It’s a lot of other artists that I appreciate and love. It’s nice to be in that group in my lifetime.”