Everything’s a mess since you’re gone

It was 1977, and the tide was turning in rock music.

You had your diehard rock fans who preferred the mainstream, power-chord rock of Springsteen, Seger, Heart and Aerosmith.  Emerging from the left end of the dial came the punk sounds of The Clash, Talking Heads, The Ramones and Elvis Costello.

And yet, there was at least one band that found a way to straddle that fence and please both audiences.  That band was The Cars.

Cars-1“We were walking a fine line, and it contributed a great deal to the success of the band,” said guitarist Elliot Easton in the liner notes of The Cars’ excellent 2-CD anthology “Just What I Needed” (1995).  “The Cars would have that one record in a punk rocker’s collection that was a just a little right of center.  And it might be that one record for mainstream fans who thought they were being really punky.  We managed to span those two audiences.  It’s not something you can calculate, just that we had the songs.  And we really had great songs.”

From 1978 to 1988, The Cars graduated from small clubs to arenas, released six LPs (four of which reached the Top Ten) and had a dozen or more Top 40 singles, all the time finding the musical formula that satisfied the palettes of punkers and rockers alike.

The key ingredient in that success was the uncanny songwriting talent of their frontman, Ric Ocasek, who wrote 75% of the group’s repertoire and served as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.  Influenced by Beat poets as well as the pioneers of rock ‘n roll, Ocasek cranked out smart, literate, accessible songs, and the band recorded and performed them  with more polish and style than most bands on the circuit at that time.

Ocasek died this past week “suddenly and unexpectedly” of heart failure in his Manhattan apartment while recuperating from surgery.  Supermodel Paulina Porizkova, 180503131658-02-ric-ocasek-paulina-porizkova-file-restricted-super-teaseOcasek’s wife of 28 years until their amicable split last year, said she found him dead upon bringing him his Sunday morning coffee.  The couple’s two sons, Jonathan and Oliver, were also present.  He was either 70 or 75 — there are conflicting reports of his age, although The New York Times and other reputable sources say he was born in 1944, and died at 75.  Not that it much matters.  Ocasek is gone, and his music lives on.

Three-chord rockabilly, New Wave synth-pop, echoes of The Beatles, avant-garde art rock, surf music, punk and glam rock — you can hear all of these genres in a single Cars tune, or certainly on any given Cars album.   In his induction speech on The Cars’ behalf at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, Brandon Flowers of the Killers described the band this way:  “They were a slick machine with a 340 V8 under the hood that ran on synergy, experimentation and a redefined cool.  They had it all: the looks, the hooks, Beat romance lyrics, and killer choruses.”

Ocasek and his bandmate Benjamin Orr (born Orzechowski) met in high school in Cleveland in the late ’60s and formed a musical bond that took them to Columbus, Ohio, la-et-ms-the-cars-20151007and Ann Arbor, Michigan in various groups before relocating to Boston by 1972.  They tried their hand as an acoustic twosome, then formed a country-folk-rock band called Milkwood and released one album, selections of which you can hear on the Spotify playlist below.  It’s interesting to contemplate:  What if Milkwood’s CSN-inspired harmonies and arrangements had caught on?  Would Ocasek and Orr have stayed in that groove instead?   instead of evolving toward the quirkier Cars tunes we all know?  Knowing Ocasek’s penchant for experimentation, it seems likely he would’ve gravitated toward the quirkier hybrid music of The Cars anyway.

With Gregg Hawkes on keyboards, Easton on lead guitar, David Robinson on drums and Orr now playing bass, The Cars were born in 1977 and signed to Elektra Records.  Ocasek’s songs were usually curt but catchy, laced with Easton’s prominent guitar lines and Hawkes’s intriguing keyboard hooks.  Thanks to Roy Thomas Baker, the accomplished producer behind Queen’s finest albums, the tracks on The Cars’ debut The_Cars_-_The_Carsalbum took on a professional sheen that deftly mixed the group’s elements into an irresistible sound that captured many listeners from the get-go.

Truth be told, I was a traditional rocker who found the chaos of punk a bit too noisy and unmusical, so I was reluctant to accept The Cars’ punk-flavored tunes at first.  But I heard them perform in one of the “World Series of Rock” concerts in Cleveland in 1978 with Fleetwood Mac, Bob Welch, Todd Rundgren and Eddie Money (who, coincidentally, also died this past week), and that was enough to make me pay them at least grudging respect.

TV talk show host Stephen Colbert, a discerning rock music critic as well, was a huge fan of The Cars from the beginning, and he paid tribute to Ocasek on his late-night program the other night.  “That first Cars record is packed with hits like peanuts in a Snickers Bar,” he said.  “I think that album and ‘My Aim is True’ by Elvis Costello were two of the greatest debut pop albums of all time.  In 1978, Ocasek was already 34 years old when their first album came out.  He had put in the hours.  His music — he wrote everything for The Cars — his music was the soundtrack of my high school.”

It’s true, that first album was so chock full of radio hits — “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Bye Bye Love,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” — that I couldn’t help but warm up to them — eventually.   And The Cars kept motoring along 45152-18355ec95b1b7b573c813a2a5c2f3617nicely with three more Top Ten albums:  1979’s “Candy-O,” 1980’s “Panorama” and 1981’s “Shake It Up.”

The Cars - Shake It Up (1981)-01But it really took me until their fifth and most successful album, 1984’s “Heartbeat City,” to fully appreciate The Cars’ real accomplishment:  connecting the cynical cool of new wave with a timeless AM-radio spirit, putting an ironic spin on well-worn rock ‘n roll catch phrases like “let’s go,” “got a hold on you,” “shake it up,” “let the good times roll,” “all I want is you.”

“Heartbeat City” contained four Top 20 hits, including “You Might Think,” “Hello Again,” “Magic,” and their highest charting single, “Drive.”  The shimmer of that song, written and sung by Orr, is somewhat atypical of The Cars, with lyrics that take a sober look at the-cars-heartbeat-citythe self-destructive behavior of the singer’s girl.  It was during filming for the music video of “Drive” when Ocasek met Porizkova, who played the part of the strung-out girl.

The Cars’ sixth LP, 1987’s “Door to Door,” managed to reach only #27 on the charts, and Ocasek concluded that he had grown tired of touring, and pulled the plug on the band he’d founded.  Many years later, in an NPR interview, he explained he’d never really intended to wind up in the spotlight.  “I’m not much into being the front guy,” he said.  “I was the songwriter, really — the person who put the songs together, and maybe a bit of a director.  But being an entertainer was never my main thing.”

ric-ocasekAs for the songwriting part of it, Ocasek said, ““I’m happy that I’ve been able to write pop songs that have a bit of a twist.  When I’m writing, I never know how it’s going to come out.  I don’t think, ‘Well, I’ve done a catchy one, now I can do a weird one.’  Our albums clearly had some of each, but it wasn’t really intended that way.”

If you’re looking for “weird” songs in The Cars’ repertoire, you might look at “Shoo Bee Doo” from 1979’s “Candy-O,” or “A Dream Away” from 1982’s “Shake It Up.”  Better yet, start with “Moving in Stereo” from the debut album, which was never released as a single but got plenty of FM-rock radio attention.  Interestingly, its instrumental section, carried by Hawkes’ keyboards, was used in scenes from the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the current Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.”

Following The Cars’ breakup, Ocasek stayed active with several solo LPs (actually, his first two solo projects came during The Cars’ active period — 1982’s “Beatitude” and 1986’s “This Side of Paradise,” which both reached the Top 40 on the album charts), but his later efforts failed to chart.  Orr similarly tried a few solo albums, but then protracted pancreatic cancer and died in 2000.

Easton and Hawkes, with Ocasek’s blessing but not his participation, recruited Todd Rundgren and Utopia cohort Kasim Sulton to tour under the banner The New Cars in 2005, performing classic Cars tunes as well as a handful of Rundgren’s material.

In 2011, Ocasek capitulated and reunited with Easton and Hawkes to release “Move Like carsThis,” which captured some of the vibe of earlier Cars music and even reached #7 on the album charts, even sparking a brief US tour.  But the magic didn’t last.  “On about half the new songs, I felt Ben (Orr) would’ve sung them better than I did.  In the liner notes, we said so:  ‘Ben, your spirit was with us one this one.'”

When The Cars were inducted in the R&R Hall of Fame in 2018, Ocasek cooperated, performing with Easton and Hawkes, and they brought in Scott Shriner of Weezer to play bass.  Said Ocasek at the podium that night, “I was never big on trophies and all that, but all things considered, I’d rather be in the Hall of Fame than not.”

Whether or not the adulation was important to Ocasek, there are many bands eagerly willing to reference The Cars as key influencers.  Here are just a few:

“The Cars are a big part of my musical love affair,” said Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips.  “Ric was amazing and will be missed. The music of The Cars will inspire people and move people forever.”

The-Cars-resize-1b“Aw man, can’t believe you’re gone, Ric,” said Richard Marx.  “Thank you for the songs on ‘Heartbeat City’ alone.  You were a true original.”

Michael Peter “Flea” Balzary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote, “Ahh man, say it ain’t so. I loved Ric Ocasek. What an interesting, smart, kind, funny man who made incredible records. I loved those Cars albums when I was a teenager. Perfect pop songs with those wicked Elliot Easton guitar solos. Absolute candy.  As an adult, I met him several times and he was gracious, funny and engaging.  Ahh man.  Ahh damn…”

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The first three tracks, from Ocasek’s and Orr’s earlier band Milkwood, are a revelation for any fan of The Cars.  What follows is my list of the band’s best tracks.

 

 

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Is there anybody going to listen to my story?

To tell a story in a compelling way is an art; to do it to a melody is a wondrous thing.

For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song.  In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of tales of heartbreak, tales of war and famine, tales of love and tradition.  These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature.

Not surprisingly, these ballads tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, which is hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”

Still, some songwriters  — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went a little beyond the conventional song length.  I’ve selected a handful of tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.

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“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972  

81Gd3K9ctQL._SL1416_Great story-songs paint an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters.  In the case of this remembrance from Chapin’s real past, there’s Harry, the taxi driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover.  They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they share an uneasy moment.  “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…”  Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, but as they part, he appears to be content just driving a cab, while she seems unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.  Chapin’s debut single reached #24 on the pop charts in the fall of 1972.

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977

meatloafThe entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy material for a Broadway stage play, with multiple stories about the exploits of numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman for his pal, Mr. Loaf, to sing.  None was more cinematic than “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” the vivid story of a teenage boy hoping to seduce his girlfriend.  They volley back and forth until she asks for his undying love in exchange for a night of passion (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?”  “Let me sleep on it”).  It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties across America.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972  

MI0000383010Motown artists were known for short, punchy dance tunes, but they weren’t opposed to taking a stab at the story-song.  The Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September, a day I’ll always remember”).  It was originally recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the Top 40 version clocked in at nearly seven minutes.  The vocal group’s final #1 single set the tone for many more soul records that told stories over the next decade.

“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973

Front Cover copyThis song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from California who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks.  Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973.  It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.

“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968

beatles_1478685cBy the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it was only a matter of time before they (actually Paul McCartney) came up with a story-song.  “Rocky Raccoon,” with an arrangement dominated by acoustic guitar and jangly piano, is basically a country-western yarn with McCartney front and center singing about South Dakota rivals Rocky and Dan, and the object of their competing affections, a girl named Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).

“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969

51nB9lgIE-L._SX300_QL70_The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically crossed over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969.  The tune tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity.  The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”

“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971

thIn 1969, songwriter Kris Kristofferson wrote this poignant story of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.  It was first recorded by Roger Miller (a #12 hit on the country charts), then by Kristofferson himself, and then Gordon Lightfoot, and in those versions Bobby (Bobbi?) was the woman.  But then it was recorded by Janis Joplin in 1970 only a few days before her death, and Bobby became the male character.  Her version went to #1 on the pop charts in the spring of 1971 and remains the definitive rendition.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

wreckitlCanada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for more than ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with his ode to the sunken freighter.  It resonated with Americans and Canadians alike, especially those who lived near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years.  It’s a great story artfully told but, frankly, one of Lightfoot’s more boring songs, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven verses.

“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972

don-mclean-american-pie--albumcoverproject.comNot so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” took listeners on a journey, told in enigmatic language, through the evolution of rock and roll from its birth in 1955 to 1971, when the song was written.  It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its veiled references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, and events like Woodstock and Altamont, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967  

Bobbie-gentry-Ode-toThis sleepy, sultry number about a fictional Deep South tragedy would’ve worked perfectly in the soundtrack to “In the Heat of the Night,” the Oscar-winning movie from the same year.  As it is, the song was a big #1 hit on the pop charts for then-newcomer Gentry, who wrote it with sensitive, descriptive lyrics.  It tells the tale of a rural Mississippi family’s reaction to news of the suicide of local boy Billie Jo MacAllister at the Tallahatchie Bridge, the subsequent passing of the family patriarch, and the effects of the two deaths.

“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967  

alices-restaurant-1Perhaps the longest story in popular music (and subsequently made into a feature film), “Alice’s Restaurant” is an 18-minute rambling account (apparently true) of what happened to songwriter Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one Thanksgiving Day during the Vietnam War protest years.  It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness and disbelief at the folly and absurdity of war as well as the justice system’s overreach.

“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

dan-fogelberg-same-old-lang-syneThis tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do.  The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again.  It struck a chord with many people who recall past flings and relationships, and Fogelberg deftly weaved in a few bars of “Auld Lang Syne” as the song concludes.  It reached #9 on the charts and still gets plenty of airplay during the Yuletide season.

“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976

cd-cover“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…”  For his hugely successful LP “Fly Like an Eagle” in 1976, Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, kind of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.  It reached #11 as the first of three hits from the album that year.  Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in his movie “Natural Born Killers” after the felonious couple Miller described in the song.

“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982

John_cougar-jack_diane_s“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…”  John Mellencamp was still Johnny Cougar when he wrote this commercial story-song about another down-and-out  couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life.  Allegedly based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up a bit and gave it a more contemporary bent for the ’80s audience.  With a catchy guitar riff and stutter-stop rhythm, it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1982, and still gets a ton of exposure today.

“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975

ZumaThis 11-minute opus, found on Young’s sprawling “Zuma” album, tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century.  Young had been reading historical biographies during this period of his life and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits.  The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.

“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

The-Wild-The-Innocent--th-017Like Dylan, The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as “Incident on 57th Street,” an under-the-radar saga from his “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” in late 1973.  It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.

“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975

Bad Company Straight ShooterWriting a story-song was not the exclusive domain of American composers — witness this minor classic by British rockers Bad Company.  Found on their “Straight Shooter” LP, “Shooting Star” tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle.  Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his favorites in the Bad Company repertoire.

“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989

220px-JoeJacksonBlazeOfGloryThis one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Bob_Dylan_-_DesireDylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work.  Perhaps his most notable is the one about real-life boxer Reuben “Hurricane” Carter, who, though far from a saint, got unjustly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently outraged to write this lengthy piece that told Carter’s story.  It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.

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