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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Right now all I got’s this lonesome day

On September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks, Bruce Springsteen was walking down the street in New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan.  A man driving by slowed down next to him, opened his window, stared at Springsteen and said, “Man, we really need you now.”

Springsteen had been out of the limelight for several years at that point.  His last album of new music had been 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a critical favorite but a relative c121852__bruce_lommercial dud.  He and the E Street Band had parted ways in the late ’80s, and The Boss and his wife had turned their attentions to raising a family.

“That guy really stopped me in my tracks,” Springsteen recalled.  “The events of 9/11 had affected me profoundly, as it had so many others, but I’d been caught in a daze, wandering around those first couple of days, worried for my kids, worried for my country, not sure what to think.  When he said ‘We need you now,’ it snapped me back into focus.  I thought, ‘It’s time to get busy doing what I can do.'”

One of rock’s most prolific songwriters got busy, all right.  Over the next few weeks, he wrote nearly 50 songs in a burst of creativity, determined to come up with music that might help in the healing process.  He made a call to the boys in the E Street Band and said, “Guys, it’s time.  Let’s get back together and make a record.”  They eagerly agreed, and the result was “The Rising,” a triumphant rejuvenation of Springsteen’s career and a 220px-Springsteen_The_Risingmuch-needed shot in the arm for his legions of fans, many of whom were still grieving huge personal loss.

This week, as we marked another anniversary of that dark day in the nation’s history, I revisited “The Rising,” and also did some research to look for other noteworthy songs that were written in the aftermath of 9/11.  I found it challenging to immerse myself in these difficult emotions and painful memories, but ultimately, I came out the other end feeling stronger, as we often do when we face our fears.

Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise for “The Rising.”  Thom Jurek of AllMusic called the album “one of the very best examples in recent history of how popular art can evoke a time period and all of its confusing and often contradictory notions, feelings and impulses.” The British magazine Uncut called the LP “a brave and beautiful album of humanity, hurt and hope from the songwriter best qualified to speak to and for his country … A towering achievement.”

In particular, the lyrics to seven tracks dealt with the emotions felt in the aftermath:  the sadness for the loss of life, the gratitude for the first responders, the dark desire for revenge, the despair for the loss of innocence, the craving for closeness and community, the need to keep hope alive.

Some of these songs specifically address the events of 9/11.  “Into the Fire,” for instance, pays tribute to the firemen who headed into the towers as everyone else was evacuating:   “It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave, you lay your hand on me, then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave, somewhere up the stairs into the fire, somewhere up the stairs into the fire, I need your kiss, but love and duty called MV5BMzY1ZThmYmUtZjZhYi00MTA1LTg3YTktMjk1Nzg4MzdjYWFlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTc5MDI5NjE@._V1_you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs into the fire…”

The leadoff track, “Lonesome Day,” ranks among Springsteen’s finest efforts, a musically robust rocker that also warns about how a demand for justice needs to be tempered by a sense of collective calm that doesn’t escalate matters:  “Hell’s brewin’, dark sun’s on the rise, this storm’ll blow through by and by, house is on fire, viper’s in the grass, a little revenge and this too shall pass, this too shall pass, I’m gonna pray, right now all I got’s this lonesome day…”

Other album tracks demonstrate Springsteen’s deft ability at writing words that deal with emotions in a more general, universal way that could apply to other kinds of loss.  “You’re Missing” delicately speaks to the void that families felt when their loved ones didn’t return home that day, but it could just as easily refer to soldiers who died on the battlefield, or victims of mass shootings:  “Pictures on the nightstand, TV’s on in the den, your house is waiting for you to walk in, but you’re missing, when I shut out the lights, you’re missing, when I close my eyes, you’re missing, when I see the sun rise, you’re missing…”

The title song, “The Rising,” is a magnificent song of resolve and hope, with lyrics that apply in any situation when the chips are down and all seems lost:  “I make my way through this darkness, I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me, lost track of how far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed… a dream of life comes to me like a catfish dancing on the end of my line, come on up for the rising, come on up, lay your hands in mine, come on up for the rising, come on up for the rising tonight…”

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In the wake of 9/11, several dozen songs surfaced, written and released by a wide range of artists.  I’ve selected a dozen that I found sufficiently moving to share with you on my blog this week.  I hope you absorb them in the spirit in which they were proffered to us.

“Let’s Roll,” Neil Young, 2001

Pegi-YoungYoung chose to focus on the amazing, harrowing story of the brave souls on United Flight 93 who stormed their hijacked cockpit and prevented the plane from reaching its intended target in Washington, D.C.:  “I know I said I love you, I know you know it’s true, I’ve got to put the phone down and do what we got to do, one’s standing in the aisle way, two more at the door, we’ve got to get inside there, before they kill some more, time is runnin’ out, let’s roll…”

“Tuesday Morning,” Melissa Etheridge, 2004

hqdefault-17Etheridge also addressed those on United Flight 93, with an added edge.  One of the heroes on board was a gay man who had faced injustices that prevented his ability to marry or be a school teacher.  Etheridge defiantly asked us to consider the freedoms and rights that are still denied to some of our citizens:  “He stood up on a Tuesday morning, in the terror, he was brave, and he made his choice and without a doubt, a hundred lives he must have saved, and the things you might take for granted, your inalienable rights, some might choose to deny him, even though he gave his life, stand up, America, wake up, America…”

“Prayer,” Disturbed, 2002

maxresdefault-28This Chicago-based heavy metal band found controversy when they filmed a riveting video for this song that appeared to be a re-creation of the Ground Zero area (view it on YouTube at your own risk).  The lyrics take Evil’s point of view:  “Another nightmare about to come true will manifest tomorrow, another love that I’ve taken from you, lost in time, on the edge of suffering, another taste of the evil I breed will level you completely, bring to life everything that you fear, live in the dark, and the world is threatening, let me enlighten you, this is the way I pray…”

“Hole in the World,” The Eagles, 2003

61cXDyMwScL._SY355_As part of the 2003 release of the 2-CD package “The Very Best of The Eagles,” Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote this new track to weigh in with their thoughts on 9/11: “They say that anger is just love disappointed, they say that love is just a state of mind, but all this fighting over who will be anointed, oh, how can people be so blind?, there’s a hole in the world tonight, there’s a cloud of fear and sorrow, there’s a hole in the world tonight, don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow…”

“Sacrificed Sons,” Dream Theater, 2005

maxresdefault-26Influenced by British prog rock bands like Yes and Pink Floyd, the Boston-based Neo-progressive group Dream Theater turned a few heads with its 2005 release “Octavarium.”  Of particular interest was the 10-minute opus “Sacrificed Sons,” with lyrics by vocalist James LaBrie that recalled the 9/11 attacks:  “Heads all turning towards the sky, towers crumble, heroes die, who would wish this on our people and proclaim that His will be done, scriptures they heed have misled them, all praise their sacrificed sons…”

“Illume (9-11),” Fleetwood Mac, 2003 

500bf53780eead0482a1671f086520d5.800x800x1Stevie Nicks wrote this poignant piece less than two weeks after 9/11, but it didn’t see the light of day until Fleetwood Mac reconvened to record the 2003 LP “Say You Will.”  Nicks reflected on how difficult it can be to overcome deep heartbreak:  “What I saw on this journey, I saw history go down, I cannot pretend that the heartache falls away, it’s just like a river, ooh, it’s never ending, I cannot pretend that the heartache falls away, because it’s just like a river, it’s never ending…”

“Hey Ma,” James, 2008

HeyMaAlbumArtThe British band James offered another perspective, looking at 9/11 as a fork in the road where unfortunate choices with long-lasting global consequences were made:  “Now, the towers have fallen, so much dust in the air, it affected your vision, couldn’t see yourself clear, from the fall came such choices even worse than the fall, there’s this chain of consequences, within, without, action, cause and reaction never follows to plan… Please don’t preach me forgiveness, you’re hardwired for revenge, war is just about business, within, without…”

“When New York Had Her Heart Broke,” John Hiatt, 2011

john-hiattVeteran songwriter Hiatt came up with this tearjerker on his 2011 LP “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns,” on which he ruefully recalled the mood of New Yorkers when their city became the focal point of the 9/11 attacks:  “And the daylight fell dark, F-16s over Central Park, when New York had her heart broke, we were dazed in the streets, from the blood and dust and heat, when New York had her heart broke…”

“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Alan Jackson, 2001

dam_asset_image-26864920180714-21667-10qsscyJackson found it hard to write a song about how he felt in the wake of 9/11, but he forged ahead and came up with this moving track.  After debuting it at the Country Music Awards less than eight weeks after 9/11, it was released as a single, topping the country charts for five weeks and reaching #28 on the pop charts.  The lyrics present a series of thought-provoking questions:  “Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke risin’ against that blue sky?  Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor, or did you just sit down and cry?  Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones, and pray for the ones who don’t know?  Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble, and sob for the ones left below?…”

“Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith, 2002

Angry_American_Single_CD_CoverAlways a political conservative, Keith came up with this inflamed diatribe that stoked the rage amongst his audience and soared to #1 on the country charts upon its release in May 2002.  He has said it was written in support of the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, but it was interpreted to reflect his generally hawkish views:   “Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack, a mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back, soon as we could see it clearly through our big black eye, man, we lit up your world like the 4th of July… Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage, this big dog will fight when you rattle his cage, and you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A, ’cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way…”

Skylines and Turnstiles,” My Chemical Romance, 2002

GettyImages-85033606-1560026014-1500x1000Gerard Way was so saddened and outraged by the events of 9/11 that he was inspired to form the emo/post-hardcore punk group My Chemical Romance.  The debut LP “I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love” includes “Skylines and Turnstiles” with its brutally graphic lyrics:  “Steel corpses stretch out towards an ending sun, scorched and black, it reaches in and tears your flesh apart as ice cold hands rip into your heart, that’s if you’ve still got one that’s left inside that cave you call a chest, after seeing what we saw, can we still reclaim our innocence?…”

“Exodus Damage,” John Vanderslice, 2005

71KAl4fX77L._SX355_Indie rock singer/songwriter Vanderslice produced ten albums out of his San Francisco-based studio/record company.  His 2005 album “Pixel Revolts” had a decidedly political bent, with several tracks about 9/11 and the Iraq War, especially “Exodus Damage” with its highly provocative lyrics:  “So the second plane hit at 9:02, I saw it live on a hotel TV, talking on my cell with you, you said this would happen, and just like that, it did, wrong about the feeling, wrong about the sound, but right to say we would stand down, an hour went by without a fighter in the sky, you said there’’s a reason why, so tell me now, I must confess, I’’m not sick enough to guess…”

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