Singer-songwriter Ric Ocasek has been making hits since 1978. With the New Wave/rock group the Cars, he has been responsible for smashes such as “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Shake It Up.” In addition, Ocasek has released several successful solo albums; the latter, This Side of Paradise, included the hit single “Emotion in Motion.” He has also appeared in films, such as director John Waters’s Hairspray.
Ocasek, who keeps his age something of a secret, was born Richard Otcasek circa 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. As a child, he loved the music of rock pioneer Buddy Holly, and he was encouraged in this by his grandmother, who presented him with a guitar when he was ten. Like many other children given similar presents, Ocasek took lessons on the instrument for a while, and then grew bored. As he told Lisa Robinson in Interview magazine, he had a relatively calm early adolescence in Baltimore, “with the crowd who were into electronics and good grades.”
But when Ocasek was sixteen, his father got a job with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Cleveland, Ohio, and at first the young man had a difficult time adjusting to the Midwest because of his strikingly different appearance. “I got punched in the face the very first day of school,” he told Robinson. “Knocked on the floor. For nothing. Just because I had my hair dyed blond.... See, it was a trend in Baltimore to dye your hair blond in the front.... Anyway, people stared at me a lot because I was tall and skinny, but later on, it worked to my advantage.”
But before Ocasek began to attract attention in the music world, he first tried college, attending both Bowling Green State University and Antioch College. By the late 1960s, however, he had had enough of higher education. As he explained to Jon Pareles in Rolling Stone, Ocasek returned to his efforts with the guitar, and in addition, he “started immediately writing; I thought that was the thing to do.... After I started writing songs I figured it would be good to start a band. Sometimes I’d put together a band just to hear my songs.”
While Ocasek was rehearsing with one such band in Columbus, Ohio, he made the acquaintance of vocalist and bass player Ben Orr. The two hit it off, and Ocasek invited Orr to join his band. Together they enjoyed a small measure of local success, opening concerts in midwestern college towns for fading groups such as MC5 and the Stooges. Emboldened by such gigs, they decided to try their luck in New York City, but were largely unsuccessful. After a short return to the Midwest, Ocasek took off for Boston. When he had assessed that city’s musical climate, he called Orr and told him that he should relocate there as well. Together they went through various bands, changing names and personnel with some frequency. At one time Ocasek and Orr constituted two-thirds of a folk trio called Milkwood, which was successful enough to release an album on Paramount in 1972. During roughly the same period, Ocasek also met fellow musician Greg Hawkes, who played with him and Orr very briefly before seeking out a better-paid band.
By 1976, Ocasek and Orr had started yet another band, this one called Cap’n Swing. For this vehicle they managed to discover, among others, lead guitarist Elliot Easton; with him, Ocasek and Orr felt confident enough to make another attempt on New York City. When they had failed yet again to attract the notice of record producers, they returned to Boston, where Ocasek fired everyone from Cap’n Swing except himself, Orr, and Easton. He managed to lure Hawkes back, and also recruited drummer David Robinson. At last, the Cars were formed.
The band made their professional debut at a New Year’s Eve party in New Hampshire; by March of 1977 they were playing the better punk venues of Boston, notably the Rathskeller, and they received the opportunity to open a concert for rock artist Bob Seger. More opening opportunities followed, along with better club dates in the Boston area. Finally, a song from one of their demo tapes, “Just What I Needed,” became so popular on two Boston radio stations that record companies began seeking them out. Ocasek and the Cars had signed with Elektra by the time 1977 came to a close.
Their self-titled debut album was released in 1978, winning praise from fans and critics alike, and causing the Cars to capture that year’s Grammy Award for best new group. Through the 1980s, other hits followed “Just What I Needed,” including “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Magic,” “You Might Think,” and “Drive,” most of them written by Ocasek. He and the Cars also gained a reputation for making creative videos to accompany their hits, and these received a great deal of airplay on video channels such as MTV. After releasing the album Door to Door, which included the hit “You Are the Girl,” the Cars broke up in 1988.
But Ocasek had already begun to turn his attention to solo projects long before. In 1982 he released Beatitude, which Mark Coleman described in Rolling Stone as “a set of arty oddities.” Though the disc received some favorable critical comment, it did not sell well. Ocasek fared better with fans on his 1986 solo effort, This Side of Paradise, which featured the hit single, “Emotion in Motion.” Ironically, some critics saw this album as insubstantial compared with Ocasek’s previous work; Coleman complained that “where the Cars push their loves songs through cynical twists and sharp turns, Ocasek gets stuck in romantic glop.” Robinson, however, praised both Beatitude and This Side of Paradise as “hauntingly beautiful.”
Ocasek has also produced records for other groups and musicians, including the New Models and the Bad Brains, and he has enjoyed the small film roles he’s had, including portraying an aging beatnik in “Hairspray” and a junkyard owner in “Made in Heaven”. He told Robinson that he doesn’t “want to do that rock-star-turning actor bit,” but that he’d “love to play some weird character things” in the future.
In 2005 the Sanctuary distribution family gave him his own label, Inverse, to develop new acts and released the first new Ocasek album in eight years, Nexterday.