I spend an inordinate, possibly unhealthy, amount of time thinking about the utter absurdity of everything, which is exhausting and hilarious in equal measure these days. And while there are many people who have helped shape the half-crazed way I see the world, today seems like the appropriate time to highlight one of them in particular. I’m talking about Ric Ocasek, singer, guitarist, and songwriter extraordinaire for The Cars.
Sadly, Ocasek died yesterday in New York. I should note that you aren’t going to get a balanced critique of the man or his music from me. I am firmly in the camp that believes The Cars rarely, if ever, recorded a bad song. And no one was happier when their 2011 comeback album, Move Like This, came out and it sounded like they never left the mid to late 1980s. When I got my driver’s license in the summer of 1986, the first cassette (Jesus, I’m old) I popped into the tape deck of the car was Heartbeat City. Panorama and Candy-O were standing by to be the second and third.
If you’re a fan you’re asking, “But what about the first album?” I was only eight when The Cars’ self-titled debut came out in 1978, so I wasn’t exactly “rock-n-roll” aware at the time. I was still five years away from the day my older cousin took me for a ride in his beat up Datsun, blasting Def Leppard’s Pyromania until our ears bled, thus marking my introduction to a brave new world of sound, sex, and sedition.
I’m sure that by the summer of 1986, though, I already knew most of the songs on that first Cars album, all of which were written by Ocasek. It’s a murderer’s row of new wave rock wonder: Good Times Roll, My Best Friend’s Girl, and Just What I Needed are the first three songs. You’re All I’ve Got Tonight and Bye Bye Love are on there, too. You can probably hear the opening riffs and are reaching for a fake mic to sing them out loud, admit it. These songs were so good that they even managed, sometimes, to break through my endless Midwestern radio parade of John “Cougar” Mellencamp, The Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I probably went to the music store that day to buy the new Van Halen album, not an old Cars record. “Dreams” was getting heavy airplay at the time, and I have a pretty vivid memory of staring at it in my hands at the store. Then I walked over to the sale bin, and came across The Cars’ first album for $6.99. I only had enough money for one or the other. And let’s be honest, Van Halen had devolved into Van Hagar by then, and there was already a strong whiff of suck forming around them.
Like I said, I knew most of the songs off that first Cars album already. But I popped it in, and just started driving. And listening. Then I was giggling, and finally guffawing. “Let the good times roll…let them make you a clown.” Clowns are funny, right? Quickly followed by “Let them leave you up in the air…let them brush your rock and roll hair.” I didn’t know exactly what rock and roll hair was, but I knew I wanted some of it. “If the illusion is real.” Well, is it real or not, Ric? Does it really matter? “If it’s got thunder appeal?” No clue what you mean, but I definitely want it on my side, I guess.
That album sends you down rabbit holes of absurdity worthy of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. Especially when you get to Moving in Stereo, which was sung by bassist Benjamin Orr, but written by Ocasek and keyboardist Greg Hawkes:
Life’s the same, I’m moving in stereo.
Life’s the same, except for my shoes.
Life’s the same, you’re shaking like tremolo.
Life’s the same, it’s all inside you…
As you’re listening to that song, the music and words are actually moving back and forth between the left and right speakers of your car stereo! And there’s actually a faint hint of tremolo when Orr sings “tremolo.” Sixteen year old mind, blown. Come to think of it, listening to it today here at home in the Netherlands, my nearly 50 year old mind is still blown.
“The Cars” is a lesson in how you can take something utterly familiar and straight-forward, and then layer all kinds of madness beneath it. It is screaming at you: “PAY ATTENTION! Beneath all the normalcy, there’s some nutty shit going on around you, and if you don’t learn how to laugh about it, if you don’t learn to use it to your creative advantage, you’ll regret it.” At least, that’s the musical epiphany I took away from it. Others probably just threw the tape in the bin and got on with their completely sensible lives. But from then on, I not only went looking for absurdity in my music, but also tried to develop a keen eye for it in the rest of my life.
How are you adjusting to the Netherlands, Clark? “Life’s the same, except for my shoes.”
That phrase has become kind of an “absurdity anchor” for me through the years. With every life change, every move, every new experience living and working in America and overseas, I use it to deal with my fears. I love the visual of a person constantly changing shoes while everything else in life remains the same. It makes me laugh, and reminds me not to take anything too seriously. I think it works particularly well for me because my reality is kind of the opposite: my life gets thrown frequently into flux, but I almost always wear the same shoes. I’ve managed to take The Cars’ absurdity and turn it into something personal, useful, and even more absurd. I like to think Ric would approve.
Now, about that rock and roll hair…
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