You might think he’s crazy…but sexagenarian Cars singer Ric Ocasek is shaking it up again with his first-ever book of verse and visuals, Lyrics & Prose (Blue Rider Press).
Before he sold gazillions of records, became an MTV staple, and married supermodel Paulina Porizkova, Ocasek was a regular cig-smoking, music-loving Joe just like you and me. A lot like you and me. In fact, Ric lived in Northeast Ohio for a time, graduating from Maple Heights High School while his computer analyst father worked at NASA. Then he attended Bowling Green State University—which makes me and The Cars front man fellow Falcons. Ocasek probably hung out with his friend, Lakewood native Benjamin Orr, at some of the same diners and theatres as my gang back in the day. Maybe they even went to Malley’s for ice cream.
Then Ocasek and Orr headed east—to Boston, specifically—where they combined punk edginess and new wave synth chic with old school psycho-billy guitar rock aesthetics to found one of the 80s best bands. The Cars dominated radio and Billboard charts during the Reagan administration, scoring their biggest hits with masterful pop pastiches “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think,” and “Magic,” and ballads like “I’m Not the One” and “Drive.” But many of the quintet’s earlier, grittier tunes (“Just What I Needed,” “Good Times Roll,” and “Moving in Stereo”) still receive considerable airplay on FM today. They’re time-proof.
The same might be said of Ocasek, who enjoyed a modest solo career after his band imploded. He’d already produced a couple other bands (like punk renegades the Bad Brains), so he slunk his lanky frame back into that comfy chair to oversee albums by Weezer, Hole, and Guided by Voices. He kept a low profile as the new millennium dawned, dropping a solo disc here and there but shunning the spotlight. He could have stayed away forever, relishing the quiet life as Mr. Porizkova. Imagine the surprise when he turned up again in 2010 on the first Cars disc in a quarter-century, Move Like This. Maybe you don’t even have to imagine; anyone who heard the album upon release was dumbstruck by how good Ocasek and Co. still sounded after so much time apart.
Anyway, the book. It’s got over 300 pages devoted to Ocasek’s stark but evocative verses, most of which adhere to three or four compact stanzas and contain the alliteration and repetition common to pop refrains. Most pieces were either repurposed as song lyrics or were lyrics before getting “naked” for this compendium, where they’re neatly divided according to album and year. For example, the first chapter—The Cars—features Ocasek’s cool, clever rhymes for “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye, Bye Love,” and “Moving in Stereo.” Subsequent sections spotlight material that ended up on Cars classics like Candy-O (1979), Panorama (1980), Shake It Up (1981), and Heartbeat City (1984). But the book also accommodates Ocasek’s solo output, from 1982’s Beatitude through 2005’s Nexterday. Fireball Zone has all the words to 1990 tunes like “Rockaway” and “Flowers of Love.” Troublizing gathers 1997 nuggets like “Crashland Consequence,” “Hang on Tight,” and “Not Shocked.”
If you’ve heard the records, you’re already hip to Ric’s subtle wit, café cool, and academic aloofness. His musical accompaniment in The Cars was always sleek—sublimely-crafted mechanical mirth charged by sexual rhythmic undertones—but now it’s left entirely to readers to interpret Ocasek’s language, now unmoored from the safe harbor of David Robinson’s drums, Greg Hawke’s quirky keys, and Elliot Easton’s sleight-of-hand guitar. And despite the title—which suggests the packaging of interchangeable, toss-away prose and pedestrian lyrics rather than the grandiose poetry normally associated with Coleridge and Wordsworth—there is something deep, revealing, and positively poetic about Ocasek’s turns of phrase. He ruminates economy. Each word in every line is like a custom brick selected specifically for the task at hand, and it shows. And each line connects with next, collectively achieving a cohesive, satisfying “sum of the parts” totality as a paragraph / stanza.
“All my lyrics come from the prose I write,” prefaces Ocasek.
“I just keep books of words and when I feel it’s time to write songs, I just steal from the prose to write lyrics.”
One imagines there are teens and twenty-somethings all over the world who, like Ocasek, commit random thoughts, mini-epiphanies, and minor observations to ragged notebooks on a daily basis. I do—or at least did. But the practice, and the very art of writing, becomes something much larger and more meaningful for people who, like the author, possess the additional skills necessary to bring his writings to life, imbuing them with an immediacy—a fluid accessibility to the human senses—that transcends cultures and borderlines. Music affords primal, instant gratification. The typical pop song often shortcuts the cerebrum in favor of a more direct path to the hips and feet. The words are there, but needn’t be subject to strict scrutiny in order to “get down” or “rock out” right away. And declarations like I like the night life, baby! needn’t percolate in one’s skull before singing along with the record (“Let’s Go”).
Granted, The Cars weren’t a “typical” band. Cookie-cutter groups don’t often attain that kind of success and can’t cling to it as long because they run out of interesting things to say and novel ways to say them. For The Cars to thrive in a decade known for spawning more one-hit wonders than bona fide legends was no small feat. But even intellectual rockers like Ocasek are subject to the unspoken rules of their respective genres: Verses are followed by lead-ins or build-ups to a catchy chorus, all of which is repeated. Throw in a bridge or middle-eight for variety, reprise, then wind down and fade out.
Here, Ocasek’s threadbare alpha-numerics are rendered vulnerable, with each piece afforded one page (which consists of more negative space—the white paper itself—than black print). But even the sparsest lines pack a lot of insight on the human condition. Consider “Fix on You,” wherein Oscasek ascribes the traits of nature’s fastest cat to a female lover interest and turns the noun-form of a popular child’s toy into a sensational verb:
Cheetah maybe she don’t mind
She wants to be your valentine
Tinker toy me into tears
Throw away my favorite fears
In addition to the usual boy-girl fare there are musings on depression and detachment, moments of exasperation with rock excess, and reflections on chance encounters. Flowers, sunlight, and oceans are juxtaposed by urban blight—litter, neon, broken warehouses. Mother Nature’s purity plays against Man’s self-destructive tendencies. Genius flirts with madness. Ocasek riffs on boxers, banks, baristas, computers, and other everyday ephemera. There’s a biographical sketch on Ric’s grandfather, an ode to a “Hotel Queenie,” and an indictment of the “idiot” who shot John Lennon.
Later chapters assemble Other Lyrics (like “Tonight She Comes” and “Breakaway”) and Prose (“Human Race,” “Blast Furnace Features”). Negative Theater surveys Ric’s writings from 1992, like “Evaporate” and “God I Do,” while Senryu focuses on Japanese-influenced exercises like “Cadillac Soul,” “Attempted Suicide,” and “Sucker Punched.” They’re like haiku, but different. Also, I should mention I’ve capitalized Ocasek’s titles here; they aren’t in the book.
In addition to the automobile and pinup girl-centric Cars sleeves and Ocasek’s more diversified solo album covers (which precede their respective chapters) Lyrics & Prose also collects 25 or so black and white images snapped by the singer during his decades-long dabble in photography. Some images (like the guy in the Beach Boy striped shirt with the paper bag on his head) are funny, curious, and organic; they appear to have been captured on the fly. Others—like the battered tube of Aim toothpaste or the cue balls reposing in grass—bear the earmarks of design and forethought. Several—like the landscapes and photos of carnival rides and decrepit factory yards—look innocuous at first blush but have a “feel” to them, something indescribable about their natural, as-is compositions that intrigued the cameraman. I like the shot of the girl in the swimming pool whipping back her wet hair.) Freely Sing and Paradise Poems compile tidbits written between 1968 and 1976, pre-Cars fame.
Perhaps the most telling images are the scans of Ocasek’s original handwritten (and typed) lyrics, which contain the author’s editorial strike-outs and modifications. Dated 1976, the one-sheet for “Just What I Needed” (again, no capitals) has a scribbled memo instructing the singer to “smooth out vocal on last verse.” In the upper left corner is a note pondering who that singer should be—Ric himself, or Ben (Orr who fielded this gem).
“Let the stories be told,” Ocasek writes, beginning a now-familiar song. “Let the photos be old…. They can say what they want.”
With Lyrics & Prose, Ocasek’s stories come alive once more to brush back your rock and roll hair, and within the elegant black binding lay evidence that the Cars’ resident poet is as much a fan of language—of the power to communicate and stir spirits and emotions with words—as we are of his music.