By Adam Waldman
An entire generation was already feeling the sting of the loss of Eddie Money when the breaking news came across the wire that Ric Ocasek had died suddenly. Once again, a piece of our collective youth was chipped away. Unfortunately, as the rock stars that we idolized continue to age, there will be more moments like this. Still, you never really get used to them.
The Cars occupy an interesting place in the soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t until Ocasek’s passing that I even thought of the early years of the band as anything other than rock, albeit one with distinction and a vibe like no others. New wave, punk, pop, rock. Whatever you want to call them doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things. What matters most is the impact that they had, largely because of Ocasek.
Since his passing, his age has been in dispute. Was he 70 or 75? Did he lie about his age back in the day because there was no such thing as newcomers breaking onto the scene well into their thirties? It’s kind of irrelevant because Ocasek had a look that made him seem ageless. His unique qualities made him interesting, as did his talent. Image be damned!
Now that he’s gone, I could wax poetic about all of his work with The Cars, his solo stuff, his production, and his artwork, but that would be disingenuous. Truth be told, I didn’t know much about anything that he did beyond The Cars, nor was I overly enthralled with any of the albums beyond their self-titled debut and Candy-O. But those two albums are right up there with my all-time favorites over the past four decades.
It’s not that I didn’t like the more pop-oriented material that was featured with regularity on MTV. It’s just that they didn’t leave an indelible mark on me the way that the pre-MTV albums did. I always found their videos fun and different, but those songs didn’t resonate as much with me as the music that came before I even knew what they looked like.
The Cars were just this cool band that I was into early on. Even around the age of ten or so, my hormones must have been kicking in, because I found myself drawn to their album covers as much as the music (especially Candy-O).
It’s hard to believe now that the Candy-O album cover seemed risqué, but in the late ‘70s, it most definitely was. The album cover was at the center of a major disagreement that I had with my mother about wearing concert shirts. She just called them “black shirts,” but it wasn’t the color of the fabric that drew her ire; it was the images emblazoned on them for the world to see. This story became the stuff of legend with my extended family…
It was probably around late spring in 1979 or 1980. My mom’s side of the family was visiting my house on Long Island. It was a typical family get together, grilling in the backyard, hanging out and talking.
At some point during the day, my cousin asked to go to the flea market at the Long Island Arena. It was a favorite hangout for a generation of kids who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A few years prior, it was actually a very cool, small concert venue, but I never got to see a show there because I was too young.
I didn’t care for much of what the flea market had to offer, but there were a handful of booths that catered directly to my interests. The first sold records. I still remember Scott, the guy whose booth it was. He had a pretty thick beard long before it became trendy. The other booth sold band shirts. You can’t really call them concert shirts (in my opinion) if you don’t go to the concert.
Even at the young age of ten, my passion was music. I had been eyeing some of the shirts in the booth when I was at the flea market with my mom, but she was having no part of it. I wasn’t a particularly rebellious child, but I always had a sense of justice, and didn’t see anything wrong with wearing these shirts.
For some reason, my mom equated black band shirts with some sort of delinquency. “That’s what the dirtbags wear!” she would yell. I can’t say that the dirtbags didn’t wear black band shirts, but they certainly didn’t have the market cornered. You didn’t become a dirtbag just by wearing a shirt. It was just part of the culture.
If you’re thinking that dirtbag is a derogatory term, you’d be right when it came to the way my mom used it, but the actual dirtbags wore the term as a badge of honor. Hell, there was even a name for their hangout area of the high school…”Dirtbag Alley.”
For the most part, the kids who hung out in Dirtbag Alley went back there to smoke cigarettes (amongst other things). Though they were kind of the anti-jocks who didn’t like sports, they played some mean games of handball in their little corner of the world. I guess that they just thought that gym (or physical education as they call it today) was a waste of their time.
Anyway, since my mom was the host, she couldn’t leave our house to come with us to the flea market that day. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to put “Operation Black Shirt” into effect. I figured with a house full of relatives that my mom would refrain from letting me have it for my defiance. I was sorely mistaken.
When I walked in the door with two black band shirts – one of which was the Candy-O album cover – you would have thought that I brought home a big bag of weed. My mom flipped out on me in front of everyone.
Though it’s been nearly 40 years since this incident, it’s still a family joke to this day. Looking back, I can see where she may have objected to me wearing The Cars’ shirt as a 10-year old, but hindsight and being a parent has a way of reshaping the past.
Even though the Candy-O album cover tapped into the pleasure center of my adolescent brain, the effect paled in comparison to the Pavlovian response that I have to this day when I hear the first few notes of “Moving In Stereo.”
If you grew up in the ‘80s, hearing those notes instantly conjures up the image of Phoebe Cates walking in slow motion towards Judge Reinhold as she sensuously undoes her red bikini top to reveal her breasts. That scene would barely be a blip on the radar for today’s teens (who carry around a limitless pornographic library in their pockets), but for many of us, that moment is iconic. As is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that “Moving In Stereo” as the backdrop to that legendary scene is the most noteworthy in cinematic history for teen boys. Perfect is not a word that should be thrown around carelessly, but that moment was perfect. That’s the power of music.
The funny thing is that it wasn’t one of my favorite songs on The Cars eponymous debut album when I wore the cassette out during my first summer of sleepaway camp. It was a little bit trippy, and didn’t have the infectious hook of songs like “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” or “Let The Good Times Roll.” All of that changed after I saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The song instantly became one of my favorites by The Cars.
The loss of Ric Ocasek is sad. It’s sad because of its sudden nature. It’s sad because he was a loving dad and husband. It’s sad because of the contributions that he made to the music and art worlds. Based on the response that I’ve seen from others on social media, this loss was devastating. The world was a better place with him in it. But here’s the thing for me…
My connection to Ocasek goes back to my early childhood. I never got to know much about him as a person. It was only since his passing that I heard an interview with him from 2016 (when he did a Town Hall with Marc Goodman). He was interesting, but more quiet and reserved. His loss didn’t hit me as hard as Eddie Money’s. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know as much about him. Maybe it’s because it happened while I was already mourning the loss of another legend. Regardless, it doesn’t make me appreciate the space in my life that he occupies any less. Because of him, I have a handful of touchstone moments that I’ll never forget. And for that, I am thankful.
Rest in peace, Ric! Thanks for the memories!