Cue up “My Best Friend’s Girl.” Hit play. Let it seep in to you: the chugging hot rod guitar in second gear, those magic hand claps, that cool, almost-chilly voice that still manages to have miles of swagger.
The Cars’ song sounds like something out of “American Graffiti.” And it also feels like something beamed in from a scene just beyond tomorrow. This exemplifies the genius of Ric Ocasek, who, according to New York City’s medical examiner, died over the weekend of heart disease and natural causes.
Back on “Double Life,” a track from the band’s 1979 album “Candy-O,” Ocasek sang “alienation is the craze” with that trademark disaffected-and-sly delivery. He articulated an ethos of the underground, one both of and ahead of its time (the line wouldn’t be out of place in a Ramones or Cake or Strokes song). Yet his work resonated so deeply with mainstream America — over seven albums his band managed more than a dozen Top 40 singles from “Just What I Needed” to “Drive” to “Let’s Go.” Ocasek created a group with mass appeal and a finely tuned, absolutely distinctive aesthetic.
The master did this by connecting genres others were too lazy or blind to bridge. He combined hip new wave, rough hard rock, smooth soft rock, retro rockabilly and dashes of prog and punk — listen to the awkward, futuristic “Shoo Be Doo” back-to-back with the big, bold rock sound of “Bye Bye Love” to hear his range. The result: a catalog at home on ’70s classic rock radio between Foreigner and Foghat, and on ’80s new wave stations full of Talking Heads and R.E.M., a body of work that predicted the Killers and Franz Ferdinand and echoed Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry.
A decade ago, here in the Herald, I curated a list of Boston’s greatest songs written by local musicians. Nearly everyone I solicited asked to write about the Cars. Offers to champion Ocasek topped the combined requests I received to write about Aerosmith, Dresden Dolls and Dropkick Murphys.
This love was never a local phenomenon. Younger artists of all stripes looked to the man’s talent. Ocasek helmed records by Weezer, Hole, No Doubt, Nada Surf, Bad Religion, Guided by Voices and many more. And it’s not just that Ocasek produced a bunch of records. He shepherded acts into greatness. His work with Weezer on the Blue Album added the right amount of gloss to the band’s sound to break it globally without turning it into a pure pop act.
Spend some time with the Cars’ LPs and discover or rediscover the magic at your leisure. But first go back to “My Best Friend’s Girl.” It’s all here. The old-school guitar line pushed up against sci-fi synths (thank you Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes), the sock-hop at CBGBs hook, the delivery of the lyrics matched with the delivery: “You’ve got your nuclear boots/And your drip dry glove/Ooh when you bite your lip/It’s some reaction to love, o-ove, o-ove.”