We tend to believe (or want to believe?) that the best artists emerge, fully-formed, as though they were uncommonly blessed or destined. While in certain cases this impulse is intended to exalt, it also cheapens the talent, which in all cases is developed, obsessed over, tweaked, refined, repeated ad infinitum. And that’s before luck and circumstance get involved.
Since the Cars dropped what could be a contender for among the best debut albums ever, it’s understandable to assume that resident genius Ric Ocasek was simply born to mastermind this masterpiece; that he — and the band — was more middleman than midwife; that the album itself was inevitable. In actuality, Ocasek was 34 in 1978. In rock ’n’ roll terms, he was already half a decade older than Lennon and McCartney when they disbanded the Beatles. How many rock bands do their best work after 30, much less 34? Not many.
Ocasek had obviously paid considerable dues and put in his time, having made mistakes, learning a thing or three, and leaving misfires on the cutting room floor. Crucially, like the best artists or athletes in any genre, he’d also spent years as a discerning and receptive student.
“My Best Friend’s Girl” is a seamless blend of new wave, rock (new, old, everything in between). It has a slight tinge of funk and soul, even rockabilly. It’s a — Perfect with a capital P — hit single, a perfect opening salvo for an album, The Cars [Elektra Records, 1978] replete with opening salvos. “My Best Friend’s Girl” aces the test of time by somehow sounding out of time: fresh, full of history, and utterly of the moment every time it plays, even more than 40 years since its release.
One can hear the subtle yet unmistakable Beatles influence (check out “I Will” and also the way Elliot Easton made the most from his succinct solos, channeling George Harrison in all the right ways, here and on much subsequent work). Of all the tracks on this tour de force, “My Best Friend’s Girl” might best illuminate Ocasek’s secret power: composing songs that compress the famous Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” into raw nuggets, perfectly calibrated, balancing adrenaline and varnish.
The Cars could only have happened circa 1978. The band featured technically proficient players on each instrument, who may have (and perhaps did) dabble in prog rock during their formative years. They were at the right age to absorb the encyclopedia of pop up until that point. Still, they swam in the same weird waters where punk, disco, glam, AOR, and prog were splashing about for radio play. Out of this mix of music came this glittering gem of the Cars’ first album that could also double as a greatest hits collection. Impeccably produced and with a heat-seeking pop sensibility, many of the songs are at once leavened and augmented by Ocasek’s self-deprecating sense of mirth; irony abounds but never undercuts or calls attention to itself.
Ocasek was the lanky and wonderfully eccentric front man, even though Benjamin Orr handled lead vocals on many of the band’s indelible hits. Indeed, the band was very much a collective affair. A proper appraisal of why the Cars endure as an unassailable, if still insufficiently appreciated act, would include their backstories, and ways they helped shape and reshape the musical scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
That said, Ocasek is the Cars in terms of what we think about when we think about the band. What’s the first image your mind conjures? That mullet, those shades, the slender, improbably long arms and legs, his angular mug in those epic videos from the days when MTV ruled. And of course, this singer who epitomized substance and style but was no pretty boy, married a super model.
Ocasek was very good at writing a pop song. From “My Best Friend’s Girl” he describes “suede blue eyes” and “You’ve got your nuclear boots/And your drip-dry glove/But when you bite your lip/It’s some reaction to love”. He singes “looooove”, stretching it out like he’s blowing the biggest possible bubble from the sweetest piece of gum. There’s audacity in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (and the fact that it’s not a love song). In perhaps the most underrated classic the Cars track, “Touch and Go”, he sings, “All I need is you tonight/Flying like a cement kite/In your headlock on the floor/Who could ever ask for more?”.
His finest moment? For this fan, it’s everything about “Since You’re Gone”: the title, the lyrics, the delivery, the attitude — like he’s too cool to fully admit it (sound like any guy you’ve ever known, including yourself?), but he’s hurting. And the hall of fame couplet “Well, nothing’s making sense/Everything’s in perfect tense.” You give uncountable lyricists a dictionary, thesaurus, and college education, and exactly one of them will come up with lines like that. More, an entire essay could be written solely concerning Ocasek’s repeated employment of the word “well” throughout the track.
So many pop musicians burn out or fade away, but even though the Cars didn’t end in 1984, the last cut on their last great album, Heartbeat City [Elektra, 1984] manages to do a slow burn and fade away. It’s the ideal coda for that album, that era, this band. Like all their best songs, it epitomizes the year it was made, but is also…other, elsewhere; it’s somehow ecstatic but cut with a tinge of melancholy. I first heard the title song while a teenager, caught in the crossfire of so many things beginning and ending, eager for the future and already nostalgic about what will never come again. I’ll forever be the same fourteen-year old boy I occasionally wish I still was when I hear these words.
“The noise electric
And all you need
Is what you got
And there’s a place for everyone
Under heartbeat city’s golden sun…”
This piece originally published at PopMatters on 9/17/19.