Always Just What I Needed: Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek and The Cars

I wrote these sentences in my Father’s Day 2019 post.

The 24-hour Howard Johnson’s in Medford was a regular late-night hangout for AC (among others) and me before it closed on December 31, 1998. It got to be a habit that on nights I did laundry in the basement laundry room of our apartment building, AC and I would “go for pie” there afterwards, which generally meant eating a full meal; I developed a particular taste for steak and eggs in those days, usually washed down with one of their orange-sherbet-based drinks. And lots of decaffeinated coffee.

“AC” is my long-term 1990s girlfriend, the one my wife Nell calls, not without reason, my “first wife.”

This Howard Johnson’s always had pop/rock music playing in the background, an early form of satellite radio. In 1997, I began to notice one song in particular. It had a lovely tinkling electric piano backed by a soft synth wash, and the chorus was a gorgeous earworm of vocal harmonies, which sounded something “It’s been coming up you, coming up you again.”

I could not get this song (which I thought might be by Alan Parsons Project) out of my head. This was in the early days of the internet, so it took me some time to figure out its title and artist.

And I was not at all surprised by what I learned. The song, “Coming Up You,” was written and recorded by one of my 10 favorite musical artists:

The Cars.

**********

Early on the evening of September 15, 2019, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed (please follow me @drnoir33), when I read a tweet that stopped me cold. It announced the death of Cars lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek of natural causes at the age of 75.

I literally yelled out “Oh, NO!” when I read this tweet, and, given the proximity of our two young daughters, had to restrain myself from adding more colorful language.

I had reacted similarly late in 2000, when co-lead-singer and bass player Benjamin Orr died at the age of 53 (the age I will be in just two weeks).

My love for The Cars—arguably the new wave reincarnation of Buddy Holly and the Crickets—began in summer camp in the summer of 1979. Philadelphia rock radio stations like WMMR (93.3 FM) and WYSP (94.1 FM) were seemingly always playing in our bunk. Among the songs they regularly played (at least in my memory) were “Just What I Needed,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” and one that really appealed to me, “Good Times Roll.”  It is possible “Let’s Go” (from their excellent second album, Candy-O) was also being played then.

In my suburban musical cocoon, I was slowly becoming aware of this new genre of music: synthesizer-based, angular and uncomplicated. The sound was fresh and clean, highly melodic and hook-driven, and unencumbered by endless instrumental passages.

It was love at first listen, especially this band I soon learned was called The Cars. Years later, I would learn how heavily influenced they were by another top 10 musical artist of mine, Roxy Music. But that is a conversation for another day.

Perhaps a year later, my father (routinely short of money in those days) and I were in a Sam Goody record store in the suburban Philadelphia town of Ardmore; it may well have been for my 14th birthday. He had promised to buy something for me, so I walked up to the checkout counter with three albums: The Cars and Panorama by The Cars (debut and third albums, respectively) and Breakfast in America by Supertramp. Their combined cost was about $25, roughly the equivalent of $75 today.

He gulped a few times, but shelled out the money. After all, this was a man who would say to me whenever I ordered food in a restaurant, “Order whatever you want, pal, just so long as you eat it.”

I did the analogous thing with those three records: I played the heck out of them for years.

Thank you, Dad. That meant the world to me.

While Panorama (released in the fall of 1980) is the only Cars album I still have on vinyl, I gravitated more toward the exceptional debut album; it is still one of the handful of albums I enjoy playing straight through, first note to last.

Panorama

What especially grabbed me was a short instrumental bridge (highly evocative of The Pretenders’ “Private Life”) between the last two tracks on side two, “Moving in Stereo” (memorably featured in the best high school movie ever made) and “All Mixed Up.” As the slow, synth-driven crunch of “Moving” ends, David Robinson plays a soft rhythm on the cymbals. A few seconds later, Elliot Easton overlays a simple shimmering guitar lick backed by a gentle synth arpeggiation from Greg Hawkes. The passage lasts only about 15 second before Orr begins to sing, “She shadows me in the mirror/she never leaves on the light/And some things that I say to her/they just don’t seem to bite.”

I was so mesmerized I played those 15 seconds over and over again—and, in August 1981, when I created my first mix cassette (cleverly titled “My Stuff”), side one ended with those two tracks. Side two opened with two tracks from Panorama: the ethereal “Touch and Go” and the propulsive “Running to You.” The video for “Touch and Go” received a fair amount play on a Sunday night, half-hour television program that aired (on HBO?) at 11 pm. Because everything connects, note that Ric, Ben, Elliot, Greg and David are riding a Tilt-A-Whirl.

The photograph on the rear of Panorama, all black-and-white and shadows, is still how I think of The Cars (and presaged my later love for film noir).

Panorama rear.JPG

Those four tracks were the first of 23 (of 3,305) I would record onto a mix over the next 25 years. Indeed, for my second mix (Stuff Vol. I, December 1981), I recorded “Cruiser,” from their fourth album (Shake It Up), off of the radio (WMMR, most likely). This meant that five of the first 36 tracks to appear on a mix were by The Cars; no other artist had more than two.

However, I would not put another Cars song on a mix cassette until June 1985 (Summer 85, Vol. III), when I recorded the haunting “Drive,” from Heartbeat City, their fifth (and most commercially successful) album, off the radio. The final “scene” of the arty video for the song (third of four singles to reach the Billboard Top 10) reinforces the notion The Cars evoke the 1950s. The eight Summer 85 mixes also include “Dangerous Type” and “Let’s Go” from Candy-O, both recorded off the radio. Two years later, having finally bought a used vinyl copy of Candy-O, I put “Shoo-Be-Doo” and the title track onto a mix; I would then record a live video for “Good Times Roll” onto a VHS cassette in 1989 and “It’s All I Can Do” (from Candy-O) onto the April 1990 Stuff and Such, Vol. XVI mix, meaning 12 of the first 998 (1.2%)  tracks to make it onto a mix were from The Cars.

But that would be it until October 1995, when Panorama opened Stuff and Such, Vol. XVIII.

**********

Heartbeat City was released in March 1984. In the interim, Ocasek released his first solo album, Beatitude, at the very end of 1982. I would purchase a used vinyl copy of the album in the summer of 2006; you can still see the $1.00 price tag from Harvard Square’s In Your Ear records (which, sadly, closed for good this past January).

Beatitude.JPG

Six years later, I was working at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. A colleague and friend (who, sadly, I have not seen in more than 30 years) was a young woman with similar musical tastes to me. One night, we were out with some other colleagues, when Ocasek’s solo album came up. We both remembered the name of my favorite track from that album (which I recorded from the radio for the April 1983 “I-92 Mix”), the hypnotic ode to alienated youth “Jimmy Jimmy” (I think the video is absolutely gorgeous). But we could not remember the name of the primary single from the album, with its heavy-rotation-on-MTV video showing the tall, dark and handsome (if overly thin) Ocasek and an elegant young blonde woman preparing for a date (maybe?).

Later that night, having consulted a reference work, I called my colleague and told her the song was called “Something to Grab For.” With friendly-but-pointed questioning, she got me to admit I had not actually remembered the song’s title on my own.

She forgave me.

**********

Shake It Up and Heartbeat City, which I would not purchase until the spring of 2010, yielded The Cars’ first two Billboard Top 10 songs: “Shake It Up” and “You Might Think.” The latter song in particular, whose innovative video was an award-winner, is one of a dozen or so songs that recall the spring of 1984, when I completed my last semester of high school (having already been accepted to Yale). Those were heady and happy days, especially because I was working the most fun job I ever had.

The following summer, they performed two songs at the Live Aid festival in Philadelphia: “Just What I Needed” and “Heartbeat City.”

Two years later, they would release their sixth (and final until 2011) studio album, Door to Door. For some reason (the press of my senior year at Yale?), the album made no impression on me at the time, though I vaguely recall the Billboard top-20 single “You Are the Girl.”

And that brings us to the Howard Johnson’s in Medford, and “Coming Up You” (the third single released from Door; it peaked at #74). Once I figured out the name of the track, I bought a used cassette of the album (later replaced with a CD) and promptly made “Coming Up You” the first track on the September 1997 Stuff and Such Vol. LIII mix; it would ultimately appear on seven different mixes, edging out “All Mixed Up” (five); Cars tunes occupy 54 (0.9%) of 6,188 total “slots,” a high percentage given 1,000+ unique artists occupy those slots. Within a year, “Coming Up You” had supplanted “Save Me” by Public Image, Ltd. as my favorite track[1]. That lasted until the early 2000s, when “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis supplanted it for good.

Two other tracks from Door to Door, “Wound Up on You” and “Fine Line,” would be recorded onto 1998-99 mixes. Around this time, AC became enamored of the Ben Orr 1986 solo single, “Stay the Night,” which I would purchase on iTunes about 15 years later and put onto the May 2013 CD Stuff Vol. CIX mix.

An additional six Cars tracks would be recorded onto mixes, beginning with “Bye Bye Love” from The Cars in March 2000 (Stuff and Such Vol. LXXI). This track would be memorialized in our household as a long-running joke, once our daughters became old enough to appreciate it.

Whenever one of us would observe a sunset, or any other sky with unusual coloring, I would inevitably recite these lyrics (with Nell or one of the girls sighing in exasperation):

“It’s an orangy sky/

Always there’s some other guy/

It’s just a broken lullaby/

Bye bye love”

Last night, when I told our eldest daughter (our youngest was already asleep) why I was so sad, I used that song to explain who Ric Ocasek was.

Oh right, she said, and returned to her book.

Which was just fine.

Rest in peace, Mr. Orr and Mr. Ocasek. Your place in the rock firmament is secure.

Until next time…

[1] Technically, it was a mash-up of “Save Me” and the unlisted reprise that closes the Happy? album.

6 thoughts on “Always Just What I Needed: Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek and The Cars

    1. You are welcome (thank you for reading!). Yeah, Ric Ocasek was 34 when THE CARS was released in 1978, which makes his success all the more remarkable. I watched The Cars (minus the great Ben Orr) Rock and Roll of Fame induction ceremony the other night on YouTube…and realized it was the first time I had ever heard Ric (or Elliott or Greg or David) speak! It was a terrific ceremony; they kept showing Ben Orr’s son in the audience, clearly missing his father…

      Liked by 1 person

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