Monday, July 10, 2017

Ocasek and I - or Why I Like The Cars (the band)

This may come as a shock to some of you, but in the not so distant past, a variety in music was not always readily available to people.  I should also note that in those days, music was also known to be more creative, skillful, and melodic... but that's a topic for another day.

Yes, in a time prior to the internets, there was no such thing as Spotify, Pandora, YouTubes or satellite radio.  We had to listen to music the old fashioned way:  FM radio.  And as modern historians will tell you, this was broadcast by cavemen playing stone records with a pterodactyl beak, (which is incidentally how the term 'rock music' was coined).

There was also a definite correlation between the the size of your town and your listening choices.  In smaller mid-western areas, too much variety, or anything new and different was often considered "devil music", and just not allowed.

One particular small town in northern Indiana is called Nappanee (current population about 6,500).  This is where my story begins.  The nearest radio station was in South Bend, Indiana.  So for popular music, I had one choice.  Some might say it was a 'Top 40' station, but it was more like Top 20.  I do recall a rival radio station became available later, but in the end, they played the same songs so everyone would just switch back and forth.  There was one other choice, but I never hung out with 'those type of kids'.  

I was aware of bands like The Cars, and I remembering hearing Shake It Up, Just What I Needed, Let's Go, Drive, and You Might Think often.  Their other songs were (probably) too extreme for regular rotation on my radio station.  No, I don't think I'm exaggerating.

The simple conclusion to this story would be, as a nerdy guy, I should instantly gravitate towards nerdy bands like The Cars.  But at that time, I just didn't care about them.  I was more obsessed with my movie soundtracks, like Ghostbusters, Fright Night, Breakin' 2, and Star Wars.  I was also into Sheena Easton, post Prince influence, mostly because she was hot.

But as with all great life changing experiences, suddenly there was this girl...

Before getting a license and a car, (or friends with a car), I took the bus home after school.  Normally it was uneventful, but on one particular day, there was an extra passenger.  She had a very nice smile, and I thought she was very pretty.  She sat alone, across from me, and I had no idea who she was.  Due to my extreme nerd status, I never socialized with anyone outside of my very small circle of friends, so I had no idea where she came from.

And because she was new, different, and alone on the bus, the other kids decided to pick on her, because as you know, kids can often be mean and stupid.  I felt bad for her and wanted to protect her, but a nerdy guy like me just wasn't brave enough to get them to stop.  I did however feel chivalrous enough to make an encouraging comment to her when the bus stopped at my house.  I said something like, "Oh they're just jealous...", or "They're mean because they really like you", or some other lame, innocent thing, knowing that I would probably never see her again.

At this point, maybe you're thinking I'm a hero and this story is soooo cute.  And maybe it would be sweet if it ended here.  But surprisingly, I did start seeing this girl in the hallways of my school regularly.  Never in person, just from afar.  I discovered she was in the same grade as me, but we didn't share any of the same classes.  I never saw her on the bus, because most likely, she had friends or family that would drive her home.

I need to remind you, I was lame.  I was insecure.  I really was clueless, uncool and girls just freaked me out because I had no idea how to talk to any of them.  It also didn't help when I learned she had a boyfriend, although I sincerely doubt I would have been brave enough to approach her even if she didn't.

So yes, looking back now, I know I had a very unhealthy infatuation.  It wasn't even unrequited love, because I didn't know anything about her.  Fortunately, I did get over her and soon after, grew out of it.
The End.

"...But Deeesher, what about The Cars!?!?"

Oh, that's right!!

During one particularly forlorn evening, while switching back and forth between my two radio stations, I heard a new song:
Why Can't I Have You, by The Cars from the album Heartbeat City.  

Holy crap, Ric wrote that song for me! 

Okay, maybe he didn't write it specifically with my situation in mind, but he most definitely understood my anguish.  I had to listen to this song often, because it helped soothe my (imagined) pain.  I listened to this song daily.  Hourly... continually.  It somehow helped me focus on the rest of my life, because my feelings were actually put to words and music.

Eventually, the cassette copy I made from the radio with slight static and a DJ talking over the intro wasn't good enough.  I had to have the absolute best quality of this song, so I bought the album Heartbeat City (aka cassette).  I don't think I listened to anything else from the album except that one song.  I mean, Drive was mildly acceptable but that's it.  And, I will go so far to say, I kind of disliked You Might Think.  Sure the video was cool, but ugh... what silly music!

Fast forward a few months... (yikes, was it a year??), and I did get mildly brave enough to talk to a few other girls.  I remember talking to one girl I was sort of interested in, and she said something silly like, "The rest of the album is pretty good too!  I like Stranger Eyes".  So from her advice, I stepped outside my comfort zone and listened to the rest of the album.  Suddenly, I realized she was right!  There actually were a lot of other good songs here!  ...Except You Might Think, of course.

Then I got curious about other Cars songs, and I remember talking to a radio DJ one morning and saying, "Do you have that one song by The Cars, something about 'ribbons in her hair...?", because I always liked that lyric.  They easily identified it as Just What I Needed, which I suddenly really enjoyed also.  So I thought, I should buy their debut album too, because maybe it has some other good songs on it.  That was when I discovered It's All Mixed Up, which seemed to sum up my general frustration about any typical girl... because they were still weird and mysterious to me.

Then I had to get Candy-O because... duh, the Vargas girl on the cover is hot!  Are you sensing a theme here?  My obsession had switched from this girl on the bus, to this band.  I had to have it all!

After getting the studio albums, I ordered the solo albums.  I loved Beatitude and This Side of Paradise from Ric Ocasek, because he wrote all The Cars songs, so it all had a familiar vibe to them.  Later I bought Change No Change from Elliot Easton, Niagra Falls from Greg Hawkes, and The Lace from Benjamin Orr, but wasn't so impressed, because the song writing wasn't quite the same.  Eventually, I managed to find a company that sold bootleg recordings, and bought a few live Cars concerts, as well as the original and rare Milkwood album (1972 Ric and Ben acoustic).

Somehow, I was fortunate to find another girl who was also quite obsessed with The Cars.  We spent quite a bit of time together, and she gave me a much needed musical education.  She would play songs for me all the time from other bands that I never heard before in my sheltered small town life.

Me: "This sounds great, who is this??"
Her:"That's a band called The Doors!"
Me: "This is awesome, what is this??"
Her: "That's a band called The Who!"

Me: "This is amazing, who is this??"
Her: "That's David Bowie!"


I had no idea there was so much awesome music in the world!  So within a year or two, I overloaded in classic rock music, that was all new to me.  I even got brave enough to listen to the local "devil music" station, which I learned was actually an AOR station, meaning they played a bit of everything new and old.

The next life changing moment for me came with the release of Door to Door in 1987.  No, I'm not talking about having a real girlfriend at the time, nor am I talking about the first speeding ticket I got on the way to their Indianapolis concert.  And I'm definitely not talking about the pain of hearing about the breakup of The Cars soon after.

I'm talking about how Ric produced this album, and how a picture of him mixing over a console was maybe one of the most inspiring moments I ever had in my life.

This awesome image meant the world to me, and I wanted to know what every button and knob did.  I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life.  I discovered there are actual schools that teach music production, and if I could have left home that night to start studying, I would have.

I found a school in Ft Lauderdale, Florida and eagerly signed up for it.  Well, there were schools a bit closer in Chicago, or even Atlanta, but... I sort of liked the idea of living near the beach and seeing hot girls in bikinis daily.  Looking back, I think I went to the beach only a handful of times while I lived there.

Studio work seemed to come very natural to me while studying.  I soon found out, it is in fact easy to fool with the sound.  My goal was to one day work with Ric in the studio... or at the very least, win a Grammy award for producer of the year.

My first few years in the studio will always be the best of times, and the worst of times.  I was often broke and frustrated, but through amazing luck and many long hours/days/nights/weeks, I had the opportunity to work with some fantastic, talented people.  Many of those people are still very good friends today.  I am very proud of some of the stuff I did in my early days, and I cringe thinking about other parts of it.

While studying engineering, one of my instructors, who wound up also being one of my best friends, was Eddie Mashal.  He had Grammys for his work with The Eagles on Hotel California.  He also recorded their followup album, The Long Run, and worked with many other great classic rock artists, but he never did work with anyone from The Cars.  However, Eddie was quite a nerdy guy like me, so we had a lot of great conversations about music, recording, as well as comic books, movies and television shows.  He was a fantastic mentor for me, not just in the studio, but in life too.  Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, and I miss him every day.  I wrote a bit of a eulogy to him here if you're curious.
So, I never did get a chance to work with Ric, despite my efforts.  I also never got my Grammy award, but that's fine.  I did however, get to work regularly in one of the top five studios in Miami, which happened to have the exact same model of recording console Ric was working on in the picture.

I guess in the end, you could say I got just what I needed.

EPILOGUE:  I'm still not a huge fan of You Might Think, but I've learned to appreciate it a bit more.  And girls still freak me out, and I still don't how to talk to them.

EPILOGUE Part 2: On September 15, 2019, Ric passed away.

It's been very heartbreaking, but the outpouring of love from his fans has been amazing.

But just a few months prior, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet him at his art show in Ft. Lauderdale. I NEVER thought I would have a chance to meet him, so this was a very big deal for me, and even more meaningful now that he's gone. 

My conversation with him was very brief, but mostly because my brain just shut down. I shook his hand and told him what a huge honor it was to meet him. I said I became a studio engineer because of him. He was surprised, and I told him how I was inspired from the picture of him over the console in Door to Door. He asked if I was still doing it, and I told him yes, five nights a week, and I told him where I worked if he wanted to come by and visit.

I brought him his book of poetry, Lyrics and Prose, and asked if he would sign it. He looked at it a long time before signing, then added the dot at the bottom almost like an afterthought. He said, "Thank you for buying this". He seemed very honored that I had this book. I said "Thank you for..... everything.........", and suddenly became tongue-tied. His handler quickly tried to move to the next person, and there was a moment that Ric and I sort of fought over his pen. He tried to give it to me, but I said it was his and we went back and forth for a while before I think his handler took it.  
After I left, I thought of a dozen things to say. But other people were waiting so it's best I didn't swoon too much during his art show.
Just before meeting him, I accidentally took a picture of his shoes."Life's the same, except for my shoes..."
*Side note - when we took the picture together, maybe he had a nervous twitch, but his hand kept patting my back and all I could think was... is he tapping the beginning of Just What I Needed on me???