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Ric Ocasek, frontman of pioneering new wave rock band The Cars, died on Sunday after being found unresponsive in his Manhattan townhouse, New York City police confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. The Cars’ singer, rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter was believed to be 75.
The iconic musician died of hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Pulmonary emphysema was a contributing factor, according to the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
Ocasek met bassist Benjamin Orr (who died in 2000) in the 1960s, and the two performed together in various bands (including a folk-oriented outfit called Milkwood) over the next decade, eventually forming The Cars in 1976 with Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes and David Robinson. Their self-titled 1978 debut was a milestone in the burgeoning new wave scene, melding the sonically stripped down, rockabilly-inflected approach to rock of the punk explosion with the quirky synthesizers of art rock acts such as Roxy Music; but unlike a punk or an art rock band, The Cars were radio catnip thanks to Ocasek’s sturdy, lean songcraft and producer Roy Thomas Baker’s immaculate production.
The Cars went top 20 on the Billboard 200 and produced two top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” The album’s sound would prove massively influential on the next decade of radio rock and synth-pop, and continues to be celebrated by arena-filling and avant-leaning musicians alike.
The band’s next three albums, Candy-O, Panorama and Shake It Up, continued in the same vein. If they weren’t as masterful as the band’s first outing, each still went top 10 on the albums chart and produced their fair share of gems and radio smashes, such as “Let’s Go” (No. 14), “Touch and Go” (No. 37) and “Shake It Up” (No. 4).
Heartbeat City (1984) found the band returning to the creative heights of their debut, mixing their penchant for strange flourishes and brilliant turns of phrase with lustrous, polished, synth-heavy rock. It produced five top 40 smashes, including the No. 3-peaking “Drive,” one of the most gorgeous, devastating ballads of the ’80s, if not all time.
From that album, The Cars’ video for “You Might Think” won the first-ever MTV Video Music Award for video of the year in 1984 — beating out the likes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” While the special effects are outdated today, at the time it was considered ground-breaking. The video also was instrumental in MTV’s early success, getting frequent airplay on the three-year-old channel.
After a Greatest Hits and a weak swan song with 1987’s Door to Door (the only standout being the No. 17-peaking hit “You Are the GIrl”), the band called it quits (although the proper lineup would reunite for 2011’s well-received album Move Like This). When all was said and done, The Cars earned 13 top 40 singles on the Hot 100, with four of them in the top 10, as well as five top 10 albums on the Billboard 200. The band received six Grammy nominations, including best new artist, but never won, although the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Ocasek released seven solo albums, two of which came out during The Cars’ heyday, but found his biggest post-Cars success as a producer, helming Weezer’s landmark self-titled debut (the Blue Album) and albums for an eclectic mix of artists such as Guided by Voices, Motion City Soundtrack, Bad Brains and Suicide. He released a book of poetry, Negative Theatre, in 1992, and 2012’s Lyrics and Prose collected the lyrics of his solo and Cars albums.
Having served as a draftsman as a teenager, Ocasek was a prolific drawer over the course of his life. Speaking to Billboard in 2017 about an exhibition of his art pieces, Ocasek revealed he was working on an album that would compile “the best picks of the solo albums” as well as “another 10 or 15 songs that nobody’s ever heard. Some are finished, some are demos. It’s stuff I’ve always liked but never put it on things.”
Ocasek was married three times and has six sons. He was married to model and actress Paulina Porizkova for 28 years. In September 2018, she announced on Instagram that she and Ocasek had not been a couple “for the past year.”
They first met while filming the music video for The Cars song “Drive” in 1984 and were together in August 2018 when Ocasek, then 74, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They have two children.
Porizkova said at the time that their family is “a well-built car,” but she added that “as a bicycle, my husband and I no longer pedal in unison.”
Watch the video for “You Might Think,” below.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sept. 16: 12:46 p.m.: Updated with cause of death.
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