Ric Ocasek,
The TVD Interview

Lanky rocker Ric Ocasek, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, is lately spending time in some other artistic halls—art galleries to be exact, where he is showing his bright paintings and drawings.

The attraction of “Ric Ocasek: Abstract Reality” on display this weekend at the Wentworth Galleries in the greater DC area, is not just the chance to discover the works (and maybe purchase them), but also to meet the man behind such late ’70s and early ’80s hits such as “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Let’s Go,” “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think,” and “Drive.”

Anyone surprised at the artistic turn of Ocasek, 69, must have missed his cameo in John Waters’ original 1988 Hairspray in which he popped up as an erratic, black-clad beatnik abstract painter.

Before the Baltimore native was to venture to Wentworth galleries at the Westfield Mall and Tysons Galleria Friday and Saturday respectively, he spoke to The Vinyl District from New York about his approach.

How would you characterize these paintings?

They’re like songs that don’t have any words. I like to draw a lot when I’m thinking. I’ve been doing it for a long time, maybe as far back as when I was 18 and a draftsman.

What kind of draftsman were you?

I was a draftsman at AT&T drawing switching systems.

Do you think that may have led to your more jagged abstract works?

I don’t know if it’s related but it could be. It is a bit geometrical. I guess the detail stuff is a little bit like drafting, but I don’t know. I think it’s more abstract than that. It’s really just having the pens and tools and stuff and kind of always doing it as a way to think. It’s a good way to be thinking. I don’t know, you seem to wander off, and wherever your mind wanders off ends up coming out of the pen.

What kind of media do you use?

I use a lot of Japanese paint pens. I go to the art store and I go to the pen stores to get those. I also use acrylics when I paint. I paint on top of what I draw or part of it to embellish it. A lot of times I’ll do drawings, then blow them up and paint them.

So what are the range of sizes?

I’m drawing on paper that’s anywhere from 12″ x 18″ or 24″. The biggest thing I would draw on would be 24″ high or 18″ wide. If I do it on canvas, it’s the size of whatever canvas I buy. And a lot of time I manipulate it with mixed media.

Looks like you have a mix of abstract with representational art in the show.

The representational ones tend to be accidental. They start out abstract, however when they start looking like a person or a face or an object, it will become a graveyard or a city street or whatever. I also do a lot of photography. I started dong that when I was 14 and living in Baltimore. Sometimes I’ll mess them up and blow them up until you can’t tell what it is.

I used to do collages a lot, but I don’t any more. I stopped pasting a lot of things together. But I used to do a lot of it in the late ’60s and ’70s, and then I started drawing more. I would draw in hotel rooms when I was touring with the band as a way to relax.

When did you start showing your art in galleries?

Maybe five years ago, my daughter-in-law owns an art gallery in Columbus so I did a show there. Then I did a show in New York City. For me that was just a novelty, just to get them all in one spot because I have hundreds of drawings. Unless I framed them, they’re all in a big vinyl box. It’s fun to sort them out and get some of them to show and fish them out. It’s like having 20 or 30 extra songs you might have for an album but can’t put them on.

So these works represent a range of time from old to recent?

For sure. Some of them date back to the ’70s. Some of them are definitely yesterday.

Do the people who come to your gallery shows do so because they know you as a musician, or are they drawn by the work?

I would think they probably come because they know me as a musician. I wouldn’t pretend that they come for my art, though they could have seen some of the art online. Usually people who do come are kind of surprised by what they see. That’s a good indication.

Have you always worked in art and music simultaneously?

Yes, I have. I’ve always gone down that road and tried to explore all those parts of life. I always sought out artists, or writers, different ones, in New York. I live in Manhattan, but I visit a place in Millbrook, NY where Timothy Leary hung out and did acid and stuff. He lived in a castle a woman gave him and he was visited by artists, writers and musicians.

People like that tend to hang out together. There’s a similarity to them all. There are writers who are fun to be with—not fun maybe, but interesting to be with—and there’s the same with music and art.

Andy [Warhol] was always part music—he had the Velvet Underground on top of the art. A lot of musicians went to art school. I know musicians who have doctor’s degrees and who were writers. Rivers [Cuomo of Weezer] graduated in English. It’s a mixture of people like that, as opposed to chefs and lawyers.

I would do some hanging out with Andy. I used to go over to the Factory, where he did a lot of work. Tons of it. He was quiet and introspective. I was quiet too. But he liked to gossip and he had an interesting way to treat the press. He had good ideas. I liked his books, they were pretty cool. One of them was just a lot of stuff from phone calls. But they’re interesting books. Then he went out at night. He liked all that but it gave him fuel for things to paint. Obviously he had the ’60s, which was a time when all that stuff pretty interesting. All the arts were changing a lot.

What do you think made The Cars click when they did?

Obviously I had a lot of bands, over a bunch of years. The Cars was the fifth band I had. Each band was a learning experience. You’d get better songs each time and better musicians each time. I could tell when we were in Boston playing at the Ground Round with Ben [Orr] and I, and then a couple of years later we had lines down the street at the Rat. It seemed a big combination of people getting to know the business and the songs.

Every band I ever had I wrote songs for. That’s basically what I wanted to do. I liked songwriters, I was always attracted to people like Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent in the ’50s, and when the ‘60s came, of course I loved The Beatles, but I also loved the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa. They were more interesting than the straight up pop stuff. Those are the kind of things I had interest in. The kind of stuff I produced as well had the same sort of background, more artistic. Everything I produced was kind of different, not obviously commercial, and were something new. I get a lot of demos, and demos are great, all this new stuff nobody has ever heard.

Do you think it was the relative simplicity of The Cars songs that helped them come across?

I think it was. I can’t pretend, it was definitely a pop band and I certainly always loved a good pop song. I always liked great songs, and it didn’t matter if it was from the Carpenters or Lou Reed. As long as they were done well and they weren’t corny or fake.

What was your early vinyl experience?

I think the first album I ever bought was Bob Dylan’s first album in 1962. I might have gotten some singles before that, but I didn’t buy too many because I didn’t have a lot of money. In the ’60s a lot of cool stuff I bought included anything on Elektra Records; anything Jac Holzman had put out. I had a lot of confidence in his taste. Besides that you had the nice packages, the 12″ x 12″ format, the artwork.

I also got a chance to smell the vinyl, too. I would go to the mastering sessions when they’d put your master tapes to the original vinyl. The way they mastered the album, they’d give you a vinyl disc that was stiffer and thicker than the others to take home to check out instead of a flash drive which they give you now—something you can hold between two fingers that are no bigger than a fingernail now.

It was neat to get the vinyl master copies before they were pressed. As far as sound goes, when digital first came out I was thinking it was maybe a little bright, a little hard sounding. I have to say after a while I got used to it, and it wasn’t as big as deal as it was to a lot of people. As a producer, I knew a lot about the differences of sound frequencies. And if it didn’t matter to me, I don’t know how much it would be different for the average listener.

We’re here in a digital world, and it works. But it’s fun to use digital, they do sound good and you can pick out a cut pretty easily, you can flip over to track three pretty easily. But vinyl records, I still like them. I think they do sound warmer. It used to be fun to show my kids how to use them, how to put the needle on the tracks, and how to pick it up and move it if you want to change the track.

What was it like to get inducted with The Cars into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year?

It was wonderful. I was pretty happy we were asked to be in it. I wasn’t really expecting it. When we first were nominated two times before that, it was a big shock.

I remember you thanking bands like Devo and Kraftwerk, who aren’t in the Hall yet.

Yeah, those are bands that should be in there. They are groundbreaking and they had a lot to do with
how music developed.

And you performed that night too, right?

We played at the Hall. It was good to get together to do that. I don’t think think any of us in that moment were playing out, though Greg [Hawkes, the keyboardist] might have been. But when we got together, rehearsed for a week and did it, it was pretty darn good. It was almost like we had finished a tour and took a break. Of course, there was no Benjamin Orr there [he died in 2000 at 53], so that was sad.

Are you doing any music presently?

I’m working on an album now. I’d like to have it done by the summer, so we’ll see.

Are you producing any other bands.

Not at the moment.

You certainly produced a lot of big records over the years. How did you get involved doing the first Bad Brains album, for example?

Bad Brains played in Boston and I went to the show. I might have heard “Pay to Cum” on a jukebox. But I went to the show in Boston I actually ended up lending them my equipment because somebody stole their truck the night they were going to play the show.

I had a studio in Boston where I got the equipment and I said let’s just do an album, you don’t have an album you just have a cassette, you should have an album out. And they wanted to do that. And we really got a good thing. It was one of the weirdest bands I ever worked with, doing the opposite of what I did. But they were unbelievably deep musicians, much deeper than you would imagine at surface. And we’ve been friends ever since. I did two of their albums.

You produced Suicide as well.

I met Alan [Vega] the same way. It was a club. I was freaked out by him. I was scared to go up to Alan—he was pretty aggressive then, pulling people up on stage and confronting them. But he had the anti-show. They would do everything they could to have people throw them off the stage, even when they played in Los Angeles, at Hollywood Bowl. We had them open for us on a tour and we played in arenas, and before they got to their second song, they got booed. He was taunting them and told them the Dodgers sucked, and the next day the press was amazing. All the critics loved them. But the people didn’t get them. They were the real deal, though. Those guys were artists. Alan had a physics degree, but he’d been playing at the Mercer Arts Center since late ’74. Their idea even then was two guys, keyboard, and Alan. They were different.

And you worked with Jonathan Richman.

Jonathan Richman I met the first day I moved to Boston. I moved to Cambridge from Ann Arbor, where I had lived briefly. And the first day when I was looking for an apartment, I went down to the housing bulletin board that afternoon at Harvard Square and sure enough, Jonathan and the Modern Lovers were playing for free. And they sounded like the Velvets, so I went up and talked to him. Jonathan was just as weird as anyone else I knew.

That was 1972 and they were playing the Modern Lovers stuff that would be on the first album. Then lo and behold, in 1978 I ended up getting [drummer] David [Robinson] from the Modern Lovers. That was a real small world thing. I didn’t even know David. But it was a DJ from Boston who said you should get David Robinson. He was in a band then called DMZ, which was bigger than The Cars at the time. So I asked him, and he said I’ll listen to the songs. He did and joined up.

I produced Jonathan right around the “Something About Mary” period. I knew Jonathan for a long time and he would hang out when he was in town. He’s a great artist. And he still calls me when he comes to town and says, “We’re playing tonight, do you want to come down?”

Your Weezer productions may be the among the most popular albums you produced.

I did a few of their albums, the first and the third and then one five years ago. I love Rivers and that music.

The first time I heard that, I was in LA driving around in a car. Somebody from Geffen had sent a tape to my hotel, and I was driving around listening to it. I was thinking this band is unbelievably good, they must be a heavy metal band. Their demo was phenomenal. It was extremely muddy, just like the first album. I went to their rehearsal, and they had all these amps turned up to 12. Quite the experience. Everything rattled and they went in and did it. Rivers is phenomenal. And very prolific—he’s got tons of songs you’ve never heard.

Well, let’s talk about that time you appeared as a beatnik painter in John Waters’ original Hairspray. Did he know you were painting?

I was painting but I don’t think John knew that. I actually dressed up like that when I painted. John just said, “I want you to do that. You can do what you want.”

You’re both from Baltimore.

I was born and raised there until I was 16 and my family moved to Ohio. I loved Baltimore and Ocean City. I’d go downtown to Baltimore Street. I used to live in the suburbs. I lived in Maple Heights and Loch Raven, and I would sneak down with I was 10 or 12 and go down to Baltimore Street. There were all these strip bars down there and the doors would be open. I’d look in and think: “Sheesh, what’s going on in there?” There was one music store down there. I remember they had a Fretless Wonder, the Black Beauty. I always wanted one. It was one of those things that always struck me. I always thought, “I’ve got to try it.”

“Ric Ocasek: Abstract Reality” with an appearance by the artist, is scheduled for Friday, February 15 at the Wentworth Gallery in Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, MD from 7PM to 9PM and Saturday, February 16 at the Wentworth Gallery in Tysons Galleria in McLean, VA from 7PM to 9PM. Admission is free; RSVPs are suggested. 

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