RIP Ric Ocasek; The Unlikely Frontman Who Defined New Wave with ‘The Cars’ Dies from Heart Disease at 75

Ric Ocasek - Photo © 1980 Paul McAlpine


To many, Ric Ocasek was a lot more than the founder of the new wave band The Cars. For those who came of age in the 1980s, Ocasek represented a new kind of cool. Ocasek was found dead, apparently from heart disease, in his New York City townhouse on Sunday. He was 75.

The Cars’ songs dominated the radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with The Cars album (1978) unleashing remarkable and novel hits like “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Just What I Needed,” “Bye Bye Love” and the haunting “All Mixed Up.” The album The Cars had it all: Good beats, great melodies and remarkable storytelling that uncannily reflected the tone of the times. Candy-O, released a year later, kept the new wave trend going with “Let’s Go,” and “It’s All I Can Do.” 

The Cars – Photo © 1980 Paul McAlpine

Ocasek was not the typical rock star. He was not handsome, he was not sexy, he didn’t fit the mold. But he had the voice and the liberating songs that an entire generation of music lovers looking for something new took into their hearts and made their own. And after filming the video for “Drive,” Ocasek married one of the most beautiful women in the world, Paulina Porizkova, from whom he separated after 28 years of marriage only last year. It was Porizkova who found Ocasek on Sunday.

On Monday, Porizkova revealed Ocasek had undergone surgery.

The New York City Medical Examiner released Ocasek’s cause of death was from heart disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, diseases under the heart disease umbrella include blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); and heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects), among others.

Flowers and toy cars were left outside the couple’s home in New York City on Monday.

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One of those “overnight success” stories many years in the making, Ocasek and The Cars seemed to spring up on a punk-pummeled public, in the late ’70s, breaking the rock format and blending a minimalist synth sound with catchy pop melodies. 

When the news spread that Ocasek was found dead on Sunday, an avalanche of remorse hit many of the young boomers who remembered The Cars as being the soundtrack to their coming of age.

But as one well-known rocker asked, “Sure, we all loved The Cars, but have you ever been to a Cars concert?” They pointed out it’s far more likely to have The Cars discs among the record collection than to have a ticket stub in the scrapbook.

Ric Ocasek - Photo © 1980 Paul McAlpine
Ric Ocasek – Photo © 1980 Paul McAlpine

Still, Ocasek was a greatly admired musician whose new wave hit songs influenced a range of musicians in the day, and through today. Ocasek’s ability to produce good records was a known talent.  He worked with and “mentored” Weezer, most notably on the band’s iconic Blue Album, and also produced albums for music colleagues like Guided By Voices, Romeo Void and Bad Brains.

Photographer Paul McAlpine, who worked with The Cars back in Boston in the day, recalled that Ocasek knew he was different from everyone else because of the musical ability.

“We spent so many nights going to The Rat,” McAlpine recalled. “And walking down the street to Aku Aku for a Mai Tai or two. I knew Ric from before The Cars. He had an idea in his head all along the way. 

“At one point he managed a clothing shop (The Camel’s Hump) in Harvard Square, before The Cars,” McAlpine said. “He said ‘They don’t understand me.’ He had a plan, and it was not to manage a clothing shop.”

Last year, Ocasek, who appeared in great shape, made a memorable acceptance speech when The Cars were inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.

“I want to thank the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame for inducting us, we always like to be abducted,” he said. “… I wouldn’t be standing here at all if it wasn’t for Benjamin Orr, Greg Hawkes and David Robinson. I think they were really the sound of The Cars. Most importantly, I would like to thank my loving family. Because they know me pretty well but they still like me anyway.”