Ric Ocasek, with his lanky frame, long, drawn-out features and frizzled hair, looked like a beatnik, and that was enough to persuade John Waters to cast him as a beat-generation artist and poet for a hilarious cameo in 1988′s “Hairspray.” The fact that Ocasek, like Waters, was a native Baltimorean, was a happy — and unexpected — bonus.
“I don’t remember that I did” know that he hailed from Baltimore, Waters recalled of The Cars lead singer and songwriter, who was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Sunday. “We just all liked him. ... He was a beatnik. He was tall and skinny; he probably was a beatnik in real life in the beginning, or at least wanted to be one.”
Ocasek’s death comes a year after The Cars were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, followed by an announcement by model Paulina Porizkova on social media that she and Ocasek had separated after 28 years of marriage.
Like Frank Zappa and Cass Elliot before him, Ocasek achieved his fame after leaving his hometown. In Ocasek’s case, he settled in Boston and formed The Cars, a new-wave band that exploded on the scene in 1978; the group’s debut album opened with a killer one-two-three punch of “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and "Just What I Needed.”
But before he made it big, Ocasek spent his first 16 years as a Baltimore boy. Born Richard Otcasek, he grew up in the Hillendale section of Baltimore County, he told The Sun in 1991. His father was in the Air Force.
“I was a total Baltimore kid,” he told Sun pop music critic J.D. Considine. “I dyed my hair blond in the front, went to Ocean City, and lived that whole thing. I have extremely fond memories of it.”
Maybe not totally fond. As a kid, Ocasek told Considine, he was expelled from Immaculate Heart of Mary school. “I basically gave the nuns a hard time verbally,” he said. “But it worked out well because I skipped a grade when I got expelled. I was expelled in seventh grade and went right to the ninth, or something like that.”
A compendium of Baltimore-born musicians, compiled for The Sun in 2005, says Ocasek was born in 1949 (some obituaries have listed his age as 75, which would mean he was born in 1944), and that he was “part of a strict Catholic family.” It says he left Baltimore when the family moved to Cleveland in 1965.
A Rolling Stone article from 1982, based on an interview with Ocasek, offered an insight into his Baltimore years. “As growing boys go,” it says, “Ocasek was not much different from the other troublesome young punks he ran around with.”
In the article, Ocasek credited his grandmother with putting him on the path to a music career. “There was this local television show in Baltimore, just sort of a variety show,” he told writer David Fricke, “Saturday mornings, only it had the same cast every week. My grandmother got me on it, and I was singing one song every week. I was pretty oblivious to it, though. It was like a dream world.”
Besides the occasional Baltimore-area Cars concert — including Landover’s Capital Center on Sept. 8, 1978, and Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on Aug. 25, 1980 — Ocasek made at least two trips back to his hometown. In 1988, he was here with his soon-to-be wife, model-turned-actress Porizkova, while she was in town filming the romantic comedy “Her Alibi” with Tom Selleck. One afternoon, the pair were seen walking along St. Paul Street, politely signing an autograph for a fan, although just as politely declining to pose for a photograph.
And a year earlier, Ocasek and actress Pia Zadora spent a day filming “Hairspray” for Waters. In a brief scene, they play a pair of spaced-out beatniks who provide temporary shelter for heroine Tracy Turnblad and her friends, who are on the run from the police. Ocasek, Waters said, improvised one of the funniest moments of the scene, when he shoved his head through a painting he had just finished.
“He was already a star, so we just called him and said, ‘Would you do it?’” Waters recalled. “He came, we had a rehearsal and he did it. It was just one day in and one day out, probably. ... I’ve always had great feelings about him. I loved that he was in the movie.”
Ocasek and Porizkova, who were not yet married, showed up at The Senator for the movie’s world premiere on Feb. 16, 1988.
Waters says he remembers seeing Ocasek only once since then, at a showing of “Hairspray” a few years ago in New York, “He was really lovely, but he seemed kind of shy,” Waters said. “He was nice and all, and he didn’t say anything that was bad. But I could tell that he kind of didn’t want to be in the limelight at the moment.”