In John Waters’ delightful 1988 film Hairspray there’s a bit where Tracy Turnblad and friends are being pursued by the racist shopkeeper and duck into the apartment of two Baltimore beatniks. Pia Zadora is one of them and the other is a tall, thin painter making strange gestures and noises and otherwise blowing the minds of the terrified teens.
That painter was musician Ric Ocasek, the songwriter, rhythm guitarist, sometimes lead singer, and always creative force of The Cars, the most successful New Wave band of the 70s and 80s.
It turns out he can paint in real life, too.
The Baltimore native has called New York his home for many years now. And for a rock star paired with a supermodel (Paulina Porizkova and Ocasek split earlier this year after 28 years of marriage) and about a dozen top 10 hits to his name, he could certainly make the scene more than he has. Instead, he has continued to create rock ‘n’ roll records, mostly as a producer, including three Weezer records (two went platinum) and discs by Bad Brains, Guided by Voices, Suicide, Romeo Void, Hole, Bebe Buell, No Doubt, Jonathan Richman and Nada Surf.
All the while, Ocasek has pursued his visual art in the same way that he practiced his career as a pop maestro — with an intensity that’s both serious and playful.
So that’s what brought Ocasek to Millburn, New Jersey on Saturday night to show his collection of oil paintings and prints at the Wentworth Gallery. Many of the works evidenced some of the stylistic markers of late 70s new wave — including bright pink and green against blacks, which made me wonder if I was looking at a Vapors or Split Enz record.
Ocasek has a reputation for being prickly and unapproachable. But he graciously greeted all comers, spending real time listening to this one say he danced to “Drive” at Prom in 1984 and that one explain how Elliott Easton’s guitar solo in Just What I Needed changed his life (OK, that one was me).
Ocasek was warm and friendly as a medley of Cars songs played in the background. It was surreal to listen to “Dangerous Type” and “Down Boys” come over the speakers at the Short Hills Mall, as the composer of these perfect little gems signed copies of Candy-O and Panorama for a few dozen 50-something fans.
One of those fans was Kevin Adkins, who bought an oil painting for $4995. Asked what attracted him to the work, Adkins told Fine Art Globe, “The colors. I do real estate so the houses attracted me, too.”
The tendons tying rock ‘n’ roll to visual art are very sturdy. John Lennon was a talented line artist. Cat Stevens painted his own gorgeous album covers. Ronnie Wood’s portrait of his fellow Stones guitarist Keith Richards is so alive one can practically hear it. Andy Warhol of course managed and formed the Velvet Underground, and players like Paul Simonon, John Mellencamp, Marilyn Manson and Jill Cuniff have all produced meaningful, lasting works of art.
It may be tempting to assume that the artist is only coasting off of his or her stature in the music business. That’s truer with some than others, of course. And it’s an easy target to poke fun at “mall art,” with Wentworth having made a specialty of displaying rockers (Paul Stanley, Mickey Hart, Rick Allen).
But in Ocasek’s case, it’s instantly apparent not only that he’s mastered some fundamentals of painting, but that he brings his own unusual and angular take to this artform, just as he did when pop songwriting desperately needed a refresh.
The Cars were constantly criticized for their bloodless concerts and technically perfect recordings. Today, Ric Ocasek is 69 years old. His royalty checks provide him all the funds he could ever need. But he’s still got black nail polish. And he’s still up for a trip to New Jersey to meet a few fans and talk about art. To me, that’s a rocker.