By Andrew Hamlin.
The Cars – The Elektra Years 1978 – 1987 (Rhino/Elektra)
Quintessential ’80s band? Let us count the ways. Party up front, anxious desperation in back. Paeans to unobtainable, faceless, abstract love objects. Couplets cutting up and reversing old rock and roll, scratching up shibboleths. It’d all be arid if it wasn’t so passionately frigid.
Panorama as Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Shake It Up as a quick slip. Heartbeat City as soundtrack for the Bret Easton Ellis novel of your choice or even your horrid, half-week insomnia. The swimming pool is always empty. One leaf’s always skittering across the 10-foot marker.
If you need time to look up Bret Easton Ellis, or indeed, the Cars, let me know, and I will wait up to 30 minutes. For here-and-now purposes, Ellis plumbed alienation and worse (indifference), lack of interest in bridging any gap between anyone and anyone, in a two-syllables-tops conversation as to lack of chili on a burger joint buger. Then, when it suited him, he’d show you much worse. But you already knew how it was going to go. From lack of chili.
The Cars knew the world was a terrible place. They coped with clipped catchiness, a dry funnybone, video game-flying saucer-hyperspace-roller rink-Question Mark & The Mysterians noises from Geoff Hawkes’ keyboards (the band’s resident all-out geek, which fits, since geeks are genuinely passionate about things), and deciding early on which battles to not fight. The women are always just gone, or not there in the first place—wanted, needed, pleaded for so much as the Cars can plead, but “frozen fire,” “vanishing,” “eyes like mica”—an aesthetic of the female shaped by Playboy and geeky fear. Look all you want, but don’t try to touch (except yourself).
Plastics and robots rule the day. That’s easier than braving someone else’s soul. They carved out a poetics of these refusals, and they weren’t quite radical enough to propose alternatives. They wanted the biggest fame burrito on the menu and they got that by sticking out just enough to attract attention.
‘Good Times Roll,’ from 1978’s The Cars, certainly sounded like a different planet to me, through our wicker-front radio near the back door. ‘Centipede’-like wooshes over the intro, of course, but the rest of the keyboards, like the guitar, like the attitude, came off on the cool side of rolling. No barrel of fun, no “c’mon baby,” no soul to thrill. No, the band feared what they sang about, so they hid within gymnastic arching. I wept for living the story of ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ (“but she used to be mine”), not digging in my stupid youth, how many folks lived that story (and its Generation AA update, ‘Fuck You’).
They hadn’t formally perfected formuula, though, so the masochist abjection of ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ got through, with the flu-like symptoms of (of all notions) ‘I’m In Touch With Your World.’ (The flu as another refusal of touch. Another fear.)
Candy-O, from 1979, rifftastic, still cold and afraid—but cool, man, cool!—from the inked pinup gal on the cover to that line about “protecting the judge” (what an odd phrase, for what a ubiquitous internal pastime) from ‘It’s All I Can Do’ (to keep waiting for another pinup). Panorama, 1980, spikier, distorted, more like home demos (like parts of Tusk), Ric Ocasek feeling his ‘Misfit Kid’ punishment but searching for his sin. (You feel the pain, you might as well as enjoy the sin.)
Shake It Up, 1981. The mask slips on Side Two. Side One’s closer ‘Cruiser’ could be a movie theme song or an arcade game soundtrack, cool kids on the way to a chiliburger but then maybe the coke ran low, maybe Ocasek decided to see if someone was listening, but the mask turned transparent and suddenly—we could barely recognize it by this point–they really were scared, they really wondered about living and dying alone and/or pointless. The world is, in other words, a horrible place. “Is this the kill?”
Heartbeat City, 1984. The retreat, with style and fortitude. Most of the Cars songs you’d know from ‘80s retro-radio feature here, and if many might be about drugs—the title track’s ‘Jackie,’ who might be a woman, a dealer, or both, and in any case isn’t showing up—they could be about other things (women) too. Hiding ambiguity in plain sight.
Door To Door, 1987, and we don’t get to find out how the band would have weathered the ‘90s, because they knew they were all out of pose, and they’d already said too much once. They vanished inwardly, to the Boston skyline on the inside cover.
The reunion album from 2011, damn fine! But Benjamin Orr was dead. And I couldn’t worship in the present tense, having lived just a little. Having known honest emotions. I had to cast my mind and my fears back. I had to re-constrict.