If you followed the wave of tributes that flooded social media following Sunday’s death of Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, you might have seen the word “perfect” tossed around.
The Cars’ first album was a perfect debut. Just What I Needed and You Might Think were perfect specimens of tight, late-'70s, early-'80s power pop. Ocasek was even a perfect-looking rock star, long and lean and leather-jacket intimidating, walled off from us normies by those impenetrable black sunglasses.
It’s funny, because when I think of perfect ’80s power-pop singles, there’s another that comes to my mind: Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight.
Money was 70 when he died on Friday, less than a month after revealing he was battling Stage 4 esophageal cancer. Ocasek was 75 when he was found dead in his apartment in New York City. Ocasek died from heart disease, according to the Hollywood Reporter; People reported Money died from complications following a recent heart surgery.
Money and the Cars were, in a way, two halves of the same cultural coin. The meat of their careers mostly overlapped, with virtually all their memorable songs coming between 1977 and 1988. Even if the years didn’t round off on either end, they were quintessentially artists of the ’80s, a decade when a lot of rock 'n' roll — cool rock 'n' roll, real rock 'n' roll, dangerous rock 'n' roll ― started painting by the numbers of pop production. Power pop begat punk begat New Wave begat hair metal. Snares got crisper. Synthesizers got louder. Everyone got gelled up for MTV. Life was the same, as the Cars once sang, only moving in stereo.
Ocasek was made for this era. He looked like a Ramone but thought like Todd Rundgren, busting out of Boston with fellow Cars founder Benjamin Orr to create rock songs that emphasized tight songwriting, glossy production and unshakable hooks. Their debut self-titled album opened with Good Times Roll, My Best Friend’s Girl and Just What I Needed — only three of their biggest hits ever. By the release of 1981′s Shake It Up and 1984′s Heartbeat City, this was how the rest of rock sounded.
Money, by comparison, was like a relic from another dimension. They called Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger blue-collar rockers, but that really was Edward Mahoney, a failed cop from Brooklyn who greased his way into Hollywood with a sax and a likable persona. His songs were pretense-free paeans to the dreams of ordinary schlubs — the kind where you really could buy Two Tickets to Paradise, where a girl really could make you Walk on Water, where you really could dream your way to the good life. As he sang on his debut self-titled album: I want a mansion on the hill, want to burn thousand dollar bills, want to be a rock 'n' roll star!
It may be simplistic to classify them so cleanly — Ocasek a Cool Kid, Money an Average Joe — but that’s sometimes just how history breaks. Yet starting in the late ’70s, you could have flicked on a radio anywhere in the world and heard them played back to back. Money’s yearning Baby Hold On into the Cars’ chord-ripping Magic. The Cars’ wistful Drive into Money’s chugging Think I’m in Love. Money’s lumbering Shakin’ into the Cars’ caffeinated Shake It Up.
That Ocasek is being remembered as a genius is fair and just; his influence stretched well beyond the Cars. He produced Weezer’s (perfect!) breakthrough “Blue Album,” plus music by Bad Brains, No Doubt, Iggy Pop, Hole and many others. He was an accomplished writer, visual artist and solo act (see 1986′s Emotion in Motion) and was long married to supermodel Paulina Porizkova — a rock-star cliche, maybe, but one only made possible because of how far his talent took him. The Cars made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, long after the first calls came for their enshrinement.
Money’s not making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His career was derailed off and on by substance abuse and health problems, culminating in heart valve surgery — followed by a bout with pneumonia and cancer diagnosis — about a month after headlining this year’s Chasco Fiesta in New Port Richey. It was a fitting local farewell, as Money had long ago found his niche on the throwback circuit, playing fairs and festivals for the same kind of blue-collar weekend warriors he once was.
But there’s one thing Money will always have. And that’s Take Me Home Tonight.
It was something of a comeback single, released in 1986 at the tail end of the height of his popularity. And it could have been just another 3 ½-minute slab of cheesy ’80s synths and lyrics (“Let’s find the key and turn this engine on!”).
But that chorus. Those rip-roaring power chords, Money’s stretched-to-the-limit voice, and, of course, that guest hook from Ronnie Spector, weaving in the Ronettes’ classic Be My Baby. It was a bull’s-eye of nostalgic songcraft, one era pulling from and pointing to another, because c’mon — anything an Average Joe like Money could say to get the girl of his dreams has already been said a million times better on the radio.
“Listen, honey, just like Ronnie sang,” Money pleaded.
“Be my little babyyyy ...” Ronnie sang back from the stereo.
So call the Cars a perfect power pop band, and you might not be wrong. But if any of the hits you’ve had on repeat since Ocasek’s death make you nostalgic for your teenage years, remember how universal that feeling is. Money sang about it on Take Me Home Tonight, and did so about as well as anyone has.
Let them be remembered equally, as voices that sang to the same generation, only from slightly different perspectives. It’d be pretty perfect that way.