Ever since Ric Ocasek died two months ago (on Sept. 15), Bebe Buell has been trying to process the loss of one of her dearest friends and the guiding force of her own musical career. Even while Ocasek was steering The Cars to success (and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year), he helped Bebe find her own path, in more than just music. She reflects on the years of their friendship for PKM.
I’ve sat down to write this tribute to Ric Ocasek five times now. I have written four different drafts, with this soon to be the fifth and final stab. I haven’t been able to stop crying or remembering all the good times and all this man did for me. He basically gave me the career I had only dreamed of. He made it all happen.
The first attempt to write about Ric was on Sept. 15th, the day he died. I wanted to write down my feelings in hopes it would help me release the shock and pain I was digesting. Let me set the stage… I was in scenic 30a Florida when we got the news. It was the eve of my husband Jim’s birthday, which we try to spend at Rosemary Beach, a seven-hour drive south from our Nashville home. It’s our slice of heaven. We were taking our traditional walk on our favorite beach that morning of Sept. 15th and noticed a young seagull nestled in the sand. As we approached, we realized the juvenile gull was struggling to breathe. He or she, I believe it was a male, was leaning its head back so I offered some of my water from the stash I had with me. The poor thing tried to drink it and it was then we realized this beautiful creature was not going to make it. I think it had either swallowed a cigarette butt or something unnatural that lodged in its throat. We watched it die and cried our eyes out! It was so sad. The bird stared into my eyes as he took his last breath. I wanted him to feel comforted and not alone. I had some paper towels in my bag so I carefully wrapped its body and Jim and I attempted to find a place to lay him to rest. We found some bushes away from the beach, dug a hole and buried his still warm body surrounded by his makeshift shroud.
As we walked back to the house where we were staying for the week, I had a feeling there was something symbolic about this experience. It affected me in a way that is hard to describe. My feelings were confirmed when we heard that Ric had died earlier that day in NYC. The reports said that his body was discovered by his wife, Paulina Porizkova. Although they were separated, she was helping to care for him after a recent surgery, along with their two grown sons, Jonathan and Oliver. He was very sick but healing well and died in his sleep. Ric was 75 years old, a fact that only his closest friends knew. The rest of the world thought he was 70…
Jim and I could not stop reflecting on our earlier experience with the bird on the beach. What made it all the more sobering was that my nickname for Ric was “Bird Man” because I thought he looked, like a lot of rock men, like a beautiful bird. From the side—like Johnny Thunders and others—he resembled a crow, raven and all feathery creatures in between. Except his profile was a bit more delicate, almost pretty. He was “Bird Man the Magnificent” as I used to say to him as a young girl.
As the reports kept pouring in, I heard from a private source he had died from pulmonary emphysema (mild), hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. He was a heavy smoker and it always worried me—even when I was 25 years old! I used to say to him constantly, “Ric O… please stop smoking! It’s so bad for you!” But he loved his ciggies and that was that!
However, he had quit smoking which I witnessed for myself when Jim and I ran into him at Saline Beach in St Barths in 2008. He said he had quit three years earlier, so he was cigarette-free at the time of his passing, which makes it so hard to grasp and understand. Life is mysterious and death is too.
Ric loved the island of St. Barths and he and Paulina were married there in 1989 after being together for five years.
Why it has been so hard to write this tribute is hard to define. So much happened during the years I knew Ric that I’m not sure where to begin. Perhaps I’ll just start from the beginning. I was 23 in 1976 and, if I’m recalling correctly, Ric’s friend Maxanne Sartori contacted me via Boston DJ Oedipus to tell me about Ric’s band, which was going to showcase in NYC for the record companies. She said I should check them out. That’s how we did it back then to ignite excitement around a new artist coming to town. And Maxanne was one of the best networkers and DJs in the business! Both she and Oedipus were Beantown tastemakers.
I remember it was autumn and I was about to embark on a journey with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith that would change my life forever, so I never made it to the showcase. But Ric called me when he got to town and asked me out to dinner. I guess he didn’t have a whole lot of friends in New York yet and I’m assuming some mutual friend gave him my home number. We didn’t have cell phones or computers so when someone wanted to get through to you, they did it the old-fashioned way… they wrote or called. At this time in my life, I was all over the place and, therefore, I’m surprised I was even home at the Horatio St. townhouse I shared with Todd Rundgren when Ric called. I was in between running around with Steven and Liz Derringer’s house. But I was briefly home, Todd was away, I was packing to go to Europe with Steven, so I thought, “If Oedipus says he’s a cool guy, I’ll grab some dinner with him.”
We immediately clicked and Ric became an instant friend. He told me to be careful running around with Aerosmith because those guys “party hard”. He asked me lots of questions about my relationship with Todd and really cared when I told him about our unhealthy, unspoken, open relationship situation and how hard it was all becoming. We often talked on the phone. He even wrote me letters and sent me poems and I liked his wife Suzanne. She, in fact, often answered the phone when I called from points unknown worldwide.
One of the letters he sent me had a poem called “All Mixed Up” that ended up as a song on The Cars’ self-titled debut album. I never asked him who the song was about. I always thought he wrote from a universal perspective, that he wrote about human behavior from his viewpoint. Nonetheless, I loved getting his doodles and poems. It was a healthy, platonic connection, reminding me of the friendship I have with my best male friend from high school, Tim Sullivan. He treated me like a fellow artist—like an equal. He fed my creative core. Something most men weren’t interested in me for—my brain! My mind… my stories, which he loved. It was Ric who first said to me in his deadpan, direct way… “Screw blow jobs, Beeb, you give much better brain. Write that down. It’s a great lyric- ‘I give good brain!’”
I didn’t see him again until the summer of 1978 when I was thinking about living in L.A. The Cars played The Roxy on August 19, 1978. Once again I was about to embark on a life-changing journey to London but this time I had been summoned by my new flame, Elvis Costello, who I had met in June 1978. Ric called me at the house where I was staying with my dear friend Jeanne Theiss in Laurel Canyon. He invited me to the show and that was the second time I had seen him in person. We had logged several hours talking on the phone, so seeing him just felt like an old friend. To think that the last time I had seen him in 1976, I was almost pregnant with Liv and by the time I was seeing him in LA, Liv was a year old. I had yet to see his band, The Cars. Their new album was a smash and “Just What I Needed” was the song du jour!
It was nice to see him and I was very curious about the band live. He was certainly unusual, and the songs were quirky and catchy, but in my opinion there wasn’t a whole lot of stage presence or pizazz. But it didn’t suck and Ben Orr, on bass, had a quality about him that would draw you in when he sang. He too had those beautiful, whirlpool eyes. The musicians were excellent! David Robinson on drums, Elliot Easton on lead guitar and Greg Hawkes on keys rounded out the unusual hybrid sound. I loved it when Ric sang and that aloof vibe he projected would just ooze from his shiny pants and jacket. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew the band was special. Certainly no one else SOUNDED like them. It was space music for the masses.
Ric had these deep, soulful blue eyes and you could read him like a mirror reflecting the sea. Ric’s ears gave him a Dr. Spock sexiness and his tall, thin frame was almost alien-esque. A rock n’ roll Bird Alien. That was Ric O…
After the show we sat and talked for what felt like hours. I told him about my upcoming trip to see Elvis Costello and he expressed his concern for me. Warning me that maybe I should stay settled and work through some of the trauma I was not dealing with in regard to my situation with the Todd and Steven saga. That’s when he revealed to me that he knew Liv was not Todd’s child. A lot of gossip had been floating around the Boston scene as the real truth.
Flabbergasted, I just looked at him and said “don’t be absurd!” What he said next will stick with me forever: “Bebe, we’re going to know each other for the rest of our lives and you can trust me with your secrets. You don’t need to lie to me. I think I would have done the same thing you’re doing. You just want what’s best for Liv. I get that.”
I broke down and sobbed and he told me I was moving too fast and would crash and fall if I didn’t slow down and take care of my inner child. He was right. I was acting out and dating up a storm. Trying in my crazy way to secure love and family. But Ric never made me feel shamed. He always told me that he believed in me and thought I had talent. He told me he would be there for me if I needed his help and to call him anytime while I was in the UK. He was one of the first men I had met who didn’t try to seduce me or treat me like a sexual object. He really was my friend. He would prove it countless times throughout my life.
Of course, we talked all the time while I was living in London with Elvis at Queensgate Terrace. When Ric also came to Britain a couple of months later for band business, we all went out to dinner. I really wanted this relationship with Elvis to work and as he was gearing up to hit the road, I was using my time in the UK getting back to modeling here and there. What I really wanted was to start a band. But I also needed to make some extra money and I missed my daughter and family. Christmas was coming and I wanted to be with Liv. I longed to get up to Maine and be with my kin. I was beginning to realize that I was trying to create a family in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. Once again, Ric was there for me and encouraged me to fly back to America. To take care of myself. He was so worried about my emotional health. He worried that I may crack up or something if I suffered any more heartache and instability.
For my Christmas present that December 1978, Ric gave me a vacation at La Samana in St. Martin. He said he wanted Liv and I to go for a week and rest. I took my platonic friend Mark, who was kind of like a semi manager for me, and we rang in 1979 on the island. Also at the resort for that New Year’s celebration were Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwill, who took a shine to baby Liv. Dustin Hoffman and his then wife Ann were there, too, and Liv often frolicked on the beach with them. It was surreal! It was one of the sweetest gifts someone has ever given me. Such a generous thing for him to do. Ric arranged everything so we wouldn’t have to worry about anything while we were there. I’ve got the most beautiful photos of Liv playing in the sea and the pool. It was such a healing and mommy/daughter bonding trip for me and my baby girl who was now 18 months old. Liv didn’t cry once while we were there. All she did was laugh and she never wanted to get out of the water!
Ric called daily to check on us. And in an ironic twist, one morning at breakfast we ran into Tom Hamilton and one of the other guys from Aerosmith, not sure if it was Joey or Brad, on the hotel dining deck. I remember Tom looking at me and saying “Bebe, she looks exactly like Steven. Holy shit!” I told him to “shhhhh” and he walked to his table with a stunned look on his face. That was just a speck of what was to come. Destiny was unfolding before my eyes.
The next several months were indeed turbulent. It was now 1979 and Elvis was coming back to America to tour. We fell back into each other’s arms in NYC, and he flew up to Maine with me to meet my family and Liv. He stayed for a week and then went on the road. I met him up in San Francisco and accompanied him to Los Angeles. Without going into great detail, this was a period of time I’d like to erase. My time with Elvis was filled with so much turmoil it would take a book to make sense of it. It’s also been falsely reported about and a lot of lies and untruths have been flung around to “protect the innocent”. There’s two sides to every story but sometimes not everyone can deal with the reality of their own choices.
In a nutshell, things got really bad, and once again Ric came to my rescue. He and my close friend, Pam Turbov, who ironically is the CBS executive through whom Elvis sent his first letter to me, comforted me while I went through a rapid inner-growth spirt.
When I was visiting my mother and stepfather in Virginia in 1980, The Cars were playing in the area. Mom lived in McLean and the venue wasn’t far from the house. I was excited to introduce Ric to my Momma, and they hit it off like a house on fire! Mom adored him. He even came up with a “tag” for her… he dubbed her “the Jackie Kennedy of Rock n’ Roll.” Every time I saw or spoke to Ric after that he asked after Dorothea… always wanting to know how she was.
By this time, I was spending more and more time in Maine and had started to fool around with forming a band. It was also around this time that Ric called and said he had laid down some tracks with The Cars and wanted me to come and sing on them. It was to be the beginning of my first record. I just remember squealing into the phone like a child! Ric said “it’s time to get to work and get serious if you want to make records and tour.”
The next thing I knew, I was in the recording studio and Ric was producing me. It was at The Record Plant in NYC that I put on my first pair of headphones or “cans,” as we called them, and heard the sound of my own voice coming back at me through the speakers. There was no other feeling like it. Right up there with a first kiss and a first acid trip! Surreal and perfect!
I formed my first band in Portland, Maine. It’s the East Coast Portland Oregon and only a two-hour drive from Boston, the East Coast Seattle. Portland had a surprisingly healthy music scene and I put The B-Sides together fairly quickly. My first show was at a place called The Downtown Lounge and Ric drove up for my first live appearance with my new band. I remember how much it impressed the Portland crowd that bona fide rock stars were in the room that Halloween of 1980.
Here’s where things get complicated. Ric was hoping to get some support from his label to make an entire album with me, but they didn’t go for it. Ric considered finishing it with his own money. Then Rick Derringer said he wanted to do two tracks at his expense to add to the record and hence the “Covers Girl” concept was born. Soon I would have four tracks and that’s when Dick Wingate from Epic Records expressed his interest in putting it out as a “New Disc 9″ EP”. At one point, Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick said he’d do two tracks. That would have been so cool because it would have been the three “Ricks”- Ric, Rick & Rick!!
When Ric and I discussed what songs to do, he had a bee in his bonnet about doing a classic nugget called “The Little Black Egg”. It was by a Daytona Beach garage band called The Nightcrawlers. I always thought they were from Ohio because Ric said they were, so for years I’ve thought that until I Googled them recently. Ric always said “that song was a huge hit in Ohio!” Maybe it was. He wanted me to trust him on this one so I did.
One of the things he loved about “The Little Black Egg” was it had many meanings to many different people—kind of like “Louie Louie”. Some thought it was dirty and some thought it was about an interracial romance that resulted in a pregnancy. Me? I thought it was a song written by a guy who was high, sittin’ in a tree, staring at a bird’s nest!
My choice was “Funtime”, the Iggy Pop/David Bowie collaboration that I was obsessed with recording… so, Ric made tracks with the Cars with Ben Orr doing “scratch” vocals. I recall asking Ric not to play me the tracks with Ben’s vocals because I wanted to have my own interpretation of the song and the delivery. I listened to the tracks sans a vocal—just the raw tracks and I would sing along to it with my cassette player.
It wasn’t until years later when The Cars released a compilation album with rarities that I actually heard the version with Ben singing.
Ric was a no nonsense, cut-to-the-chase kind of producer and he was very encouraging. He never lost his cool. I’m so glad I went through this experience with him. In some ways it was like losing my virginity—the freshness and newness of it made it one of the most memorable times in my life. I never thought I could top it until David Bowie himself told me how much he liked the version of “Funtime” we had created… not once but twice! Several years apart. He made a point of telling me again back in 2003 at a party for my daughter, Liv. It touched me deeply. To this day I still feel the rush. The rush of feeling good about your work.
At the time I was officially being managed by Danny Sugerman, who was associated with Jim Morrison and the Doors and had the bestselling book No One Here Gets Out Alive. One more Doors’ link: Ray Manzarek mastered Covers Girl. But there was a small problem. Because Danny lived on the West Coast and I lived on the East Coast, I was unaware of his ongoing drug problem. He was charming and cunning on the phone, but he wasn’t great at making decisions. He had good ideas, though, and one of them was to put Covers Girl out on Rhino Records as a 12-inch, 4-song EP. The passionate team of Harold Bronson and Gary Stewart saw it as a chance to dip into the indie market and not just as a cool reissue label. They also wanted to do something unconventional with the packaging and went for a fold-out cover that became a poster on the other side. All it had to support the vinyl was a piece of cardboard inserted into the jacket to keep it firmly in place. Then it was shrink-wrapped with a quote sticker.
The cover was shot by now deceased, legendary photographer Richard Creamer. Ric had taken a bunch of cool Polaroids of me in a similar pose and attitude, including the ripped magazine with me on the cover. I wish now we had used one of those but in the end they went with me against the pink/red background wearing my pink gloves. Some people complained that the packaging was flimsy and the quality of the artwork was not great, but I think that’s what they were going after—a sort of rebel stance against what everyone perceived was my “image”. There was zero airbrushing or Photoshopping and you could count all the moles and freckles on my back! Prince once told me that that picture “blew” his mind! Just me against the red sheets with nothing but my pink gloves on! And a ton of freckles, HA! Did anyone even notice that he did the same exact pose over a year later on the cover of his “Little Red Corvette” single? It’s Prince with nothing but blue gloves on lying on blue sheets… the yin and yang of ideas from afar.
I was spending more and more time in Portland and Boston. I wanted to be where I could make music and grow as an artist. I knew how critical of me the elite NYC crowd and media would be, so I wanted to work hard and be at my best. My very first live New York performance was opening for Rick Derringer at the Ritz in front of a sold out crowd! I took to being onstage like a duck to water. To this day it’s where I’m some of my happiest… maybe even my happiest to a certain extent. I was living the life of a single mother and I had a band. I wasn’t with the band, I was IN the band!
For all of 1982 and 1983, I was playing shows throughout the USA with my tribe of Portland misfits, The B-Sides, and a band from Boston called The Trademarks also backed me up a few times. It was at one of my most anticipated performances at The Paradise in Boston where my nerves got the best of me. It meant so much to me to finally be playing that esteemed room after wanting to so badly. I had snagged an unannounced opening slot and the club was packed to the gills.
I managed to get through the set and when I came offstage I proceeded to drink myself silly! I had butterflies and several other insects flying around my stomach and I was worried sick that my nervousness had made for a not so great show. Before I knew it, I was legless and propped up on the backstage sofa. I had no idea how I was going to get back to Portland, where the band was or where I was for that matter. Suddenly these two large men came in and lifted me up and carried me to a back door. Waiting for me in his Jaguar was Ric. One of the guys who had so carefully gotten me there made sure I was safely in the front seat. I could see that Ric was upset. He was not pleased. On the way to the hotel room he had generously secured me for the night, he read me the riot act in seven languages. He told me that I had to slow down and look inside. Something had to be hurting for me to get that drunk. He kept saying “what are you going to do the next time this happens? Who’s going to be there for you to pick up the pieces and get you home. Who’s going to drive you home the next time, Bebe?”
Ric made sure I was tucked in and the next day he came and drove me back to Portland. He had told the band to leave and that he’d get me home safely so that’s why I couldn’t find anyone after the show. He wanted me to sleep it off and then he used the two hours driving North to talk some sense into me. The fatherly lecture I never got from my own father because I didn’t know him at all.
Elvis Costello had re-entered my life yet again and we were spending hours at a time on the phone. He started calling me out of the blue so I dove straight back into the crazy chemistry that kept bringing us back into each other’s lives. It was 1983, and we had started sneaking around and seeing each other in various places. By 1984, the entire thing just exploded. It was also in Spring of 1984 that Ric called to tell me about the video they were making for a song on their newest album Heartbeat City called “Drive”. I was fond of Ric’s manager, Elliot Roberts, and Ric told me that Elliot had met the actor Timothy Hutton and he would be directing. I think he and his co-star Paulina Porizkova were falling in love. He told me how good she was and how she played the role so well for such a young girl. I told him I wanted to meet her and he agreed.
I was gearing up to play a little show at The Bebop Cafe in NYC with Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and I remember looking out into the audience and seeing these two very tall people whose heads were way above the rest of the crowd even though they stood toward the back. It was Ric and the absolutely stunning 19-year-old Paulina. I could feel the electricity between them. I could feel the love.
Fast forward to 1989 and my move back to NYC from Portland with my band The Gargoyles which I had formed with Charles Hall in 1985. We were starting to get a lot of shows in NYC and Joey Ramone had taken me under his wing. He loved the band and before I knew it we just pulled up stakes and all headed for the Big Apple.
Once again the hand of fate was to wave its will. Without recounting the entire saga, in a nutshell Liv’s paternity became public, and by 1991 the world knew Steven Tyler was her father.
When Liv was 12, Ric photographed her for the first time. Photography was another one of Ric’s talents along with his art. By the time the equally skilled talents of the young Paulina cast her lens on Liv, magic was made and before we all knew it Liv blossomed into a beautiful swan and the rest is history.
As he had been since the ‘70s, Ric was still guiding and mentoring me. He and Paulina really had a lot to do with the recognition Liv got from those wonderful pictures. It launched her career and just like history repeating itself, Ric was at the wheel just as he had been for me when he took me into the recording studio.
I like to remember Ric in his happy places and one of them was his love of The Bad Brains. He produced Rock For Light and, later, God Of Love. He had his finger on the pulse and also adored the band Suicide. He marched to the same beat in his head and his tastes were as varied as his talents. He was a great producer and even though he didn’t care if something he worked on was a hit or not, he made lots of hit records. Especially with Weezer—that was a match made in rock n’ roll heaven.
As the ‘90s moved into the year 2000, I kind of lost touch with Ric and Paulina as our lives went in completely different directions. They had had their first-born son, Jonathan, in 1993 and as someone who witnessed their love, I can say this with certainty, they wanted this baby with all their hearts. Oliver was to follow. By then he was the father of six sons…
I would sometimes run into Ric at the International Newsstand on Park Ave. South and we’d always end up talking for eons. Talking about everything under the sun. I’d randomly bump into him here and there and one time in 1998 we saw each other again at a Bad Brains show at Irving Plaza. He was all by himself. It was great to see him and catch up on so much. When he would hit you with that smile, it left its mark because it was so genuine.
After that we’d collide in St Barths which had also become my favorite place to vacation thanks to Paulina turning me on to the island in 1992.
In 2008, we were there for my 55th birthday and it made me so happy to see him again at our favorite beach and then later at one of our favorite restaurants, Maya’s. The guy who owns it, Randy, could pass for Ric’s brother.
Ric was one of those people we’ve all hopefully known in our lives. The ones who you think will live forever and always be there. Having him gone from this planet, this world, has left me feeling empty and sad. Losing him really feels like losing a family member… a brother, a best friend… and yes, a father figure. I’m still trying to wrap my head around a world without Ric in it. Even when I would go long periods of time not seeing him, just knowing he was here on the same earth, sharing the same oxygen was all it took to put a smile on my face. I will always reflect on things he said to me and much of his words of wisdom I wrote down in my journals as to never forget them. But my recall is never lax when it comes to him. He changed my life, altered my DNA and helped make dreams come to fruition.
It was wonderful watching him get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I’m so glad he experienced that with his children and Paulina. It’s hard to realize that he left us not long after that honor was bestowed.
In closing, Ric has left his mark. He touched us all with the songs he crafted in that oh-so-catchy way. His style was sharp and sleek just like his frame. His lyrics made every girl think they were the subject of his fantasy… the result of his otherworldly observations into the human condition.