I was scrolling through my phone to while away a few minutes late Sunday when I read a headline that Ric Ocasek of The Cars had died.
“Aw, man,” I called out to my otherwise engaged family, emotionally sucker-punched as if a cloud had drifted directly over my head and it began to rain. “Ric Ocasek died.”
As it turns out, he was reportedly 75 years old and had peacefully passed away while recovering from post-surgical and heart issues that plagued him, as they sadly also plague a good number of people his age. It’s not as if I’d fancied Ric as immortal, though his body of work is certain to endure. I’d never given it much thought. As my image of him is one of an impossibly cool songwriter, guitarist, singer, producer, and all-around musical composition genius in the form of a new wave praying mantis, it’s hard to reconcile my image of Ric as belonging to the same demographic checkbox as my mom. Not that my mom isn’t cool but, just four years older than Ric, my mom is really struggling with the challenges of aging. As my personal interactions with Ric were limited to a specific place and time over 30 years ago, he was burned into my brain as 30-years younger. But he wasn’t, and, as it turns out, he was facing some similar septuagenarian challenges as my mom.
We don't reckon with the mortality of our idols — they seem to supersede that because of the way their art has moved us, so it's a shock to the system.
Andrea Bonior, clinical psychologist
“For GenX, The Cars provided a soundtrack that was the heart and soul of their adolescent angst. Music is particularly important for people that are in that adolescent stage — finding out who they are and what kind of music are you going to like, and how it speaks to you and how you define your identity,” said Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland, the host of "Baggage Check," a live chat and column with The Washington Post, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
“Songs get stuck in our heads and form the backdrop of our lives," she said. "We can immediately have that visceral reaction of hearing a song and having a memory completely attached to it to the point where we feel like we're time-traveling back when we first liked that song, or played that song all the time. That impact stays with you. We can kind of delude ourselves that time really hasn’t moved forward, then when our cultural icons are in poor health or pass away, it's a reality check with the passage of time. We don't reckon with the mortality of our idols — they seem to supersede that because of the way their art has moved us, so it's a shock to the system.”
That’s why, when an idol from your youth shuffles off this mortal coil, our personal connection to them, whether real or imagined, and the art they produce, rises to the fore. “With music, especially, there is this feeling of intimacy, like our idols are talking to us personally — it's very personal to hear a voice,” Bonior explains. “That’s why podcasts are so popular. You feel like you actually know the human being, even if you don't. Music takes that one step further because you're actually having an emotional reaction to the way that the music moves you, as well. Perhaps their lyrics are very poetic, and you feel like they're speaking the same language as you, and that they understand you in a way. It speaks to the power of music but also speaks to the power of the personality of artists who find a way to express something so profound that truly connects with people.”
Bonior says there’s no sense in feeling bad about feeling bad because your feelings of grief, even if you never met the artist, are, in fact, valid. “Sometimes, people might say that it’s silly or frivolous (to grieve an idol who passed). That sentiment ignores the fact that part of the power of musicians, and artists, and actors, and poets, and writers, and comedians, is that they do have an impact on a large swath of people and it is a personal impact,” Bonior said. “If their music touched us and became an indelible part of our youth, that does matter. If we’re grieving, that’s still real. We care because we all absorb our culture. When we care for an artist and their music speaks to us, that makes up part of our emotional lives.”
But am I really mourning Ric? Or am I grieving for my youth? “Both!” says Bonior. “We’re all aging at the same rate. As it's dark as this is, we’re all moving toward death in equal seconds, minutes and hours, and I think when we see the fact that death can take somebody who seems to supersede that and be timeless, it's even scarier. It also reminds us that the 80s really were a long time ago. Our youth is gone and just seeing these folks struggle with health problems due to their age, recognizing the fact that it was 40 years ago when they were first on the scene, it’s very startling. It’s a reality check when otherwise you’ve been able to ignore the passage of time.”
We can kind of delude ourselves that time really hasn’t moved forward, then when our cultural icons are in poor health or pass away, it's a reality check with the passage of time.
ANDREA BONIOR, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST
As for me, an ersatz musician, former music biz person and major nerd fan, The Cars came into my life at a pivotal time (the tween-to-teen years), when my taste in music was taking shape. Bostonians tend to puff with pride over the bands, actors, personalities and sports figures they produce, so a mark of their first album’s success was that it often blared during middle school gym class a couple of years after it came out, singeing each note and nuance of every song onto my brain. Eventually, I would find myself in closer proximity to the actual Cars during a music department internship in Boston’s cornerstone rock radio station. The past few days have found me regurgitating my adoration via a virtual caucus with my (largely Bostonian) music nerd brethren, as we reach out to share our grief from the depths of our Cars rabbit holes.
I guess the consolation of losing our idols can be found in how we reach out to console each other, even if through fleeting Facebook posts, in a self-fashioned virtual shiva. It’s always nice to know you’re not aging alone.