An exclusive interview with the legendary keyboardist
As Greg Hawkes approaches 70, he looks back and realizes, with a certain degree of astonishment, “I was 25 when The Cars’ first album came out and if you told me people would still be listening to those songs when I’m 70, I’d have said you’re crazy.”
But people are and music made by The Cars – essential lifespan 1976-1987, with a 21st century coda – has stood the test of time, in and of itself, and considering the many modern rockers who’ve picked up on it like the New Pornographers, Beck and Weezer.
I’ve been friends with Hawkes going back to the ‘80s and saw him last month at an annual party a mutual friend hosts. We yakked about a lot of music, of course. One thing that was no surprise: Hawkes is a huge Kraftwerk fan. But this was a surprise: He’s not a Roxy Music fan – especially as many people heard shades of Roxy in The Cars. He doesn’t hate ‘em by any means. Just finds ‘em meh. So, we agree on Kraftwerk but differ on Roxy.
At any rate, we decided to continue our chat later on and with his big birthday on the horizon – it’s Oct. 22 – it made sense to set it all down for public consumption. We spoke on the phone, him from his exurban Boston home and me from Brookline, MA.
Did you know when you were making the first album that you had something there? I’m not saying you knew it would be a huge commercial success – it’s currently up over six million copies – but that you knew you had nine pretty damn good tracks.
Yes, I thought “Wow, this is really good.” It, maybe, exceeded my expectations. But I really didn’t know if it was gonna be anything other than a regional hit. [Boston rock station] WBCN played the demos of “Just What I Needed” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” for months before the album came out.
You figured you’d be a Boston success, but nationally it was still a crap shoot.
Yeah, it was unknown. You would hope it would be a hit but I had no definite expectations that it would. I figured we’d at least be getting airplay in New England and probably New York.
But it also connected with Middle America. Any idea why?
It did have a big rock sound, us working with Roy [Thomas Baker], coming from his Queen production background. It’s funny. The thing that pops into my mind was when, on the Beatles’ first American tour, one of the first questions they got was “How do you explain your success?” and John said something to the effect of “If we knew that, we’d be managers.”
It was part of it was timing and what was going on. We were always lumped in with the beginning of the new wave, which, as I recall, was a reaction to the end of the disco era. The Cars fit in more with the – I hate to say mainstream rock side vs. the punk rock side – but we kinda did. We weren’t as sonically aggressive as the punk records were. Plus, we genuinely liked having hooks. I know I did and [singer-songwriter-guitarist] Ric [Ocasek] did too – he was good at that. Coming up those hooky catchphrases like “Just What I Needed,” “Shake It Up,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” He was good at that, he had a knack for coming up especially song titles that you might think were already cliched – “Shake It Up,” for instance, there were actually we looked it up before the record came out and there were already 26 songs copyrighted as “Shake It Up” and even “Good Times Roll,” there was “Let the Good Times Roll.” He had a quirky way of sort of …
Plundering the past? But in a good way.
[Laughs] I was going to say appropriating, but, yeah, not like in a theft/copyright infringement way.
And of course, there’s “Bye Bye Love,” copping the famous Everly Brothers song title.
Oh, uh-huh, right, sure.
I talk to people sometimes and ask which song’s melody pops into their head when I say the title and it’s a real mix of answers, some of which I’m sure is generational.
Even the fact that they’re similar draws a correlation. It might be indirect but there’s a definite correlation with the Everly Brothers and The Cars. It might not be obvious at first.
It’s that linkage to the past, to rock history. When did you recall turning the corner from hot local band to national success story?
Oh boy … I can remember certain things, like the first time The Cars played in San Francisco, playing this small place and Neil Young came to see us. Wow! For me, something like that was very validating, that bands that had notoriety were coming to see us. The first time we played in L.A., we played at the Roxy on Sunset and I remember Mark [Volman] and Howard [Kaylan] from the Turtles came to see that show.
And later in life you became a Turtle on the road. [Hawkes was a frequent accompanist for years.]
Yeah, that’s right. Mark, for some reason, would stay in touch with me, call up every two or three years, to see how I was doing and he always came to Cars shows whenever we played in Los Angeles.
Neil was managed by Elliot Roberts’ Lookout Management. Did you come to Lookout because of that connection?
Boy … I don’t know if it was a direct connection or not. That also happened before Candy-O, the second album, came out. I think it was the Candy-O tour, the second year of that where we were more the headliners. For the first album, for most of that we were opening for other bands.
OK, this worked for Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, so I’ll try it here. What were the best of times? The worst of times?
The best I’d say those first couple of years. You could watch the whole thing getting bigger in real time. Every time you went back to a [city] it’d be a little bigger, [the records] getting more airplay. Watching it grow was the best part.
What was the vibe within the band?
Everybody was excited, I think. We were all getting along well and it was all pretty brand new. Really, it was more than I think we ever could have hoped for.
And the worst of times …
The worst of times was toward the end, doing the Door to Door record for me was pretty painful. It was last one with everybody but [singer-bassist] Ben [Orr] and Ric weren’t getting along. It was kind of a slog. The album itself musically didn’t have a focus to it.
Perfectionism has always been part of The Cars, I think, with Roy but it went to extremes, right, with producer Mutt Lange, as you were kinda locked down in a London studio? [It started in March 1983 and the album was released in January 1984.]
Mutt was the worst for Heartbeat City. He just did the one album because there were definitely people in the band that didn’t want to work with him again. [Heartbeat City] was a double-edged thing. I probably spent the most time with him because of all the keyboard stuff and programming. It took a long time and doing the background vocals took a long time and I was there for that, too.
I’m thinking there were a few people in the band thinking: “Can we stop? Isn’t it good enough now?”
Yeah, there was. And I think there were maybe one or two members who might have kind of left for a period of days during that project, not officially having left the band but “I’m getting out of here.”
Heartbeat City – with “Drive” on it – was your biggest seller, though, right?
Darn close, but I think the first one still beats it, because it’s had a few more years to rack up sales. Heartbeat City was after Panorama and Shake It Up was definitely a much better. And then Door to Door, not surprisingly, dwindled all of them.
I want to ask you about two close connections you had. One was singer Alan Vega and synthist Marty Rev’s duo, Suicide. I love ‘em, but not everyone did, to put it mildly.
The first thing I remember is the string of shows we did at the Paradise [club in Boston], four or five nights in a row, right when the first album came out. The place was packed and we had Suicide open. We loved watching them from upstairs every set, just because of the drama. With Alan, you didn’t know. Marty was totally stoic and deadpan and stood there, but Alan he had that way of provoking an audience.
I think after a while people knew they were being provoked and antagonized and kind of welcomed it. Plus, it gave The Cars a connection to the punk or post-punk underground.
The only person who gave me that kind of vibe was Iggy Pop. When I first saw him, he was playing the Sales brothers [drummer Hunt and bassist Tony] he came out with a chair and a bottle and it was like “Uh-oh, something’s gonna happen.”
The bottle may have gotten smashed but he didn’t start cutting himself up with it, I don’t remember seeing blood.
OK, number two. Not a Cars connection, but a you connection. You played on Paul McCartney’s 1989 album, Flowers in the Dirt, the song “Motor of Love.”
I was in awe the whole time. Just the fact that I was there, I couldn’t believe it. He was super nice. I had a great time. On my way over [to England], I was thinking, “Gee, do you even bring up the Beatles or is it something he doesn’t want to talk about?” I think it was before he had made peace with the Beatles, especially during the Wings thing. Right around the time I went over, during his live shows he was doing half Beatles material and Paul solo and Wings things. I didn’t even have to bring it up. When he came in, he had an armful of record albums. He had just gotten a batch of that Russian live album he made, Back in the USSR with his name in that funny Russian lettering – some regular letters some oddball. And he hands us each one, saying “Would you like the new Ron McCaptain album? to show his name was spelled. Within five or ten minutes of getting in, he started talking Beatles stories.
We spent three of four days in London and then went to his Hogg Mill studio [in Sussex]. He had his Beatles bass there and the last Beatles set list taped to side of it. He shows it to me and starts running through the songs – “Long Tall Sally,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” telling us “We’d have Ringo sing one” and I’m like “I know! Of course, you did!”
You saw the Beatles in 1964.
Yes, I was living in Maryland so it was at the Baltimore Civic Center. My first concert.
You heard lotsa female screaming, then.
I remember hearing screams but you could tell what they were playing. Also, just to see them, I had to stand on my chair for the whole set which was like 25 minutes, 10 maybe 11 songs, no encore. All their songs were two-and-a-half minutes – “All My Loving.” “Roll over Beethoven,” “She Loves You.” It ended with “Twist and Shout.” They didn’t play “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I was a little disappointed in that.
Back to Cars World. You’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What did you think about the institution before you got in, when you got in and then the aftermath?
We got in on our third try. The aftermath I’ve really grown to appreciate it. I came from the perspective that I didn’t give it very much credence before. I never even watched the award ceremonies on TV or I did when one of the Beatles was on and they’d have their big jam at the end, but I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t really pay any attention to it at all. In the case of The Cars, I’m glad at least it brought the four of us back together one final time. [The Cars were inducted in 2018; Ocasek died the following year; Orr had died in 2000.]
What was the vibe like?
It was a little bit awkward, but there was something very gratifying about it. Just seeing the other guys. We were with Jeff Kramer who’d worked with The Cars before [as manager]. He’d taken charge with getting everybody organized, doing the arrangements, finding a place to rehearse. Even trying to pick three or four songs before the event became a major source of contention for what we should play. We couldn’t even agree on what three songs. So, it was like “Pick four songs” and that didn’t help. But once it got figured out, a day or two before the show, we settled on which we were going to play: “Just What I Needed,” “You Might Think” and “Best Friend’s Girl.” And we did play “Moving in Stereo,” which I think was edited out of the HBO show.
I’m trying to remember. Did you bring anyone in to sing Ben’s parts?
No. In the case of “Just What I Needed,” Ric sang it. There was talk about doing “Drive,” which of course Ben sang lead on and did an awesome job with. I personally felt it shouldn’t be one to do even though Ric wrote it, it. Plus, it was gonna be hard for me. If we do “Drive,” I’m going to have to start programming keyboards to get enough keyboards playing along to it. I was pushing to play the songs live – I didn’t want to program anything, which would be reason for something to go wrong. We finally sorted it out and the selection was good.
What about a real-world effect? Do you get better tables at restaurants, skip the line at Disney World
[Laughs] I’m not sure, but I will say that we definitely got a bump in record sales, I don’t know if that’s [the] right [term], but in visibility. It was really the first year The Cars got nominated that spurred Elektra to release The Cars albums in those special editions. It helped get the catalog re-organized and re-presented again.
How about in terms of the general public?
I think there’s a certain amount of recognition that you get, maybe not so much from other musicians but the more mainstream casual music listener. Now, they’ll go, “Oh, The Cars, you guys are in the Hall of Fame, right?” There’s that. Some sort of affirmation or something.
And at 70 …
I have, in a practical sense, really. basically, retired from touring since Covid. I don’t mind doing the occasional thing and hope to keep doing that for a while.
Meaning primarily the sporadic gigs you do with the Boston band Eddie Japan, playing Cars songs? Mostly, not too far from home.
Like [my wife] Elaine says, “The pressure’s off.” No pop star status there, sales, etc. Just fun. I was fairly resistant to doing it initially. It was the guys from Eddie Japan’s idea. It came about because I did work on one of their CDs and when they played the Lizard [Lounge in Cambridge, MA] for a CD release party. I sat in and we did three or four Cars songs. When they approached me – “What if we did a whole set of Cars songs?” – I didn’t know about that. I had to mull it over. I had to take Chuck the drummer out for lunch three times. I agreed that I’d do it once and see how it goes. We did it at The Burren [a small Somerville, MA club}. Low pressure. And I had a great time. I enjoyed doing it a lot more than I thought I would. I’ve got to admit I’ve been getting so much positive feedback from people coming to the shows.
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