Ric Ocasek looked at a magazine cover of film director David Lynch and commented on some people's squeamishness over Lynch's movie "Blue Velvet."
"One must travel in the direction of your fears," Ocasek said. "If you hold yourself back, you're never going to discover anything."
Sitting in the Sunset Strip office of Geffen Records, Ocasek pulled his long, mantis-like legs up to his chest and stared past the people on the sidewalk outside.
"I don't fear much," he said icily.
That is the kind of talk many people expect to hear from Ocasek. The tall, skinny founder of the immensely successful rock group the Cars has acquired a reputation as cold, distant and a bit arrogant.
But lately Ocasek, who's just released his second solo album, "This Side of Paradise," has been challenging that image. The video for his current single, "Emotion in Motion," casts him as a medieval romantic hero. "Nothing could be more remote for me than the hillsides of Wales, riding a horse, saving the damsel," he said. "I had a hard time getting my tongue out of my cheek."
Ocasek will have an opportunity to lighten things even more on what he facetiously calls "my world tour"--an appearance this week on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Not only will he perform as the musical guest, but he is being written into comedy sketches.
And while a typical photograph of the singer-guitarist shows him dressed in black with dark sunglasses accenting an emotionless expression, Ocasek displayed a warm smile, clear blue-gray eyes and a friendly, genial demeanor in a recent interview.
Since the Cars emerged from Boston in 1978 as one of the first new-wave acts to break through to mainstream success, that dichotomy has been reflected in Ocasek's music.
Such early hits as "Good Times Roll" and "Just What I Needed" used snappy pop music as a vehicle for dark lyrics of isolation and alienation. If more recent songs like "Shake It Up" and "You Might Think" seemed a bit lighter in tone, Ocasek's new solo album more than balances the scales.
Quoting from the album's opening song, "Keep on Laughin'," Ocasek summed up his philosophy. "You've got you; you've got yourself. You have to laugh in the mirror," he said, adding a paraphrase of the record's closing line, "In the end, you have to lose sometimes."
When the subject of his private life came up, his eyes lit as he tantalizingly said, "Boy, I could really tell you some things. . . . You'd be surprised." But he refused to elaborate. "I'd rather keep it a mystery. I love the mystery."
Ocasek, who will only admit to being between 30 and 40, insisted that the feelings he expresses in song are genuine.
"Often songs are a lot like what I feel. 'Hello Darkness' (from the new album) is my love for the dark," he said, adding that he lives in a New York brownstone where he sleeps during the day, preferring to be active at night.
"I don't mind being alone, though I'm not a loner. I stay out of people's way and they stay out of mine. I'm a very solitary writer. When I go into a mood to work, it's a place I know pretty well. It's kind of a trance I go into."
Ocasek said he does solo albums in part because, "If you can rely on yourself, you should." He said there is no strife or creative differences within the Cars, who plan to record a new album in February, with a world tour to follow next summer.
Ocasek's record features contributions from three of the four other Cars, and though it explores some new musical territory, it doesn't sound too different from the group's records.
So why make a solo record at all?
"I write a lot of songs, for one thing," he said. "Why not do it for the sake of doing it? I want to do music 24 hours a day. It's not really to tear away from anything. The Cars are totally capable of playing anything I write, but why live under the umbrella?"
Discussing the relationship between image and reality, Ocasek said that his preference for black clothing is not a reflection of his inner self. "It's the easiest thing to buy and I don't have to make decisions," he said with a shrug. But he acknowledged that it does accentuate his public image.
"I think people are a bit afraid of me, although they shouldn't be," he said, sounding happy and sad about the situation. "I guess I'm a little stranger than the average person."
"Maybe the things I like--books, movies. I never felt I was, but I was always on the outside. I never minded it. I always had good close friends. I was never the life of the party, but I always had the confidence to be what I was."