Ric Ocasek, the longtime frontman for The Cars who passed away this week, has been credited with pushing the boundaries of musical creativity, helping to shape the cutting edge New Wave sound his band would become known for and in the process crafting an enigmatic rockstar aesthetic that would remain throughout his life. As the New Yorker noted, Ocasek “both channelled powerful emotion and seemed to float above it, as mysteriously as the ever-present sunglasses that obscured the look in his eyes.” It turned out that Ocasek mystery extended to more than just his looks – there were two different ages published in obituaries remembering the singer: some sources indicated he was 75 years old, while others reported he was only 70. The New York Times conducted an analysis of public records related to Ocasek to determine Ocasek’s true age and outlined the methodology they used in an article, which can be instructive for researchers facing similar obstacles in determining a research subject’s age. In this blog, we’ll discuss how Ocasek’s age discrepancy came about and the sources that the New York Times used to determine his true age.
The Times reported that numerous sources – including Ocasek’s New York voter registration, biographies on Spotify and Pandora and the Google result for “Ric Ocasek age” – listed Ocasek’s birth date as March 23, 1949, which would have made him aged 70 at the time of his death. Ocasek’s Wikipedia page was edited dozens of times in the days following his death and “at one point, had included both 1944 and 1949 as potential birth years,” according to the Times. In their initial obituary for Ocasek, the Times noted that “sources have differed on Mr. Ocasek’s age – some saying he was 70 0 but a few public records and previous articles about him suggest that he was 75.”
Following publication of Ocasek’s obituary, reporters and researchers for the Times continued to delve into Ocasek’s past to nail down his exact date of birth. It was noted that Ocasek said he graduated from Maple Heights High School – near Cleveland, Ohio – in 1963, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2007, which suggests he was born around 18 years prior (i.e. circa 1945). There was a Facebook group for Maple Heights High School alumni, which included pictures and discussion corroborating that Ocasek graduated from the school in 1963. In addition, the Times identified traffic citations from 1988 naming a “Richard T. Otcasek” – the singer’s full legal name – that listed his birth year as 1944. The New York City Police Department also corroborated the 1944 birth date.
The Times noted that it was unclear where the discrepancy specifically originated, though “it’s likely that Mr. Ocasek himself played a role” given that he put down 1949 as his year of birth on his New York City voter registration affidavit and was circumspect about his age in numerous interviews. While voters are required to sign an affidavit attesting to the truthfulness of what they put on official forms, the information isn’t verified by the Board of Elections and researchers would be wise to remember that it is not uncommon for artists, musicians or actors to want people to think they are younger than they actually are.
As the Ocasek example illustrates, the way to avoid confusion is to consult a variety of sources from as wide a time span as possible.