It was just past 10 p.m. on Sunday when The New York Times sent out the alert: “Ric Ocasek, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame artist and the lead singer of the Cars, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment,” the notification read. “He was 75.”
Hewas75 … right?
The New York Police Department said he was, and some news articles relied on a 1944 birth date. But other sources — including Mr. Ocasek’s New York voter registration information and biographies on Spotify and Pandora — indicated he was five years younger. Without a readily accessible birth certificate, how could The Times be absolutely certain?
In the hours after Mr. Ocasek’s death became public, not many others seemed to be sure, either. The top result of a Google search for Mr. Ocasek’s age says he was 70 — a number that seems to be pulled from the singer’s Wikipedia page, which by Monday morning had been edited dozens of times since his death and, at one point, had included both 1944 and 1949 as potential birth years.
And on the home page of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which the Cars were inducted into last year, a memorial to Mr. Ocasek on Monday morning listed his birth year as 1949. (It was changed to 1944 later on Monday.)
Even past reporting from The Times contributed to the confusion. An introduction to a 2006 story about the singer’s music recommendations said he was 57, which would indicate that he was born in 1949.
So on Sunday night, here’s how Mr. Ocasek’s obituary by Jon Pareles, The Times’s chief pop music critic, put it: “Sources have differed on Mr. Ocasek’s age — some saying he was 70 — but a few public records and previous articles about him suggest that he was 75.”
After the obituary published, Times reporters and researchers kept finding clues that pointed to an earlier birth date for Mr. Ocasek. In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Mr. Ocasek said he graduated from Maple Heights High School, near Cleveland, in 1963 — which would mean he was born around 18 years earlier, unless he got his diploma as a 14-year-old prodigy.
There are also yearbook photos, as well as personal accounts from a Facebook group filled with Maple Heights High School alumni, that corroborate 1963 as his graduation year.
The Times found a court record showing that in 1988, a man named Richard T. Otcasek — the singer’s legal name — was cited in Baltimore for speeding and driving with an expired license. His birth year for these citations was given as 1944.
It’s not clear how the 1949 birth date circulated, but it’s likely that Mr. Ocasek himself played a role. It seems much more probable that a rock star would want people to think he’s younger than he is, rather than older. Musicians and actors publicly shaving off a few years — or, in Mariah Carey’s case, claiming that she doesn’t have a birthday at all — isn’t anything new, and Mr. Ocasek declined to disclose his age in some interviews.
Then there is Mr. Ocasek’s voter registration in New York, again under his legal name, Richard T. Otcasek. Mr. Ocasek registered with a birthday of March 23, 1949.
Voters provide their personal details, including a birthday, themselves when registering. This information isn’t verified by the Board of Elections, Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman with New York City’s board, said in an email.
Voters do, however, have to sign an affidavit confirming the accuracy of the information on their registration form, she added. The form threatens a fine of up to $5,000 and up to four years in jail if the information provided isn’t true — a high price for a few extra years of youth, if that was the case.
With most — but not all — evidence pointing to 1944, declaring Mr. Ocasek’s age with absolute certainty can be tricky, especially when the best person to verify with is no longer with us. But on Monday, The Times felt certain enough to make a definitive change to Mr. Ocasek’s obituary. The story no longer alludes to any conundrum: He was 75.
For what it’s worth, it seems that Mr. Pareles caught on much earlier with his suspicions about Mr. Ocasek’s real age. He “claims to be twenty-nine,” Mr. Pareles wrote for Rolling Stone in January 1979, “but looks a few years older.”
Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.
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