L.A.’s Possum Dixon remember Ric Ocasek, who produced their “New Sheets” album in 1998

By on September 27, 2019

Night Flight recently reached out to a few of the members of L.A.’s Possum Dixon — Rob Zabrecky, Byron Reynolds and studio guitarist Matt Devine — to ask them to share some of their thoughts about what it was like working with Ric Ocasek, who died in his sleep on Sunday, September 15, 2019, while recovering from surgery at his Manhattan townhouse.

Ocasek had produced Possum Dixon’s third and last studio album, New Sheets, in NYC, at Electric Lady Studios and Chung King House of Metal, in 1998.

We found this short promotional film — produced by Jonathon Stearns and Possum Dixon — which was included in the enhanced CD release. It begins with Rob Zabrecky doing magic tricks, accompanied by a track from the album, “Only In the Summertime.”

We also found this promotional video for “Holding (Lenny’s Song)”:

During the recording sessions for New Sheets, guitarist Matt Devine — a longtime friend of the band’s — was brought aboard to help fill out their sound.

Here’s what Matt told Night Flight about working with Ocasek:

“Recording with Ric Ocasek for Possum Dixon’s New Sheets was a highlight of my years playing music. (Thank you, RZ!)”

“Lotsa long days and late nights at Electric Lady and Chung King House of Metal — I played a ton of guitar on the record and learned a lot. Ric was a rock star par excellence (the night we met with him at his Gramercy Park townhouse, he sat with two Warhol paintings of himself behind him) but one who walked us through Manhattan to grab dinner.”

“One evening, engineer Brian Sperber was finishing up bounces to get ready for the next round of overdubs as Ric and I were waiting in the studio lounge. We were talking with the sound down on the TV, and MTV showed a commercial that quickly flashed the names of celebrities who had visited their Times Square studio.”

“Ric interrupted himself to matter-of-factly remark, ‘Isn’t it weird when you’re watching TV and your name flashes at you?'”

“I found Ric’s production style to be as impeccably economical as those classic Cars records sound –- he was all about ‘the song’ with every part serving a purpose.”

“Early on, Ric advised us that people often waste time talking about ideas instead of simply trying them out. It was that kind of encouragement to experiment that made us feel comfortable stepping up, and I was happy to oblige. He also had a fascinating approach of purposefully mixing newly-tracked parts too low on rough mixes to evaluate them, feeling they’d stick out if they didn’t work.”

“With his taste level leading the way and Rob armed with a varied batch of cool tunes featuring his dark poetic lyrics, Ric nurtured a new Possum Dixon. It was music that was downright elegant at times — such as the sexy Blondie-style punk disco of ‘Only In The Summertime’ or ‘Stop Breaking Me,’ which we modeled after ‘Heroes,’ with my looping guitar riffs and fills (they’re not keyboards!) being a fave contribution of mine.”

“The clicky rhythm guitar you hear on ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ is the killer pink Jazzmaster that Ric’s playing at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the Cars.”

“Ric generously took us to his locker at SIR rehearsal studios so we could pick out some of his gear to play on the New Sheets sessions. I used that superb Jazzmaster on ‘Heavenly’ and the solo on ‘Always Engines.'”

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Matt’s Les Paul Junior and Ric’s Jazzmaster, Chung King House of Metal, NYC, 1998 (photo by Matt Devine)

“In between takes, I played a bit of ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ on it and said, ‘Total Buddy Holly, Ric’ — to which he replied, ‘My biggest influence!'”

“That Eno quote about the first Velvets LP selling only 10,000 copies but everyone who bought it started a band… Ocasek was #1 on that list of 10K (tied with Bowie).”

“The Cars ruled. RIP, Ric — you were the coolest.”

Byron Reynolds — who had been the band’s drummer in 1991 and returned again to play drums from 1995 until the band’s break-up in late ’98 — shared a couple of photos with Night Flight.

One of those shows Suicide’s Alan Vega hanging with Rob Zabrecky and Ric Ocasek (“He came by the studio a lot. I think Ric and Alan would make music for each other that wasn’t released.”) and also another one of Ric with his wife, Paulina.

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Ric Ocasek and a very pregnant Paulina, Electric Lady Studios, 1998 (photo by Byron Reynolds)

Byron:

“I remember after about a week into the recording of New Sheets, I noticed that we were already using up most of the tracks on the 24-track tape machine (yes, we were still using tape back then). I asked Ric about it, and he said calmly, ‘We’ll just got to 48 next week.’ The next week we were running two 24-track tape machines in unison. In the era of recording on to tape, that seemed like a pretty big deal.”

“R.I.P. to a true artist, and a really sweet dude!”

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Celso and Rob tracking vocals at Electric Lady Studios, NYC, 1998 (photo by Matt Devine)

Rob Zabrecky — you’ll find the first five episodes of his new celebrity séance web series Other Side with Zabrecky on Night Flight Plus — also wrote about spending time with Ric Ocasek in the studio in 1998 for his memoirs, Strange Cures (Rothco Press).

Rob sent the following excerpt to us:

Sometime in 1997, I hopped on a plane from L.A. to New York with my Possum Dixon co-hort, Celso, to meet with one of the most recognizable faces and songwriting giants from the ’80s: Ric Ocasek. No one on Earth looked like him, or so we thought. We met him at a coffee shop in bustling Union Square and immediately hit it off. He was this artful and lanky, gentle man, exuding a calm and caring temperament. You could just tell from listening to him that art was the focus of his life.

With his jet-black bowl cut, tight black jeans, and big, black, trench coat and sunglasses, he was certainly someone famous. While he riffed on ideas to record our songs, people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him.

As we walked from Union Station to the West Village to check out the famous Electric Lady Studios as a potential studio, I was surprised people were constantly mistaking him for two other New York celeb giants: Joey Ramone and Howard Stern. It must’ve been strange for him to be famous, and constantly mistaken for not one, but two other famous people.

We hit it off and jumped in to recording. During the sessions, Ric and I formed a solid bond as we developed melodies and counterparts to add to the record. Watching him work revealed how music was only part of his identity; he was a husband, father, and his interest in art and poetry rivaled his interest in music.

On the last day of recording he handed me a couple of books. “Here you go, I think you’ll enjoy these,” he said, handing me two books of poetry by e.e. cummings. “I hope you’ll see there’s similarities in your writing styles.”

Poring over cummings’s work before I crashed that night, I drifted off to sleep, excited to have a new favorite poet and a new friend in Ric.

Possum Dixon were formed in 1989 by Rob Zabrecky (lead singer/guitar), Celso Chavez (lead guitar), Robert O’Sullivan (guitar/organ/keyboards) and Bryan Kovacs (drums and percussion).

At first, Zabreck and Chavez — who’d met in junior college — put together what’s been described as an “offbeat cabaret act,” playing at long-gone L.A. coffeehaus (Jabberjaw, Pik-Me-Up), record stores and art galleries before adding O’Sullivan and bonding over the edgy British punk and American power pop bands they’d all liked from decades earlier (Cheap Trick, the Jam, the Buzzcocks, etc.).

They would end up going through a lot of drummers over the years, many of whom who joined their lineup more than a few times: Kovacs (1989-1990), Richard Truel (1990, 1992-1995), Steve P (1992), and Byron Reynolds (1991, 1995-1998).

They were already playing regularly at Al’s Bar and other L.A. dives and rock venues — usually picking a new name for the L.A. Weekly‘s club listings a week prior to publication — before they found the name that stuck.

That happened one night while they were watching an episode of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” Chavez told Zabrecky that the name of one of the fugitives being profiled on the show — Thomas “Possum” Dixon, who was on the run somewhere in the South after stabbing his ex-wife — that Possum Dixon sounded like a good band name (Dixon was caught a few months later).

Within just a few years, Possum Dixon — who’d formed their own imprint, Surf Detective — had organized several small tours and released several self-produced 7-inches and cassettes and Pronto Records issued a three-single box set, and they had a huge following in L.A., all of which contributed to interest from Interscope, who they signed with in 1993, releasing their Earle Mankey-produced self-titled major label debut that same year.

Their single “Watch the Girl Destroy Me” became an alternative radio hit, charting at #9 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and the video scored regular airplay on MTV, and Possum Dixon would end up touring with the Dead Milkmen, the Lemonheads, Reverend Horton Heat, and Violent Femmes, among others.

The very first time we ever saw Possum Dixon play (that we can remember, and we realized were kinda late to the party) was in March of 1995, at a brand new rock club in Sliverlake called Spaceland, when they played on the same bill as Beck and Lutefisk, who were all followed by a set by Nirvana‘s Dave Grohl‘s brand new band called the Foo Fighters.

Despite all of the national exposure and certifiable hometown L.A. love for the band, their second Interscope album, 1996’s Star Maps failed to break them out commercially — one of its insanely great singles, “Emergency’s About To End,” ended up on the soundtrack for the infamous movie Showgirls, though — but the band members were all beset by serious drug problems and dealing with various personal issues including depression (particularly Zabrecky, whose wife committed suicide during its recording).

Possum Dixon released two EP s — Sunshine or Noir and Tropic of Celso — and contributed a track to 1997’s We Are Not DEVO cover album, but the band continued to struggle to keep it together.

Zabrecky and the band enlisted the help of longtime friend and guitarist Matt Devine for what turned out to be their last studio album, 1998’s New Sheets, which featured songs a newly-sober Zabrecky had co-written with Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Gos, and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, among others.

Following its release, which wasn’t considered a commercial success, Possum Dixon called it a day.

Zabrecky, of course, found success as a magician, actor, and author, while the others have all played in tons of bands and kept busy.

Byron Reynolds played with Ward Dotson in the Liquor Giants, and a great L.A. band called the Blondes (originally called Eagle before Don Henley got wind of it), and Matt Devine has played with Permanent Green Light, Brad Laner‘s Medicine, Ventilator and more recently GospelBeach.

Chavez was just 44 years old when he died of a staph infection complicated by a bout with pneumonia, on May 9, 2012.

Our big thanks to Rob, Matt and Byron for sharing!

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.