"I wasn't sure if they were an army, a gang, or a specialized task force of geological engineers. Whatever they were, I wanted to enlist."
"I'd always admired Devo's robot-gone-haywire sound, and their amazing videos. Their Akron humor somehow seemed not too distant from my Baltimore upbringing."
"The genius of that band is just staggering... There are two kinds of people: those who get Devo, and those who don't."
"I love them. Devo are like Dadaists to me. Everything that they express is a complete reaction against everything that we stood for. But they do it so well, theatrically speaking. And with a great sense of humor."
"I think Devo were the greatest punk rock band that ever lived."
-THURSTON MOORE, SONIC YOUTH
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© 2003 by Jeff Winner
|Read Chapter 7 now:
"The Beginning Was The End"
In early 1973, Kent State professors Robert Bertholf and Edward Dorn were given the task of putting together an arts festival. They wanted poetry and music, performance and visual art. By then, both professors had become important influences on future Devo members, Bob Lewis and Jerry Casale. They had been listening to the bright students discussions of devolutionary theory for a year or more, and had been chipping in their own ideas. Dorn, especially, had been giving considerable thought to the ironies of progress and wondering if civilization might indeed be moving in reverse.
Dorn, Bertholf recalled, was going to write a play called Crank It Back, A Play For The Country On Its Bicentennial, which was a review of the transportation system in 1876 as compared with 1976. And it was proposed that the 1876 transportation system, mainly built on railroads and waterways, was more efficient than a highway. Time goes forward but culture does not necessarily go forward at the same increments of progress.
There was talk about a lot of things. There was talk about writing a poetic line that was totally boring. (The goal of the poem) was to remove all characteristics of any high rhetorical art. And the same was talked about with music.
Someplace I have poems by Jerry that are so awful they would have to be devolution.
Dorn and the boys had discussed a television nature program that described both the sea mouse and a particular species of snake that had returned from living on land to living in the sea, reversing the expected evolutionary process. He, Bertholf and a few others had become valuable sounding boards. Bertholf found both the thought and the music to be significantly unconventional.
Originally (devolution) could be found in various ways, in various sources, Bertholf said later. The point was that in 1971 these two people (Bob and Jerry) together brought that idea into a new contention and re-defined it... made it an active medium for understanding. First, it was a socio-political situation. And then finally a whole procedure of persistently de-classical music.
I remember in May-June of 1972, (Bob) had just bought a white electric guitar, which to me was a fairly outrageous act. Bob was playing in the evening. They were not plugged in. They were not using their amplifiers. They were just playing, but it was what I later recognized as... like Mozart. It was the same sort of driven monotonous rhythmic base that is the inverse of Mozart. Again, it was a Mozart melody that I later recognized when I heard the music that Devo was producing... the beginning of a rhythmic structure. It was distinctive enough that when I heard Devo in concert, I (could) remember the white guitar being played and that music... the determined boring chords. They were non-melodic.
Bertholfs colleague Ed Dorn was a member of the Black Mountain school, which also included Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. A native of Illinois, he arrived shortly after the infamous May 4th student slayings on the Kent State campus, at the invitation of Bertholf. In the 1993 preface to his Recollection to Gran Apacheria, a verse study of the Apache Indian tribe, he recalled his early impressions of Kent, where this Apache poem was the basis for his course in the literature of the far West.
The atmosphere and mood among students and townspeople were disturbingly vindictive, Dorn wrote. Graduate students, when you encountered them in the hallway, would stay you from appointments, like ancient mariners. The checkout women at Safeway held you in thrall, like a Gestapo slowly perusing your papers.
Two members of the percipient Devo (Bob Lewis and Jerry Casale) were in that seminar, he continued. The atmosphere was laden with innuendo. I came to see the Apache which was the subject Id assigned myself as the students, the irreconcilables, and the enemy, Ravenna and Kent, as the ranks of General Miles and the Cavalry. Whatever the relevance of the metastrophe, there was a heavy charge in the environment.
Jerry was one of the conductors and receivers of that charge.
Kent wasnt then like it is today, he said. There was some just inexplicable kind of spontaneous combustion in that area that didnt make sense really. (Of course,) we didnt know that. We were taking it for granted that this was the way college should be. This is the way it always will be. At that time, Kent had a really progressive faculty.... They were responsible for bringing most of the interesting young filmmakers, sculptors and artists from the East Coast. (The faculty) brought them in as guest lecturers, poets and musicians.
Morton Subotnick was there doing workshops in the basement. It just was incredible. You know, Mark Rudd came and spoke Abbey Hoffman, Norman Mailer and Harlan Ellison. They would bring in the New York Film Festival winners, and show us all these films by, like, the Kuchar Brothers and all these underground films like Babo 73. We were just taking this kind of stuff for granted, that this was the way it was.
Whether they appreciated it or not, the members of the Devo circle were steeped in a culture that fed and nurtured their decidedly outsider notions. So when Bertholf and Dorn began planning the Creative Arts Festival in earnest, Bob asked them if it might be possible for him and his friends to play some music. They agreed. Of course, even they were probably not certain what theyd agreed to. A date was set for the concert April 18, 1973 and Bob Lewis and Jerry began figuring out how to pull it off. Although they and Pete Gregg had been making music together, they had never put together a full band. But it was a given that Jerry would play bass and Bob would play guitar. For the rest of the band, they began looking around them. This was the chance Jerry had been looking for to get together with (fellow Kent Stater) Mark Mothersbaugh. They definitely wanted him to be part of it. Rod Reisman, a townie from Kent, was a great drummer. Theyd ask him to play. And Jerrys brother Bob was a decent guitarist. They could probably talk him into it. But who would sing?
Bob suggested his roommate, Fred Weber. Weber was a talented vocalist, having fronted Joe Walshs former band, the Measles, and another big local band, Lace Wing. But he was also totally traditional. He sang pop, rock and blues covers and originals that sounded like pop, rock and blues covers. He hadnt been part of all these highbrow discussions of evolutionary theory, of human absurdity, of Dadaism and Chinese computer rock n roll. He was a bar band guy. But he was also Bobs roommate, and a really good guy. So when they asked him, he said, yeah, hed do it.
The next hurdle was material. The group didnt have a set, per se. They had recorded some stuff, but that was before Mark had come into the mix, and it would all change with his keyboards.
And what about a name? The word Devo had stuck, but they wanted to give it more intellectual punch. So they settled on Sextet Devo, a moniker that somehow seemed befitting of the academic nature of the festival and the Kent State University Recital Hall where the performance was to be staged. In that same vein, and perhaps at the expense of the more polished Fred, they listed the singer as Chas. Frederick Weber III.
By the time all this was settled, they had three days to practice. They worked on half a dozen or so songs, and rehearsed diligently. They wanted to put on some kind of a show and decided, in keeping with the simplicity and monotony of the music, that each member would dress in a different, single color, kind of like the Olympic rings. For their newspaper advertisement for the show, they used a picture Bob had clipped from the September 1954 issue of National Geographic. The photograph, taken in semidarkness with infrared film, captured a group of school children sitting in a movie theater, literally frightened out of their seats. The actual source of their terror was a highly climactic moment in a documentary film of a bird and snake in a fight to the death. But the band replaced that caption with the line, A typical Sextet Devo audience.
The picture seemed just right. Sextet Devos music was calculated to both attract and repel. The group wanted to be heard, but it also wanted to challenge and provoke. One song they had worked on, River Run, included a long segue into Marks interpretive reworking of the fourth movement of Brahms First Symphony. We werent very good musicians except for Mark at the time, Bob said, but we were clever. In fact, maybe a little too clever. It took a long time for the audience to kind of catch up.
Meanwhile, the members of the SDS, from whom Jerry had distanced himself after the shootings, were working up some kind of a response to the Creative Arts Festival. In a communiqué to members that proposed a Radical Arts Project, the SDS suggested, developing a broad and coherent methodology for organizing work around the arts... maybe a critique written concerning the upcoming Creative Arts Festival. Or perhaps better, they continued, an Action could be done around it. In the end, they seemed content to suggest, maybe we could put out a pamphlet about What is Radical Arts Project, Anyway?
Whether such an Action materialized is unknown, but Sextet Devo was about to give a musical answer to the SDS question, What is a radical arts project?
The evening of the show arrived. The group, scheduled for 7 p.m., was billed as Sextet Devo: six on six and described in the program as polyrhythmic tone exercises in de-evolution. Bob Casale, the budding radiologist, was wearing a set of scrubs. Reisman was dressed in black to match his drum kit. Jerry was wearing a butchers coat copped from Akron Provision. Bob Lewis had a monkey mask over his head. And Mark was dressed in a doctors robe, a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors and an ape mask. [See photos here]
The audience was rather sparse. Mark walked onto the stage alone and took his place at the keyboards, stage left. At full volume, he began to play, beginning with a mutated romp through "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," a version that would have made Mrs. Foxs skin crawl. In a twisted voice, he sang, Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail, hippity hoppity look at Peter go. Basket full of fun and toys, joy for all the girls and boys, hippity hoppity look at Peter go. Theres a nurse for Uncle Johnny and a boat for sister Sue, theres a douche sack for my mommy and a box of bunny poo
With the band still waiting to emerge, this led to what had become known as the headache solo. Bob Lewis described it this way: Ka-Twinnnng (downward sliding note), Ka-Twinnng, Ka-Twinnnggg, Ka-Twing... Ker-Plannng (upward sliding note), Ker-Plannng, Ker-Plannnng, Ker-Plannnnng... Ka- Twinnng, Ka-Twinnnng, Ka-Twinnngg, Ka-Twinnng .... Ker-Plannnng, Ker-Plannnnnng, Ker-Plannnnnng, Ker-Plannnng.... This went on for 15-20 minutes, while Mark scurried about the stage, seeming to be unable to control the sound, reacting every time the cycle changed, holding his head with both hands as if beset by an horrific migraine.
The table was set, and the rest of the band came out, picked up their instruments, and began to build on this unsettling foundation. Their set included the songs Private Secretary, Wiggle Worm, Beehive Flash, What Comes Around Goes Around, Subhuman Woman, River Run and Sun Come Up Moon Go Down. There was a vague sense of the traditional sound of a rock band, but with Marks keyboard squealing and squawking over the top and Jerrys sense of intentional monotony running underneath. Poor Fred Weber, dressed in a turtleneck sweater, stood sideways, holding his microphone uncertainly, as if caught between a desire to try to pick up his musical cues and a desire not to be seen in the middle of all this.
The performance was captured on primitive, black-and-white half-inch Portapak video. At one point, Mark plays the theme song to Mr. Jingeling, a local, low-tech television segment that resurfaced every Christmas season. Mr. Jingeling, sponsored by Halles department store in Cleveland, was a sort of full-grown elf who was the keeper of the keys to the North Pole. Every afternoon he appeared, whipping the children of Northeast Ohio into a frenzy of commercial wonder. The band devolves from this recognizable jingle into a throbbing, monotonous, tortured blues. A single note carries the rhythm, with a thin, repetitive guitar lead over the top. Mark, adding weird keyboard noises, occasionally swings his arms, ape-like, bobbing back and forth in a decidedly un-funky groove.
In this moment, the band has captured Jerrys notion of a completely devolved blues. And in fact, this earliest musical foray reveals what would become a Devo trademark: the ability to remove soul from the mix of pop expectations and to replace it with something else, usually gray matter. In the liner notes to Mashin Potatoes, an obscure, late-1990s ska-oriented Devo tribute album, the band Critical Mass observed, they have to be the absolute whitest band in recent rock n roll. Theres a real truth in that statement. Devos landmark deconstruction of the Rolling Stones Satisfaction is a pinnacle of the bands intent to strip out one kind of artifice (white artists acting like black men) and replace it with another (white artists acting like robots). Even in this earliest performance, even with a group that didnt fully mesh musically, Sextet Devo succeeded intellectually. They managed to make their postmodern statement, by giving musical commentary within the context of their own music. Their business cards would soon declare this Chinese computer rock n roll, scientific music + vis. arts
for beautiful mutants. This group was the opposite of, say, the Numbers Band, which fully explored the inner workings of the blues, tuning it like a supremely talented mechanic. Sextet Devo went into the same engine with a pipe wrench and sledgehammer and turned the thing into a spaceship that was bound to crash.
In his book Fargo Rock City, rock critic Chuck Klosterman wrote that, Listening to (Eric) Clapton is like getting a sensual massage from a woman youve loved for the past ten years; listening to Van Halen is like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freez. To extend that metaphor, Devo would be the equivalent of autoerotic asphyxiation, the sexual technique of partly hanging oneself during masturbation to achieve a more intense orgasm. Like Devo, the experiment is based far more on theory than any notion of soulful (or even human) lovemaking, and has profound potential for disaster. But if it works, well, its polymer love, baby. The Sextet Devo performance continued, with Weber being a good soldier, lending his talented pipes to songs like River Run, the title of which comes from the first and last words of a James Joyce novel.
The crude video of this evening shows an audience, if not frightened out of its seats, at least intrigued. There had been discussion among the band of only filming the audience, training the cameras toward the seats to record, not action, but reaction. In the audience footage that does exist, a young woman appears to whisper in the ear of her companion, half-pointing toward the stage; a young man stares in almost transparent confusion. He wants to get it, but he seems unsure how to accomplish that goal. Finally, at least one segment of the audience decided to go with the groove. River Run was the last song and included Marks long Brahms solo, leading into a bossa nova of sorts. Harvey Bialy, a poet who was one of the guests at the arts festival, was accompanied by some California-style hippie chicks with long hair, beads and fringe skirts. They got up from their seats during the instrumental interlude and began to dance, just as they might have done to the Grateful Dead.
And then it was over. Marty Reymann, who served as the bands roadie that night, helped tear down equipment and loaded the gear into his van. Reisman, who had played on the condition that he be paid, got his money and departed. He hadnt necessarily disliked the experience, but he was sure hed had enough. Sextet Devo didnt have any more performances scheduled, and he wasnt interested in staying involved with something that didnt seem to have much future.
As for Weber: I enjoyed goofing around with them, he said, but after that initial performance, I knew that was it for me. It was all too strange. I dont think it necessarily had anything to do with that appearance, but I pretty much stopped performing with bands and moved to Virginia within about a month of the Sextet Devo debut.
That left the Casale brothers, Bob Lewis and Mark Mothersbaugh to consider what they had wrought. Mark, in almost painful sincerity, reflected on the experience in My Struggle, the journal hed been scribbling away on in his room at Marty and Eds house.
I want people to be able to look at me and say, There goes a responsible man, or, There goes a respectable guy, or even both, he wrote. Somehow though, I always end up being the clown at the fish pond, or the monkey on stage.
My band finally gets a chance to perform at the Creative Arts Festival at Kent State University
a real intellectually pretentious affair!!! Virtual orgasm for the I.Q. conscious Spud; and, how do I walk out on stage? In a doctors robe with a monkey mask on, standing at an organ playing Here comes Peter Cottontail
and all the other guys just stood there in the wings for a full five minutes, while my face turned bright red, under the mask! Not at all the way I wanted to see it!