Sunday, February 23, 2014

We're all DEVO

1. The Sunset Strip
"Here's to Bob Casale." Michael and I clink our glasses of infused bourbon, a few doors down from The Roxy and what used to be Tower Records. Bob Casale died today. As I read about this at my work computer, I am moved nearly to tears.

I never met Bob. But I did meet Mark. And Gerry. Back when I sold audio gear for a living. Somehow I managed to get a meeting with them at their house studio up in the hills, before they moved to Mutato Muzika. I remember they had a Fairlight in the hall and bits of it in the bathroom. They were super nice. They gave me a copy of Hardcore Devo Vol. 2 and signed it.

Michael and I catch up. We talk about music. We talk about our music-related jobs. When we first met, we were both aspiring musicians, flush with youth and our own mutual darkness. That was...20 years ago. At least. Now our blackness has faded to gray. We've got some divorces between us. But we're still playing and perhaps more confident as musicians than ever.

After dinner I drive east down Sunset, past the giant tennis-ball green building that used to be Mutato Muzika (and was a bank before that!). I want to stop and take a photo to memorialize Bob. But it's a nightclub now, and there's no parking to be had, and no photos to be snapped. That's OK. Dr. Tahuti Bonzai took a much better one than I could anyhow. Funny, I met him around the same time I met Michael. Life moves in circles sometimes.

Bob, Bob, Mark, Gerry at Mutato Muzika. Photo by Tahuti Bonzai.

I got up at 3:45 this morning. I'm in town for about 40 hours. Got a lot to do. Last time I was here, I ended up leaving without my singing voice. Oddly appropriate, I suppose. Things are mostly better now.

2. DKO
I think of my brother's band, Don Knotts Overdrive. Favorably compared in the late 90's to DEVO, one of their many high points was contributing a cover of "Snowball" to the "We are not Devo" compilation.

I think Alexandra Patsavas helped get that project off the ground. She's the hottest music supervisor in the business now.

I bought it, I listened to it. DKO kicked everyone's ass on the disc, just like they did on the Exene-helmed one where they did "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

For a good 5 minutes or so, DKO was the hottest band in Los Angeles. Old story. They got signed, made a record, got sued by the record company, broke up. The end. But before that, they played almost every stage in LA.

I walk and drive past some of them. The Roxy. The Whiskey. The Teaszer (now a dead restaurant). Doug Weston's Troubadour. Lucinda Williams is playing there tonight. I'm sure nobody remembers DKO in this town. Today, though, most bands are at least paying some lip service to DEVO.

3. The 80s
It's the pre-internet age. The time when blurry dubs of VHS tapes and cassettes were how most culture disseminated. Slowly. You'd hear about celebrity deaths first as rumor, before confirmation by Entertainment Weekly or Tonight or Rolling Stone or Spin.

DEVO is mythic. You don't hear them on the radio. Their records are hard to find. A few kids might have one on vinyl. At a party, someone is showing their video. It's riveting, even more so than the girl in the sweater I'm trying to put the moves on. The imagery is primitive, but somehow they manage to convey so much about sex and life that other artists barely get to.

I'm still learning to listen to music, to understand how artists can mean more than one thing at a time, and how they can mean 2 contradictory things at the same time. Devo helps me understand how music can be silly and serious, mean and funny, pop and weird, commercial and a failure. Maybe I learn these lessons too well. Or not well enough.

But whether they sang about sex or politics or whatever specific things they did in Reagan's America, they are hooky and catchy and different and weird. And I love it.

4. "The Future"
DEVO was often lumped in with Kraftwerk as part of some "synth pop future". Both bands had strong visual aesthetics, wore costumes, and made "concept" albums with strong themes.

In the decades that have come along, Kraftwerk's star has only risen, despite them not making new music for years (and that a pale shadow of their classic albums). Kraftwerk plays "serious" art galleries like the Tate, with only 1-2 original members, playing their old repertoire and showing self-consciously primitive videos.

DEVO was considered the joke band. Wacky hats! Look at those funny moves! Comedy!

Yet as I look at the 2 bands now, Kraftwerk increasingly seems like the joke band, as their "vee ahr robotz!" shtick ossifies into self-parody. They haven't made any great music in 30 years, and at this point, we are chronologically as far from Kraftwerk and their innovations as Kraftwerk was from Glenn Miller when they started.

Devo, on the other hand, look more like prophets every day. Their bitter espousal of "devolution" seems all too accurate in a world where a majority of Americans literally reject evolution.

As we rush headlong into the hot, gassy future we've prepared for ourselves, the surviving members of DEVO take no pleasure in being right.

6. Are We Not Men?
When I met Mark and Gerry, I said something to the effect of "nobody really got you guys. The mainstream never understood what you were really saying."

Gerry quickly corrected me. "They got it," he said. "They just didn't like it."

Their loss.

Thank you for the music, Bob.


1 comment:

NewYorkTim said...

Enjoyed reading this Anu. I was a peripheral DEVO fan, you probably introduced me to them beyond "Whip-It" as you introduced me to so many other artists. I enjoyed the "tour" of LA -it brought back memories of many trips there. -- Tim Reynolds