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It's Nelly's World

We Were Devo

alec vanderboom

Times have changed. Everything has changed.

Well, maybe not the fact that it is the nature of all things to change; but everything else. Take Devo, for example.

It was probably 1975 when a few of us convicts, er, boarding students escaped campus one night. This was verboten. Boarding students were to stay on campus, in dorms or the library, and we had a curfew. But we also had day students, who had access to cars, and those cars had floors, which were convenient for hiding boarding students until the edge of town. Furthermore, we had Kent to lure us away . . . a university town, which like Oz rose majestic in our imaginations with glittering promises. Those were called bars. With beer, and music, and everything.

Sometimes the school deployed professors to go hang out in Kent's bars to catch us--probably not a bad Friday-night assignment--but this one seemed devoid of official presence. What it did have was a band, announced with a silk-screened poster taped to the door, that none of us had ever heard of. No matter. We were going to hear, plenty.

They began the show with screenings of some grainy 16mm movies of the type once called "experimental." The experiment in this case succeeded, brilliantly. I was stunned by what I saw, like nothing I'd seen before. I knew I had just walked to the brink of a great canyon, with a breathtaking view of the future.

The band followed the promise of its short movies. Together they were sarcastic, nutty, mordant, and finally really, really smart--exactly what I liked, even if I didn't know it quite yet. (Perhaps because both bands were started by art students, and this touched their music, their gestalt, in similar ways, I would have similar feelings when I heard, on my college radio station, a song called "Psycho Killer." Instantly I knew I would never be the same again. I wrote my senior thesis to endless spinnings of Talking Heads 77, which might have had something to do with the way it turned out.) After the show I went up to the one or two Devotees to babble incoherently, though I was trying to say how I had seen something new that shook me from top to bottom, and thanks for that. I did mention my belief that they should get out of Kent--they were obviously too big for Ohio--and go to New York City. "We're thinking of doing just that," one of them said. (A couple of months later I saw Devo perform
in the basement of the Akron Art Institute, where they confused the audience into near silence; these were not college-town bar patrons for sure.)

As I left the bar, I ripped the poster off the door.

There is a recent interview, here,
with band member Jerry Casale in which he sounds depressed and bitter, as well he might. He describes a situation that is little remarked on: it is not just "the" middle class that has vanished in the United States; it is also the creative middle class that has been squeezed into nonexistence, between a vast population of working artists who can no longer hope to make a cent and the 1 percent that will make killing in the corporate marketplace and get covered by Entertainment Weekly. Musicians have nothing to sell anymore; when Barnes & Noble closes, following the final disappearance of most independent bookstores, authors will
join the ranks of the newly unpaid "content providers," which has become the fate of most other writers who used to be able to cobble together a living writing for print.

I found the Devo poster in my closet when I was cleaning out my childhood home a few years ago. Unearthing it from where it had lain under the bed for decades was like finding a priceless artifact from an ancient civilization. I put it away somewhere, and am counting on finding it again sometime. Hopefully soon.