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Illustration by Scrojo '03Remember those canary-yellow jump suits: Devo knew but maybe didn't really want to believe that they knew, like characters from the trash sci-fi movies they used to watch so often. The truth, as the guy might say, clawing at his face, lit from below like horror-movie Ghoulardi, thatmanwasnotmeanttoknow.But in San Francisco in 1977, Devo told the truth about everything in a candid, cheerful interview, still buzzed on their welcome to the West Coast. Ever notice how the mad scientist is always the bad guy in those movies? they asked. He's just trying to help humanity, but he's punished for having an idea. Ha, ha, but these days we call that foreshadowing, and now let's cut to modern-day Devo bassist Jerry Casale, laughing as a shock reaction, talking to that same interviewer, the mad-scientist victim of his own invention: "De-evolution happened. We don't need to talk about it anymore. It was an artsy joke and turned out to be true. Now we live in devolved world. Things we were talking about came and passed. We are in it now. We are fish in the water." And then he wept—well, it wasn't noted in the print edition, but how must that feel? What an intensely personal apocalypse: the world became a Devo song. "Things fall apart," as the lyric goes, a potato slouching forth from Akron.
Devo is a unique case in rock & roll, always was, beating wash-out critical gimmes such as Wire and the Fall—American Anglophilia killed a native generation, did you know?—to everything by an easy 10 years, marking pop culture forever but mostly just as a Halloween costume—still a great achievement, with jump-suit/red-hat Devo-man a character as recognizable as Abe Lincoln or Groucho Marx. But the absolutely unique thing is they were RIGHT: the joke did come true. America crested in the early 1970s, somewhere between the Apollo11landing and Nixon's resignation: Dr. Richard Duncan calls it the Olduvai theory (" . . . from the caves, to the moon, to the cave . . . "), and quackish or no, the resonance is unmistakable; it's a capsized world, and Devo caught it right as it tipped. Casale has said the day he saw his friend Allison Krause shot to death by Guardsmen at Kent State was the most Devo day of his life, and is that impetus just to dress funny and sell records? Something was happening then, a total neutron moment: instant and invisible and omnipresent, and though a lot of artists reactedto it—punk cuts itself up, Philip K. Dick talks to God, out comes the coke and mirrors—only Devo reportedit: a band as cultural Geiger counter, Casale once said, to measure de-evolution. Ha, ha, back then.
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But now Fukuyama's happy ending for history looks pretty trash sci-fi itself, and the future belongs to Huntington's ClashofCivilization: a clash of civilizations is different than a clash of nation-states, and a New American Century white paper outlining some screwy neo-con neo crusade against Islam—good plan, guys—is actual social de-evolution, a step (per Huntington and writer Robert Kaplan, the African specialist who wrote "The Coming Anarchy") down toward the tribal: wars not between countries, but cultures, the re-polarization of the globe into something simpler, baser, meaner. A society based on blood, in all ways at once. The gap Kaplan saw as macro in West Africa is still micro here: the rich pulling away in an air-conditioned limo, he said, Fukuyama's high-tech last men, and the rest sleeping on the sidewalks outside—Hobbes' first men, with lives nasty, brutish and short. That's de-evolution: back to the medieval. But maybe more globally it's a process of equalization: again, per Kaplan, there are large portions of the world's population for which a barracks-and-war existence is a step up.
For America, it's not a step up, but many steps away—and if we're over the peak, we're moving in the right direction. "The country has in fact devolved," said Casale in barely 1980, "and this scenario we anticipated has unfolded in front of everyone's eyes. When we came out, there hadn't been Iran and Three Mile Island and biological contamination at Niagara Falls. . . . [America] is in the process of becoming second-rate and learning that the world has been changing in the meantime and doing things that put [America] in a new position." "With all due respect," responded the interviewer, "that sounds like rubbish." Because first of all, it's just some band, and second, how do you take the temperature of an empire? (Hint: not orally, ha, ha.)
But Devo producer Brian Eno found a UN study that pegged American civilization (and, by extension, Western Civilization, though that does seem a bit broad) to a 1976 high, measured by such quality-of-life indicators as freedom, security, equality, employment, access to water, etc., and that would be the year of Devo's first release . . . coincidentally. And per-capita energy consumption (shorthand for how advanced a society has become) did hit an all-time high around then and has been sinking since; it's tough to measure, but "real wages" (as in de-inflated wages) in America have dived since 1973, even though hours have increased and benefits have dissipated, meaning there's more going in the in hole and less coming out of the out hole than ever. Little steps down the backside of the bell curve: they'll look back at this as another Gilded Age—maybe the last one, depending on who we invade next. And you mean you didn't get this from Devo? They talked about it for years: we have always been completely sincere and consistent, they said, which, like de-evolution itself, might have been a little joke then but which has also turned out to be true.