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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.
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Certainly the problem was Devo was a rock band, and no rock band ever really did anything serious besides the Beatles (and James Brown and Elvis); probably more the problem was that Devo was completely unique on every level, which blew out too many industry circuit breakers; probably worse was the concept of de-evolution itself—they got it from a comic book? And some bullshit quack tract about cannibal monkeys? So we're going to wake up one morning and be cavemen? Too weird. Look in the mirror, crumple your brow, wipe a certain light from your eye: trash sci-fi. In some ways, maybe people were distracted by that: Did de-evolution mean people are getting stupider? Sure, they're stupider. Got it—next novelty band, please.
But that's too narrow, and de-evolution is decay, entropy, things falling apart, which they do—that's nature, from the cave to the moon to the cave. Just a cycle, a lifespan magnified, except this one is the one big human cycle, and there won't be another. Which is the sad part, the part man was not meant to know—the tyranny of the finite, you could say. Per maverick almost-Nobel winner Fred Hoyle, back in 1964: "It has often been said that if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing high intelligence, this is not correct. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species, however competent, can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them, there will be one chance, and one chance only."
One chance: the way so many things work. Devo had theirs, and they did great, better than probably any band of their generation except the Ramones, and with better music: more ambitious and serious and effective than probably anyone from 1978 to 1984. But like the guy says: fuck rock & roll, I'd rather read a book. Mark Mothersbaugh Malthus, you missed your socio-literary calling, and how do you feel now? Maybe like you did then: "The war is over. Stop fighting." In some ways, the joke still stands: a new wave band whose Cassandra shtick was fulfilled and more within their own lifetimes (Casale told CNN he never thought he'd see the end of democracy in the U.S.; hyperbole, but ouch anyway . . . ) and who retire now to the world they unfortunately discovered. Devo was the greatest and, above that, the most right American new wave band—as they grudgingly brought up when DutyNowbegan getting bad reviews, the only people doing something "new" in new wave. But the real point is Devo figured it out first, and no one listened. A little scene from New York, as a random upstanding American finds our spud boys in costume, loading out the van for a show.
"What is this?" he asks. "Some kind of group?"
"Yeah," said one of the Devo guys, probably Mark, the Booji Boy man-baby mask floppy and hollow in his hand.
"So what's that mask for?" asks the guy.
"For later," said Devo.
DEVO AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 778-BLUE; WWW.HOB.COM. THURS.-FRI., AUG. 4-5, 9 P.M.; ALSO SEPT. 1, 9 p.m. $62.50-$65. ALL AGES.