I just returned from a five-day Zen sesshin with Kazuaki Tanahashi at the Upaya Zen Center. But before I talk about that, I’d like to talk about Bob Casale.
I learned of Bob Casale’s untimely death at age 61 while I was on that sesshin. It happened the day before the sesshin began and I heard the announcement on the first day I was at Upaya. Bob Casale was better known to the world as Bob 2 of DEVO.
If you’ve read my book Hardcore Zen you already know that DEVO was a big deal to me. Their appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 14, 1978 set my little head spinning. I had heard of DEVO by then. They were local, coming from Kent, Ohio, which, like Wadsworth where I grew up, was a suburb of Akron. The Akron Beacon Journal had featured them a few times. So I knew what they looked like. But I’m not sure I’d ever heard them before the SNL appearance.
Up till I saw and heard DEVO I believed rock music might be dead. Even KISS who I already liked by then were so wrapped up in the overblown rock-star nonsense of the Seventies that I couldn’t really relate to them as anything but comic book characters made flesh. DEVO were more real and they clearly had a message. Yet they were funny and exciting rather than being obnoxiously brainy.
I met Bob 2 once in Santa Monica. He was introduced to me by Mary Grace, a regular at our Saturday morning zazen meetings. Bob 2’s son Alex was a friend of Mary Grace’s son. Bob 2 invited me to hang out and watch one of DEVO’s rehearsals for a tour they were about to start. It was an amazing experience that preceded my getting to interview DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh (via my friend Christine who knows Mark through his wife) for a piece for Suicide Girls in 2010. Unfortunately it seems only the intro I wrote is still on-line. The interview appears to have been deleted so I put it at the end of this article.
Farewell to you Bob 2! You made an impact.
Here’s my interview with Mark Mothersbaugh in which I got him to tell me about getting John Lennon’s drunken spit all over his face:
Brad Warner: I’m about ten years younger than you and I grew up near Akron in Wadsworth, Ohio…
Mark Mothersbaugh: Oh! Where are you now?
BW: Right now I’m in St. Paul. But I live in Santa Monica.
MM: You made it out at least!
BW: Yeah. That’s important. Y’know I still get nostalgic for Akron.
MM: Then you visit and you kinda get over it.
BW: You realize why you left in the first place.
BW: I’ve done that a few times. Seeing you guys on Saturday Night Live in 1978 was a big deal for me. I’d already started playing guitar at the time. But I thought rock music was over. I thought I was working in a dead art form. And DEVO was something that was cool again. It really meant a lot to me.
MM: Well thank you.
MM: Affirmative. They’ll probably reissue more of the catalogue. Those are just two that are linked up with some shows we’re gonna do.
BW: That’s cool. That first album I actually wore out. It got to where the record sounded like shit because I’d played it so many times. So what’s different about this new version? Is it re-mastered?
MM: Now that it’s almost absurd to put out records, they have some little extras that come with it. I think even the regular one’s gonna be yellow vinyl and red vinyl. They’re very high quality vinyl compared to what they used to make records out of in the old days. So they’re definitely collector’s discs. And the packages are enhanced. On some of them you can get different versions of it, DVD footage and stuff like that. (NOTE: The CD reissue of the first album contains a bonus live recording of the entire album played at London’s HMV Forum in May, 2009. The CD reissue of Freedom of Choice adds the contents of the DEVO-Live EP originally released in 1980 shortly after the LP. You can also order an Ultra Devo-luxe edition from their website that contains both re-mastered CDs, plus 2 bonus DVDs and a colored vinyl single.)
BW: Sounds great. So why are you doing this now?
MM: I think for DEVO we’ve decided that we’re shocked that no one came along to take our place. So we have to go back out there and start talking about de-evolution again and remind people what’s really wrong on planet Earth. So early next year there will be new music coming out. But for the uninitiated and those who were somewhere else when it happened we’re putting out some of the essential listening material to help bring them up to speed. And we’re doing shows to accompany the releases in a number of cities around the US. We’re literally doing album one on the first night starting on side one track one of the vinyl. Almost like you’re hearing live vinyl. We’ll play through the first side of the album and we’ll flip over and play the second side of the album.
MM: And the next night we do the same thing with Freedom of Choice. If you would’ve asked me a year ago if that sounds like I good idea I would’ve said that doesn’t sound like a great live show. What changed my mind was last May we played All Tomorrow’s Parties in London at the Forum and we did album one. I just thought, we never put them in this order and that vinyl was supposed to be act one and act two of a listening experience. It doesn’t have the same build as a live show. It’s something different.
MM: I thought this is gonna have weird energy to it. But it was really great! It’s not a new concept. All Tomorrow’s Parties started a long time ago. And a lot of people are doing their albums live.
BW: Yeah, I saw Brian Wilson do Pet Sounds live.
MM: There’s a lot of people doing that. Now I finally understand it. I had never thought about it. But once I heard us do it I could think of a couple dozen bands I’d love to hear do their first album live. It made me think of when DEVO played Inland Invasion a few years ago. And Billy Idol came out and he played White Wedding and Rebel Yell and everybody was going crazy. Then he said, “Now here’s my new album!” And everybody’s kinda like… the wind went out of the sails. And the audience was kind of polite. Then after about 40 minutes of that he played Dancing With Myself and everybody went crazy again.
BW: That’s gotta be a weird experience, though. Cuz for you or for him it’s like this is what you did 20 years ago and it must not seem that relevant. But if the audience is into it…
MM: Yeah. But there are some things about doing that that are interesting. We play every year, though. The last 13 years we’ve done festivals, a lot of European and Asian shows, Australian shows, and a lot in the US. We played Lalapalooza a few times back like ten years ago. We’d do like three weeks a year, four weeks a year at the most and then that was it.
BW: And this time you’re putting it back together.
MM: Yeah. But there is an element where you’re going, I remember the first time we put on these yellow suits. I proudly felt like I was a McDonald’s cheeseburger in that yellow plastic box. And now 30 or 35 years later, I still feel like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. But now maybe it’s like a double patty cheeseburger!
BW: I was gonna ask you about that. Cuz it kind of surprised me. I was living in Japan in 1996 and I read about you guys putting on the yellow suits again and that was the last thing I ever expected to see DEVO do. But on the other hand it sort of made sense. Cuz you guys were never anti-commercial as such. You were trying to do it your own way.
MM: In defense of that, there aren’t any other bands that come to mind that all wear plastic yellow suits unless they’re DEVO tribute bands.
BW: That’s true!
MM: Everybody wears blue jeans. That’s the uniform of the last 50 years. People wear it and they don’t even know they’re wearing a uniform, but they are. That is the uniform. I think our yellow suits, when people call ‘em a uniform it makes me smile. Because at least ours was creative. We created it ourselves as opposed to just buying into Levi’s ads. DEVO wasn’t really about being sexy. We weren’t really anti-style. But style meant something totally different to us.
BW: Sure. That’s pretty evident.
MM: We wanted to look like a machine. We wanted to look like a team. At the time it was like Kenny Rogers…
W: I remember! God, that was awful. Talk about denim uniforms!
BW: Or it was like Elton John and his band, or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We wanted to look like parts of a machine on stage. We were more influenced by Agit Prop from Germany and Europe in the late 20s and 30s and Bauhaus, geometric shapes and the Italian Futurists and the Russian Suprematists. We were interested in pure art. And the yellow suits always felt to us like we were art. We thought we were in some ways much less commercial than anybody else because of that.
BW: Yeah. It’s funny that it became commercial. That’s interesting to me. You did Whip It and all of a sudden everybody was into it. But there was always that problem of did the mass audience really get it. Or did it even matter if they got it? There was that whole thing about Whip It being taken as sexual innuendo and all that.
MM: It’s only fitting that that would be the song that was most remembered in the United States and had the most airwave success. But that’s OK. People by nature don’t come to art or music to get educated or to get vitamins. They’re there cuz they’re trying to escape from the world. But DEVO managed to sneak in some vitamin-enriched information as a side feature and that was kinda good. Some people probably never got it and never would get it. But there were always those kids out there who wanted to know what it means. You might’ve been a fan of some band like that when you were a kid. Where you look at the album cover for every bit of information you can get. You’re looking for every clue. The posturing in the photographs, the type that’s picked for the title of the band and the album. All that stuff is really important to you at a certain age. It was to us too. We designed our own album covers and designed our own merchandise and costumes and stage shows. We totally understood the importance of all the areas of the aesthetic. It wasn’t just about sonic music or just trying to get on the radio. It was a lot bigger.
BW: The most brilliant piece of DEVO merchandise I saw at that shop Wacko in Los Feliz, the DEVO doll with the interchangeable heads.
MM: The company that did those, I wasn’t really into the style that they were doing the artwork in. I had plenty of arguments about it. But the big blow was that they weren’t doing a set of five. Because that’s what DEVO is. It’s a set of five guys. We went around in circles. And finally I said, we’re allowed to have accessories, right? They said, yeah. So I said I want it to have five heads so pole can change the heads on the dolls. A true DEVO fan would take the hit and buy five of them.
BW: Talking about other bands, I’m sure you must know Polysics from Japan.
MM: Yeah. We played with the last time we were over there.
BW: What do you think of them? They’re so DEVO.
MM: They are! And they do some of our stuff better than we do it. It kind of freaks me out. And their fans love it. I don’t know what their fans think of DEVO. They’re so into Polysics maybe they don’t even know. And they’re a great band live.
BW: Oh yeah. I like them a lot. One other thing I wanted to ask you about because I’m from Akron. You guys did a show at the Akron Civic Theater last November in support of the Obama campaign. How was that to go back there? I know Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders was there and The Black Keys played too.
MM: That was appropriately unpleasant and also had a lot of pleasant moments too. Of course there were members of my family who were really upset that DEVO was supporting Obama, which I could not believe. I said, you guys are in the most most depressed butt fucked part of the country. Why would you be against getting rid of blood-suckers? They could not see it.
BW: I know. I never understood how Ohio people could support the very forces that were oppressing them.
MM: But it works. On the other hand we played at a place we hadn’t played in, in 30 years. It was almost 30 years to the day of the last time we played at the Akron Civic Thetare. And we wrote a lot of our early songs in less than a mile radius from that building. So it was kind of interesting to be back there. And Chrissy, who was kind of freaky on the phone before then, when we got to the show she was a total pro. It was really pleasant to work with her. And The Black Keys, I’ve always liked them. It was my wife’s idea. She said why don’t we do something for Obama. She was worried because Ohio was a swing state in the last two votes before that and had gone Republican at the last minute. So we went back there to say, come on exert your freedom of choice. And I think that that’s what won Obama the campaign, the DEVO concert.
BW: It probably was.
MM: Well if you want to be honest about it, probably not. But it was kinda nice to play there. The energy was really good. Everybody was really great. Akron-ites were excited that we were playing there again.
BW: Yeah, you were rejected there at the time and then you come back and everybody thinks it’s great.
MM: That’s fairly common. Bands have to leave their hometowns to get discovered. Especially if you’re doing original material. There was no appreciation at all for that back in the Seventies. We would lie and say we were a Top Forty band so we could get a gig. We’d be up there going, “Here’s another song by Aerosmith. It’s called… Jocko Homo!” At that point there’d be some out of work factory guy who was bummed out anyway, some Vietnam vet who came back and the factories are all closed he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do with his life. He’d slam his beer down and go, “That’s it! You callin’ me a monkey you mother fucker?” We’d once again get paid to quit, beat up, chased out or a combination of the three.
BW: That’s amazing. Cuz I’m friends with a guy I think you know, Rod Firestone from the Rubber City Rebels.
MM: Oh yeah! God, that’s a name from the past! We spent a lot of time with Rod during the formative years. He was instrumental in DEVO having a home base in Akron cuz he had a club that he opened and he allowed DEVO to play there. Then, of course, we ended up bringing Pere Ubu down there too. That was like the cultural island in an otherwise really dark, culture-less factory town.
BW: He always likes telling stories about The Crypt (a bar that originally catered to workers at the nearby Goodyear factory which Rod Firestone and his band-mate Buzz Clic transformed into Akron’s first punk rock club).
MM: It was a cool club. I was the soundman for a while for his band.
BW: Yeah, he told me you were the soundman for the Rubber City Rebels! They still play a few times a year. I met them when they did a tour of Japan. I was reading about you in David Giffels’ book about DEVO. Do you like that book, or is that a touchy subject?
MM: We weren’t part of it. We weren’t interviewed for it. It’s got a lot of misinformation in it. My feeling about that is, whatever. There was this one guy who was tangentially connected to us for a while who got involved. And it’s definitely the story of DEVO from the point of view of this guy who didn’t get to be part of the band.
BW: The story I wanted to ask you about from that book isn’t one of those stories. It’s in there about John Lennon coming up to you…
MM: That’s true.
BW: I wanted to hear that story.
MM: When we started going to New York we turned into a phenomenon. Which was pretty cool. Every time we whether it was CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City after the first show that we played it was a mob scene. It was always packed. In New York at the time it was customary for people that were celebrities to be able to call Max’s or CBGB’s or the other clubs and say, this is Mick Jagger and I’d like to bring Charlie Watts and Keith Richards to the DEVO show tonight and Bianca my wife and a couple friends. And they’d go, OK and put them on the guest list. But then they’d charge that against DEVO’s part of the take.
BW: (laughs) That’s awful!
MM: So every night we played in New York we’d have people like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, all the filmmakers, all the actresses, all the people in bands. There’d be Frank Zappa’s band or whoever was in town. Brian Eno, Robert Fripp. They all showed up on our guest list. But that just meant we’d have to beg for gas money to drive back in our Econoline that held all the equipment and held the band. We didn’t have any place to stay. We’d have to crash inside the van.
BW: That’s like a twelve-hour drive back to Akron from New York. I’ve done that.
MM: Something like that. I don’t remember how long it was back to Akron. But I remember one night we were sitting outside of Max’s and we’d just played a set. I was waiting for everybody to leave so I could go in and finish unloading our equipment and drive back to Akron. I was in the passenger seat. And I looked around and it’s John Lennon and Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople. They’re really drunk and they come out and John Lennon stuck his head in the car. And he got up about six inches from my face and started singing “Uncontrollable Urge” really loud. He obviously understood that the “yeah yeah yeah” part was a permutation of what he’d done. And the opening of the song, I don’t know if you ever paid attention, but it goes like dah-dah-duh-DAH, dah-dah-duh-DAH.
BW: Oh yeah! Like I Want to Hold Your Hand!
MM: Yeah. I took it right off I Want to Hold Your Hand. Then the “yeah yeah yeahs” come in. So he knew it was a mutation of him. And he sang it for me right there with alcohol stinking spittle right into my face. I was in shock and about as high as you can get for the rest of the night. I couldn’t believe it.
BW: That’s amazing.
MM: And him and Ian, they just kinda put their arms around each other and started wobbling down the street singing the song all the way down Park Avenue or whatever street that was.
BW: I’m really looking forward to the tour and the new album. What’s the new stuff like?
MM: It sounds like DEVO, that’s for sure. Some of it sounds like it’s early, some of it sounds like the third or fourth album. And some of it is like the later stuff with more electronics. But lyrically it’s the same as what we always did. If it has anything to do with love it’s usually kind of absurdist. Other than that, without lecturing, we talk about the issue of de-evolution and things falling apart.
BW: Are you bringing the guitars back then?
MM: Yeah there’s some really good guitar stuff. One of the things I insisted Bob 1 (lead guitarist and Mark’s younger brother) do was I told him he had to play a lead that outdoes Smart Patrol. I told him this has got to be his new signature solo. So we’ll see if other people think of it that way.
BW: I’m looking forward to it and to the tour. Good luck!
MM: And thank you, Suicide Girls!
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Registration is now open for our Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center May 9-11, 2014
The events page is now updated! Take a look at where I’m gonna be!
You can see the documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations (I’ll be at all screenings except the one in Ithaca):
• March 11, 2014 Ithaca, NY
• March 15, 2014 Brooklyn, NY
• April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA