At the mention of Devo's name, your average rocker will probably hitch his pants up, settle his air guitar a little closer to his groin, and shake his head. Novelty band. Bunch of geeky spuds from the Midwest with flowerpots on their heads who had a hit in the '80s.
Actually, those flower pots are energy domes, says local art curator Jade Dellinger, who admits to having proudly worn one to dances at Land O' Lakes High School in the mid '80s. He's hoping his new book — an unauthorized biography of Devo due out this week, will contribute to a general reassessment of the band's place in music and art history. Dellinger and co-author David Giffels make a pretty good case for defining the group less as a one-hit wonder and more as a seminal artist collective, noting that Kurt Cobain, Beck, Henry Rollins and others have cited Devo as an important influence.
"This was never even supposed to be a band," write the authors.
"This was all about an idea. A highly constructed art school brainstorm that merged acute intellectualism with potty jokes. ... A band? Maybe. But only to provide the soundtrack for the idea."
The idea was basically that humankind, which descended from brain-eating apes, is de-evolving. Eventually, the band too would de-evolve, says the book, and become less interesting. "Devo ate their own brain. And who could blame them? It was one of the most delicious brains in rock history."
But before it self-destructed, the authors posit, the band defined post-punk new wave music; innovated the art of the music video; made nerdiness seem cool; and pushed the envelope on performance and technology.
The almost reverent tone of the book makes the brewing disagreement between the authors and their subjects somewhat surprising. In an e-mail interview, Devo cofounder Gerald Casale was extremely uncomplimentary about Dellinger, calling him a creep and comparing him to the crazed fans in The King of Comedy and The Fan. "We can't be any more livid about the moronic approach these 'authors' took, relying on hearsay and second-hand information and missing so much color and meaningful history that Mark and I could have provided. Their attitude was shockingly disrespectful ..."
Although the book's bibliography cites two interviews with Casale, conducted by Dellinger, Casale says he was not interviewed for the book. "I remember speaking with him [Dellinger] about his desire to do a book and vehemently objecting to his ridiculous attitude and unprofessional manner."
At first, Casale was cooperative, even enthusiastic, says Dellinger, but he and Mark Mothersbaugh cooled to the project later on. "Ultimately, I think Mark was concerned the book might reveal too much," said Dellinger in an e-mail interview. "Understandably certain members of the band felt uncomfortable with it, as Devo had spent their entire career constructing what Jerry Casale has termed as their 'plastic reality.'"
Another source of friction might be Dellinger's interviews with Bob Lewis, whom Dellinger calls a co-founder of the group; Dellinger said Lewis also had been under a gag order after settling a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the group. Casale counters that Lewis' claims "range from inflated to false to dangerously delusional."
Dellinger also acknowledges that he and Giffels declined to let band members read the manuscript before publication, saying that they wanted to maintain control over the content, though it's unclear how allowing band members to read the book would have interfered with their ultimate control.
Regardless of how band members may view the book — and the process of researching and writing it — it is an entertaining portrait of a time, a place and an attitude that still resonates today — even for readers who aren't particular fans of Devo.
In bright, sharp prose, the authors explore the effects of the politics, music, art and pop culture of the time on the development of Devo's unique post-industrial aesthetic, absurdist humor and counterculture sensibility. And the authors do bring a credible breadth and depth of knowledge to their subject.
Dellinger, who directed a gallery in New York City and has curated some fun and edgy shows for University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum, brings a perspective on the artistic forebears and underpinnings of the group. He says he learned more about the band's roots while working with Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh, whom he recruited for an exhibition he was co-curating for CAM. He later learned Giffels was working on a book, too, and the two decided to pool their resources.
Giffels, a book author, columnist for Akron's Beacon Journal and former Beavis and Butthead writer, contributes his perspective on the developing music scene in the 1970s in the Kent/Akron/Cleveland area. Among the musical tidbits in the book is a story about Mark Mothersbaugh hanging out with a high school girl who was pretty but kind of hardened despite her youth. "She wanted to front a band but she was so shy ... that everyone would have to play in the next room while she sang, sitting on top of the washing machine." Her name was Chrissie Hynde.
Giffels also brings an affectionate understanding of the kitschy urban industrial wasteland aesthetic and sociology of steel-producing Cleveland and nearby Akron, Rubber Capital of the World: "... both places were defined by aging brick factories with round chimneys that breathed fire and smoke. In Akron, housewives went out in the morning after their tire-building husbands had departed for the first shift and swept black 'snow' from the doorstep. The powder was the ubiquitous carbon black that settled from the air. Otherworldly zeppelins and blimps lolled in the gray sky ... The windows in the Akron rubber factories were painted green, giving an eerie haze to the light outside. In the labs alongside them, rubber and polymer scientists worked with beakers and test tubes to create a new synthetic America."
In spite of the disagreements, Dellinger remains a fan and would like to see the band in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. And, he says, "We hope our effort will generate enough interest that Devo gets their 'authorized' biography in print too." That's when true fans can comb through the minutiae of both versions and decide the truth for themselves.
Are We Not Men by Jade Dellinger and David Giffels is available through DEVObook.com.
Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 122 or [email protected].