Devo is currently on tour and the most exciting part about this round of dates is the fact that they won’t be playing “Whip It.” Actually, they won’t be playing “Beautiful World,” “That’s Good,” “Girl You Want,” or any of their other ’80s hits. They’re going to be playing tracks they wrote before their first album was released and it will be amazing.
Some of you are probably asking yourselves, “None of the hits? Why would I want to go?” Because, to put it simply, there’s so much more beyond the radio favorites. The songs the band is playing on this tour were first released as Devo Hardcore Volumes 1 and 2 back in 1992 by Ryko Records. They have been treasured collections since — until recently, CD copies would go for $60 each. (Both were re-issued on vinyl last year by Oakland’s own Superior Viaduct.)
Above: Devo’s “Fountain of Filth,” from Devo Hardcore: Volume 2
But there’s more to this tour than the band playing a bunch of tunes that never made it to radio, some have never even been played live until now. The Devo Hardcore tour is also about celebrating the lives of the recently fallen “spuds:” drummer Alan Meyers, who died one year ago; and guitarist Bob Casale, AKA Bob 2, who died suddenly of heart failure back in February of this year.
According to Gerald “Jerry” Casale, Bob’s brother and the founder of the band, Bob didn’t have health insurance and the medical bills he racked up before he died resulted in Bob’s family losing their house. Profits from the Hardcore tour will go to Bob’s family, who Jerry says has been left destitute.
But again, this tour isn’t a charity event; it’s a celebration of a band that broke through the wave of pop drivel that was the soundtrack to the Reagan years and told the masses, “Use your freedom of choice.” As a tribute, I’ve decided to print some excerpts from an interview I did last year with Jerry Casale that I thought I’d never publish. Despite working for two years to arrange it, in the end I was so overtaken with excitement that my thoughts were scattered and my questions came out in a stream of verbal diarrhea. (Luckily, Jerry saw through the gushing and was empathetic to my fanboy nervousness.) He warmed up to me and shared some real Devo gold.
KQED: You were once quoted as saying “Success is the byproduct of relevancy.” Do you still stand by that statement?
Jerry: Uhhh, well… No. [Laughs] I’m watching too many people who are terrible and irrelevant make millions of dollars. I guess I was talking about a time when people still cared about music — pop music — in a more serious way. When people were excited by new ideas and new sounds and new song structure, like when you heard “Diamond Dogs” by David Bowie or Roxy Music’s new record or something like that. The first Sex Pistols album, or The Clash, Gary Numan, Human League, Heaven 17… The rewards came because people were really good and really original, and that’s probably an outdated notion.
KQED: What is “the Poot?”
Jerry: You mean “Dancing the Poot?” (From the song “Jocko Homo.”)
KQED: Yes, as in the “Pooty poot poo.” (From the song “Shrivel Up.”)
Jerry: I suppose it’s part of the alternate universe that we were creating with our own language. The “Poot” to us was just a disgusting squat; something that reduced you down to a primate taking a shit.
KQED: Did that come from your “Gorj” days (when he was attending Ohio State in the early ’70s)? I’ve been reading about you dressing up as Gorj (in a black ski-mask and white lab coat) and going to art galleries…
Jerry: Yeah. I had the mascot “Pootman,” [who also wore a mask but with a wrestling singlet and who Jerry kept on a leash] and that’s what he’d do: pretend to shit on the horrible art on the wall. So he’d dance the Poot — he’d squat down low, wiggle and stick his ass in the air and kinda push on it. And when he did, then I’d feed him milk from an enema bag bandolero that I wore over my lab coat.
KQED: How much thought went into Gorj? It seems Gorj is like your songs, and your work in general — really thought out. They feel like every aspect has been poured over.
Jerry: That’s pretty true. That was what Devo was all about. That’s what makes it different than just a musical band. It was coming from a manifesto and a philosophy about life. A lot of discussion and a lot of terminology. There was a lot of inspiration and references that would create those songs but came from real literature and philosophy. And with the Devo twist of adding pop culture junk to it for the humor.
KQED: How did “Tickle Your Fancy,” your song with Jermaine Jackson, come about?
Jerry: I think our management got a call that Jermaine wanted to meet with Mark and I, and that he had an idea. We couldn’t believe it; we were in such different universes. But of course we always liked The Jacksons’ music and so we met with him, and he wanted us to sing and play on that song.
We were such smart ass guys… I remember recording those background vocals over and over, and we kept singing “Let me tickle your fancy, let me excite your hole,” and the engineer had no idea that we weren’t saying “soul.” At some point after we left the studio they figured it out and we had to come back. We were told, “You really didn’t pronounce the ‘s.'” [Laughs] We had a few days of chuckling to ourselves about it. (You can listen to Jermaine Jackson talk about why he wanted to work with Devo on YouTube.)
KQED: Looking at the merchandise you had back in the day is so great. The products that were made available after Freedom of Choice, the ones advertised in The New Traditionalists are just so out there. Take the “Action Vest” for example — to me, that just seems like the meanest thing you could sell to a kid. It’s made out of Tyvek, so you know that it’s really hot, and it actually covers the crotch area?!
Jerry: Yeah, it had elastic that went under your legs.
KQED: Did they sell?
Jerry: They did sell but it didn’t matter; no merchandiser would deal with us so we had to do it ourselves. We had to put up the money for manufacturing, then we had to hire a guy to fulfill orders and pay him a salary, and then we had to pay postage, and this and that. By the end of the day, with the embezzlement factor and all of the expenses, we basically broke even.
KQED: Somebody stole the money?
Jerry: Yeah, but there wasn’t much money to steal because the products we made were all custom and cost so much to make, there wasn’t a lot of profit. But yeah, the profit was dipped into by our own employees.
KQED: In recent interviews, you’ve said you were working on a Devo musical. Is that still in the works?
KQED: How has that experience been? Have you been obsessed with every aspect?
Jerry: Well, it’s not like what they call in the biz a “popsicle,” where you try to pick some kind of structure and try to string the songs together so it’s like a “song-and-dance” musical. It’s an actual Devo narrative that digs deep into what started Devo. And the songs, and the expression of the songs in the musical are organically integrated, like the way The Book of Mormon was.
KQED: Is that the stepping stone for the Devo musical, The Book of Mormon?
Jerry: Not really; it’s just a musical I respected. It was beautifully realized.
There’s a lot of good ideas [in musicals] but the execution has a lot to be desired. The Book of Mormon delivered. [chuckles]
KQED: Are you a big fan of musicals?
Jerry: Most musicals are horrible. [Laughs]
KQED: I was going to say…
Jerry: But there have been great musicals. Certainly West Side Story was a great musical. And even for what it is, Jersey Boys was a well-done musical.
KQED: Singin’ In The Rain?
Jerry: Yep, that was a great one. Most of the great musicals are time capsule musicals. There are not that many current musicals that are noteworthy.
KQED: How did Ryko approach Devo about the Devo Hardcore project?
Jerry: The particulars are a bit fuzzy at this point because it was so long ago. I think it was Don Rose was asking us if we had any recordings that weren’t tied up with Warner Bros or EMI, like from the early days, and we said, “Oh do we! Boy we sure do.” I think we got him a cassette copy and he… [Laughs] He started salivating.
KQED: Is it true that the first time you bought cocaine was after your first performance on Saturday Night Live and John Belushi ended up doing it all?
Jerry: Yeah. [Laughs]
KQED: What happened with that?
Jerry: I offered it to him, thinking he’d take a line, and instead he grabbed the vial, pulled out a glass straw and sucked it all out of the vial.
KQED: Did he do anything to top it off afterward, like flip you off and walk away?
Jerry: No, he just looked at me and made fun of me. He was acting like “Curly” from The Three Stooges the whole time. And then he offered me $200 and I said, “Ah John, I don’t want your money;” I was trying to be cool. He said, “Alright then,” and he rolled it back up — he had a wad of $100 bills inside of a red rubber band — and he put it back in his Blues’ Brothers jacket and left.
Devo playing “O No” in Denver on June 23, 2014 (credit: Devo-Obsesso)