An extensive and honest chat with the New Wave pioneer
All art is political. This is because art can do one of two things.
Art can identify and combat discrimination, oppression, lies, ignorance, and the fear and conformity that allow these things to run rampant and hijack the better angels of our nature and the operation of our government. Secondly, art can operate in willful ignorance of these things, and therefore become complicit in the continued obfuscation of our freedoms and manipulation of our media and constitution by the machinations of a sinister autocracy. Conformity is complicity. Period. Both forms of art can be entertaining, but this does not change the duality. It only makes it easier to ignore it.
Fifty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg, one of our greatest Americans, risked his life and freedom to enable the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. These revealed that as early as 1967 the United States military were fully aware that the Vietnam war was unwinnable, yet it was in the interests of the military industrial complex and both major political parties to keep the war going and feed young Americans, especially poor and non-white young Americans, into the charnel grounds of South East Asia.
VIDEO: Daniel Ellsberg speaks about The Pentagon Papers at the University of California
Also in the early 1970s, at Kent State University, Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis founded Devo as an agitprop, half-ridiculous/half deadly serious art collective, largely for the purpose of underlining the fact that conformity led to complicity, and complicity led to the continuance of the apparatus of organized death and racism. Casale and Lewis had witnessed the faceless machines of institutionalized death first hand, when they watched their friends and classmates die at Kent State on May 4, 1970.
Somewhere in the 1980s, the dream blurred. Amidst the neon blue mists of yoga leotards and MTV spacemen, Weird Al parodies and Al Bundy, Where’s the Beef and Just Say No, Girls on Film and Ghostbusters, what began as an act of protest became a meme. There was money in that meme; if Woody Guthrie had ever worn anything as clever/stupid as a red energy dome, would anyone still remember “Deportee”?
It is important to underline where Devo started, because Gerald Casale has never forgotten. He still makes music that has a very well-executed two-fold message: Devo, the creation of Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis, was a gigantic bullshit detector; and Gerald Casale wants to reclaim spiritual and artistic ownership of the style and sound that the world had come to know as Devo music.
Gerald Casale has a new record out, and startling and fascinating new video. In “I’m Gonna Pay U Back,” Gerald resurrects Jihad Jerry, a character created fifteen years ago for an album and EP he released under the name Jihad Jerry and the Evil Doers. Like classic Devo, Jihad Jerry was both ridiculous and profoundly serious.
“This character Jihad Jerry is, basically, what we would call a terrorist,” Casale says, “but my Jihad was not some religious or moralistic Jihad, my Jihad was a war on the stupidity I was being fed on a daily basis. So I created this character and wrote those songs, and fifteen years ago, I was met with everything from shrugged shoulder to death threats. I was a stupid white guy in a Sam The Sham style turban, clearly it was a joke. But people were taking it seriously, the patriots were offended, they wanted to kill me because I was Jihad Jerry, and Muslims were offended, because you don’t do anything humorous with Muslim stuff, and The whole thing was a disaster.”
In 2021, Jihad Jerry – and Gerald Casale, or at least a rather precisely animated simulacrum of him, wearing the ultra-familiar energy Dome – returns, with a song that sounds and acts like classic Devo: “I’m Gonna Pay U Back” serves to identify ignorance, and even accuse the accuser. The clip features Jihad Jerry lacerating Devo Jerry, before the whole thing flips, and the roles reverse, all against a driving, familiar, soundtrack of whoops, hiccups, synth bleeps and guitar snarls.
“I had to turn my symphony of rage — let’s call it that — on myself,” Casale notes. “You’ve got these alter egos, Jihad Jerry and Jerry Devo, and they’re accusing each other. Ultimately, when we are victims of malignant narcissists and liars and gaslighters, we are left with having to deal with ourselves, because if you accept how they victimize you, if you can’t get beyond that, they win. If you can’t get beyond that, you’re left fighting with yourself. I certainly couldn’t literally make a video about who this was that I was talking about, so it was necessary to make it a bit more abstract.”
Now, before we jump into the full Q&A, let me note that Casale is one of my favorite musicians to speak with. He is intelligent, provocative, pessimistic, optimistic, and catastrophically and wonderfully honest.
TS: My interpretation is that the new song and the video has both a global and local meaning – it could be a commentary on what a mess the world is, but also, it’s clearly about something personal to you. I mean, you are screaming at yourself in a Devo helmet. Using the energy dome in the clip would seem to be a way of saying two things: This video is somewhat about Devo, and that you, Gerald Casale, are claiming ownership of Devo…as you should.
GC: I am just eager that history doesn’t get rewritten. I am certainly aware of what I did do and what I didn’t do, and I have never been confused about those things.
In an ideal world, wouldn’t Devo be a collective, and basically anything you or Mark released would be a Devo record?
That was the original idea. Devo was a metaverse, an alternate world view. It should have been more like Blue Man Group, where anyone could have been Devo. I mean, after all, we said ‘We are all Devo.’ And Mark said those things, too, and I didn’t think he was just paying lip service to it. But over time, you know what happens. Things get diminished by the real world, and get put through pigeonholes and meat grinders, where the prevalent values of the prevailing consciousness and culture define you. They decide who you are. And you can accept that, or not. I never did, personally. Because right away, as soon as we got signed to a record deal and started playing after that, people came to me or came to Mark and said, ‘You’re the one, you’re the star, you don’t need these guys.’ And why are you talking like that? What is the problem here? It was a collective, it was a collaboration, it was an art collective, that’s exactly what it was. Like an ant farm. And that would have been a much cooler thing.
Will there be more music from Gerald Casale?
I fully intend to. I am a senior citizen. So many people I know or worked with are dropping like flies. So it’s now or never. After Devo was put on ice year after year and the can was kicked down the road and kicked to the curb, I thought, I have to do something. I believed in Devo. Devo was the brand that was created, and the best way to do anything creative was to do it under the dome of Devo. But when that was clearly in your face not a reality over and over, you have to do something.
Yet there are some Devo shows coming up in September, correct?
Yes, and I was as surprised as anyone that Mark suddenly said ‘yes’ to Devo shows, ‘cos year after year he said no, no matter how lucrative the offers were. His excuse would be, oh we have enough money, or I’m busy, whatever it was. But now suddenly, after the pandemic ravages everything, promoters come back and say, ‘Y’know, we can’t offer you what we offered you in 2017 or 2018, we took a big hit,’ so they start offering you 15 or 20 percent less than what they offered then. So Mark ended up saying ‘yes’ to four shows that are less money than all the shows he said ‘no’ to. (laughs) So let’s try to figure that one out. Actually, that’s rhetorical. I can’t figure that one out, and I won’t even try.
I’m going to ask you to finish three sentences. First: Devo is…
Finally, Devo will be…
Why will Devo be remembered incorrectly?
I think Devo’s footprint was successfully shrunken in the marketplace and trivialized so that although we lucked out in terms of being some cultural phenomenon, what people remember is the red dome. People remember the yellow suit. People remember the meme, Whip It. And now, even that’s going away. So I am not sure that Devo will be remembered at all, because it’s all gotten so twisted. Certainly the rewrite of our history has been relentlessly pursued for about fifteen years now, so that everyone thinks Devo came from Akron – where people forget we started at Kent State – and of course they think that Mark, because he was the frontman with thick glasses, did everything, said everything, wrote all the songs, and was there for the original concept. Of course that’s what the media does, that’s an easy mistake to make, and as a group you would have to consciously counter that to fix that. But that has not happened. And because of how stupid Devo gets reduced to, it kind of all gets reduced to the Weird Al parody, Dare to be Stupid, and that’s what people remember. ‘Oh, right, those guys, they were stupid and they acted funny! They were weird!’ And that’s what will happen.
There’s a strange and even beautiful irony about being in a successful pop group. At a certain point, if you have done your job well, you no longer belong to yourself. You belong to people’s memories. What matters is no longer what was in your head and heart when you created a work of art, but the memory people associate with it when they discovered it. ‘Oh, that’s the song that was playing during that amazing summer,’ or ‘That’s the song I will always associate with the night I met my beloved.’ If you become successful, if you become part of the mass culture, it stops being about why you formed the band or why you wrote a song, and you just become a mnemonic for someone else’s life events. If you have done your job well, you lose control of who – and why – you are. Devo seems to have really suffered from that.
I agree with every word of that.
Does that make the experience of being onstage with Devo today more difficult? When you stand onstage and see people singing your songs, can you be proud of that, or are you dogged by the misinterpretations?
That’s the only part I unconditionally love! That’s what keeps you young and that’s what keeps you healthy. Because we didn’t set out to write hits, and because we weren’t cynical rock stars, our music was conceptually driven, and it was art. That’s what I thought I was doing, anyway. I never, ever got tired of playing the songs. That would be like a painter not wanting to put one of his best paintings in a show, because it was ten years old and people really liked it. If something’s good, it transcends time, and it’s good forever. Playing those songs that were good and that were valid, and playing them in a new context in front of a new crowd, changes the songs and makes them alive again! That’s when Devo is not dead! That’s when Devo is alive. And the fact that our crowds today are multigenerational, and many – most – of them weren’t around for that initial explosion of Devo in 1978, to see them going as nuts as people did when we appeared on Saturday Night Live, that’s edifying, that is life giving. That’s the part I love.
When I see the scrolls underneath the commentators on the news channels, or the little blips of information coming in constantly on our laptops – to me, that is something Devo were very, very predictive of. Your early films, videos, even the TV commercials you have personally directed, seem to anticipate a moment of constant information and consumer/object overload [this is also a reference point in Casale’s new video]. Would I be mistaken in thinking that when Devo started to come together in the mid-1970s, all of this was somewhere in your mind, or am I giving you too much credit?
We couldn’t see it in the detail that exists now, but it was a broad-stroke ‘see it.’ We saw it going that way. We saw people being systematically dumbed down. We saw the education system being attacked by so-called conservatives. We saw people voting against their self-interests and being angry about exactly the wrong things. We saw how right-wingers could manipulate blue-collar people into being scared of the wrong. We saw how ad men were finding out just how much they could manipulate people with slogans like never before. We saw that corporations were growing with no control on them and hoarding resources. Yes, we saw all that stuff.
I remember being frightened the first time I saw a picture of Devo, probably in Trouser Press or Melody Maker, maybe I was 15. I think it was the lack of identity, this faceless thing. It was scarier than punk.
Well, that’s compliment. The problem with punk was that it was stupid, it was anti-intellectual, often racist, and it had so many rules: This is how you have to dress, here is how you have to act, here are the three or four chords you can use. Punk created its own canon, it’s own set of rules. What we were about was bigger than the individual. We were doing that stuff on purpose, it was all thought out and discussed. We wanted to be scary, like the storm troopers in Star Wars. We were punk, but as I often said in interviews, we were punk scientists. We were angry at the lack of intellectualism, the lack of concepts, the lack of fairness, the lack of problem solving, we were angry at people who were anti-information, authoritarian, illegitimate authority – this is what we were angry at. So we adopted the visuals of authority and conformity in order to attack it. That was clear what we were doing, we were mocking and satirizing this kind of fascistic, authoritarian conformity stuff. Don’t ask why, drink Bud Dry!
You could never have predicted how much the world would end up looking like Devo’s worst forecast.
That’s for sure. We were positing it theoretically, and recognizing that it was plausible – that was part of our dialogue as students, before Devo was even formed – we would sit around and talk about this stuff. We thought we were being smart ass, and cheeky, and kind of punky, just trying to upset the good, standard liberals who didn’t want to hear pessimistic stuff – but did I ever really think that this would happen? No. And when I saw and watched live what was happening on January 6 at the Capitol, that was like everything I had ever thought, times ten.
VIDEO: Gerald V. Casale “I’m Gonna Pay U Back”