DEVO Co-Founder Jerry Casale Muses on Songwriting & Social Protest: Stream the Nakedly Examined Music Interview Online

This week’s Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­cast fea­tures a dis­cus­sion of song­writ­ing and social protest with Jer­ry Casale, the co-front­man of Devo since its for­ma­tion in 1973.

Jer­ry devel­oped the idea of “devo­lu­tion” with his friend Bob Lewis in the late ’60s when attend­ing Kent State Uni­ver­si­ty, and by his own account was rad­i­cal­ized to polit­i­cal action by the Kent State shoot­ings in 1970. This took the form of what was orig­i­nal­ly a part­ner­ship with Mark Moth­ers­baugh to cre­ate visu­al art, but this quick­ly became a musi­cal part­ner­ship as well. Mark had used his syn­the­siz­er skills to ape British pro­gres­sive rock, while Jer­ry was more influ­enced by blues, hav­ing played bass in The Num­bers Band and oth­er out­fits. The two start­ed record­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, bring­ing in Mark’s broth­er Bob (“Bob 1”) to play lead gui­tar and lat­er adding Jer­ry’s broth­er Bob (“Bob 2”) to play rhythm gui­tar and more key­boards as well as drum­mer Alan Myers. Buoyed by her­ald­ed live shows in Ohio that includ­ed a par­tic­u­lar­ly idio­syn­crat­ic and catchy take on The Rolling Stones’ “Sat­is­fac­tion,” Devo was signed to a major label and released sev­en albums before com­ing to a grad­ual stop in after their album sales declined in the late ’80s giv­en that Mark was doing more and more music for TV and film.

This cre­at­ed a dilem­ma for Jer­ry, who has regard­ed Devo as his life’s work and also regard­ed it as essen­tial­ly a part­ner­ship with Mark. There have been many Devo live reunions (includ­ing one hap­pen­ing now), and there was a full new Devo album in 2010, but that leaves a lot of time to mere­ly col­lect resid­u­als from “Whip It” and run a win­ery in Napa.

In reac­tion to the false­hoods that launched the 2003 Iraq War, Jer­ry record­ed a lim­it­ed-release solo album under the name “Jihad Jer­ry and the Evil­do­ers.” This work has now been repack­aged to accom­pa­ny the release of a brand new sin­gle (attrib­uted to “DEVO’s Ger­ald V. Casale”) called “I’m Gonna Pay U Back,” writ­ten with cur­rent Devo drum­mer Josh Freese and fea­tur­ing gui­tars by Oin­go Boin­go’s Steve Bartek. As Jer­ry has always thought of his videos as inte­gral to his musi­cal out­put, this new song fea­tures an elab­o­rate­ly sto­ry­board­ed and tex­tured video co-direct­ed with Davy Force of Force! Extreme Ani-Mation.

This revival of the Jihad Jer­ry char­ac­ter cre­at­ed to crit­i­cize Amer­i­ca’s para­noid post‑9/11 mind­set allowed Jer­ry to visu­al­ize a con­flict between Jihad Jer­ry and DEVO Jer­ry, in the Naked­ly Exam­ined Music inter­view, host Mark Lin­sen­may­er engages Jer­ry about what these char­ac­ters amount to and how exact­ly irony does (or does not) play into them. It was both a bless­ing and a curse for Devo that their var­i­ous mil­i­taris­tic and/or robot­ic per­sonas were so fun­ny. The humor (and fun dance­abil­i­ty) involved in songs like “Whip It,” “Mon­goloid,” and “Free­dom of Choice” meant they could gain an endur­ing foothold in pop­u­lar cul­ture, but on the oth­er hand, they’ve been dis­missed as mere­ly jokes. Includ­ing them­selves in the cri­tique, acknowl­edg­ing them­selves as sub­ject to the same human foibles, allowed them to cre­ate min­i­mal­ist, anthemic songs that had a self-con­scious stu­pid­i­ty and lam­pooned the pre­ten­sions of art rock. There was a clear con­nec­tion between the musi­cal styles that Devo sport­ed and the mes­sage of this cri­tique: They could all chant in uni­son that we are all degen­er­ate con­formists and use syn­the­siz­ers and jerky rhythms to act out our dehu­man­iza­tion.

Jihad Jer­ry, i.e. Jer­ry wear­ing a the­atri­cal tur­ban and sun­glass­es, was giv­en a spe­cif­ic back­sto­ry involv­ing escap­ing Iran­ian theoc­ra­cy, deter­mined to use music as a weapon to fight prej­u­dice and igno­rance every­where. What­ev­er the virtues of this char­ac­ter as a nar­ra­tive device, it was a mar­ket­ing dis­as­ter, rais­ing ire both with Amer­i­can con­ser­v­a­tives and with Mus­lims who felt they were being mocked, and so the char­ac­ter was retired in 2007. Jer­ry’s Naked­ly Exam­ined Music inter­view dis­cuss­es “The Owl,” a track writ­ten dur­ing Jihad Jer­ry’s ini­tial run, which con­fus­ing­ly has Jihad Jer­ry (a char­ac­ter) speak­ing nar­ra­tive­ly through the voice of a super­hero char­ac­ter “The Owl,” who threat­ens phys­i­cal vio­lence on all boor­ish, self­ish Amer­i­can evil­do­ers. Now, giv­en that there’s a char­ac­ter named Nite Owl in Alan Moore’s com­ic Watch­men, which is explic­it­ly about the men­tal insta­bil­i­ty of those who appoint them­selves the moral and phys­i­cal guardians of soci­ety, it would be nat­ur­al to think that irony is play­ing ask thick­ly in this new por­tray­al as it was for the Devo “smart patrol” char­ac­ters, but in this inter­view, Jer­ry urges us to take the cri­tique at face val­ue, as a straight­for­ward con­dem­na­tion of Amer­i­can arro­gance. Does the cri­tique land bet­ter with­out the explic­it self-incrim­i­na­tion? Or is the fact that Jihad Jer­ry is obvi­ous­ly a joke, the Owl as a super­hero is obvi­ous­ly a joke, and the fact that we’re talk­ing about char­ac­ters talk­ing through char­ac­ters give Jer­ry Casale enough of a frame­work to be able to launch very direct attacks with­out being dis­missed as shrill or con­de­scend­ing?

The lat­ter por­tion of the inter­view turns to a less­er known Devo track “Foun­tain of Filth,” which Jer­ry says he wrote with his broth­er Bob Casale (who passed away in ear­ly 2014) dur­ing the record­ing ses­sions for Devo’s most famous album, 1980s Free­dom of Choice. The song (in the form pre­sent­ed in the pod­cast) was includ­ed in the Hard­core Devo: Vol­ume Two CD in 1991, and was per­formed live for the first time as part of the 2014 Hard­core Devo Live! tour. In Jer­ry’s intro­duc­tion to the song in that con­cert and in this inter­view, he describes the “foun­tain” as all the mis­in­for­ma­tion and oth­er com­mer­cial garbage that makes up much of Amer­i­can media. How­ev­er, the lyrics of the song are ambigu­ous: “I’ve got a hunger that makes me want things… Nowhere are we safe… from the appeal of the eter­nal foun­tain of filth.” Like one of Devo’s well-known songs “Uncon­trol­lable Urge” (writ­ten by Mark with­out Jer­ry), this could be a song not actu­al­ly con­demn­ing the temp­ta­tions, but laugh­ing at pruri­ent hys­te­ria about temp­ta­tion, i.e. a firm­ly iron­ic mis­sive. The tech­nique here is most like­ly irony that cuts in all direc­tions: One can con­demn the over­re­ac­tion while still con­demn­ing the thing it was a reac­tion to, and a prud­ish fear of sex­u­al­i­ty and full immer­sion in it are two sides of the same degen­er­ate (i.e. “de-evolved”) coin.

The inter­view con­cludes with a 2016 sin­gle attrib­uted to Jer­ry Casale with Italy’s Phunk Inves­ti­ga­tion that explic­it­ly states this total­iz­ing condemnation/celebration: “It’s All Devo.” Again, the song was released with an elab­o­rate, evoca­tive video, in this case using the art of Max Papeschi and direc­tion by Mau­r­izio Tem­po­rin.

Get more links relat­ed to this episodes on the Naked­ly Exam­ined Music web­site. Naked­ly Exam­ined Music is a pod­cast host­ed by Mark Lin­sen­may­er, who also hosts The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast, Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast, and Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv. He releas­es music under the name Mark Lint.

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