Sunday, July 22, 2007

It's Pavlovian, baby


I must be an absolute basket case for even considering mounting another IJG tour for 07 -- such a thing would be like, what, the third? fourth? fifth trip we've taken this year?

I mean, I've got a semi-idyllic existence going up here -- hanging out with my beautiful family, enjoying the greenery of Portland, writing new music, getting all mixy with the new album -- do I really want to subject myself to the madness and exasperation that inevitably accompany the tour-booking process?

In a very real sense, the answer to this question is a big fat "no." But, alas, like any addict, I remain enthralled by the potential highs that can accompany the all-too-brief 4 or 5 hours we might actually spend on a stage during a week or so of touring. In any case, I keep telling myself to hang on, Sloopy; the next batch of gigs will surely push us into a position where this whole process actually gets a little easier. And if not the next batch, the batch after that for sure. And if not the batch after that for sure...

Ahem. Anyway, this time -- if, as the magic eight ball suggests, all signs really do point to yes -- we'll be exploring new territory in the fabled "rust belt" of Ohio, western PA, Kentucky, and (possibly) West Virginia. (A region about which, I presume, Zappa's delightful "Sun Village" lyric ("It take the paint off your car / And wreck your windshield too / I don't know how the people stand it / But I guess they do") could just as easily have been written.)

Got any venues to recommend, dear reader? If so, let us know!

"Why the rust belt," you ask? Answer: we got invited to do a showcase at (Cincinnati's own) Midpoint Music Festival, which on the surface looks like exactly the sort of indie rock festival some of us upstart jazzers think we need to play if we want to make our art economically (and perhaps culturally) viable.

I usually commit to these things based on a combination of instinct, research, and band voting. This time, however, in addition to all of those things, there was a weird convergence of geography and listening interests. It turns out that July 2007 was the month that I finally got around to checking out the band Devo; a band that, coincidentally enough, emerged (as probably everyone but me already knew) from the Akron, Ohio scene in the seventies.

Let me put this in context -- I have never really considered myself a true fan of the so-called "new wave" -- at least not in the way that someone who came of age during the new wave period ought to have been. Alas, while that particular phenomenon was happening, I more or less ignored it, turning instead to the fifties and sixties for my popular music.

As I got older, and as the new wave receded into history, I allowed myself to make occasional forays into its poppy, punky goodness. And so I have gone through an Elvis Costello period, a Talking Heads period, a Blondie period, and so on. But Devo was always one of those bands that managed to slip through the cracks. This even though I was quite sure that they were worth investigating further -- an opinion based soley on what I thought was the startling originality of the ubiquitous "Whip It" (as good an example of a weird song "crossing over" as I can think of).

Several years ago I tried to address my Devo-less-ness by purchasing Are We Not Men?... and was a little disappointed. I don't know why it didn't click, but it didn't, at least not right away. But I didn't give up, and recently, while hunting for interesting music for Thandie, I hit upon the somewhat misguided notion of getting her a Devo DVD compilation with an intriguinging title: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution. I dunno, I think I was probably expecting something a little more, well, "cute." Turns out Devo videos are anything but cute, and are not exactly the sort of fare you want to run by a three-year-old. I mean, they're funny, but man, are they bleeeaaaak.

Funny and bleak -- one of my favorite combinations! So the DVD that was intended for my daughter ended up as my nightly viewing for about a week. And now it can be told -- maybe I'm being premature, or whatever, but at this moment, I have to say that Devo is one of the most interesting bands I've come across recently.

Here, in no particular order, is a series of observations related to that last point:

1. Turns out Devo was not only from Akron, but they went to Kent State. Turns out they were there when the national guard gunned down several of their fellow students. Turns out (at least according to one report) that they actually knew some of the students who were killed. If any of this is true, I can only imagine that it was a key formative experience for the band -- much like Zappa's getting framed for making a pseudo-pornographic recording, and then getting sent to jail for it. Zappa and Devo -- now those are two artists you won't hear mentioned together very often. But I submit that they have more in common than you might initially think.

2. Exhibit B in that argument: also like Zappa, and unlike many of their other contemporaries, Devo seem to have understood dada's potential as a response to a world that gets more absurd with each passing year. So much of what emerged in popular music in the seventies seemed either to be about pure rage and alienation (metal and punk), or authenticity and narrative (singer-songwriters), or escapism and masturbation -- er, virtuosity (prog-rock), or celebration and the body (disco). Holy cow, I know I'm getting into deep doo-doo making these gross generalizations, but I do think the basic point -- that very few artists turned to dadaist aesthetics, at a time when such aesthetics seemed particularly apt -- is right on. Devo has always had a reputation for being a silly, weird-for-weirdness' sake kind of band (see number 6 below), but their intent, so I am learning, was actually quite subversive.

3. It may be obvious, based on what I have said, that my sudden appreciation of Devo has something to do with seeing them as well as hearing them (note that it was a DVD that hooked me, not a CD). Mothersbaugh's turn as a bouncy, demented professor in the video to "Jocko Homo" (for instance) made that song come alive for me in a way that my initial listening didn't. But I also want to be clear that though the visuals are indeed quite important to the Devo aesthetic, the audio is not insignficant by any stretch. In other words, I think it would be a mistake to overlook Devo's music, however simple and repetitive it might be. This is true on a number of different levels: melodically, texturally, rhythmically...

4. Unpacking the DVD and getting a little backstory on the band really helped, as these things often do, to put my own work and artistic struggles in perspective. Briefly: it took a long time for Devo to hone its act / philosophy / aesthetic, and once they did "get it together," their success was fleeting at best. If their commentary is to believed, they were (like most bands coming up in the age before artists were savvy about such things) fucked every which way by a pretty unsavory cast of characters, including (surprisingly) one Mr. David Bowie. And they continue to be fucked by bands like Korn.

5. Gerald Casale: "Devo's irony and absurdity were always aimed at making people think, and making people realize the random possibilities in a world of chaos. Thereby strengthening the validity of us as a species rather than our self-serving egotistical view of ourselves being at the center and masters of all. It makes you a much more humane person to realize that one degree in temperature in an atmosphere or .2 percent of some chemical over another creates a whole new life form. That's what we were always pointing out, that humans have to stop and realize they don't know what they're talking about."

6. Mark Mothersbaugh: "We were constantly misunderstood by the record company, critics, and everyone around us. Our sense of humor was ironic humor; we were so far out and had such a vocabulary already put together by the time we became public, because we worked for so many years in Akron, just coming up with our own choreography, music, philosophies, politics, wardrobe, the films, everything... our own slang terms. [...] People kept trying to put us in categories and we didn't really fit in with the punks and we didn't fit in with new wave. We didn't party with all the rock and roll people. We didn't take drugs. We didn't do anything that would have really made it easy to figure out what we were about, and the irony in our humor often threw people off from what the message was. They thought, 'oh, they're just kidding,' or, 'they don't take what they're doing seriously.' The record companies thought of us as just clowns and quirky, and they'd put out press releases that would say 'that quirky, zany band.'"

7. I knew that Mothersbaugh had a post-Devo career that involved making music "for the man" -- but I wasn't prepared for the little anecdote he tells in TCTADE: that (once upon a time?) he put subliminal messages in his commercial scores, with the intention of undercutting the very product he was hired to help sell (e.g: a subliminal message of "eat less sugar, kids," in an ad for soda). Outstanding!

1 comment:

ian carroll said...

Andrew,
My new numberis 818 400-9159. I know some great clubs in louisville, lexington, cincinnati, columbus, nashville(maybe). call me and we'll talk.


ian c