FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Watch Us Work It

In Essays on June 26, 2011 at 5:41 am

A reflection on “work” by Devo founder, Gerald V. Casale 

Work. Workin’ it. Workin’ for the weekend. Workin’ for the man!

James Brown was “the hardest workin’ man in show business.” But was he workin’? If it’s fun, it’s not work. You “work” to make money so that hopefully some day you won’t have to work. Work implies a certain amount of drudgery. You work to survive. You tolerate your boss. You clock in and clock out. You feel compromised, unfulfilled, and would rather be somewhere else. You move down the line in quiet resignation. That’s usually what is defined as work (i.e. a job). But what if you like your job? Is it work?

Richard Branson, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Anderson Cooper, Lady Gaga—they “work” hard to be the best and stay on top. The money they make is a by-product of excellence in their chosen paths. Dr. Gupta and Anderson Cooper reached the top by fulfilling roles that are already valued by our society. Richard Branson is slightly different. Part businessman, part slight-of-hand visionary, he created more value than most would have imagined possible by  re-inventing products and services as tried and true as soft drinks, music stores, and airlines. Despite these above-mentioned persons’ power and money, you can bet their lives are filled with some serious compromise that ensures their survival and continued voice in the marketplace.

Then there is Lady Gaga. After a life in Devo, I can relate to her type of success most easily. On the surface it seems free of any conflict. She started by doing exactly what she envisioned, damn the torpedoes. After the required years of hard “work,” rejection and struggle performing content with absolutely no perceived value, there came the big bang moment where the world turned upside down in her favor. Suddenly she could do no wrong and she got paid for being her. She made the masses want something they didn’t even know they needed up to that magic moment.

Devo managed to do the Lady Gaga trick on a lesser scale 30 years ago. For a triumphant moment we tasted what it’s like to have a powerful voice in the marketplace. To me it felt like the scene in “The Right Stuff” where Sam Shepard, portraying real life test pilot Chuck Yeager, wrestles his X-15 spacecraft to the edge of the upper atmosphere and glimpses the infinite heavens before crashing unceremoniously back to earth. We came with a fresh message and a shocking body of songs. People took notice and took it seriously. Then reality set in.

Reality is what always lurks beneath the media myth and hype. Reality says we all work for the man in corporate culture. As the Chinese proverb goes, the nail that sticks out gets pounded. You are especially scrutinized and judged if your success carries any whiff of change or controversy. If you challenge authority in any real manner, your voice in the marketplace is quickly revoked. Pink Floyd’s codpiece was duly snipped when they challenged the necessity of paying large sums of independent radio promo money to launch “The Wall” LP. Sinead O’Connor disappeared after attacking the Pope as a figurehead of illegitimate authority on Saturday Night Live. Pearl Jam was taken to the wood shed for challenging the ethics of TicketMaster. The message: keep grinnin’ and pickin’.

As the cliché goes, you’re only as good as your last hit. Sometimes even that’s not enough. If the outside forces of public opinion, corporate control, and maximum chaos aren’t enough to wear down a public figure, the usual go-to reason for failure is implosion from within. When it comes to a music “brand” that is in fact a group brand, the Spinal Tap-type stories of crashing and burning are the tawdry stuff of VH1 and YouTube jokes. For every Rolling Stones exception there are hundreds and hundreds of Sex Pistols templates.

In the case of Devo, the story is more sad than funny. Because we were actually about something, not just style (as in guys with skinny ties and white shirts), the descent to entropy from a true, vital creative collaboration was more disappointing and depressing. With our para-military type unity, our music machine precision and our ironic, humorous jabs at the more idiotic tendencies of contemporary culture, we had the talent and the will to continue to be relevant and deliver on the public’s expectations for us that we in fact created. All we had to do is remain focused and united in our vision. As long as we did that and “worked” on it, the fact that there were scores of groups who could play more notes than us, sing more notes than us, and look way more glamorous than our spud genetics afforded us didn’t matter. There was no one else sounding like us, looking like us, and saying what we were saying.

So, in the end our battles with the record label over our image, message, and the way business should be conducted, or our pronouncements in the press criticizing religious belief systems and duplicitous political policies were not the conflicts of our undoing. It was rather a slow unraveling, as the shared vision and sincere attempts for artistic innovation gave way to the cult of personality and the comfort some members felt making money doing something far easier than hoisting our creative flag, guns blazing, full speed ahead. We were unfortunately part of what we commented on. We were Devo.

I have directed more than 100 music videos and at least as many TV commercials during the years Devo’s voice was put on ice. I have made significant money doing those things. While one or another project occasionally provided a taste of the pure creative satisfaction that I derived from Devo, it was mostly apples compared to oranges. I was solving someone else’s problems and reacting to someone else’s primary creative output. I learned to roll with the twists, turns, and flip-flopping positions of clients, agency creatives, managers, record label executives, lead singers, etc. I learned to expect that the final fruits of my efforts would bear little resemblance to the original ideas I had signed on for. So often cool ideas that could have been fun turned to anxiety-filled rides down the rabbit hole. They made sure I was “workin’.”

Photo provided by Gerald Casale.

  1. So true. It would seem to the corporate world the term “art for art’s sake” is simply a delusion. If there is no profit to be made, no neck to ring, no river to run dry then there is no value. Do what you do not for what others expect of you but for what you expect to be.

  2. Wonderful synopsis of the Devo story. As a fan, I found it exasperating defending the ideas and the concepts that Devo pioneered to friends and family that made fun of the energy domes and never ventured further into the philisophy. Fans got the message, but it was wrapped in the wrong package for those that needed to hear it to buy it or listen. I will always love Devo and how it helped shape my independent lifestyle. Essays like this restore my faith in you as true leaders of thinking beyond this time and space. I forgive you for the adverts, but please no donut company promotions!

  3. You don’t have to reach everyone in the world and you don’t have to do it forever. Rest assured, your mark — and your band’s mark — on art, creativity, music and the sociological aspects of it all has been made. Now go have some fun.

  4. Thanks for sharing that, Mr. Casale. It was an interesting take on the rise and fall of stardom. I bought New Traditionalists and Oh No! It’s Devo when they came out and played them to death along with Freedom of Choice. Then came Shout! and I can’t say I played it much. I remember the video for Post Post Modern Man a few years later and it didn’t grab me, either. That’s the tricky thing about music – sometimes you write and play what people like, sometimes you don’t… and sometimes it’s just different people that like it. And it’s tough to say whether the diverging paths of the band were the cause or the result of the market no longer responding. Either way, it’s great to see the current incarnation of Devo doing what they do.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying what you choose to “work” at. It’s even better if it becomes “play” – of course then it becomes more difficult to define the words “work” and “play” – but as long as one still enjoys both – why define it?

  6. Play many shows, or just one. It does’nt matter, it’s all the same. As long as I can see you and the other spud boys LIVE then DEVO lives on. It’s what we do.

  7. This article really makes me want a Pepsi throwback.

  8. Being “right” isn’t always the comfortable outcome. At least if you can hear a whistle and feel a rumble from the distance there’s a chance to run across the bridge and dive off the tracks before the train makes you a memory. I thank you for that. No humanoid is immune from the realities of the “human condition”.

  9. I enjoyed this and appreciate your honesty.

  10. Gerald often seems guarded but I appreciate his openess and honesty in his essay.
    DEVO became a part of my life in the 70’s, they dared to be different at a time when everyone was worried about fitting in. Even if you felt like an asshole at the disco, you were happy to feel like you were “in with the in crowd”.
    Without DEVO’s influence many artists who are considered to be “cutting edge” would never have dared to step out of the box. I don’t think their contribution to the DEVOlution of music will ever be given the credit it deserves.
    Viva La DEVO!

  11. […] Gerald Casale A founding member of the band Devo reflects on what constitutes “work.” […]

  12. […] Huebner’s powerful reminder that having work of any kind is nothing to sneeze at, Gerald Casale’s raw acknowledgement that even rock stars make compromises, Lindsay Moran’s eloquent thank […]

  13. As I age I have become a cynic. When we are young, we look at the world and all that is in it in a pure, sometime naive way. “The world and everything associated with it is good.” We are told to learn, spread our wings, “take the bull by the horns and go for it”. Devo was a revelation to me when I first heard them way back in the 70’s. They represented me and my being in a nutshell. Then I got older, and the reality of life hit, to live one must work. With work came the realization that I was nothing more that a pawn, a very small fish in a very big sea surrounded by predators. I had become a cog in the machine called life. What is work? Am I a success because I work? Am I wealthy because I work? There are those in this world who have made leisure their source of income. I am still waiting for the day I get paid to attend someones party. We may believe we are free but the truth is we are all someone else’s next meal. A classic misnomer of the 20th century ;

    Arbeit macht frei – Work Sets You Free

  14. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  15. Here’s to “working!”

  16. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  17. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  18. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  19. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  20. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  21. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

  22. […] founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, […]

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