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