Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Q: Are We Not Men? A: He is Neil Young

The great Andy Greene of Rolling Stone took me along to see Devo last night at Irving Plaza in New York City. Devo are his favorite live act, which is a little strange because – well, you don’t know Andy (or maybe you do, in which case: Hi!), but he’s a walking classic-rock encyclopedia with a devastating knowledge of Dylan and Springsteen bootlegs, and he’s spent a lot more time in the back of long black limousines talking with Neil Young than I have, so the idea of him going gaga for guys whose whole thing is taking the individuality out of rock (or at least making a commentary on same), well, it strikes me as a little odd. He's a generation-plus younger, but he's an Ohio spud boy just like them, and never having seen Devo myself — grew up with their records, learned to dance because of them (and the B-52s, and yeah, I know: lame!), but always found them a little off-putting (because, after all, isn’t that what they were going for?) — I wanted to tag along to see what the fuss was.

Thing is, I forgot (or maybe never paid close enough attention to get) that there’s the same warmth and one-of-us sense of community in their crowd that you used to get from a Ramones show. (Ramones had “Pinhead”; Devo had “Mongoloid”; you could argue both were about being outside of society; certainly both became anthems for their audiences, and “gabba gabba hey” is language devolution.) Good show, half split between ‘80s keyboard-driven robo-funk and ‘70s guitar-driven robo-punk. Funny how creepy their retro-futuristic art-movie apocalypto seemed when I was a kid, and how quaint and homey it seems now. (Of course, since lots of it referred to populuxe ‘50s imagery and assembly-line costumes they grew up with, it probably seemed kind of homey to them back in Akron in the ‘70s, but it sure came off as freaky ten years later in the ‘80s in a way the Human League didn’t, even if the Human League came from their own burned-out industrial city – Sheffield, England – and wanted to play around with the same sci-fi notions of dehumanization. And here endeth the digression.) One of the few spontaneous bits of stage patter came when Gerry Casale intro’d “Jocko Homo” by talking about how the plumes of methane that had just been discovered in the Arctic Sea proved that devolution was a reality. True enough, but made me realize just how old-school protesty these retro-futurists always were.

Andy pointed out that Devo started out at Kent State University, and that they were there during the shootings, along with Chrissie Hynde. This I knew. I didn’t know that Devo had come up with the phrase “rust never sleeps” or that they’d appeared in a 1982 Neil Young movie called Human Highway. But while we’re talking Ohio and Neil Young connections, does anyone ever really talk about Young’s sci-fi apocalypto bent? Maybe the burned-out basement he’s holed up in during “After the Goldrush” is just a hippie crash pad, and maybe the knights in the first verse and the silver spaceships loading up on kids and silver seeds in the last verse are just drug-fueled visions, but hearing it in the suburbs without the aid of tie-dye or illegal substances, all that stuff sure made me wonder just what kind of machines Mother Nature was on the run from, and who was driving them. That kind of question comes up a lot in Neil Young songs. Like what’s with those thrashers more than two lanes wide bearing down on the people planting their crops by the light of the moon in “Thrasher,” and why do you have to go to where the pavement turns into sand to get away from them? And is it just me, or does this remind anyone else of Cormac McCarthy? And even though I know the answer to this one, just asking: is the human highway one we’re all traveling, or is it [cue Twilight Zone theme music] a highway made out of humans?

Anyway, Human Highway, directed by Young, co-starring Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Dennis Hopper, who cut one of Sally Kirkland’s tendons with a knife he was playing around with during the filming. The clip above of Devo playing “Hey Hey My My” with Young is freaking amazing. For one thing, Devo is a way better rhythm section than Crazy Horse (who tend to thud more than they gallop). For another, Devo is doing their industrial alienation thing and Young is doing his hippie hurricane thing and each one give the other a whole new kind of gas-gas-gas. And the way Young wigs out at the end just banging and clanging makes his tour with Sonic Youth nine years later seem a whole lot more sensible. Essential stuff, and I’d never seen it before.

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