Prior to arriving at the Bardo Performing Arts Center, where the event took place, we investigated the quaint downtown of Sylva where we ate dinner and visited several shops. Yes, we spent a few minutes in a record store; a clip joint where all used LPs were $9.99…and up! As if I needed to mention it, they doubled as a “vape shop.” Ugh. Don’t waste your time at In Your Ear Music Emporium unless you are desperate for kicks! We arrived on the nearby campus about 25 minutes before showtime. We got put tickets at will call and missed looking at the art exhibit that Mark Mothersbaugh had collaborated with WCU art students on since my wife wanted good seats once they opened the doors. We queued up and waited; having entered the hall where the event was after 7:00 and were asked to leave. They should have been seating by then but were not ready for some reason.
So we got in line and waited. A young lady who was a freshman; having just begun classes that week, saw my “We’re All DEVO” laserdisc and thought it was an album I was bringing to get signed. I had considered the new book DEVO issued a few weeks ago, but since the band had formed in the early with the express intent of making one of these newfangled laserdisc albums that had been promised since the early 70s in the type of science/tech magazines my father always subscribed to like Popular Science [see left]. The reality was that LD finally reached the market in 1980; about 15 years after it had first been proposed. I told her about the laserdisc format; the first optical media product ever designed. But the timing was right for DEVO. They issued their second video album in the format in 1983 and mine was [hopefully] getting Mark Mothersbaugh to sign it.
The young lady spoke of her first week at the school and how her father was a big DEVO fan, but was unable to get there in time from Charlotte to attend. So she was attending for her father. She also mentioned how she had listened to DEVO and that reminded her of another band she’d heard called Oingo Boingo. “Sharp kid,” I thought to myself as I told her how accurate she was with that thought. I explained how Oingo Boingo started out as The Mystic Knights Of Oingo Boingo; an avant-garde theater group, but by 1980 they had merely become a band; and yeah. They were similar to DEVO.
We finally got seated after the ticket taker got up to speed on her scanning device. I was a little worried there for a while as it was a no go and the crowds were piling up at that point. The young lady sat next to my wife and I in the fourth row [no neck craning] and we chatted before the event began. After a little while, Jon Jicha of the WCU Art Department came out and began introducing Mr. Mothersbaugh, who arrived onstage in the middle of Jicha’s spiel. Then they sat down and got this panel going. Not before announcing no photos or recording, please. So the pic above is from the University itself.
If I had wondered why was Mothersbaugh here in podunk Cullowhee, NC about an hour between Knoxville, TN on the left, and Asheville, NC on the right, it apparently all came down to Jicha, who had attended art classes at Kent State in the same period as Mothersbaugh had in the early 1970s. The moderator was the chair of the WCU Design + Media Arts program was old college buddies with Mothersbaugh. Jicha had come to Kent State University from Cleveland while Mothersbaugh was more local, from very nearby Akron. Both had grown up in the sway of the anarchic beatnik Cle TV horror host Ghoulardi. Just like any teenaged, malcontent northeastern Ohio proto punks of the early to mid 60s. [see: Lux Interior, Dave Thomas] So Mothersbaugh and Jicha waxed eloquent on the subject of Ghoulardi [a.k.a. Ernie Anderson] for a little while. Jicha had lived in Cleveland so he delivered papers to Anderson on his paper route. Motherbaugh once had Ghoulardi come to his high school for a donkey basketball fundraiser. Don’t ask [or if you must…]. Young Mark saw Anderson walking down a hallway smoking a cig [“cool!”] and when he waved “Ghoulardi!” Anderson simply responded “f*** off, kid!” “Ghoulardi talked to me!” was Mothersbaugh’s starry-eyed takeaway.
Mothersbaugh recounted on how his strong gravitation to to the visual arts came down to him getting his vision checked and his severe myopia [which actually made him legally blind] was finally corrected by third grade with the strong prescription he wears to this day. Once he could actually see things further away than in his hands and it was a transformative difference. He began compulsively drawing these new experiences and by the time he was in high school, he managed to get a piece into a local art show. This happened at a time when he really had no real life direction but there were storm clouds on the horizon to influence his coming adulthood.
Having come from blue collar stock, college had never been mentioned at home but with the Vietnam War in full swing, Mothersbaugh asked himself: could he could pull the trigger if he was drafted? At that time the allure of college became much stronger. His art teacher helped him get an art scholarship to defray some of his costs. He worked as a maintenance man at his apartment complex to make up the difference and he began to thrive and blossom in the art school environment. He met grad student Gerry Casale, who had admired his self printed decals of astronauts wielding potatoes that Motherbaugh had spread all across campus like Shepherd Fairey 35 years early. The two clicked and with Bob Lewis along for the ride, they began to formulate their DEVO concept following its flashpoint; the Kent State Massacre of 1970.
Mothersbaugh also told the young students about movements like Mail Art, which were profound ways for strangers to connect artistically decades in advance of something like The Internet. This was big in the 70s and a fascinating way to connect remotely to others via inexpensive postcards. He began making hundreds of small works and began saving them in stamp collector’s albums; eventually amassing over 400, 100 page books of these small works. Which he adds to daily over the last 40+ years.
The third leg of his artistic triumvirate occurred in the mid 80s, when DEVO fan Paul Rubens tapped Mothersbaugh to score his Pee-Wee Playhouse television show. The work sparked interest in Mothersbaugh scoring other children’s shows, like Nickelodeon’s ”Rugrats.” From then it was but a hop, skip, and a jump until he was having a successful film and television scoring career. He made a big splash scoring the first four Wes Anderson movies, and today he has numerous soundtracks under his belt. One anecdote he told the audience proved illuminating to the ways that big money Hollywood now works. He was taken by Taika Waititi’s last film, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople,” [as should anyone be!] and when contacted by Waititi, he eager signed on to score the director’s next film: Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok.” He learned that there was not the time to actually score based on dailies or even the script. He was asked to create suites for various moods which would then be cut and pasted into the finished film. “No wonder ‘Captain America’s’ soundtrack put me to sleep,” he exclaimed. In today’s huge budget superhero franchises, even seasoned composers are treated like stock music services once hired. In the end he got one scene on a new planet to follow his muse on, and that was the only electronic portion of the score.
The evening came to a finish all too soon and Jicha took a few questions from the audience; usually related to film scoring or art. One chap asked how he can avoid overworking his art so that it remained spontaneous and fresh – making me immediately thinking of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. Which were then mentioned by the moderator. Curiously, DEVO didn’t seem to be a hot topic among the audience. The end of the talk was announced and the audience began dispersing. Not, your’s truly, of course. This was when things got interesting. Jicha announced a downer “no autographs” at the end of the talk, which considering the dozen people hanging around afterward, seemed to be unduly harsh. But then a friend of the moderator came to the front of the stage and handed Mothersbaugh a piece of artwork to sign, and with that the firewall had been breached. My wife was adamant that we not leave until he signed that laserdisc!
Stephanie, the young lady who sat with us, had wanted to get a photo of herself with Mothersbaugh to send her father. We had a mission to accomplish! A handful of record were autographed and when a lull occurred, I took the opportunity to thank him for the DEVO Brand/Unmasked book which I had pre-ordered a few months ago. I appreciated the quality and depth of it [not to mention the price] and Mothersbaugh revealed that he almost thought they waited too long and took too long to finish it. He revealed that they had not wanted to have any interview text with himself and Gerry Casale inside of it. They had originally wanted all of the copy to be fully excerpted from vintage press verbatim, but a change to copyright law two years ago made that impossible without securing republishing rights from the copyright holders to many defunct journals, newspapers, and magazines. Thus the text as it currently is. Mothersbaugh said that they didn’t want all of that “and then he thought of…” copy in their book. Interesting. Then he said that after the book was published, lots of people came out of the woodwork with lots of great archival photos so that maybe a second volume by Taschen could happen one day. I took the opportunity to hand him the laserdisc, which he was glad to sign.
We listened to him talking with others after the event, which was even better. He spoke to some about how he had underestimated Brian Eno’s lyrics [“King’s Lead Hat” was a game-changer for him once Eno told him it was an anagram of Talking Heads] but that Eno had financed their debut album and he ended up being very impressed with his commitment to their all-important debut album. He’s right. That is what the history books will ultimately judge DEVO on and trust me, it will find them way ahead of the crowd. Things were finally dispersing when we told Jicha that Stephanie wanted a photo of herself with Mark for her father, who could not be there that day. After finding the stage lights, which were still blazing, Mark posed with Stephanie with her throwing a punch and him taking it on the jaw while Jicha snapped a couple of photos. Classic!
We then left the theater and tried to see the artwork which had been outside in the gallery earlier, but they had been taking it down during the show, and we missed out. I needed to use the bathroom and while I was in there, washing up, who entered but Mothersbaugh. I said “hi” as he entered and assured him that this was not a stalking situation as I washed up. I’ve not ever been one to converse in bathrooms, but how many chances will I get to talk with this guy, who is a major player in my world? So I told him that the mention of Eno reminded me of when I had seen Eno’s lecture at Moogfest 2013. I mentioned that when asked by an audience member during Q+A what acts he had worked with had impressed that he had singled out DEVO as being very important work, in spite of the fact that Eno personally found the single-minded focus of the band personally difficult to bear. They knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and had thought long and hard about this. In the end he simply helped them to achieve it and afterward, he realized that that was the right thing to do. Mark then responded that they still have the multitrack masters with all of Eno and Bowie’s harmonies and filigree that probably had no real place in such an antagonistic and bold statement. He wondered if they should consider making that available all of these years later. I admitted that it sounded like a perfect Record Store Day release, and as much as I hate RSD, I would certainly buy one. With that I bid farewell and headed out to meet my wife and Stephanie, who we offered to drive back to her dorm.
I have to say that I really enjoy seeing my favorite musicians give lectures and talks. When they are as intelligent as the likes of Eno, Fripp, Ferry, and Motherbaugh, how can it be anything but fascinating?
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