(Above: Rare footage from Devo’s first-ever concert in 1973.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
On May 2, 1970, Bob Lewis thought he had it all figured out. In just a few weeks he would graduate from Kent State University. He would come back in the fall and start on his graduate degree in anthropology.
The National Guard arrived on campus the next day and everything changed. There had been rumblings of unrest before. The previous year there had been a skirmish over the administration allowing the Oakland police department to recruit on campus. When the students tried to protest at the disciplinary hearing of the student organizers they were locked in a building and surrounded by the police.
But that incident didn’t compare to what happened on May 4, 1970. The details of the day are well-known: four unarmed students were killed by National Guard troops trying to disperse an anti-war rally. In less than 24 hours an entire generation entered a new paradigm.
“Devo wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kent,” said Lewis, one of the band’s founding members. “If it hadn’t been for May 4, I would have gotten my doctorate in anthropology and taught or gone out on digs. Jerry (Casale, Devo’s bass player) probably would have wound up as a graphic artist or art professor.”
Instead, Casale and Lewis decided to channel their outrage at the system by holding a mirror to it. Informed by professors who had become friends, visiting faculty and articles such as “Readers vs. Breeders and “Polymer Love,” the duo started creating their own agenda.
Kent State students run for cover as the National Guard open fire on May 4, 1970.
“Devo, at least partly, was a joke at first. It was a lens we turned on society,” Lewis said. “The plan wasn’t necessarily to be in a band in the beginning. There was always a multimedia, subversive element.”
In 1972, after working odd jobs in Kent, Ohio, the duo migrated to California to write for the underground newspaper the “Los Angeles Staff.” In exchange for writing legitimate articles, Lewis and Casale were allowed to insert pieces of Devo propaganda. The paper quickly folded and the two were back in Kent that fall.
“Jerry and I worked on Devo for two years before Mark (Mothersbaugh, Devo keyboardist) got involved,” Lewis said. “At the time he was in a group called Flossy Bobbit, playing Hammond B3 organ, mellotron, Moog (synthesizer) and Farfisa organ all at the same time. The first thing we told him when he joined was that everything had to be simple and stupid.”
Mothersbaugh not only brought a higher level of musicianship to the group, but several thousand dollars worth of equipment, including a PA. Like Casale and Lewis, Mothersbaugh was a Kent State alum and was also present at the protest on May 4.
“Mark was two or three years younger than us, so I didn’t really know him,” Lewis said. “I certainly recognized him from school. I think he and Jerry may have had an art class together.”
Mothersbaugh was recruited to perform at the university Creative Arts Festival in the spring of 1973. The trio of Mothersbaugh, Casale and Lewis – who played lead guitar – were joined by a drummer from town, Casale’s brother Bob on rhythm guitar and singer Fred Weber. Billed as Sextet Devo, the band promised “polyrhythmic tone exercises in de-evolution.”
In the book “We Are Devo,” authors Jade Dellinger and David Giffels described first show, also captured on amateur video. Bob Casale performed in scrubs, Jerry Casale wore a butcher’s coat, Bob Lewis was hidden under a monkey mask and Mothersbaugh sported a doctor’s robe and ape mask. The set opened with Mothersbaugh playing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and featured what the band called a “headache solo.” Unsurprisingly, it took the group a while to find the next gig and a stable lineup.
“At one point it was Jerry and three Mothersbaugh brothers. Jerry didn’t like that because he’d always be outvoted,” Lewis recalled. “Jerry finally tormented Jim Mothersbaugh into quitting as drummer, but it took another year before we found Alan (Meyers) to play for us.”
An early band flier.
When the group began to get more serious, Lewis knew the musicianship would have to improve. When Bob Mothersbaugh started playing lead guitar, Lewis transitioned from guitarist to manager.
“I became more of a manager than a player because we decided someone had to do it,” Lewis said. “I liked that other (managerial) stuff better anyway.”
The five-piece lineup of the Casale and Mothersbaugh brothers and Meyers toured Ohio with their confrontational stage show. In 1976 they were the subject of the short film “The Truth About De-Evolution.” The combination of touring and the film set the table for the band to cut their first single. “Mongoloid”/”Jocko Homo” was released in 1976 on the band’s Booji Boy label.
“We sold 17,000 copies of that single ourselves,” Lewis said proudly. “I was trying to get us in record stores in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and England, which meant I either had to get up really early or stay up really late to talk to these guys and convince them to stock us. Of course now you could just send an e-mail, but back then it was an adventure.”
The first sign of the band’s cult following appeared before a show at Max’s Kansas City when a flat-black oldsmobile 98 zoomed up the street bearing the face of Booji Boy, the group mascot. After the release of another independent single and an appearance on a Stiff Records EP, Devo caught the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. David Bowie suggested a production deal through Warner Brothers that he would produce, and the band went to Germany to record. Bowie was unavailable, so his friend Brian Eno produced the first album.
“The band was in England recording while I was in the States trying to arrange for them to do some concerts in Europe on the way back home,” Lewis said. “Meanwhile, (Virgin Records president Richard) Branson takes them out on his boat on the Thames (River), gets them high and convinces them to sign with Virgin. Had I been able to, I would have told them they shouldn’t do that. Warner Bros. promptly sued them.”
Many recordings from Lewis' tenure have been released on the two "Hardcore Devo" collections.
Although Virgin and Warner Bros. amicably agreed to split distribution rights, it would not be the Devo’s final lawsuit. Lewis’ relationship with the band, and particularly Jerry Casale, had soured ever since Lewis told Casale that Devo would never be popular with him as the front man. It had to be Mark Mothersbaugh.
“From that point on I was on my way out,” Lewis said. “When Elliott Roberts, who managed Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, announced to Warner Bros. that he wanted to be manager, I knew I was gone, because then I was replaceable.”
Lewis received no credit or mention on Devo’s debut album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” The album came out in 1978 and Lewis promptly sued for theft of intellectual property. With the band now located to Los Angeles, Lewis was up against a high-powered, label-financed law firm. Help came in the unlikely form of a cassette tape from a former high school newspaper reporter.
“Word had gotten around that I was suing the band and this person called me up who had interviewed us after one of our first performances at the Akron Arts Festival,” Lewis said. “This tape contained an interview of the band where he asked who came up with the Devo concept and Mark said ‘This guy right here, Bob Lewis.’
“When I played that tape at the deposition their lawyers looked like they had been gut-shot,” Lewis continued with a smile. “Shortly thereafter we reached an equitable settlement.”
Just as Lewis discovered he liked managing better than performing, he learned he enjoyed legal work. After managing a few bands to near-success, Lewis became a paralegal.
“I have the best job in the world. Essentially, I’ve been practicing law without a license for the last 30 years,” Lewis said. “The catch is I always have to work with a lawyer.”
The band today. Devo plays tonight as part of the Buzz Under the Stars concert at the City Market with Ben Folds and Silversun Pickups. Tickets are $34.
Lewis left Ohio for Lawrence, Kan. in 1998 where his wife was working on her doctorate. Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Kansas City, Mo. Today, Lewis works as a paralegal for the Community of Christ Church in Independence, Mo. and lives in a house filled with antiques and art and a story behind each piece.
Last month Devo released “Something For Everybody,” their ninth album and first in 20 years. In the downtime, Mark Mothersbaugh has become a highly sought film composer. Mothersbaugh wrote the music for several of Wes Anderson’s movies, including “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” His brother Bob wrote the music for the “Rugrats” cartoon series. Jerry Casale, who directed most of Devo’s music videos, has also directed videos for Rush, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and Silverchair. Myers left Devo in 1987; the drum stool is currently held by Josh Freese.
More than a generation after their lawsuit, Lewis said he is on good terms with the band. If he attends tonight’s show, however, it will be as a fan with a ticket purchased at the box office.
“It all depends on the weather,” Lewis said. “I e-mailed the guys the other day to let them know what they were facing here. I told them with as hot as it’s been it may not be a good idea for a bunch of 60-year-old guys jumping around in rubber suits. I’m sure they’ll be OK.”
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