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Are We Not Men? We Are DEVO, D-E-V-O


I decided to wear my Willie Nelson t-shirt instead of my "Jocko Homo" t-shirt

Early in 1977, Chris Knab and I started playing DEVO, an indie band from Akron, Ohio, on our late night radio show on KSAN. The first record was a self-released 45. The A side was “Mongoloid” and the B side was “Jocko Homo.” We played both songs every night. They were both hits (for our audience) and we got them booked at the Mahuhay and they were soon in San Francisco playing. I was the editor of short-lived new wave magazine-- it may have been called New Wave in fact-- at the time and the publisher got us a flat on a seedy street in South of Market. I let DEVO stay in the office while they were in town. There was no heat and I remember going to the office in the morning and they were sleeping on the bare wooden floors under the magazines.


Championed by David Bowie and Iggy, they soon had a recording deal with Warner Bros. After they recorded the first album, with the help of the already legendary Brian Eno, they were going in to the label in Burbank to meet the staff. But the staff was afraid; they thought DEVO might be like the Sex Pistols and capable of doing horrible things. So the folks in the publicity department asked me if I would come down to L.A. and be a kind of intermediary between the band and the staff. I thought that was hilarious but I had only been to L.A. a couple of times and Warners was going to pay for the plane and all my expenses and one of the executives said I could stay at his house and use his car.


OK, now’s when I want you to start paying attention. After DEVO was part of the Warner family and started writing, recording albums and touring they were kind of alternative stars and didn’t have to sleep on the floor of my office when they came to San Francisco. And San Francisco was a good town for them and they came and played regularly.


I’ve been telling the story of a song, “Mr. B’s Ballroom,” from their 3rd album, Freedom of Choice, the big breakthrough with the hit single, “Whip It,” for a very long time. What I remember is bringing a DEVO or two and my friend, rock critic Michael Snyder, to the most outlandish, hard, hard, hard core gay sex club in the world, Mr. B’s Ballroom, South of Market. You entered a long skinny bar that no one was ever in except the bartender and a ticket taker. You bought a drink which was the entrance to the “club.” The bar was tiny. The club, down a steep flight of dark stairs, was gigantic, the basement of half the square block. There was just one light bulb and it was red. The huge space was essentially dark. Over here were glory holes, over there was someone on a rack being tortured, over there were guys in a trough being urinated on, there was the fisting area… and everywhere it stunk like amyl nitrate and shit and there were men having furtive sex with, presumably, strangers. I kind of recall Michael and our guests deciding to leave pretty quickly, one spin around the room and up the stairs and out into the refreshing night air.


But that isn’t how Michael remembers the story at all. His version was just he and I going to the club-- for him kind of on a dare-- and then the two of us telling Jerry Casale about it later on. He says the DEVO guys were never there. He might be right; he might be wrong. He has a lot of details wrong— like no recollection of a basement for example. And it was Mark Mothersbaugh who wrote the song not Jerry, but neither of those things indicate whose memory is more accurate about the genesis of the song. And... I don’t know that it matters. Michael can write his version in his memoir.


There’s going to be a lot of that in my book. I remember things the way I remember them; and I don’t remember dates at all. What I do remember is that the “Animal House” sequence in the “Mr. B’s Ballroom” link above is laughably tame compared to the real thing.



So what’s the picture of me and Dolly doing on the top of the page? Another story I’ve been telling forever is about how I meant Dolly and how I have come to have a roll of pictures of the two of us together. All my friends have seen the photos and the story was simple. Dolly was no longer just a country star and had decided to go mainstream. I was writing for country magazines at the time but I was also writing for rock and for mainstream magazines. So The Advocate hired me to do a cover story on Dolly. Her publicist understood the value and the loyalty of the gay audience and they had pitched The Advocate. She came to San Francisco and we spent a coupe of days together doing interviews and we hit it off fantastically. I just loved her, she was very open and very easy to have a conversation with and she seemed to genuinely like me too. I’m embarrassed to say this but I was just a kid and after the two days together I asked her if “they” were real and she said I could touch them, which I did. They seemed real… but how do you know? Anyway, tonight I went to find the old issue of The Advocate so I could scan it for this story. I searched and searched everywhere and it wasn’t there. I had written dozens of Advocate stories and I found them all, but none were about Dolly. What I found— after having told this story about The Advocate assignment for over 40 years— was this cover story of After Dark.


There’s probably going to be a lot of this kind of thing in this narrative, especially since the kind of technology we take for granted now-- like cells phones, for example-- hadn't been invented yet..




UPDATE


I hadn’t spoken with Mark Mothersbaugh in years— maybe decades. But I called him today to ask him if he remembers the genesis of the song about Mr. B’s Ballroom. He did— and what he remembers is what Michael remembers, namely that we went over to his house and told him about our visit to the place and that he wrote the song based on the conversation, not based on an actual physical trip to the place. Snyder is going to be so happy when he reads this!

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