For a bunch of geeky-looking guys from the Midwest, Devo sure has a knack for trouble. In this week's print feature, bassist Gerald Casale tells Rocks Off how the 1970 National Guard shootings at Kent State University near the band's hometown of Akron, Ohio, "transformed me and... ended up manifesting itself creatively as the Devo aesthetic. "
Something we had to leave out, unfortunately, was his story of a mid-'70s Halloween party in Cleveland, where Casale and Devo front man/co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh brawled with a crowd blasted on booze and nitrous oxide. They later snuck back inside the same party, in street clothes, to watch free-jazz cadet Sun Ra play one song for half an hour: "It was called 'Only 25 Years Til the 21st Century,'" Casale remembers.
The real prize, though, is that Casale told us the entire story behind his onstage arrest during - well, mostly after - a show at the University of Houston. We now take you back to Cullen Auditorium on the evening of Nov. 30, 1982...
Rocks Off: You were arrested onstage?
Gerald Casale (laughs): Yeah. Yes I was.
RO: What happened?
GC: Typically, back then - and this shows you how skinny and healthy we were - we would play two shows in one night many times. For some reason in Houston, the way they booked the shows, they booked one and it sold out quickly, and then they booked a second for the same night just an hour and a half later after the first show.
Each show is about an hour and 20 minutes, and we played the first show, and it's super hot and we're kinda wasted because the show was very energetic and choreographed. So we're all trying to relax, and somebody comes back and says, 'It's so packed out there, it's even hotter than the first show.'
Then we go out for the second show, and it's a sea of people. There's no aisles left, there's people in the aisles, everybody's standing up, it's wall to wall packed like sardines. We launch into our set and they're going crazy.
Right when we hit the finale for the encore portion, some cops show up on the side of the stage and the audience can't see. So when the lights are on during the song, I look over and I see 'em, and they're waving at me and motioning to me like, "You! Get over here!"
When the song's over, we have a very professional, worked-out, rehearsed light show, and the lighting man doesn't know what's going on out there in the front of the house, so he cuts all the lights on the last note of the song. I'm in the dark, going over there, but I can't really see this guy but he's grabbing me by my stage clothes going, "You get out there and you quit right now. You tell 'em Devo's not going to play for them anymore."
GC (continued): I go "What? What?" and of course Alan [drummer Myers] starts the next song. In the dark, and then all the lights burst on. Then they look at me and I look at them, and I run back out and play the next song, and when we're done I wave at everybody desperately to make 'em stop and not go into the next song.
I explained to the crowd that, believe it or not, there's four little piggies backstage, and they're threatening to take Devo to jail if we play another song because you guys are in the aisles and the fire marshal says we can't play. Of course, they're just going "boo," "fuck you," you know, and screaming.
And so Mark starts the next song, and sure enough, at the end of that song, they come right out onstage and grab me and the stage manager on the side of the stage, our guy, and they drag him and me off the stage. I'm sopping wet, super-hot, they throw me in the back of a paddy wagon with him, and we're off to jail.
It turns out that some little kid who was the son of a judge was there and went out into the lobby to smoke or whatever and didn't get back to his seat,. He knew from growing up the way he grew up that he could call this phone line from a pay phone, that was a recorded line, and make the fire marshal come.
That's what he did - he made the fire marshal come because he was pissed he couldn't get back to his seat. He caused all this.
Within 20 minutes of going to county jail, I'm shackled to guys that looked like it was gonna be, you know, they were gonna have me tossing salad, and it was absolutely frightening. It was like a bad Elvis movie. That whole night I was in a cell, ice cold, laying on a concrete stool.
The place smelled like puke and piss, and the people in the thing were picked up because they were in a knife fight, or one guy had beat up his wife. The sergeant comes and runs his billy club over the bars and wakes 'em all up at like two in the morning and says, "You got yourself a rock star here. You want to sing for anybody, rock star?"
RO: What was the specific charge?
GC: Uhhh... failure to comply with a blah-blah order. All I know is we were bailed out, so we didn't have to go to county. It was about 20 minutes before this bus was leaving, and we were already shackled in this line sitting in this room behind the judge's quarters, waiting to get on a bus.
Of course in the end, the record was expunged, it was a bullshit arrest, but it was a horrific nightmare. And of course, being on that cold bench all night in the wet stage clothes, the obvious happened. I got sick, and proceeded to have the flu for the next dates we were playing.
RO: Had anything like that ever happened to the band before, or even since?
GC: Not with cops. We don't have good rock and roll stories involving cops. We weren't that kind of band. We didn't break TVs in hotel rooms or that kind of stuff.
RO: Well, have you had any more pleasant experiences in Houston?
GC (laughs): Well, we were never back in Houston after that.
RO: Is that right?
GC: That's right. So maybe this one will be the most pleasant.
Note: According to the Devo Live Guide, the band played Club Xcess in 1988 - six years to the day after Casale's arrest - and at Reliant Arena with Psychedelic Furs and When In Rome in August 2006.
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GC: All I remember is the day before that show, we ate in a really great restaurant. It was very bizarre, because in Houston, I don't know what your laws are, but there's restaurants on residential streets, in houses. This restaurant was in a house, and it was fantastic. So things were looking up then.
Devo plays Warehouse Live with The Octopus Project, 8 p.m. Friday, March 25. VIP ticket packages, which include a meet-and-greet with the band, are still available.