Devo's Jerry Casale on the Kent State Massacre, May 4, 1970

Forty years ago today at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen shot four unarmed students to death and wounded nine others. In 2005 the Vermont Review interviewed Devo's Jerry Casale. Here's an excerpt from the interview in which Casale shares his memories of the Kent State Massacre and how it led to the formation of Devo.
VR: Going back to your early days. You were present at the Kent State shootings in 1970. How did that day affect you?

JC: Whatever I would say would probably not at all touch upon the significance or gravity of the situation at this point of time -- it would probably sound trite or glib. All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks - none of us knew, none of us could have imagined... They shot into a crowd that was running away from them! I stopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.

VR: Does Neil young's "Ohio" strike close to your heart?

JC: Of course. It was strange that the first person that we met, as Devo emerged, was Neil Young. He asked us to be in his movie, The Human Highway. It was so strange - San Francisco in 1977. Talk about life being karmic, small and cyclical - it's absolutely true. In fact I just got a call from a person organizing a 30th Anniversary commemoration. Noam Chomsky will be there and I may go talk there if I can get away. I still remember it so crystal clear, like a dream you will never forget . . . or a nightmare. I still remember every moment. It kind of went in slow motion like a car accident.

VR: You said that the Kent State shooting sort of served as a catalyst for your theory of Devolution, which spawned Devo--

JC: Absolutely. Until then I was a hippie. I thought that the world is essentially good. If people were evil, there was justice... and that the law mattered. All of those silly naïve things. I saw the depths of the horrors and lies and the evil. The paper that evening, the Akron Beacon Journal, said that students were running around armed and that officers had been hurt. So deputy sheriffs went out and deputized citizens. They drove around with shotguns and there was martial law for ten days. 7 PM curfew. It was open season on the students. We lived in fear. Helicopters surrounding the city with hourly rotating runs out to the West Side and back downtown. All first amendment rights are suspended at the instant the governor gives the order. All of the class-action suits by the parents of the slain students were all dismissed out of court, because once the governor announced martial law, they had no right to assemble.

Oh Yes, It’s Devo: An Interview with Jerry Casale

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  1. This interview is interesting, but the story I always heard was at the time Jerry Casale thought Neil Young and the gang were just “…rich hippies […] making money off of something horrible…” and then grew to respect and appreciate the song on it’s own. Excerpt here.

  2. Many of us are just learning the lessons Jerry learned in the most grim, horrible and personal way 40 years ago. I’m very glad that as a nation we are all taking a brief moment to pause and reflect about Kent State. I’ve never stopped loving Devo and this just cements that a bit more solidly in place. I only wish that someone would have taken the time to edit the full article and take out the obvious misspellings and dropped words. It feels like someone typed this on a deadline after a night of hard drinking.

    Are we not men?

  3. I’m an editor of a small town weekly. My boss just wrote an editorial on how much more civil discourse was back in 1969 when he could sit down with a couple of John Birchers for a cup of coffee while (to his credit) abhoring their politics. However, his message that politics is less civil today, basically coming on the 40th anniversary of Kent State, almost drowned my in irony.

  4. It’s good to read Casale’s own account of what happened that day at Kent State.
    He says that the shootings spurred him on to develop his theories of Devolution.
    Are there any specific pieces of Devo music that reflect the Kent State killings?
    Or is he speaking more generally of Devolution as it relates to the group’s output?

  5. Essential read for anyone interested in what happened that day: Kent State: What Happened and Why by James Michener. Unlike his novels, not 1,000 pages, but a concise account of the subversives behind the scenes who whipped the students and the townspeople into a frenzy and then split when the National Guard showed up.

  6. Interesting interview with Jerry, and enlightens me to some things I didn’t know when I attended that Neil Young film project in the 1970s, and photographed Devo. That was a truly exciting and powerful moment in cultural history, and Devo played an intrinsic role in all that.

  7. “subversives behind the scenes who whipped the students and the townspeople into a frenzy and then split when the National Guard showed up.”

    the CIA?

  8. It always bugged me in watching the videos that came with Disney’s Dev2.0 that, when asked “how did y’all come up with Devo?”, Jerry and Mark kind of ran from mentioning Kent State. I know that Disney wouldn’t be too pleased with it, and that it’s not like this was a product that I was expecting deep honesty from – but still, coming from the band that covered “Ohio” on /When Pigs Fly/ in 2003 and MEANT it, that bothered me on a deep level.

  9. For the best eye witness accounts of the Kent State shootings by various Kent students and national guardsmen who shot students, check out the Emmy Award winning documentary, “Kent State, The Day the War Cam Home.” It was just released on DVD for the 40th anniversary. In its review of the program, The Hollywood Reporter stated, “This extraordinary hour long doc is so good, so well constructed, that it can’t help but leave viewers feeling as if they themselves were on the bloody scene of the Kent State carnage…” for more go to kentstatedvd.com

  10. In case you believe the Kent State Massacre is no longer a useful tool of intimidation among educational “leaders” please read on. This excerpt comes from an open e-letter written 11/17/10 by two students leading a peaceful campus-wide protest over the recent inexplicable firing of associate professor Tina Evans, widely praised as among the most popular and effective professors at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado:

    Our names are Jake Brettin and Alex Pullen. We are both Seniors at Fort Lewis College. We are writing to inform you of a meeting that took place this last Friday, November 12th, between ourselves and Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas and Provost Stephen Roderick. We feel you should be informed because, not only did our concerns fall on deaf ears, but we feel there was an attempt to silence us.

    Most surprisingly, the conversation then turned to the potential hazards of a peaceful protest when President Thomas brought up the shooting that took place at Kent State in 1970. As neither of us were familiar with the details of the shooting, President Thomas and Provost Roderick went on to explain the significance of this event in their lives. Provost Roderick explained seeing a front page newspaper picture of a female student holding her friend in a pool of blood. Then they both went on to explain that to this day the university doesn’t know what to do with the spot where the shooting took place and that the location will forever be a blight upon the campus. They also explicitly conveyed that this tragedy was the students’ fault. They told us that the unarmed students were fired upon by the National Guard because they were told to stop moving and the students disobediently moved forward.

    THIS DESCRIPTION CLEARLY IGNORES THE HISTORICAL RECORD, RELYING INSTEAD UPON SOME OF THE FIRST DESPARATE COVER-UP RESPONSES OF THOSE WHO THEN PROVED TO BE THE PARTIES ACTUALLY MOST RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MASSACRE AND THEIR ENABLING APOLOGISTS– STATE AND LOCAL OFFICIALS AND THE PRESS. TO SO SKEW THESE EVENTS 40 YEARS LATER, UNDER THE GUISE OF EDUCATING A NEW GENERATION OF PEACEFUL PROTESTERS EVEN AS IT WAS APPARENT TO THEM THAT THEY WERE ACTUALLY BEING THREATENED WITH A SIMILAR FATE, IS OUTRAGEOUS, DESPICABLE, AND UTTERLY COUNTER TO THE MISSION OF ANY EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION. OR SO IT SEEMS TO ME.

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