It was the mid-to-late 1970s. Let’s say 1977, just because my memory is fuzzy. I was reading one of those magazines for kids that you’d get subscriptions to when your school had book fairs and the like (do they have those anymore? I mean, book fairs or kids’ magazines?), Dynamite! or Supermag or Bananas or something. The inside back page was an info piece on a band which claimed to be “robots devolved from brain-eating apes.” Being a horror movie junkie at that young an age, this idea stuck with me because it scared me to death. I remember obsessing over the description in the bathtub. Also, because I was up on my classic horror info (in kindergarten, I could tell you everybody who worked on Frankenstein and why Kenneth Strickfaden was important), I was drawn to the band because of the title of their first album, taken from Island of Lost Souls—Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!
It wasn’t long after that I remember watching The Movie Channel or Showtime (I forget which), and in between movies, they’d show short films from time to time. They showed a music video by this band I’d seen in that magazine, in which a guy wearing a baby mask in a crib shoved a fork into a toaster and electrocuted himself. Again, this freaked me out. And it stuck with me. But this time, there was that music that added to the whole thing. A herky-jerky take on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” that moved in such a counter-intuitive way that it might as well have been played backwards. This undeniable rhythm that I couldn’t comprehend.
It was a little bit before I heard from them again, but in 1980, there they were: DEVO. Bigger than life, in their Energy Domes on a dude ranch engaging in a game of whiptease to the tune of the song that would put them on the map, “Whip It.” That was it. This sold me on them. This brought those long-dormant seeds that were planted by their magazine and TV appearances to the forefront of my lobe and created an obsession. That Christmas, I asked for a record player and four records: The Beatles (aka The White Album), Sgt. Pepper, Double Fantasy (Lennon had just been murdered that month) and Freedom of Choice.
I was ten.
Beyond their outlook forever warping the way I saw the world, opening my eyes to the fact that though it may be a beautiful world for some, that it was far from it for most. They became the soundtrack to my seeing the ugly side of Reagan-era positivism. And I immersed myself in learning what I could about the band through whatever channels I had. I’d gotten a subscription to Rolling Stone and Trouser Press (yes, I know, I was very musically aware for a ten-year-old), watched every TV appearance I could find out about beforehand, sought out every article I could lay my hands on, and soaked it all up. I learned that Mark and Gerald V were the brothers of Bob 1 and Bob 2. I learned that they started at Kent State and were there when the National Guard fired on protesting students. I learned who was responsible for what in the band.
Which leads me to Alan Myers.
Alan was the odd man out, it seems. Drummers usually are. Dubbed “the human metronome” for his uncanny ability to keep perfect time, he was largely responsible for each song’s deceptively simple-sounding, but unexpectedly complex beat. If the weird rhythm was build into the song, he was responsible for bringing it to life. His playing—beyond being complicated, exact and precise—was also incredibly lean and muscular. You wouldn’t suspect it by looking at him. I mean, in a band full of nerdy-looking guys, Alan was the nerdiest. Slight and quiet, you’d expect him to maybe be a drum machine programmer, but the powerhouse that he became behind the kit was something astounding. While DEVO had used other drummers before, including “Jungle Jim” Mothersbaugh (who would leave to basically invent the modern electronic drum machine and MIDI technology), Alan was the unspoken dynamic force that crystallized DEVO’s sound into what it became.
I’ve always had a thing for the underdog. DEVO, that perpetually misunderstood and abused band, were already underdogs. But as the drummer in a band with the two pairs of Mothersbaugh and Casale brothers, Alan Myers was the underdog in a band of underdogs. That he could be so overlooked was something bordering on criminal.
Let it not be misunderstood: de-evolution is real. The idiosyncratic time signatures of Alan’s playing over time gave way to the big electronic beat of the burgeoning electronic music movement. With the presence of drum machines in DEVO’s music growing and growing, Alan Myers saw his role in the band diminished, and he left after 1985’s Shout. He was replaced by Sparks and Gleaming Spires drummer David Kendrick, but it wasn’t the same. Kendrick, while a great drummer, lacked the off-kilter precision that Myers provided. And while Josh Freese is one of the great punk drummers, he remains in the long shadow of Alan Myers when it comes to DEVO.
On June 24, 2013, Alan Myers died from brain cancer.
Though DEVO have continued to release great music, particularly their 2010 “comeback” album Something for Everybody, the passing of Alan Myers makes those glorious days when I first became obsessed with the band—those days of fear and discovery, those days of obsessively waiting for each new LP and music video—seem that much farther off. I’ll miss him. Not that I knew him. But he represented a particular time in my life that I’ll never know again. It’s an egocentric way to react to someone’s death, I know. I know that his passing is not all about me. But when reacting to the death of someone you’ve admired from afar, it’s about the only reaction we can have: how they affected us and the world around us.