How Devo Saved My Hand
“What are you gonna do about that hand?” The sound engineer looked down at my puffy, pink hand. Then he looked back up at me. His face curled in disgust.
“Ice and bourbon.” My right hand throbbed after hours of drumming, and when I gently poked at it with my left finger, it felt like a very thin hot dog skin about to burst into a dripping, oozing mess.
This was two years ago at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge where a group of musicians performed Nirvana’s debut album Bleach live from start to finish. The show featured a rotating cast of vocalists and players, three of whom were drummers, including myself. We raised thousands of dollars for MusiCares, a charity who helps musicians without health insurance. Fortunately, I had health insurance.
This Friday night, we’ll do it again with a different album and slightly different cast of musicians. This time it’s Devo’s Freedom of Choice to be played Exit/In.
I’d played drums my entire life, but since moving from Seattle to New York in 2008, I hadn’t played with any regularity in eight years. I was in good physical shape, but my right hand — the body part that bears the most impact — was not at all prepared for this test of endurance.
We practiced for one very long day, during which I played nearly fifty songs including some later Nirvana material. I played the tom-heavy, caveman stomp, “Scoff” and the machine gun fills of “Breed.” I played the slow, heavy dirge, “Paper Cuts,” in which the wide open spaces encouraged me to hit as hard as I possibly could. In the moment, I felt invincible.
After practice, my right hand began to swell and I felt it numbing as I maneuvered my fork around my dinner plate. Constant wiggling of my fingers didn’t help, but it comforted me to know that they were still attached to my hand. Adrenaline got me through the show the next night, but it took days for my hand to deflate and weeks of physical therapy for it to feel right again.
Everyone knows who played drums in Nirvana: Dave Grohl, the sweaty-haired, open-mouthed basher. While Grohl hadn’t yet joined the band on Bleach, we’d all heard him bring those songs to life. At the Mercy Lounge, I didn’t have the hair or the stamina, but I wanted to be Dave Grohl.
This Friday, I want to be Alan Myers, the lesser-known drummer who played in Devo from 1975 to 1985. Myers, who passed away in 2013, was not a bruiser. He’d started as a jazz drummer and without bombast, brought rigid, palpable energy and precision to Devo. This is good news for my right hand.
Devo was known for its schtick: Five look-alike nerds from Ohio who wore matching hazmat suits and funny hats while playing stiff, scientific new wave. Despite a long and influential career, the band is often written off as a one-hit-wonder thanks to the 1980 hit, “Whip It,” a song that makes you smile when you hear it in a karaoke bar or an eighties movie.
Before and after “Whip It,” which came seven years into the band’s career, Devo built a large and devoted fan-base that views them as much more than a one-hit-wonder. At least a dozen compilations of rare and outake recordings exist in addition to their nine studio albums released between 1978 and 2010. Over one hundred artists from Soundgarden to Bonnie “Prince” Billy have paid tribute to the band over the years by recording their own versions of Devo songs.
Devo shifted boundaries, transitioning from guitars and drums to synths and drum machines. The band’s most exciting work occurred when they were caught navigating this transition. Freedom of Choice documents the band sprinkling synthetic bleeps, bloops and blasts over a meticulously-tight yet very human backbone of real people playing real instruments. Devo occupies an important space in the wide gap between German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and Nirvana, who once covered Devo’s “Turnaround” in a John Peel session.
“Whip It” has a drum intro as recognizable as the drum intro to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean:” An anxious, hyper-kinetic, new wave spazz out — replete with sixteenth-note hi-hats — that does not rest for the song’s entire two-minutes-and-forty seconds. It might not make you shake your ass the way “Billy Jean” does, but it’s call is just as beckoning: An alert that the song with the authoritative vocals, tiny synths, and that classic whip sound has begun.
I have known and loved Freedom Of Choice since I was a kid and I’m looking forward to Friday’s show: One at which I can play drums like a normal human being. And where I can wear my glasses and still feel like I kind of look like the real drummer.