It’s evening on the approach to Akron-Canton Airport, and the towns that dot the airplane’s path twinkle like a string of Christmas lights, each a suburb in a chain that stretches north to Cleveland. These suburbs are largely what has made Ohio a bellwether in presidential elections; George Bush carried the state by 3.5 percent over Al Gore in 2000, and by 1.9 percent over John Kerry in 2004. This year Ohio is again a critical swing state, and musicians are converging from across the country to perform benefit concerts in support of their candidates. But unlike most of the bands that will stop off in the Buckeye State this election season, Ohio is home for Devo, which has arrived en masse from its Los Angeles base in order to stump for Barack Obama. Sprung from a post–Kent State Ohio in the early 1970s, around the time John McCain was locked down in a Vietnamese jungle and Akron was smarting from the twin whammies of our failed military incursion and the blue-collar layoffs in the rubber industry — the city’s chief employer — Devo has long protested in its idiosyncratic way the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of modern industrial life, the kind that have hit this part of America particularly hard in the past half-century.
“Oh, yeah, Devo. ‘Whip it good!’” exclaims the cabdriver heading into downtown Akron. He doesn’t know that the song was actually a plea to Jimmy Carter to toughen up during the 1980 election against Reagan. He thinks it’s a song about sex. A skinny white guy in his mid-30s, wearing a baseball cap and a week’s worth of unshaven beard, he stinks of 10,000 cigarettes, his cab 10 times worse, and he wheezes as he sighs when asked about the race for the presidency.
He probably isn’t going to vote, he says, because he’s just so sick of it all — though he’s leaning toward placing his nonvote for Obama. The Palin nomination is, to him, an insult. “She’s not ready, and I don’t trust that she would be anytime soon.” Race isn’t a factor for him, and he feels as though Obama is at least trying to tell the truth.
We cruise past the Akron Civic Theatre, on downtown’s Main Street. DEVO is featured on the marquee in big, bold letters. Pulling up to the hotel, the driver apologizes for having to charge me $45 for the trip. It’s a little steep, he acknowledges, but he gets to split the fare down the middle — “$22.50 for me, $22.50 for the company” — and I’m one of his only decent fares that night. “Whoever is president is isn’t going to be able to control the price of gas,” he says. “That’s where most of this is going to go.”
Two days later, a few minutes prior to showtime at the Akron Civic Theatre, Mark Mothersbaugh, dressed in the trademark yellow Devo hazmat coveralls and red “energy dome” cap, explains the band’s strategy. “Here’s what I hope to accomplish with this. Ohio has a reputation now for choosing our president. And I feel like there’s people here who need to think about that and take it seriously, because they may decide the presidency for the whole country for the next four years.”
Given the recent political conversations in which imaginary terrorist affiliations have supplanted actual dialogue about the country’s future, it’d be tough to argue with Devo’s long-standing central tenet: that man, having peaked culturally and intellectually, is in a state of de-evolution. (Persuasive evidence can be found on basic cable in a downtown Akron hotel room, where Ayers attack ads and McCain eye-rolling battle for airtime with Ab Blast and Miracle Mop infomercials.)
“They ruined a lot of these façades when they tried to renovate them,” Mothersbaugh says, pointing out the architectural “updates” that cover the ornate originals on the buildings of Akron’s Main Street as he walks to the Civic Theatre. The district seems to have been hit hard by the economy. In the early-autumn chill, dozens of people loiter in a plaza while waiting for the bus. Half of South Main Street is shuttered, and the other half seems on the verge of foreclosure. Abandoned hair weaves roll down the sidewalk like tumbleweed.
But inverse of the outdoor vista is the stunning Akron Civic Theatre, “the jewel on Main Street,” built by theater magnate Marcus Loew in 1929 on the eve of the Depression. Designed by famed theater architect John Eberson with rococo flair in the Moorish Revival style, the vibrant, colorful room was fully restored in 2001. Its ceiling is painted sky blue, and during concerts, little dots of light mimic stars, and projected clouds drift along with the music.
During sound check, Summit County Democratic Party officials and volunteers decorate the theater. They hang a few giant Obama/Biden banners, set up an information booth and merchandise table selling Obama and Devo stuff. As a way to raise extra cash, the band members have created a T-shirt on which they have transformed the Obama campaign’s official logo by placing a cockeyed energy dome on top of it. A volunteer builds a pyramid with the official plastic domes on sale for $20, with all proceeds going to the campaign.