Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale remember the Kent State Massacre

By on May 4, 2017

Manson is a studio based in Barcelona that involves a diverse group of artists who work together in a range of different media, involving live-action video or animation but knowing no boundaries. In this recent biographic animation — co-created by Google Play and California Sunday magazine — Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO talks about being affected by the shootings at Kent State University, on May 4, 1970, where four protesting students were killed by National Guardsmen:

“When we first started DEVO, Jerry and Bob and I, we were artists who were working in a number of different medias, and we were around for the shooting at Kent State, and it affected us… We were thinking, like, ‘What are we observing?’, and we decided we weren’t observing evolution, we were observing de-evolution, and so we decided to write music about that. We were wondering ‘how do you change things?’, and we looked at Madison Avenue, and they were getting people to eat horrible food that they shouldn’t eat, and buy things that they didn’t need, and we thought their techniques were the ones we wanted to use, so we packed up and moved to Hollywood, and decided to become subversive.”

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DEVO’s Jerry Casale has been quoted as saying, “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. I would not have started the idea of DEVO unless this had happened.”

In 2015, Kevin C. Smith wrote about Night Flight for the Dangerous Minds blog, which we told you about here.

Recombo DNA is the first book to evaluate in the proper context the innovations and accomplishments of this truly groundbreaking band. Beginning in 1970, with the transformative effects of the Kent State University shootings which the band-members witness firsthand, and ending a decade later with DEVO on the cusp of superstardom (with “Whip It”), it traces the sounds and ideas that the group absorbed and in turn brought to prominence as unlikely rock stars.

For anyone who has ever wondered where the band who fell to earth came from, here is the answer.

In the book, Smith charts the progress of the lawsuits filed by the families of the murdered Kent State students throughout the text. These periodic updates are presented in simple, one-paragraph form, so they do not detract from the DEVO story, but provide a fascinating counter-narrative.

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Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Kevin C. Smith’s Recombo DNA: The Story Of Devo, Or How the 60s Became the 80s, about what happened on the campus of Kent State, May 4, 1970:

Mark’s younger brother, Bob, was nearing the end of his senior year of high school, but on Friday, May 1, 1970 he was playing hooky and spending the day hanging out at the SDS headquarters at Kent State.

The previous night, at 9:00pm, President Nixon had appeared on all three TV networks to announce that he was launching incursions into formerly neutral Cambodia to attack the Viet Cong who had taken refuge there. This escalation of the already unpopular Vietnam War was intended to capture “the headquarters of the entire communist military operation” in South Vietnam.

“It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight,” he continued. “The time has come for action.” Perhaps predictably, a protest was organized, not by the banned SDS but instead a small group of history graduate students with the provocative moniker World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation (or WHORE), as well as a group of younger faculty members and graduate students from the more soberly named New University Conference.

They held a peaceful rally during which they ceremoniously buried a copy of the United States Constitution near the campus landmark Victory Bell, claiming it had been “murdered” when Nixon invaded Cambodia without either a declaration of war or consultation with Congress. An ominous sign fixed to a nearby tree asked: “Why is the ROTC building still standing?”

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As the day turned to night and the weekend alcohol began to flow, however, a crowd began to cluster around the downtown bars on North Water Street and soon clashed with police. Within an hour the crowd had lit bonfires, vandalized local stores, and blocked traffic.

Among them that night was Mothersbaugh’s former bandmate, Chrissie Hynde, then an 18-year-old art student at Kent State. “We took these big garbage cans from the side of the road, wheeled them into the middle of the street and set them on fire,” she recalled. “It was an awesome sight.”

When a lone car tried to travel down the street, she added, “we just jumped on his car and kicked all the windows out to punish the driver for having the gall to interfere with our protest.”

The SDS-affiliated Casale would later dismiss these events as “spring-break-type violence…students with raging hormones mixed with some political ideas.”

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Nonetheless, Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency at 12:30am and ordered the bars to close—which only had the adverse effect of increasing the crowds gathered in the street. Eventually, combined city and county police forces used tear gas to herd the crowd back toward the university.

They had expected Kent State to take over at that point, unaware that the university’s Police Chief, Donald L. Schwartzmiller, had instead instructed his forces to guard campus buildings. A standoff developed between police who would not cross the campus border and protesters who were afraid to venture beyond it.

By the time the standoff ended, 15 people had been arrested.

The following day, in an effort to quell further unrest, Mayor Satrom banned the sale of alcohol, firearms, and gasoline (unless pumped directly into the tank of a car). He also instituted a curfew from 8:00pm to 6:00am, subsequently amending it to 1:00am to 6:00am for those at the university (perhaps sensing the futility of an 8:00pm curfew for a campus full of restless college kids).

Not everybody was aware of the different curfew times, however, and far from averting further violence the measure seemed to have precisely the opposite effect.

By the end of the evening, around 1,000 students—who would most likely have otherwise been downtown on a Saturday night—had gathered around the ROTC building, which had long been a source of irritation among anti-war activists. As a mob mentality took hold the wooden structure was bombarded with a combination of rocks, garbage cans, and railroad flares.

Bob Mothersbaugh had returned to campus that day and found himself in the middle of the melee. He participated in the burning of an American flag, which may or may not have been the ultimate cause of the building’s demise.

Hynde was there too and recalled: “Though we were angry, the whole scene was kind of a gas too…it was awesome to see the hated ROTC building going up in flames. It was definitely a night to remember.”

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Bob Lewis, meanwhile, had attended professor Dick Myers’s Kent film festival that night. “The first showing got out about 9:30 or so,” he recalled. “When we came out of the auditorium we could see the light from the burning ROTC building. It was pretty much gone by that time.”

It was at this point that Mayor Satrom called for the National Guard. Guardsmen were redirected from the Rubber Bowl stadium in Akron, where they had been stationed three days earlier to monitor a truckers’ strike, and promptly dispersed the protestors with teargas. No one was apprehended for the ROTC fire, although FBI agents later visited the Mothersbaugh household and presented Bob’s mother, Mary, with photographs of her son holding a flaming American flag over the building.

There were accusations from both sides that outside agitators had been sent to the university to instigate and fuel conflicts. It was most likely these individuals that Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes had in mind when he delivered a speech the following morning in which he pounded the table and described the protestors as “worse than the Brownshirts, and the Communist element, and also the Night Riders, and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America…They are not going to take over campus, and the campus now is going to be part of the county and the state of Ohio.”

“There’s no sanctuary for these people to burn buildings down,” he added, perhaps referring to the standoff at the gates of the university on Friday night. Having effectively declared martial law after taking control of the campus through the National Guard, the Governor also banned all demonstrations.

Nevertheless, a group of students assembled on the Commons that evening, until an immediate curfew was declared around 9:00pm. Teargas was once again used to disperse the crowd and 51 people were arrested, mostly for curfew violations.

Bob Lewis later recalled that his roommate, Bob Webb, had been arrested at gunpoint after taking his telescope (“he was an amateur astronomer”) out onto the back porch to observe the proceedings from a distance.

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Classes resumed on Monday May 4 — even after a reported bomb threat — but most were still focused on the weekend’s events. Word soon spread that the National Guard had arrived at Kent State. Jerry Casale was in a drawing class that morning when it was announced that classes would be cut short.

Around 10:30am, an impromptu meeting was called at the student union (commonly referred to as the Hub). Aspiring musician Chris Butler and his friend Jeffrey Miller witnessed members of the university’s radical political factions debate what sort of action, if any, should be undertaken that morning. Butler was a transplanted Clevelander majoring in Sociology while Miller was originally from Long Island and had recently transferred from Michigan State University.

The assembled group had collectively decided against taking any decisive action. “If there ever was going to be a conspiracy to cause trouble,” Butler recalled, “that would have been it, and those were the people who would have done it.”

A previously announced noon rally was still scheduled to take place on the Commons, although the National Guard had been given orders to put a stop to it. Bob Lewis and some friends had just finished breakfast at the Commuter’s Cafeteria and were on their way out onto the Commons, where a few students had been making brief speeches.

“There’s these walkways on campus that are just overarched on both sides with 80, 90-year-old lilac bushes,” he later recalled. “May 4 was this beautiful, beautiful sunny day, and you could smell the lilacs.”

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Just before noon, however, approximately 116 National Guard troops arrived on the scene and were ordered by Ohio National Guard General Robert Canterbury to “lock and load” their M1 Garand rifles—an order that is only given when troops expect to have a reasonable chance of firing their weapons.

Chris Butler characterized the mood on campus as “extremely irate” due to the events of the previous night. As the students were ordered to disperse they responded with increasing anger and chants of “pigs off campus” and “sieg heil.”

By now around 2,000 students were either participating in or observing the confrontation, some of them stood on steps or balconies of nearby buildings or up on the slopes of the surrounding hills.

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The gasmasked National Guard formed a line, having affixed bayonets to their rifles, and fired teargas into the crowd, although this proved ineffective due to the heavy wind that day. They then marched up Blanket Hill, pushing students past Taylor Hall and effectively clearing the Commons before attempting to push the crowd down the other side of the hill, across an access road, and past a football practice field. A small group of students followed the soldiers and continued to taunt them and pelt them with rocks from a nearby construction site.

The Guard would periodically launch canisters of teargas, which were often hurled back at them. When they reached the football field the Guardsmen kneeled down and aimed their rifles at the group of students—among them Casale, Butler, and Miller—now gathered in an adjacent parking lot. There are conflicting reports as to whether a warning shot was fired at this point; according to Butler, many of the assembled students laughed at this point, finding the whole situation “extremely ridiculous.”

After ten minutes in formation the Guardsmen headed back up Blanket Hill, with students continuing to pelt them with rocks all the while. Bob Lewis had been behind the troops but now found himself being pushed back up the hill. As Casale later described it, the whole thing looked “like party games. It’s kind of almost laughable.”

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DEVO playing live at Kent State

Chrissie Hynde had just arrived on campus around this time and had been told that a “peaceful demonstration” was to take place, but the sight of troops armed with rifles gave her a “very bad vibe.” It was then that she heard what she thought were fireworks.

Casale was watching the troops when, from the crest of Blanket Hill at 12:24pm, a number of the Guard stopped, turned, kneeled down, and opened fire on the students.

He turned to run when the hail of bullets began and immediately saw a student, Allison Krause, lying face down in a pool of blood. A single bullet had entered and exited her left arm and lodged in her chest. She had been standing approximately 20 feet behind Casale when was she shot, the pair of them more than 300 feet from the National Guard.

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DEVO playing live at Kent State

Butler had been carrying a small bucket of water, which he was using to soak bandanas in order to filter the tear gas. When it had run dry he went into nearby Prentice Hall to refill it from a water fountain. He would later estimate that he had been separated from Miller for about 30 to 45 seconds before the shots were fired.

As he walked back to the parking lot, Butler heard gunfire and ducked behind a car, which moments later had its windows shot out, covering him in broken glass. He and the rest of the students were soon marched off campus, and it wasn’t until he watched the evening news that he discovered that Miller was one of the four killed that day.

A single bullet had entered his open mouth and exited the base of his skull, killing him instantly.

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Casale sat down shaking when the 13 seconds of shooting stopped and the bullhorns ordered everybody to “stay where you are.” Moments earlier, he had seen a girl he would later learn was 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio screaming and gesturing in the crowd.

Only later, after seeing John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer of the scene, did he realize that Vecchio had been standing over Jeffrey Miller’s dead body.

Casale had befriended both Miller and Krause as underclassmen the previous summer while he was working as a counselor.

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Mark Mothersbaugh was off campus setting up his new art studio at the Davey Warehouse, an art facility on Water Street, when the shooting took place. “I was decorating [the studio] when there were police cars going down the street with megaphones going: The school is shut down. The city is shut down. Please go to your homes.”

After staying put for what seemed like hours, the students were eventually marched off campus single file. To add insult to injury, hostile locals had been deputized and were patrolling the streets with guns; newspaper reports that night erroneously stated that students had killed Guardsmen. Casale was forced to walk the four miles to his Water Street apartment in fear of his life.

Altogether, four students were killed and nine were injured, with one permanently paralyzed from the chest down. Sandra Scheuer, a 20-year-old honors student, was shot in the throat while walking between classes, and William Schroeder, a 19-year-old ROTC applicant, was shot in the back while laying down in an attempt to avoid the gunfire.

Prior to the shooting, Allison Krause had been distributing flowers, which she reportedly said were “better than bullets.” She had probably been inspired by a photograph taken by Bernie Boston and published in the Washington Star of another protestor, mop-topped and turtlenecked George Harris, placing carnations in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles outside the Pentagon on October 12 1967. Two years earlier, beat poet Allen Ginsberg had written a 12-point plan for diffusing tensions with police (or what he described as “patriotic” Hell’s Angels), the first of which noted:

“Masses of flowers…can be used to set up barricades, to present to Hell’s Angels, police, politicians, and press and spectators whenever needed or at parade’s end.”

(Fellow Beat writer William S. Burroughs, whose influence would overtake Ginsberg’s during the following decade, disagreed. “Giving flowers to cops just isn’t going to work,” he later remarked. “The only way I like to see cops given flowers is in a flower pot from a high window.”)

(h/t Kevin C. Smith, for once again letting Night Flight publish an exclusive excerpt from his book!!)

The 2015 PBS documentary The Day the ’60s Died — written and produced by Jonathan Halperin and Anna Bowers, and directed by Jonathan Halperin — is a thorough and vivid hourlong exploration of the events leading up to the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, in which four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a campus protest over President Richard M. Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

The filmmakers use news footage of the war in Southeast Asia and protesters here at home to illustrate the national divide over our involvement. Interviews with soldiers, students, National Guardsmen, members of the Nixon administration and leaders of the anti-war movement bring back the turbulent and violent tenor of those times.

Jerry Casale (interviewed here) said that the shooting broke the back of the peace movement. “I think a lot of kids felt resigned. It was like, ‘OK, Dad, I’ll work at the hardware store.’ “

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • JoeS

    Great piece. Too bad Hynde wasn’t interviewed as well as Casale for the fine PBS doc.