Last week, my girlfriend and I made a pilgrimage to Chicago to see my childhood heroes, Devo, play two of their classic albums – “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo” and “Freedom of Choice” – in their entireties. We also explored the city and spent some time with friends, including Colorado’s own Magic Cyclops, the comic musician who was on a pilgrimage of his own.
As we arrived at Midway Airport and made our way to the train, I was absolutely stunned to notice Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine” — a song re-popularized in the ’80s by Devo — playing over the airport sound system. What do you do with that kind of cosmic coincidence? I wasn’t sure. On the one hand, the reference point seemed encouraging and positive. On the other hand, the fact that this was the original version and not the Devo interpretation made me uncertain. Perhaps there was a message in this about history and the revision thereof and — frankly, I have no idea what was going through my head. I was too busy laughing and dancing.
Before Thursday night’s show, we met up for drinks with Magic Cyclops, a Fort Collins/Denver-based musician who combines elements of electro, ’80s kitsch, karaoke, stand-up comedy and absurdist theater in an act that is often as confounding as it is hilarious. For approximately a decade, Magic Cyclops has enraged and entertained audiences in Denver and around the country with his bizarre act. And now, he’s thinking about taking that act to Chicago.
“I just feel like audiences in Chicago get my act more,” he told me. “Chicago’s more of a comedy town.”
Now, I don’t know the first thing about comedy, but I always question generalizations like these. “Seattle can’t get enough Gothic industrial.” “Greeley loves its reggaeton.” “Miami goes crazy for a penguin.” These statements all have the easy ring of a stereotype to them. And they’re almost never true.
One thing that is true, however, is that it’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond than to be a big fish in a city like Chicago. When you think of the music capitals of the U.S., you probably also imagine some of the country’s largest cities: Los Angeles (the town to which Devo emigrated when Akron, Ohio started to seem too small to sustain their weird, robotic, de-evolutionary ways), New York and Chicago. If you’re musically minded, you might also think of towns like Nashville and Seattle.
Denver probably doesn’t even enter your mind, even if you live here. And yet, it’s much easier for a musician to find her footing here than in any of the big ponds. Magic Cyclops has achieved a modest level of success over the past decade, largely thanks to the support and friendship of Colorado musical compatriots (the late Monofog, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Mr. Pacman, to name a few) and talent buyers at Colorado venues (hi-dive and the Larimer Lounge, to name just two) who get the act.
Later that night, as I watched Devo tear through “Jocko Homo,” I thought about that band’s narrative arc, from Kent State art-punks in Akron (a city less than half the size of Denver) to international New Wave pop superstars to hugely popular nostalgia act. I remembered seeing video of Devo’s tour for the album “New Traditionalists,” in which the band performed while walking on treadmills, symbolizing the fact that, though they’d gained a modest level of success with “Whip It,” they really weren’t going anywhere. Nearly 30 years later, playing very old songs to a nearly sold-out Vic Theatre in Chicago, I wondered if they still felt the same way. Judging by their onstage ebullience and energetic interactions with the crowd, that was not the case.
The next night, however, Devo seemed much more subdued. As the quintet tackled slightly more sophisticated and far more electronic songs, like “Snowball” and “Don’t You Know,” they seemed disengaged. Crowd interactions were minimal. Movements were constrained – even more than one might expect. And lyrics were frequently botched. The sense of fun and occasion was sustained by nostalgia, but the performance wasn’t up to the expectations set by the previous night. I thought about those treadmills again.
And I thought about Magic Cyclops, feeling like he’s going nowhere in Denver, and that maybe Chicago will be the boost he needs. During his weeklong stay in the Windy City, Magic booked two gigs – one as a performer, and the other as a DJ for “the official Devo after party.” This seems to bode well for the Hulk Hogan-loving, British accent-mutilating, ’80s worshipping fake Iowa native. Maybe Chicago really does get his act more.
However, you can’t forget the old adage, “Wherever you go, there you are,” which implies that a change of location rarely fixes one’s problems. I’d rather see Magic Cyclops refine his act and cultivate his audience here at home than succumb to the easy lure of a larger city. I think a music scene like the one we have here is exactly the right place for him to experiment, grow and build a successful career. If nothing else, I’ll be there, laughing and dancing.
Q: Is Denver too small to support and sustain all the musical acts and venues that have cropped up over the past 10 years?
Eryc Eyl is a veteran music journalist, critic and Colorado native who has been neck-deep in local music for many years. Check out Steal This Track every Tuesday for local music you can HEAR, and the Mile High Makeout every Friday.