Neil Young did a lot of weird shit in the 1980s, but nothing quite compares to Human Highway, a widely forgotten movie that starred Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland and Russ Tamblyn. Young directed it himself under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey and cast Devo as employees at a nuclear plant working a shift on the last day before a nuclear holocaust destroys the country. It’s even weirder than it sounds.
The film is all but impossible to find these days, but some kind soul ripped a LaserDisc of the movie and uploaded it to YouTube. The higlight of the film is a 10-minute jam on “Hey Hey, My My” featuring Neil Young, Devo and Mark Mothersbaugh’s alto-ego Booji Boy, who plays from inside a crib. “Back in Akron, we couldn’t afford drugs, we hated to bowl and we had no recreational activities,” Mark Mothersbaugh told Rolling Stone in 2010. “So we used to buy masks. Booji Boy was one of the characters we created. Jerry [Casale] would often be the all-knowing China Man. I’d be Booji Boy, the infantile spirit of de-evolution. A crib was an easy prop. I got it from the Salvation Army.”
Young first saw Devo when they played the Starwood Club in West Hollywood in 1977. He was blown away by their wild, frenetic stage show and decided to cast them in his movie. “We played nuclear waste workers complaining about our jobs,” said Casale. “We then sang a parody of the Kingston Trio’s ‘It Takes a Worried Man.’ But then, as Neil was free-forming this movie, he started asking us to be in other scenes.”
The super-nerdy Devo were shocked by the atmosphere on the set. “We were kind of repulsed by the whole experience,” said Mothersbaugh. “I thought Dennis Hopper was retarded when we met. He couldn’t say his lines. He couldn’t speak a sentence. He just ignored every direction he got. He was a short-order cook in the movie and he was playing with a knife and he ended up cutting Sally Kirkland really bad. She ended up suing Neil Young.”
Young primarily cast actors way past their prime. “Russ, Dean and Dennis were all these kind of lost souls,” said Mothersbaugh. “It was gonna be another couple of years before David Lynch reignited their careers with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.” Casale remembered Dean Stockwell frequently showing up on the set drunk and stoned.
When filming began, Neil was working on a new batch of songs that eventually became Rust Never Sleeps. The album’s title came directly from Devo. “Years earlier, Jerry and I had a design company that we put together specifically for the purpose of making our film The Truth About De-Evolution,” said Mothersbaugh. “It took us half a year to raise the $3,000 we needed. One of the jobs we had was for some local Rust-Oleum. We printed this logo ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ on t-shirts and underpants. Booji Boy was wearing a pair of the underpants and Neil saw that and later he said to me, ‘Hey, can I name something Rust Never Sleeps?'”
The Devo/Neil Young jam on “Hey Hey, My My” was completely unrehearsed. “He told us what the chord progression was and that was that,” said Casale. “It was hippie style.” Mothersbaugh was horrified that Young destroyed the crib at the end, and he also didn’t love all the lyrics. “I didn’t want to sing about Johnny Rotten,” he added. “So we sang about Johnny Spud.”
Young worked on the movie for years and, when he finally finished it in 1982, it only played in a handful of theaters before disappearing completely. “It’s kind of grown on me with time,” said Mothersbaugh. “At the time, we discounted it, but 10 years ago, I went to some arts cinema and saw it again. I liked it more in retrospect. Devo actually has some of the best parts of the movie. It’s a truly weird piece of history.”