Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh Shared His 2020 Near-Death COVID-19 Experience

Since March 2020, COVID-19 has completely changed life as we knew it, to the point where the phrase "the before times" is now uttered often and not typically in an ironic manner, but rather as an actual marker. For those of us lucky enough to have survived the pandemic unscathed, some of the stories we've heard from people who got sick are harrowing. Guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist for professional weirdos Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh's COVID experience is one such example.

New Wave and Post-Punk pioneers Devo formed in 1973 in Akron, Ohio, as a reaction to a society they saw as conformist, repressive, and dehumanizing (according to the band's official website, Club Devo). Their biggest hit, "Whip It!" lampooned a pervasive pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, while the heavy-rotation video lampooned rural life and ... sadomasochism? Something like that. The '80s were a different time. 

Not everyone was in on the joke, though; apparently "Rolling Stone" originally labeled the band "fascists," (per Club Devo) not gleaning that they were actually fighting against such ideologies. But even Devo's long-haul success with fans and critics couldn't shelter Mothersbaugh from the pandemic.

'From I don't feel good ... to an ambulance'

In May of 2020, long before the vaccines became available, Mark Mothersbaugh was doing what longtime new wave icons do: making music. He had been working on the scores for four animated films. Like those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, Mothersbaugh had been doing so mostly remotely once COVID-19 precautions and lockdowns became the new normal. 

Mothersbaugh told the Los Angeles Times that he had been taking the virus's threat very seriously, and following the recommended guidance. But, he couldn't quite do everything he needed to from home and said that on the rare occasions he went into his office and recording studio, there were some people around who he didn't know, and a few days later, he started coming down with the dreaded symptoms.

When he tested positive for COVID, he went into isolation to keep his family safe. Mothersbaugh attempted to trivialize his symptoms, but when he took his own temperature and it was 103, his wife, Anita Greenspan, realized things were bad, despite his protests, and she got on the phone to see what the next step should be. When a nurse went to check on him and insisted he go to the hospital, Greenspan said, "It went from, 'I don't feel good' on Tuesday to an ambulance to Cedars [Sanai Hospital] on Saturday. It was terrifying" (via the Los Angeles Times.) Mothersbaugh was 70 at the time and unfortunately, the situation would only get scarier.

COVID felt like a brick hit him in the head

Once hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit, Mark Mothersbaugh drifted in and out of consciousness while the coronavirus and the institutional isolation wreaked havoc on his mind. The Los Angeles Times reported that for more than two weeks, he believed that someone had hit him in the head with a brick while he was shopping for stationery supplies at one of his favorite bookshops in downtown Los Angeles's Little Tokyo neighborhood, then handcuffed him in a parking garage, before selling him to an ambulance company; that nonexistent company then delivered Mothersbaugh and other COVID patients to the ICU for a tidy fee.

Even while he was intubated on a ventilator, his creative mind kept going; while sedated and unconscious, Mothersbaugh said that he wrote an entire, new Devo album, and came up with an accompanying trippy live show that may not have abided by the laws of physics. "We were standing on top of these projections, which were growing somehow," he explained.

Dark Delusions

Unfortunately, his 18-day hospital stay was far from a happy, creative fun fest. Mark Mothersbaugh's wife and two teenage daughters did video calls with him, and attempted to keep him tied to reality, but were deeply worried by his frequent questions about the nonexistent people who had attacked him with a brick in Little Tokyo, and whether they'd been caught. He explained to the LA Times that many of his delusions were very dark, often fueled by fears about his supposed attackers.

As his body fought the virus and the stress took its toll, he recalls feeling completely exhausted, to the point of possibly letting go. "I could just float down this river right now, and it would be really peaceful," he recalls thinking. "It wouldn't be a freak-out. It wouldn't be something I'd be scared of. I could really just do that." Luckily, a perfectly-timed call from his wife and daughters provided a lifeline; they told him that he would be getting out soon, and to focus on that. That was all the encouragement he needed to leave that river for another time in the future.

'It's easy to lose track of where you are and why you are'

After leaving the hospital and the delusions behind, Mothersbaugh was infinitely grateful to his wife and daughters for keeping him tethered with their video calls, as difficult as it sometimes was. He offered these words of wisdom (via the LA Times) for anyone with a loved one in medical isolation: "If you have anyone that you know who's in ICU with COVID, contact them and keep them in touch with the outside world, because it's easy to lose track of where you are and why you are. I had no idea I was on a ventilator for 10 days. Time meant nothing."

Recently, NPR reported that Mothersbaugh has been busy and prolific as ever, composing more music for TV and movies. Devo also recently performed at the massive Cruel World Festival in Los Angeles. As of this writing, we have not heard reports of the band standing on top of any growing projections, but if any band can make that happen at some point, it will absolutely be Devo.