As Mark Mothersbaugh lay in a Cedars-Sinai hospital bed in early June after contracting the novel coronavirus, a ventilator tube snaking into his throat to help him breathe, the Devo cofounder and acclaimed film and TV composer came to believe that he was recovering from a vicious beating in downtown Los Angeles.
“There’s a bookstore I love there where I get stationery supplies, and in my mind I had been there,” Mothersbaugh, 70, said Thursday afternoon, sitting on the patio of the Hollywood Hills home he shares with his wife, Anita Greenspan, and two teenage daughters. “I was convinced for about two weeks that I had been hit by a brick by somebody in Little Tokyo.”
Wearing chrome-framed eyeglasses, his nose and mouth covered by a black mask branded with the logo of his Mutato Musika commercial music company, Mothersbaugh touched his right temple while recalling the experience, as if searching for a head wound.
“I felt blood from being hit. I was handcuffed to a parking deck downtown. I had this whole elaborate story of how these kids sold me to an ambulance company that then got some sort of a payment for delivering COVID patients to their ICUs. I totally believed it,” he said.
Mothersbaugh’s delusions lasted more than two weeks during his time both on and off the ventilator. In fact, the artist didn’t contract the virus that causes COVID-19 while shopping in Little Tokyo. He caught it shuttling between his house and his Sunset Strip offices and studios in late May. His family was in Palm Springs. After he tested positive, he insisted on isolating by himself.
Three harrowing months later, Mothersbaugh and his family are back together and virus free. His experience, he says, was devastating. It was also unfortunately instructive, as it confirms an argument that he and his groundbreaking band, Devo, have been making for nearly 50 years.
“Everything’s become more devolved than I would have imagined possible,” he said. “For anybody that’s doubting whether the coronavirus and COVID-19 is real, it’s really real.”
He’s seen the doubters first hand. As he was recovering at home, a houseful of TikTok influencers across the street threw massive parties despite the shutdown and made news when Mayor Eric Garcetti shut off the property’s power. De-evolution is really real too.
Adjusting his mask, Mothersbaugh recalled the circumstances that led to his hospitalization.
He’d been taking the coronavirus seriously, he said. As news spread of its dangers, he’d avoided in-studio recording sessions for the four animated films he’d been scoring, instead conferencing in to observe and consult. But still, on at least one occasion near the end of May while working at Mutato, he unintentionally found himself in the company of a number of people he didn’t know.
When symptoms arrived a few days later, he thought his exhaustion was from juggling too many things at once. Then he took his temperature. It read 103. At first he thought he was reading the thermometer wrong. He told his wife, and she immediately started making calls.
Recalls Mothersbaugh, “A nurse came over the next morning and said, ‘You should be in ICU.’ I said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ She replied that she’d been a nurse for three decades: ‘You need an ambulance right now.’”
From Greenspan’s perspective, the virus steamrolled through her husband’s system. “It went from, ‘I don’t feel good’ on Tuesday to an ambulance to Cedars on Saturday. It was terrifying.” She believes that the nurse, Patricia Lineweaver, saved Mothersbaugh’s life.
Mothersbaugh spent much of the next 18 days on his back, tilted up in his hospital bed in the intensive care unit. Isolated, like all of those infected with the virus, from everyone except essential medical personnel, he lost all track of time and space. Tubes and machines cuffed him in place. At one point, he tried to break free of all the stuff attached to him and they had to secure his arms and legs.
During video calls with Greenspan and their daughters, 19-year-old Hui Hui and Margaret, 16, Mothersbaugh pressed them for information about the Little Tokyo brick-throwing incident. Had they found his attackers? Did they have any suspects? “Some of the delusions were very dark,” Mothersbaugh recalled. “Like, ‘Oh no, I have to get out of this place.’”
As he drifted in and out of consciousness, he remembers “a lot of people coming in on stretchers and people going out on stretchers.”
Another extended departure from reality involved Devo, the band he cofounded at Kent State after four students were killed by National Guard members in 1970.
While attached to the ventilator, he said: “I…