Devon Ronald Butler Clifford was born in Abbotsford, B.C., on April 23, 1979, the second son to teachers Ron and Edna. James, his older brother by a year, had Down’s syndrome, a situation that quickly led Devon to assume the part of, as Ron puts it, “the guide, the protector,” a role he later extended to his younger sister Estee. Together, Dev, as the family called him, and James hung her dolls from the clothesline by their hair, calling the display, “Torture Me Barbie.” Such early lessons in difference—the fact that despite James’s disability both boys took the same pleasure in tormenting little Estee and in The Dukes of Hazzard—moulded Devon as he matured. “If I got teased, my brother just stood in front of me and he’d take it,” James says. “He was really good at that.”
With his wild curly red hair, fair skin and bespectacled blue eyes, Devon embraced adventure, and even a little risk. Once, caught in a windstorm on a ski lift over a precipitous drop at Hemlock Valley with friend Derek Adam, the chair swinging madly, Devon seemed to laugh at the prospect of his own demise. “In other cases, I might be totally terrified,” Derek says. “He made it fun.” Devon’s early life was filled with such touches. At a Grade 7 dance he was the one boy to ask the room’s wallflower to the floor. Introduced to music by his Grammie Butler as a kid, he went on to piano lessons with James. Later, in a nod to his Scots roots, he switched to the bagpipes, entering Highland contests in his kilt. “He was the perfect little piper with the red hair,” Edna says. Estee, meanwhile, emulated him in all things, wearing a Chicago White Sox cap and listening to his music—the Smashing Pumpkins, Counting Crows, Green Day.
Later, as a punk rock devotee, he gravitated to the drums, with Derek, by now a guitarist, forming his first band—the Swillin’ Villains (years of piping practice in the Clifford household gave way to band rehearsal)—followed by the Blue Collar Bullets and Cadeaux. Shaving off his red Afro, he stored the hair in a glass jar in his room. With money his folks gave him for high school graduation he bought his first good drum kit. Ron and Edna hoped Devon—intelligent, charismatic, with a knack for absurdist asides (“the fun started when he walked in the room,” says Edna)—would go to university; instead, he played the clubs as a musician.
When in his early 20s he was involved in a serious car accident—an F-350 barrelling through a yellow light hit the Renault Le Car at just the spot where Devon, a passenger, sat—he spent weeks in hospital. It proved a turning point. Becky Ninkovic, a high school acquaintance and aspiring masseuse, made routine visits to his room to massage his feet, renewing the friendship. Devon, meanwhile, got a letter from Edna outlining her hopes for him after his brush with death, and assuring him of her pride. He responded by devoting himself to music, and was back at his kit within weeks of the crash. Soon, with Derek on guitar, he was backing You Say Party! We Say Die!, a five-piece dance-punk group Becky fronted. A ferocious musician, he attacked the instrument, leaning over the skins like a sprinter in a race. “He’d come off stage dripping,” says Diane, an aunt. You Say Party!, named after a call-and-response chant invented by the band’s first guitarist, emerged as one of Vancouver’s top indie bands, and toured the world. Devon, an avid photographer, roamed the streets of Europe and China with Derek for hours snapping shots but saying nothing, so close were the childhood friends.
At the end of a brutal 17-week European tour, during an argument in a bar in Berlin, Becky attacked Devon. The fight was such that she felt sure he would leave the band. Yet Devon, whose self-possession could approach sternness, would not hear of it. “It’ll take a lot more than that,” he said. The episode convinced them to slow down. Devon, expert at living on nothing, got work at a Downtown Eastside homeless shelter, during the Vancouver Games touring Estee, now a police officer (“the only good cop he knew, is what he said,” she recalls) around the troubled streets. The band’s hiatus set the stage for a third CD, XXXX; released last fall, it was their most successful to date. Many saw them poised for major success.
You Say Party! We Say Die! had just returned from a U.S. tour when, on April 16, they appeared at Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre. The band was well into She’s Spoken For, a new uptempo song known to grab the crowd, when Devon collapsed. Crawling into Becky’s lap, he asked: “The band—where are they?” Unable to say more, he gestured for his friends as though gathering them to his chest. He died two days later from massive bleeding in his brain caused by a congenital birth defect. He was 30.