Great American Novel
[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Like thousands of Gen X deviants, I can trace the roots of my insomnia back to The Dr. Demento Show. After my father put his fist through the television set when I was three years old, my parents decided it would be best for my sister and me to grow up without the evil influence of TV. Dr. Demento's radio broadcasts of funny songs and Cheech and Chong skits were my salvation from book learnin' and the chemistry set in Omaha, Nebraska. Every Friday night, I would lie awake in bed for hours waiting for the clock to strike 12, pretending to be asleep. At midnight, I would put on headphones and tune in to Z-92, where Dr. D's two-hour festivals of comedy and mayhem gave me my first exposure to Devo, Jim Carroll, and punk rock.
A Minneapolis native, Dr. Demento was born Barret Hansen in 1941, and he began cultivating his love for weird records at the ripe age of four, when his music-loving father brought home a new album by composer Spike Jones--complete with gunshots and sound effects. While his father's love for playing Chopin and popular tunes on the piano didn't rub off on young Barry, the affection for old-time novelty music and comedy did. For years, father and son would visit used-record bins in Twin Cities thrift stores, where Barry spent most of his extra money buying old 78s at five cents a pop.
Hansen's oddball collection eventually followed him into adulthood and to Los Angeles, where he began broadcasting The Dr. Demento Show nationally out of Pasadena's KPPC-FM in 1974. This was a time when FM was ruled by the likes of Pink Floyd and Genesis, and DJs were viewed as little more than cool intermissions between epic works of Art. Who knows how many hundreds of future shock jocks looked to Dr. Demento's talky, jokey shows for relief from Seventies self-seriousness.
With recent format changes and corporate buyouts, the number of stations carrying Dr. Demento has dwindled from about 200 in the Eighties to about half that number now. Currently, no local stations air Dr. Demento, though he's popular with some local bands: He gave Minneapolis pranksters Vinnie and the Stardüsters their first national airplay, and he met them for breakfast last year. But the DJ hasn't retired just yet, keeping busy on the lecture circuit between broadcasts and recently releasing Dr. Demento's 30th Anniversary Collection: Dementia 2000! on Rhino. The 42-song set compiles Tom Lehrer's "The Elements," Monty Python's classic "Lumberjack Song," and "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" by "Weird Al" Yankovic, whom Dr. Demento first introduced to the world after receiving a demo tape from 16-year-old Alfred. And what novelty collection would be complete without at least one passionate cover from an ex-Star Trek cast member? Leonard Nimoy's torturous rendering of "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" is here, too.
City Pages recently caught up with the good Doctor over the phone from his alma mater, Reed College, in Oregon, where he was preparing to give a lecture about the history of rock 'n' roll.
CITY PAGES: How did you get your start in radio?
DR. DEMENTO: When I was quite small, I used to like to play "DJ." I'd just play records on the phonograph and pretend I was introducing them on the radio. I started playing records at the sock hops at my high school--I had the biggest record collection in school, so I would play records and introduce them.
When I got out to Reed College, I got to be on an actual, not-very-powerful, real FM station on campus. Later, after I'd gone on to get my master's degree at UCLA, I became known around Los Angeles for being something of an expert on the early days of rock 'n' roll. I was asked to do some guest appearances on a local FM radio station, playing records from my collection. That grew into The Dr. Demento Show.
CP: When did you first start using the name Dr. Demento?
DEMENTO: Here's actually how it happened: At that first FM station [in Oregon], most of the personalities had funny names. On one of my first guest appearances, I was playing a song called "Transfusion" [by Nervous Norvus] which came out in 1956 and was what they used to call a novelty record, or a funny song that was actually on the charts.
I was playing this thing, and one of the other members of the station's staff came into the room and said, "You've got to be demented to play that shit on the radio!" Those were his exact words. One of the other on-air personalities overheard that remark and started calling me Dr. Demento. I started calling my show The Dr. Demento Show about a week after that.
CP: What did your family think when you decided to become a DJ?
DEMENTO: Oh, I think they would have preferred that I'd become a university professor, but they were fine with it. My mom's quite proud of me now, I think.
CP: What do you think of the current state of popular radio?
DEMENTO: Well, it's become ever so corporate, with huge corporations buying up five to ten stations in every major city, which has made it even more difficult for mavericks, such as me, to find a place in a station's timeslot. Which is why you can't hear the show in Minneapolis. I'm a prophet without honor in my hometown [laughs]! But the show has been out there in the past; we keep trying. So outside of that, I mean, radio is a business, and it's never been more obvious than now.
CP: A few years ago, you introduced the Meat Puppets at a show when they came through Minneapolis. How did that come about?
DEMENTO: Well, I had heard that they had been fans of my show, I guess when they were growing up. And after a show they did in Los Angeles, I went up and introduced myself to them. We ended up hanging out for a while and eventually became friends. The night I introduced the Meat Puppets in Minneapolis, I myself was also doing my stage show down the street at the Fine Line Café. My road manager just said, "Oh, hey, the Meat Puppets are playing two blocks away. You want to go see the Meat Puppets?" And I said, "Sure," so when we got there, we went in through the backstage door, and greeted each other as friends, and Curt Kirkwood said, "Would you like to introduce us?" so I did. So it was as simple as that. It was really just a coincidence that we were all in town at the same time.
Correction published 4/19/2000:
Owing to an editing error, this story misidentified the late Spike Jones. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.
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