Friday, June 23, 2017

My Minutes with Demento

In July of 1975, I was a month beyond my 15th birthday. I was hooked on buying all things Beatles, watching (and recording) episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus every Sunday night on our local PBS station, and cutting a bunch of lawns for money.

Over the course of a few weeks, I heard from two different friends about a radio show they knew I'd love, The Dr. Demento show, heard Sunday nights over WSDM, 97.9 (SDM = "Smack Dab in the Middle" of your dial). On July 20th, I gave it a listen.

I was hooked from the very first song, "The Q5 Piano Tune" by Spike Milligan, an amazing feat of nonsense wrapped up in a hooky, noisy and extremely well produced package (not surprising, as it was produced by George Martin). As the show went on, I heard several more excellent records that I'd had no idea existed, in styles and genres I barely had known about, as well as a few that I'd grown up knowing, such as "Three Little Fishies" and "The Purple People Eater".

I was getting very into this new show, but then, near the end of the episode, came "My Boomerang Won't Come Back" by Charlie Drake, and I was over the moon. The record is a masterpiece of production (and, again, by George Martin!), has funny lyrics, great harmonies and an absolutely indelible tune. I have no doubt it was the record I listened to the most over the next two or three months, and remains one of my very favorite records.

For that treat alone, I made sure to listen the next week, and the next, and the next, in the hope of hearing something else that I would love. I was usually rewarded with something else wonderful. I was hooked on Dr. Demento's show. And like most things I fall headlong into, I have continued to be into Dr. Demento, full bore, ever since. His show changed stations a few times in those early years, but it eventually landed on WLUP (curiously, the station which took over the frequency of WSDM), and stayed there for more than 30 years, before the show itself moved to an online-only presence.

Over the course of those years, I recorded nearly every episode on reel to reel, copying onto cassette tape after cassette tape all of the material that I loved, and there was far too much of that loved material to mention here, although I will point out that his show was the source of my introduction to Thurl Ravenscroft, whose career I celebrated here.

Being a major record collector myself, Dr. Demento (AKA Barry Hansen) became a hero to me, for his collection, his knowledge and his desire to/excellent ability at sharing his collection with the world.

I even got a song on his show. After I completed a self-produced, privately distributed cassette tape of funny songs, I sent off a copy of a few of them to the good Doctor, and was rewarded a few months later when my song "Bad TV Acting" (a parody of "Sweet Soul Music") got a spin on the show (later, the entire cassette album was posted online, here).

Flash forward a few more years, and an episode of the show was done which paid tribute to Elvis, 25 years after his death. I wrote a very favorable post about it in the Dr. Demento Usenet Newsgroup (remember those), and someone in his camp forwarded it to Dr. Demento himself. Thus began an occasional correspondence between us. This was more than I would ever have dreamed of, but over the last couple of years the correspondence has became more frequent, starting with my making suggestions for the show, and offering up items from my own collection. Soon, he and I were going off on tangents and writing to each other about our lives, our collecting, etc.

Hearing that Dr. Demento and I would someday become friends would have probably put the 16 year old, or 26 year old me into shock. And yet, that's what had happened. I had, by this point, started recording my own material again, and I began sending some of these songs to him, as well. Since early last year, he's played four of these, and has featured several additional items from my collection, several of them song-poems.

When I learned last fall that Dr. Demento would be appearing live in a theatre about an hour from my home, around Halloween, I quickly bought a ticket, and inquired with him whether he thought there'd be a chance for us to meet before the show. The answer was yes, and so, last October, prior to what was a wonderful presentation, I got to spend about 20 minutes with the Good Doctor, in the theatre's "green room".

What did we talk about? Lots of things, including, of course, being a collector and ways of having a collection. But does it really matter? Someone I considered a hero, someone who built an amazing career out of something I've done as a life-long hobby, is now a friend. And we had a really nice conversation, and that's what matters. Since then, our conversation continued, via e-mail. So have my submissions of records from my collection for the show: Just last week, he played "The 23rd Channel", a ridiculous Noval label song-poem, during a segment on television.

Thank you, Dr. Demento - Barry Hansen - for more than 40 years of entertainment, for the myriad beloved songs and other recordings you've introduced me to, and for welcoming me into friendship with you.


Stu Shea said...


Thank you for sharing this story. You were my introduction to the good Doctor as well, and to so much of the great music he has played.

He is an amazing, singular figure in the history of American music, from his days as a blues collector, roadie/friend of Spirit, DJ, recording artist, researcher...the man is a treasure.

I am so glad that the two of you have become friends.


Timmy said...

A great story & a great photo...
I have met Dr. D several times & he is always very courteous & engaging. A marvel of memorization has he. Around 5 years ago a documentary about him, titled: "Under The Smogberry Trees", (Of which I was in attendance at the pre-premiere party/symposium, along with M.C. Jack Black) was pretty much finished up and then a horrible thing happened... Legal maneuverings & lawyers hog-tied efforts to complete the finishing editing job & thusly, the documentary has been in Limbo ever since. How I wish there were someway to just end all the bickering & finally release this much looked forward to film. Lord knows Dr. Demento's story is a significant & historically pertinent one.
I am NOT, nor have I ever been , a robot.

Darryl Bullock said...

The good doctor was one of the biggest influences on my infatuation with bad music. Although we did not get his show here in the UK his presence was felt through kate night airings of things such as Barnes & Barnes' Fish Heads video (I named my band after that track) and then, shortly after i began working in the record trade, the release by Rhino of albums including Dementia Royale and the World's Worst Records... the title of which I stole for my blog.

In more recent years he was kind enough to dedicate a half-hour section of one of his shows to my blog and last year interviewed me about my biography of Florence Foster Jenkins. Out of the blue, a week or so later, he sent me (autographed!) CDR copies of the show. Such a kind, generous, funny, engaging and influential gentleman. I hope he lives forever.

I may be a robot...