10 Questions for Dr. Demento
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Features
Even at 69, Dr. Demento and his golden throat are still going strong - in cyberspace these days, unlike the 36 years fans knew him as the champion of novelty music and music historian and the guy who discovered Weird Al Yankovic in syndicated radio.
'I'll do this for as long as I can,' says Barret Hanson, aka Dr. Demento.
Almost every year since the early 1970s Dr. Demento has returned to Portland, where he graduated from Reed College in 1963, for activities at his alma mater. He plans four shows in late January, all at 8 p.m., Reed College's Vollum College Center, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd.: 'Roots of Country Music,' Jan. 26; 'Fifty Years of Punk Rock,' Jan. 27; 'Illegal Smiles,' Jan. 28; 'Dr. Demento's Greatest Hits,' Jan. 29. Admission is $5 for each show.
The Tribune caught up with Demento, who lives in Lakewood, Calif.:
Tribune: Reed College remains a special place for you?
Demento: I'm a loyal alumnus and always have a good time when I come back there. It's nice to see what current students are up to … it rejuvenates and stimulates me.
Tribune: You lost radio syndication last year; so, you are exclusively online now, at drdemento.com, while also putting out CDs … you like the Internet?
Demento: I kind of miss a certain thrill of being on live radio - those were great days. But the (weekly) Internet show is doing fine. I'm certainly as enthusiastic and the audience is very enthusiastic. Now that they have to pay to listen to the show, there may not be as many (followers), but they're certainly loyal. My fan club has about 2,000 members.
Tribune: Give us your take on the state of radio.
Demento: People are still making decent money in radio, but it's not as adventurous as it used to be. Instead of Top 40 or rock stations, you have divisions of format - classic, active, dance-oriented, mainstream. Some stations sound more like classic rock on current country radio - half the songs sound like something Lynyrd Skynyrd could have done in the 1970s. Others stick to more traditional country. Black music the same way - hip-hop, sweeter R&B, dance. … The unfortunate circumstance was that the 'Dr. Demento Show' appealed to a wide swath of an audience - that is a blessing and a curse.
Tribune: What struck your fancy about novelty songs, way back when?
Demento: The 'Dr. Demento Show' started out as an oldies show, playing rare rock 'n' roll records, and I told stories about them. I noticed a large number of requests were for novelty songs - 'Monster Mash,' 'Purple People Eater' - and the more I played them, the more popular the show got. I started the show in 1970 and, by 1972, it was 90 percent comedy stuff. Syndication started in 1974 and ran until last year.
Tribune: Address each of your upcoming Portland shows … country music?
Demento: It grew out of traditional singers with guitars and fiddle tunes. A lot of blues influence, then black music seeping into the sound. The 1920s it started to be commercialized. Along came a guy named Jimmy Rodgers, the 'Blue Yodeler,' and it coincided with the growth of the record industry, and he proved how single artists singing in their style, typically Southern, could sell records all over the country in mass quantities. Then, it was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Milton Brown. The Nashville sound took over country music by the 1960s.
Tribune: Punk rock?
Demento: It has been 35 years since the Ramones and Sex Pistols came on the scene, but there were bands in the '60s called punk rockers at the time. Like the Kingsmen (of 'Louie Louie' fame), from Portland, scruffy and not well-schooled, typically suburban brats. They were a precursor of punk. But, I'll trace it back to the '50s and 'Summertime Blues' by Eddie Cochran.
Tribune: 'Illegal Smiles' … about drug references in songs?
Demento: Yeah, there's a lot of them from the 1920s and '30s, especially marijuana and cocaine. Not many songs about meth (nowadays), at least not funny ones. Marijuana tends to make people laugh, whether they're funny songs or not. 'Smoke Off,' by Shel Silverstein - it came from a poem published in 'Playboy' magazine, about a rolling and smoking contest held in Yankee Stadium. Also, 'Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent,' by Jef Jaisun of Seattle.
Tribune: 'Greatest Hits' … it includes Weird Al stuff, huh?
Demento: Yeah, I tell the story of how I discovered him. I'll always have some Frank Zappa and Thomas Lehrer as part of the show. … I'll also tell the story of my first radio gig at Reed College, and the station with 10 watts of power. If you're lucky, you can hear it in a three-mile radius.
Tribune: You stay in touch with Weird Al?
Demento: Oh, yes. He's working on a new album and just finished up his last tour, doing gigs in Europe. … He started sending me tapes while in high school, 16 years old. After he went to college at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, studying architecture, one of the songs that he recorded there, 'My Bologna,' first got him exposure. He was really shy; still is quiet off camera, and when not performing. He works very hard, very conscientious and very detail-oriented. He makes sure every line is funnier than the line before. Frank Zappa was the same way.
Tribune: Favorite Weird Al work?
Demento: 'Yoda,' set to 'Lola.' And the newer one, 'White and Nerdy' ('Ridin' Dirty').