Another Side of Dr. Demento
Goooood day, dementites and dementoids!!!! At the tender age of 12, my mind was blown apart by Dr. Demento and his radio show. He opened up my mind to Weird Al and all of those great old tracks from the 40s/50s, like “Der Fuhrer’s Face”, and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?”… He shaped my adult sense of humor, and spurred on my love of music. It’s with pure (ir)reverence and sheer glee that I welcome Dr. D to No Depression.
Interview by Josh Medsker
(originally published in Twenty-Four Hours, Jan 2012)
Tell me a little about your work on the Little Sandy Review? How did you get hooked up with those guys?
I grew up in Minneapolis in the 1950s. After becoming aware of new blues records by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, etc. I discovered that one store in downtown Minneapolis regularly stocked them (they said they had them brought up special from Chicago)…the Mel-O-Dee Music Shop. One day I was in there and the owner introduced me to another person about my age (16), saying “You two are the only white guys who buy dese records”. That turned out to be Tony Glover, who was not only very much into blues but also wanted to be a writer. He idolized Kerouac. I became friends with Tony. After I went off to college he wrote me about two other writers in Minneapolis who were starting a magazine about traditional music (we’d call it a zine today). Those turned out to be Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake, founders-editors of the L.S.R. When I came home for the summer in 1960 I got to know them and became a L.S.R.staff writer. In 1964, after I’d contributed to a couple dozen issues, Paul and Jon decided to sell me the magazine, after Paul had moved to NYC where he would spend the rest of his days. I published two issues (Vol. 2, issues 1 and 2) before selling it to another person who published one more issue and that was it.
I reviewed numerous blues records and some others, and edited the two Vol. 2 issues.
You have written a lot about R and B, Blues, and what we now refer to as “Roots Music”… How did you wind up as the master of parody music? Was Nervous Norvus a turning point for you? 😉
Kinda. My commercial radio career began in 1970 when I became a regular guest on KPPC, Pasadena (L.A.) That happened because I had a reputation as a writer who knew a lot about roots music, early R&B and rockabilly (and because one of the jocks there was a friend of a friend). In 1971 I got a regular shift there on Sunday night. The idea was that I would do a free-form show based on the records in my collection. I played R&B and rockabilly, but would mix in a couple of “novelty” records from the 1950s every show, because that’s what happened on top 40 radio in the 1950s. “Transfusion” was one of the first. Early on, when I started taking phone requests, I noticed that a whole lot of the requests were for other “novelty” records. The more of those I played, the more popular the show became. And so I became the funny music guy, though that was not what I (or the station) originally had in mind. I took that and ran with it, and have ever since.
Early Dementia: The Little Sandy Review
l to r: Spider John Koerner, Tony Glover, Dave Ray.
(photo by Paul Nelso
I was introduced to Utah Phillips (“Moose Turd Pie”) and Haywire Mac McClintock (“Hallelujah I’m A Bum”) through your show, which later led to a love of folk music and political music… Do people tell you that a lot? Is political subversion a pleasant side effect of your work, or a “prime directive” (sorry, it’s the trekkie in me. I couldn’t think of a better phrase, really.)
No, political “subversion” is not a prime motive, though I will happily admit to liberal leanings. However, I’m always glad to hear that something I played led someone to a love of some sort of music that they hadn’t been that much aware of before. Most often, people thank me for introducing them to Frank Zappa’s music, and of course Weird Al’s. But you are not the first to thank me for introducing them to folk/political song. You’re most welcome.
I read that you have old Edison cylinders? What music do you have on cylinder? Any comedy records? What is the oldest comedy record you’ve found?
I have a few. Not my specialty. A good friend of mine has hundreds of those. I tend to get a little more excited by records from after 1925, when electrical recording began. I have a few comedy items from 1901-1902 on original discs, and some others on tape or on CD reissues.
When you first started record collecting, what were some of your faves? Also, just curious, how many records do you have in your collection?
My dad brought home a new Spike Jones record (“Cocktails for Two”) in 1945, when I was four. That was an instant favorite. He brought home several others after that. I started having my own records in my room when I was eight. One of the first was “The Funniest Song in the World” by Groucho Marx. I now have somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter million records.
You have seen a lot of formats come and go… but this download revolution, as they are calling it now, sort of leveled the playing field for the little guy, in a way. What’s your feeling about the future of music?
I don’t think it’s going in any one direction…the days are gone when most everyone hears the same music, the way it was when I was young…but barring catastrophe, I look forward to a future in which most everyone can access the music he or she likes best, new or old.
When Frank Zappa died, you dedicated your entire show to his life and music? What was it about him in particular that got you going?
I met him before his first LP came out, and was very interested to find that two of his favorite forms of music were early 1950s doo-wop, and the then avant-garde “classical” music of Edgard Varese. (I might have been the first person he ever met who was almost as enthusiastic about both of those). He worked both elements, and many others, into his music in a highly adventurous manner, and he wrote very funny lyrics. I was a huge fan and still am.
You’ve been a roadie, a writer, a DJ, a living legend… what has been your favorite part?
The radio show is still lots of fun. It’s what’s closest to my heart. That involves writing, which I enjoy (much more since I had a computer to write on). Nowadays, I’m not on quite as big a stage as I was in 1982 or thereabouts, but it’s still a blast. Being a roadie involved lots of drudgery and stress, but gave me a lot of fun stories to tell later on.
I read that you did your thesis on Wozzeck? That’s an amazing work. Did you hear Tom Waits’ version (Blood Money)? Once you found fame, did you ever try to get it published?
Wozzeck was half of my thesis. The other half was Debussy’s Pelleas & Melisande. A very different sounding opera, but involving some of the same structural devices which were relatively new to opera; some of them could be traced to Wagner (whose operas didn’t sound like either Wozzeck or Pelleas).
That was a bachelor’s thesis (Reed College, which I attended, is one of the few colleges to require a thesis for the B.A.). It was meant to demonstrate that I could do research and write it up; there was no thought of publication. It would be rather baffling to anyone who knows me just as Dr. Demento.
I would not say that Blood Money is a version of Wozzeck. To me it’s a series of meditations on the themes of the original play (Woyzeck), and does not relate very specifically to the plot. As I recall (I haven’t heard it in awhile) there’s little specific resemblance to anything in Berg’s opera (which is another very free adaptation of the play that takes a very different approach).
Going along with that last one, I was listening to an NPR show a few weeks ago, perhaps you heard it, on Humor in Classical Music… Would you ever dedicate a show to humorous classical music?
I’ve dealt with that as a topic a few times, for half an hour at the time. It might be worth going into that for one of the hour-long segments I do now on special topics. Haven’t done that yet, though. I like to mix up my styles and genres a little more than that.
Your dad was a pianist? Did you ever pick it up?
Chillaxin’ in The Seventies
(photo: Warner Bros. Recs
I took piano lessons starting at age 6. There was an unfortunate three-year interruption after my dad died (when I was 8) and I never quite got back up to speed. I was not terribly diligent about practicing. I was much more excited about collecting records.
So when you were A and R for Specialty, who were some people you signed?
A band called Kingdom, which made an LP in 1970 that I produced. The other new artists we recorded during that time were not signed by me. None of the new artists we recorded had any success to speak of. My main job there was compiling albums of the label’s earlier artists such as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and various gospel artists. Some of those LP’s did OK.
I was saddened to hear that your show is off regular radio syndication… but very excited to hear that you moved online! How has internet radio been treating you?
Very well, thank you.
If I may get serious for a second… I know that you were in the Wild Man Fischer documentary… What is it about outsider artists that appeals to you?
I like outsider artists who are unconventional, bizarre, charismatic and/or entertaining. Wild Man was certainly all of those, at his best anyway. Some of my listeners enjoy music that’s just plain bad, and revel in its badness. I do too at times, but a little of that goes a long way.
Thanks for the highly stimulating questions.