Barry Hansen always wanted to become a doctor. Not the kind who puts stitches in you but the kind who puts you in stitches.
Hansen, a reserved, bearded man in his mid-40s, is better known as the title character and host of "The Dr. Demento Show," a nationally syndicated radio program of "mad music and crazy comedy." Every week Hansen skims the crème de la crème from his private collection of over 200,000 records, dating "from 1897 to tomorrow."
On the air, he plays mostly novelty records, whose golden era was the early '60s—before rock started to take itself too seriously to air the likes of "Purple People Eater" and "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha!" The Dr. Demento Show keeps alive classic records by artists such as Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, and Allan Sherman and highlights contemporary artists including Monty Python, Frank Zappa, and Cheech and Chong.
A registered Libertarian, as well as a first-class iconoclast, Hansen says the greatest influence on what he can and cannot play on the air is "the capitalists who run the radio stations. They don't want to offend their listeners. But it doesn't mean I'm going to be a prude."
The show has proven a springboard for new talent. Hardly a day goes by when Hansen doesn't get at least one tape of some quality through the mail or even left in an empty flower pot in front of his home. Some are gems, he says, but "I get some tapes of grade school kids singing, 'I like to eat my boogers.'"
The Doctor's number one discovery to date is satirist "Weird Al" Yankovic, best known for such rock parodies as "Like a Surgeon" (of Madonna's "Like A Virgin") and "Eat It" (of Michael Jackson's "Beat It"). Yankovic started as a teenager, sending in tapes of himself singing and playing the accordion in an acoustic-tiled bathroom.
Barret Hansen was raised "among the lakes, trees, polka palaces, and art museums" of Minneapolis. At the age of four, he could operate the family phonograph, amazing the neighbors with his careful handling of the family's expensive and fragile classical records. The same year, his father brought home Spike Jones's "Cocktails for Two," sealing his young son's destiny.
"I could have tinkled around on the piano, but when I put a record on, I could make the whole orchestra play," Hansen recalls. "With my first phonograph, I'd take the family's records, and talk like a disk jockey. When I got into high school, I appointed myself the deejay for the dances—the sock hops, as we called them then—and private parties, too." How did he do that? Simple: he had the biggest record collection.
"Maybe in a way it retarded my social development, because while other people were actually dancing and conversing, I was running the record player. I was pretty much a loner. I loved my records. I'd go home from school and stop at the Salvation Army store and buy old records for a nickel apiece. Or go to the place where they sold the jukebox records for 19 cents apiece.
"That's how I found out about black music originally. In Minneapolis in the '50s there was very little black music on the radio, but there were enough blacks to support taverns where they played rhythm and blues on the jukeboxes, and they'd wind up at the jukebox dealer's along with the rest of the records. One day I found a record by Muddy Waters, and I thought, that's a funny name, I think I'll take it home and see what it sounds like."
As an undergraduate at Reed College in Oregon, Hansen wrote a thesis on opera, but his master's thesis at UCLA was on the evolution of rock and roll. It got him a job writing notes for record jackets, and his career in the music business was born.
Hansen later contributed articles to the early Rolling Stone and Warner Brothers' Circular and Wax Paper magazines. He began as the original lone writer of what eventually became the multi-author Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. "I got as far as 1967," he sighs, "by which time it was 1972."
Meanwhile, Hansen was hired in 1970 as the oldies expert for a Los Angeles radio station. "But I mixed in some novelty numbers right from the first show, and it was those that got the biggest response." One of the secretaries at the station said he "must be demented" to play that kind of music. And so Dr. Demento was born. After a few years of astute self promotion, the program was widely syndicated, and Barry Hansen found to his pleasure that he had turned his demented dream into a full-time living.
Unanchored crates full of alphabetized LPs are stacked to the ceiling of his office at home in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. "If there's an earthquake I'll just have to jump out of the way fast."
When he got married three and a half years ago, Hansen's wife, Sue, an editor, announced that if he expected her to cook, he would have to remove the hundreds of 45 rpm records from the kitchen—even though the shelves were the perfect size for them. The expanding record collection now takes up much of the rest of the house, as well as a 500-square-foot patio and what was once a two-car garage.
The Hansen/Demento dichotomy is no Jekyll/Hyde split. Even on the air, Hansen seems the introvert presenting his expertise successfully as entertainment, leaving Demento visible mainly in the reflection of the limelight he directs to his manic offerings. And if there's any connection between his career and his political philosophy, it's not an intellectual one, but one best summed up in his credo: "Demented music will set you free."
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.