Monday, June 14, 2010

Say it 'aint so, Dr. Demento...

It's always hard when the magic dust of cherished childhood icons finally bite the cold, hard dust of reality, even when you haven't thought about them in years.

So when I saw this story on Salon yesterday, I mourned even as I realized that I hadn't heard nor even really thought of that distinctive voice in a long time. This despite the fact that from about 1988 when I was a junior in high school until well into my college years, many of my Sunday evenings involved sitting around a radio tuned to KRXO in Oklahoma City, drinking beer, shooting the shit and listening to Dr. Demento with friends.

Yes, I really was that much of a raging geek...

From the story:

This week, the novelty radio host Dr. Demento announced that, after nearly 40 years on the air, his final broadcast would be this weekend. Even to those with fond memories of listening to Demento's show, the bigger surprise may have been that he was still on the air. In this day and age, the natural place for a two-hour program focusing on "mad music and crazy comedy" would seem to be the Internet, where new shows will be streamed weekly, and the difference between five stations (including one in Alabama and one in Alaska) and none might seem to be a small one. But Demento's partial demise does prompt the question: Whither novelty? Is there a place for novelty songs in the age of YouTube and Radio Disney, or have we seen the last of the once-vibrant genre?

Count me among those who were surprised to learn Dr. Demento was even still around. His show went off the air in the OKC market sometime around the mid-90s, and by that time I had pretty much stopped listening on a regular basis anyway. But even though my musical tastes (always weird and eclectic in the extreme) gradually changed, I credit that adolescent exposure to things like Dr. Demento for shaping my skewed sense of humor and my uhhh...unique worldview.

Where else - in that innocent time before the Internet and satellite radio and ipods and the perpetually plugged-in culture we now take for granted - could a kid from Oklahoma be exposed to the work of guys like Spike Jones, Frank Zappa and Tom Lehrer?

Again, from the Salon story (which is worth a read if you're a former Dementite...)

Beginning in 1970, Dr. Demento (né Barret Hansen) played a similar role. Mixing vintage novelties with discoveries like Barnes & Barnes' sublimely odd "Fish Heads," he mixed musical anthropology and avant-garde experimentation, providing a home on the dial for social outcasts and musical misfits of all kinds. "As a budding nerd, I was always really glad to know that show was out there, even if it wasn't broadcast in an area where I could listen to it," says Stephen Thompson, a music editor at NPR and the founder of the Onion's pop-culture twin, the A.V. Club. Demento encouraged listeners to send in their own songs, with unsurprisingly mixed results. But among them were the nascent stylings of one Alfred "Weird Al" Yankovic, who went on to become the biggest-selling artist in novelty history.

In addition to providing a sense of community to lonely misfits everywhere, the music Demento played was a gateway drug to the avant-garde. It's only as an adult that you realize how genuinely odd Spike Jones' "Cocktails for Two" is, far stranger than anything that would be played on the radio in any other context. "Weird Al made the first record I ever played, and he parodied so many different genres that he made me think about music in a different way," Thompson says.

Much like print, Demento's influence waned with the rise of the Internet, and even though there's still a vibrant comedy song culture out there (Flight of the Conchords are particularly hilarious) I can't help but feel as if today's kids are somehow being cheated a bit by so much choice and so much convenience.

For better and worse, tasting the different in life is an important part of growing up, and having to work for and seek out subversiveness (even mild subversiveness like Demento) I believe fosters a sense of shared identity that kids who literally have the world at their keyboards, kids who are used to and indeed demand instant gratification can't begin to understand, much less appreciate.

Of course, (to twist and butcher a little of the Bard) I come to mourn Dr. Demento, not bury him. The irony is Demento won't be going away. Indeed, he'll be producing a show for the very medium that killed his radio show. Not to mention the fact that there are legion websites and Youtube videos dedicated to the show.

And that's all well and good, of course, but I maintain the notion that there should be a magic to the process of seeking out and discovering something new and exciting that - in the end - is just as important as the information itself.

Or maybe I'm just showing my quaintness. Whatever the case, rock on Dr. Demento. I for one will keep on Star Trekkin' and looking out for those Klingons on the starboard bow...

1 comment:

  1. Man, I haven't heard that name in years. I remember hearing that Wolfman Jack died and couldn't believe he was still on the radio either.

    So much of what we enjoyed growing up was valued as diamonds are, not because of their content but because of their rarity. These things were hard to get and when we got them it was a conquest. Now the conquest lies in finding a five-bar signal.