Talks with Tim is a weekly Q&A by Tim Grobaty, who has been a columnist in Long Beach for nearly 50 years. If you’d like to suggest an interesting or influential person in Long Beach for this (unconventional) interview, reach him at [email protected].
This week we spoke with Barret Hansen, a Lakewood resident since 1990, who is known more widely as Dr. Demento, the radio broadcaster and record collector specializing in novelty songs going back to the early days of records. Hansen acquired the Demento persona in 1970. His weekly show, broadcast locally on KPPC and later KMET, went into syndication from 1974 through 1992. His last broadcast was on June 6, 2010, but he continues to record and produce his show online at drdemento.com in his home and garage in Lakewood. (Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.)
Tim Grobaty: Why did your parents name you Dr. Demento?
Dr. Demento: Actually, a fellow DJ at KPPC in Pasadena, Steven Segal, who was known as “The Obscene Steven Clean,” gave it to me. I don’t know how he came up with it, but he told me years later that he and Peter Wolf [the lead vocalist for the J. Geils Band] were smoking some weed one night and they decided to create some mythical character and they came up with Dr. Demento and when my show started Steve introduced me as Dr. Demento.
Q: That would’ve been back when weed was dirt cheap.
A: Yeah. The first lid I ever bought was $10 for an ounce.
Q: So you started at KPPC in Pasadena. How did you get to L.A.?
A: I attended Reed College in Oregon and after I graduated I got accepted at UCLA [where he earned a master’s degree in folklore and ethnomusicology]. I went to Ash Grove right away because they had Lightnin’ Hopkins—I was a huge blues fan at the time—and I sat next to Bob Hite, who was later called Bear, the lead singer for Canned Heat—and we discovered we were both record collectors. I probably had 10,000 records at the time, but most of them were still in Portland, and many more were in my mother’s attic in Minneapolis. Records are heavy and expensive to ship, so it took years for them to migrate from Minneapolis to Portland finally to Los Angeles. It probably took 10 years to get them all back together.
Q: In those early days you lived with members of the rock band Spirit. How did that come about?
A: I got to know them at the Ash Grove. Four of the five musicians who would become Spirit were in a band called the Red Rooster. Later they added John Locke as pianist and they broke in at the Ash Grove, which was owned by Ed Pearl [the late brother of Long Beach blues guitarist Bernie Pearl]. Ed’s sister was the mother of Randy California [guitarist and vocalist for Spirit]. Locke was living in a big five-bedroom house in Topanga Canyon and two other members of the band and I ended up living there, too, for a while.
Q: Do you play any musical instruments?
A: I used to play piano, but not professionally. I was in a band called King David & the Parables with five people from grad school at UCLA, including “King” David Cohen, Bernie Pearl and Stu Brotman who also was a member of Kaleidoscope with David Lindley. They decided I could play piano because I knew all these blues songs. Before I got into novelty songs I was primarily a blues nut. I started digging blues when I was about 15. I listened to a blues AM station from Little Rock late at night in my bedroom in Minneapolis, when I first heard Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed who were still putting out records. Bo Diddley too, and I became a major fan. I started collecting artists on the Chess, Vee-Jay and Checker labels. 78 singles, not LPs.
Q: So how did you get into novelty tunes?
A: I’m 82. I grew up in the ‘40s and my generation was probably one of the last generations to grow up without TV, so I developed a taste for music. When I was 4 years old my dad brought home a 78 of “Cocktails for Two” by Spike Jones and it immediately became my favorite song. Also on the other side was “Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma.” I just loved playing records. A year later, when I was 5, my parents got me a stepstool, so I could get up to reach the record player so I wouldn’t have to beg them to put on what I wanted to play.
Q: Spike Jones as you know came up in Long Beach. How important was Spike to novelty music?
A: Spike Jones was definitely the king of novelty for about 10 years from the mid-1940s till around 1952. His “Der Fuehrer’s Face” was his first big hit, coming out before World War II. I never met Spike, unfortunately. I guess I would have had the chance, but in the ‘60s I was a blues fan and I wasn’t interested yet in novelty music.
Q: You had a huge role in bringing “Weird Al” Yankovic to the public. How did that happen?
A: “Weird Al” sent me a tape in the mail in 1976. At that time I was getting maybe 20 a week. The first song, it wasn’t the best. It was just made on a cheap little cassette machine. And the song was called “Belvedere Cruisin’” about riding in his family’s Plymouth Belvedere. It was funny, [sings a lyric], “There’s somethin’ ’bout a Comet that makes me wanna vomit.” I played that on my show. He was a 14-year-old sophomore at Lynwood High School at the time. His second song was “School Cafeteria,” a funnier and better song than “Cruisin’” and it became No. 1 on my Funny Five. But his career really took off in 1979 with “My Bologna.” And in 1980 I played “Another One Rides the Bus,” and for the rest of the year every other phone call was requesting that song. It was just monstrous. He’s always been enormously appreciative to me, whenever he can he plugs my show.
Q: I used to listen to your show Sunday nights on KMET.
A: Yes, Steven Clean left KPPC in 1971 for KMET and I followed him over there. The show was two hours at first, then it expanded to four hours a couple of months later. The show was syndicated for a few years, but eventually people sort of lost interest in novelty tunes. A lot about radio and music changed. Now the only way you can hear me is on my internet show at www.drdemento.com.
Q: How did you wind up in Lakewood?
A: I got married in 1982 and my wife Sue and I rented a place in Sherman Oaks when we decided it was time to buy a house. Sue did most of the house-shopping. She had previously lived in Long Beach and she wanted to move back to the area, so we settled in Lakewood in 1990 in a house we could afford.
Q: Do you have any pets to keep you company or help you work?
A: No. My wife Sue used to have cats, but I just never had any special interest in owning a pet.
Q: I’m going to get you a puppy.
A: Well, if I see a stray dog on my porch at least I’ll know where it came from.