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Q&A: Dr. Demento

The king of comedy music shows his scholarly side.

Barret "Dr. Demento" Hansen is probably best known for his long-running radio show on Los Angeles-area radio stations, which introduced the world to "Weird" Al Yankovic, as well as hits like "Fish Heads" and "They're Coming to Take me Away." But his musical interest extend far beyond the comedic. He studied classical music at Reed (class of '63), got a Masters in Folk Music Studies at UCLA and was one of the earliest fans of punk statistically possible. This weekend, he returns to his alma mater to give three lectures: one on racial integration through music, one on Frank Zappa and a final on punk's development into the new millennium, a redux of a lecture that he first gave in 1977. WW caught up with the good doctor to talk DIY, academic disciplines and roadying for Canned Heat.

WW: Since you're mostly known for comedy music, it might surprise some people to see that you're doing a lecture on punk. What was your relationship with it?

Dr. Demento: In the '70s, the first decade that I had a show, it took a while for it to settle into being 99 percent funny music. I played lots of things that were adventurous. The idea was that I could play anything that was out of the ordinary that interested me. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols certainly fit that. There was one little hole in the wall store that carried the punk imports from England from "God Save the Queen" on. By January 1977, when I came to Reed, I had probably about three dozen of those records, which was enough to give a talk.

What was your first lecture on punk at Reed like? Had the students heard that stuff?

My audience for that lecture was maybe 20 people, all students. They were kind of the people that music was made for. Probably about half of them had heard the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and were very enthused to hear the other bands that played in similar styles that I had brought records of. The Damned was another one of the other ones. Not exactly punk, but kind of related in a way, was Devo. They were one of the first to make the DIY format work. They did that from the beginning. Though they signed with [Warner Bros.], they had considerable success with a couple of DIY 45s before that. They were one of the first to show that you could do this.

I was interested to discover that you have a masters degree in folk music studies. What did you study in that program?

We discuss the history, where the music came from, the origins of blues—as much as could be known about it at that time, and the same about what became known as, much later, bluegrass. Before that, there was string band music, and the kind of thing people danced to in the 19th century.

We studied techniques of field collecting—how to go out into the countryside and collect the music people were singing around the home. That's not done so much anymore but in the '30s that was a big thing, and that's how we learned a lot of what we know about folk music. That's how Leadbelly was discovered. He was discovered by some researchers who were going around to prisons, looking for some people who sang. But by the time I had finished that, I had been tempted away by the music industry, which was extremely dynamic and exciting in the '60s. I knew Linda Rondstadt when I first got there and she became really famous. And some really good friends of mine started a band called Canned Heat. They were all real close friends of mine. In fact, I was briefly a roadie for them.

You're also giving a talk on racial integration and assimilation in music. Can you tell me what that's going to cover?

The dominant, mainstream culture in this country would assimilate some aspects of that music and change it around. Obviously, what happened to African music is it started out being just like what you would hear in Africa two or three centuries ago, but by the time it got to this country, the African people were enslaved, and eventually freed. They picked up the English language, they picked up instruments that were popular here, like the guitar, and they made their own distinctive music on it, like blues, for instance. Steel-stringed guitar came into this country originally from Mexico—of course, guitars were invented in the Old World centuries ago. Black people did something very different with it. It became blues. Once white people in this country heard blues, they changed it around in different ways. So you have a very long process that begins with tribal music in Africa and ends with someone like Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Another example would be Native American music. Of course, different tribes had different forms music. But, thanks mainly to the movies, people think mostly of one type of music as being representative of Indians. Usually it's in a minor key, in what's called a pentatonic scale, in a rhythm that goes BOOM boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom BOOM. And much of that, I will show, came from people in the movies writing music hearing compositions by a man named Charles Stanford Stilton, a white man from Massachusetts. He studied music and started writing pieces for Western instruments that he thought mirrored what music of Native Americans was like. And this particular concept became very influential.

How did you eventually decide on sticking to funny stuff on your show?

The Dr. Demento show started out as a rare oldies show. By that time—this was 1970—I had quite a massive record collection, so I was playing mostly rare, early rock'n'roll oldies. The Rolling Stones would have a hit and I would play the original R&B version of that. But, from the beginning, there would be a couple of novelty records from the '50s—"Purple People Eater," "Transfusion", "They're Coming to Take Me Away Haha"—and the more I played of that stuff, the more popular the show got. So I decided that's my destiny. I didn't plan it that way originally, but I certainly have a lot of that stuff, too. And then it went beyond the oldies to the new stuff.

SEE IT: Dr. Demento speaks at Vollum Hall at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., on Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 21-23. 7 pm. Free for students, $5 general admission.