Or the three-hundred pound statue of Howlin’ Wolf made of processed meat slices.
Or the gold-plated throne that plays “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” whenever it’s sat upon.
Actually, the high priest of radio weirdness, Doctor Demento—aka Barry Hansen ’63—lives in an unassuming house in an unremarkable Los Angeles suburb with none of the fanciful accoutrements listed above. Aside from several gold records adorning a living room wall (gifts from Hansen’s friend Weird Al Yankovic), there’s virtually nothing on view to indicate that its owner is the sort of man who plays songs like “My Girlfriend Is Inflatable” and “The Day Ted Nugent Killed All the Animals” on the airwaves, where anyone might hear them.
Barry Hansen may not be the most famous Reed alumnus, but his alter ego is certainly the most heard. The Doctor Demento Show has, since the early ’70s, been pumping out a steady stream of musical curiosities on radio stations nationwide, playing everything from mid-50s Spike Jones to “Quidditch Ball Wizard,” a recent Harry Potter-meets-the-Who parody, with the occasional Cab Calloway shouter or Skip James blues thrown in for good measure. Radio cognoscenti know that if they want to hear the Arrogant Worms, “Boy Scoutz in the Hood,” or “Let’s Remove Our Genitalia,” they need a house call from the good Doctor.
Doctor Demento’s origins begin when eleven-year-old Barret Hansen, taking a cross-town trolley in Minneapolis in 1952, spots a storefront sign advertising used records at 19 cents apiece; he decides to take a look. The platters are mostly discarded 78s, including a lot of rhythm and blues from jukeboxes in African American bars, and Hansen walks away with six records. He later discovers a sale at a Salvation Army, two records for a nickel, and within a year is spending a dollar a week on music. He begins listening to late-night R&B and country-western programs beamed from radio stations as far away as Arkansas, shows playing Hank Snow and Sonny Boy Williamson, thrilling stuff for an era awash in Perry Como and Der Bingle. (A couple of hundred miles north, in Hibbing, Robert Zimmerman, the same age, listens to the same “illicit music”; he, too, will go on to take a stage name: Bob Dylan.)
Fast forward a bit, and Barry Hansen is now a serious musical scholar at Reed College, toiling on a thesis, Studies in Post-Wagnerian Opera. He is also broadcasting a show called Musical Museum on Reed’s radio station, featuring records rescued from thrift shops. The show’s not Doctor Demento, not yet; the presentation is low-key and serious. But it is a radical departure from the nearly all-classical format that KRRC follows. Country, blues, folk, R&B, rock and roll, even what might be termed “world music”: Hansen plays it all, and prudes and traditionalists within KRRC’s ten-watt radius shiver in their boots.