A Geek's Oasis
Say it loud, say it proud: I’m a geek. And it’s a good place to be.
If you’re at one with your geekness, the heavy, unreasonable burden of societal pressure just melts away like a Malibu hillside in a brushfire. Geeks are free of bourgeois expectations simply because they fail to recognize them – they are happy, oblivious pigs in the slop of their own beautful, self-contained solar systems.
I embraced geek life in the spring of 1977. I was 12, and that cruel joke called puberty was using me as a human punch line, taunting my mind and body. That and the fact I couldn’t even pretend to like “Toys In the Attic” pretty much doomed me to Crustaceanland on the social food chain at school.
But geeks didn’t care about what you wore or the brand of pencil case you carried. Here’s the beauty of it: They completely circumvented the cutthroat game of adolescent Survivor by choosing not to play. If you wanted in, you were in. No judgments. Thus I felt instantly welcome; admittedly, though, much of geek culture was simply not my sip o’ Slurpee. I struggled mightily with Monty Python, Dungeons & Dragons, prog rock, and Robert Heinlein.
One thing did stick, however – an animated voice that spat whimsically through my radio every week. On Sunday nights, I listened to Dr. Demento, and everything somehow became brighter. His weekly show – a three-hour kitchen sink of comedy and musical novelty dating from Edison’s first cylinders all the way to the present – was merry medicine that rocked my world.
At first, it seemed incongruous that such unadulterated zaniness could emerge from a radio station that to me represented all that was horrible about life in the 7th grade: The Mighty Met. A little bit of heaven, 94.7, KMET, tweedle dee. Whoo-ya. Jeff Gonzer, Paraquat Kelly, the insufferable Jim Ladd. Burnout central. Yet the certifiably crazed Dr. Demento blessedly found his away onto the air amid these zonk-eyed dinosaurs.
Demento (nee Barrett Hansen) served as my segue to sweet dreams during those last conscious moments before the weekend’s dear departure. From Damascus’ “Making Love In a Subaru” to Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” to “Pico and Sepulveda” and “Shaving Cream,” the good doctor’s playlist rarely failed to roust at least a smile before bedtime.
However, Freddie Blassie’s “Pencil Neck Geek” was one Demento perennial that induced only a scowl. The former pro wrestler’s hateful diatribe was fightin’ words in Geekland. So when Don Noone created a rejoinder called “The Geek’s Revenge,” my comrades at Sepulveda Junior High mobilized and petitioned the ditty to the top of Demento’s weekly top ten in early ’78. That would have been my all-time Demento moment, had I not noticed the oddly aggressive, sneering tune he slipped into his set one night. It wasn’t funny… or was it? It was the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” and I needed to hear it again. Turns out he’d been sneaking on the Pistols, Devo’s “Jocko Homo”; the Dickies’ “You Drive Me Ape” and other punk stuff since 1976, when the Ramones issued their initial call to arms.
Dr. Demento turned me on to punk rock. And many others, he tells me. At the time, the FM radio vet was merely bringing a bit of subversion back to the airwaves. “It was something so new and socially interesting and musically interesting, I thought I should play it a little bit on the show,” he explains. “People never had a chance to hear the music, and they weren’t going to hear it anywhere else. There were more anti calls than pro, that’s for sure.”
But he stuck with it, even though the medicine didn’t go down easy. “Most people expect funny music,” he says. “That’s what I get paid for.” After he conducted the first commercial radio interview with Devo in ’77, the band gave him a copy of their film, The Truth About De-Evolution. When he played it during an evening of demented films at the Nuart in West L.A., the audience booed.
Listeners weren’t prepared for these revolutionary new sounds, particularly on L.A.’s station of stasis, KMET. But Demento says he had free reign at the MET. “I knew the atmosphere there was very loose,” he says. “The staff had a lot of self confidence.” The station did have its limits, however, and drew the line at racier fare, such as Killer Pussy’s “Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage,” and the Rotters’ “Sit On My Face, Stevie Nix.”
KMET, is, of course, long gone, but Dr. Demento is still spinning in syndication after more than three decades of frivolity. With a master’s in musicology and a record collection hovering at a half-million, Demento never tires in his quest for barrier-breaking sounds. “I still keep my eyes and ears out for what’s happening in music. But I haven’t heard anything since punk that was as much a jolt to the status quo.”
And amid the funny music the man gets paid to play, he still occasionally dusts off golden punk oldies like Tuff Darts classic “Your Love Is Like Nuclear Waste” and the Cramps’ “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” still fulfilling a crucial role in the mind expansion of new generations of geeks everywhere.