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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

BARRY AND ME

Copyright 2002 Roger N. Meyer

All Rights Reserved

 

 

     He was that strange kid.

 

     By the time he was in seventh grade, his clumsiness was undeniable.  He had that shuffle--bear like--that preceded any mention of his name.

 

     And the way he wrote:  a strange crabbed hold of his pen.  He wrote crooked to the extreme, almost as if he was writing backward.  That's the only way he could write.

 

     And yes, he was "hairy."  Blessed by a hirsute father, Barry was "a bear."

 

     He also matured early.  So he was big for his age, bigger and earlier than the rest of us.  We teased Barry.  We all did, even those of us, the misfits who were teased just as mercilessly as we teased one another.  We got chosen last just like he did, but our klutziness wasn't visible to those who didn't know us.  And yes, upon pressing him, he'd acknowledge the pain.  But not then.

 

     Taciturn until it came time for him to shine.  And O, did Barry shine.

 

     Barry loved music.  Odd music.  Music that would make your ears ring, your chin drop, crank your jaw askew, stupified at the production or the lyrics or the general incompetence, often the sheer joy of it all.  Not just Spike Jones.  Everything that was weird and not right for a ten or eleven year old.  Lightnin' Hopkins.  Blind Lemon Jefferson.  Race records.  Folk records.  The records of Moses Asch, and before him, the producers at the major labels who produced what were then called "specialty records."

 

     Shine, Barry, shine.

 

     Sock hop time.  You know.  Those mixer dances of the fifties with sweaty-palmed pre-teens lined up against the walls, pressing the bricks at their backs, gaping sheepishly at the opposite sex all the way across the gym floor.

 

     And then in came Barry.  He had this PA system record player, and his stack of dance records, and he'd be the DJ when DJ's didn't do dances.

 

     Barry did. . DJ's were on the radio.  That's all.  But Barry.  He was different.  Always had been.

 

     This was his way through.

 

     Bright he was.  Brilliant.  Imaginative, quiet except when called upon, hideously aware of his clumsiness, careful to a fault not to be observed closely when he didn't get the dance steps in those gym classes.  When he missed the rhythm altogether.  When offbeat was a description, not a term in the musical lexicon.  Certainly not the delay or the rubato in the syncopated warp and weave of the music.

 

     Barry understood syncopation.  You bet he did.  Barry knew music.  Uh huh.  He just couldn't do it.  Couldn't fake it a bit.

 

     Nope.  Barry didn't get it.  Everybody knew he didn't.  He'd whack away at the swing and sway, always behind or too ambitiously ahead, always very mechanical, with a serious look on his pursed lips listening for the "click" that never came.

 

     As we edged our way through high school, Barry became the consummate professional.  He had a record collection--including all of our popular music--that didn't stop.  You could always count on him for that.  He had variations of the same pop tunes some of us only heard on that gym floor.  The odd labels, the out of tune guitars and awful arrangements.  The duds that went along with the hits.  And he knew timing.  He knew how to rotate the fast dances with the slow dances, and the dances for those "special times" when all of us on the floor were making "that" contact.  You know what I mean.  And then the last two or three tunes.  We knew, even though they were different because the popular tunes shifted from week to week, from month to month, when the dance was coming to an end.

 

     Barry was smooth.

 

     During the last couple of years he had a microphone, announcing the tune, polishing a presentation and a hissy lispy voice to his passion that he still has today.

 

     When it came time to pick college, Barry was impressed by the report of a girl who came back, a girl one class ahead.  She was a Reedie.  That's what they call students at Reed College, in Portland.

 

     Reed was the prime small college for absolutely brilliant, knock-out scholars.  Serious kids.  No in-and-out-of-college, no dabbling like what goes on today even at Reed.

 

     It was also a college for weirdos.

 

     Now don't get me wrong.  Barry would never have called himself that.

 

     But you know what I mean.

 

     Barry was a dutiful student.  A brilliant one, and that was hard to do when all your classmates are stupifyingly intelligent at well.  No "alumni kids," no football team heroes at Reed.

 

     His passion ran strong, and it didn't run silent.  Reed had a ten watt student radio station, and from the day of his arrival to his departure four years later, he "was" the college DJ.  A natural.

 

     He arrived at Reed with some kind of a collection.  Certainly stuff that no one else had.  That's what made Barry special.

 

     Music.  He majored in music.  Now you couldn't major in the kind of music that Barry really liked.  Of course you couldn't.  Reed was a serious college, for serious students.  So Barry did his thesis comparing two early twentieth century operas by very different kinds of composers, two very different operas, two composers separated by a few years at the beginning of the century.  Yet his thesis hung together.  Brilliant it was.

 

     Barry went down to UCLA and enrolled in a graduate program in folk and traditional music.  Oh yes.  That was the title of the sequence, but he found himself studying composition and classical music just like he'd left at Reed.  And the ethnomusicalogical materials as well.  And what did him in, what they finally let him "pass out of" without ever really getting it?

 

     You guessed it.  Conducting.

 

     Barry remembers that with a twisted smile and a twinkle in his eye.  They couldn't well not give him his MA.  Not this guy.  But he couldn't even beat a mashed potato, no matter how hard they tried, he tried.

 

     Barry says that for fifteen, twenty years he couldn't stand to listen to classical music after that experience.

 

     Didn't happen.

 

     So, he got his degree.  Now what?

 

     Well, Barry had other ideas.  This was the middle of the 1960's.  With a minor physical impediment -- Barry had a turned in foot, not exactly a club foot, but enough to get him 4-F in the time of the draft -- and a graduate degree in a whole different field, Barry rumbled back to his passion.  He never left it, actually.

 

     Even at UCLA he did what he did at U-High in Minneapolis, what he did at Reed.  He was a student DJ on the student radio station.  Only this one was different.  This one had a small signal, but it was broadcast.  Open air.  Airwaves.  Yep.  Barry was "gaining audience."

 

     At that time, the middle of the sixties, there was a lot of competition in the radio stations of all kinds in the LA basin.  Didn't matter the war.  Hollywood was Hollywood, and that was fine.  There were a whole bunch of talented people out of work, who worked for less, who worked every now and then.

 

     So with his advanced degree and his connections, many built from his growing underground fame, Barry got a contract as a professional producer to collect gospel music from 78's and 45 RPM records into what became a huge set of vinyl records.  Specialty Records was the company.

 

     Fit him perfectly.  Barry "was" Mr. Specialty.  And that wasn't all.  Barry hung around with the folks who started Rhino records.  You know, those folks who specialize in the arcane, in the re-issues, in scarfing stuff up that no one believed still existed, and there it was, in vinyl.

 

     Not much money in those days, but O, the fun.  Barry was in his element.

 

     See.  Barry was a natural archivist, a natural historian.  There wasn't a production or artist detail he heard once and didn't forget.  He knew labels, he knew artists, he knew the business. 

 

     Yes he did.

 

     And at the same time, Barry finally came out with the twisted talent encyclopedic -knowledge-of-musical-ephemera radio personality first incubated at Reed, and later fledged out in the bowels of the UCLA radio station.

 

     That weird music.  My God.  That guy with the weird music.

 

     Doctor Demento.

 

     Barry started out in 1968, in LA, on the radio, as Doctor Demento.

 

     Thirty four years. 

 

     Oh, he's done a few other things.  He's a writer.  He's a producer. You can ask him about his career later.

 

     And his marriage to a woman who's become his business partner as well as his soul mate.

 

     But by the time of the early 1970's, Barry was known.  On a trip back to Minneapolis to visit his family, he stopped in and did an hour's interview with a fellow named Garrison Keilor at KUOM, the University of Minnesota radio station, still in that old granite and redstone antique of a building called "Eddy Hall."

 

     Barry wishes that interview had been kept.  It was live, you know.  Just at the time Garrison was experimenting around with the idea of doing what became the Prairie Home Companion on KSJN in St. Paul.

    

     Saturday night. 

 

     A cold, damp, in-between winter-rainstorm evening at Reed College.

 

     His four day run, a magnificent video and audio review of music in America, two hours every night, was over.

 

     He sat at his production table at the bottom of the amphitheater at Vollum Hall on a cold, typical wet January night in Portland signing autographs.  The crowd was big at first.  Funny how it petered away at the end.  A few hangers on.  You know, the persons you just "can't get rid of."  They "don't get it."  They don't know the "I have to leave, but before I leave, you leave" signals.  So Barry teaches them.  Sheepishly, they pose for that last picture with him, arms around shoulders.

 

     He was home.

 

     Barry's come back to Reed almost every year since he left.  He's a legend.  He comes back for a special time just before the beginning of the Spring semester and does what every mentor at this great college has done.  He's hung around.  He's been available to people.  They are Reedies first, students all, fans second.

 

     He signed the autographs.  Books, CD's, CD players, posters, all kinds of memorabilia.  And the same way.  The way he held his pen.

 

     Writing as though backwards, as though trying to trace something through the back of a mirror.

 

     Before they first started with the photographs, I looked at Barry's face.  Actually, I looked at his whole body.  Decked out in his tuxedo, red cummerbund, a bow tie, studs at cuffs, and the top hat.  That top hat.  If nothing else, the whole costume a trademark.

 

     Doctor Demento.

 

     In those two seconds before the picture was to be taken, Barry's whole countenance changed.  His smile, a warm, natural relaxed smile became a grimace, a distorted approximation of a celebrity smile.  You know.  The kind of smile that any celebrity gives when photographed with fans.  Barry stiffened like a stuffed greying Emperor Penguin somehow caught in one of those dioramas at a natural history museum.  You know, the ones with a small cluster of penguins just standing around the exhibit's depiction of open water with ice floes in the foreground.

 

     And during the show, towards the end, with his hands curved on not quite outstretched arms in front of his chest, Barry beat the time of the songs on the videos and the CD's, in a way only someone who knew him remembers Barry trying to "get it" in the dance class at gym.

 

     Barry never got it.

 

     But his approximations now:

 

     No one makes fun of Barry.

 

     Doctor Demento.

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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