Who is Del Rivers?
And why must he be famous?
By Th. Metzger
Originally published in City Newsaper, Rochester, NY
© W M T Publications Inc.
May 9, 2001
Del Rivers says he's both cursed and blessed. "The blessing is having some sort of consciousness to make , funny things and do funny stuff. The curse is not having the aesthetic appearances or noticability most people have."He refers to himself as an "illusionist." No, he doesn't do magic tricks. He prowls the edges of Rochester pop culture, casting a spell on those who encounter him. What is his talent? That's not clear. Why do audiences find his work so fascinating? That too is a mystery. Why has true fame eluded him thus far? Perhaps we'll never know.
Doing stand-up comedy or his radio spot on WITR 89.7 FM, singing and playing maracas with various bands, writing a comic book, producing videos for cable access, Del has flirted with celebrity for years. "I'm not really that talented," he says. "I'm just a bottom-of-the-barrel talent person. But I like to finish things, go through with them. I work with a lot of talented people." Indeed the list of musicians he's worked with reads like a who's-who of Rochester garage rock: Cousin Al, Insiders, Fadeaways, It's My Party, Fertility Rite Brothers, McFadden's Parachute, Fugitives, Earthlings.
Del traces his obsession with popular culture back to two childhood experiences. The first turning point was when he "recorded the infamous 'Baby 45'" at a novelty booth at Roseland Park. "No music, just me saying 'hello' to Grandma." A few years later he was on the air. "My first exposure to television and video was as "a guest on a show that introduced Saturday morning cartoons called The Funny Company,"' he says. "In that show, you put on imaginary thinking caps and won car model kits. From that moment on, I had dreamed of becoming famous without knowing the pitfalls ahead. I was just enthralled with TV. I thought the idea of having attention was the biggest thing. I always wanted to be famous after that."
Celebrities like Joe Franklin and Steve Alien seemed bigger - and better - than life. But it was the paragon of American Good Clean Fun that really"' grabbed Del. "When I was younger I wanted to be the next Dick Clark," he says. "I wanted to be a producer, :-behind someone successful. I wanted to be the Dick Clark of Rochester." It was not music, however, but stand-up comedy that got Del his first jolt of notoriety. Doing open-mic nights during the comedy boom of the mid-'80s, Del reached a small, but avid, audience.
One of his best bits was Osteoporosis Man, who staggered around the stage, groaning and writhing... Then there was Raisin Man: "I dressed up in a hooded jacket and threw raisins in the air and talked in a weird voice." Still to be unleashed on the world is Ignoramus Man. Del's act had a perverse innocence about it. At a time when wannabe comics were grabbing their crotches and doing Mr. T fellatio jokes, Del tried to wrap his audience in clear plastic. Another time he unspooled an entire roll of dental floss just to show how much one of those little white containers held. But aficionados of local comedy point to his character, the Suffocating Man, as Del's peak. This one was simple. He put a plastic bag over his head and began thrashing and gasping out his lines, which were barely audible.
The world of stand-up humor is full of human wreckage. Every other joke can be boiled down to a pathetic scream of "mommy look at me!" And while Del did have the stage presence of a good-natured (if needy) 10 year old, there was no cruelty in his act. In fact, the real pleasure in watching him was seeing someone who actually seemed happy on stage. For five minutes, in the smoky light, all eyes were on him. And he made people smile.
But Del gave up comedy. "In the end, you're doing it for yourself, not for anyone else," he says. "Some comedians liked me, but the general audience was confused. And I was personally dissatisfied with my spontaneous combustible material. "One of the problems I have with comedy is trying to separate," Rivers says. "A lot of actors say you should separate your personas. But sometimes I have a hard time separating. I can only do comedy on stage. I can only sing on stage with a microphone. I can't do it outside the stage. It's part of having an obsessive complex."
Still, for those lucky ones who caught Del's act at Yuk-Yuks or the Outrageous Inn, his work stands above and beyond other local comics. "I would use space music from Twilight Zone and put on a helmet and try to do a spacey thing. But I didn't know what to do with it. I couldn't make it work as a piece. I'd do it spontaneously, to see if I could get a reaction from the audience."
Science fictional thinking pervades Del's world. "I have discovered God through physics," he says. "The universe is big enough to have every possible possibility possible. But by the same token, it has every impossibility possible. So they cancel each other out and make a certain universe that was meant to be." His fascination with the strange and cosmic shows up in some of his work. His song "Cast in Stone" (on the Tokyo Love Violets single) digs into the ancient mysteries: "Have you seen the face on Mars? It's staring right at you. Just like the Easter Island statues holding their gaze, the ancient ones are coming back to see what they can do."
"I love studying archeology and UFOs," Rivers says. He belongs to a local UFO group and is impressed with the alternative science of Eric Van Danekin. "Were ancient astronauts really here? There's lots of proof that's very compelling." Then there's Del's belief that he might have had contact with aliens at a very young age. "I don't know if I'm an abductee, but I might have been," he says. "When I was 5 years old I had a dream about a blue probe with a burning tip on it. I'm very open-minded. I have two marks on my stomach. My mother claims they're from the forceps when they doctor pulled me out. I don't know if they really are. My mother swears on a stack of Bibles when she was young she saw an elf-type creature in her house. She saw him, a midget or something. It was there for a few minutes; and then it wasn't after a while."
More tangible are Del's close encounters with low-level pop cult luminaries. "My step-grandmother was related to Bobby Darin. Not a blood relative, but we used to get albums from him. For some reason the records were missing. We just got the sleeves." Del proudly says that he's a member of fan clubs for the Cowsills, the Ventures, the Bangles, the Bobby Fuller Four, and Del Shannon. "I got Christmas cards personally signed from Del," Rivers says. "I met him at the festival tent. He's the one who shot himself in the head."
Checkout his Webpage and you'll see an impressive list of all those celebrities who Del has made (however fleeting) contact with. Batgirl from the old TV series, members of Rick Nelson's band, Peter Tork, one of the Brady Bunch girls, Star Trek crew members, Star Wars figures, and that nearly perfect combination: Morey Amsterdam AND Bo Diddley. Del has parlayed his expertise and contacts into an ongoing radio gig. "Del's Corner" is heard between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. every Sunday on WITR. "It's kind of like my Paul Harvey segment. I feature obscure songs by popular artists or obscure artists doing popular songs." So far he's done 200 five-minute segments on Mike Murray's "Whole Lot of Shakin"' show.
He's also been a phantom-like presence on local access TV. The Humor Room, which he was affiliated with, was shown on GRC Cablevision. But all the video was destroyed in what Del calls a "suspicious fire." He did a bit part ("nothing dirty") on the notorious Life Without Shame. Sound and camera work, interviews, and "prop assistance" on the Gary the Happy Pirate Show: Del has drifted on and off the screen for years. Currently, his efforts seem more focused in a musical direction. Though he hasn't gotten the kind of exposure he hoped for, Del has released a steady stream of cassettes and CDs of his own music. Coming out shortly will be Laughing at Man's Intelligence, a CD packed with Del-Riverian gems.
What Del refers to as his "lack of substantial talent" has not prevented him from producing some compelling music. On the forthcoming CD, there are cover tunes that seem to come from an entirely different universe than the originals. At times he seems to be working within an alien system of harmony. Decades later, you can still hear echoes of the "Hi, Grandma" record he made as a toddler. And his original tunes (such as "She Walks Like a Robot") explore strange terrain. "I think some of the spiritualness comes through in some of things I write." His doubled-tracked two-part harmonies have a plaintive, buzzing quality unlike any you'll hear on the average three-minute pop record.
It's in recordings, not on stage, where Del's music really lives. "I seriously can't find any musicians who aren't too busy with other bands," he says. "A big problem is also my lack of practice and my inability to remember my own songs when I'm nervous. I wish I could be like Harry Nilsson, who was popular and respected without having to play live more than a few times in his life."
When asked why he makes tapes and CDs when they hardly sell, Del explains, "Consider them souvenirs of one's life, which are worth the cost." His recordings are a little like the ancient monuments he finds so fascinating. Some day they will be discovered, he believes. The vinyl vaults will be opened and a trove of musical treasures revealed. Someday, a music researcher might unearth his unearthly tunes and see value, and maybe even beauty, in them.
Some day, perhaps, someone will say "I want to be the next Del Rivers."
For more information on Del Rivers log-on to http://www.greendoch.com/del.