Word circulated on social media today that Daryl Q. Nathan passed away in Grand Rapids, Michigan on July 22 at the age of 54.
That sentence, by itself, tells a story. But that story is incomplete.
Anyone who spent time in and around Grand Rapids in the 1990s was aware of The Great Daryl Nathan. Daryl was a legend in the world of local community access television, a world where anyone and everyone could get their work shared with the community. (Think of it like podcasting, except you had to actually have the motivation to leave your house, and time on the air was limited.) The Grand Rapids Community Media Center did and still operates GRTV, an access point for community broadcasters interested in television, and Daryl Nathan produced a show of original songs that aired regularly and stood out. (Standing out on GRTV was hard, so to speak. This is the station, after all, that gained public access notoriety by airing a show called Puppetry of the Penis, which featured a guy’s schlong with a smiley face on it telling jokes. Oh, you don’t believe me?)
Perhaps original songs is a bit of an overstatement. They did, honestly, all sound the same: lyrics set over a crazed Casiotone beat. But Daryl took it seriously, and by God you wanted to listen to it. Because, frankly, we’re not very good people, an audience was often there to laugh at Daryl’s show. I never got the chance to meet Daryl, but I have known several people who did. To a person they say that Daryl took his “job” as seriously as any other television performer. (I write “job” in quotation marks for the sheer reason that public access stars don’t get paid. In that regard they’re up there with 99% of bloggers and podcasters, doing this sort of work for the satisfaction of a job well done.) Over and over again I have heard that Daryl was an honest, forthright, no-nonsense performer that truly believed he was bringing a gift to the audience. And, frankly, especially today, we could use more people that just want to try and make others smile rather than make them upset, couldn’t we? I mean, watch “Spinning Wheel” and honestly tell me that you didn’t smile a little.
The story of The Great Daryl Nathan didn’t stop at late-night airings in Grand Rapids. A Google search under his name reveals that his music was starting to turn up in places far removed from little old GR; even WFMU took note. Of course, in many cases, it was done in the same sort of mocking fashion that people looked at it during its original run. And sure, it’s tempting to do that, if you’re of the sort that punches down rather than up. (One radio station that wrote about him described public access television as “desperate to fill programming time.” I’ve heard what passes for voicetracking on this station, and they lack room to talk.) Others have attempted some level of cultural transmission and preservation: there’s actually a documentary in two parts, locally produced, about The Great Daryl Nathan that – if this is your thing – I do recommend. One thing I took away from watching it: the guy didn’t mean any harm to anyone, he just wanted to share what he saw as his gift. There’s a purity in that I respect, and it’s too bad that others (even in the film) didn’t see it that way.
You can experience The Great Daryl Nathan and hear “Freaky Freaky Girl” by clicking here.
2 thoughts on “Rest in peace, The Great Daryl Nathan: “Freaky Freaky Girl” (circa 1996)”
Well written. I was on the original GRTV crew where Daryl got his start and have been more or less curating his legacy over the years. He stepped away from doing this act in the early 2000s and went full time playing in church bands around Grand Rapids. Occasionally I have run into him around town and the topic comes up, would he ever make a comeback with his older act? But no, he’s been long over it for years, though I never really got a straight answer as to why. I wonder if he did eventually realize there were mean-spirited people laughing at him and not with him. I hoped not. As for myself, I always truly loved what he was doing. People can take him as a joke and feel superior but there is no doubt that when Daryl was at his keyboard, he was an entertainer. It’s a testament to his talent that it’s 2020 and people still remember and feel something to know he’s gone.
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