PHOTOGRAPHS BY JESSICA GRYPHON
John DeBella has been a hippie and a punk. A winner and a loser. A hero and a villain. And now he just wants to be a nice guy.
As if to prove it, he is going to start welling up in T-minus-three seconds. “I can’t remember a time when I have been this happy,” says the former WMMR icon of his return to morning radio on WMGK.
Those great big googly eyes start glistening. A furrow forms on his infinite forehead. He looks away, biting on his lip to stanch the quivering.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I got behind the microphone,” he says before changing the subject to avert an impending full-blown blubber. “I’m an emotional son of a bitch. I cry too easily.”
You can call him a lot of things, but one thing you can’t call John DeBella is chicken. He has devoted his life to radio, which is–to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson–a cruel and shallow money trench, a long and plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs.
For a time DeBella turned wackiness into a cash cow and tapped a big vein in that money trench. But the worm turned, as it always does in radio, and he died like a dog. Twice.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to call what happened to him a high-tech lynching, and while there are many sides to this story–and this is only one of them–this much is certain: Many he called friends left him twisting in the wind.
And now he has come back for more. He has eaten more than his share of humble pie. He has grown fat on crow. And he has come here today, to the lobby of the Four Seasons, to say that he is grateful for the chance to dive back into the shark tank, knowing full well there is blood in the water. And he knows that nobody–save Pierre Robert, God bless his tie-dyed soul–will throw him a lifeline if he starts going down again.
Then he breaks into that laugh–a nervous, rapid-fire raccoon chuckle–that punctuates every other sentence. There is a pleading, a neediness in that laugh, beseeching all who hear it to please come join him in this moment of complete and utter hilarity.
His story is one part comedy–wacky and zany, or “zacky and wany,” as he likes to call it. And two parts tragedy–which are less so. Much less.
John DeBella was born 52 years ago in the Astoria section of Queens, the son of NYC Dept. of Sanitation worker–or G-man, as the old man used to call himself.
When he was nine, his family moved to the Rosedale section of Queens, directly beneath a flight path at Idelwild Airport (now JFK International). The air traffic was constant–one plane every minute and 22 seconds–and deafening.
“The planes were low enough that you could hit them with a rock,” he recalls. “You would raise and lower the volume of your voice as the planes passed over.” Thus was born what can only be described as the DeBellow.
He started smoking when he was 11, and slowly but surely a touch of gravel was added to the DeBellow. He discovered rock ‘n’ roll the day he heard Lloyd Price’s “Personality” on the Emerson Travel Lite transistor radio his grandfather bought him. He still has that radio.
When he was in the seventh grade, he noticed that his hairline was beginning to recede. He grew a mustache as soon as he could.
By 1967 he was playing drums in a psychedelic garage band called Human Rice. And as the Summer of Love flowered, he sampled all the psychotropic treats it had to offer. He is one of the few hippie alums who will cop to actually trying, unsuccessfully, to get high by smoking banana peels, an idea gleaned from Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.” He soon graduated to actual controlled substances–pot, acid and enough speed to rot his teeth. When he was 19 he lost his virginity to his “beautiful hippie girlfriend.”