My first “Weird Al” Yankovic concert was two days before my fifteenth birthday, August 14, 1994 (Alapalooza Tour). Jeff Foxworthy, who was at the height of his “You Might Be a Redneck” fame, was the opening act, and I remember being totally blown away when Al finished the night by announcing he’d play an unreleased tune from his next album. It was an incredible evening, and I’ll never forget how my mother, brother, and I laughed together in that darkened arena.
Back in the days before the internet, there weren’t many resources for searching an artist’s discography, so I’d go for treasure hunts at every music department I came across. When I’d dig up a new cassette, I’d beg my mother to spend her meager earnings on another hour of life-altering entertainment. Before long, I knew all the songs by heart. I was such a sponge for his lyrics that after only hearing “Headline News” that one time at the Ohio State Fair, I was singing it line-for-line to the campers and my fellow councilors back at my summer job. (My brother and I would also enrich the impressionable Cub Scouts with our renditions of “The Bedrock Anthem,” “The Good Old Days,” and “Nature Trail to Hell.”)
I’m pushing forty now, and I probably bring up Mr. Yankovic at least once a day. At night, I troll the internet for memorabilia. My collection has become so obscure and inclusive of minutia, I’ve had Al ask me where I found the stuff I was having him sign. I found the press kit from the cult-classic Al-penned-and-acted film “UHF.” I’ve got one of the one thousand copies of the Placebo EP Al sold from his Cal Poly dorm when he was first starting off. I even have a piece of vinyl called “Slo Grown,” a tribute to the sleepy town of San Luis Obispo that happens to have a track on it by a young Alfred Yankovic. Do I have the “Peter and the Wolf” record he collaborated with Wendy Carlos on? Oh yeah! I found it on Ebay.
Over the years, I’ve seen Al a half a dozen times, at amusement parks and county fairs, in historical halls and rock venues, and twice at The Hollywood Bowl. I even had the privilege of seeing him interviewed in person at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Still, nothing will ever top the show in ’96 at the Newport Music Hall (Bad Hair Day Tour).
The crowd was youthful and energized. Al, still bespectacled and ‘fro-headed, had us high on visions of Twinkie-wiener sandwiches. This was kind of a special moment in Al’s career. He was branching out into fresh territory that would come to serve him well in the years ahead. He’d mingled with a lot of genres but had mostly tangled with pop hits and rock anthems. “Amish Paradise” was only his second shot at rap, and when those unmistakable first notes seared out from the speakers, I turned to my right and saw a cat that looked a lot like a young Busta Rhymes. It was amazing! I didn’t know this guy, but I felt a bond between us as we rapped Al’s hip hop parody together. Later in the night, when “Smells Like Nirvana” cranked the volume at us, I grabbed one of my buddies and pushed him into the two headbangers standing in front of us. They wore Pantera shirts and army boots, and when Christian’s body slammed into them, they turned around and stared at us. And then, as though this was the moment they’d been waiting for all night, they carpe’d some mean diem, throwing up devil’s horns and letting out cries of unfettered liberation.
Yes, I started a mosh pit at a “Weird Al” show, and it’s still one of my proudest achievements.
There hasn’t been another concert like that for me – partly because I’m older, but also because of the brand of audience Al tends to attract. They’re nice, reasonable, well-behaved people, and sure, they might have Al’s face tattooed on their back, but they aren’t the brand of rebel that wants to burn this mother down. They – okay, we! We sit politely through the concert and clap for the requisite encore. We might be moved to applaud, but we never dance like no one is watching. That doesn’t mean we don’t know how to have a good time. What other show features cone bras, a fat suit, a giant purple peacock costume, boxers torn from pants and thrown from the stage, a Santa punching, goth cheerleaders, and a battalion of Storm Troopers? There are video clips that span almost four decades and inspire audience participation at a Rocky Horror Picture Show level. Trust me, we’re having a blast, but even with all that spectacle, if you’ve been to one Weird Al show, you kind of know what to expect.
Want in on a little secret? I’ve actually been in crowds that don’t know or don’t care about the standard ritual. I’ve been one face in a sea of others, standing and cheering, shouting and wailing, never stopping our outcry of love and respect. Remember the night I told you about where Al performed “Headline News” before it was released? That was during a second encore. It really doesn’t have to be the same show every night, and I think that’s what motivated Al to do something different this time.
The marketing for The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour was just as bizarre as the name might imply. Al posted a warning on his social media feed, advising the majority of his ever-expanding audience to stay away. This public service announcement seemed to be doing everything possible to discourage ticket sales. There will be no A-side material; instead, it will be a night filled with the lesser known originals. There may have been some break-out B-sides, like “Dare to Be Stupid,” “One More Minute,” or “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” but every fan has had the same two questions when they talk about their devotion to Al: “Didn’t he stop making music in the 80’s?” and “He does original songs?” The majority of his digital downloads are the latest parody of a Billboard chart-topper. What would compel him to go on the road and commit career suicide by not playing any of his greatest hits? And this time they’ll be side-stepping the big show theatrics?! Just like the audience, Al, Kimo, Steve, Ruben, and Bermuda were promising to sit through the whole thing.
From the moment I saw that first announcement, I couldn’t wait to plunk down my hard-earned cash to see the show. This would be an ever-changing set list of deep cuts and rarities and audience chatter; it was going to be a little less weird and a little more Al.
Real fans – or as we like to call ourselves, Close Personal Friends of Al – may not be as crazed and feral as those who followed The Grateful Dead around the country in days of old or who currently take Faygo showers with The Insane Clown Posse, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t just as zealous. We may statistically be white and nerdy, but we feel passionately about our favorite musician. Most of us discovered him during our formative years, when puberty and self-esteem issues were making our lives miserable. We were sensitive and awkward, struggling to make friends without the aid of athletic prowess or cool guy angst. Then suddenly we hear some song that set aside the tropes of the universal themes dominating the air waves. This crazy song had the balls to be about something other than rebellion or a messy break up. It was a song that stuck its finger into the eye of conformity. It was punk rock in a totally understated and endearing way. Our minds were blown. We’d never be the same again. Here was something just as different as we were, and finding it was an absolute eureka moment.
In his wildly colorful shirts and patterned canvas shoes, Alfred Matthew Yankovic set the mold for every self-respecting class clown. He was one of us and had turned a name his college classmates had given him in mocking derision – “Here comes weird Al” – and turned it into the moniker of a self-made rock god. He didn’t have the luxury of knowing how to shred on an electric guitar to get girls. Instead, he squeezed an accordion and sang with a squeaky voice that mustn’t have seemed destined to win the four Grammys he’d someday have. But he had a few tricks up his Hawaiian sleeves. His wry wit and work ethic would fill notebooks with his lyrical genius and propel him to stardom, and even after that, he’s still the same kind person he was when he first came out of Lynnwood.
Just like when a new tent pole blockbuster hits the theaters, I stayed away from spoilers about this tour on the internet. With only a vague wish list of songs we wanted to hear (sadly, “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” didn’t make the cut at all on this year), my girlfriend and I arrived at Humphrey’s by the Bay early enough to participate in the VIP pre-show. This was a venue Al hadn’t played since ‘85, a year before The Golden State Killer claimed his last victim, and they were about to time travel with an entire audience, hopping back and forth from 1982 to 2014 and all the years in between.
The first blast from the past was Emo Philips, who opened the show with a wandering, childlike stand-up set that’s been seasoned since the 80’s. The Al crowd knows and loves Emo from his performance in “UHF” where he sacrifices a piece of himself to a. . . a. . . table-saw? I’m sure you already know Emo cut us all to pieces and had us in stitches.
After a brief changing of the stage, my favorite band perched on stools and effortlessly filled the evening air with nostalgia. As my eyes wandered across the faces of my fellow audience members, I felt a warming kinship with the crowd. Burly men with grey hair smiled broadly and sang along. Mothers laughed at jokes they’d never really paid much attention to before, reminding me so much of my own mother’s enjoyment at that first show. My heart filled with joy when “The Good Old Days” was announced, and kids the same age as the Cub Scouts in my good old days lit up like Christmas. It was almost like a magic show. We weren’t necessarily hearing songs from our personal playlists. These were lullabies buried deep in our subconscious, and in fact, there were moments when Al dug so far back that he lost the majority of the crowd. It didn’t matter that not everyone was vibing on “Velvet Elvis,” because it was really playing well for that one or two people who were there, hanging on every note.
The whole gig felt special, and without all of the artifice, there seemed to be little distance between the viewers and the performers on stage. There was enough space in what was happening in those colorful spotlights for both “Albuquerque” and “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” two of the longest songs in the whole library. And they performed even longer versions of them then what remains unchanged on the original recordings. They were alive and sparkling and new all over again. This journey back into childhood was being led by the ultimate guide. This love letter to the fans was a thank you for sticking around or for checking back in after all these years.
The biggest surprise of the night came during the encore. “The next song will be a request, so everyone, shout out what you want us to play.” We roared, suggesting everything from “Hardware Store” (a song impossible to play live) to “Still Billy Joel” (an unrecorded track he’ll probably never play again). With a confused look at Jim West, Al replied, “Really? I’ve never played that before. But. . . okay.” And then the audience sat in stunned silence for about three minutes.
You could almost hear them asking each other, “What album is this from?” To come with the answer a bit late, it was from the debut, self-titled album by Foo Fighters. It was a cover of “This Is a Call,” a straight, non-humorous song, made funny by juxtaposition, and that’s not even the coolest part. For every encore at every single night of the tour, Al and the band have been performing a different cover. They’ve done unsmirking renditions of The Beatles, Devo, Smash Mouth, and Steppenwolf. It’s a different surprise every show, so you really can’t see the same thing twice this time around. They’re playing whatever the hell they want with a level of execution rivaling the original performers. This really is one of the greatest – and certainly most underrated – group of musicians in show business.
When you’re talking about an artist that’s built a reputation on reusing other people’s music, it should come as no surprise his success has hinged on his lyrics. Mimicking the lilt and key of a hit squad might be enough to propel a cover band to regional fame, but becoming the prince of parody with an Energizer bunny of a career is a statistical anomaly. In fact, it’s genre-redefining, since the term “novelty act” by it’s very definition implies a passing fad. These are supposed to be viral hits for a few weeks and nothing more. No one should know the lyrics to “Eat It” thirty four years after it was released, and perhaps the reason there are so many of us who do isn’t because of the surging impact on the cultural landscape “Beat It” had. It’s because the album In 3D also came packaged with “Midnight Star,” “That Boy Could Dance,” and “Nature Trail to Hell.” It’s a testament to the originals that Al wasn’t destined to be a one hit wonder, despite what was predicted after Polka Party! failed to replicate his earlier numbers. It wasn’t about whose coattails he could ride. He’s always been able to do the heavy lifting on his own – or at least with a little help from his friends, and that’s why I feel we’ve entered into a new and exciting phase in this one-of-a-kind career.
I really believe we could have at least another decade of incredible work from our hero, even if he never does another parody again. I know he’s done doing albums, but I can’t wait to see – and hear – what comes next, and I know I’m not the only one. Whether they first heard him on Dr. Demento’s show or as the titular character of Milo Murphy’s Law, the true believers are all here, sitting in the darkened arena, waiting with anticipation.
If I could leave Al with one parting thought it would be this: Don’t be afraid to do something new and unexpected. It might seem like it would end everything, but just like when Michael Jackson said no to “Snack All Night” and you found Nirvana instead – just like when Yoko Ono turned down “Gee, I’m a Nerd” and it eventually transformed into “White and Nerdy” – subvert everyone’s expectations, like this amazing tour, is only going to draw us closer to you.
For more about my journey with Al’s music, check out this excerpt from my novel “Home Street.”
To rock out to the music Al inspired me to create, check out Chalkskin here.
And as a last self-indulgent plug, if you’d like to see the show I’ve been dying to interview Mr. Yankovic for, check out my conversations with such luminaries as George R.R. Martin here.