Piece by Sam Bloch
An Evening With “Weird Al” Yankovic
The Grammy Museum
Better Than… A lost evening on Wikipedia.
After 30 years in the music industry, Lynwood's own “Weird Al” Yankovic sat down yesterday at LA Live's Grammy Museum for a candid look back at his career. Talking with museum director Bob Santelli, he attempted to answer that most enigmatic of pop music mysteries: How has “Weird Al” lasted so long?
Though novelty acts are a tough sell — “these songs don't stay fresh for long,” he admits — Al's adept at spoofery of all kinds. Beginning in the late '70s, he delighted in nasal-voiced punnery and earnest mimicry of the nerdier fringes of new wave. After Even Worse (1988) and the Grammy-winning MJ spoof “Fat,” Al moved on to sharp pop culture critique: first with the alternative gold rush of the '90s, then the suburban embrace of hip-hop. (Sample lyric from 1992's Kurt-approved “Smells Like Nirvana”: “It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss / with all these marbles in my mouth.”)
Now a family man, he's entertaining a new generation of Al fans, playing upwards of 200 shows a year behind Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) and his thirteenth album Alpocalypse, which last month was highest chart debut to date. There remains a strong personality — a genial humorist who loves polka, a hero for the “White & Nerdy” everywhere — but Al puts it another way: “All I do is write what I think is funny.”
In honor of the number of animated videos Al commissioned for Alpocalypse, here are nine things we learned about “Weird Al” last night.
1) Al didn't listen to pop music until college. Well, that's not entirely true. Al says he learned Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on accordion as a teenager, but it wasn't until college when he first got into new wave acts like Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, and Devo, bands that, like him, “were a little off-kilter.” Up until then, he'd been on a steady diet of novelty artists like Stan Freberg and Spike Jones, all of whom he'd heard on The Dr. Demento Show, broadcasting on the now-defunct KMET.
2) Dr. Demento gave Al his first big break. Al struck up a friendship with the blues musicologist-cum-novelty DJ when he visited Lynwood High. And as an architecture student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Al volunteered on The Dr. Demento Show during breaks. It was during one of those breaks that Al recorded “My Bologna” in a studio bathroom, and later, where Al performed his breakthrough hit “Another One Rides The Bus.” Dr. Demento introduced Al to local label Scotti Brothers, where he was signed, Al suspects, because the founder was also an accordion player.
“ANOTHER ONE RIDES THE BUS,” TOMORROW SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER (1983)
3) He's ruthlessly efficient… “I hate feeling like I'm wasting my time,” Al told the audience. So when he starts to put together a new album, there's nothing left on the cutting room floor. “I get twelve ideas, turn them into twelve songs, and they all go on the album,” he says. If a song isn't funny beyond its first verse, Al will include it in his trademark polka medleys, where upwards of a dozen of the era's more disposable hits are made equal under the power of accordion.
4) …but he's not above tinkering around in the studio. “We're not Fleetwood Mac in the '70s, so I spend most of the creative process at home, writing lyrics,” Al says. But he admits he can get carried away. The Brian Wilson-style “Pancreas,” from Straight Outta Lynwood, featured more than 100 ProTools tracks of violins, trombones, thumb pianos, doo-wop choruses, and strange sounds meant to evoke digestion. “Hardware Store,” from Poodle Hat (2003), originally began as a grunge spoof in the style of the Presidents of the United States of America, before becoming a Zappaesque studio creation. And don't get him started on “Genius in France” — an “original” (that's Al talk for “non-spoof”), which took months to write.
5) Al's a big fan of the internet… Earlier this year, in a blog post titled “The Gaga Saga,” Al explained to fans that Alpocalypse was put on indefinite hold because Lady Gaga's manager had rejected his “Born This Way” spoof, “Perform this Way.” After international media coverage, TMZ interviewed Gaga herself, who says she'd never even heard the song, and was an Al fan to boot. “A day later, the whole thing was resolved,” Al recounted. “This never would have happened twenty years ago, without Twitter.” What's more, he thinks it's empowering future “Weird Al”s. “Now you're not beholden to an executive in a glass tower,” he says. “If your stuff is good, you can go viral.”
6) …but it's harder to stay relevant in the digital age. Al says he waits for iconic debuts before putting together a new record. But music fans now have “shorter attention spans,” and artists come and go with some frequency. So he's not looking to put out an album every year, for fear of seeming irrelevant. “Gaga was different,” he explained, “because she's a global superstar. In some ways, it was too obvious.”
7) Al's excited about the state of comedy. Sure, it might not be 1961, when Bob Newhart won the Album of the Year at the Grammys. But Al's encouraged by acts like The Lonely Island and Flight of the Conchords, who like Al love to deflate flavors of the month. “There's more comedy out now than there was ten years ago,” he notes, adding that he loves the comics from Upright Citizens Brigade.
8) Al recorded The Doors-spoofing “Craigslist” with keyboardist Ray Manzarek… When putting together this Alpocalypse highlight, Al says he was shooting for an anachronistic juxtaposition of music and lyrics. “And what's the worst band to associate with Craigslist? The Doors!” he recounted. But he's not giving himself enough credit. The Lizard King never had a chance to troll Missed Connections, but maybe, like Al's buddy Manzarek, he would have related to the yearning of the contemporary LA woman (“I'm on Craigslist, and baby, maybe you are too!”) and certainly dug Liam Lynch's note-perfect video.
[9) …which shows that Al transcends time. Al has this neat way of scrambling the past half-century of American culture, adding a sense of timelessness to everything that he touches. “CNR,” from Alpocalypse, for example, tells the story of television personality Charles Nelson Reilly through the blues stomp of the White Stripes. And it showed during a Q&A session with the audience. If it isn't an older gentleman thanking Al for carrying on the Mad magazine tradition of equal opportunity humor, then it's a nine-year-old asking Al to sign his vinyl copy of Alpocalypse.
Personal Bias: In middle school, I tried to learn every word of Al's 11-minute road anthem “Albuquerque.”
The Crowd: Moms, dads, yuppies, superfans, and a doughy teenager who asked Al to sign his lucky scuba mask.
Random notebook dump: The audience waved their hands in the air like they just didn't care during a clip of “Amish Paradise” (1996).