Post No. 175: (In Defense of) Brazen Idolatry

Weird-Al-Yankovic

Every 25th post, darkadaptedeye takes a planned break from normal business to plumb the shallow depths of its author’s psyche and/or overtly explore the locked attic of memories it only ever really dabbles in otherwise. You might think of it as a pit stop, or maybe a soft reboot. In “Danse Macabre”, Stephen King termed his own such digression “An Annoying Autobiographical Pause”, which I choose to think was kind of charming. Please know I take seriously the challenge of making patent self-indulgence interesting – actual results be damned – and I appreciate you being game. We’ll return to our irregularly scheduled programming shortly…

“Put down that chainsaw and listen to me / It’s time for us to join in the fight!
It’s time to let your babies grow up to be cowboys / It’s time to let the bedbugs bite!
You’d better put all your eggs in one basket / You’d better count your chickens before they hatch!
You’d better sell some wine before its time / You’d better find yourself an itch to scratch…”

What do you say at the moment you finally meet your idol?

This mile marker post snuck up me, I must admit. Normally, I start thinking about what personal aspect or chestnut or toy from the attic I might want to unpack and talk about several posts in advance. It’s a sort of game, occasionally even fun. This time, however, I cycled through a handful of disparate topics and even started writing up one in earnest before also deeming it unsatisfactory. These “25s” (“quarters”?) have been known to impede my progress otherwise before. I made it a rule early on that the mile marker always had to be dealt with, in its proper chronological spot, before other business could be attended to. Someone special died? Some awesome movie filled you to the brim with inspiration?* Too bad. Finish your “quarter” first. Luckily, the answer to this conundrum was staring me in the face the whole time. If I couldn’t quite make it out until the moment it represented was nigh, perhaps it was obscured by the clouds of my ongoing daydream. I come to you here a humble, relatively happy man.

*Both things happened, of course, in August of 2014, when my life was otherwise consumed with the writing of Post No. 50, the originally published “abridged” version of “Iron Maiden Saved My Life”. I would have enjoyed writing about “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and felt a duty to pay my respects to the tragically late, undeniably great Robin Williams. But what can I say? I was still just starting out, really. If you start half-assing your work because circumstances hint loudly that you should, where does it lead? Does that self-engineered slope ever level out again?

In Post No. 50 on this site, as well as in decades’ worth of analog conversations elsewhere whenever the question happens to come up, I have consistently contended there exists only one album that ever legitimately changed my life. I’ve owned thousands of albums over the years, of course, from all manner of artists, and loved far more than my share of them intensely. There are numerous albums that undeniably affect my mood in whatever direction I intend to point it that moment, and I’m terribly grateful to have them in my life. I take the term “life-changing” here quite literally, in that the listener in this scenario is two appreciably different people, with this album alone the line of demarcation. It’s the sort of thing that happens most naturally during youth, I’d imagine, when the possibilities are limitless and there is technically the least to change, and such was the case with Iron Maiden’s Live After Death, the album that indoctrinated me into heavy metal, cemented Maiden as the formative band of my youth, and even accounts – as I get into in the post itself – for an uptick in my confidence and shaky sense of self-esteem during my truly awful middle school years. I still listen to Live After Death today, some thirty-one years after hearing it for the first time, and it remains evergreen and monstrous, shot through with possibility and just as galvanizing a cheerful yet macabre greeting as you could ever want, or accept.

Live After Death has been and is such an abiding, monolithic musical presence for me that it partially obscures and completely overshadows the first and only other album to legitimately change my life. Two albums more different from one another are not terribly easy to find, and yet it’s only because of this first that I was any sort of vessel that could be effectively transformed by the second. It was 1984’s “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D that taught me to walk in musical terms. It added dimension unheard of to my very conception of music, much the way the title implied it might. After I listened to it once, nothing would ever be the same. I came to In 3-D a nine-year-old neophyte who’d grown up on a steady diet of Disney soundtracks and narrated storybooks in place of popular music, an arrangement that surely would’ve stunted the growth of anyone who lacked my voracious appetites. Once I decided that I was ready to listen to popular music, coinciding with the rise and plateau of early MTV a few months in advance of my tenth birthday, I attacked the form like a school of piranha. Heartbeat City by Boston’s The Cars, the New Wave standard bearers who deserve their upcoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction as much as anyone else nominated, was the first album I ever bought, on cassette. “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D had the good fortune of being my second, and a fortuitous meeting of artist and admirer it was.

Childhood is a tenuous, dangerous time not because we are unformed but because we are immersed in the very process of forming. A piece of pottery abandoned before it ever saw the wheel is unidentifiable as anything but an ugly lump of clay, whereas a clay pot shaped carelessly or haphazardly yields an identifiable end product, albeit likely one either twisted out of sorts or structurally suspect. My mother and father shaped me into the young man I was, and, by direct extension, into the man I’d subsequently become, with unsolicited, but, as it turns out, crucial assistance from Iron Maiden and George Carlin, Roger Ebert and George Lucas, Stephen King and Neil Peart, Mad Magazine and Rolling Stone, and, especially, one Alfred Yankovic. Because my introduction to pop music came in the midst of the fertile crescent of the 1980s, when it seemed anything could make it to MTV, and that anything on MTV was automatically worth listening to, I was as immediately comfortable with Al’s accordion histrionics as a conduit and catalyst for rock and roll as I was the electrifying guitar of Eddie Van Halen.** Moreover, he made fun, in the purest sense of the idiom…not that he made fun of popular music, or fun of certain people, places, or things…no, no, he actually created “fun” out of thin air, just by his very act of playing and singing and being. Name anything possibly more magical to a child.

**Might not have helped that my introduction to Van Halen was the keyboard festival of “Jump”. Wow, that keyboard player can sure shred on guitar!

“Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D was the first album I ever listened to as an album rather than a collection of two to five decent MTV singles buttressed by a bunch of filler. Heartbeat City, great as it was in retrospect, even fit the former mold. Van Halen’s 1984, with its peerless quartet of smash hits bridging the gap between pop and rock, hard or otherwise, still didn’t strike me, or maybe quite register, as a full album. In 3-D was something different in almost every way my limited but fascinated faculties could conceive. “Eat It” was the first musical masterpiece I remember recognizing as such, despite the fact that it parodied a much more famous and celebrated song. “Buy Me a Condo”, the bittersweet tale of a Rastaman’s assimilation into consumer culture, also served as my introduction to reggae, and is still one of my favorite songs in the genre. “Nature Trail to Hell” almost single-handedly kindled my lifelong interest in horror movies in reaction to a deliciously detailed goof. “Mr. Popeil” introduced me to the concept that everything I saw on television shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value, even if it sure was interesting. I drew and laid out my own front page to Al’s shameless tabloid rag The Midnight Star***, at a time when I barely knew what a proper newspaper was, let alone why “Midnight Star” did not describe one. “Polkas on 45” arguably did the work of an entire semester of “Rock & Roll 101” – introducing me to Devo, Hendrix, Deep Purple, The Beatles, The Doors, Talking Heads, The Police, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, among others – in 4:20 flat. In 3-D was both a sharp, clever, creative wellspring and an unassuming, highly musical powerhouse at a time when my brain was a blank slate just waiting to be filled.

***I even ventured briefly as a ten-year-old into the realm of World Geography when I asked my bemused but helpful grandmother the name of a larger city in Germany. I have no idea what she thought I might use Hamburg for, but can guarantee she didn’t foresee its inclusion in the dateline for an article named, “They’re keeping Hitler’s brain alive inside a jar!” I miss her.

That was year one. Thirteen albums purchased over the next thirty-five years, and fond memories too countless to do anything but sketch here. Al’s self-titled first album was actually the fourth I owned, as it took some time for all the king’s horses and men to put me back together after In 3-D’s magnificent successor, Dare to be Stupid, blew me the hell off the wall. Al’s fifth album, the Michael Jackson Bad send-up, titled Even Worse, became the first Yankovickian platter that I upgraded from cassette to compact disc when my amused aunt spontaneously gifted her copy to me one day, perhaps because she must’ve instinctively known I’d provide it a more doting home. In a summer owned by Batman and Indiana Jones, I made a beeline to see Al’s cinematic debut, the low fidelity cult charmer UHF, during its single week in local theaters, and pored over the liner notes of the soundtrack album, thrilling to differences in layout and, occasionally, content between the cassette and CD editions. When I become interested in something, I tend to disappear into it completely. If you’ve read a few entries on this site, perhaps you can relate. As a budding CD collector, I still bought “Smells Like Nirvana” as a pre-album release “cassingle”, just because I A) had to own it, and B) have an inexplicable soft spot for that almost instantly obsolete format. The first concert I ever saw from my new home base of Columbus occurred before I’d even officially moved here, and of course it was to “Weird Al” that I dragged my understanding, obviously already desperate, future roommates. Another dozen shows in half a dozen towns in two states would follow. As of March 11, the state count will, under fairly amazing circumstances, be three. Frankly, I’m freaking out a little.

Full disclosure: I did almost pay one time for the privilege of inching metaphorically closer to my pop musical godfather. I wrote out my submission form to join his fan club “Close Personal Friends of Al”. I even adorned the envelope with hand-drawn, zebra-striped block letters on the word “Al”, ala the “Al TV” specials then periodically being run on MTV. I stared at that envelope long and hard before finally discarding it in defeat. I’d just turned eleven and obviously didn’t have the money to join, nor the nerve to ask my adoring working class mother for something the world would surely think so frivolous. That was year two. Sorry I’m skipping around a bit.

So what do you say at the moment you finally meet your idol?

Moreover, what could you possibly say? Between fan mail and Twitter and over thirty years of touring, he’s obviously already heard it all before. I’ve no doubt that, when the moment comes, he’ll foist a smile and be terribly polite, even appreciably warm, as we all just stand there stammering away. Or maybe it’ll just be me stammering. Much the same way you should try to entirely disregard the audience when getting over a fear of public speaking, perhaps the trick to finally meeting “Weird Al” Yankovic (and surviving) after three decades and change of, my friends and family would emphatically agree, super-fandom is to forget that I’ll be just another number in a room teeming with folks who’ll likely find themselves in similar boats. The “V.I.P. Meet and Greet” experience has, of course, become a behavior staple of touring musicians running the gamut from 311 to ZZ Top****, in that it’s opened up an additional lucrative, theoretically painless revenue stream to help replace everybody’s anemic album sales in the Streaming Era. Some artists must actually enjoy meeting their fans as well, so I get it. Investing your free time in absolutely everyone who wants it simply isn’t feasible. Better to weed out the pretenders first and then see to the people who, as their wallets have made clear, really want to be there.

****Both of whom, yeah, I probably wouldn’t mind meeting as well, especially the latter… though I almost certainly ain’t paying for the privilege.

And that’s the funny thing, since none of this is actually what I initially intended. Despite being an unusually prolific concert patron and serial collector of passions through the years, I’ve never before met a musician I admired through such purely contrived means. When Al announced the “Ill-Advised, Self-Indulgent Vanity Tour” last fall, I was predictably over the moon in my response. A 180-degree departure from the frantic, kinetic, eager-to-please multimedia spectacles, full of costume changes and hilarious interstitial videos – including a seizure-baiting cavalcade of incredibly random cameo appearances in pop culture – on which he’d long since made his touring name, the “I-A, S-I V T” would place Al and his criminally underrated backing band center stage sans gimmickry and in a relaxed, conversational environment, almost exclusively playing original songs so obscure that some of them would be making their live debut. Al’s traditional shows are always lots of fun for the audience, but also, I’d imagine, creatively limiting and physically exhausting to the performers. I know, having seen more than a dozen of them – in a procession of pavilions and theaters, even once packing a huge room at the State Fair (there was a stilt-walker in attendance, just for the hell of it) – in, around, and since my move to Central Ohio at the turn of the millennium.

Wow, I just booked my hotel room a minute ago. Think I’ll need to get a haircut tomorrow too.*****

*****Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning, respectively (-ed).

I never thought I’d top the night I was stunned to see him actually play in a standing room only rock club. It felt like such a sharp left turn from established protocol. It felt somehow… subversive. All the normal bells and slide-whistles were present, of course, but there was also this amazing sense of intimacy that I’d never before experienced amongst the throngs of good-natured nerds and families whose inexplicable normal reaction to such inherently joyous music seemed to be to sit on their collective hands. This was more of a concert, almost a private party, than an exhibition, and I found it exhilarating because I never thought I’d see its like in person. It felt amazing to stand on the same floor from which I’d seen so many rock and metal bands – Clutch, Bad Religion, Opeth, Japandroids, Dream Theater, Frightened Rabbit, Lamb of God, Spoon, Machine Head, Smashing Pumpkins, Southern Culture on the Skids, and on to infinity – kick ass and see Al’s amazing band properly wreck shop for a crowd that could move. I remembered hoping against hope at the moment that this would be a signal change for the rest of his career, and that I could look forward to similar unchecked revelry every other year going forward. The next tour reverted to form, naturally, and though it and its successors were still great, I couldn’t help but miss the closeness.

This “I-A, S-I V T” then would be a subdued and informal affair by comparison to anything in Al’s touring scrapbook, just an excuse for a band that really enjoys playing together to plumb the depths of its back catalog and for a frontman that has an abiding, undeniable connection to his audience to inch closer to them, in terms both tangible and emotional. I purchased my ticket for the March 11 show on January 19, and that in itself is a story, or at least a slightly embarrassing process. I try to go to between one and a couple dozen concerts a year, depending on how the winds blow. Oftentimes, I go alone – not because I don’t have friends (though sometimes because said friends aren’t like-minded) – and that has, to some infinitesimal degree, mitigated my disgust at having to consistently deal with Ticketmaster, the Medellin drug cartel of the ticket brokering industry, and Live Nation, its designated knee-capping toadie henchman. Searching a reserved admission show for a single ticket, like I would be requiring for Al, can sometimes lead to incredibly pleasant surprises at checkout, both in financial terms (though the cartel’s unctuous reptilian service charges persist for solo shows) and in terms of an unexpectedly prime seat. So many single-serving victories over the years, coupled with my natural tendency toward extreme procrastination, have caused some unfortunate complacency in my ticket-buying habits lately, and this filtered down to Al. This time I got just a little bit singed.

Ask any self-identifying fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes where he or she would most like to go on a road trip and it’s unlikely the first choice to come rolling off the tongue will be “Ann Arbor, Michigan”. It certainly wasn’t mine, though not necessarily because of anything rivalry-related. I have a tender, let’s call it uneven, history with visits to Pure Michigan, which, despite the abundant natural beauty its tourism literature touts, has treated me more like the rube protagonist in a “fish-out-of-water” horror movie. Of the four times I’ve been to Michigan – twice each for business and pleasure – only one could be termed an unqualified success, and that’s just because I made it to my connecting flight on time. A conspicuous power outage almost triggered a riot at the first concert I saw in Detroit, while a hideous convergence of cosmic forces kept me from seeing the second altogether on what was, without question, the worst day of my concert going life.****** Still and all, I slept on the Al tickets for reasons I still can’t fully explain and found, to my consternation and my wallet’s revulsion, that the best way to attend one of the almost completely sold out shows would be to purchase a “V.I.P. Meet and Greet” ticket. I wrestled with the question between the hours of 2:15 and 2:40AM on January 19 before finally pulling the trigger. I went to sleep more or less content. I was going to see “Weird Al” on this unprecedented, possibly once in a lifetime, fan-centric tour after all.

******“An Ode to Downtown Detroit” by Eric Naff – May 19, 2015

We are enemies, Detroit…you and I. Screw you so, so, so very much for scheduling a tiny theater show right across the street from an MLB home game. Your downtown looks like a demilitarized zone even when every square inch of it isn’t crawling with traffic cops, pedestrians, and bored ‘n’ surly parking attendants, and invariably covered by packed together stacks of ten cars apiece. Tonight’s congestion and gridlock left me slack-jawed and borderline hopeless. I’d never seen anything quite like it. I drove and drove to get there, and then drove and drove to find a parking spot, asked advice four times, ducked into half a dozen or more open air lots only to be shooed out immediately. I drove and drove in circles, passing the theater in question at least five times – “Tonight, Faith No More, Sold Out.” – retracing my steps over and over, venturing into less outwardly charitable neighborhoods and becoming thoroughly lost multiple times, whipping U-turns, turning down blind alleys and loading docks, never seeing one single open spot within a healthy couple mile’s walk. Maybe if I’d arrived on time instead of forty+ minutes late, I’d have stood a chance, but 23N took good care of that for me. In the end, after circling for over 45 minutes to no avail, I just wanted to find the interstate south, and that alone took another 15. I had in my head a last ditch plan to find the Joe Louis Arena and take from there the town’s “People Mover” train – a train I never saw hide nor hair of the entire time – before I’d (hopefully) missed too terribly much of the show. But by then it was raining pretty hard, and the signs I’d seen for the arena coming up weren’t there going down…and so going down was where I found myself, past the city limits, past the cheap hotel I prepaid for – what’s the point of going to bed angry if you wake up still in Michigan? – down and down, down I-75, grudgingly, hopping mad, toward home…

Not to be petty, but I hope the Detroit Tigers lose two out of every three games they play by 6 or more runs for the remainder of the franchise’s existence. The third game out of every three, they can lose on a walk-off HR in extra innings. Moreover, I hope it turns out that Comerica Park was built surreptitiously on the remains of an ancient Native American burial ground, and that every man, woman, and child that went to tonight’s game came home with a free poltergeist. I don’t want to leave anyone out. I’m truly in a giving mood here. For example, I gave Detroit businesses and this trip a worthless combined $135 in concert ticket, hotel, and gas, not to mention the 8.25 hours I spent folded into a car, and received for my efforts and expenditures exactly NOTHING. Well, that’s not exactly true. Tonight I got to miss seeing one of my favorite bands of all time for the first time ever – whereas I’d spent the previous 27 years with no chance at all to see them – and then I got to ponder this turn of events for three+ hours in the dark.”

Around 3:15, I awoke again with a start. I wouldn’t just be seeing “Weird Al”. I’d be meeting him too. Picture together, presumably a handshake and a kind word or four. Autographed item. Framed setlist. Commemorative watch (and the pics I’ve seen make it look like the cutest thing I will probably never, ever wear). Backstage laminate. Even a fan’s only game of “Weird Al”-themed Jeopardy! before the doors open to the public. I once had the good fortune to sit on the aisle at Knoxville, Tennessee’s historic Bijou Theater and “Weird Al” Yankovic high-fived me on his way to the stage. You can read all about it if this post doesn’t somehow satiate your appetite for anecdotes until the end of time. Suffice it to say I was content to have that be the extent of my physical contact and/or proximity ever with the perfectly nice, down to earth musical genius who had basically been my idol since boyhood. But now, I’d tricked myself somehow into actually meeting him. They’re called “mind games” for a reason, I guess, though usually my hyperactive subconscious isn’t substituting “Global Thermonuclear War” for “Solitaire”. Al, surely realizing the disparity in our respective postures, would doubtless be patient and accommodating at the moment as I struggled for the right thing to say. I couldn’t stand possibly sounding trite or mechanical in the one thing I will probably ever say to him, and so I’ve done a lot of pondering as the show date crept closer. For the longest time, I’d seized upon nothing but thin air. Then I started writing this post.

I don’t entirely know why “Weird Al” Yankovic has stuck with me so long, but I have a few ideas. In my five annual “Top 20 + supplemental” year-end lists, I have named-checked approximately 202 quality music and stand-up comedy artists of wildly varying genres and consistencies, including, yes, a full writeup on Al’s Mandatory Fun in 2014. Not only do I clearly remember classifying it as “Rock” instead of “Comedy”, I remember that considering otherwise didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until just before I went to press, causing me to rewrite the review just to emphasize that point. It’s always been frustratingly easy to label Al a “novelty” act, though the already anemic argument shrivels up and dies when confronted with the amazing numbers of his career. I won’t recount them here, because that isn’t the question. I didn’t consider Al a “novelty” artist in 1984, and I sure as hell don’t thirty-four years later. He is arguably the patron saint of nerd culture overall – of flying your proverbial geek flag high and proud – and as ubiquitous as his presence has become in the larger sphere, how genuinely admired he has become in a way that cuts across taste and class boundaries instead of reinforcing their battlements, I remember the years almost beyond count when he was anything but. Those were formative years, as I’ve said before, years when music was just about the only thing holding me together in the face of pressures both social and self-imposed that I was patently unprepared to face alone.

I took to heavy metal music like a moth to a flame. I had a lot of anger and frustration inside me that needed positive direction, and I almost always had an affinity for the darker shades in life. At the same time, “Weird Al” Yankovic was like this quiet, extremely goofy guy sitting at the back of the boat, people-watching and controlling its rudder. When I was a little kid, he taught me an awful lot without really even trying, about wordplay and applied creativity, about irreverence and inclusion. He taught me that music contained limitless possibilities, that you got out of it what you put into it, that it would never judge you or let you down, and that, above all, it was supposed to be fun. However far afield I’ve ventured in the years since, however many great times I’ve had trying out new things or rediscovering old favorites, my foundation has remained constant. My ship is made of metal, and, amazingly, “Weird Al” Yankovic is back there maintaining course. I can’t wait to meet him and say thanks. *sigh* It won’t be long now.

(Just about) The last thing I did before hitting the road to Ann Arbor was actually to publish this post. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as I decided on this topic, earlier this week, I noticed it had a deadline built in. That, of course, ended up being a matter as much logistical as it was ceremonial – 4800 words don’t write themselves, after all – but there is some overarching symmetry to the act that I appreciate. So, as you read this, which is something over which I have no control, I might either be on my way to Michigan to meet my boyhood idol, “Weird Al” Yankovic, actually be in the sixth row of the Michigan Theater, or at a nearby hotel sleeping off the excitement and looking forward with neither agita nor irony to spending my first legitimate vacation day of 2018 in a car driving south. Perhaps the moment and the day have both already come and gone. This site was engineered to be a grab bag of moments and opinions from which visitors might choose, if so inclined. It does often amuse me in the best way to see “recently read” posts culled from a range anywhere from four days to four years ago. Makes me feel I’m doing at least a little something right, since I can’t control whether you click or read either. If I’m not doing something at least a little right, I’ll take this moment anyway to say that I always appreciate you reading, and allowing me my illusions.

Lord knows I didn’t need to hype myself up any more for this road trip. Perhaps, indulging in a little rhapsodic waxing was instead a way to calm and center myself. I never know who I’m fooling in this life, if not myself. All my trips to Michigan start out with sincere happy anticipation before they veer tragicomically off course. This time I think we shatter the “curse”, such as it is. So, yes, by the time you read this, I almost certainly will already have been and gone to Michigan to shake hands with and say thanks to “Weird Al”, for thanks are really what I have to offer him, straightforward, sincere, and coupled with boundless gratitude. Thank you for being my teacher, thank you for being a mentor, and thank you for always having my back. So what if it took thirty+ years for that shy eleven-year-old to officially submit his application and get the paperwork back in the form of an autograph, a night of beloved old music and amazing new memories, and a picture I hope I’ll be able to treasure forever (I do kinda worry I’ll come off as the “weird” one in our particular tableau)? What matters is I got there. Thank you, so much, for being my “close, personal friend”.

The road beckons, at this very moment. I can’t wait to get started.

 

Al and Me

Previously on ABC Family:

Post No. 25: Powder Burns and Uncertain Terms

Post No. 50: Iron Maiden Saved My Life.

Post No. 75: Unlimited Mileage

Post No. 100: Centennial Homesick Blues

Post No. 125: Alone in the Dark

Post No. 150: Various Forks in the Road (v.3)

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