The wonderful Washington Post Story
'Weird Al': Confessions of a Parody Animal
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2003; Page N01
The story of rock music is filled with seismic events that seemed unremarkable in the moment but changed the world later on. This isn't one of them:
It's 1965. A door-to-door salesman knocks at the home of Nick and Mary Yankovic in the Southern California town of Lynwood. A local music school is offering lessons in accordion and guitar, the salesman explains. Is there a child in the house who would like to learn one or the other?
There is, says Mrs. Yankovic. And then she makes a decision that will add great heaps of foolishness to the lives of countless eighth-graders, a choice that quietly ensures that hundreds of one-liners will be flogged in song for all time.
Mrs. Yankovic goes for the accordion.
"My mother decided she wanted me to be a chick magnet in high school," says "Weird Al" Yankovic, chuckling. "I remember my first lesson was the day before my seventh birthday. Seven through 10, once a week."
In the years since that not-so-fateful day, Weird Al has released 11 studio albums and all but cornered the tiny market in satirical pop. Starting with his 1979 parody of the Knack's "My Sharona" -- which he reworked into a tribute to lunch meat called "My Bologna" -- Weird Al has been hot-wiring Top 40 melodies and driving them straight at all that is ridiculous. His parodies are spitballs set to music -- juvenile but harmless, a weapon of mass distraction seized upon by successive waves of junior high schoolers.
"He's the Beatles of my little genre," says Dr. Demento, host of a long-running syndicated radio show featuring comedy and novelty records and the man who gave Yankovic his first handful of breaks. "He's certainly shown more talent over a longer period of time than anyone in recent memory. He's my most requested artist by a long shot."
Touring to promote his latest album, "Poodle Hat," Weird Al swung by the offices of The Washington Post recently before a show at Kings Dominion. He came to explain the origins of his consistently frivolous canon, which he will do by discussing his 10 favorite songs as they play on a boombox (he sent the list over earlier in the week). The question at hand: Musically speaking, where does a guy who writes songs like "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi" and "Harvey the Wonder Hamster" come from?
Admittedly, many readers won't care. To some, Yankovic is the Carrot Top of music, a joke more than a jokester. When David Letterman read a list of Canada's Top 10 grievances with the United States, one of the entries read: "Two words: Weird Al."
But even if you consider him a nerdy goof -- like the Three Stooges, people tend to find him either inspired or idiotic -- you can marvel at Yankovic's amazing endurance. With three gold and five platinum albums to his name, he's outlasted many of the acts he's satirized. That longevity stems, in part, from the freedom to shop for raw material from the top of the charts, unallied to any genre; he can abandon hair-metal or grunge or Michael Jackson as soon as fans do. And there's never a short supply of sanctimony or preening self-absorption in pop. Yankovic is the only artist out there with the talent, nerve or shamelessness to point out how absurd all of this gravity is.
"If there's any point, it's that rock music takes itself too seriously," Yankovic says. "I've always thought that rock music should be fun, and if I have any kind of mission it's to prick that bubble of pretentiousness a little bit."
That's about as sober as things get with Weird Al. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and glasses-free after Lasik surgery, he laughs a lot during this 60-minute interview and seems like a perfectly adjusted 43-year-old guy who just happens to revel in the moronic. He got married in 2001 and has a baby daughter, Nina, around whom he has scheduled the current tour, planning four-day breaks every couple of weeks so he can return to Los Angeles and dote on her. In short, Al is profoundly un-weird, unless you consider it odd that he doesn't drink, smoke or have any vices more wicked than rich desserts.
Blame his parents for that. According to Yankovic, they were so intent on cordoning off young Al from anything even PG-rated that he didn't hear rock radio until he was 10. Before that, he made do with the few records in his parents' collection, including a novelty track by Johnny Cash called "Boa Constrictor." It's the first-person tale of a man being slowly "swallared" by a snake. ("Oh my, he's up to my thigh.") The tune was written by Shel Silverstein, better known for penning the great Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue."
"[The singer] gets eaten by a boa, and at the end you hear the snake belch," he recalls. "To my 5-year-old brain, this was hilarious. The snake was belching on the record!"
Through television, he discovered "Classical Gas," which was featured on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and composed by one of the show's writers, Mason Williams. A classical-guitar instrumental that is a bit of Segovia and a touch of Muzak, the song rose to No. 1 in 1968 and won two Grammys for Williams. It also launched Yankovic's lifelong affection for instrumentals.
"It seems kind of ironic for a guy whose career was kind of made on lyrics, but I love that," he says as "Gas" plays. It was one of the first songs he taught himself on the accordion, and it taught a lesson he never forgot: When you translate popular tunes to a wheeze box strapped on your chest, laughter ensues. That point was clearer still years later when he learned "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," the spooky opening track from Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." John was the first pop star whom Yankovic swooned for, and he lined his bedroom walls with Elton posters and photos as he taught himself all 17 songs on "Road."
"I was a huge fan and it was just something I wanted to do, but it also helped me figure out how to write rock songs," he says as the opening minute of "Funeral" plays. When he later went to college, "this was a big hit in the dorm," he says of his version. "I'd play and my friend would be on bongos."
Well before all this dorm room hilarity, Yankovic came across the "Dr. Demento Show," a life-altering discovery. The doctor -- Barret Hansen, as he was known at birth -- was a former roadie and writer who'd found his destiny spinning humorous tunes on a weekly radio show in Los Angeles. He included masters of the craft, like Spike Jones and Stan Freberg, plus scads of artists known only to the underworld of novelty pop, like Jef Jaisun, the self-described journeyman electrician who wrote "Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent."
"I immediately loved it and my mom hated it," Yankovic says of the program. "Every now and then you'd hear something that was a little off-color, like 'Davy's Dinghy' or 'Bounce Your Boobies,' songs with innuendo, and my mom heard some of that stuff and she forbid me from ever listening to Dr. Demento again. This was catastrophic in my young life. I had to listen to him in secret. I had to go to bed early on Sunday night with the clock radio in bed with me, and pull the covers over my head."
That's where young Al discovered bands like the Trashmen, a Minneapolis group that went to No. 1 in 1964 with "Surfin' Bird," a peppy surf tune that featured a then 17-year-old vocalist who caterwauls "bird bird bird, bird is the word" over and over for most of the track.
"I thought, this is so repetitive and moronic that it's just genius," Yankovic says, as the tune wades into its memorably psychedelic bridge.
Through Demento he found Fun With Animals, a short-lived and long-forgotten group with just two singles to its name. "I'm Going to Pasadena" is Yankovic's favorite of the bunch, a 12-bar blues that is seemingly sung by a robot trying to imitate a lounge singer. The lyrics depict one non-event after another, capped by a chorus that is the height of pointlessness: "I'm going down to Pasadena just to see what's going on," drones lead Animal Richard Haxton. "If there's nothing going on in Pasadena, I'm going to turn around and come back home."
"It's this great song about nothing," says Yankovic, chortling at the second verse. "It's a new wave blues song about ennui, basically."
The show also introduced him to the Kinks' "Ducks on the Wall," a track from one of the Brit-pop band's least successful concept albums, "The Kinks Present a Soap Opera." It's the somewhat muddled story of a nebbish who dreams of rock stardom, and is best remembered now for a few moments of inspired lunacy, "Ducks" among them.
"I love it because it's about something really random," Yankovic says. "A guy who is just driven crazy by the fact that this girlfriend or wife has ducks on the wall. It was so random I thought it was brilliant.
"I'm always amazed people don't see the Kinks in the same pantheon as the Stones or the Who and the Beatles. They're right up there for me. Ray Davies is one of the greatest songwriters of all time."
By the time he was 16, Yankovic was writing his own tunes, recorded on 39-cent cassettes, and submitting them to the Dr. Demento show. The first was a mindless ditty about driving around in the family's Plymouth Belvedere. The doctor encouraged him in a letter to find higher-quality tapes, but played and praised the song. Others followed.
"I didn't actually have a conversation with him till a year later," Demento recalls. "I invited him to the station for a brief interview, the first of many times we spoke on the air. He showed up in a coat and tie."
What struck the doctor was the youngster's grasp of how good comedy tunes are constructed, which is more complicated than you might think. Anyone can write a funny verse or two and a giggle-worthy chorus, he says, but few realize that for a tune to work it must get funnier as it goes along.
"It takes something special for a song to build and work through three or four verses," Demento says. "And Al knew that."
Yankovic was smitten with all the airplay, but he never slighted his studies. He graduated at the top of his class at age 16, then headed to California Polytechnic University to study architecture. The subject, he realized after a couple of years of classes, didn't interest him, and he spent much of his time at the college radio station, putting together his own Demento-style program.
In the comedy section of the racks he discovered the Bonzo Dog Band, a group that will be familiar to anyone who's seen the Beatles' made-for-TV movie, "Magical Mystery Tour." (The Bonzos show up to play a typically dadaist number called "Deathcab for Cutie.") Lead Bonzo Neil Innes would later star in and write music and lyrics for "All You Need Is Money," a mockumentary based on the career of the Beatles, rechristened "the Rutles" in the movie. (Innes plays the John Lennon character.) Yankovic says he could have picked any number of Bonzo cuts but goes with "Canyons of Your Mind," a doo-wop song with bizarre lyrics and one of the most amateurish guitar solos in history.
"Legend has it that the solo is played by someone who has no idea how to play the instrument," he says. At one point, there's some primal screaming followed immediately by the tender interruption of someone saying, "My darling."
"That's my favorite part," Yankovic says. "I love abrupt transitions."
It was during this period that "My Bologna" was recorded in the only place where there was some natural reverb: a bathroom. Yankovic somehow managed to get the tune into the hands of the Knack's lead singer, Doug Fieger, who loved the parody and urged Capitol to release it as a single. The label agreed and bought the master for a measly $500. It was hardly a smash; Yankovic would later buy it back for double that sum so that he could put it on his fourth album.
His next recording fared better. Visiting the Demento show one Sunday night, he clanged through "Another One Rides the Bus," a remake of Queen's then-huge "Another One Bites the Dust." It was a live, off-the-cuff performance, with a friend banging on his accordion case to add percussion. Response to the tune was instantaneous, and by the time Yankovic drove back to college, he was getting requests from all over the world for copies.
"It was insane. I'd get out of class and my roommate would say, 'Uh, you got a call from a radio station in New Zealand,' " he remembers. "It was bootlegged all over the world."
A label called TK Records released it as a single and the song might have yielded a small fortune, but TK went bankrupt a week later. Yankovic soon graduated from Cal Poly with a degree he didn't want to use, a small cult following and a strong hunch that music was his future. He moved to L.A. and tried to wheedle and joke his way into the business.
"Right after college, in the early '80s, those were the scary years," he says. "I don't think I was freaked out at the time because I'm a happy person and I don't often get too worried, but looking back, wow. I applied for work anywhere. I'd gotten straight A's, I was a valedictorian, most likely to succeed, and I'm applying for janitorial work, at the phone company, anywhere to pay for my mac and cheese."
Yankovic lucked into a mailroom job at Westwood One, a company that provides news and entertainment programming to radio stations. He was, to put it mildly, overqualified for the work -- which included taking out the garbage -- and it paid minimum wage, but on a good day someone like Frank Zappa would show up for an interview. If he wasn't actually part of the music industry, he was at least near it.
"I didn't quit that job until I opened Billboard magazine one day and my name was in the Hot 100 charts," he says. A tiny independent named Scottie Bros. Records had finally signed him to a deal, and though his self-titled debut was completely ignored, the second album, "In 3-D," contained a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" called "Eat It." Yankovic made a video for the song, imitating Jackson's strut through a pool hall. The video made it into heavy rotation at MTV. Suddenly, Weird Al was pop's in-house comic.
"It was a little disconcerting," he recalls, "because I'd been this anonymous drone my whole life and all of a sudden I was the 'Eat It' guy."
His own taste in music, meanwhile, never wavered from the daft. By this time he'd found Tonio K., a Californian born Steve Kirkorian and an ironist who wrote hilariously embittered songs about women who'd wronged him. One of the bitterest is "H-A-T-R-E-D," which starts with deceptively mellow strumming, then segues into Johnny Rotten punk with lyrics that eviscerate a callous ex-girlfriend.
"The liner notes on the album this comes from are amazing," he says. "Pages and pages explaining the philosophy behind the music. He's kind of a thinking man's punk."
Despite his own good nature, artists who can convincingly play jerks have always appealed to Yankovic. In 1983, Yankovic heard a Randy Newman track called "My Life Is Good," a spectacularly smug testimonial of a self-satisfied L.A. louse. The song opens with the narrator recounting a trip to Mexico, where he and his wife found a lovely young lady who now handles all the household dirty work: "She drives the kids to school / She does the laundry, too / She wrote this song for me." He calls his son's teacher an "old bag" and boasts about hanging out with Bruce Springsteen, who is visiting the city. "Rand, I'm tired," he quotes Bruce saying. "How would you like to be the Boss for a while?"
"There's a meanness and obliviousness in the way he delivers these lines," Yankovic says. "The obnoxiousness of the character, the way Randy throws himself into the role. Whenever I hear a song I think is brilliant, it literally gives me chills. And the first couple times I heard this song, I got chills."
"My Life Is Good" is far edgier than anything you'll find on a Yankovic album. As he readily acknowledges, mean doesn't come naturally to him.
"I get taken to task a lot by writers who think I don't have any bite," he says. "But it's a personal taste thing. I think it's harder to be funny without having it be at someone's expense. I certainly don't have anything against that kind of comedy. It's just a taste thing for me. I prefer to work relatively clean. It's more or less family-friendly."
Families, as it turns out, are a big part of Yankovic's audience, at least the audience that shows up for his Kings Dominion show later the same day. It's two hours of costume changes, polka medleys and video snippets, many of which poke fun at Yankovic himself. He dresses in a jumpsuit to parody Nelly's "Hot in Herre" and runs through quickie parodies of bands like Limp Bizkit, the Hives and the White Stripes. He's tireless, and the crowd -- especially the kids -- laughs right on cue.
The highlight is the single from the new album, a parody of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," which Yankovic redid as a tribute to indolence called "Couch Potato." Recording the tune led to a minor fiasco. As with every parody he writes, Weird Al sought permission to record his version, a green light that isn't strictly necessary; courts have consistently given parody artists plenty of latitude. But Yankovic, from his nice-guy inclinations as much as anything, won't record a song without a go-ahead from the star who made it famous. Eminem assented to the song, but denied permission to record a video. Without chum to toss to MTV, "Poodle Hat" will probably sell half of what it otherwise would, Yankovic predicts.
"Eminem felt that a Weird Al video would detract from his legacy, or [from the] view of him as a serious hip-hop artist," he says. This from a rapper who has viciously torn into Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, to name just two?
"Therein lies the irony, yes."
As career bumps go, this one is pretty mild. Weird Al's nearly 25-year reign as pop's joker at large has been notably low on drama. When VH1 filmed a "Behind the Music" about him, the producers had to reach for the requisite "bottoming out" moment. The best they could do was leave the impression that Yankovic was ultimately a lonely guy because he hadn't married.
"They keep playing that special over and over," he notes, "and my wife says, 'Can you please get them to change that?' "
His wife, Suzanne, inspired the most recent song on his list of favorites: Ben Folds's "The Luckiest," from the 2001 album "Rockin' the Suburbs." It's a deeply emotional piano ballad that pays exalted tribute to a woman. The music at moments is sentimental enough for a figure skating routine, but the lyrics are a long way from Celine Dion territory. In one verse, Folds idly wonders: What if I'd been born 50 years earlier and saw you riding by on your bike? Would I have known what you could have meant to me?
"This gets my vote for the best love song ever written," Yankovic says. "It just doesn't fall into any cliches. It's evocative of what it's like to truly be in love. It really has an effect on me. I've probably only heard it four times in my life, because every time I hear it I get all weepy."
With that, Weird Al listens to a bar or two and gets a bit choked up. "It's bizarre the effect the song has on me," he says, now laughing.
His wife and child are two reasons that Yankovic now resides in what he calls "a nice house."
He used to live so modestly that reporters who visited him for interviews thought he was putting them on, and would ask to see where he really lived. He's naturally frugal, he says, but in the back of his mind, he has long worried that the Weird Al gig would abruptly end and he'd end up back in a mailroom.
It's finally dawning on him that he has the closest thing to tenure that's available in the tumultuous pop realm. Trends come and go, but the asinine abides.
"You know how in 'Spinal Tap' there's a line about the thin line between clever and stupid?" he says. "I walk that line every day."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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