"Weird Al" Yankovic
The Apollo Theater; New York City, NY

When I stepped out into the flashbulb facade of Harlem’s Apollo Theatre from the darkness of 125th, I had two things on my mind: Weird Al and a silver Discman.

You know how some school buses had a pocket-flap on the back on the seats, so you could squash after-school stuff in there? Like chilly batter in a hot waffler, snug and transforming. It went everywhere with me; I would feel a buzz in my backpack and go to check my Discman, me paranoid, the phantom sing. My parents gave me the Discman for my 10th birthday, or maybe my 12th. This’ll show him how music’s the good good stuff, they said. Or: This’ll shut him up for a while. Maybe both ages, probably both reasons.

Any hopes for new quiet were dashed because the Discman had speakers on it. There was an upside-down triangle of a button square in the center and when you slid it to the right, the Discman played through headphones, like most Discmans, but when you slid it to the left, you could listen to Greatest Hits Vol. 1 by Weird Al Yankovic as loud as you and the Discman pleased.

I still didn’t know that music was the good good stuff. Some days I still struggle to know that. But at 10 or 12 or 27, Weird Al presented not just an alternative sound, but a world screwed to a degree I could comprehend, or at least laugh along with. I had no language for approaching the radical disco’d horizon of “Bad” or “Beat It,” and I knew no coil of body that could welcome Madonna’s smoke future-fuck. I knew parents who fought (never terminally, ever-casually) with each other/ for their children. I knew being taken to arcades and shopping malls by mom or dad at various times to distract us from the fighting. Sometimes we went to arcades and shopping malls when no one was fighting. We drove around neighborhoods that weren’t ours looking at how big the houses were; in certain winters we ogled the same houses’ light displays, and my dad would tap the wheel. One year, someone stole the light-up snowman from in front of our town house. How do you stand that stab of useless suburban hate without laughing? It’s time to let your babies grow up to be cowboys/ It’s time to let the bedbugs bite.

Here was dancing with laughing, serious attention to pop art’s penchant for transforming us while discarding all the noxious toxicities that sometimes showed up in art. From the suburbs, Yankovic offered a weird world that was no stranger than the one I goldfish’d around in in backyards most days: Settle down, raise a family, join the PTA/ buy some sensible shoes and a Chevrolet/ and party ‘til you’re broke and they drive you away, it’s OK/ you can dare to be stupid.

I had seen Weird Al play live before. It was my first experience with live music ever once, a school bus flap-space where your heart jumps up out your eyes and won’t stop. I had never been to the Apollo before. My fingers were suitably spacey-feeling as they flitted along the spackled walls. Up in the rafters, out of our grubby reach, were true sweet ghosts. The Apollo is a sharp, shiny gem that still sounds like James Brown even if you’ll have to walk past lots of Buffalo Wild Wings to get into it these days. Emo Phillips, looking and sounding like someone had stuffed an animated goose into a chest in the 80s and was just folding it back into daily life, was wrapping up 20 warbled, warped minutes as me and a whole Idaho of people took our seats.

Yankovic opened the set sitting on a stool playing “Dare to Be Stupid,” not as the Devo pastiche that used to bleat out of my Discman, but as a 4/4 roadhouse blues number and we, rapping our buffalo saucy fingers into claps, said “weird.”

Because since the career re-focusing Running With Scissors (bought at Barnes & Noble with my mom’s 10%-off coupon after church on Sunday) a Weird Al show was replete with every cranny of oddityness. There’s lots of costume changes for Yankovic and the band, lots of video clips surprising everyone how ingrained Yankovic is in popular culture, lots of people in the Hawaiian shirts all their fathers brought back from their honeymoons; some slime creature from outer space would be forgiven for thinking it a weekly gathering of some benign and askance religious sect.

But this, billed as the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, was askance yet again. Yankovic and his longtime bandmates Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, Steve Jay, Jim West, and Rubén Valtierra promised, “None of the songs you really want to hear, all of the songs you usually skip over, obscure original tunes.” Was the band exhausted at the prospect of touring a production, disheartened at not touring at all? Was it all more deconstructive jestering? Listening to Al deadpan, Burn your candle at both ends/ punch a gift horse in the mouth/ mashed potatoes can be your friend over professionally white blues riffing brought to mind something like Dylan’s reformed live cuts, but was it participatory or commentary?

Next was “Close But No Cigar,” a plastic-Cake pastiche, then “Generic Blues.” “BB King once said this was one of his top-10 favorite blues songs,” Yankovic cooed cooed, smiling. “Maybe he was joking, but I’m gonna assume he wasn’t.” Jokes and reality sit in the same seat in the weird, a name we give to what we can’t regard or disregard.

Yankovic and the the band laughed into “Mr. Popeil,” a cocktail of B-52’s and late-night late-stage consumerism: I need a handy appliance/ that’ll scramble an egg while it’s still inside its shell!/ (Operators are standing by/ How does that make you feel?). I’m rocking at the top of the Apollo asking, “How does that make you feel, Mark Fisher?”

“When we say something is weird, what kind of feeling are we pointing to?” Fisher motions towards his book, The Weird and the Eerie, still keenly aware of how good the band on the stage at the Apollo sounds, switching gears and modes like plastic mechanicals, rude and sharp.

Something like “Nature Trail to Hell,” probably, an imagined theme to an unmade movie that doesn’t let you ignore how your favorite horrors will feel serialized to eternity, IN 3D! Something like “Craiglist,” a full-on Doors rave-up that’s a better Doors song than most Doors songs, positing that the weird sale has triumphed over the sale of the weird. Yankovic swoops between Jim Morrison and Fred Schnieder, all the while pointing out the tragic hilarity of suburb-y capitalism and Saturday-morning faux prosperity and online market madness, and the weird feels fierce, mobilized.

Fisher goes on, because we’re both a little wounded by “Dog Eat Dog,” impersonatory Talking Heads that flattens Byrne’s soul-seeking zen coldness into the boil-you-alive-every-day-of-your-life corporate eternity. Fisher: “I want to argue that the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here.” (Like Weird Al shows at the Apollo, maybe; like suburban dad in Buffalo Wild Wings in Harlem, perhaps.) “Yet if the object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of our world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be adequate.”

Listening to Yankovic perform these originals (not straight parodies, they simply mimic formal elements of other artists), this wrongness is especially evident. “My Own Eyes” is Foo Fighters but pushed to the side, where it isn’t grand or cool to be a rock star, just another excuse to belt the mundane; “Your Horoscope For Today” is my favorite song ever probably, a ska dagger that seems like an astrology-takedown until you realize it’s target is both blind optimism and hopelessness. You will never find true happiness/ What you gonna do, cry about it?/ The stars predict tomorrow you’ll wake up/ Do a bunch of stuff, and then go back to sleep. “UHF” is a song 40 dimensions before Netflix or streaming services or Spotify going public, but its compass warns against all the despondency of tech taking over: Don’t you know that we control the horizontal?/ We control the vertical, too: we gonna make a couch potato out of you.

Yankovic’s plastic pastiche transforms that which we love and that which we can’t bear to confront into a new universe, listenable and wobbly, hilarious and damning. His narrators are unstable (“I Remember Larry) pig-headed optimists (“Jackson Park Express”), egomaniacal (“Young, Dumb, and Ugly”), and romantic (“You Don’t Love Me Anymore”). Yankovic’s weirdness chucks warm human hope up into systems made by people that aren’t made for people. He sketches this relationship by making us recoil from the familiar, leaning in toward an alien. Fisher, again, forever: “The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage — the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.

This is not to say that weirdness should and can only be distressing. Fisher continues: “The sense of wrongness associated with the weird — the conviction that this does not belong — is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete.” There’s no more time for crying over spilled milk/ Now it’s time for crying in your beer.

How to dare? How to be stupid? You switch to speakers so everyone can hear it. You play “Albuquerque,” a 12-minute odyssey through the weird and the wired, a mobilization of personal weirdness into protective hope: And, by the way, if one day you happen to wake up and find yourself in an existential quandary full of loathing and self-doubt and wracked with the pain and isolation of your pitiful meaningless existence, at least you can take a small bit of comfort in knowing that somewhere out there in this crazy mixed-up old universe of ours there’s still a little place called Albuquerque.We laugh but what does it mean?

What does it mean when Yankovic ends the regular set with a medley of all the hit parodies he said he wouldn’t play tonight, scrambled past the point of recognition, just like “Dare to Be Stupid”? Here “Eat It” is like Clapton unplugged, sapped and dragging and leading into a limp-soft jazz “Lost on Jeopardy,” a schmaltz-for-wind-chimes “Amish Paradise.”

Should we recoil from the whistle-pop of “Smells Like Nirvana” — will all the sounds of our youth end decayed like this? The flamenco fart of “White and Nerdy” euthanizes toughness, while “I Love Rocky Road” sounds like we’re all just wasting our waists and place in a forever-parlor of half-off consumerism and fame-worship and misplaced e-rage. “Like a Surgeon” is a yacht-y ballad now and what? These parodies were built on the premise that they sounded familiar and used that position to suggest new realities, but now, here at the end, even that form falls away. It’s a joke and a jab; nothing is above rehearing, no perspective is sacred with plastic consciousness. If you close your eyes, the weirdness peals back the place where the thing used to be and you can see the frame of the familiar around a brilliant light leading someplace else.

Then the encores, more jestering. Yankovic makes his guitar-playing debut on a deadly straight take on “Cinnamon Girl,” holding off until that famous one-note solo and then making every serious-rock-star-guitar-man face in the book. He thanks everyone again, thanks his killer band, looks up and out at the Apollo’s cavern again, and gives us “Yoda,” no jokes, just a reverend take on an irreverent classic. Does it undermine the whole evening, all the work done to undermine expectations and constrictions?

It does not. We sing and dance, we think about how we didn’t know our Discmans with speakers were weird, how we didn’t know what our parents were doing but still work to love them, how we didn’t know that laughing together was always our best way towards the bright portal of better days. We, weird, walk away a little transformed and a little more open to transformation. The future’s up to you, so what you gonna do?/ Dare to be stupid.

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