Here’s an interview I did with “Weird Al” Yankovic for Crawdaddy! in 2011. “You asked some very interesting questions,” he remarked when we were done, which for sanity’s sake I must interpret as a compliment. Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP.
For three decades, one name has reigned supreme in the field of parody-based musical comedy: “Weird Al” Yankovic. From “Eat It” to “Smells Like Nirvana” to “White and Nerdy,” Yankovic has won the hearts of millions churning out strange, funny twists on Top 40 hits, his appeal spanning various generations, genders, social strata, and pickle preference. Al was kind enough to grant us a few minutes on the eve of his thirteenth full-length release, Alpocalypse, so we could regale the Pride of Lynwood, CA, with queries about his rumored fight with Billy Joel’s relatives, his implied “Family Ties” obsession, and what he knew of Macho Man Randy Savage’s unexpected hamster aversion.
Okay, let’s clear something up right now—did you not release your early ’80s parody “It’s Still Billy Joel To Me” because Billy Joel’s family strongly disapproved and there was some kind of altercation on a red carpet somewhere?
[Laughs] No, no, no…I never put it out because by time I got a record deal the song seemed too dated. It wasn’t topical anymore, there were a lot of references in there I thought people wouldn’t get, and also, it was kinda mean spirited, you know, and that was a little out of character for me. I wrote it in college, never thinking that Billy Joel would actually ever hear it, but eventually some local TV show played the song for him…and he was clearly a little put off by. So, I felt bad.
You have a lot of quasi-legendary unreleased recordings from your early years like “Billy Joel,” such as “Belvedere Cruising” and “Pacman.” Would you ever consider releasing an Al rarities record?
No, because I think the people that would appreciate those songs have already managed to track them down. You can bit torrent all those early horrible tracks I did. [Laughs] I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed by those songs, but I wouldn’t want to promote them now because they don’t represent my current level of work.
Not to harp on this angle, but everyone knows Prince has steadfastly refused to sign off on your parodies of his work, and it seems from time to time that there’s legitimate anger on your part about that. Was he rude to you about your ideas, or was there an incident?
Yeah, [Prince] has become my scapegoat over the years, but to be fair I haven’t asked him to parody anything in the last decade. Back in the 1980s, though, he obviously had a few hits that I thought leant themselves to parody. Every time I asked, he responded with a flat no, but he never gave a reason. [Sighs] It was frustrating, but there’s no hard feelings. I mean, he never personally threw a drink on me at a party or anything like that. Prince is just a very talented but ostensibly humorless artist.
Has anyone ever been on fence about your ideas? Like, have you had to gently nudge anyone into agreeing?
Hmmm, my manager would be a better person to ask about that, as he’s the one who’s usually in contact with these people. As far as I know, everyone’s usually very receptive. What i can tell you is a lot of the time [the] management of the people I’m interested in parodying don’t return our calls, like in this recent Lady Gaga incident, so I’m sent on a quest to find original artist. That happened with Kurt Cobain, it happened with MC Hammer—and with the few known exceptions they’re always more than happy to agree to it.
How did you track down Hammer? Did you find out where he shot all those Pepsi commercials and just show up?
[Laughs] No, it was some kind of awards show, like the American Music Awards or something. I went there specifically because I knew he would be performing and I hung around back stage so I could “accidentally” bump into him. And, of course, he was totally cool and receptive to the [“U Can’t Watch This”] parody.
Have you ever had the perfect parody in mind for a song that wasn’t really popular enough to parody?
Well, generally, if a song isn’t popular enough it doesn’t make it on my radar. I’ll tell ya, when Nirvana came on the scene, I didn’t immediately have an idea but I thought, Wouldn’t be cool if they got popular enough to make fun of? Then the album went to number one, and that was that.
Did you have anything on deck in case Nirvana didn’t blow up?
No…if that didn’t happen, I would have just waited for the next cultural movement.
Did you get to hang out with all those celebs in Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” video, or was all that filmed at separate times?
I got to hang out with a lot of them, but not all of them. Dan Aykroyd was there, so was Steve Guttenburg. Michael Jackson wasn’t there, but I had met him previously.
Has any parody of yours ever been a hit that you personally felt was maybe a little subpar, or vice versa? Have you ever had something you thought was amazing that just didn’t go over?
I never really know how things are gonna go. “It’s All About the Pentiums,” I thought that was gonna be a much bigger hit than it was. We had a great high budget video, some hot video vixens, some great celebrity cameos…I thought it was going to be huge. But then it came out, and it wasn’t. Now, when I did “White and Nerdy” a few years later, I knew it was a great song but part of me thought, “This is the same basic subject as [‘Pentiums’],” and then “White and Nerdy” turned out to be my biggest hit ever.
Your new album Alpocalypse is scheduled for release on June 21, which is the joint birthday of “Family Ties” stars Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross. Did you do that on purpose? Is there some kind of hidden “Family Ties” subtext within the album that true fans have to decipher?
Well, everything happens for a reason. No, I can honestly say I didn’t plan that, but I’ll have to look into it, do some research.
Is it true that the late Macho Man Randy Savage almost backed out of his appearance on “The Weird Al Show” in 1997 when he found out he was supposed to lose his wrestling match with Harvey the Wonder Hamster?
Things were definitely touch and go with Randy Savage. He was not sure he should lose to a hamster, and we had to explain to him, you know, “That’s the joke,” that you wouldn’t expect this heavyweight world champion to lose to a hamster. So he said, “Well, alright…it’s not a girl hamster, is it?” [Laughs] And we said, “No, it’s a boy hamster, don’t worry.”
The following piece was originally published in a slightly rawer/clunkier form in 2008 via the Crawdaddy! website. Though the careers of both Van Halen and Weezer have continued (inexplicably, almost vexingly) I believe the core truth here continues to ring true.
The biggest mistake my generation ever made, aside from dismissing funny man Norm MacDonald once he left “Saturday Night Live,” was believing from day one that Weezer was just kidding around about all those 1970s hard rock references. Oh, those jokers, we thought upon hearing “In The Garage.” No way do they have KISS posters on their walls. It’s probably all Frank Black collages. We were similarly tickled when the Weezer logo was unveiled, a giant W that aped the flashy symbol of party metal gods Van Halen. Finally, Gen X had taken a direct shot at those Dutch assholes, and it felt so good.
A decade later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Weezer fan from way back who isn’t infuriated by the trajectory their career has taken. The quirky little bubble gum grunge band behind such heart-on-the-sleeve anthems as “Say It Ain’t So” and “Tired of Sex” has become an arena-filling Top 40 machine, authoring vapid hits like “Beverly Hills” (the video of which was filmed at the friggin’ Playboy Mansion!). Shame on them for selling out? No, shame on us for not realizing much sooner that Weezer’s prime directive was never to keep the Cobain flame burning. Unlike their Seattle contemporaries, this slick, L.A.-birthed group never openly declared war on David Lee Roth and the spandex nation he begat because their dream was always to conquer it.
After all, lead Weez Rivers Cuomo started out in a heavy metal band, Avant Garde (later called Zoom), decked out with requisite poofy hair, severe facial expressions, and six string wizardry. Had the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams not crushed the Sunset Strip’s skull with their Doc Martins and dropped D tuning, there’s a chance we’d know a very different Rivers C (whose “rocker” pseudonym was Peter Kitts). Luckily, Riv wasn’t just a flashy guitarist—he could also craft a heartbreaking melody. This would prove useful in the days of flannel and Luke Perry sideburns. Ultimately, it would make Rivers Cuomo the Clinton-era’s Eddie Van Halen (read: guitar genius with funny name).
At a time when Van Halen was floundering, wondering how they’d connect with the kids of the rabid fans they drew into football stadiums fifteen years earlier, Weezer burst forth with 1994’s Weezer; the album has its beautiful, introspective songs, but it also has plenty of rockin’ radio anthems teenagers loved to blast as they zoomed out of their high school’s parking lot on any given mid-nineties afternoon (“My Name Is Jonas,” “Surf Wax America”). It was definitely the record you threw on a party if you wanted to get people moving. Loud guitars, isolationist lyrics, earnest melodies, sitcom references—there was something for everybody. This broad appeal and demographic balance was something bands like Everclear and Silverchair couldn’t quite master. At a time when it was still slightly frowned upon, Weezer became America’s only bona fide rock stars.
The so-called “glory years” of Van Halen and Weezer were both relatively short. David Lee Roth exited VH after half a decade (give or take) and was replaced with Sammy Hagar. This was considered blasphemous to hardcore fans, many of whom disowned the band immediately and dubbed the new, mature Van Halen “Van Hagar.” The departure of Weezer bassist Matt Sharp after 1996’s cathartic Pinkerton didn’t illicit a comparable reaction, but it did close the book on Weezer’s “classic era.” What’s interesting is that while Van Hagar soldiered on making albums that bordered on adult contemporary and struggled for relevance, Weezer went on hiatus following Sharp’s take off, almost as if to say, “You know what? This might be it.”
Oddly, the disappearance of alterna-rock’s favorite sons allowed them to ascend to Van Halen-esque levels of reverence in the minds of anyone who was on the fence before. At the close of the nineties, lyrical couplets from Pinkerton were just as oohed and aahed over as any pentatonic explosion Eddie V. ever played. Emo bands proudly wore the Weezer influence on their sleeve in the same manner late eighties hair bands solemnly praised Roth and Co. in their prime. Would the now-legendary nerds ever return and grace us with their awkward pop laced with junk culture quips and wanky leads?
Yes, they would, at the exact moment the world was just bursting at the seams for more Weezer. In 2001, Rivers, rhythm guitarist Brian Bell, and drummer Patrick Wilson came out of hiding (with rookie bassist Mikey Welsh) and mounted the arena tour they probably always dreamed about. Fans made cross country treks and hung out in parking lots for hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of the sweater-wearing foursome in their giant Ecolounge bus. Sound like steaming heaps of rock n’ roll bullshit? It was.
Weezer could still put together a catchy tune or three, though, as evidenced on that year’s creatively titled Weezer (a.k.a. The Green Album) and 2002’s Maladroit. If those two were the Women And Children First and Fair Warning of the Weezer catalog, respectively, then 2005’s Make Believe was without question their 1984. The difference is, whereas Van Halen was praised for graduating to light, fun pop, Weezer was derided for not offering up more mopey opuses of regret and longing, the stuff many fell for in the first place.
Anyone who goes to see Van Halen or Weezer in this day and age is trying to recapture something from years past. With the former, it’s probably the beer-soaked nights of the Reagan eighties, when the sex was loose and pink mesh was not a crime. With the latter, it’s the self-conscious nineties, when the sex was a painful mystery and buttoning the top button was not a crime. Weezer as a nostalgia act stings for many people I know, people who were hoping the band’s 21 Century return would herald Pinkerton II. As much as we want Rivers Cuomo to be our Brian Wilson, that’s not the way he wanted it. Otherwise he wouldn’t have added those wings to the W in the first place.
Our shared frustration be summed up in a lyric Diamond Dave shouted on 1978’s Van Halen at the start of the ferocious “I’m the One”:
“We came here to entertain you, leaving here we aggravate you, don’t you know it means the same to me, honey?”
– of course this writing only exists because I recently discovered Netflix has the first five original Star Trek films up for streaming; who knows why they’re omitting the series finale, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (perhaps Netflix has strong feelings about Lieutenant Valeris replacing Lt. Saavik)
– everyone dogs Star Trek: The Motion Picture for crawling along like cold molasses, but the extra time helps ramp up the suspense as Captain Kirk and his Get Fresh Crew unravel the mystery of V’ger; the only bit that really drags is when Scotty first delivers Kirk to the Enterprise via shuttle craft—they drift around and marvel at this ship, mouths agog, like they haven’t already spent five years toolin’ around the cosmos in the thing
– everyone dogs Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the uniforms, those pukey blue and tan outfits that make our heroes look like models for Space Sears, but those unis are more flattering than the thick red tops they adopt for Star Trek II on; the only person who looks like he has any kind of mobility in the conservative crimson wrap is Bones, because physically that’s all he is
– Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is celebrated by many as the best of this series and while it’s a humdinger I’m not sure it’s my fave; there’s greater complexity to the events of Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has so much fun turning these characters on their ear, forcing them to bumble and con their way through our so-called modern world; that said, the apex of the entire series comes in Khan when Ricardo Montalbán’s titular villain hears Kirk has made Admiral and keeps repeating it to himself like he’s savoring a fine steak sauce
– the decades of controversy over Ricardo Montalbán’s chest in Khan means that even as the film sucks you in you’re occasionally distracted by his shiny exposed torso, wondering if it really is pure Montalbán or some fleshy piece of Hollywood magic; all that swaggering and no nip slip, makes you wonder
– Kirstie Alley is a tough act to follow but history would probably be kinder to Robin Curtis had she played Saavik without the perm
– there’s so much going on in Search For Spock, so much to consider and weigh, you don’t even notice John Larroquette is playing a Klingon, or at least I never did until I saw the credits this time around; what fine a career Larroquette’s had, from Texas Chain Saw Massacre to “Night Court” to Search For Spock to Beethoven’s 5th
– Star Trek, perhaps because it commits so unabashedly to optimism in the face of total insanity, is the only franchise I can think of that could get away with The Voyage Home, a movie about zapping whales into the future so they can try to communicate with an angry space log (and get away with it they do, beautifully, masterfully); if Keanu Reeves made a movie like this he’d be laughed onto the surface of Mars
– Kirk thinks that 1986 marine biologist in Voyage Home is falling for him, but then he brings her to the 23rd Century and she’s like, “Whatever, I’m a strong independent woman getting on her own spaceship, I’m not even going to kiss you on the lips!” You go, girl, you put that walking cologne ad in his place
– hard to believe over the course of five movies we only see a tribble once, and just for a few seconds (in a bar, no less, getting something to drink?)
– hard to believe over the course of five movies we never see Gorn (but we do see a cat lady with three tits, predating Total Recall’s tri-breaster)
– hard to believe in the fifth movie Uhura distracts those weird marauder dudes with a sexy fan dance (not gonna lie, I was into it)
– Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is pretty sloppy, almost on a made-for-tv level; major bummer since this is the one that wants to play with the high concept of literally meeting God; you want to lay blame with rookie director William Shatner, but apparently his editor refused to take notes; to this day, Shat hasn’t been able to convince Paramount to release a director’s cut (c’mon, Paramount, think about the money this guy’s raked in for you screaming at Klingons and beaming up whales)
– if nothing else, Final Frontier will convince you William Shatner knows how to free climb a mountain and that Uhura wants to break off a piece of Scotty (there’s a sex scene our planet deserves)
– rumor has it Walter Koenig wrote a draft for either Star Trek V or VI where everyone on the Enterprise fails their military physical except for Spock and through some bizarre chain of events everyone dies except for Spock and McCoy; not sure who rejected this idea but they need to be jailed
– according to Shatner, on his death bed in 1999 DeForest Kelley pleaded with him, “Let’s do just one more Star Trek! I miss making those movies!”; didn’t think anything from this realm could tug at my heart harder than (SPOILER ALERT) Spock’s death and resurrection, but here we are
– Sulu does absolutely no shirtless fencing in these movies; what a crock
According to me, some guy.
Only the grit-streaked bark of ’87 Axl could sell lyrical bits like “space brain” and “west coast struttin'” and “rattlesnake suitcase.” This song boogies like a career drunk taking his final sobriety test. Accurately conveys whatever we believe about the “the rock n’ roll lifestyle.” Also, there’s cowbell.
Frosty nihilism thaws into an earnest ballad. The nakedly emotive second half is just Wagnerian enough to retain the dark thrust of the first. Features a slide guitar break so good it distracts you from competing sex noises. Who needs the Meatloafery of “November Rain” when “Rocket Queen?” exists?
Best exemplifies the Guns N’ Roses mission statement of “we are Aerosmith by way of the Dead Boys.” Also includes the more literal mantra: “come with me, don’t ask me where ’cause I don’t know.” If we’re to believe Appetite For Destruction killed hair metal this was the fatal stab.
The band’s star turn, wherein they drag sugary pop harmony through a greasy, rust-laden junkyard. Even the dubious moves work. “Jungle” is the “Search & Destroy” of whatever genre GNR were claiming. They sort of invented their own here. Chainsaw glam? Dive bar punk?
The best “message” song in the Guns catalog. Too bad civil war is exactly what tore this band apart (which makes Slash’s Snakepit the Reconstruction Era). Too bad this illustrative and anthemic display is forever in the shadows of the Use Your Illusion video trilogy MTV rammed down our dry throats.
Sincerity cloaked in gloom. Walks right up to the border of overblown ballad and flips the bird. It’s not hard to imagine Nirvana performing this one, which is why it managed to slip through the apex of grunge unscathed. Slash’s slow-burn solo is one of his absolute best.
Keeps you on the edge of your seat for six goddamn minutes. The most cinematic of GNR rockers; no wonder it ended up in Terminator 2. Closes with that fantastic breathless Axl rant, which includes one of my favorite non sequiturs—“don’t forget to call my lawyer with ridiculous demands!”
If a bar fight were a song…you can almost feel the pool chalk being shoved up your nose. The bass line sounds how I imagine cocaine tastes. So full of piss, vinegar, and acid it’s hard to believe they didn’t bang it out they night the band formed. Maybe they did?
Could be a parody of the Appetite aesthetic, could be a pure adrenalin shot. Either way, I’ll take it every time, if just to burn off paranoia/nervous energy. The sound effects almost turn the whole thing into a “Far Side” cartoon. That’s not a complaint.
More an experiment than a song, like a free form poem with chunks of heavy metal improv (and, of course, on-the-nose hospital reenactments). Maybe that makes “Coma” the precursor to the Lou Reed/Metallica album. I’m not even sure it works, but man do they commit. Boredom never arrives.
– a couple weeks ago I wrote this story for Orlando Weekly about a funky old mansion in the area; can’t tell you if it’s haunted but I know for sure it does not have air conditioning or a helipad (or a Starbucks)
– last week I was a guest on the the inaugural ep of “Newbridge Nights,” an unsanctioned wrap-up program for Tom Scharpling’s “Best Show”; believe it or not I spend most of my time talking about Glenn Danzig and his music
When it comes to anti-evangelist hardcore punk songs of the 1980s, “700 Club” by Koro would break my top five, possibly my top three. The 50 second blast opens the band’s 1983 self-titled E.P, winding up a playful chant of “No God!” into ruthless fury mocking Pat Robertson and his dedicated flock.
“Gonna pray for a Happy Meal
I won’t cheat, I won’t steal
Thank you, Pat! Thank you, Pat!”
“Amen, amen, we sing unto these hills
Suburban t.v. crazies strung out on diet pills
That’s you, Pat! That’s you, Pat!”
This E.P. sailed into my life years ago and proved satisfying enough that I never investigated anything else related to Koro (whose name is taken from an Asia-specific syndrome wherein people begin to believe their genitals will retract into their bodies and disappear). Boredom got to me last week and I began Googling. Turns out some mystery surrounds this Knoxville collective.
Word on these Internet streets is Koro sped up the tracks on Koro so they could appear to out-thrash their contemporaries. Individual band members have long dodged direct questions and the best evidence is heard on the interestingly titled Speed Kills, a demo collection released in ’06 by Sorry State Records. That album’s version of “700 Club” (a.k.a. “No God”) sure sounds a few paces behind what appears on the E.P.
Of course, the tune is still plenty fast in the back end. I wouldn’t be surprised we’re just hearing the difference between Koro recording something they’d only been playing for a few days verses Koro recording something they’d been playing for a few months. Or maybe they sped up the tape.
You never know. Plastic Bertrand insisted for decades he sang “Ça Plane Pour Moi”; then we found out he didn’t sing note one of it (or anything else on his first four albums). Anything is possible.
None of this prevents me from strongly recommending a purchase of (the appropriately speeded?) Speed Kills. The murky demo quality, the murky allegations—neither hinder Koro’s actual musical dynamics. Their material takes inventive turns and sounds to be fueled by authentic dissatisfaction.
Plus, who wouldn’t want a record that has the Sunsphere on the cover? Disinterest in the Sunsphere is suspect, always.