A digressive, highly personal and ridiculously self-indulgent account of ‘Weird Al’s’ Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour
When I was 11 years old in 1987, I was obsessed with the then-resurgent Monkees, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose In 3-D was one of the first albums I ever owned, and played a huge role in the formation of my nascent sense of humor. So when I saw that the Monkees and “Weird Al” Yankovic were touring together — and even better, coming to my city as part of that tour — it felt like a gift from God.
Al’s music also provided one of the most powerful bonds I share with my father, and a lot of that began on August 29, 1987, in Milwaukee’s spacious, outdoor Marcus Amphitheater. There, in a manner exactly like James Brown (whose “Living in America” Al parodied as “Living with a Hernia,” the first single from his flop album Polka Party!, which bombed despite its chart-friendly call-out of the various forms of hernia people can contract, such as Epigastric, Bladder, Strangulated, Lumbar, Richter’s, Obstructed, Inguinal and Direct), Al and his band blew away the Monkees through ferocious hunger, incredible dance moves and raw sexuality. I remember animatedly talking with my equally impressed father about how amazing it was that Al’s band could play seemingly any kind of music so proficiently, and how they didn’t just perform songs — they put on a goddamn show. To paraphrase Al’s own “Close But No Cigar,” the experience was so mind-blowing that it reconfigured my DNA. Afterwards, I was never the same.
It also set me on a career trajectory and a lifelong spiritual quest. That is, I grew up to be a music critic with an unusually intense relationship with live music. I had epiphanies, primarily false, at shows. I had breakdowns and breakthroughs at shows. I lost myself and found myself again at shows. I proposed to my wife just before a show. At a certain point, though, I stopped writing music reviews and started writing music books — 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me (about following around Insane Clown Posse and Phish), and improbably, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 2012 coffee table book, Weird Al: The Book (with, of course, Weird Al himself).
So when I saw that Al was going to be leaving the sets, costumes, video screens and hits behind to tour with a perpetually shifting set list of originals, with lots of deep cuts and covers on something called The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, I knew I owed it to my 11-year-old self to be there. Or better put, to be there for as much as life — primarily, my six-month pregnant wife and three-year-old son — would allow. And so, I decided I’d travel the country via Greyhound bus, taking in seven shows in Chicago; Milwaukee; Wabash, Indiana; Augusta Georgia; and lastly, in my new home of Atlanta, Georgia.
It was, like my hero’s own nationwide journey, a ridiculously self-indulgent, ill-advised decision, but also a highly personal and oddly necessary one — a calming exercise not grounded in nostalgia, but frankly, love and affection. Kinda like a Jersey kid making the pilgrimage to see Springsteen on Broadway every night for a month straight. Such is the role of Al as Rock God in my life. Plus, as with any good rock tour, shit was bound to get a little crazy — even if the drugs (and Faygo) weren’t likely to be at Phish or ICP kinda levels.
The Vic Theater, Chicago, Illinois (April 6 and 7, 2018)
It was cold, grey and miserable in Chicago when my leg of the tour began. And that was just my mood. The weather was even worse. It didn’t help that I’d spent the previous few days running errands for my now nursing-home-bound father, who viewed his home, which I helped him find, as a prison. He wasn’t necessarily wrong — it was perfectly acceptable as long as you could tune out the moans of ghostly voices howling for the sweet release of death.
Because my dad had brought me to my first Weird Al show, I wanted him to come with me to at least one of the Chicago dates. Unfortunately, though, he was too sick to do so, something that filled me with guilt, as did most things about my relationship with my father. That made kids at the shows with their parents a melancholy sight — my dad being too old, and my son being too young, to join me.
The grey cloud trailed me until I made it to the Vic, where an elfin, ancient, Kris Kringle-like Dr. Demento introduced opening act Emo Philips, who has aged into an unexpectedly professorial figure, albeit of the wacky variety. (Over time, I became a connoisseur of deviations within Phillips’ set; I noticed, for example, that Philips didn’t do either “I like the South. Of course I’m prejudiced,” or “What do you call those guys in uniform who want to reenact the Civil War? Georgia State troopers” in Augusta, Georgia, where they may have caused offense, but did both in Atlanta, where we’re more inclined to enjoy a laugh over the region’s horrific history of institutionalized racism.)
As for Al, after the requisite “Fun Zone” instrumental opener, he perched confidently on a stool, sensitive troubadour style, and introduced “a song about a twine ball” before launching into 1989’s “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.” The nearly seven-minute finale on the UHF soundtrack, the flop audio companion to Al’s sole cinematic vehicle, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” was the perfect song to open with because it is, in its own sublimely silly, tongue-in-cheek way, about the open road, geography, transcendence and all of the things that a tour are about — for fans and bands alike. It’s full of perfect, loving details, like the “potato skins and pickled wieners, crossword puzzles, Spider-Man comics and mama’s homemade rhubarb pie” the family brings with it for entertainment and nourishment as they set out on the titular tourist trap in feverish anticipation of finally realizing their ultimate tourist life goal.
More generally, there’s something unmistakably majestic underneath the goofball evocation of America as an endless series of tourist traps united by a national wanderlust and deep spiritual need to procure meaningless knick-knacks to remind us of the ridiculous sights we’ve been blessed to see.
It was, like the rest of the show, outstanding — a fact that I stammered exuberantly at Al after the show. (I was lucky enough to have after-show passes for all seven shows.) I was hoping my brain would follow up that brilliant observation with something more sophisticated, but instead, I just repeated, “That was great!” two or three times, with varying levels of volume and inflection and with an increasingly stupid-looking smile. Thankfully, Al deals with painfully awkward people in his line of work all the time (he’s something of a Nerd Whisperer) so he was very gracious, and we took a photo together that, in keeping with custom, immediately became my Facebook avatar.
The next morning I traveled to nearby Norridge for a packed in-store event celebrating Dr. Demento’s Covered in Punk tribute album. Pasty, well-fed Midwestern nerds, some accompanied by their children, gathered reverently around the good Doctor (the man who launched Al’s career) and peppered him with questions. In fact, more than once, a child would muster up the courage to ask, in a trembling little voice, a question along the lines of, “I think your music is great. Why is it so great?”
The ancient comedy music legend handled the non-questions with gentleness and grace. They are, after all, his people. The underlyingly quiet, serious scholar born Barret Eugene “Barry” Hansen has been living the role of radio personality Dr. Demento for nearly half a century, yet there remains something a little awkward and self-conscious about his bearing that only endears him further to his loyal listeners, for whom awkwardness and self-consciousness are a way of life. He doesn’t appear to age either, seemingly having spent the past 50 years being a white-haired, twinkly-eyed old man — a dressy Santa Claus following a crash diet.
While promoting his punk cover album, Demento discussed being the first DJ on the West Coast to play the Sex Pistols and the Ramones; bonding with a prickly Frank Zappa over their shared obsessions with 1950s street-corner doo-wop and avant-garde classical music; and that despite the looming threat of institutionalization that’s hounded Napoleon XIV (of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” mega-fame) for decades, the singer/songwriter is doing just fine — in fact, Demento had lunch with him recently.
For me at least, observing the 77-year-old Demento hold court drove home the transcendent silliness of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour (and its attendant side shows). Hearing Demento speak about the world and his own personal history in it was a way of denying the horrifying finality of the grave and the cruel joke that is our own mortality. It was about goofiness as a fuck you — to death, to aging, to deterioration.
The Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (April 9 and 10, 2018)
Next, it was off to my old hometown of Milwaukee, where I lived for about a decade as a kid. Everything about Milwaukee says, “Shouldn’t you be drinking?” Such as: The name of the city’s baseball team (the Brewers); its mascot (Bernie the Brewer); and the venue where Al would be playing two shows (the Pabst Theater). And if it’s not about beer, it’s about cheese: There’s fresh mozzarella. There’s colby. There’s brick. There’s cheese curds. And most importantly, there’s fried cheese curds. The grocery store by my hotel even had a cheese plate bar so that customers weren’t reduced to looking for apricots, almonds and Monterey Jack cubes in separate aisles like goddamn savages.
At the Pabst Theater (where there was beer, but no cheese), I sat next to a woman who had seen Al perform a total of 55 times. Throughout the concert, I could hear her audibly gasp in surprise and delight, like when Al teased a bluesy jam as a Grateful Dead cover before it quickly revealed itself to be the geek anthem “Dare to Be Stupid” performed in the style of Jerry Garcia and company.
Al’s hit parodies famously tend to focus on food, TV and movies. But Al’s originals (a la “Dare to Be Stupid”) are much more eclectic, and much more liable to center on mental illness, violent delusions, torture and murder, particularly the songs about relationships. These were the songs that dominated the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour. Throughout it, Al didn’t just play songs I never expected him to play in concert — he played songs he probably shouldn’t ever play in concert, particularly decades after their quiet introduction as deep, deep cuts. I’m talking deeply dated trifles like “She Never Told Me That She Was a Mime,” “Party at the Leper Colony,” “My Baby’s In Love with Eddie Vedder” and “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White.” That was part of their draw, though: They might never be performed in concert again — and for good reason.
It was also how a woman who had seen him perform 55 other times could still experience something genuinely new and exciting.
It’s what kept me motivated on the road, too. As with a Phish show, set lists from previous shows became a matter of supreme importance. I’d look at them from earlier shows with a combination of vicarious appreciation, naked jealousy and petty resentment. There were songs I was overjoyed to hear, but with that excitement and anticipation came an ugly jealousy and entitlement — an annoyance that, sure, Al and his band may have performed vigorous, meticulous versions of lots of songs I adore, but they’d ignored my other all-time favorites (e.g., “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV” and “Everything You Know is Wrong”).
So in the time-honored tradition of jerky superfans everywhere, I could always find something to complain about no matter how happy and satisfied I might otherwise be.
The Honeywell Center, Wabash, Indiana (April 12, 2018)
I didn’t have a problem getting around Chicago or Milwaukee, but as I approached the next tour stop in Wabash, Indiana, which Google said was only about 40 minutes away from a Greyhound stop in Marion, Indiana, I made a horrifying discovery: After being the sole confused traveler let off at the bus stop, I learned that Marion didn’t have any kind of public transportation. Or Uber. Or Lyft. Or a taxi service. I learned this the hard way when, in a mild state of panic, I ducked into a nearby hotel that was as huge as it was empty. The kind man behind the counter explained that they didn’t have a cab service so much as they had one guy who served as the city’s taxi fleet.
I called the guy, and he brusquely told me he was otherwise occupied. “Please sir! It’s very, very important! I desperately need to get to Wabash, so I can get to tonight’s ‘Weird Al’ show. I’m willing to pay you a large amount of money! I’m desperate! I’m very, very desperate!” I begged.
Silence followed. Then an opportunistic query: “How much is a large amount of money?”
It’s generally not a good thing when the price of a good or service is determined by human desperation, but alas, that’s the predicament I found myself in. “Eighty dollars?” I stammered. “One hundred dollars?”
After another dramatic pause, he responded, “I’ll be there in an hour — and I’ll need the $100 in advance.”
When we arrived in Wabash, it was more of the same. There were multiple artisanal dessert places, but not a single way for an outsider to either travel around or leave town without a car of their own. Essentially, it’s “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” in town form. (Al has played plenty of towns like Wabash through the years, tiny little hamlets destined to appreciate him in a way bigger cities don’t.) Before the show started, I perambulated through its almost microscopic downtown and encountered possibly the single most American thing in existence: Shrek playing on the monitors of a Family Video store. I was tempted to sit down with pickled wieners and a two-liter of Diet Chocolate Soda and watch the movie, but the trip to Wabash had taken a lot out of me, and cost a great deal, so I figured I might as well see the show.
And while I enjoyed it, I was still a little worried about never being able to leave Wabash. Thankfully, I was saved from a lifetime there by a combination of the internet and minor literary fame. I posted to a Facebook group of my fans about my unfortunate predicament, and the saintly father-in-law of one of my readers volunteered to drive me — a complete stranger — something like 50 miles from Wabash to Fort Wayne, which was a mere 29-hour bus journey to Augusta, Georgia, the next stop on mine/Al’s tour.
The Miller Theater, Augusta, Georgia (April 14, 2018)
For reasons I cannot begin to understand, an hour-long 2:30 a.m. stop in Nashville en route to Atlanta lasted 90 minutes, then two hours and then two-and-a-half hours, with seemingly no respite in sight. Most of us riders were too exhausted and/or asleep to raise much of a fuss, but a gentleman with a Harley-Davidson bandana wrapped around his balding head and a sweatpants/T-shirt ensemble considered it his duty as an American consumer to whip us into a frenzy.
He kept approaching all of us individually to ask why we weren’t angrier. When that attracted only blank stares, he switched tactics and approached a hippie-raver looking dude with a relatively understated neck tattoo and the tattooed man’s girlfriend. “Man, this is some straight up BULLSHIT,” he lectured. “What’s happening with this country to customer service — to doing your damn job? I swear to God, this country hasn’t been the same since Obama APOLOGIZED to Japan for World World II. He APOLOGIZED! Can you believe that? When they’re the damn ones that attacked us. It’s like, I could be mistaken, but I seem to remember them attacking Pearl Harbor, not us, and he’s over there bowing and scraping and saying sorry? Man, how crazy is that?”
Thankfully, at this point, I found a stale pot brownie in my backpack so I was able to see the funny side of being stranded in Nashville for two hours longer than I’d planned. Even more remarkably, I was able to eke out a few hours of sleep before pulling into Augusta (aka the hometown of the Godfather of Soul James Brown), a mere four hours before that night’s show.
It was there, deep into a set overflowing with wonderful obscurities (e.g., “Happy Birthday” and “I Was Only Kidding,” both of Al’s tributes to obscure New Wave genius Tonio K — Al stopped to tell the crowd, “A couple of years ago a book came out called Weird Al: The Book that was mostly written by a man who’s here and is actually working on a follow-up book to answer the many unanswered questions left by the first one. In fact, he’s here tonight. Nathan Rabin, will you stand up?” he asked.
Holy shit! That was me! I’m Nathan Rabin. The very same Nathan Rabin he was referring to! My brain exploded with joy.
He went on to say that he’d been inundated with offers to write his autobiography but that he turned them all down because he’d already written his life story in song form in “Albuquerque,” which he then performed. From that moment on, I felt like “Albuquerque” was my song. Hearing its opening bars will always instantly transport me to that ecstatic moment in Augusta, just a few hours from my adopted hometown of Atlanta, and the sense of elation I felt at being singled out by my hero in front of an adoring live audience. Also, like “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” it’s the song I’ll most strongly associate with the tour. It, too, is about travel and unlikely transcendence — along with sauerkraut, violent death, a dozen starved weasels, and goddamnit, America itself.
The Tabernacle, Atlanta, Georgia (April 15, 2018)
Throughout the tour, I longed for the sweet release of a pillow and bed almost as much as I did the excitement of the stage. I was so exhausted after myriad 16-hour-plus bus rides that I derived an almost sensual pleasure from being able to stop somewhere — anywhere — to sleep on something other than the back of a Greyhound seat. And particularly, I was dying to get back to sleep on my pillow and my bed with my wife and son. Needless to say then, I was excited to end my part of the tour in Atlanta, where Al and the band performed a blissful 15-minute cab ride from my home.
I hadn’t gone backstage since the second night in Chicago, but I made an exception for the final night of the tour, wanting to thank Al one last time. There, I met a Hispanic guy who had done lasers for Pitbull’s stage show. I asked him my usual litany of questions — namely, how many other Weird Al shows he had attended.
“This is my first,” he responded. “I just know the VIP guy. That’s why I’m here. My buddy didn’t even know who ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic was until yesterday.”
“Really? I find that hard to believe. ‘Weird Al’ is very famous,” I said, very whitely.
“Well, there’s no ‘Weird Al’ in the hood. There’s no ‘Weird Al’ of the ghetto. It’s a pretty white thing,” Pitbull’s laser guy insisted.
This both struck me as a little absurd (“Weird Al” is very famous) and made sense (following Al in the translucently white Midwest had really driven home what a Caucasian phenomenon “Weird Al” Yankovic is; not to mention, “White and Nerdy” is the title of one of Al’s most popular songs).
Still, I can say with full confidence that he connects generations. Case in point: Before I headed backstage, I ran into Aqua Teen Hunger Force co-creator Dave Willis, who was there with his 11-year-old son. It was the younger Willis’ first show, just as my first show had been “Weird Al” Yankovic, too — at the exact same age no less. It warmed my heart to see the great geek circle-of-life continue with this curious benediction. I especially couldn’t shake that thought when I finally got home later that night and spotted Declan, my son, for the first time after nearly two grueling weeks on the road (and away from him). My dad helped introduce me to “Weird Al” at the perfect age, so I owe it to Declan to continue the joyful tradition of such transcendent silliness.
What kind of father would I be otherwise?