The Weird Accordion To Al: Day One "My Bologna"
About six years ago I received a direct message on Twitter from my childhood hero and early role model “Weird Al” Yankovic that changed my life. He wrote that of all the writers in the world, he had chosen me to tell his story and write his book. After making sure that it was not some manner of hoax, my future wife and I jumped up and down and squealed with delight. Have you ever genuinely squealed with delight? I mean, really, really squealed, with whole-soul, whole-body, utterly non-ironic delight? It feels pretty great. It also feels pretty great when someone you grew up idolizing wants to become your collaborator. It’s one of the only natural highs that didn’t completely suck.
The problem was that I was already contracted to write a book at that time, a detached sociological tome about the surprising commonalities between fans of Phish and Insane Clown Posse, and that project was going terribly. I had spent a year and tens of thousands of dollars chasing this crazy project aboard the Kid Rock Chillin’ the Most and Jam Cruises, through the parking lots of dozens of Phish shows and my first Gathering of the Juggalos, yet I somehow felt farther away from finishing the book than when I first began.
And now this offer came along. I couldn’t believe it. I kept pinching myself. “Weird Al” wanted meto write his book. Nathan from the group home. Nathan the fuck up. Nathan the man whose personal idiosyncrasies and appalling grammar appeared to be a source of quiet horror to everyone cursed to work alongside him. Nathan the guy whose first book flopped, and also whose second book flopped and whose third book was a giant question mark (to the point where it actually ended up being his fourth book). That was the guy this consummate winner wanted to write his book.
Part of me wanted to demur and explain that everything I touched failed, but the ferocious ambition a childhood of perpetual suffering had blessed and cursed me with made this an offer I could not refuse. I was a geek. What geek could possibly say no to “Weird Al?” I also happened to be the head writer of The A.V. Club at the time, so I had to ask my boss if I could write this book. I assured him that I would not let the fact that I was writing two books simultaneously, bothrequiring a fair amount of travel, something that historically has driven me a little mad, no pun intended, knowing deep down that there was no possible way I could live up to that pledge. I had taken on too much, and I would suffer the consequences of my overreaching, but I was also unbelievably blessed to live out my childhood dreams as an adult hurtling towards a nervous breakdown.
When I was a teenager obsessed with Brit-Pop, I dreamed of being the guy who got to hang around with Blur or Elastica or Oasis as they drank excessively and said wonderfully obnoxious pop-star things. Instead, I got to be a man who got to drink in moderation around “Weird Al”, his manager Jay Levy and his drummer/webmaster/archivist/all-around right hand man Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz. That suited my temperament and disposition just a little bit better.
As part of the gig, I was now professionally obligated to not just listen to “Weird Al” but listen to all of his music. To listen to every single song the man ever wrote and performed and released commercially. I’m not sure any professional obligation ever thrilled a man the way the universe’s angry insistence that I listen to all of “Weird Al”’s music thrilled me.
It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that being professionally required to listen obsessively to the music of “Weird Al” helped me retain what was left of my sanity when I was deeply depressed and wrestling with major anxiety. At a time when I was feeling rootless and alienated, overwhelmed and alone, these songs felt like home.
So now that Yankovic is releasing a career-spanning 15-disc box set I figured it would be the perfect time to revisit Yankovic’s work, this time on a song-by-song basis that will devote a post a day to chronicling the man’s life work in chronological order, beginning in the waning moments of the 1970s and the last days of disco on through the present.
Now at this point you might be saying, “Gee, Nathan, it sounds like you’re just trying to escape the inexorable horror of the awful present by disappearing into an idealized past while simultaneously trying to recapture earlier professional triumphs.” to which I can only say, “Yes. And?”
When I was in my pre-manic stage I could not listen to Phish or Insane Clown Posse because every note was a screeching reminder of how far I had fallen behind and how achingly, impossibly far the end still seemed. You’d imagine a similar dynamic might be at play with “Weird Al” but the opposite was true. Listening to Al’s entire discography, given to me by his manager, was a tremendous source of comfort at an uncertain time.
Al’s music soothed me. It comforted me. It amused and diverted me when I needed amusement and diversion most. I think Al’s music plays that role in a lot of people’s lives. It connects them, on an almost Proustian level, to the overwhelming emotions of their childhood, when music seemed like a form of magic and performers of Al’s caliber like magicians. Al’s music is nitro for theburning-hot engine of our memory and our imagination.
I just happened to have an unusually intense relationship with Al’s music. Ironically, when one of the things that stressed me out most was whether or not I’d be able to write the book Al had hired me to write, listening to his music was one of the things I found most relaxing. Being a “Weird Al” fan helped me deal with the stress of working for my childhood idol and trying desperately not to disappoint him.
Besides, Al’s story made sense in a way that my own did not. It had a clean, clear arc. It was the tale of a geek triumphant. I just had to tell the tale boldly and cleanly and in a way that did justice to Al’s incredible accomplishments.
It was a story with clear milestones, beginning with the fateful day a young Yankovic hooked up with a wily young drummer the world would come to know as Jon “Bermuda” Schwarz and they collaborated on a parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” entitled “Another One Rides the Bus.” If the day The Big Bopper, Richie Valens and the nerd with the glasses perished was the Day The Music Died then I think it’s only fair to dub the day “Another One Rides The Bus” was recorded The Day The Music Was Born. What’s that? You’re so insulted by that characterization that you’re cancelling your thousand dollar a month Patreon pledge? No! Come back sir! I now willingly concede that that may potentially be a little hyperbolic. But just a smidgen.
Actually, Al’s story begins before the Day The Music Was Born. During the months I spent joyously, neurotically researching Al’s life and career I at one point had the incredible honor of holding in my hands, during one of several incredibly fruitful visits to the garage of Schwartz that doubles as a museum of all thing Al, the very first letter Dr. Demento sent a young, mentor-hungry Yankovic.
This was another of those natural highs that don’t suck. I wanted to call my girlfriend and tearfully explain to her the significance of what I held in my hand, and how it moved me nearly to tears, but I’m pretty sure her response would have been, “I don’t know who Dr. Demento is or why his mail would be important to you.”
My wife has many wonderful qualities, such as being brilliant and a great mother, so I am reluctantly willing to forgive her lack of knowledge, and interest really, in the world of people like Stan Freberg and Dr. Demento and Tom Lehrer and the men, really who created the world Yankovic grew up, pop-culture-wise.
Yankovic spent many of the happiest hours of his teen years as part of the coterie of kooks who gravitated around Dr. Demento’s eponymous shows. These were characters out of vaudeville, sometimes literally, in the case of Benny Bell of “Shaving Cream” fame but Yankovic felt at home among the misfits. He was a young man with a very old sense of humor and a real cultural affinity for Borsht Belt Jewish Catskills-style humor. Like old Jews, and also Jews of all ages, the young Yankovic was obsessed with food, and deeply enamored of its comic possibilities, in part because Yankovic understood and exploited, like no other artists, how funny so many words related to food are. Spam, salami; you almost don’t need jokes. These words are funny in and of themselves.
This is certainly true of Yankovic’s first released single, “My Bologna”, which was released by Capitol Records (the folks who put out bands such as, I dunno The Beatles) not long after Yankovic had turned twenty on Christmas Day, 1979. Hell, the comic possibilities posed by the word “Bologna” had already been proven by the world-famous Oscar Meyer jingle, that sadistic ear worm that tricked children into not only wanting this sub-par meat product, but knowing how to spell it as well.
Like so much of Yankovic’s early music, “My Bologna” is a tale of obsession and devotion, only with food standing in for romance and sex. “My Sharona” isn’t just an extremely sexual song, it’s sexual in kind of gross, jailbait, “Gosh, maybe people should stop releasing songs about the hotness of the underage” way.
It doesn’t just have creepily suggestive, sexual lyrics. On a sonic level, the song just plain sounds sleazy. According to pop culture lore, Quentin Tarantino originally wanted “My Sharona” to accompany the basement-sodomy scene in Pulp Fiction but felt the song was “owned” by the convenience store singalong in Reality Bites, which shared a producer in Danny DeVito. Tarantino could have set himself apart by using “Bologna” for the Gimp scene in Pulp Fiction but for some reason did not and we were robbed the opportunity to hear Yankovic’s agitated complaining accompany one of the most infamous sequences in 1990s film.
The “Weird Al” of “My Bologna” and his self-titled debut album was younger, crazier and rawer than the version that would win America’s hearts and become an essential component of the past half century of American pop culture. To put it in The Simpsons terms, it’s the difference between the Klasky-Csupo years and the Film Roman Era, when everything is smoother, rounder and more pleasing and palatable.
Sure enough, the Al of “My Bologna” is at once immediately recognizable as the preeminent jester of the pop music world and to once again use animation metaphors, a little off-model. For starters, the hungry young pop parodist was accompanied only by himself on accordion. As Al’s career progressed, he leaned on the novelty of performing rock music on an accordion but in this rough, embryonic stage much of the humor and novelty of the song comes from one weird dude barely out of his teens recreating the anxious, manic nerviness of “My Sharona” using a single instrument seldom associated with rock music.
Lyrically, the song is equally spare and straightforward. Although the lyrics open with a reference to “my little hungry one” the rest of the song deals with the narrator’s compulsive desire to consume mass quantities of overly processed lunch meat. The lyrics are comically obsessive, and obsessively comic, in breaking down every step in the bologna-sandwich-consumption process, from the making of toast (a place where many neophytes to the bologna-sandwich-making process fail, and consequently lose all interest in further sandwich-making altogether), to the careful application of mustard on that toast, to staving off disaster by ensuring that the bologna never runs out.
On one level, the song is fairly simple. On another, it’s one of Al’s most nakedly satirical. Yankovic adopted mindless consumption as one of his earliest and most fruitful themes. In his angry-nerd world, the joys of consumerism replace the sensual pleasure of sex and romance, and a lot of his early songs are about both consumerism and consumption.
In “My Bologna” the urge to consume isn’t just unhealthy. It is downright pathological. The narrator doesn’t just love to eat bologna. As he manically insists, “Such a tasty snack I always eat too much, then throw up, but I’ll soon be back.” This is no mere bologna aficionado we’re dealing with here. No, we are dealing with someone who overeats to such an extent that they throw up, then begin the process again.
Now I think it is safe to say that “My Bologna” is not a message song about the dangers of bulimia but it finds in the need to consume until you purge a potent and savage metaphor for the way consumer culture encourages us to consume to unhealthy, even dangerous levels. Though “My Bologna” is pretty primitive, rudimentary stuff in a lot of ways, the musical equivalent of a high school yearbook photo, revealing and embarrassing at the same time, a lot of the hallmarks of Yankovic’s aesthetic are already in evidence.
Hyper-competitiveness and excess are at the core of much of Yankovic’s lyrics. Think of the man with a TV so big it blots out the sun in “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV.” In “My Bologna” the narrator claims the dubious distinction of being “the city's biggest bologna buyer” before vowing to go to the “shopping aisles” to buy some “Oscar Meyer.”
It is not a coincidence that Yankovic’s bologna in the song has a first name, and that said first name is O-S-C-A-R, nor that it also has a second name, and that second name is “M-E-Y-E-R.” Yankovic is referencing the processed lunch meat brand conquered the airwaves with a legendarily catchy jingle that began, accordingly enough, “My bologna.” From the very beginning, TV and commercials and advertisements and the pleasures and aggravations of consumer culture were at the core of Al's music.
It’s not easy for a mustachioed, bespectacled geek with an accordion and a big brain full of often food-themed parody lyrics to convince rock label that he’s a viable commercial entity. So it helps, I imagine, if the song he’s peddling advertises a consumer product and sounds more than a little like a commercial itself.
Despite being released by a monolith like Capitol, the single version of “My Bologna” sounds charmingly homemade, closer to a raw little demo than polished studio project. It was an inauspicious but exceedingly likable beginning to an auspicious career.