Day Eight: "I Love Rocky Road" from "Weird Al" Yankovic
From the beginning of his career, “Weird Al” had a disc jockey or A&R man’s uncanny feel for identifying songs that weren’t just big hits, but ubiquitous, unmissable classics in the making that can be identified from the first twenty seconds or so. Of course, Al wasn’t taking a chance on random pop songs: he was spoofing songs whose commercial bona fides had already been proven via chart success and record sales.
Yankovic’s parodies were unusually, unexpectedly successful in part because he was building his life’s work on the sturdy foundation of what was already successful. If you look at the first songs Yankovic parodied (The Knack’s “My Sharona” Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”, Toni Basil’s “Mickey”, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock And Roll”) for official releases they’re not just hit songs: they’re anthems, future oldies-station staples, pop singles that are damn near perfect, and that we will never stop listening to, no matter how old these songs become.
When Runaways alumnus Jett first recorded “I Love Rock And Roll”, it was with two alumnus of an even more famous punk band: Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. She had more success re-recording it with her band the Blackhearts but if the song has an unexpected punk pedigree, “Weird Al” takes it into a wholesome direction.
The comic conceit of “I Love Rocky Road” is similar to that of “My Bologna.” In both instances, Yankovic has replaced the raw, rebellious, aggressively sexual energy of the original with an obsessive fixation on food. As in “My Bologna”, Yankovic depicts over-eating taken to pathological, even psychotic extremes, as an unusually pure expression of the American compulsion to consume and consume and consume to the point where it stops being pleasurable and becomes punishing and perverse.
The demented over-eater of “My Bologna” eats until they throw up, and then begin the process all over again. The narrator of “I Love Rocky Road” monomaniacally revolves around dessert consumption. Also like “My Bologna”, “I Love Rocky Road” uses the language of addiction, as when the protagonist humblebrags, “They tell me ice cream junkies are all the same/All the soda jerkers know my name/When their supply is gone/Then I'll be movin' on.”
On “I Love Rocky Road” the accordion continues to be a big part of the joke. There’s a world of difference between androgynous, effortlessly sexy and inveterately badass Joan Jett swaggering around with a phallic electric guitar that somehow makes her seem even cooler and a mustachioed, bespectacled geek with a wild mop of curly hair working up a sweat trying to tame the wild beast that is his accordion. “Oh, make it talk!” Yankovic screams midway through an accordion solo in a pitch-perfect parody of electric-guitar-solo worship.
The music video for “I Love Rocky Road”, even more so than “Ricky”, is an adorably homemade endeavor with almost a home movie feel. The song is full of references to Yankovic’s earlier work, including a I Love Lucy pin paying homage to “Ricky” and appearances from Dr. Demento and "Musical" Mike Kieffer.
Who is "Musical" Mike Kieffer, you ask, other than someone we'll be reading a lot about in the weeks ahead? Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that you don’t already know. I thought you were a serious “Weird Al” fan, not one of those fly-by-night fans who maybe know “Fat.” Kieffer was an earnest young gentleman with an unusual specialty, or at least a specialty unusual outside of middle-school circles.
Kieffer, you see, had a magical gift: using only his hands and a craftsman’s obsessive devotion to his art, Kieffer could make flatulent noises that have a vaguely percussive feel about them. In his early days, Yankovic, would go on to win multiple Grammys and will soon be in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame if there's any justice in this world, felt that the percussive fart noises Kieffer specialized in added a certain je ne sais quoi that added immeasurably to the grand gestalt of his insouciant oeuvre.
I can only imagine what a bittersweet moment it must have been when Yankovic realized that, in order to realize his creative destiny as both an artist and a man, he no longer needed faux-flatulence to make people chuckle. Pfeiffer was one of a number of elements that would be discarded in the years, decades and albums to come. Yankovic would never stop playing the accordion, of course, but after his debut it stopped being a central instrument for anything other than polka medleys.
On “Weird Al” Yankovic, the young pop parodist and inveterate student of life discovered how much he didn’t need to make music. He began a long, involved process of gradually and incrementally ridding himself of the gimmicks and crutches he was attracted to as a young artist unsure if there was a place in pop music for an artist as singular as him.
“I Love Rocky Road” was one of Al’s earliest singles but more importantly it was also one of his first music videos. This was another instance of the stars aligning perfectly for “Weird Al” and making his crazy miracle of a career possible. MTV, you see, was already an important cultural force with an unusual connection to the wishes and needs of young people.
Yankovic was a young person himself. More importantly, he was full of energy and ideas and a ferocious hunger to make something of himself in the silliest possible field. It wasn’t just Yankovic’s music videos that they wanted, although, praise be to Allah, they sure wanted those as well. No, it was Al in his entirety that MTV adored.
Watching the “I Love Rocky Road” video it’s easy to why the influential cable channel was so besotted with Al. In “I Love Rocky Road”, Jett swaggers sullenly for a bar overjoyed that Jett both epitomizes rock and roll in its purest form, and brings the rock with her everywhere she goes, as a glam rock evangelist.
Where Jett is understated and cool, Yankovic is wild-eyed and manic, damn near hollering his obsession with chocolate-based, marshmallow-loaded frozen dessert treats from the mountains. When “I Love Rocky Road” hit the pop charts, he was already returning to what you would imagine would be the very limited world of food and over-eating-based musical comedy. Astonishingly, he’d only just begun. To a world that might take Yankovic to task for making too many songs about food, Yankovic had a rejoinder as sassy as it was prescient. To these doubters, Al simply sneered and told a skeptical world, “Eat it!”
And that they did. They ate it up, but good.