Day Twelve: "I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead" from "Weird Al" Yankovic
“Weird Al” Yankovic was only twenty-three when he released a debut LP that easily could have been the beginning, end and entirety of his recording career rather than an opening salvo in a life and career that went farther than anyone could have imagined. After all, making parodies of pop songs was not something based careers around. It was something goofy morning radio DJ did to amuse themselves and listeners. It was the domain of flash-in-the-pan novelty acts lucky to have one song that penetrates the public consciousness or the energetic oddballs who flocked to the Dr. Demento Show as super-fans, participants and Funny Five competitors.
By the time Yankovic made the big leap to long playing records it was nearly the mid 1980s but Yankovic’s sensibility had been honed in the Southern Los Angeles of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the satirical novels and movies and albums of the time convey, it was an era of both consciousness-expanding and intense generational narcissism as the focus shifted from external matters like politics and civil rights to an internal obsession with purging the human soul and spirit of imperfections.
Spiritual and quasi-spiritual hustles like Scientology and EST flourished as spiritual seekers sought out new and revolutionary and paradigm-shattering ways of living and leading but mostly just succeeded in being self-absorbed, pretentious and insufferable. Al’s “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” takes dead aim at what the narrator sneeringly dubs “cosmic cowboys” whose new age beliefs have replaced the dogma of old with something far stupider and more self-absorbed.
The song is a veritable catalog of 1970s and 1980s New Age cliches. In rapid succession, it glibly rejects karma, hipness, jacuzzis and red-wood hot tubs (clearly, we’re dealing with a bar-of-soap and bath-or-shower man), incense, jogging, Joni Mitchell (no! What did poor Joni ever do to incur your wrath other than embody every stereotype of beatific Southern California space cadets?), organic food and health food, Perrier, sushi, vegetarianism, designer jeans, astrology, psychology and casualness. I think that’s the full extent of it. In that respect, “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” is like “We Didn’t Start The Fire” with popular late 1970s/early 1980s pet peeves replacing Billy Joel’s machine-gun catalog of cultural milestones over the past three years.
When I was a younger writer I threw around the word “dated” a lot as a pejorative because I had young writer’s inherent, unmotivated distrust of things that were not clearly made for you and your generation. Now much of what fascinates me about the older art I almost invariably prefer to new stuff is how thoroughly something embodies the tenor of the times that created it.
In that respect, what I find most interesting about “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” is how unabashedly, shamelessly 1980s it is. It might just be the single most 1980s song Al ever recorded, even if the slightly dusty lifestyle satire found in the song reflects a lot of the easy comic subjects of the late 1970s as well.
As I wrote in Weird Al: The Book, Al’s self-titled debut is the rawest and most punk album of his career. Taking a few pages from the punk playbook, it’s an album that makes up in energy and attitude what it lacks in polish. This is particularly true of “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” which is a far cry from punk musically but delivered with an almost snotty sense of anger, sarcasm and defiance. As befits a song about a man shaking an angry fist at a world that wants him to mellow out, take a chill pill and maybe try a little transcendental meditation, you can damn near hear Al work up a righteous sweat as he tries to sell overly familiar material through willpower alone.
“I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” is fascinating partially because it’s such a product of the Reagan era but it’s also interesting to me for the ways it feels off-model. At this point, “Weird Al” is nearly as well known for being one of pop culture’s most high-profile vegetarians as he is for making 70 percent of his early songs about food. So it’s a little jarring to hear the singer of “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” boast that he’d rather devour a mass of dead, fried cow flesh like a Big Mac or a Jumbo Jack from Jack In The Box while also condemning vegetarianism as just another self-absorbed New Age fad that couldn’t end quickly enough.
“Weird Al” Yankovic is off-model from Al’s other albums in other ways as well. It’s the only full length album he’s released that does not have a polka parody on it, and of the twelve songs, only five are parodies. Of the seven originals, only one is a pastiche/homage. Yankovic figured out exactly who he was and what he wanted his career to look and feel like early on, yet on “Weird Al” Yankovic and songs like “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” he was still very much a work in progress, albeit one with a sense of focus and drive that borders on preternatural.
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