Day Thirty-Six: "Living With A Hernia" from Polka Party!
Well, folks, with “Living With A Hernia” and Polka Party! we officially move from the “mid-1980s renaissance” period of Al’s career onto the “bleak professional nadir” phase. And I gotta admit, kiddies, things get a little ugly here.
For Al during these bleak days, it was strictly the penthouse or the gutter. He’d begin each day in a penthouse and, through a series of bad decisions, many related to his peyote addiction, sink down to the gutter, only to return to the penthouse the following morning. Things got so bad, and Al got so confused, that he insisted that his penthouse be redone to look and feel like a gutter, and had the gutter remade to look and feel like his penthouse.
Then there were the many days Al woke up in his own sick, in bed next to a stranger in a one-horse town he didn’t recognize. These were the dark days, when a show wasn’t complete unless Al had fist fought at least one of the angry, speed-addled young punks who came to his concerts looking for trouble, fights, and cheap thrills.
Nah, that was pretty much every other rock musician’s bleak nadir. Al’s bleak nadir wasn’t particularly bleak, nor was it much of a nadir. Al has certainly had his ups and downs, but as evidenced by 1986’s Polka Party!, his first real flop, his lows aren’t very low while his highs are very high
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the lead-off parody on Al’s first four albums. “Ricky” from “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Eat It” from In 3-D and “Like A Surgeon” from Dare To Be Stupid established the tone for the rest of the album and gave the unlikely hit-maker a hit single and video riffing on one of the biggest and most iconic hits of the era.
“Living With A Hernia” was supposed to do the same and while Al filmed a nifty video parodying Brown’s video the public simply wasn’t ready for another surgery-themed spoof so soon after “Like A Surgeon”, nor were they necessarily prepared for another parody of a Rocky theme song after “Theme From Rocky VIII (The Rye or The Kaiser).” And that’s too bad, because “Living With A Hernia” is weird and wonderful and almost punk rock in its sneering disregard for the demands of the market.
James Brown’s music is very visceral and physical. The great ones often make it seem effortless, but exuding a tremendous amount of effort was central to James Brown’s aesthetic. He was the hardest-working man in show-business, and you always saw him sweat. Beyond that, there was something intensely physical about his delivery that worked in tandem with the sweaty intensity of his dancing.
Part of that physicality lie in Brown’s aggressive, in-your-facesexuality. Those grunts and groans and sub-verbal exhortations sure sounded sexual but they also spoke to how hard he worked, and how hard he pushed himself in everything that he did.
So part of the joke in “Living With A Hernia” lies in replacing the grunting, visceral delivery of a dancing sex machine who is grunting and groaning and shouting because he feels good, and sexual (the two tend to go hand in hand in funk) with the grunting and groaning and shouting of a quintessential egghead like Al, who is physical because he’s suffering from the painful titular medical condition. This affords Al an opportunity to return to the tried-and-true “doctor joke” well that served him so well in “Like A Surgeon.”
“Living With A Hernia” is one of Al’s most underrated singles. That’s partially because it manages to once again make surgery funny but also because it is so weird and specific and perversely non-commercial. Al is the pop star of the 1980s most likely to wear out his library card checking out books relevant to whatever song he was researching. Actually, Al is the only pop star of the 1980s likely to wear out his library card researching the subject matter of his latest song.
Some of Al’s songs are consequently more educational than others. Part of the mad genius of “Living With A Hernia” lies in the way that it’s educational and entertaining in equal measure. Al did his homework here and “Living In Hernia” is consequently the only pop single to feature a fun call-and-response section where the singer helpfully delineates between the various forms of hernias.
For those keeping score at home, types of hernia include: Incomplete, Epigastric, Bladder, Strangulated, Lumbar hernia, Richter's hernia, Obstructed, Inguinal and Direct. I love that something in Al’s genius geek brain told him that a rundown of painful medical procedures, using phrases like “Epigastric” had a place in a pop song. That may have been the problem: Al threw so many SAT and college words at listeners that they worried they would be quizzed at the end of the song, and didn’t want to get into trouble for not remembering that Lumbar and Richter’s are both forms of hernias.
For a song about a man all too in touch with his body, and particularly his body’s problems, the singer has a wonderfully wordy, academic, egghead way of viewing the world, and the vocabulary to match. Who other than Al was going to use words like “ruination” and phrases like “Got a bulge in my intestinal wall!” on a song whose audience is partially children?
“Living With A Hernia” subsequently has the ultimate adult subject matter. I was ten years old when it came out and while my father had already had the first of two hernias (if something is bad, the universe gives my dad a double dose), even I found the subject matter a little obscure and inaccessible. Then I had a hernia myself many decades later. You can probably guess what song kept running through my head the entire time. Let’s just say I was hurting bad, in a tender location.
“Living With A Hernia” is partially a meditation on James Brown, and since it chronicles a man laid low by an unfortunate bulge in his intestinal wall, it can only really end one way, with Al closing out the song with the perfect, inevitable dad joke of “I feel bad!”
Polka Party’s reviews and sales sure didn’t make Al or his label feel good. “Living With A Hernia is indeed a perversely, ingratiatingly non-commercial choice for a big kick-off single (and it’s about as commercial as the album gets) but despite its failure to go Gold or match the success of Al’s previous efforts, it’s a funky, kooky delight on an album that’s weirder and more fun than it is generally given credit for being.
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