Day One hundred and sixty-six: "Take Me Down" from Medium Rarities
Welcome back to The Weird Accordion to Al, the little Column That Could. When we last convened this was still a modestly read feature on a cult website. Since then it has become an almost suspiciously successful Kickstarter winner that as of this writing has been something like 591 percent funded, to the tune of nearly twelve thousand dollars with two weeks left to go.
That’s primarily a testament to the powerful connection between Al and his fans, to the love and reverence they have for him and his work. But I hope it also has something to do with this column and the books I’ve written and your connection to me as a writer and human being.
Thank you for supporting the Weird Accordion to Al in both its online and Kickstarter form. It means the world to me. The unexpected explosion of interest in this very weird, very niche project has been incredibly validating, and it’s exciting to be able to move, with this entry, from Al’s studio output to his first official compilation of oddities and non-album tracks, 2017’s Grammy-winning Medium Rarities, which is only available with the Squeeze Box 15-disc career-spanning box set.
We’re at an end in that we’ve covered all of Al’s studio albums in perhaps excessive detail. But we’re also at a beginning, as the chronological Medium Rarities begins with 1978’s “Take Me Down”, the first song of Al’s career ever to appear on vinyl. “Take Me Down” appeared on Slo Grown a charity compilation of songs from artists around the San Luis Obispo area, or SLO Town, as it is colloquially known all over the album and in Al’s contribution, “Take Me Down.”
“Take Me Down” also marks the first ever appearance of a curious cowpoke known as “Country Al” Yankovic. Al’s accordion has a high lonesome quality to it unique to this very early track, a sort of alternate-universe glimpse of a fascinatingly unformed Al as a teenaged collegiate wisenheimer paying ironic tribute to the area where he went to college in a song that’s funny and irreverent without necessarily being a comedy song.
“Take Me Down” sounds like the faux-earnest product of someone who performs in coffeehouses, as Al did with bongo player Joel Miller, who performs on the song with Al along with guitarist and bassist Jon Iverson and Tom Walters, who contributes mandolin. This gives the song a strikingly different texture than Al’s other early work, which would be characterized more by percussive flatulent noises than bluegrass instrumentation.
Al’s voice similarly sounds markedly different than it ever would again on wax. It sounds fascinatingly unfinished, without the nasal edge of angry nerd aggression that would distinguish his first few albums.
There are lyrical turns of phrase here about time shifting into neutral and wanting to go a place where “sentimental feelings arouse” you’d expect from a Greenwich Village folkie but also literal toilet humor and poop jokes executed with a sly intelligence that belies their scatological nature. Even at the inception of his career, Al combined the highbrow and the lowbrow. Al has always been adept at singing about dumb stuff in a smart way.
When Al suggests that tourists take a gander at “the toilets at Madonna Inn” among other attractions of questionable taste like Bubblegum Alley and the local car rally he’s referencing an actual low-level tourist attraction, a fake waterfall that is apparently a favorite of women and men alike.
It’s not the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, or the Hearst Castle, a nearby landmark name-checked in “Take Me Down”, but as tourist traps go it’s got a certain kitschy allure, as do the rest of the tacky delights advertised here with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Even the cow poop joke in “Take Me Down” has a gentlemanly, even lyrical quality to it as fetal Al pays sarcastic tribute to a place “Where the grass is so green/And the air is so clean/That when the wind is right you can even smell the cows.”
Musically, “Take Me Down” sounds like nothing Al would subsequently put out. It’s a fascinating one-off, an anomaly, a catchy lost and found ditty that is unmistakably Al yet bears few of the lyrical or musical trademarks of his later work.
The proto-“Weird Al” Yankovic of “Take Me Down” isn’t so weird at all. Quirky? Yes. Comedic? Sure. Instead of being the weird and wacky Al we have all come to know and love, the raw but obscenely talented teenager here is understated and melancholy, musically and lyrically, in a way he seldom, if ever, would be again.
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