Day One hundred and sixty-eight: "Yoda" Demo from Medium Rarities
Timing is essential for Al but “Yoda”, one of Al’s most beloved songs, missed the window to popularize on the popularity and ubiquity of Empire Strikes Back and its funny-talking breakout character not by a month, or a few months, or a year, or even a few years but rather by a half-decade.
The demo version of “Yoda”, recorded in 1980 when Empire Strikes Back was still in theaters, would take five years to go from being a “Funny Five” champion on The Dr. Demento Show to a standout track, if not a single, on 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid. Five years is a long time for a song to be in development but once the general public and Al fans got a hold of “Yoda” they refused to let it go.
The enduring brilliance of “Yoda” is evident even in primordial form. The demo for “Yoda” consists solely of Al and his accordion, once again pressed into lead instrument duty by default, Joel Miller, who accompanied Al on bongos for live gigs and “Take Me Down” but here contributes some very weird Yoda noises, or rather noises that vaguely sound Yodaesque, and finally the musical hands of "Musical Mike" Kieffer, who was a fixture on early Al albums until Al matured to the point where he no longer felt the need to add random, percussive hand-fart sounds to his musical compositions.
Miller’s Yoda sounds don’t sound much like “Yoda” and Kieffer’s contributions sound less like the burbling swamp described in the song than a strange, only half-successful attempt at beat-boxing with hands instead of the mouth but while the sound here is primitive the lyrics showcase Al at his incisive, irreverent early best.
For all of its irreverence regarding the business of film and the motivations of actors and filmmakers alike “Yoda” is, in its own strange way, extremely faithful. From the very beginning, Al cared enough to get the details perfect; he was a geek creating pop art for an audience of geeks and science fiction nerds and fellow oddballs who would be unsparing if Al got even a tiny detail wrong.
I’ve thought a lot about the “Yoda” lines “But I know that I'll be coming back some day/I'll be playing this part 'till I'm old and grey” and “The long-term contract that I had to sign/Says I'll be making these movies till the end of time” through the decades. They’re among the most important and incisive of Al’s career.
When I listened to those lyrics before I associated them indelibly with the character of Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill, the actor who, as a very young man, took on a role that, true to Al’s lyrics, he would have to continue playing until he’s old and grey, to the very end of time itself.
In The Last Jedi, Hamill doesn’t just play Luke Skywalker as an old hermit; he plays Skywalker as age incarnate, as a character whose defining feature is being old and grey. In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker seems older, more wizened and more wrinkled than Yoda himself. The student has truly become the teacher.
Listening to this adorably homemade version of one of Al’s most beloved early songs I found myself thinking for the first time of Al himself in regards to the lines “But I know that I'll be coming back some day/I'll be playing this part 'till I'm old and grey” and “The long-term contract that I had to sign/Says I'll be making these movies till the end of time.”
Not all contracts are literal and legal. Some are more abstract. When a musician creates a song that catches on with fans and the general public the way Al’s songs about Star Wars, “Yoda” and “The Saga Begins” have, that connects with fans in an intense and deep and lasting way, it creates certain expectations.
When fans take to a song like that, when they turn it into an anthem with a life of its own you have to play it for them even in a context very explicitly devoted to usurping expectations and giving audiences precisely what they’re not expecting to hear, like the 2018 Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.
Sure enough, in the seven shows I saw on that tour, Al and his band only performed two parodies in their entirety: “Yoda” and “The Saga Begins.” Al famously does not age, but if he did he would, in fact, be playing the parts of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in concert until he’s old and gray.
If you’re going to be permanently tethered to a song, and a movie, and a character for life, as Al is to “Yoda”, Empire Strikes Back and the little green dude who sounds suspiciously like Grover, it’d be tough to beat this particular trio.
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