Lost in the hoopla surrounding Michael Jackson's recent and untimely demise was what I consider to be his greatest achievement. By writing and performing the hit song "Beat It," Jacko opened the door for a spoof, making a household name of a then-obscure accordion-player-cum-parodist who would become a fixture in my elementary school life.
The King of Pop I could take or leave; the one I idolized was his court jester, the harlequin of Pop Kingdom: Alfred Matthew Yankovic, better known by his stagename, "Weird" Al.
Although his parodies had enjoyed limited airplay since his Knack send-up "My Bologna" in 1979 ? "Another One Rides the Bus," "Ricky," and "I Love Rocky Road" were among his early hits ? "Weird" Al did not become a full-fledged celebrity until the release of his 1984 album In 3-D, featuring the smash hit "Eat It."
Why are you always such a fussy young man?
Don't want no Cap'N Crunch, don't want no Raisin Bran.
Well don't you know that other kids are starving in Japan?
Just eat it. Eat it. [burp]
Never mind that Japan was not known for its starving children. That song, and that album, were a revelation for me. "Brady Bunch," the parody of "Safety Dance"? Latter-day Sheridan. And one could easily imagine Wilde and Benchley chortling through a listen of "I Lost on Jeopardy" or "Theme From Rocky XIII."
One of the tracks, "Polkas on 45," is a medley of a dozen or so classic rock songs, played in the polka style, most of which new to me back then. In fact, the first time I heard "Hey Jude" and "Smoke on the Water" and "L.A. Woman" and "My Generation," it was not the Beatles, Deep Purple, the Doors, and the Who performing the respective songs, but "Weird" Al. To this day, I can't hear "Hey Joe" without laughing at Al's brilliant segue of Gonna shoot my old lady to the standard polka yodel:
Old-lady, lady hoo
Old-lady, lady hoo
Old-lady, lady hoo, lady hoo
On a ride from L.A. to Catalina that summer, I sung every song on In 3-D for the woman sitting next to me on the boat, a perfect stranger (and I do mean perfect), who indulged me by feigning interest during the entire trip to the island. Somehow she made it there without jumping overboard, although I'm sure she required a stiff drink or three after my impromptu revue (if you're out there, Catalina Boat Lady, please accept my sincerest apologies).
I tried my hand at my own parodies, lousy imitations of Al, notably "Biller," a spoof of "Thriller" involving the evil IRS (with which I was, of course, oh-so intimately familiar, being all of twelve at the time):
It's close to midnight
It's April 15 and your taxes are due...
My "Weird" Al obsession coincided, saintly woman on the boat notwithstanding, with an interminable girlfriendless streak. I can't prove it definitively ? and there were other factors, notably clunky glasses and beaucoup acne, that may have contributed to my lack of success with the ladies ? but I think that maybe there was some correlation between the two.
But celibacy was a small price to pay for trading in such comic genius. If you had asked me in fifth grade who I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have replied, without even thinking, "Weird" Al. And you know what? It was an astute choice.
When "Eat It" came out, most people dismissed Yankovic as a fad, a flash-in-the-pan, a one-trick pony. But he has endured, outlasting many of the acts he poked fun at (where are you, Greg Kihn?).
A friend of mine met him at the Grammys a few years ago and got me his autograph. She reported that everybody ? everybody ? wanted to meet Al; that he was, in his own way, the most popular act there. Jimmy Page, Kurt Cobain, even Paul McCartney are reportedly big fans of the guy. So I'm in pretty good company.
Tomorrow: Unlikely Influence #3: What, Me Worry?