Freestyle dance with me if you will on what is for many the close of a sacred day. Let us let our hair down, if the shoe fits, so to speak, and embrace what Rosa Luxemburg called “a positive and creative spirit.”
Wherein I Channel My Best (Socialist) Carl Sandburg For the Oddly Lincolnesque Weird Al
Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic was born in 1959 two days before yours truly (by my calculation, we were both spawned, albeit separately, the month the victorious Fidel cruised into Havana). Since many of us first heard his goofy music we have felt validated in our own awkward creativity sometimes called weirdness.
In truth, personal objective conditions are never completely the same, including or especially those of celebrities with whom we emotionally bond. In any event, according to the 1994 Al in the Box liner notes, the high school Weird Al was an accordion aficionado, class valedictorian, and had parents who apparently were stable and embraced his need to be happy and himself:
Al’s father, Nick Yankovic, is from Kansas City, Kansas. He came to California after World War II, and worked in a steel factory, a pipe factory, a bedspring factory, and as a forklift operator, security guard and gas station attendant. He’s been semi-retired since 1977. “My dad is responsible for a lot of my attitude toward life,” says Al. “He always stressed when I was a kid that I should do whatever made me happy, because that’s the key to success, doing for a living whatever makes you happy.”
In 1949, Nick married Mary Vivalda, who had come to California from Kentucky. Mary had gone to business college, worked as a switchboard operator for a bank, and eventually became a secretary and stenographer for Firestone.
Ten years later along came Al, Nick and Mary’s only child. Nothing terribly dramatic or traumatic occurred during Al’s early childhood. In retrospect, though, one event does stand out. “A door-to-door salesman came through our neighborhood,” says Al, “trying to solicit business for a local music school. Kids were offered a choice between guitar lessons and accordion lessons. Since Frankie Yankovic (no relation) was America’s Polka King, my parents opted for accordion lessons, perhaps because they figured there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world.”
His elderly parents died in a home accident in 2004, but Weird Al went on with the show in their honor, donning his poodle hat on the tour of the same name. Al seems to carry with him some of his parent’s simplicity:
“Nick just loved being outdoors enjoying nature and his little fruit garden.”
Mary Yankovic liked to garden and work with plants, but had not been able to do much in the last few months, he said. …
“He would always tell me when and where his son was performing,” Buehman said about Nick Yankovic. “Very proud of his son. He was always joking around. That’s probably where Alfred got his sense of humor.” …
“I know he was very proud of his duty in World War II,” Buehman said. “Their son was a caring son, too. He would have a limousine come pick them up for film shoots.”
He said Nick Yankovic was “so tickled” when his son married in 2001 “and he was going to have grandchildren.” Granddaughter Nina Yankovic was born in February 2003.
“Nick said he’d waited a long time (for grandchildren),” said Buehman. “Nick was someone that everybody in the neighborhood knew and liked. When you met him, you just fell in love with him.”
“He’d say, ‘What a beautiful day. It’s so nice to be alive.’ I’d say, ‘Nick, you’re going to live a long time.'”
From the very first, Weird Al’s music exuded the equality necessary for a creative democracy through the implicit notion that anyone could do some version of what he was doing. Indeed, particularly his early music was so rough, unprofessional, and downright lousy in a magical way that for many of us it seemed that uh … a monkey could have produced it by throwing darts at a … help me here … late 70’s voice-synthesizer.
Even today, as perfectly stated by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker, “Do people enjoy ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic because he’s funny or because he’s not that funny?”
Back in 1976, my life at best felt like a polyester parody of those who had come before me in U.S. society and my high school, who had accomplished great things like stopping the Vietnam War or at least having a winning football team or going on a cool chorus trip to Rome. On the other hand, “Al and I,” and countless other post-everything interesting buddies, merely had acne, insider knowledge of the absurd, and eclectic musical legacies, the latter of which were under threat by disco, which involved moves we could never hope to make. The Saturday Night Live fake Ford-Carter debates captured the zeitgeist as good or better than the real ones.
Whenever we were around our friends we acted silly because that seemed like the best and truest thing we could be doing. Parody was our creative aim, and it was good.
Over the years, our objective conditions have changed. And in varying ways we have moved on from a quest for laughs, in and of itself potentially valuable if it encourages folks to enjoy life, to a quest to make a positive material contribution to humanity in some way.
For billions of humans, of course, their gyro wheels allow them bare survival or slightly less miserable poverty, with no opposing ends of parody and satire but only harshness and frightening uncertainty. Yet, together, could those who are more “fortunate” and others who are far less so not democratically remake the unnatural “world” of human institutions using both indirect means, such as electioneering, judicial appointment, and constitutional revision, and peaceful but nonetheless direct means?
For Weird Al, over the decades his music has cautiously extended to humane satire, while never straying too far from his base in simple parody. For me to enjoy Weird Al’s music today is to get into his gyro wheel with him and for a little while pleasantly travel up and down the objective conditions of his decent and, for an international singing sensation, relatively humble life. And I think I know which side he’s on.
And he does some really kind things with the gifts that he has, as in this sweet, fun, and empowering performance just last month with and for autistic persons.
But I am not satisfied–with him or with me. This is not a dress rehearsal, or an 80’s MTV set, we are living in. The man is not threatened by either one of us.
The man is a self-serving veritable force of anti-nature. He makes profits and accumulates capital in ever-expanding circles of global influence through any means necessary, including divide-and-rule, and thereby directly or indirectly decides the rhythm and flow of most of the lives of the masses to the extent these are not governed by nature. He tolerates if not enjoys our movement back and forth on our gyro wheels with a semblance of freedom between our decent silliness and our varied idiosyncratic efforts to effect change.
For Yankovic the latter is principally humane satire:
One of the major differences that can be noted between a parody and satire is in regard to their goals. Though both parody and satire convey humour, they impart different roles in society. Satire is stands for a social or political change. It depicts an anger or frustration trying to make the subject palatable. Satire can be termed as humour and anger combined together. Parody is really meant for mocking and it may or may not incite the society. Parody is just pure entertainment and nothing else. It does not have a direct influence on the society.
Humane satire is repeatedly evident on Weird Al’s recent Grammy award-winning album, Mandatory Fun, which, while through the cover mocking the propaganda styling of the totalitarian Soviet Union and Maoist China, is to a significant extent musically aimed at the contemporary selfishness and vacuity of actually-existing capitalism. (I won’t review the album, but you can read a good review here in this Salon article by Lynn Stuart Parramore.)
Humane satire is a form of creative democracy in action and can plant good seeds of agitation and hope. Similarly, idiosyncratic charity can be a small form of justice in action, and at a given stage of life, it may be all the kindness that a good human can do on her or his gyro wheel. But it is still on the gyro wheel. Charity on our gyro wheels may not help to bring about justice in the service of love. Hope in the gyro wheels the man allows for us is not transformational and is delusional. Love in the form of justice writ large is true charity and the greatest of the things that humanity can do for itself. But the man knows how to rig democracy to ensure only faux justice.
As Thomas Merton and now Pope Francis have recognized, we need disturbances of a peace that would deny justice. Maintenance of an unjust status quo is not loving.
Not only mass cooperative indirect action but also mass cooperative direct action is needed where our lives jump off the tracks imposed upon us by the man, enforce a social compact of liberty and justice for all, and regain the natural rhythms and flows of life on earth. We must become the active creative subjects of a destiny of loving kindness as fully-endowed and equal species-beings, rather than remain the playthings of the man.
But, as I said a year ago, for me, and I suspect you, direct action, at least in its confrontational forms, is an obligation purposely made difficult. The needed direct means to justice in the service of love include not only potentially simple and less confrontational measures like workers’ gardens and cooperatives but also mass confrontational efforts. These mass confrontational efforts include the stuff that global solidarity is made of, “sordid” things like large scale labor organizing, peaceful transnational opposition to neoliberal globalization, race-to-the-bottom trade deals, land grabs, privatization, and denial of public control of the commons, and substitution of a global social compact.
And, if we are really serious, there ultimately may even need to be, gulp, civil disobedience and general strikes. The horror. Of course, then we could lose our jobs or go to jail–and long before then conservatives would have stopped buying our silly songs and coming to our parody rock concerts.
In 2012 Weird Al said:
I try to stay away from political humor only because it really divides my audience. I don’t want half my audience to suddenly feel like I don’t speak for them. As a satirist I’ve been taken to task by people who think I should go for the jugular, but it’s been a challenge for me to do that.
So, maybe he’s not on our side after all. I know I have not really risen this Easter Sunday. Perhaps neither has my man Weird Al, although by 2014 much of his music was Socratic in its questioning of capitalism. He was suggesting there’s a party in the CIA even before then, as well as supporting LGBT rights.
Because of objective limitations, you, Al, and I cannot be fully new persons this day or any other. Usually our personal growth will be incremental. Meanwhile, our personal creativity, while idiosyncratically beneficial, is also potentially farce and possibly even self-mocking and amusing to the man, who does not, as Jesus supposedly did, believe in the servant leadership of washing the feet of, breaking bread with, and giving justice to the outcast, the weak, and the poor.
One thing potentially revolutionary in its implications we can consciously try to do. We can reach out, both hands affectionately extended, to our loving comrades in ever-expanding circles of creative democratic solidarity in support of humanity’s critical, meaningful, and sufficient love.
Please go below for a brief further discussion of objective and subjective conditions.