Smells Like Nirvana: The Magical Career of “Weird” Al Yankovic


If Billy Joel went out on tour promising not to play any of his hits, he might meet with some resistance.

It’s hard to imagine a musician of any caliber who could pull that sort of thing off.

Well, there’s one guy who is pulling that sort of thing off as I type this.

His name is Weird Al Yankovic.

Yankovic’s “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” will pay a visit to the Honeywell Center in Wabash on April 12.

Per the title, the tour eschews the songs that made Yankovic famous (the pop song parodies) in favor of the songs he wrote from scratch.

It also forgoes the costume changes and elaborate trappings that have come to be associated with a Weird Al tour.

“This is certainly not something I could have done early on in my career,” Yankovic said in a phone interview. “No one would have stood for that. This is something I have the luxury of doing now that I have a 35-year career and 14 studio albums behind me.”

Of course, Yankovic’s originals aren’t exactly emo laments. With titles like “I’ll Sue Ya,” “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung,” “Nature Trail to Hell” and “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” they’re clearly parody-adjacent. They’re parodies that serve as their own source material.

The improbability of Yankovic’s place in music history and prominence in the current music climate cannot be overstated.

Yankovic had his first hit in 1984. Other artists who charted that year include Twisted Sister, The Smiths, The Style Council, Billy Idol, Pat Benatar, Kenny Loggins, Culture Club, Duran Duran and Sade.

If one were to travel back in time to the mid-1980s and ask of room full of people which of those artists would still be generating headlines in 2018, none of them surely would pick Weird Al Yankovic.

That’s no knock on Yankovic. It’s just that the occupation of musical parodist has not traditionally paved a sure path to fame and fortune.

Yankovic doesn’t offer any explanation for his success. He just says he is grateful for it.

“Every single day, I wake up and I can’t believe I still get to do this for a living,” he said. “I don’t ever get jaded by it. The novelty never wears off.”

The not-so-secret truth about Yankovic is that underneath his goofy exterior are a savvy businessman and a sharp reader of the cultural zeitgeist.

Yankovic doesn’t come right out and say it but it sounds like he feels that he has earned this tour.

“I just felt like I needed a change,” he said, “and I thought it would be good for the band to kind of mix things up a bit and really challenge ourselves as musicians.

“So instead of doing yet another iteration of the big, multimedia extravaganza, I thought, ‘Well, the next time, let’s go in the whole other direction,’” Yankovic said. “Let’s have us just walk out on stage as musicians and play.’”

Given Yankovic’s professional persona as a comedian, his longtime band doesn’t often get enough credit for being as excellent as it is.

“I think on this tour particularly, the musicianship really shines through,” he said. “It’s really on full display. It’s not about the theatrics. It’s not about production. It’s 100 percent about the music.

“If people weren’t sold on my band before, I think this will do the trick for them,” Yankovic said.

When he speaks of the tour, Yankovic uses phrases like “deep cuts” which are almost never uttered by anyone who is actually trying to make a living in the music industry these days.

This tour is for diehard fans, he said, which means it may alienate some people.

“This tour is not really designed for a mass audience,” he said. “But the people who it does appeal to are going to go crazy for it.”

Last year, Yankovic got a chance to do something more ostentatious for diehard fans.

He released a career-spanning boxed set called Squeeze Box.

Squeeze Box collects 14 studio albums and one album of rarities into an accordion-shaped case. It comes in two versions: CD and 150-gram vinyl.

Again, if you were to travel back in time about 30 years or so and tell people that Yankovic’s parodies would one day be lovingly remastered for a collection retailing for $500 or more dollars, they might call you crazy.

Well, some of them might call you crazy. One person who doubtlessly would not call you crazy in 1988 is 8-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Miranda, now a celebrated 38-year-old Broadway composer, recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by having his work parodied by Yankovic.

“The Hamilton Polka,” a five-minute spoof of the entire score of Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” was released by the composer and Yankovic in early March.

“Lin actually asked me to do it about a year ago,” Yankovic said. “It kind of got put on hold and then in January, he said, ‘OK. We’re doing this. We need it next month.’”

While he worked on it, Yankovic said he purposefully didn’t share any demos or excerpts with Miranda.

“I wanted him to hear it for the first time as a finished product,” he said. “When he did, I think it blew his mind. There’s actually a video of him on YouTube listening to ‘The Hamilton Polka’ for the first time.”

Unlike many music careers, Yankovic’s seems to have moved inexorably in the direction of greater and greater artistic freedom.

“Mandatory Fun,” the 2014 album that was in several respects the biggest of his career, was his last release for RCA. Yankovic departed the label under his own steam.

“Which means I am basically a free agent,” he said. “ I don’t have to get anyone’s permission to do anything. I can literally do anything I want. I don’t need to do whatever’s the most commercial thing. I’ve done OK. My family’s always going to have something to eat.”

“So now I am just driven by what sounds like the most fun,” Yankovic said.