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The ageless appeal of 'Weird Al' Yankovic

The icon of musical comedy is playing the DECC on July 11, his first Duluth show in 15 years. Northland fans are more than ready.

Studio portrait of "Weird Al" Yankovic sitting against a white backdrop, leaning forward over his spread legs with a whimsical expression on his face.
"Weird Al" Yankovic has one of the most recognizable faces in show business.
Contributed / DECC
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DULUTH — Over the years, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center has hosted many big names. Elvis Presley. James Brown. Cher. B.B. King. Bob Dylan. Metallica.

None of those other big names, though — not even Insane Clown Posse, not even Yanni — are quite as fun to say, quite as certain to put a smile on your face, as the name of "Weird Al" Yankovic.

"He's a geek," said St. Paul music writer Michelangelo Matos. "He's this pasty-faced geek who came out of the suburbs of Southern California and was making fun of stuff, and he got a career out of it."

To be clear, Matos means that observation as a compliment. "There were individual parody songs" that hit the charts before Yankovic emerged in the 1980s, Matos noted. "Certainly, you had lots of novelty hits, but he put that all together in one package in a way that nobody else had."

The man born Alfred Matthew Yankovic has one of the most recognizable looks in show business: long, curly brown locks framing a narrow face with a wide grin and mischievous eyes that, in the artist's '80s heyday, were often framed in oversize spectacles and complemented with a distinctive split mustache.

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Now 62 years old, and marking four decades since becoming a breakout star in the nascent MTV era, Yankovic is coming to the DECC's Symphony Hall with a tour focusing on his original songs rather than his parody rewrites.

That portion of the artist's catalog includes "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota," a 1989 epic that inspired the city of Darwin, Minnesota — home of the eponymous twine ball — to name a street "Weird Alley" in Yankovic's honor.

"Sure, the Grammys and platinum albums are nice and all," wrote Yankovic on Twitter when the street was renamed in 2019, "but now I know I’ve finally made it."

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Two newly created positions will allow the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to bring more shows of different sizes to the harborside complex.

"I love that there's a Minnesota connection as solid as that," said Luke Moravec, one of the artist's many Duluth fans. Moravec saw Yankovic play the DECC in 2000, and this month the writer and radio host will be sitting in the third row with his wife, who has yet to experience Yankovic live.

"It's going to be a mix of her watching the stage and watching my reaction to what's going on on the stage," Moravec said with a laugh. "I think she's going to kind of be keeping one eye on me and just seeing how delighted and tickled I am."

Singer-songwriter Al Church, who grew up in Duluth and is now based in Minneapolis, has been a "Weird Al" fan since childhood. "I remember sneaking downstairs and watching MTV," Church remembered. "One of the first music videos that I ever saw was 'Eat It.'"

Yankovic's "Beat It" parody, which became a Top 40 hit in its own right, made the "Dr. Demento Show" standby a household name.

"Michael Jackson saturation point was almost impossible to conceive of in 1984," said Matos, whose books include "Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year." Jackson "dominated that entire era."

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That meant MTV viewers appreciated every moment of Yankovic's shot-for-shot parody video, complete with a guitarist whose imitation of Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo is so hot, he literally explodes. Working with guitarist and producer Rick Derringer, Yankovic managed uncanny imitations of chart-topping hits.

"They were very dedicated to making those parodies accurate," said Matos. "They were watching the videos and slowing it down and getting the sets right. They were doing things exactly correctly."

"It almost connects you to the (original) artists more," observed Church about following the charts by listening to "Weird Al" parodies. "It's like a late-night monologue where you mostly get your news from Stephen Colbert."

In the past, many Yankovic shows have included elaborate sets and costume changes to match the artist's parody personae. Fans have been warned not to expect that kind of scale from "The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour," but Moravec's no less excited.

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"The things that I appreciated as a kid," he said, "those are still hilarious. But as I get older, I realized that he's a really fantastic musician and songwriter."

"I really respect his musicianship," said Church. "He's an incredible accordion player."

Yes, accordion. Among the ways Yankovic's endeared himself to residents of a region that's historically been rich in "old-time" music is his longstanding habit of recording polka-style medleys of current hit songs.

"I was like, 'This is this is absolutely the best thing,'" said Church about Yankovic's "Alternative Polka" (1996). "He just went from Nine Inch Nails to Beck to Alanis Morissette."

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When Yankovic played the DECC in 2000 — he would return seven years later — the energetic artist impressed News Tribune critic V. Paul Virtucio.

"The king of pop parody seemed to love new clothes; he had more costume changes than Madonna and Cher," wrote Virtucio. "From an Amish man's clothes to a space-age yellow vinyl uniform and even his old red Michael Jackson jacket, Yankovic covered the years of his career, pleasing older and younger fans alike."

Moravec remembers that show fondly. "He clearly likes what he's doing to be consistently releasing albums, to be consistently going on tour," said Moravec. "He doesn't need to do that. The reason is because he wants to."

The persistence has paid off for Yankovic, whose appeal now spans generations. His DECC audience might include baby boomers like himself (and like Joan Jett, subject of the parody "I Love Rocky Road"); younger listeners like Church who picked up on his grunge parodies ("Smells Like Nirvana"); even younger listeners who made Yankovic's Chamillionaire parody "White and Nerdy" a hit; and maybe even Gen Z kids who dig his "Hamilton Polka."

Album cover: "Weird Al" Yankovic, "Running With Scissors" featuring a photo of the artist literally running with scissors on an athletic track.
"Weird Al" Yankovic's 1999 LP "Running With Scissors" is one of his certified platinum albums.
Contributed / Volcano

Ryan Nelson, of Duluth band NVR TGTHR, said "Running with Scissors" is his favorite "Weird Al" album. "It came out in 1999, when all the hubbub for 'Star Wars: Episode I' was coming out, so that (album) had 'The Saga Begins' on it, the 'American Pie' parody. That's probably my go-to just because of how much I listened to it."

"You outgrow it, but you never really outgrow it," said Matos about Yankovic's ageless appeal. "You get to the point where you are a little older and taking things more seriously. And then after you've had your serious phase, you go back to 'Weird Al.'"

Church said he's considered starting his own band called Super Weird Al, parodying songs by artists like Duluth's own Low. "You know the song 'Lies'?" asked Church. "It goes, 'lies, lies, lies.' I was going to do 'fries, fries, fries.' You know, sitting in the drive-thru lane and you're wondering what you're going to get at McDonald's."

That parody remains a work in progress, but Church said he was considering seeing if Low frontman Alan Sparhawk — yet another Al — wants to go to Yankovic's DECC show. "We'll do a double 'Weird Al' date."

Via Twitter, Nelson let Yankovic know that if he needs an opening act in Duluth, NVR TGTHR are available. "We aren't funny," he admitted in the tweet, "but we're cool."

"It actually worked with a previous band of mine," Nelson noted: He was in the Social Disaster, who successfully asked Andrew W.K. for an opening slot at the Rex Bar. Why not "Weird Al"? Anything could happen.

For Moravec, Yankovic has been a perennial source of simple joy. "I think," said Moravec, "he's the type of person who one day opened up his eyes looked at the world and said, 'Oh, I get it. It's supposed to be fun.' And then he just took off and just did what he was supposed to do."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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