Smells Like Nirvana

A “Weird Al” Yankovic concert memory

M y tastes in music have always been suspect.  I was into metal when I started high school. I’m not sure I wasn’t really into pop, but no self-respecting kid in my junior high school would cop to such a preference; you may as well have taken a bullhorn and loudly announced to your peers at morning assembly, “I HAVE NO BACKBONE!” At that rate, it was better to be like Rob, the kid who played the violin and was into classical; at least he was weird, not wimpy. Hence, I was into metal, which had the benefit of not being several genres of music I knew at the time I didn’t like: country, soul, new age, punk, etc.

In the 1980s, it was -nevertheless- literally impossible to enjoy music and not have a working knowledge of the pop groups of the day.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 30, 1984

There’s a reason Madonna and Michael Jackson and Prince are bigger than the artists of the 21st century – 80s radio didn’t play anything else. The advent of music video exacerbated matters – who are you going to invest video money in? U2 or Joan Baez? Bruce Springsteen or Butthole Surfers? So while I owned LPs by Dio, Dokken and The Scorpions, I still had a back-to-front working knowledge of the entire Thriller album, like it or not.

In early spring of 1984, I was in a school van with a bunch of kids returning from wherever school vans return from. The radio kicked up a very familiar song and instantly recognizing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” the metal chick next to me offered a communal consolation, “at least this song has an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.” I nodded and sighed. And then it happened, that moment that changes your stupid life into something even stupider. What should have been MJ singing, “They told him don’t you ever come around here/Don’t want to see your face, you better disappear” was instead a much different voice with the lyrics, “How come you’re always such a fussy young man?/Don’t want no Captain Crunch, don’t want no Raisin Bran” WTF?! It was, of course, not “Beat It,” the hottest single from the highest selling album of all time, but “Eat It,” the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody stressing the importance of joining the clean plate club.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Back up. This man has combined pop music and humor? Where has this been all my life? :salivates: A love affair was born.

That summer, I attended my first two concerts. June welcomed the metal embarrassment Billy Squier to the Cow Palace in San Francisco. At the next, I took my 11-year-old brother Andrew to see “Weird Al” at the Warfield. On a side note, when the year ended, the SF Chronicle delivered its annual arts-in-review issue. Under the heading of concerts, there was a subcategory entitled “File and Forget.” Of the eight concerts listed below said heading, the only two I’d ever attended were BOTH on the list. ‘Nuff said.

Eventually, metal and I parted ways as I’ve described in the review for Metallica: Through the Never. “Weird Al,” however, remained a constant favorite, enduring in my admiration long after he should have. Andrew and I did attend one other “Weird Al” concert while I was in high school, but gave the whole thing a rest during our collective college years.

A decade later, “Weird Al” produced his magnum opus, “Bad Hair Day,” and went on tour. Andrew and I decided it was time once again to indulge our “Weird Al” sensibilities. (Later that fall, we would also catch Ronnie James Dio touring in recognition of his new and terrible album “Angry Machines.” Andrew and I figured we were the only two dots intersecting that particular Venn diagram) The “Weird Al” concert at The Fillmore that summer collected quite the eclectic mix: there were several nerds and would-be nerds (it probably isn’t quite fair to call an eight-year-old a “nerd” quite yet), but there were also wine-swillin’ adults; the parents of nerds, kids too young to go to a real concert and several people either intrigued by the phenomena the way one views a traffic accident, or who plain just like going to concerts, no matter who is playing.

By 1996, Al’s act was a great deal more polished than it used to be. In the interim since the last time I’d seen his live show, he’d made a movie and would patter the downtime at concerts during costume changes with a multi-media production including both UHF clips and random unflattering televised commentary from comedians. Being the king of parody, Al has to imitate many styles of music and it can make for a most disjointed performance. You’re not often going to see, say, the juxtaposition of a Coolio song followed by an accordion ballad.

One of Al’s most notable songs is “Smells like Nirvana,” a parody, of course, of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The live performance with Al in Kurt Cobain-mode tended to be a highlight of the “Weird Al” concert experience; this was no exception, although for exactly the wrong reasons.  Noting the nature of the song, several [read: exactly six] very-young teens started -believe it or not- slam dancing. Andrew and I were in the spacious (!) would-be mosh pit at the time (where else would you be?) and the fellows pinballed off one another right in front of us. I imagine they were kind of practicing for grown-up mosh pits. This struck me as almost wise in its training-wheels like simplicity. Look, I’ve been in an Iron Maiden mosh pit; you don’t mess with those things unless you know what you’re doing — it’s important to get that experience in ahead of time.

For those of us who have actually gone to real concerts, please follow me here, because the following was nothing short of awesome in its time-place idiocy: one of the rambunctious young pre-hooligans lost a lens to his glasses from the roughhousing. It’s all fun-and-games until somebody loses an eye. And next thing – I swear to you I’m not making this up– the kid’s mom flew in to action, forced her way to the middle of the pit and stopped everybody from slam dancing so they can get on all fours and look for the missing lens. Imagine that a Dead Kennedys or Sex Pistols gig.

The lens, as it turned out rolled right up to my foot. Not wanting to miss out on the action in front of me, I did look down and spied it immediately. I picked it up and handed it to a very grateful thirteen-year old. Satisfied, mom gave me a “thank you” as well, and the group got up from the floor in unison to resume slam dancing up until the accordion ballad that followed.

To this day, that surreal corpus slammus interruptus remains my favorite concert memory.


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