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Sophie’s Escape Room

Last Friday, our friend Belinda Anderson called to see if I and “the kids” wanted to go on a walk with her down at the fish hatchery in White Sulphur Springs.  By “the kids” she meant of course the only offspring my wife and I have dared to produce, our three dogs, Sadie, Moose and Maya.  I thought it was an outstanding idea, as the past two days had been nice, with temperatures in the 60s for the first time since November.  I was also eager to get a look at the fish hatchery, to see how it was rebounding from the devastating flooding in the area last June.

Trouble was, I had a Sophie’s choice to make when it came to “the kids” because I had three dogs and only two leashes.

We actually own three leashes, but the third retractable leash was in the wife’s car, at work, and I couldn’t find so much as a cloth leash in the house.  Even if I’d had all three leashes, though, the task of taking our three dogs on a walk with only two human beings present is not one I ever relish.  I always wind up having to walk at least two of them, passing Moosie off to Belinda since he’s only 45 pounds of brown obedient dog to deal with.  I then have to walk Sadie and Maya, who are 80ish pounds each, don’t really like each other much, and have a tendency to run in opposite directions when they’re not making a braid with Moose’s leash.  But, hey, I only had the two leashes, I reasoned, so that meant I had to leave one dog at the house.  And since Sadie and Moose have seniority, Maya was have to be the one to get left behind.  Not that this makes the job of leaving her any easier.  If you leave Maya outside with her shock collar on (her “purty collar”) she just howls and jumps on the car with her huge St. Bernard feet and claws, trying to get in with the others.  And if you leave her in the house, she’ll just park herself in the stairwell window and leap on the glass there, potentially tearing down the blinds, while simultaneously rolling huge doggie tears that will break the heart of any dog parents backing out of the driveway, facing her.

Instead, I left her in our bedroom and closed the door.  I figured probably have a nap on our bed, maybe do her nails, and really get in some “me” time while we were gone for an hour or so.  Then I’d give her extra treats when I got home, take her for a walk down the trail and all would be forgiven.  Thusly planned, Sadie, Moose and I left for our walk at the fish hatchery.

An hour or so later we returned to find Maya waiting in the yard.

Er.

This wasn’t good.

Maya being out of the house meant one of three things: A) the wife had come home early, and had let Maya out (not likely, as her car was not in the driveway); B) an intruder had broken in and let Maya out; or C) Maya had somehow managed to escape the locked house on her own.  I wasn’t sure which of these options I liked the least.

We know from experience that Maya can get into the house if the doors are unlocked because she knows how to operate the exterior handles of both the back and front doors (one of which normally requires an opposable thumb).  However, those doors were both locked, not to mention she’d been left in a closed bedroom the door knob of which she has yet to master.  Given her weight, though, I was immediately afraid that she might have managed to break the glass of our floor-length bedroom windows, which are practically door-sized themselves.  She had no blood on her, though, so if she broke out she did it cleanly.  This would require investigation.

Slowly I unlocked and opened the front door.  No intruders killed me.  The back door, I saw, was closed and locked and the bedroom door was still in place and closed.  I opened it to find that indeed she had gone through a window, just without breaking the glass.  What she appears to have done was chosen the one window in the room that is covered by a screen, clawed through that screen and used her weight to force open the window on its track.  She could have tried any of the other screenless windows, but, no, she had to go through the one with the screen.  The window has two latches, but only the top one was closed.  It gave to her force without actually breaking, though.  Once it was open enough to squeeze out, she was free.  Only later did we discover that she’d also peed all over Sadie’s dog bed, which was directly in front of her escape window.

I was angry, sure, but mostly at the screen being torn.  Her escape was otherwise pretty impressive and definitely sent a message that she doesn’t want to be left behind.

When we were about to climb into bed that night, we discovered yet another doggie protest action, one which did not feel good to discover in sock feet: the dog bed directly beneath the window through which Maya had escaped was soaked through with what we can only assume is dog pee.  At least, there were no empty 32 oz cups of water handy.  And it was Sadie’s bed, Maya’s usual arch nemesis.   She probably decided that if Sadie got to go somewhere, at least she wouldn’t have a dry bed to sleep in later.  Either that or Maya just really had to go and didn’t quite make it until her escape could be enacted.

The job of replacing the screen has got us in a screen replacement project for the five or so screens our various doggie residents have destroyed over the years.  They’re such a pain in the ass to replace, though, that after we did the one Maya tore up, we decided to make it a one-screen-per-day kind of project.  Or maybe one a week.

Awful lot of honkies in here.

Things are about to get racial.

For Christmas this year, my wife got me something I’ve been wanting to have for the past few months or so: an Ancestry.com DNA kit.  Now the true reason I wanted one to begin with probably has more to do with a short story idea I had last May than any actual research into my own genetic background.  But, like many of us, I’ve always been curious about what that background might entail.

The first time I voiced my desire to get a DNA kit to her, though, was probably while watching the TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s series Outlander.  It’s a show set in Scotland and all the dudes on the show look cool in their kilts.  I’ve always wanted to wear a kilt, but wouldn’t dare do so unless I actually had Scottish heritage myself.  Otherwise, it would be like that time I bought a Rasta hat in college, only to be asked by a real Rastafarian if I was a believer or just wearing it for the fashion–which was my first clue that I was appropriating another group’s culture and that this might not be cool with folks from that culture.  So if I was going to go around appropriating cultures, I wanted to at least have my genetic ducks in a row.  During Outlander, I announced I was going to get an Ancestry DNA kit, and if I was anything greater than, say, 10 percent of a Scot I would be purchasing a kilt and tartan which I would then wear exclusively, at least until winter.

Unfortunately, I already knew that I was probably not all that Scottish to begin with.  From everything I’ve been told, I come from Franco-German stock, with ancestors originating in Alsace Lorraine back when it was part of Germany. But then again, I reasoned, that’s only on my grandpa Fritzius’s side.  I know nothing about my dad’s mother’s people, the Blaylocks, nor anything about the genetic history of my mother’s people, the Dunnams and the Huttos. There were also the rumors of Native American blood somewhere back on my Grandma Blaylock’s side–rumors which she always seemed cagey about, and which my dad believed must be true since Grandma was so cagey.  Dad also suspected that we might have some Jewish ancestry woven in there somewhere, which considering our alleged European origins was not beyond the realm of possibility.  My grandparents’ vehement denial of that possibility only served to make the rumor seem stronger.

The wife ordered my DNA kit, which arrived just in time for Christmas.  And when we returned home from Christmas holidays, I busted it open and took my DNA test–or, rather, I supplied the sample of my DNA for the Ancestry folks to test.  This involved spitting into a little plastic tube, pouring in some spit fixer and shakin’ it all up.  (In order to get a good DNA sample, I had to refrain from consuming anything but water for an hour or so–lest I turn up as genetically descended from a Dorito.)  I put the whole thing in their postage paid package, filled out my info online, and sent it off.  Immediately, I began dreaming of the exotic lands my people may have come from.  I didn’t actively start shopping for kilts, or anything, but I could always dream.  I was looking forward to receiving my results, all spelled out, with no actual research required on my part.  After all, I spent a goodly number of years working in a public library in which I devoted more than a little bit of time ridiculing the Genealogy People–those folks who either frequented our establishment looking for local records that would lead them to their ancestors, or who used our computers to sign in to their Ancestry.com accounts to do the leg work–who were, to a person, completely unafraid of going on at length to the library staff about the mind-numbingly boring details of all of their research, forcing us to occasionally gnaw off a leg to escape.  And, y’know, God love `em for having a hobby and being passionate about something in life, but I will NOT become one of those people.

Weeks crept by.

Occasionally, Ancestry would send us emails apologizing for taking so long, then teasing us more by offering to let us research surnames on their site so we could get a head start, I guess.  I toyed around with this, trying very hard not to get excited about any of it, lest I catch the Genealogy People bug.  I did note that there were some Dunnams who’d turned up in census data in Scotland, but they were not necessarily ones related to me specifically.  I’d have to do actual research, or get a full Ancestry.com membership to see if someone else had already done the research, before I could know that.  If you thought about it, though, regardless of where the Dunnams, Huttos, Blaylocks, or Fritziuses were known to have lived, I could be party anything, really.  There were a good number of generations and a couple of continents between my grandpa’s Alsace Lorraine ancestors and today, with four contributing genetic donors for each successive soul along the way.  I might be part African, for all I knew–though my wife took particular glee in shooting down that likelihood.  I was hoping for something that at least seemed exotic and distant.  The possibilities were intoxicating.

“Ooh!  Ooooh!” I exclaimed one night, while we were watching an episode of Vikings.

Immediately guessing what I was about to say, the wife shouted “You’re not a Viking!”

“You don’t know!” I replied, hurt.

“Yes, I do,” she said.  “They’re all big, blond and Nordic looking.  You’re short, dark, and stumpy.”

“There were stumpy Vikings, too!” I said.  “I’d be a kick ass stumpy Viking.  You’ve seen all those long boats I made.”

She refused to entertain the idea, nor to fetch me any mead.

The notes from Ancestry not containing my results continued on for weeks.  Then, they sent another note not containing my results, which said they were at long last working on them.  And a week later, they sent another note saying that they’d finished them and would soon be revealing the results to us, but were not actually revealing the results with that particular email.  (I theorize that Ancestry.com employees are descended from assholes, but that’s just me.)

On Monday of this week, I was rudely awakened by my wife at the crack of 7:30.  She’d been reading her iPad in bed, had checked her email, and saw that my genetic results were finally in.  I blearily roused, squinting at the screen where she clicked the link in the email and a pie chart popped up.

Turns out, I’m mostly just a white guy.

About as white as they come, in fact.

My ancestors, it would seem, primarily hale from darkest Great Britain, to the tune of around 40 percent.  (Your average native Great Britainer is around 60 percent, so I’m not too far off.)  Initially I was excited about this, because Scotland is, after all, a part of the UK.  Looking at their colorized map graph, though, the darkest of the tiered color ranges largely excludes Scotland and Wales, which fall in the next lighter shade down (as are the Netherlands and a chunk of France).  I’m 27 percent Irish, which I assume means I’m forever more allowed to have a shot of Jameson with my Guinness when I’m down at the local Irish Pub.  Surprisingly to me, I’m only 13 percent Western European, with Alsace Lorraine smack in the middle of the map there.  I’m also around 9 percent from the Iberian Peninsula, which centers out on Spain and Portugal.  Who knew?  I’ll take it.

Oh, and I was delighted to learn that I’m approximately 6 percent Scandinavian, and two percent Finnish/Western Russian, so all those stumpy-legged Viking long boats I made in the garage may yet come in handy after all.  I’ll sail down the Greenbrier and pillage Alderson, or something.

In the less than 5 percent genetic estimate range, I’m apparently 1 percent Greek and/or Italian, 1 percent Eastern European, and, in point of fact, I do appear to be 1 percent African.  North African, to be general, with a possible origin spread across Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and maybe the edge of Libya thrown in.  That’s how genetics works, right?

What I am apparently not: I’m 0 percent anywhere else in Africa, 0 percent European Jewish, 0 percent Pacific Islander, 0 percent middle Eastern, 0 percent anywhere in South America, and 0 percent Asian (except for 1 percent that they say originates from Caucasus, which I think is where they invented white people, so I guess that gives me bonus honky points).

All in all, I guess I’m happy with my results.  It is odd to think that I’m not nearly as French and German as I had assumed I would be, but I’ll take Great Britain.  Some of my favorite things in the world come from there anyway, from Doctor Who to Neil Gaiman to Douglas Adams and Monty Python.  If that’s my heritage, I guess I’m in good company.  I still would have liked a more specific tie to Scotland, but if that’s to be found I’ll likely have to join up with Ancestry and do some actual research.  And then I’ll be dangerously close to becoming a genealogy person, and will soon be blogging exclusively about it.

EPISODE 01 redux: “…to a Flame”

The Mothman of West Virginia is reported to be a winged creature, the size of a man, but wEPISODE 1: "...to a Flame"ith glowing red eyes.  It was reportedly witnessed on multiple occasions around the area of Point Pleasant, W.Va., during the 1960s and has been reported around the world since.  An ominous creature, its presence often seems to portend doom for those who see it.

When Virgil Hawks shoots one behind his tool shed, he knows the portents for his own future aren’t good.  He seeks help from the one man he can trust… his good buddy Jeff.

This podcast adapts the short story “…to a Flame” found in the collection A Consternation of Monsters as well as the unabridged audiobook of the collection.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 01 redux: “…to a Flame”

 

ASSOCIATED BLOG ENTRIES

EPISODE 00: Foreword

The Consternation of Monsters Podcast is an ongoing project, adapting and excerpting a few of the stories found in the short story collection A Consternation of Monsters as well as the unabridged audiobook of the collection.

While many of these stories have been featured in the previous iteration of this podcast from 2015, this redux edition will feature new stories, new live readings and stage play adaptations, as well as excerpts from the official unabridged audiobook of the collection now available through Amazon.com, iTunes, and Audible.com.

This EPISODE 00 features the foreword to the book by noted paranormal radio host Rik Winston.

DOWNLOAD:  Episode 00: Foreword

 Associated Blog Entries

Upcoming Sightings & Appearances

Eric is making signing and speaking appearances to promote A Consternation of Monsters.  (He also occasionally does some acting.)  You’ll find those appearances and roles here.

February 2-4, 2017– (Greenbrier Valley Theatre, Lewisburg, W.Va)  Eric will be directing The Magic of Niagara by playwright Margie Semilof, and will be acting in Barrage from the Garage by Dan Borengasser, as part of the 2017 New Voices Play Festival.

 

March 23-26, 2017– (Longwood University, Farmville, Va.)  Eric’s short play Fargo 3D will be produced as part of Longwood University’s 0 to 60 Ten Minute Play Festival.

May 19-20, 2017– (Pocahontas County Opera House, Marlinton, W.Va.) Eric will be directing the full length play The People at the Edge of Town by A.J. DeLauder, for the Pocahontas Drama Workshop’s May production.

May 11-13, May 18-20, May 25-27, 2017– (Madlabs Theatre, Columbus, Ohio)  Eric’s short play Fargo 3D will be produced as part of the three week long 18th Annual Madlab Theatre Roulette festival.  It will be performed during one night of the festival per weekend (May 13, 18, 26 at 8 p.m.) and during the 21-play complete roulette run on May 27.

The Ben Folds Experience in 20 Year Increments (Sorta)

20161007_094141.jpgOn June 8, 1996, Ben Folds Five was to play the New Daisy Theater in Memphis, TN.  I was working in college radio at the time and our station had been given a supply of free tickets.  Unfortunately, I had no car.  Fortunately, I had several friends who did, so I proposed we all make a road trip to Memphis to go see the show.

My experience at WMSV (91.1 FM) out of Mississippi State University, from 1994-1997, was a formative one.  Not only did it finally allow me the experience of being a DJ (which had been a longstanding dream of mine since being told by multiple people in 1989 that my voice would lend itself to a career in it), but it exposed me to a lot of music I would never have heard otherwise. It helped shape my musical taste to a large degree.

I was already a kid who was more at home with Paul Simon than Poison, but getting force fed a steady diet of Live, Dave Matthews Band (and a few years before the rest of the country had heard of them), Ani DiFranco, Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, Sarah McLachlan, Phish, the Eels, Aimee Mann, Joan Osborne, Jason Falkner, Primus, Trout Fishing in America, the Subdudes, Taj Mahal, October Project, Ben Folds, and so many others, helped refine my musical taste and send me off in different directions. Most of these acts seem like no-brainers now, but at the time I’d never heard of most of them, nor, in many cases, had much of the rest of the country.

Now Ben Folds and his band the Ben Folds Five went on to have some top 40 hits in the later 90s, but in 1995, with their debut album, they were new to the national scene.  I can even recall the first time I played a song by them, which I believe was their song “Philosophy.”  It was a revelation to me because it sounded like the guy who used to do the old Kleenex Says, Bless You jingles from a decade earlier was now writing awesome rock music using primarily piano, bass, and drums.  (For the record: not the same guy.)  Also the fact that they were called Ben Folds Five and there were only three members in the band was something I found superbly charming.  I played the ever-loving-snot out of that CD on the air. In fact, I played songs from it so much that Ben Folds Five began to encroach upon the play numbers of my standard regular overplayed airshift band, They Might Be Giants.  “Philosophy” was my favorite song on the album, but “Underground” came a close second, and “Best Imitation of Myself” probably third.  Folds and the band had a definite sound that I had heard nowhere else.

So when, in 1996, I heard they were going to be playing at the New Daisy, it seemed a done deal that I would be there to see the show.  After all, we’d done a similar road trip with folks from the station–spearheaded by our fearless leader and general manager, Steve Ellis–back in December of `94, to see Milla Jovovich and Toad the Wet Sprocket.  (Yes, THAT Milla Jovovich.  Check out her album, The Divine Comedy.  It’s good stuff.)  The only difference was that this road trip wouldn’t be a university sanctioned event, and we’d have to carpool it rather than ride in an official MSU van.  It would be awesome!  And it was free!

I got no takers.

Nope.

Nary a soul among my crew of nerd herd friends seemed at’tall interested in attending Ben Folds Five in concert.

So we stayed put in Starkpatch, ate pizza, and probably watched old episodes of Red Dwarf instead.

Now, I didn’t know this until this morning, but it turns out that our staying put was probably a good thing.  Apparently the concert had to be cancelled. One site I found which reprinted old newsgroup posts noted that someone in the bad had gotten sick and they had to postpone the concert indefinitely.  So this puts the resentment I’ve held toward my friends at this missed opportunity in a bit of a different light for me.  It would have been awkward to have made that journey only to learn there was no concert at all.  We would have been left with no recourse but to consume our weight in barbecue and craft beer.  Yeah, that would have been a terrible time.

I kept up with Ben Folds Five after college, as I have many of the college radio bands I became a fan of back then.  My favorite album of theirs is probably The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which I hold is a masterpiece, though it was a critical and commercial failure at the time.  The band broke up not long after its release and it took a few years before Ben began releasing his amazing solo work, with Rockin’ the Suburbs.  I’ve picked up most everything since, though I’ve not yet delved into all of the side projects he’s done, such as The Bens, or quite all of his work with William Shatner.

ben-folds-and-a-pianoAfter a semi-bitter 20 year wait, I finally got to see Ben Folds in concert last week when he played at the Clay Center in Charleston, sans the Five.  In fact, the tour was called Ben Folds and a Piano.

I got to town a little early because I wanted to check out Lost Legion Games & Comics, the Rifleman, a comic store on the south west side of town.  It’s the parent store to the one I used to go to in Princeton, but I’d never visited it.  Turned out to be a great shop and very busy for a Thursday night.  My plan was to next head back down town to Graziano’s Pizza.  Unfortunately, there seemed to be some sort of parade or gathering of marching bands and ROTC kids going on near the comic shop and this had brought traffic to a halt.  It didn’t look like anyone was going to clear out any time soon, so I decided to stay.  The Happy Days Cafe was next door to Lost Legion and they had an open-faced meatloaf sandwich on special with mashed potatoes and gravy as a side.  I asked if they would substitute french fries for the mashed potatoes, but keep the gravy–as gravy fries are one of my all time favs. They were spectacular.

Traffic jam having passed, I headed over to the Clay Center for Ben’s concert, which was also spectacular and nearly everything I could have asked for in a Ben Folds show.

Nearly.

After the first song, Ben talked to the crowd a bit, noting that half of his family comes from West Virginia.  He wasn’t sure from where exactly and was awaiting a text reply from his father to find out.  But he said that between his relatives from WV and NC his redneck street cred was pretty strong. It made such lyrics as “my redneck past keeps nipping at my heels” from “Army” ring even more true.

The concert was wonderful.  Ben talked between most of the songs, telling stories–sometimes song origins and sometimes funny stories that resulted from songs–and being the personable dude I’ve heard in his appearances on podcasts like Nerdist and Adam Carolla.  He even enlisted audience participation, such as having us do four part harmony in the bridge to “Bastard.”  Then, after an audience member shouted out a request early on, Ben noted that we were welcome to shout out whatever we wanted to, but he was going to stick to the set list on his paper.  However, we should stick around, cause at the middle of the show shit was going to get crazy.  And he was not wrong.

Just before the last song of the first half of the concert, he explained that during intermission we were all welcome to go into the lobby where we would be given sheets of paper upon which we could write our song requests.  We were then welcome to fold those pieces of paper into airplanes and, upon the resumption of the concert, we would be invited to launch them at the stage and Ben would play the rest of the concert based on those suggestions.

Unfortunately, I could not find paper in the lobby.  Everyone was walking around with multiple pieces of it, but I couldn’t locate the central paper distribution point.  I could have asked someone, sure, but that involves communicating with humans.  I figured it would be fine even if I didn’t get paper, since there was no way the song I wanted to request, “The Luckiest,” wasn’t going to be requested by multiple other people.  Chances were high it would be sung.  Also, my seat was far enough back that there was no way I could engineer a paper airplane that would make the journey to the stage without some added ballast to carry it.  (My seat mates caught a glimpse of the mailing tube my recently purchased Ben Folds tour poster came in and thought for sure I had a brought some kind of paper airplane bazooka.  In retrospect, I could have used the poster to make the biggest paper airplane in the room, which would have certainly drawn the attention of Mr. Folds.  It would also have cost me $30 to do it, but how awesome would that have been?)

Ben and request planesBen came back from intermission and gave us the countdown for the launching of the planes.  Maybe ten percent actually made it to the stage.  Many immediately nose-dived back into the crowd.  There followed much relaunching and re-relaunching until more had made it.  True to his word, Ben played the rest of the show from the request planes, including a few songs that weren’t even his to begin with.  He did a great version of “Tiny Dancer,” a song he had learned for some concerts he’d done with Elton John in Australia.  Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” he claimed to know not even a little of, then played a respectable version that he just made up lyrics to as he went.  Then Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” was requested, which one of Ben’s crew said he’d played once before.  He didn’t know the lyrics, though, so he just sang phonetic gibberish for the whole thing and it sounded perfect.  And, of course, someone had to request Ben’s beautifully arranged cover version of Dr. Dre’s rap song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” from his Magnum Opus album The Chronic.  With a title like that you can probably guess the Joseph Campbell Heroes Journey it’s going to take you on.  If anyone there was shocked at the first verse, they were probably even moreso by the second, which around another third of the audience sang in unison without Ben’s vocal assistance.  (He explained that he doesn’t like to sing that verse, probably due to all the racial slurs, so he was going to let us do that.  I was not among the “us,” though, because I don’t have it memorized and am pretty sure that’s a good thing.)  I imagine there were those present who were shocked by the content of the song, regardless of the beauty of the melody.  Some might have even wondered why Ben would have covered it in the first place.  I think the Village Voice sums it up nicely:  “The greatest way to show up musical misogyny for the absurd bullshit that it is, is to break it down into a ballad and have it gently sung by a charming nerd. Here Ben Folds takes a super-sexist, curse-laden track, flips it on its head and makes Dr. Dre look like an idiotic buffoon. What’s more, taking gangsta speak and enunciating it like a middle-class white guy is always going to be comedy gold…”  And comedy gold it was, even if not everyone in the audience was in on the joke.

At one point during the second half, I thought my unlaunched request for “The Luckiest,” was going to be played when Ben picked an airplane featuring a short letter from a girl in the audience.  She wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that she didn’t want to be the typical white girl who requests “the Luckiest” but she was attending the show with her man who wanted her to feel like the luckiest woman there.  So Ben used the content of that letter as lyrics for a song he improvised on the spot.  I figured that he’d just blend that beautiful and funny tune right into “The Luckiest” afterward.  Nope.  He’d honored the letter of the request and moved on–probably confident that it would turn up in a future airplane.  Sadly, it did not.

It was a great show.  And when Ben returned to the stage for the encore, he announced that he’d received a reply from his father and that his family was from Webster county, which is about as hinterlands as hinterlands go in this state.  His final song was the aptly chosen “Army.”  Once again, his redneck past keeps nipping at his heels.

The “Weird Al” Experience in 31 Year Increments

On September 2, 1985, 31 years ago, I turned 13.  In addition to becoming a teenager, I became a man.  A giant nerd man.  Why?  Because it was for that birthday that I got to see “Weird Al” Yankovic in concert for the first time.

His breakout album, In 3D, had only been released the previous year, ramming his “Beat It” parody, “Eat It,” into the ears of popular culture.  I never purchased the album–at least not with money.  Instead, I traded a cassette of it from my friend Bo.  I forget what he got out of the deal.  Probably some comic books.  But I got the better end of the bargain, for In 3D was a towering achievement to my 12-year-old brain.

“Eat it” might have been the most famous song from the album, but it was loaded with greatness.  I wasn’t always even familiar with the songs and artists he was parodying, but it definitely put those artists on my radar when later I would hear “The Safety Dance” (“The Brady Bunch”) or “Our Love’s in Jeopardy” (“I Lost on Jeopardy”) or “King of Pain” (“King of Suede”). al cassette It also introduced me to the concept of stylistic parody, where Al did not parody a specific song by an artist, but parodied the style of the artist instead.  “Buy Me a Condo” was a basic Bob Marley reggae, without parodying a specific song.  “Mr. Popeil” is a brilliant sendup of the B52s–a realization that only hit me this year when it got stuck in my head one day and I had to stop down and try and recall who it was parodying.  It’s so obvious now.  Sadly, I didn’t know who the B52s were in 1984 and wouldn’t for another five years.  But maybe my favorite song on the album was the final track, an epic five minute long rock tale of about a horror movie called “Nature Trail to Hell.”  The song, I think, is a general parody of heavy metal music–possibly with an eye in the direction of Black Sabbath. Funny thing, though: because the cassette listed all the songs on the album at the bottom, and because of “Nature Trail to Hell” featured the word HELL prominently, and because we were Southern Baptist, I knew there was no way I could ever play that song in my dad’s presence.  I also decided to manage his inevitable unhappiness with my listening material by “accidentally” spilling green metallic paint pen ink all over the bottom of the cardboard insert.  In retrospect, I could have achieved the same effect by spilling it on the clear plastic cassette cover.

While my dad would have had a negative reaction to his son listening to songs with the word HELL in the title, all I really needed to do to counteract this was let him listen to the other songs, which I did.  And thereafter he was a Weird Al” fan too.  When Al was going to appear on the Tonight Show in July of `85, I got to stay up and watch it.  I wondered what song he would do.  Probably “Eat It,” but maybe “Rocky XIII,” I thought.  What I didn’t realize in that moment, though, was that Al had a new album out, that was only a month old, called Dare to Be Stupid, and the song would be from that.  He came out, with his Stupid Band (as were called) and did a parody of a song by the Kinks’ I was unfamiliar with then called “Lola.”  Al’s version was the now classic “Yoda.”

I lost my damned mind.  Not only was Yoda one of my favorite fictional characters, the cleverness of the song just fractured my 12-year-old funny bone.  I told EVERYONE about it.  (And forever after, whenever I heard “Lola” on the radio I was disappointed, because it wasn’t as good as “Yoda.”)

DIGRESSION:  Okay, I just went and looked up the lyrics to “Lola” to see if it was as nonsensical as I remember.  WOW!  That song’s about things 12-year-old Eric didn’t realize it was about and 44-year-old Eric is shocked it took him this long to realize it.  Don’t let the weak-sauce spell-singing put you off as it did me.  That song’s both layered and in-your-face all at the same time.   Pretty impressive, Ray Davies!

Turns out I only thought I lost my mind then.  Not too long later, I learned that “Weird Al” would be appearing in concert on the Mississippi State University campus, scant miles from my house, and BOOM it was gone again..  Not only that, but the concert would be in early September, just in time for my 13th birthday.  Dad said that not only could I go, but I could have a sleepover party and invite all my friends to go as well.  Why the heck not?  The concert was free!

The concert was in a big open grass space in front of Frat Row on the Mississippi State campus–an actual amphitheater is located there now, but in those days it was just open space.  We got there extra early, because it was all lawn seating so we needed to get a good spot.  Then we abandoned this idea to instead go hang out near Al’s tour bus in the hope of getting a glimpse of him as he ran to the stage.  And after much waiting, out he flew and we were mere feet away from “Weird Al” himself.  Then we booked it back around front, as close as we could get for the concert.

The concert was everything I wanted it to be.  He played lots of stuff from In 3D, but also a good mix from Dare to Be Stupid.  (This isn’t from memory.  I found his set list online.)  And there I was, with fingers crossed and prayers uttered, that one of the new songs would be “Yoda.”  But he finished out his set without it, and he and the Stupid Band left the stage.

20160923_092343.jpgBeing a fairly new concert goer at that point in life so I didn’t know much about encores.  (I’d been to some gospel and contemporary Christian shows and about five Tammy Wynette 4th of July concerts in Malden, MO, but I somehow didn’t know from encores.)  But everyone stayed put and continued to clap and cheer until Al took the stage again and finally graced us with “Yoda.”  And I lost my damn mind again.  It was one of the most satisfying things I’d experienced in my life to that point.  Before leaving, I purchased one piece of Al memorabilia, a “Weird Al” button.

Cut to this past summer, when I learned that Al would be playing the Clay Center in Charleston, W.Va., a scant 112 miles from my house, as part of his Manditory Fun tour.  As soon as tickets went on sale to the public, I was on their website.  The wife, unfortunately, could not come with as her new job didn’t let her out until 6p, leaving us not much time to get to Charleston by show time.  She liked “Weird Al” well enough, but is not the life long fan she agree to marry nearly 17 years ago.  As much as I regretted the wife not getting to go, running solo meant I could buy a better seat because the only ones we could have gotten together were in the far back.  I picked an aisle seat, midway back from the stage.  Turned out to be a good choice.

20160922_191957.jpgCut to last night.  I turn up to Charleston, eat some excellent pizza at Graziano’s down town, and make it to the theatre.  I hung out in the lobby for a while, looking at all the other tubby white guys with facial hair.  Some people wore aluminum foil hats.  Some–I believe the ones who had been to the special Al signing beforehand–wore red revolutionary berets.  Some people were dressed as the Amish, I presume either as costumes related to Al’s Amish Paradise, or perhaps the real Amish are just fans.  Regardless, I saw more than one instance of other attendees being extra polite to those dressed like the Amish, which amused me.

I went to find my seat, but went down the wrong corridor and wound up behind the box seats.  I turned around and went back, moving past some nice wooden wall-paneling in the process, then found the left rear entrance to the theatre, which led to my seat.

The show began with the band taking the stage as “Fun Zone,” an instrumental track from UHF, played.  Then a screen lit up above the stage and Al could be seen walking out of one of the other smaller theater spaces at the Clay center and into a hallway, singing his “Happy” parody “Tacky” to camera.  As he moved down the hall and into another lobby area, I began to recognize some of the guts of the Clay Center building itself.  I’ve performed there on a couple of occasions before and have been all through it.  Then I saw a familiar looking area with steps leading up to box seats and then the familiar wood paneling of the corridor leading there and knew Al was approaching the lobby of the main theatre itself.  I think I was one of the first people to turn around and see him come in the back doors of the theatre on my aisle, the camera man and cable tech moving just ahead of him.  Once again, Al passed within mere inches of me on his way to the stage.  Part of me wished that I’d taken a picture or even video of that, but the rest of me told that part of me to shut up and enjoy the moment.  I’m sure the moment was captured by one of the 300 other phones being aimed at Al anyway.  That wasn’t going to be the only brush with Al of the evening, though.

The concert was spectacular though, much like when I was a 13-year-old, I was often unfamiliar with the music being parodied, now due to the fact that I simply don’t listen to the radio.  And between many of the songs were intermissions featuring video of Al from other media throughout his history, such as his appearances on the Simpsons, Scooby Doo, My Pretty Pony, etc., or clips from the ALTV takeovers of MTV.  Usually these would thematically lead into the next song, and gave he and the band time for some pretty impressive costume changes, including into a fat suit for “Fat.”  One of the intermissions featured a very funny ALTV interview with Eminem as the lead in to Word Crimes,” which may be my new favorite Al song ever.   But it was his song “Wanna B Ur Lovr” that brought him out in a sleazy pimp outfit, then down into the aisle again, where he proceeded to sing directly into the faces of a number of ladies, climbing onto the seats on occasion to gyrate in character.  He continued on up the aisle, singing to ladies along the way, until he past my seat again and began singing cheek to cheek at the girl directly behind me.  And she could not have wanted the attention less.  Which he sensed.  So he kept coming back to her with perfect comic timing.  Every time she thought he was finished, he would press his microphone between their faces and sing away again.  It was fabulous.

The songs were great and a nice mix of classic and current.  And even old standards like “Eat It” were spruced up a bit by being sung in the acoustic style of an MTV Unplugged concert, complete with candles.

20160922_212058.jpgAl ended the evening with “Amish Paradise,” said some slow goodbyes and left the stage James Brown style.  (Though, unfortunately, not with the accompanying “Living with a Hernia” which would have made me even happier to see.)  The crowd stood and chanted “Weird Al!  Weird Al!” until at last his band filtered in, dressed in Jedi accouterments.  Then a variety of storm troopers, what looked like a female Jango Fett and Darth Vader himself filed out as backup dancers for Al in Jedi robes, singing “The Saga Begins.”  And this, of course, led right into “Yoda” which made the 13 year-old-boy inside me lose his damn mind all over.

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