August 13, 2014 | by Lary Wallace
Talking to Weird Al about his process.
It’s not that there wasn’t a self-referential pop culture before “Weird Al” Yankovic; it’s just that those of us under forty might have a hard time remembering it. Just as difficult to imagine are those who, even after all these years—after all the albums and songs and verses, after all the puns and parodies and poetry—still think of Weird Al as nobody more than that guy who rhymes about food over popular music. Weird Al engages the entire culture, in all its functions and facets, through his lyrics, his videos, his original musical-style parodies. Just how he does it all remains a mystery no matter how often he explains it.
When he explained it to me recently, by Skype, he said much that I’d never heard before, even though, like most culture vultures my age, I’ve followed his career since the early eighties. And if a lot of those early songs did in fact find their rhymes in the names of food, it’s also true that a lot of them did not. His songs have become more intricate with each new album, even as they’ve become more expansive. And more popular, too. It’s easy to forget that Weird Al’s career, after an early but tough start, nearly failed to make it very far out of the eighties. It wasn’t until his parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“Smells Like Nirvana”) that he safely established full traction and momentum.
That was 1992. Since then, his career has been an inverted, warped variation on the typical pop-music career, just as his songs have always been inverted, warped variations on typical pop music. In 2006, he released his first album ever to break the top ten (Straight Outta Lynwood, featuring “White & Nerdy”). And now, eight years after that, and thirty-five years after his very first single—“My Bologna,” which, yeah, is about food—his new album, Mandatory Fun, has gone number one. It’s not just the first time Weird Al’s done it; it’s the first time any comedian’s done it since Allan Sherman, with My Son, the Nut in 1963. Read More »
January 15, 2014 | by Lary Wallace
The way the story most often gets told, Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On (1971) liberated himself from Motown’s formulaic method of music-making and achieved total artistic independence, whereupon the music—if not, to be sure, the man himself—went on to live happily ever after. But the story gets told incompletely, because What’s Going On was only the start of it—it was how Gaye leveraged the potential for his independence, but it wasn’t how he ventured out and completely seized that independence. To tell that story, you have to tell about Trouble Man.
It’s a story that can now be told more elaborately, with a wonderful fortieth anniversary reissue of the original album, complete with some newly released material and a supplementary booklet. Trouble Man is absolutely sui generis within the Marvin Gaye canon for being not only a blaxploitation film soundtrack—the only film score he would ever do—but for being jazz-based and largely instrumental. The booklet does a commendable job articulating Trouble Man’s importance, while the artifact itself sings, as always, with perfect eloquence to the same thing. Except that now it sings even better. Read More »
April 15, 2013 | by Lary Wallace
In the study of the Jim Thompson House & Museum in Bangkok, just above Thompson’s old desk, are two separate horoscopes, foretold and framed, hanging on the wall. One of them predicts good luck in 1959, the year Thompson chose to move into this house, retired from the U.S. Army and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), having already relocated to Bangkok and gotten rich revitalizing the Thai silk industry. The other horoscope included in the frame predicts bad luck at the age of 61 for he who was born in the Year of the Horse. Thompson had been born in the Year of the Horse, and in 1967, at the age of 61, he went for a walk in the woods of Malaysia just south of here and never came back. Not even his remains have ever been found.
Thompson’s house is now a museum, although during his lifetime this city would never have accommodated such a thing. He perfected a popular silk that was better than other silks—a silk cut from lengthier cloths and colored by stronger and faster-acting and better-varied dyes. When it was chosen for all the silks used in the movie version of The King and I (1956), it became more popular still. At the time, Thailand had given up on its own silk industry, importing a cheaper fabric from other countries. The localized empire Thompson established would improve the lives of Bangkok’s citizenry, handsomely employing them in a business benevolently run. Still, his enemies were legion, and they extended all the way up into society’s highest strata. The mystery of just why and how Thompson disappeared, and by the agency of whom, is one that persists still and probably always will.
October 1, 2012 | by Lary Wallace
There were few places on the ship less conducive to reading than the library. In the summer of 2000, in my early twenties, I was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier. The library sat directly beneath the flight deck, which means that in addition to the thump, rattle, and screech of the planes as they landed, there was the heat from the catapults and their fuel, a heat so thick it invaded your respiration like some perniciously odorless fume, trespassing on your psyche and then inhabiting it. Reading there was out of the question, but we weren’t on the ship to read. Which is why it always surprised me how many great books they had in that library.
I found one of the greatest purely by chance. I knew neither the book, Memoir of a Gambler, nor its author, Jack Richardson. It was the title that hooked me. Our ship would soon be returning to San Diego, after a six-month cruise throughout the Pacific Ocean and Arabian Sea, and so I knew I would soon be gambling again. Having already become a devotee of the sports-gambling culture of San Diego—or, more specifically, its adjunct playground of Tijuana—I needed little encouragement. But in the book I now held in my hands, I would find plenty of encouragement anyway.
On the cover, this Jack Richardson struck a classically arch pose, arms crossed in a subdued brown sport coat and vest, staring self-importantly into the camera; beside him, on a circular bar-table sat a gleaming, thickly cut glass ashtray, a lone cigarillo perched on its edge. The back cover featured a blurb from William Styron (a notoriously selective blurber, even on behalf of friends), proclaiming, “Jack Richardson is a wonderful writer and his book is a powerful portrayal of one man’s obsession—sad, hilarious, erotic, and, above all, pitilessly honest. I read Memoir of a Gambler with fascination and delight.” The bio inside the back flap revealed that the author was a distinguished playwright who had also written for many of the magazines I cherished most, and then, on the copyright page, a partial explanation for why I did not recognize him from any of those magazines: “Copyright ©1979.”
May 30, 2012 | by Lary Wallace
Dick DeBartolo’s first piece for Mad was published in 1962, when he was still in high school, and his work has appeared in every single issue since June 1966. He has written for sections throughout the magazine, but his greatest claim is as a satirist of movies and TV shows—that is, as a writer of the kind of elaborate pop-culture parodies that have, arguably, been the magazine’s signature brand of humor ever since they began running them regularly, about a dozen issues into their existence.
The influence of these satires—as written by DeBartolo as well as Harvey Kurtzman, Larry Siegel, Frank Jacobs, Arnie Kogen, Stan Hart, Lou Silverstone, Desmond Devlin, and others—has ranged well beyond the realm of illustrated humor, or even comedy generally; it’s entered the cultural water supply, enriching the work of filmmakers, politicians, authors, actors, and advertisers. Once you’ve acknowledged this, you’re only one short step away from acknowledging DeBartolo’s particular influence on culture at large. Read More »