Sunday, June 28, 2009

Obscure singer, cash cow for super-star "Weird" Al Yankovic, dead at 50

"Eat It." "Fat." Songs that defined a generation, and propelled Alfred Yankovic, better known as "Weird Al," to international superstardom and pop iconhood.

For the screaming, millions-strong hordes of "Weird" Al fans worldwide, from Baton Rouge to Brussels to Beijing, the name "Michael Jackson" means little or nothing. Yet the case can be made that Yankovic owes his immense success, including the revered title of "King of Comedy/Parody/Spoken Word/Misc.," to this humble singer from Gary, Indiana, now dead at age 50, whose time in the spotlight never came.

Yankovic, now an eccentric recluse long tormented by the ravages of stardom and public pressure, could not be reached for comment about Jackson's death. (Yankovic has not been photographed outside of his specially built "Balogna-Land Ranch" for years and only appears before cameras there wearing surgical masks and dark glasses.) But his publicist released a statement saying that "Mr. Yankovic has always respected the hard work and unappreciated talent that Mr. Jackson displayed throughout his simple, honest career. Mr. Jackson is known to have provided Mr. Yankovic with a few rough, embryonic ideas on which he conducted his dance of artistic genius."

Not much is known about Jackson's early beginnings. As a young boy he was a member of the family group "the Jackson Five," an ensemble specializing in traditional Negro spirituals. They scored a minor hit on the little-known "Motown" label (so-called because of its city of origin, the so-called"Motor City" of Detroit, Michigan) with "I Want You Back," a song on the secular charts that was nevertheless a call for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

After several years working as an undervalued session musician, Jackson finally convinced music producers to allow him solo time in the studio. The resulting track, "Thriller," spent a few weeks on the pop charts as a Halloween novelty hit before fading into oblivion. (The inexplicably long music video for the song ran over ten minutes and cost the studio a fortune, raising the threat of bankruptcy and forcing Jackson to retreat from ever producing a music video again.)

Jackson's next failed endeavor was a duet entitled "The Girl is Mine" with one Paul McCartney, ironically himself also a chronically unsuccessful performer from the group "the Beat-les." (This time-forgotten quartet of Liverpudlians provided the inspiration for the actually world-famous, multi-platinum Rutles.) Hard times fell on Jackson thereafter, and his meager paychecks, culled from TV jingle session work and even street performances, went mainly towards pills, dice, and easy women.

And that is how the proprietor of Jackson's halfway house found him the night of Thursday, June 25: his hand around a bottle, his liver swollen to the size of a football, the soiled results of a night of paid-for coitus strewn about his shabby lodgings. "This guy had it coming," said the proprietor, who requested that his name be withheld. "He was some sort of singer, as far as I could tell, but the way this loser lived you could tell he couldn't write a lick. That bum left me without last month's rent!"

Meanwhile, Yankovic, a celebrity who earns (and squanders) the total income of Jackson's lifetime several times over on a weekly basis, has used his immense influence to once again stifle the investigations of prosecutors who wish to indict him for foul play. According to plaintiffs, Yankovic has engaged in inappropriate behavior with young children on the premises of his Balogna-Land Ranch, including forcing them to polka-dance and to play with his pet hamster.

Yankovic is planning a 50-show string of comeback concerts starting in London.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Can Cosmic Ray Muons and High-Energy X-Rays Detect Gaylords?

I was pleased to open the New York Times' letters section to see that one of my physics professor in college--and author of the cleverly titled piece, "In Defense of Homophobia"--has gotten a letter in the the paper published.  The topic?  Nuclear weapons smuggling and detection.  Glad to see you're using that tenure position to talk about things you actually know something about, Dr. Katz!

Friday, June 12, 2009

I See Dead Pit Bulls

Animal lovers poured their emotions and their wallets into this week's story that a Pit Bull in Baltimore City had been purposefully set on fire, and as a result, euthanized.  They protested. They raised $26,000 as a bounty on the killers' head.  The Baltimore Sun ran headlines for days about the story.  Who did it?  (Two teenagers.)  Was the pit bull (name: Pheonix) previously used for dog fights?  (Duh.)  For humanists like myself, things were looking rough for a few days.  And then the Sun published a much appreciated little story about Veda Allen, whose son was pointlessly shot in the head and killed almost twenty years.  Long story short: nobody gave a shit.  Nor do I remember people spontaneously raising $26,000 for any of the dozens of motivationless murders that happen every year in Baltimore.  Hats off to the Sun, then, for putting some context on this story.