Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic's photo book "Black & White & Weird All Over"

Over the past decade or so, “Weird Al” Yankovic has achieved some of the pop-culture renown that his fans feel he’s due.

You can count me among them. As a child of the 1980s, my brain was appreciably warped by Yankovic albums such as “In 3-D,” “Dare to Be Stupid” and “Polka Party.” The colorful, Mad Magazine-style aesthetic, intentionally hokey lyrics and PG-rated jokes, combined with Yankovic’s ear for melody, produced deep and lasting marks on my brain.

Of course, much of Yankovic’s current renown has arrived courtesy of people my age — fans who are now in their 30s and 40s, casting him for cameos and in cartoons and sketch TV, referencing his work in their own, and otherwise paying tribute to a craft that seems both disposable and timeless (novelty songs, that is, though of the platinum-selling variety).

The not-so-surprising twist in the gorgeous new coffee-table book, “Black & White & Weird All Over: The Lost Photographs of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic ’83-’86,” is that there was more artistry there than we were led to believe. Not only in Yankovic’s comedy, which is always harder to produce than it looks, but in the people he surrounded himself with. Immortalizing him in cool, black-and-white photographs may seem the stuff of Old Hollywood and legacy-tending magazine shoots. I assure you it is not.

Released on Nov. 17 by 1984 Publishing, “Black & White & Weird All Over” is the work of Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, Yankovic’s drummer since 1980 and his de facto archivist. As a musician, photographer, videographer and collector of “Weird Al” memorabilia, no one could be closer to the surreal, unplanned moments that make up this visual guide to Yankovic’s fertile, 1983-’86 phase.

That was the period when he transformed from a skinny, mild-mannered squeezebox singer of cult fame to a globally beloved (if still skinny and mild-mannered) pop artist, pumping new life into a genre that had been largely swept out of the mainstream. Thanks to MTV, the success of parodies such as “Ricky” and “Eat It” made Yankovic a household name alongside many of the artists he mocked.

The 20,000 photos — on tour, in the studio and on TV and movie sets — that Schwartz edited down to produce this book doubtlessly contain more moments than he could comprehend. It’s dedicated “to Weird Al’s fans who have patiently waited more than 30 years for these photos to surface.”

The best stuff captured here is Yankovic at work, behind the scenes, on the “Ricky,” “Eat It” and “Living with a Hernia” video shoots. Short introductions set up the chapters, which also include shots from studio overdub and mixing sessions. The equipment alone (reel-to-reel machines, hulking analog mixing boards) is worth a peek for gear fetishists.

The book is, indeed, black and white all over, from the crisp, glossy images to the sharp, museum-gift-shop design (I mean that in the best way). Some are cheap, snapped-off photos that are blown up and grainier for it, catching off-the-cuff, between-takes Yankovic in costume, or clowning with co-stars on shoots. There’s silliness and boredom, tension and nerves.

As Schwartz writes in the intro, most of these have never been published, existing only as contact sheets filed away after he (for reasons he can’t recall) gave up on black-and-white film after 1986. As Yankovic himself dryly observes in the foreward: “This book will undoubtedly appeal to both Weird Al completists and those who enjoy black-and-white photographs taken by drummers.”

The thing is, if that drummer takes several thousand of photographs over the course of several years, he’ll end up with a few hundred pages of poster-quality images. That’s the treatment they get here: lovingly printed, often full-page scenes that are woozily kinetic (remember motion blur?), arrestingly intimate and cinematic in their framing.

It may seem an almost hilariously overdone homage to a highly specific period of Yankovic’s career. But the truth is his self-effacing persona conceals one of the late 20th and early 21st century’s greatest bodies of cultural critique — even if it’s in comedic-song form.

“I’m happy that anybody shows up to my concerts,” Yankovic told me in 2012, a few days before playing one of his characteristically sold-out Colorado shows. “I’m comfortable playing a 30,000-seat arena, and I’m fine playing a bar mitzvah.”

Such optimism. But even if he does hit that muddy patch in the future, Yankovic would probably find it funny.

“Here’s to the NEXT 40 years!” he writes in the forward. “(Ha ha, just kidding, we’ll be dead soon.)”

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