When You’re a Stranger
This was 1985. We were living in New Berlin, Wisconsin—Waukesha County’s answer to a question Milwaukee hadn’t posed. My mom had, as far as I could tell, the perfect job. She was the owner/operator of Inkadinkadoo (a personalized rubber stamp company—as though you didn’t know that) and she sold her fine, floppy wares from a pushcart in the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee. This gave me occasion on weekends to go with her and roam the then seedy and just barely not-defunct mall. Usually this amounted to hanging out with the roving gangs of breakdancers in the Speisegarten, competitively eating corn dogs and watching the mechanical vest-wearing bear unicycle back and forth three stories above unsuspecting mall-goers. I was sure I was going see something awesome and tragic there, but I never did.
That summer, however, like many intrepid Milwaukee business owners, my mother took her pushcart to the shore of Lake Michigan—to Summerfest, the self-proclaimed biggest music festival in the world—where pretty much anybody who would have been at Grand Avenue was anyway. And because I couldn’t entirely be trusted to be alone all day back in New Berlin, she brought me to the festival where I would be, at least theoretically, safe and happy.
I was not. For starters, neither corn dogs nor break dancers were in as ample supply as they were at the mall. Second, for a child on his own, the fairgrounds were a desolation of drunkards, tchotchke hawkers, and fried eggplant eaters. Not to mention the fact that everybody was a solid foot or more taller than I was. I wandered around, longing to be one of the groping couples above on the Skyglider instead of stuck down below, gawking at other people’s sunburnt backfat, hopeless and sorrowful as only the son of a rubber stamp pushcart owner can be. But then I found myself moving not against but rather with the crowd until they settled collectively on what was, apparently, for many of them, the ultimate goal and raison d’être for both their lives and Summerfest itself.
It was the Pabst Stage (then an unironic, decidedly un-hipster brand) and in the twilight I could make out roadies preparing the set for, as best I could tell, some kind of medical demonstration. Except for the fact of several guitars, microphones and amps, however, it looked uncannily like a hospital. And then, without fanfare, introduction, or fair warning, a fleet of scrub-wearing, face-masked musi-physicians stormed the stage, picked up their instruments and readied themselves. The keyboard player spread his legs wide as though preparing for some kind of assault or anticipated tackle and, with a nod toward the wings, began a simple, plodding series of instantly recognizable chromatic notes. Dum dum da dum, dum dum dum dum dum da dum—and so it repeated. I knew what it was—something popular from Madonna that my own pseudo-edgy skate grommet identity was supposed to shield me from, but it was 1985. One could not know Madonna no matter how desperate and ardent his desire.
Out then came another doctor, this one with large, aviator glasses, scrubs, and an abomination of a hair cut: a Jheri Curl-mullet. He took his position behind a patient on a gurney, and with a flourish of his soggy hair he started singing in a piercing and off-key falsetto —it was something about being last in his class in med school, I think, and I did not like was I was seeing or hearing.
I was twelve, mind you. I knew what sarcasm was, but parody was still as remote as a French kiss from an eighth-grader—in another country altogether as far as my sixth- going on seventh-grade self was concerned. I knew who Weird Al was, but I also knew what Faces of Death was, and at that moment in time they seemed to be one and the same. The crowd got suddenly drunker than perhaps they were, but it might have just been a kind of self-defense. Regardless, I wanted out of there and to find my mom and to quiet myself by playing with the sheets of rubber letters, arranging my name on stamps with cheery suns or simple rainbows, but there was no escaping this beery, gelatinous mass of people until the song was done.
A few sexy nurses wearing those doctor’s face masks pranced about like woodland erotic dancer osteopaths, while one waited more attentively behind the surgeon. “Better give me all your gauze, nurse,” the Weird One sang, and, with that, hoisted from under the gurney a chainsaw, which he proceeded to crank to life with Dr. Frankenstein’s zealotry and then, in the midst of the sputtering two-cycle engine smoke, he plunged the saw straight into the apparently insufficiently-etherized patient who lurched up in shock.
And while I cannot say that I have, in the intervening years, come to think of that as any kind of seminal moment in my intellectual life, I did recognize there, at my very first bit of live music, a kind of aliveness and risky intellectual play that I have since come to think of as absolute hallmarks of the essay. As often as I am able, I remind myself that the word essay comes from the French where it is as much of a verb as it is a noun, and there, in that great French sense, it means not, like our saddest friends and students fear, that it is a tedious demonstration or re-rehearsal of some already arrived at proof or conclusion, a kind of depressed autopsy of a childhood long lost or dead, but rather to essay—or, if we prefer the francais—to essai means to endeavor, to attempt, to try. And by try, I think it means we must not only court the possibility of failure, but, in fact, desire it, aim for it, lust for it rather that its smug opposite.
Sadly, in southeast Wisconsin in the central 1980s, intellectual play was not something that I found myself batting away like mosquitoes or Illinois tourists. Like, I imagine, many of us who came of age in that barren wasteland of the mind, nearly all of what I intellectually consumed came down to pop music, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and unfortunately scrambled adult movies on Cinemax after my parents had succumbed to fatigue and/or Brandy Alexanders. And while I watched the Superfriends and Batman and, perhaps the most stimulating of all cartoons, Bullwinkle and Friends—but it aired at 5:00 am and, though I was occasionally able to rally myself from sleep to watch it, I was certainly far from being able to appreciate its many nuances—and, of course, unless a show was a rerun, we were by and large unable to truly appreciate or otherwise dig into any given text on TV. Therefore, music was really the only text—I mean, I know there at least conceptually were books, but the only ones I remember being around my house were the uncracked biographies of heads of state or captains of industry—Iacocca by Iacocca for instance—and so it was music that I really regard as the first thing that taught me how, strangely, to read and, via bands like Devo and Camper Van Beethoven and the Circle Jerks and Wisconsin’s own Violent Femmes and, yes, especially Weird Al, I was exposed to a kind of vigorous response to and rejection of the prepackaged, shellacked mid-eighties blight of Madonna Duran Duran and Huey Lewis and Alex P. Keaton and Ronald Reagan. Sure, there too was Bruce Springsteen and an early and excruciatingly earnest U2 and many, many others coming from the darker corners of the punk and rock and the otherwise independent music world, but they were decidedly not playing to 12 year olds, and their concerns pretty well entirely eclipsed my own.
Which brings me back to the Weird One. His art was that it was conspicuously not-art. It was mock art—a kind of art that smears its ugly toes right over the line of appropriate and fair use, I’m sure, and it calls to mind the much more contemporary conversations still on-going in nonfiction these days around John D’Agata and David Shields about authorship and curation and so forth, but Weird Al? Weird Al was doing this not just for we few austere nonfictioneers, but on stage in front of thousands of—ok, granted, not necessarily all mindful and cerebral listeners, but still—live and in person, Weird Al is performing a kind of simultaneous rejection/critique/celebration of the absolute trash that was what we lived in in the 80s. Before more conspicuous and haughty forms of art became available to me—and it took me a while—I’m talking like another fifteen years and grad school here—before there was Richard Hugo to tell me that poetry says that me and the world still stand a chance, there was Weird Al, spanning that strange distance between pop culture, politics, adulthood, and adolescence all the way down to me, helping me feel my heart beat for the very first time, and letting me think about it too while I listened. His was a music that held on to two truths at the same time: the sorry truth of a culture in the shitter, and also the truth that a sense of humor and self-awareness is a kind of antidote that stops the sickness from the first truth from killing or maiming or, worse yet, from forcing you to grow up at all, if ever. The ultimate truth being that you can, even when everyone else seems to presume that you’re not capable of paying attention, be a kid and be awake.
Sometime later, I woke up on a nearby picnic table, clinging to an empty container of Venice Club fried clams. The show was over, and it was very dark, and, as I rolled over onto my back, I watched the Skyglider hoist couple after necking-couple above me, and I was glad, for once, not to be one of them, glad, still, to be just a kid.
Matthew Batt is the author of Sugarhouse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) a memoir about fixing up a crack house and his life along with it. A recipient of an 2010 NEA grant as well as a McKnight Foundation fellowship this year, Batt was the writer in residence for the Aspen Writers' Institute this July. He's finished a collection of essays called The Enthusiast and is currently working on a novel set in 1985 Milwaukee called National Avenue. He's an associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.