In my previous post, I shared some memories of my old friend, Alex "Kazz" McDougall, in the wake of his recent death. I will share more about him in this post, and I will open once again by linking to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, please, please call that number.
I wrote a post last week, examining the reasons why I still keep all my old stuff up here on this website -- even the stuff that's regrettable, embarrassing, or offensive. I gave a list of reasons, or maybe excuses, for why I don't just delete it.
Now I know another reason: because a day may come when someone is gone, and this is what we have to remember them by.
Kazz made this:
That is an MS Paint mashup of a video game reference and an inside joke. As ephemera go, it doesn't get any more ephemeral than that.
And now I look at it and I tear up. Because my friend made it, and I know that he will never make anything else again.
Sometimes you can't know what things will matter. The silliest, most inconsequential thing could mean everything someday.
Kazz was a major contributor to KateStory XIII and XIV (with a few posts to follow in XV and one-offs in XVII and XVIII). Those posts aren't all gold; there's some puerile look-at-me-being-edgy stuff in there. (Not as much as XII with its Hitler and bestiality jokes, but up there.) But some of them are. He gave us a new hero in hardboiled detective Gok Tinnik. He fleshed out Janey's backstory. And, when it all started to get too overwrought, he blew the whole thing up with magic pirates.
Kazz made things. He wrote, he drew, he made videos. I'd like to hang on to those memories, those things that my friend did -- or, at least, I'd like to hang on to some of them.
I can't recommend looking at the recent videos on his YouTube channel. They are videos of a man who is not well, a man who I can scarcely recognize. They are not the way I want to remember my friend.
But here's the oldest video in his feed, a video from happier times, from 2006, a time when YouTube was young -- and, god damn, I can't look at it without thinking "so were we":
That's Kazz. Kazz the goofball; Kazz the oddball. Kazz just as I remember him.
His videos, his pictures, his writing -- these have become a precious, all-too-finite resource. I'd like to find more of them, and share more of them. I've got some old hard drives to go through, some old threads on fossilized.brontoforum.us, and we'll see if I can coax archive.org into giving up any gems from the old Pyoko days.
These mementos -- they will never be the man. The man is gone. Those of us who knew him are shattered. We will each do the best we can to pick up the pieces, in our own way. My way is to be a packrat, to save everything, to try and look back to the old days for comfort. My way is to remember.
And I will never forget him. He was one-of-a-kind.
I knew a guy named Alex McDougall. But everyone just called him Kazz. Even when we met him in person.
If you knew Kazz too -- and, if you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you did -- then you know what this post is going to be about.
Kazz struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. And last weekend he took his own life.
I'm heartbroken. If you knew Kazz, I'm sure you are too.
So the first thing I'm going to do is talk about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you have suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800-273-8255 and get help. I don't know who you are out there reading this right now. I just know that Kazz was somebody special, that the world was a better place with him in it, and whoever you are, there are people who feel the same way about you. Hell, there are total strangers, people who have never even met you, who feel that way about you, and they're on the other end of that phone call.
Pass that along to anybody who you think needs to hear it.
And now I'm going to talk about Kazz.
I'd known Kazz since 2002, a time when people still used messageboards, and "Internet celebrity" meant guys like Scott Sharkey. Sharkey had a community built around him, in the #finalfight IRC channel; one of the admins there, who went by Terra in those days and goes by Maou in these ones, started a messageboard at boards.pyoko.org.
Kazz signed up in the early days. He posted a GIF called Man Gun. It was a bipedal horse, holding a gun that fired men instead of bullets. I believe the gun said "MAN GUN" on the side.
He started a thread called "Pretend It's a Restaurant" (subtitle: "Pretending is fun!").
We didn't know what to make of this guy at first. He wasn't always funny. But he was always weird. Off-kilter.
In time, he and I became friends. Though anyone who remembers those days will tell you that sometimes, we had a funny way of showing it.
Kazz and I fought, a lot, over trivial nonsense that I mostly don't even remember. We were a couple of opinionated, egotistical guys in our early twenties, and we pushed each other's buttons -- sometimes by accident, and sometimes on purpose. We weren't always friendly -- but we were always friends. When push came to shove, we had each other's backs. We gave each other plenty of shit, but if anyone else gave one of us shit, the other one would come to his defense.
We'd joke about it, too; about how we were always at loggerheads. Remember when The Colbert Report first started, and there was a recurring segment with the On-Notice Board? There was a fan site at the time that allowed you to make your own On-Notice Board. Here are a couple of iterations of mine:
Anyway, we outgrew all that nonsense by our mid-twenties.
In fact, I'm pretty sure I remember our last fight. Not the fight itself; I have no idea what it was about. But how it ended.
It was 2007. I don't remember the particular details; we were mad at each other about some damn thing or another again. Arc, who was the guy in charge of the Pyoko boards at the time, said he'd had enough, and laid down the law: we were no longer allowed to speak to each other, or even mention each other, or he would ban us.
To this day I don't know if that was administrative overreach or a deft bit of psychology. But it wasn't long before Kazz was IMing me with, essentially, "Can you believe this shit? Who does Arc think he is?"
Arc united us -- against him. We never fought again.
Anyway, that rule went by the wayside when Sharkey quit the Pyoko boards and started a new messageboard (then called the Worst Forums Ever, now called Brontoforumus). He kicked it off with this banner:
That's Sharkey on the left, me in the middle, and Kazz on the right.
I'd like to say that Sharkey chose the two of us because we were such valued leaders in the community, but the truth is, as best I recall, he chose us because we'd posted recent photos that made good reference for the whole Communist propaganda poster motif he was going for: Kazz with his head raised, looking at something off in the distance, and me with facial hair of the sort every Communist propaganda poster needs. (Kazz and I did end up being pretty much the two guys running WFE for awhile after that, though.)
We all met once, the three of us, Sharkey and Kazz and me. It was in the summer of 2004; a bunch of the Pyoko gang gathered in San Diego.
The most memorable moment of that trip -- to me, anyway -- is that Kazz kicked a beer can into the back of my head.
I told the story on the Pyoko boards at the time, and maybe someday I'll be able to find that post on archive.org. In the meantime, here's how I remember it fourteen years later:
We'd been looking for a karaoke bar -- Terra's idea -- and had utterly failed to find one. We were walking through the parking lot of a non-karaoke bar, and I heard my friend Jon (not a member of the Pyoko boards, but a San Diego native we'd invited along) call out "Thad, look out!"
I didn't have time to turn my head before a half-empty can of Keystone collided with it.
I turned around and tried to read the riot act to whoever had done that -- my exact words were "What the fuck is wrong with you people?" -- but you can only have so much success chewing somebody out when you're trying not to laugh. It was funny, God damn it, and I knew it.
Kazz later explained that he'd seen the half-empty beer can on the ground and had the bright idea that he would kick it up into the air and it would get beer on everyone. He had not, of course, meant to kick it into the back of my head; there's no way he could have done that on purpose.
I referenced that event in the fifteenth (and, it's probably fair to say fourteen years later, final) installment of The Mighty Trinity, which ends with Kazz showing up to kick a beer can into a monster's head.
Kazz himself did not contribute anything to that particular story, except the stick figure body that I affixed his head to. It was part of a cartoon he drew called "Meat Man", after he ate chili that was too spicy for him.
I'm pretty sure I've got the full Meat Man drawing saved somewhere, but I haven't been able to find it yet. I think I'm going to need to do some excavation in some old hard drives. I want to save whatever I can of my friend's work.
I think that's a topic for next time. I think I've rambled enough for one post -- but I've still got more to say about Kazz.
I had always hoped that he would come out of all this okay, and someday we would see each other again and I would buy him a Coke and we would laugh about the old days -- the good times, the bad times, the what-the-hell-were-we-thinking times.
Sometimes, life deals you a soul-crushing disappointment. Knowing that Kazz will never get the chance to sit down and laugh about the old days, not with me and not with anyone else -- it's a hard, hard thing to take.
There's a line from Watership Down that's been bouncing through my head: "My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today."
I don't know if Kazz was a Watership Down fan. I do, however, know that he was a Flight of the Conchords fan, and so if he were with us today, he'd probably respond with, "Women love that sensitive nautical shit."
I think about Wizardry sometimes. I first played it on the Mac.
If you pull up the original Wizardry on archive.org, or if you go looking for screenshots, here's the kind of thing you can expect to see:
You can get more detailed maze graphics by maximizing the window, but at 512x342 that comes at the cost of having to move other windows on top of each other to fit:
Of course, if you want to get fancy, you can try emulating a later version of MacOS with a higher resolution, and then you'll have plenty of room. Like these madmen here:
At any rate, I've gone back and tried some of the other versions of Wizardry, but I still think the Mac version is the best, with its GUI and its more detailed graphics. It's not perfect -- look how small the maze window is, even at its larger size; and why does the Castle window need to be visible when you're in the maze? -- but the game is well-suited for a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface.
The first five Wizardry games aren't currently sold for modern systems, but GOG and Steam both sell Wizardry 6 bundled with DOSbox. So why not sell the Mac versions of the earlier games and bundle them with Mini vMac? I guess I'm not sure what the legality is of distributing old versions of the MacOS; they might need a license from Apple in addition to getting one from whatever company owns Wizardry these days.
I've also often wondered why nobody's ever remade the original Wizardry for modern computers, taking the Mac version as a base and adding quality-of-life improvements. The closest thing I've ever seen is a Japanese remake of the first three games called Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga that was released for Windows (as well as PlayStation and Saturn) in 1998.
Llylgamyn Saga is not quite what I'm talking about; I tried it a few years back and my impression was that it was a Windows port of a console game and its interface felt like it. It simply didn't handle as smoothly with a mouse as the Mac version.
What I'd like to see? Remake the original game. Use touchscreen devices as the primary platform. Copy Etrian Odyssey's mechanic of using the touchscreen to map the dungeon as you go, the way we had to use graph paper in the old days.
Using half a phone screen wouldn't be so different from EO using the DS/3DS touchscreen. The biggest immediate hurdle I can think of is fat fingers: Etrian Odyssey is designed for a stylus; drawing with a finger would mean the grid squares would have to be larger. Pinch-to-zoom would be a good idea, or just a toggle to zoom the map in or out. Build to accommodate different resolutions; there's no reason a tablet user should be stuck with a map that's sized for a phone. Of course you could hide the map during combat, menu navigation, in town -- anywhere where it's not necessary. Use a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface similar to the Mac version; when you go into town, you can drag-and-drop characters between the active party and the reserves.
Add some modern quality-of-life improvements, too. Obviously the weapons shop should behave like it would in a modern RPG: compare a highlighted weapon to the weapon a character currently has equipped. (If it'll fit onscreen, show how it compares to the weapons every character has equipped.)
And allow users to toggle the oldschool rules. Let them play with original inscrutable spell names, or with simple, plain-English ones. Allow them to disable characters aging on a class change, or the possibility of a teleport spell going wrong and permakilling the entire party. Hell, allow a mode where players can navigate through the maps they've made and point to the square they want to teleport to, or even set waypoints so they don't have to do that every time. Maybe even allow them the option of seeing monsters, treasure chests, and other points of interest before walking into them.
Once you've rebuilt the first game in this new engine, it wouldn't be hard to do the second and third. 4-7 would require more work but would be possible. Probably not 8, as it abandons the grid format in favor of free movement.
Hell, open it up. Since I'm dreaming anyway, I might as well say open-source the whole thing -- but failing that, at least release a level editor.
Maybe the best way to go about this would be for a fan group to start by creating a game that's Wizardry-like but noninfringing -- similar D&D-style rules, similar generic fantasy races, classes, and monsters, but different maps, spells, enemy behaviors, etc. -- and then, once they've released a finished game, make an offer to whoever it is who owns the Wizardry copyrights these days to port the original games to the new engine.
Then it occurred to me that it's been awhile since I told the story of the text that appears right above it -- the story of why this site is called corporate-sellout.com.
The year was, as best I can recall, 2001. It was my first year in college. I was chatting online with an old friend from high school, who was attending a different school and was in her second year. She told me that, after spending her first year undeclared, she'd finally decided on a major: English.
I was taken aback by this: what kind of a job can you get with an English major? As far as I was concerned, the purpose of a degree was to get a good job and make good money. I told my friend, with the certainty of an 18-year-old college freshman, that she was making a mistake. That I love writing too, but I'd made a pragmatic choice instead and chosen a degree in computer science -- which would surely lead to a six-figure income someday.
She responded, "It sounds to me like I'm studying to be an artist and you're studying to be a corporate sellout."
I remembered that conversation a few years later, when it came time to finally give this website its own domain name.
And I remembered it in 2013, when I was working as a temp on the web design team at GoDaddy, and I ran into my old friend in the breakroom. She was a supervisor in another department.
English degree, compsci degree -- we'd both wound up working in the same office.
Aside from changing my photo at the top of the homepage, I've also changed the site's tagline.
The previous tagline, "Now works on phones!" was a double entendre (of the non-sexy kind): at the time I wrote it, I had not only just converted the site over to mobile-friendly design, but I was also (briefly) working a temp job where I was setting up a new phone system. Now works on phones, geddit?
The new tagline is Uncle Thad's Propaganda Bubble.
See, the other week, some guy in the Techdirt comments said this to me:
BTW: keep pushing your web-site because proves that you make your own propaganda bubble and only read what agree with
Now, I never would have seen the post at all, thanks to my Hide Techdirt Comments script. But another poster responded to that post and quoted it. So, quick side note: please don't quote the trolls; I've blocked them for a reason, and that reason is that I do not want to see what they are saying.
That aside, though, I kind of loved the "propaganda bubble" comment -- not least because, at the time the troll accused me of using my website as a propaganda bubble, I had written a total of four posts in all of 2018, and all four of them were lengthy, digressive posts about how much I like "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Now, the troll actually did accidentally stumble onto something resembling a point: I am posting to this blog more these days, and, as I noted last week, that's specifically because I want to spend less time dealing with assholes.
Assholes being the keyword, of course. Not people who disagree with me. I've got no problem engaging with people who disagree with me; I do it all the time. But, much as trolls like to bleat "You're only calling me a troll because I disagree with you!", there is, of course, a difference.
As part of my policy of updating the photo at the top of the homepage at least once a decade, I've updated the photo at the top of the homepage. It's cropped from this one:
That's me on the left. I grew a beard again. So for those of you who read this site for the Shaving tag and have spent the past nine months awaiting my next shaving post with bated breath, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you.
I don't usually dress that fancily. I am dressed fancily because I am at a wedding in that photograph. Specifically, Jim's wedding. Jim is the guy in the middle, and David (right) and I went to his wedding a few weeks back.
The three of us went to NAU together. I see David a few times a year, but hadn't seen Jim in years; it was nice to have a chance to catch up. Nice wedding, nice vacation, and his new wife Liz is a lovely person as well.
If you want some idea of the kind of wild party animals the three of us were in college, I leave you with this: when David and I introduced ourselves to Jim's mom, her response was, "Oh. Mystery Science Theater 3000."
James Gunn recently got fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 over some tasteless and offensive jokes he made on Twitter some years back.
That's not the subject of this post. You want to read someone's opinion about the James Gunn story, there are plenty of places to do that.
But it did get me thinking. You know who else has said some stupid shit on the Internet that's still up there where anybody can see it? Me.
I've had this blog since 1999. I was seventeen years old when I started it. Some of the content is even older -- KateStory started in 1994.
So, given that this website has a pretty steady stream of stuff I've written that stretches all the way back to when I was twelve? Yeah, let's just say I've had plenty of opportunities to say things that were really dumb. (At least unlike James Gunn, I have the "I was in my teens and twenties" excuse.)
I can think of specific examples, but I feel like pointing them out isn't going to help anybody. If I said something hurtful a long time ago, and I start talking about it again now, I feel like that's hurtful too, even if I'm doing it just to apologize.
So I won't. But you know the type of stuff. I used words I don't use anymore. I made jokes I don't make anymore. Transgression just for the sake of transgression -- say something offensive for a cheap laugh, then when somebody says "Hey, that's offensive," say it's their fault for being offended, and laugh at them.
So if you're going through this site, particularly through the really old stuff, and you find something that makes you say "Aw, come on, man" -- yeah, that's how I feel about it too, and I'm sorry.
Of course, all this raises another question: why keep it? Why keep all the old stuff, even the stuff that I'm embarrassed by or ashamed of? It's my blog, after all; I can delete anything I feel like.
I guess there are a few reasons.
I'm kind of a pack rat. I have trouble getting rid of stuff. I've still got my '90s Spider-Man and X-Men comics -- and I hate that stuff. It's just that actually going to the trouble of getting rid of it (seeing if any of it's worth anything, selling the stuff that is, donating the stuff that isn't) seems harder than just hanging on to it. And my blog doesn't take up nearly as much space as all those shortboxes.
I have a genuine affection for some of this stuff. The KateStory in particular. It's something my friends and I did together when we were kids. Sure, there's adolescent bickering, and dumbass "edgy" "humor", and there are plenty of places where it outright makes me cringe. But it's my friends and me, goofing around, saying whatever damn fool thing popped into our heads. To me, at least, the good outweighs the bad.
If I'm being honest... To a large extent, this blog shows me growing up -- transforming from a dumbass kid into a guy in his mid-30s who is hopefully at least a little bit less of a dumbass. If I cut out the stuff I said and did that was bad or wrong, I'd be cutting out the actual growing up part. And I feel like it would be a copout, like I'd be hiding my mistakes. I'd rather own them. I'm not proud of everything I've written, whether on this blog or elsewhere, but I acknowledge it. This, what I'm writing right now, represents who I am. The old stuff, the stuff I wrote ten or fifteen or twenty-four years ago, represents who I was then. I like to think there's some daylight between the man I am and the kid I was.
A lot of stuff is gone. Prodigy's gone. The Pyoko boards are gone. A lot of stuff I've posted online is gone. Honestly, in a lot of cases that's for the best. But I do sometimes wish I could go back and find something I wrote that isn't there anymore. This is as complete an archive of stuff I've written online as there is. I don't want to make it less complete.
It's not like that damn many people are reading this thing anyway. I mean, let's be honest. I'm not the director of Guardians of the Galaxy. I'm some guy who's been yammering on a blog for damn-near 20 years. If somebody is actually looking back through this blog at some dumb, offensive thing I wrote in my twenties, odds are pretty good that someone is me.
The reason I've been thinking that lately boils down largely to this post I wrote on Brontoforumus the other night:
...there is a guy in the Ars Technica comments section right now who is arguing that Joss Whedon's behavior isn't anti-feminist, because if he were gay he would treat men just as badly as he treats women.
I need to stop reading the Ars Technica comments section.
Fellow Bronto Büge pointedly responded by quoting my post back to me in modified form:
I need to stop reading the [...] comments section.
She's got a point.
It's not an original observation that comments sections, by and large, are terrible. Even on a site like Ars, where most commenters are insightful, knowledgeable people, the minority who are obnoxious trolls get to dominate the conversation.
Part of why that happens is, people feed the trolls. And I'm part of the problem.
I'm not as bad about that as some people are. I've learned to make regular use of Ars's Block button. Hell, I even wrote a script to add block functionality to Techdirt's comments section. And yet, I still find myself engaging with people who I really shouldn't.
Sometimes it's an honest mistake. Sometimes it's not clear that somebody is a troll when I first engage with them, and it takes a few posts before I realize I've been wasting my time trying to engage in a good-faith discussion with somebody who isn't interested in good faith.
But sometimes, trolls are obvious, and I feed them anyway.
So we should defend the country by forcefully elimating Trump?
And I spent multiple posts responding to this guy. Explaining why democracy, despite its flaws, is preferable to a violent coup.
The conversation ended with me telling the gentleman in question to go fuck himself, and blocking him. Which was entirely foreseeable, from the get-go.
Why did I bother having a conversation with a person who was not only advocating the violent overthrow of the government, but couldn't even spell it correctly? Why didn't I save myself some time and just go straight to the Block button?
Certainly part of the answer is that my impulse control needs work.
Another part is, I really do enjoy writing stuff. I write stuff every day. The trouble is, these days most of what I write is in comments sections on sites like Ars and Techdirt. What I need to get better at is focusing my writing towards somewhere productive -- or, if not productive, at least somewhere that doesn't leave me thinking, "Christ, why did I waste all that time and energy on that?" when I'm done.
Maybe that can be the new tagline for the site.
It doesn't leave me thinking "Christ, Why did I waste all that time and energy on that?" when I'm done.
(Your mileage may vary.)
I've been meaning to write a post about Steve Ditko's creator-owned comics for quite some time. Ditko's recent death has me thinking about that, and so, here's something. I'd still like to write something a little more detailed later on down the line, but this should serve for now.
Steve Ditko stopped working for mainstream comics publishers in the 1990s, but he never stopped making comics. For the past 20 years, Ditko's comics have been published by his friend, editor, and collaborator Robin Snyder. Ditko has also written essays, some of which appear alongside his comics, others of which appear in Snyder's zine The Comics, and others in 9 small pamphlets called The Four-Page Series. Since 2013, Snyder has funded twenty Ditko comics on Kickstarter, with more to come; Snyder noted in a Kickstarter update last month that he and Ditko were working on two new titles, and a prior Kickstarter update discussed out-of-print books that Snyder intends to send back to press.
Snyder does not have a website, but Bob Heer's ditko.blogspot.com is an invaluable resource, and its Ditko Books in Print page serves as a catalog of what Snyder has available and how to order it.
Of course, merely seeing a list of titles can be daunting. Where to start?
But if you want my opinion? You should start with The Mocker.
Of the Ditko books Snyder has on offer as of this writing, it's the most accessible, the one that feels the most like Ditko's work for Marvel, DC, and Charlton. It's a straightforward, tightly-told story of a costumed crusader fighting organized crime and corrupt police.
I only have one complaint about The Mocker: it was clearly intended to be printed at a much larger size. Ditko fits a lot of panels on each page, starting with 16-panel grids and eventually settling on 20. The comic was originally printed at magazine size; reduced to standard comic size, it's often difficult to tell what's happening and to tell characters apart, especially in action scenes. (Ditko sure draws a lot of men in suits and fedoras punching each other.)
After The Mocker, there are a few different directions you can go. The most obvious is Mr. A, Ditko's best-known creator-owned series -- if you're interested enough in Ditko that you've read this far, you probably already know who Mr. A is, at least in passing. My favorite Mr. A stories are When is a Man Judged Evil? and Right to Kill; both appear in a 32-page comic that's just called Mr. A -- which, sadly, is currently out of print. I'm quite fond of the whole series, though; there's good stuff in every issue. I believe #4 contains the earliest Mr. A material that's in print, while #24 and #7 are the two latest issues (in that order, and no, I don't understand the numbering) and include the two-part story The Knifer.
Alternately, I'm partial to Miss Eerie, one of Ditko's later creations and another masked vigilante in a 1930s setting. She appears in Ditko Presents and The 32-Page Series #3, #6, #14, #20, #23, and #26. The 32-Page Series itself is an anthology comic and something of a grab bag; it's a great, eclectic collection of Ditko's late work.
From there? Well, I was all set to recommend Avenging World, a collection of comics and essays that I consider to be Ditko at his purest -- but, sadly, it's out of print. Here's hoping that changes.
For my part, I have varying degrees of affection for everything Ditko did. His comics are often eccentric and didactic; his essays are often impenetrable puzzle boxes. But he always had something interesting to say. He was one-of-a-kind. I'm going to miss him -- but for now, at least, I can expect a few more new Ditko comics still to come, and older Ditko comics like Static to become available again.
"Weird Al" Yankovic's Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour has come to a close. And now every show is available on Stitcher Premium. And they're DRM-free MP3s -- Stitcher doesn't provide a convenient "download this" button, but they're easy enough to download; view the page source and do a search for ".mp3". (There are probably browser extensions that will do this without having to muck around searching the source, but when I tried to find one I found a million extensions for downloading MP3s from YouTube videos and none for downloading just plain streamed MP3s.) It's not hard to sign up for a free month of Stitcher Premium, immediately cancel automatic renewal, and download the entire tour -- plus many other fine Stitcher programs, including Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, WTF, and Black on the Air.
But back to Weird Al and the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.
I caught the Mesa show, and I'm glad I did. If this was my only chance to catch a Weird Al show like this, then I'm glad I got it. But I hope it wasn't.
While Al promoted the tour with self-deprecation, as its name implies -- as something nobody really wanted to see -- it's quite clear that that's not true. I sat in a sold-out house. I could hear the people a couple of seats over singing along with songs like Your Horoscope for Today and Why Does This Always Happen to Me? No, you wouldn't want to play a setlist like that at the Arizona State Fair (where you've got random fairgoers seeing Al's name on the marquee and walking in expecting to hear Eat It). But clearly there was an audience for the Vanity Tour, because it sold out venues all over the country.
I think Al could spend the rest of his career performing shows like the one I saw. And I hope he does.
I've seen Al's big shows -- at least six times. (As noted in my Weird Al in Concert post, I lost count at some point.) I love them. I love the costumes and the videos and the showmanship and the sheer precision.
But the Vanity Tour felt like something special.
Every time I've seen Weird Al, I've gone with my dad. And usually, when we leave the venue at the end, we talk about what a great performer Al is.
This time, as we left the venue, we talked about what a great singer he is.
Strip away the glitz and the hits and the fat-suit, and it lets you really focus on just how damn good Al and his band -- Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz on drums, Steve Jay on bass, Jim "Kimo" West on lead guitar, and Rubén Valtierra on keyboards -- are. Hell, when they played Why Does This Always Happen to Me?, I wouldn't have been able to tell Valtierra's playing apart from Ben Folds's on the studio original.
They didn't play every song I would have liked to hear -- of course not. The way I see it, that just means I can hope there's a next time, that I get another chance to hear some deep cuts. (Though I'm realistic and don't expect I'll ever hear a live performance of Hardware Store or Genius in France.) But another one of the wonderful things about this show was the sense of constant pleasant surprise.
You know what song I really enjoyed hearing? She Never Told Me She was a Mime. As Al himself noted before playing it, it's not exactly a fan-favorite -- but something about that made it more impressive. It's a song I wouldn't have requested, and I had low expectations -- and I think those low expectations meant I was just that much more impressed by how good it was. No, it's not one of Al's more impressive songs lyrically -- but hearing the band kill it, and hearing Al hit those high notes, helped me appreciate a song I didn't appreciate much before.
So sure, I'd have loved to hear Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. And I hope some day I get a chance to. But I got to hear songs like Jackson Park Express and I Was Only Kidding and, yes, I was even blown away by lesser songs like She Never Told Me She was a Mime. (And because I avoided reading about his set list as best I could before the show, I didn't know he did one straight cover every night. At the Mesa show, it was Suffragette City; you can hear a few seconds of it in the YouTube video embedded at the top of this post.)
Weird Al is a great singer and a great songwriter, with a great band. The Vanity Tour underscored that, more than any other Weird Al show I've ever seen.
If this represents a new phase in his career, and this is what he does from now on, I will be a very happy Weird Al fan.