Of all of history’s greatest musical masterpieces, I’ve always felt that one song in particular has not truly received the credit it has always deserved. Many choose to deride it due to the otherwise humorous nature of it all, and others even further choose to ignore the intelligence of its creator due to a career built on parody. Yet I never the less find that one song above all represents the ultimate struggle that we all undergo in our lives on a quest for truth and meaning; one song captures that in a way that no other song has been able to, no matter the poetry or timbre of the performer.
That song is Weird Al Yankovic’s “Albuquerque.” And it is arguably his greatest piece of music ever, let alone of the greatest pieces of music ever.
A remarkable change in pace for the musician’s career, 1999’s “Albuquerque,” the final track off the seminal album Running with Scissors, marked a change of pace for Weird Al. Not a parody (which wasn’t unheard of, but certainly not frequent on his albums) and offering up over twelve minutes of music (his longest piece to date), it is arguably the closest look we’ll ever have into the “weird” persona of Al Yankovic. Al’s true identity has been one where the line has always been blurred as to what is him (the love of spatulas) and what is fiction (living in a sewer with his hamster pal), but just like other comedic greats there are always nuggets of honesty hidden beneath the satire of his avatar, similar to that of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.
What’s important to also note about the piece is that it is not sung, but spoken. Spoken word as a performance art is age-old, dating back to Greece and being revitalized by the Harlem Renaissance in the 1960s, but Yankovic’s choice to stray from his traditional musical performance further shows how this piece stands by itself in a different realm from his other work. While we can all enjoy Yankovic’s humorous songs, “Albuquerque” is the artist taking a different stance both in how he presents his music and, as such, how we consume it; we’re offered up poetry rather than parody, and it’s remarkably informative towards the narrative of the piece.
In “Albuquerque,” the song details the singular journey of its lead character, personified in this instance by the most palpable rendition of the “Weird” Al. Al, who has spent most of his life in otherwise imprisonment below the basic human living conditions to which most of us grew up with, is essentially tortured by his mother for years. It is unknown how he escapes, but his mission statement is clear: he wishes to find paradise.
"Someday I would get outta that basement and travel to a magical, far away place where the sun is always shining and the air smells like warm root beer and the towels are oh, so fluffy! Where the shriners and the lepers play their ukuleles all day long and anyone on the street will gladly shave your back for a nickel."
Al, just like all of us, is looking for an ideal, something that is otherwise a modern myth. Life is characterized by struggle and very few of us ever achieve every facet of happiness we are looking for, often because what we look for simply doesn’t exist -- and for Al, who is in a very relatable position due to the character’s place in the lower-to-middle class (which is different from where Al is now, though not where he came from), this wish to move beyond where you are and up to something better is something we all share. It’s perhaps life’s primary struggle, the one we encounter every day as we cut out a place for ourselves to call our own in our lives.
Al’s mother, in this instance, represents the chains and bonds that keep all of us down. In the story, Al as a young confronts his mother and ultimately triggers her wrath due to challenging her authority, and in turn we can see this as something we in our own lives do. While most young people find a rebellious teenage streak in them, when growing up into adulthood we find that challenging authority is something we’re less likely to do, and in turn we let various things in our own lives keep us down from achieving what we want. Such is the case here, where the young Al is kept down until he’s 26 years old, which is very much an adult by our society’s standards, albeit perhaps not too astute or otherwise wise of an adult.
What is remarkable here, though, is that Al remains a dreamer, albeit a casual one. It would perhaps be easy to understand why a character who was chained up for years would be otherwise broken, but Al remains an optimist. It’s actually quite beautiful, really, as it seems that in an age where “it gets better” is a modern mantra, Yankovic in fact said much of a similar statement years before. Al is nearly destroyed, but he continues to look up and onward, which allows the character to proceed onwards to what you might feel he’s earned due to his struggle.
However, while life may have thrown him hardships, Yankovic never allows Al to succumb to a state where he would otherwise be a parasite. The way in which Al receives his dream is otherwise through a situational error; there is no difference between what Al does by calling a radio contest than the act of an average person who buys a lottery ticket, hoping to win some cash. It’s a very passive approach, allowing luck or some form of fate to decide for you your future. We all still dream of one thing or another, but so very few of us do anything about it.
So while Al receives his wish, he finds himself on a difficult journey still. Despite winning the contest, Al is put on a plane that is marked by further trials, in fact resulting in the plane crashing and everyone onboard dying except for him. It’s an interesting addition to the story, because for all intents and purposes, Yankovic simply could’ve placed his character in paradise and had that be the end of it. But yet, the struggle continues; it seems that despite being offered his dream, Al still needs to work for it, and that stands as an incredibly strong point to make within the narrative and is decidedly the recurring theme, let alone the final statement.
It also stands as a wonderful parallel to the actual life of Yankovic himself, who has done nothing but work hard on multiple different avenues throughout his career. Alfred Matthew Yankovic's career was born thanks in part to radio and his brief role on Dr. Demento’s 1976 radio show, becoming a recurring guest 4 years later. But just because he was offered a “break” by the inclusion, Al kept working on his own career bit by bit, whether it was by playing open mic nights with his accordion, becoming a disc jockey at his college or recording and releasing his own music. Al’s journey to stardom can perhaps be tracked from 1976 to 1982 when he and his band released "I Love Rocky Road", getting a record deal and releasing his first collection of songs in 1983.
This is why Al the character does not simply arrive in the magical land of Albquerque. He instead is continued to be bogged down by other trials, which in the piece are first marked by otherwise trivial things like not having Dr. Pepper or being forced to watch Bio-Dome. Al deflects his own struggles with these humorous throwaways, but the ultimate message – that your success is only achieved by hard work and not simply by handouts – is still a relevant one today, let alone something that a lot of pop-culture figures could stand to be reminded of.
And, true to the point, Al’s trials do not end when he arrives in Albuquerque, just like any of us do not simply stop facing difficulties in our lives when we achieve any semblance of closure and happiness. For Al, he finds himself face to face with a big fat hermaphrodite with a Flock Of Seagulls haircut and only one nostril who steals his lucky, lucky autographed glow-in-the-dark snorkel, but it’s easy to see that the big fat hermaphrodite with a Flock Of Seagulls haircut and only one nostril is simply a stand-in for any number of challenges that life throws out at us. The hermaphrodite itself seems to resemble “trouble” in a unique way to the narrative, offering up a character that itself is a multitude of things; it is both a man and a woman, but the person is disfigured and shaped towards the ideals presented by a dated former pop act, and this in turn shows us that trouble can come from any angle, in all shapes and sizes. There is no defined way to which we could find ourselves being challenged.
The point is further made apparent by the fact that the big fat hermaphrodite with a Flock Of Seagulls haircut and only one nostril attacks when Al first arrives in Albuquerque, not even giving him time to settle in. This inherently represents the recurring theme of the necessity of hard work over allowing others to hand things to you in the piece, and also seems to indicate that Yankovic believes that one should be prepared for struggles at all time, even when otherwise found in the apex of happiness.
In turn, the lucky, lucky autographed glow-in-the-dark snorkel could perhaps represent the last true elements from Al’s old life being taken away from him. While the wake of the plane crash does see Al surviving with a few things, including but not limited to his big leather suitcase, his garment bag, his tenor saxophone and his twelve-pound bowling ball (which, when dragged to Albuquerque continue to show the struggle of Al’s journey), it appears that the snorkel is the only thing that matters to him. Al puts very little importance on the other items, but the snorkel is described as lucky twice, which in turn alludes to the snorkel not actually being an autographed and glow-in-the-dark physical item but rather a metaphor towards what allowed Al the opportunity to travel the World Famous Albuquerque Holiday Inn, which is a stand-in for his vision of utopia.
By having this hermaphrodite (a symbol for trouble) take away his lucky, lucky snorkel (a stand-in for his optimism that took him here) as soon as he arrives in Albuquerque (the place of his dreams), Yankovic offers up in one scene the main idea that he wishes to convey with the piece, illustrating hardship as a constant element in our lives, no matter the success we come across. It stays in the narrative throughout and informs much of the further events that happens to Al.
Al claims that he will not rest or sleep for an instant until justice is served, but justice never comes. It is difficult to say why, truthfully; it is possible that Yankovic is making a statement on the futility of vendettas, and it is possible that Al gives up and is simply showing us that not all of goals can be accomplished. In fact, the entire follow-up sequence in the donut shop is difficult to assess against the hotel scene, because they both seem to create a negative reflection on what Yankovic was showing as Al’s ideal.
However, when taken by itself, the donut shop sequence is perhaps one of the most important scenes in the entire narrative. Al finds himself in a donut shop run by a surly man behind the counter, someone who seems very disinterested in the fact that he has a customer, and every request Al makes is ultimately denied (perhaps as a statement on capitalism and the 1%). But if Albuquerque itself is such a wonderful, magical place, why is it that when Al arrives, he still finds his wishes denied to him? It turns out, it is for that exact reason: as mentioned before, Yankovic seems against the idea of things simply being handed to you rather than earned in true Marxist fashion (although you’d imagine Yankovic leaning more towards Groucho than Karl), and as such the character of Al ends up with a box of one dozen starving, crazed weasels that jump out and immediately latch onto his face and start biting him all over. It’s through this that Yankovic offers up a warning to the listener, continue the aforementioned theme of the piece by way of actual violence placed upon his metaphoric stand-in avatar.
The point is further made when Al meets the girl of his dreams, Zelda. Unfortunately for the character but on purpose in the written narrative, the way in which he meets his bride-to-be is through "luck," literally running into her while being attacked by the weasels and having their relationship become an extension of the previous sequence. Seeing her as an easy solution from his pain, they fall in love at first sight and have two children. However, this is ultimately destroyed when Zelda brings up an aspect of commitment that Al is not ready for, and the character is once again shown that true happiness does not come from luck; since he did not work for the relationship, the relationship and all the happiness it brought is destroyed. It’s perhaps the most tragic of events that happen to Al throughout his odyssey and we never quite learn what becomes of his children, but that Al abandons them does show the character’s continued struggle in perhaps one of the most palpable scenes.
It would appear that the lesson was ultimately learned, though. From here Al gets a job at the Sizzler, a local eatery, and he makes employee of the month after he puts out a grease fire with his face. What’s interesting about this is that, whereas before Al’s face was attacked by weasels to represent how he shouldn’t try and get away with hand-outs, now Al’s face is burnt through a day’s honest work, which in turn elevates his position at his place of business. It would appear that Yankovic in turn is trying to illustrate a point that life, no matter how well earned it is, is not without its own inherent troubles, perhaps trouble that is equivalent to that which was born from hand-outs. However, facing these tasks and overcoming them leads to greater rewards and appreciation of them. It’s an interesting assertion to make, but one ultimately gets the idea that despite slightly Communistic ideology, Yankovic is perhaps simply a firm believer in a modern-day variation of the American Dream.
On a similar note, the rest of Al's life in Albuquerque is marked by a comedy of errors, as Al essentially encounters previous versions of himself. In one scenario, Al meets a man named Marty looking for help who, when questioned, offers up sarcasm instead of honesty and leads to Al dismembering him. Al sees in Marty a version of his former-self, one that he outgrew and overcame the tendencies of, and in-turn his reaction to the man is shocking to some. This seems like Yankovic’s statement on the “you get what you ask for” attitude that many people seem to have, though, and as such the violence of the scene offers up a shocking, almost Twilight Zone-esque fable on the inherent issues of doing so.
Additionally, Al encounters what appears to be a starving but sociable homeless man with no sense of humor in one of the piece’s most Chaplin-esque moments of levity. Al bites the man, attempting to offer up an ironic action based on the man’s word choice, but the man – who is at this point overwrought with trouble – fails to find the humor in the action. It’s easy to see how Al sees a former version of himself within this man, having gone through many trials at this point in his journey. However, what Yankovic is saying in this scene is that no matter what gets you down, you have to be able to keep your head up and stay optimistic through your troubles. This simple scene essentially illustrates Yankovic’s final point, because despite all of the trouble he encounters along the way, Al never loses his optimism or cheer.
It is perhaps debatable if the story ends on a positive note or not. Al, and in turn perhaps Yankovic, loses his train of thought at the end, never quite offering any active resolution to Al’s journey, and it is perhaps for the best. The continued adventures of Al in Albuquerque are inherently limitless, thanks in part due to the fact that Albuquerque represents an unattainable Arcadia. Truly, Al’s adventures here are similar to that of Little Nemo in Winsor McKay’s classic strip.
But ultimately, what makes “Albuquerque” so poignant is that in its entirety, it represents the ultimate human endeavor of reaching a form of true paradise unto oneself. There is no denying that Albuquerque itself is a real place located in New Mexico, but all of the events that Al describes as having happened to him are beyond belief, which seem to imply that where he is is a place that isn’t actually real. Therefore, it is important to note that Yankovic here has picked a real location to create a fictional utopia from his own name for his avatar, as the Al in Albuquerque is what matters most – this is his dream.
Because while to you and me, the events of “Albuquerque” may seem ridiculous, to Al – both in terms of Yankovic and the character – it represents an ideal. This is what he wants, what he wishes he could have happen in his life. It’s a tale ultimately of wish fulfillment, full of love, of adventure, of highs and lows; everything he could ever want is available to him in this paradise of a place if he truly works for it, so it’s no small accident that where his dreams come true share a namesake.
Interestingly enough, Yankovic tries to throw the listener off by claiming the song is about disliking sauerkraut at the end, but sauerkraut ultimately just symbolizes the life he had before. The sauerkraut itself is a stand-in for everything that was wrong about his world, everything he wanted to escape from, a symbol of unhappiness and oppression, and it’s this line in the song that makes it all painfully clear:
"By the way, if one day you happen to wake up and find yourself in an existential quandary full of loathing and self-doubt and wracked with the pain and isolation of your pitiful meaningless existence…"
The façade is broken. Our hero has gone from a box under the stairs in the corner of the basement of the house half a block down the street from Jerry's Bait Shop to a place where he belongs, a place that needs him just as much as he needs it.
Whether Al ever actually arrived in Albuquerque is perhaps debatable. While “Albquerque” is clearly marked by metaphors both subtle and overt, it is perhaps important to note the dream-like quality of it all. There are theories that exist in which Al dies due to being force-fed sauerkraut and that the rest of the song is merely a hallucination, while others assert that Al dies in the plane crash and everything else resembles a beautiful final dream of the life he never got to have. There are others who contest that the plane crash is simply a part of the entire other-worldly experience that Al undertakes, something that has to in fact be true due to everything else being so unbelievable.
I'm not sure which I believe in myself. But at least I can take a small bit of comfort in knowing that somewhere out there, in this crazy, mixed-up universe of ours, there’s still a little place… called Albuquerque.