Welcome to Milwaukee Record’s Weird Al Week, sponsored by Lakefront Brewery! Want daily Al-related articles culminating in a recap of Al’s May 24 show at the Marcus Performing Arts Center? You’re in the right place! Oh, and because this is our third Weird Al Week, we’re calling it Weird Al Week (In 3-D)! You know, like the album!
If “Weird Al” Yankovic is pop culture’s greatest constant (and he is), then “Weird Al” Yankovic’s band isn’t far behind. Bassist Steve Jay and guitarist Jim “Kimo” West have been backing Al since his 1982 debut album. Incredibly, drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz has them beat, having first joined the Weird One for an impromptu performance on the Dr. Demento show in 1980.
But Schwartz is more than a drummer. In late 2020, he released Black & White & Weird All Over, a gorgeous 208-page coffee table book of his own black-and-white, behind-the-scenes photos from Al’s early career. “When I was a teen in the early ’70s, I bought my first nice 35mm camera—a used Minolta SRT-101—from one of the guys in my first band, and quickly caught the photography bug,” Schwartz said at the time of the book’s release. “I bought black-and-white film in large spools and loaded my own rolls, and even set up a darkroom at home. Soon after meeting Al in 1980, the photo opportunities became more frequent and more interesting, and it seemed like I always had the camera with me.”
Ahead of Al’s May 24 show at the Marcus Performing Arts Center—a.k.a. “The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour”), Milwaukee Record spoke with Schwartz via email about his book (available for purchase at shows, fyi) and how it feels to be back on the road again.
Milwaukee Record: Was photography always an interest of yours? Which came first, photography or drumming?
Jon Schwartz: Drums came first at age 9, and I got my first 35mm camera at 16. I bought it from a bandmate, so there was also a musical connection. I had snapshot and instant cameras, but that first real camera was a big step quality-wise and motivated me to explore photography.
MR: You famously started working with Al in one of those “right place at the right time” situations, when he was playing the Dr. Demento Show in 1980. At what point did you think, “I should be photographing and documenting this guy”?
JS: Literally the very next time I saw Al after meeting him, I brought my camera with me! But I always tried to document the things that I did, and Al fit into that pursuit along with my other bands and friends. I didn’t foresee what kind of career lay ahead or that my photos might have an audience on the web—which was still a dozen years away—or in print.
MR: How did the book come about? Were you simply sitting on a ton of old photos that no one had seen? What made 2020 the right time to release a book like this?
JS: I have thousands of photos of Al, and many of them were online or had been published in books and were scanned from prints. In 2017 I was going through my files and took a closer look at all of the black-and-white photos which existed only on contact sheets. They were never printed, and except for just a handful of pictures from the “Ricky” and “Rocky Road” video shoots, nobody had seen any of them before. I hadn’t even looked at them for 30 years! I got Al’s approval to pursue publishing them, and promptly put the whole thing on the back burner while we toured in 2018 and 2019. But with a scheduled year off in 2020, I was able to move forward with a publisher I was introduced to by a friend at Sony, and the book was finally starting to become a reality. Fortunately, the pandemic had little effect on getting the book released in time for the holiday shopping season, and the fans would enjoy something cool at the end of a hard year.
MR: What made you decide to focus on and include black-and-white photos only? Why this specific time period?
JS: As a kid, I shot mostly black-and-white because it was affordable. I even had a darkroom set up at home and bypassed the photo lab for developing, contact sheets, and enlargements. Once I left home, I shot color film exclusively. But starting with Al’s first video, I wanted to capture a certain vibe. Maybe I thought that black-and-white just seemed more official somehow? I shot color film as well, and those had all been seen before, but I shot black-and-white at some more video shoots and in the studio, just for fun. By the end of 1986 and the “Hernia” video, I guess the novelty had worn off. So my return to black-and-white was short-lived. I don’t think I ever shot black-and-white again.
MR: Are there any photos that are your favorites, or that bring back particularly fun or fond memories?
JS: All great memories! As I was selecting and then retouching the scans from the negatives, I was re-living those events one frame at a time, and I knew the fans would love seeing them for the first time. There are some lucky candid shots I like, but my favorite photos are when Al is posing or at least knew when I was taking the picture. He’s very natural and even when smiling for the camera, it looks spontaneous. He definitely made these photos work, more so than my knowing when to press the shutter.
MR: Beyond just photos, you’ve been described as the official band historian, keeping tabs on old archives and memorabilia. How did you fall into that role?
JS: It’s just my nature to keep stuff. Report cards from school, band flyers, invitations, old checks with my old addresses on them, etc. So I was already in that mode the night I met Al, and I still have my radio station guest pass signed by Dr. Demento. So even before I knew there might be some fan interest in these things, I was dutifully stashing away stuff that had anything to do with Al, making lists, and of course snapping photos wherever possible.
MR: How does it feel to be back on the road after two years of the pandemic? And how does it feel to be doing another tour of non-parody songs and “deep cuts”?
JS: Well, 2020 was a planned year off. Then our 2021 dates got postponed which was obviously disappointing, so we’re grateful to be out again. At our first rehearsal, after not having played together in 2 1/2 years, we sounded like we hadn’t missed a beat. I think the fans can tell that we enjoy playing out again, and Al’s originals have always been fun for us as a band. There’s a lot more of us in those songs than in the parodies, and I think the fans can tell.
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