Weird Al Yankovic returns to Cal Poly

“Weird Al,” the nickname, originated in Sierra Madre Tower 4, room 43G, where young Alfred Yankovic lived, learned and, ultimately, became Weird Al in 1976.

“I didn’t do anything drastic or dramatic like fill the hallway with Jello,” Yankovic said. “I just didn’t fit in, more than anything.”

Weird Al Yankovic is now a Grammy award-winning musician and one of Cal Poly’s notable alumni. But his stage name has been shortened since it first came about, derogatorily, according to former floormate Joel Miller.

“Because he was weird, he was picked on,” Miller said. “Not physically, just by people saying stuff like, ‘Hey, fuckin’ Weird Al.’”

Yankovic graduated as valedictorian of his Lynwood High School class and moved into the dorms at age 16, two years younger than most freshmen — and even younger than most students. An honor roll architecture student, he quickly became known among fellow residents for his good grades, reclusive behavior and strange appearance.

“He would slink past my friends and I and give us this goofy look,” said Miller, who barely spoke to Yankovic during their first two quarters of school. “Nobody knew what this guy was about. We just knew he was really bright.”

Through a series of memorable events, Miller and Yankovic formed a friendship that remains close 35 years later.

The shower scene

Yankovic, uncomfortable walking through the halls wearing only a towel, always brought a change of clothes with him to the communal showers. Miller came home from class one day to a group of boys laughing because they had stolen “Weird Al’s” clothes and he wouldn’t come out of the shower.

“I lost it,” said Miller, who claims he threatened the boys with a nearby chair unless they returned the belongings. “I gave his clothes back and told him, ‘Hey, those guys are real assholes.’”

Yankovic had already solved the problem by wrapping himself in the shower curtain, but he thanked Miller for the gesture. Even still, he remained socially distant for several months.

The latenight jam

Miller made more of an effort to involve Yankovic with his fellow floormates after the shower incident. He visited Yankovic’s extremely cluttered corner room (see his first album cover) to invite him on a late night Taco Bell trip with some friends.

A trail of uncovered carpet led to Yankovic, seated in the corner with an old accordion pressed against his chest. Miller, an intermediate bongo player, asked him to play something.

Yankovic asked for a request — he can play any song by ear — then performed an “amazing” rendition of Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” according to Miller.

“Usually when you do stuff like that people get pissed off because they can’t sleep,” said Miller, who then fetched his bongos and joined Yankovic in a common room mini-concert. “The (floormates) all came out and were into it.”

Miller and Yankovic soon realized they shared a number of common interests. Both were architecture students, with a similar sense of humor and passion for music. They kept in touch over the summer, practiced in Valencia Apartments and performed together for the first time at a coffee house later that year.

“His music was the key that opened the door,” Miller said. “He didn’t mind showing people that side of himself.”

The Al-ftermath

Yankovic, still a minor by law, left Sierra Madre a changed man.

He joined KCPR upon his return in the fall, and put his old name in a new context by taking on the name Weird Al Yankovic professionally as a DJ.

“It was embracing the nickname; I owned my weirdness,” Yankovic said. “If that’s what people wanted to call me, I would use it as my badge of honor.”

He wrote and recorded a collection of songs during the remainder of his time at Cal Poly, including “My Bologna,” which he infamously recorded in a Graphic Arts building bathroom because it had the “perfect acoustics.”

After graduating with a degree in landscape architecture, Yankovic moved back home to Lynwood, Calif., to pursue a career in music — comedy music. He has released 13 studio albums during his 30-year career and will return to his alma mater on the “Alpocalypse” tour Nov. 2. He will perform in the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC), which has better acoustics than  the Graphic Arts building restrooms, and is across the street from his former dorm room, which is now occupied by computer science freshman Aaron Koeppel.

“I’m not a huge fan, but I know some of his music,” Koeppel said. “Since he lived here, I feel obligated to go.”

When asked how he grew most at Cal Poly, Yankovic recalled the “weird” kid from the corner room of Sierra Madre Tower 4, playing accordion and changing clothes in the shower. But that wasn’t his answer.

“Facial hair,” he said. “I wasn’t able to grow a mustache when I was 16, but by the time I graduated, I had actual hair on my lip.”

  • Joe

    Didn’t know Al in the dorms but remember him well for his playing Cal Poly’s Thursday afternoon activity hour on the UU plaza stage.

    His band was called Whale’s Knees and he fronted them on the accordion and vocals. They played multiple gigs there and students often stood in amazement trying to understand what exactly they were actually seeing.

    No question Al came across as a weird dude in terms of his visual appearance and body language but for the most part people respected him because he was in the College of Architecture. No doubt the guy was smart and liked being eccentric.

  • HelenOE

    I think Al’s degree was in architecture, not landscape architecture, At least that’s what he’s always said. Thanks for the long interview with Joel Miller.