Ever wonder what it’s like to be behind one of the most famous comedy musicians of all time? Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz literally knows – and, for the first time, he’s getting to tell his side of the story.
The versatile drummer, who’s played on every one of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s records and tours for the past four decades, is releasing Black & White & Weird All Over: The Lost Photographs Of “Weird Al” Yankovic ’83-’86 through 1984 Publishing on October 27, four days after Al’s 61st birthday. True to its name, this book will feature an almost entirely unseen trove of monochromatic photos taken by Schwartz or in his massive personal archive of Al ephemera – all capturing Al, his band and collaborators in the studio, on the road and in production of some of the funniest videos of MTV’s golden age. (For the loyal fans, a limited edition box set version, on sale today at 1 p.m. EST, will feature an exclusive alternate cover, an autograph from Schwartz, and a dozen 9″ x 12″ reprints of select photos. It’s limited to just 250 copies worldwide.)
For hardcore Al fans who were dazzled by the Grammy Award-winning Squeeze Box: The Complete Works Of “Weird Al” Yankovic in 2017, Black & White & Weird All Over is a killer complement to Schwartz’s loyal keeping of the Al flame. Bermuda’s personal archive was crucial in making that set’s accompanying book a real joy to read over and over. (In the interest of full disclosure, I supervised the editing of the Squeeze Box book and linked Bermuda to 1984 to release his new book, as a great admirer of both Schwartz’s work and the publisher.)
For almost exactly 40 years, Schwartz has been a part of Al’s orbit, ever since the duo met at a broadcast of KMET-FM’s Dr. Demento Show on September 14, 1980. Yankovic’s self-submitted, accordion-accompanied tapes were a fixture of the show, and his most recent “hit,” a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” entitled “My Bologna,” had not only topped the show’s “Funny Five” but was issued as a single by the band’s label, Capitol Records. As Al prepared to debut a new tune on the air – a take-off of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” bemoaning public transit conditions – he enlisted Schwartz, a versatile session drummer revisiting some old submissions on that day’s program, to keep time while he played the song on the air. As tape rolled, the duo created “Another One Rides The Bus,” with Al’s manic vocal and accordion backed by Schwartz banging on his empty accordion case.
“Bus” became Al’s first Billboard charting single a year later and the centerpiece of his self-titled debut album in 1983. Alongside guitarist Jim “Kimo” West and bassist Steve Jay (with keyboardist Ruben Valtierra joining in 1991), Bermuda has anchored Al’s band on 14 albums and countless live gigs, most recently last year’s wild Strings Attached Tour, which married the classic Yankovic experience with backing from local symphony orchestras.
With Black & White & Weird All Over ready to pre-order, Bermuda was kind enough to take some time and answer some burning questions about the book.
You’ve been threatening a book for a long time – when did it finally start taking shape?
It had been in the back of mind until I mentioned it to YOU in mid-2019! I still wasn’t very quick to act on it, maybe four months later I finally got around to getting some of the negatives scanned, and then realized the quality was book-worthy. You had pointed me to Matthew at 1984 Publishing, and that was certainly a great fit. Just one week after contacting him, we signed a contract! That was December 2019, and even COVID didn’t slow us down!
Let’s talk about the timing: 40 years or so into his career and your time together, it feels like the world is discovering a lot about Al’s creative process beyond “everlasting funnyman.” What makes this the right time for this book?
Almost all of these photos are new to people. A few were printed and are familiar to fans, but most were never printed and never seen before. I had contact sheets that I last glanced at maybe 25 years ago, and that was kind of it. So they’re kinda new to me, too! Al’s staying power and continued popularity also means the book won’t be viewed as a shameless cash-in some 35 years after the fact. I mean, I could have put these out in the ’80s and tried to make a quick buck, but it was never about that then, or now. And I think the younger fans who weren’t even alive when these pictures were taken will also find them interesting and enjoyable. Much like younger Beatles fans like their early photo books.
Your personal archive for Al rivals any collector or museum on the planet, and you’ve contributed to various Al retrospectives before. When did you realize you had so many unused, unseen photographs beyond what fans have seen?
I had been snapping photos mercilessly since day two with Al. Literally, the second time I ever saw him, I already had a camera in my hand! Probably the first time I knew there were way too many photos, and that Al thought fans might want to see them, was for the 1985 book The Authorized Al. I forget how many of the photos in there are mine, but it was a lot. For several more years, it seemed like I was the only one around with a camera, and thankfully Al and the rest of the band, crew, management, family members, and record label people tolerated me. I do know that they were thankful I had pictures that nobody else had.
For fans who own Squeeze Box – other than that being a musical collection, what sets Black & White & Weird All Over apart from that project?
These photos are all black and white, focus on our behind-the-scenes activities during a short seminal period, and they are largely unseen. And, the few that have been seen before were never seen in this quality. The handful of familiar shots from the “Ricky” and “I Love Rocky Road” videos were scans of enlargements made in 1983. Now, every step between the negatives and the printed page is high-quality, uncompressed digital. The grain of the film is larger than the pixels. These images are super-clean. Density has been corrected in ways that never existed with “analog” printing, so these photos look particularly fabulous!
What emotions did you feel going through these photos? Were you surprised by anything while looking back?
These shots take me right back to those events, the people, the places, and that whole era when things were new and growing fast, and Al was among the favorites of MTV. One shot in particular jogged my memory. Actually, I have no memory of it, but the photo proves otherwise. It’s all the kids with accordions and soda jerk hats. I knew they were there, but only recall them being outside rehearsing for something. Well, apparently they were in at least one scene, because Al and the band are pictured there with them! There’s an unused shot that shows the camera shooting them! So somewhere. there’s an outtake of them doing something, but it was obviously not used. I never claimed to have a photographic memory, only photographs.
As devoted fans will realize: just about everyone in these photos – you, Steve, Jim and Al’s manager Jay Levey – are still a part of Al’s team. What are the secrets to that successful partnership, four decades on?
I don’t know if there’s a secret, as much as Al having chosen the right people in the first place. It was luck, fate, I guess just being in the right place at the right time when each of us encountered Al for the first time. And he’s a pleasure to work with, so why wouldn’t we stick around? Such long-standing relationships in the music business are rare though. I can think of only two other bands that have been together longer than we have, still touring and making new music, with all of the original members: ZZ Top, and U2. That’s some pretty good company!
Let’s talk about 1984 Publishing. What’s your connection with them and what made them the right place for this book?
I supplied a scan of the ultra-rare “I Love Rocky Road” single picture sleeve for the book Put The Needle On The Record: The 1980s At 45 Revolutions Per Minute. I didn’t put it together until later that it was the same Matthew Chojnacki at 1984. It is a pretty common name. I realized quickly that Matthew had good ideas. There were aspects to the book and its production and promotion I wouldn’t have thought of. Things that I doubt a self-publishing house would have helped with or cared about. I was comfortable and confident with Matthew, and quickly knew it would be a good fit.
After some of your most exciting and unique tours with Al, live concerts are unfortunately a little difficult right now. How are you and your bandmates staying sane?
I don’t know about Jim and Steve and Ruben, but I’ve been working on a book to keep busy! Apart from that, life isn’t too strange for me. I haven’t been playing with my local bands for a while, and of course I miss that, but that will all return some day. Fortunately for Al and the band, 2020 was a scheduled year off anyway, so there were no dates to cancel. It remains to be seen how soon we can start up again in 2021. But I’ve managed to eat well at home, lose some weight, and save money by not driving anywhere, eating out, or taking any pesky vacations.
Our thanks to Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz and Matthew Chojnacki at 1984 Publishing for making this amazing book a reality! You can pre-order the standard edition of Black & White & Weird All Over at Amazon U.S., Amazon U.K. or Amazon Canada, or the deluxe edition direct from the book’s website starting Wednesday, August 12 at 1 p.m. EST.