By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
Two boys residing in New Hope, Pennsylvania, named Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo meet in an eighth grade typing class in 1984. They huff Scotchgard. They make lots (some say thousands) of four-track recordings. They worship the demon-god Boognish. They assume the names Gene and Dean, respectively, and together activate Ween. They create weirdly eclectic music. Move from lo-fi to hi-fi first chance they get. (Do you lose your ethos when you lose the DIY attitude? No! They've been headed that way for years. Be happy, and thank god they're not a couple of Ani DiFrancos.)
Critics boil them down to Beavis and Butt-head: musical retards who resort to cheap laughs. Look, they poke fun at gays ("Mr. Richard Smoker, you're a poopy poker") and Asians ("Japanese Cowboy"). And that's just the all-c&w album. Sure, they can play their instruments. But co-opting '70s behemoth rock and turning it into an underwater space odyssey might be stretching the joke a little thin.
Yet The Mollusk,Ween's 1997 epic beachfront hangover, was pretty, absurd, and rocking. And White Pepper,their latest and seventh "proper" album, sandwiches its eccentric center tracks and the band's core principle ("entertaining ourselves . . . we don't really care about other people") between jangly, alternately catchy and psychedelic guitar pop, wherein Gene sweetly sings, "I love you, even if you don't," on the record's first single. Maybe this polished effort will even spawn a hit less annoying than "Push th' Little Daisies."
And yeah, Ween canbe annoying. But annoying like a little brother who's eaten too much sugar. He doesn't know why he's bouncing off the walls; just feels propelled to do it. Weenness is acting without thinking. As in, when I smoke a cigarette: Light it up, take it in, blow it out. Yeah, it'll turn my lungs black and piss off nonsmokers. But those are just the effects of weenness. Read what you will into the resulting chain of events. . . .
It's Saturday morning. I leave Mt. Vernon for New Hope (92.5 miles), journeying into the heart of weenness. Depart late due to unplanned hangover. Try to listen to White Pepper, but Discman not properly charged. Opt for "Greasy Kid Stuff" show on WFMU. Weird. Fantasize about meeting Gene and Dean, who give me total insight into weenness. But truck smashed into NJ highway divider brings me back to reality. I haven't prepared at all. Stop at Rite Aid in one of numerous strip malls lining Rte. 532 to pick up batteries. Stick White Pepperin the player. Distortion-heavy psychedelic rock feeds into the crappy speakers of my Civic, lost somewhere in Jersey: "And you think you've got a grip, well, look at yourself, your lips are like two flaps of fat/They go front and back and flappety flappety flap."
I'm starving, and it's past 1 when I stretch my legs along the rainy and tourist-packed streets of New Hope. Peer into El Taco Loco, where both Gene and Dean worked in high school. (Gene: "It was the highest job I ever had." That these guys had crappy gigs in the service industry speaks to this former grill cook, dishwasher, shoe salesman. It's what makes the endless droning food orders in The Pod's "Pollo Assado" so funny.) But they're not in the restaurant. Check the phone book in the Chamber of Commerce. Not there, either. Fuck it. Do you know a bar around here that serves food?
At a dark little cavern called J.P.'s, I order up a pint of Yuengling and some hot wings and jalapeño poppers, and amuse myself by eavesdropping on the banter. Jennifer, hepped up on three coffees and an éclair, is writing a shopping list for Home Depot while musing on an upcoming trip to the circus. Sarah, the other bartender, bitches about the slow cashiers at Staples. A couple of twentysomethings chime in. Amid the rapid back-and-forthness, the name Ween is dropped.
I look to Jennifer, whose comic timing makes her the leader: Um, what about Ween? Are you guys going to see them tonight in Allentown? No, they played here last Tuesday night. They hang out here? I follow Jennifer's index finger to the wall behind my stool, where hangs a poster for the band's Chocolate and Cheesealbum depicting Gene and Dean looking awfully goofy under a waterfall. Well, I say, handing her my card, I'm writing this story on Ween. Could you give me some dirt? Jennifer frowns. Sarah looks on. All right, well, what do they drink when they come here?
Rolling Rock. Mickey (a/k/a Dean, the cute one) has really nice legs. They used to play classic rock trivia on the old machine. Aaron comes here just to hang out. We have the concept that they're big rock stars, but they're just regular guys, people you just sort of know. Huge record collectionsAaron's a big Prince fan, thinks he's the biggest talent ever. (Ensuing discussion of Prince's height . . . four feet tall?) Mickey's a really competitive ping-pong player. Likes golf, sports. Can't tell you about their tipping habits. Show here the other night was mayhem. Were gonna kick the scheduled band Ennui off the date last minute, but as it happens, Mickey's mom is friends with the lead singer's mom. Ween's audience are nice kids. Bump into you and are like, "Hey." Worst they do is vomit. People come here from all over. (Meanwhile, a trio of Weenies from Indiana drop by on their way to Allentown: "Ween fuckin' rock!") Did we mention Mickey's great legs?
Blow past antique shop after antique shop toward the former industrial glory of Allentown. Outside the Sterling Hotel, a white sign declares, "WEEN TONIGHT SOLD OUT." The guy working the door peers out and sympathetically confirms, "We'll have to tell them to come back and play again soon. After all, [Aaron's] my son-in-law."
Dejected in the Allentown rain. Walk back for last-ditch effort. You see, I'm doing this story on Ween. I've been driving around PA all day. Village Voice, you say? How many tickets? Just two? You're a lucky girl. I give him 20 bucks, thinking PA rocks. Friendliest people I've met in a long while. Cheap-ass beer and cigs, too.
Tonight, Sterling Hotel's filled with Phishheads. (One fratboy to his girlfriend: "Ween gets a middle-aged crowd, mid twenties I'd say. Not like Dave Matthews; now, that's the college set.") The band storm the stage at 10, promise to play all night. Launch into the hard stuff and then cut to the stoner-rock vocal distortion of "The Grobe," a new one. Dean's doing acrobatic guitar feats, his face twisted in orgiastic ecstasy. Gene's swinging happy-go-lucky like a modern-day Sinatra. Ween attempt "Allentown" by Billy Joel several times, but don't know the words. Most of the new stuff's from the weird middle of White Pepper: "Pandy Fackler," a hilarious Steely Dan-ish ditty about a groupie; the Parrot-head steel drums of "Bananas and Blow"; the medieval Yes-style poetry of "Back to Basom" ("Just like the damsel who has lost her leg . . . creeping, weeping"). They proceed to play for three-plus hours straight, cut short only by the fact that Dean dislocates his finger during "Buenos Tardes Amigo." Best show I've seen since Kid Rock.
So why deny weenness? Is it the lewd connotation of their name (supposedly a cross between "wuss" and "peen") or that grosser-than-gross humor has no place in the rock canon? Let's squash that pretense once and for all: In the Nasdaq age, rock isn't an intellectual endeavor. Blame the music industry, maybe. You can protest the WTO or police brutality or throw out your TV, but chances are your music will end up with a big stick up its ass. That's why it's the morons who riff the most badass. Rock is obsessed with nether organs: aching-testicle drumming, masturbatory guitar screams, shit-grimace grunts. What's grosser than that? Add drug use, and you've got an all-day marathon of Behind the Music. Add a narrative as ridiculous as an El Taco Loco to-go order, and you've got a marathon of weenness.
Ween play Irving Plaza May 25 and 26.